Digital History: PA State Archives

Digital History is the use of digital media for the study and practice of history. This past week our Digital History class visited the Pennsylvania State Archives in order to gain a better understanding of the process of Digital History, and to also access and digitize tax records from the city of Harrisburg in the year 1900. As a class, we experienced and participated in the digitization process in the archives.

IMG_0137The process is fairly simple. First, we searched the archives catalog for the material we needed to utilize. Then we passed it along to an archivist who retrieved the file(s) for analysis. Due to strict state regulations and the need for protection of the documents, we were required to leave most of our belongings in lockers and only write in pencil, as well as turn off all flash when taking pictures.

The research we worked on involved the local tax records for a few of the wards in Harrisburg. In particular, I focused on the Third Ward Annual Tax Records in the year 1900. The class was focusing on this information in order to better understand the “City Beautiful” movement. We are determining the relative value of the property of each ward based on the taxable property value, and from this information we are hoping to formulate how each ward voted in 1902. According to Paul Beers’ book City Contented, City Discontented1902 was a pinnacle year in Harrisburg politics. A man by the name of Vance McCormick ran for Mayor and won, but just as importantly, the population voted in favor of a bond issue to implement improvements in Harrisburg. The tax information will give a better understanding whether property value was a factor in the way precincts voted.

The tax assessment volumes for Harrisburg in 1900 are large thick books containing the names of individuals, the properties they own, and their relative values. Directly inside the volume was a sheet of paper which established who was the “assessor”. The assessor transcribed the tax information into the volume. The assessor had to sign an assessor’s oath which made sure whoever was keeping track of the tax records did so honestly. The assessor for the ThirIMG_0139d Ward in the year 1900 was Serge Houser.

The tax records for the Third Ward provides us with knowledge about the property value of each owner. Cross referencing this information with voting records of 1902 will give greater insight into who supported the improvements of “The City Beautiful” movement. The tax record listed the names of each of the “freeholders” (anyone who owned property) and listed the value of their property and livestock. There is a column that is labeled “Value of all real estate”, which was the net value of the real estate. If a person owned any livestock, that tax was added to the “Total County Tax” section.

IMG_0146When determining wealth based on tax records the main columns to refer to are titled Aggregate, and Debts due. The aggregate is the value of all property that is taxable. Debts due refers to any public loans or stocks that the freeholder has. In the digitized record above, Julia Briggs has 66,355 dollars in either loans or stocks. At this time, this was a substantial amount of money indicating a large amount of accumulated wealth. Julia’s real estate value is 10,000 and her state tax is 245 dollars.

IMG_0147Further investigation will yield how much wealth resided in the Third Ward. As we saw with Julia Briggs, we can take the data from the digitized tax form and evaluate each person’s wealth based on the taxable property they own. We will be able to see how average property value in each precinct factored into the vote for or against improvement.




-Edward LaRow III

One thought on “Digital History: PA State Archives

  1. I am inquiring if you have the method used by the county or city in valuation of property tax or where to find those regulations.

    This is for a project I am volunteering with Dr. Pettegrew at Messiah College in regarding demographic analysis. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks, Earl Henry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.