Collecting Delaware Books

Three Centuries Under Four Flags

Published February 1996

One of the "standard" Delaware books that can be found in most collections is Anna T. Lincoln's Wilmington, Delaware, Three Centuries Under Four Flags, 1609 - 1937. It was published in 1937 by the Tuttle Publishing Company, Inc., of Rutland, Vermont.

Lincoln was a public school educator and Curator of the Historical Society of Delaware. In her preface to the 411-page book, she says there was talk of a massive history of Wilmington as early as 1900. Charles B. Lore, president of the historical society and state chief justice, pointed out that Elizabeth Montgomery's Reminiscences of Wilmington (1851, 1872) was out of date. Some research was begun but was interrupted by World War One.

In 1928, the public schools tried to stage a pageant about city history. It became obvious that information was scarce and inaccessible. Lincoln began to compile the city history, completing it in 1937.

The book is often thought of as a high school text. The author, however, stated it was aimed at "boys and girls, business men and women … ." Though not contrived on strictly academic standards, it is certainly the one starting place for anyone interested in the history of Delawares largest city.

The history begins with the Lenni-Lenape and follows them until their western migration. The Swedish, Dutch, and English regimes and the Revolutionary War period are detailed, but much of the information is available in other histories.

Lincoln's real contributions begin with Chapter 12, which begins a series of topical sections, the first being the history of the public library.

One fascinating chapter describes early inns and taverns with names like "Bird-in-Hand," "Buck," "Sharp's Hotel," "Lafayette," "Sign of the Ship," "Fountain Inn," "Indian King," and "Queen of Otaheite." They all provided accommodations for both people and their horses. One was a stage stop for distant places such as Philadelphia, Dover, and Chestertown.

One of the earliest problems faced by Wilmington was finding safe drinking water. Numerous public and private enterprises attempted to replace polluted wells. In 1815, the city government began a controversial effort to bring Brandywine River water into town. Pumps driven by a water wheel sent water to a reservoir at Tenth and Shipley, about where the lobby of the Playhouse is now. The project was a success, but mill owners along the river worried about the diversion of water.

Much of the information for the period before the Civil War is drawn from old newspapers. Some is drawn from histories by Elizabeth Montgomery and Benjamin Ferris. Another source was the city directory of 1814, which Lincoln says was the first.

There are several useful chapters on the Civil War and its impact on Wilmington citizens and politics. The city was strongly pro-Union in a state with decidedly mixed feelings. There seems to have been some panic early in the war engendered by the burning of railroad bridges in Maryland and firing on Union troops in Baltimore. The Wilmington city government appropriated $8,000 for 400 "stands of arms" to equip a militia to defend against invasion or riot. Lincoln provides details of Delaware units in the Civil War.

Local industry is an important part of the book, for Wilmington was an industrial city. Shipbuilding and flour milling get the most space, but there are interesting descriptions of the morocco leather tanning, the Gilpin paper mill, spinning and weaving, and railroad car manufacture.

One chapter covers parks, fountains, statues, and other memorial structures. Many of these no longer exist.

Lincoln offers several chapters on education and the press, which she groups together saying, "If there were no public schools for the education of the masses in the early days, the printers were active in their efforts to instruct and inform the people, … ."

The chapter on private schools includes a lengthy description of Wesleyan Female Collegiate Institute. As many as 250 students were enrolled. A magazine, The Female Student and Young Ladies Advocate, was published. Only a few copies survive.

Anna T. Lincoln's history of Wilmington would benefit from a more complete index. It can be faulted for minor errors. But it is still an excellent history and good reading. Copies are getting scarcer, especially nice copies. They generally sell for under $60, even in very good condition with the dust jacket.

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