Deborah Norris Logan
Deborah Norris Logan (October 19, 1761–February 2, 1839), a writer and historian, contributed to the documentation of early American history by transcribing and publishing a large cache of family papers. Her 17-volume diary, produced between 1815 and 1839, is an invaluable source of information concerning the social, political, and cultural life of early 19th-century Philadelphia.
The granddaughter of Isaac Norris, one of Philadelphia’s original Quaker settlers, Deborah Norris grew up in the heart of the city, where she witnessed momentous events in the history of the United States, and turned a keen eye on the fleeting details of daily life in her rapidly evolving city [Fig. 1]. At the age of fourteen she overheard the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia’s State House Yard, which lay just beyond the garden wall of her childhood home. Many of the Declaration’s signers, along with other prominent visitors, made their way to the house of her father, the merchant Charles Norris. Years later, she wrote a detailed description of the house and its “beautifully improved” garden and grounds, noting with pride that “a walk in the garden was considered by the more respectable citizens [of Philadelphia] as a treat to their friends from a distance, and as one of the means to impress them with a favourable opinion of the beauties of the city” (view text). Although the geometric style of the Norris garden—with its orderly parterres and alleys—was distinctly old-fashioned by 1827 when Norris wrote her account, she clearly retained a nostalgic affection for gardens of this type, as indicated by her fondness for other local examples, such as Springettsbury (view text) and Belmont (view text).
Apart from attending Anthony Benezet’s Friends Girls School (the first public school for girls in America), Norris essentially educated herself through reading. In 1781 she married George Logan (1753–1821), another descendant of a founding Philadelphia Quaker family, who had recently returned from studying medicine in Edinburgh and London. In 1783 Deborah and George Logan assumed responsibility for renovating and maintaining Stenton, the Logan family’s war-damaged farm north of Philadelphia. George abandoned medicine and devoted himself to scientific farming and agronomics, becoming one of the principal theorists of American agrarian democracy and a United States senator. Deborah became the centerpiece of a group of politicians, historians, and artists who congregated at her home. Among her guests were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Willson Peale. In 1814 she discovered a trove of decaying letters between William Penn and his secretary, James Logan, her husband’s grandfather. The letters she transcribed were published after her death in two volumes by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (1870–72), which elected her its first honorary woman member in 1827.
In 1815, at the age of fifty-four, Logan began keeping a diary in which she resolved to record “whatever I shall hear of fact or anecdote that shall appear worthy of preservation. And many things for my own satisfaction likewise that may be irrelevant to others.” These “irrelevant” details often concerned the personal predilections she identified early in her diary: “My favourite amusements are gardening, writing, and reading.” Logan added to her diary nearly every day for almost forty years, amassing a treasure trove of historical anecdotes, personal recollections, and information based on direct observation of daily life in the early 19th century. Detailed descriptions of houses and gardens in and around Philadelphia pepper her account. A writer of poetry as well as prose, she occasionally introduced a lyrical quality to her diary when inspired by the beauty of nature. Gazing out a window one rainy summer day in 1824, she observed: “The window is nearly covered with a network of wild Ivy and the Glycine, the latter of which greatly predominates, and lays forth its purple clusters of flowers and gently Green luxuriant! Between its lattice I see the Garden: the Broom with its strings of golden blooms, and the beautiful Horse-Chestnut with its thick covering of leaves—but I stop my writing pen, tho’ I am never weary of such scenes myself.”
- Logan, Deborah Norris, September 27, 1815, diary entry describing Springettsbury, the Penn family estate north of Philadelphia, PA (quoted in White, 2008: 18–19)
- “Passing one day by the old manor of Springetsbury [sic], I greatly desired to stop and look at the remains of the garden. . . The little greenhouse is now a ruin. In my youth an aloe was in flower, and crowds flocked out of town every fine day for many weeks to see the curiosity. Some of the fine labyrinths and hedges broke loose from the restraint of the sheers, and grown up behind the greenhouse, form a dark grove of evergreens. Broom and some other European plants still grow wild. . . (and I think it was the prettiest old-fashioned garden that I was ever in).” back up to History
- Logan, Deborah Norris, November 15, 1819, diary entry describing Belmont, (Philadelphia, PA), the seat of Judge Richard Peters (quoted in Kimball, March 1927: 336)
- “[The] garden exhibiting a most perfect sample of the old taste of Parterres, made of yew clipped into forms, and beyond this a long avenue of hemlocks planted close and arched above. Really very fine. And likewise some trees of the same kind to the south of what was formerly a wilderness, very large and covered to their tops with the finest ivy I have ever seen.” back up to History
- Logan, Deborah Norris, October 10, 1826, diary entry describing Springettsbury, the Penn family estate north of Philadelphia, PA (quoted in White, 2008: 19)
- “The Gardens of Springetsbury [sic] were in full beauty in my youth, and were really very agreeable after the old fashion, with Parterres, Gravelled Walks, a Labyrinth of Horn-beam and a little wilderness—And the Green house, under the Superintendence of Old Virgil the Gardener, produced a flowering Aloe which almost half the town went to see, produced a comfortable Revenue to the old man—Soon after the house was burned down by accident; and now quantities of the yellow Blossoms of Broom in spring time mark the place. . . ‘where once the garden smiled.’”
- Logan, Deborah Norris, 1827, description of the Charles Norris House, the house of her father (1867: 1–9)
- “[My father’s house] was built by him about the middle of the last century, and was spacious and commodious within, and so beautifully improved was its garden and grounds, that a walk in the garden was considered by the more respectable citizens as a treat to their friends from a distance, and as one of the means to impress them with a favourable opinion of the beauties of their city.
- “The ground floor of the mansion consisted of four rooms with an entry, intersected at its termination by a cross one at the foot of a spacious staircase, with doors opening into two piazza’s to the East and West. . .
- “Back of the kitchen. . . extended the green-house, facing the South, and containing the best collection of exotics in the Province at that period.
- “It was well contrived, for the entrance into its stove was in a corner of the kitchen chimney, and a few chunks of hickory wood put into it at bed-time prevented any danger from the frost. The hot-house, for the mansion had a pretty little one, was the first of its kind in our city, where excellent Pine-apple’s used to be raised. It was heated in like manner from the chimney of the wash-house, a detached building to the East, where there was a large copper boiler, oven, and other accommodation for a large family. . .
- “The whole house, with its balconies and piazzas, was in its appearance altogether singular, and in its days of splendor, with its ample lot extending to Fifth St. and garden undiminished, was really a beautiful habitation. .
- “Let me here just commemorate the pleasant view from the back parlour, its western window looking on a beautiful enclosure separated from the pavement and graveled lane, by a palisade adorned with scarlet honey-suckles, sweet briars, and roses, and shaded by fine spreading Catalpa’s. The large willows which flourished at the bottom of the garden were the first of the species here, having been taken in a state that gave marks of vegetation, out of a hamper on a wharf at Boston, by Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin, who brought them to Philadelphia and presented them to my Aunt Debby Norris, as one of the most successful cultivators that he knew. Trees, taken from these, grew likewise at the side of the lot, under those shade, white garden seats were placed, and a small apiary. . .
- “But the garden yet remains to be described—a spot of elegance and floral beauty. It was laid out in square parterres and beds, regularly intersected by graveled and grass walks and alleys, yet some of the latter were so completely hid by trees by which they were bordered as to be secluded and rural.
- “A green bank, with flights of stone steps, led the way into the garden, and a profusion of beautiful flowers and shrubs first met the view. The western part was more irregular, and contained on a high dry spot facing the south, and defended from the north by a high board fence, the hot-beds and seed-house, and led to a very shaded walk reaching to the extremity of the grounds, with vines, covering the fence, of the finest sort of grapes, and hid on the other side from the rest of the garden by a continuation of espaliers in the most flourishing condition; this walk led to a gate opening into the yard of a cottage, which was the residence of the gardener.
- “It was a charming little retirement, and so secluded and quiet, that it might have been thought to belong to a remote village, though the fence of its enclosure fronted on Fifth Street. . .
- “A small pavement around the cottage, with a grass plot and trees in front, and roses intermixed with currant bushes, around its borders, rendered it completely a ‘Rus in Urbe’. . .
- “The garden was plentifully stocked with fruits. An old Swiss gardener was employed in it for above a quarter of a century. . .
- Logan, Deborah Norris, February 13, 1832, diary entry describing Springettsbury, the Penn family estate north of Philadelphia, PA (quoted in Weber 1996: 45)
- “There is a Report of the Committee of the Horticultural Society. . . in which is displayed a great ignorance of the former taste for Gardening amongst us when it states, that Mr. Pepper’s Green house, originally built by Dr. Barbon, was the first Green house built in Pennsylvania; this is not so.—The Greenhouse at Springetsbury, built by Margaret Freame daughter of William Penn, was the first;—the one attached to the House of my Father [Charles Norris]. . . was the next; and to this was added a hot-house; with its bark-bed and roof of Glass, where upwards of 50 Pine-apples were raised of a Season, besides many rare plants.
- “My Father [in-law] Logan, had also a Green house in town, as well as a good one here [at Stenton], for he was an excellent Horticulturalist, and had many rare and beautiful Plants; indeed the large and fine Orange and lemon trees which now ornament Pratts Greenhouse at Lemon Hill were originally of his raising. . . Israel Pemberton likewise had a Green House for his wife’s Amusement, and there was one at Fair-hill.”
- For the role of ancestry in Deborah Norris’s writings, see Karin Wulf, “‘Of the Old Stock’: Quakerism and Transatlantic Genealogies in Colonial British America,” in The Creation of the British Atlantic World, ed. Elizabeth Mancke and Carole Shammas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 304–320, view on Zotero.
- Marleen Barr, “Deborah Norris Logan, Feminist Criticism, and Identity Theory: Interpreting A Woman’s Diary Without The Danger of Separatism,” Biography 8 (1985): 14, view on Zotero.
- Deborah Norris Logan, The Norris House (Philadelphia: Fair-Hill Press, 1867), 1, view on Zotero.
- Barr 1985, 14, view on Zotero; Terri L. Premo, “‘Like a Being Who Does Not Belong’: The Old Age of Deborah Norris Logan,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 107 (1983): 87, view on Zotero.
- Manuela Albertone, National Identity and the Agrarian Republic: The Transatlantic Commerce of Ideas between America and France (1750–1830) (Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2014), view on Zotero.
- Barr 1985, 14, view on Zotero.
- Premo 1983, 87, view on Zotero. See also Deborah Logan, Correspondence between William Penn and James Logan, Secretary of the Province of Pennsylvania, and Others, 1700–1750. From the Original Letters in the Possession of the Logan Family, ed. Edward Armstrong, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1872), vol. 1, view on Zotero; vol. 2, view on Zotero.
- Deborah Norris Logan, introduction and diary entry for October 16, 1815, quoted in Barr 1985, 15 and 18, view on Zotero.
- Deborah Logan, unpublished diary entry, 1824, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, quoted on Stenton House website [accessed 3/24/15].
- Sharon White, Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008), view on Zotero.
- Fiske Kimball, “Belmont, Fairmount Park,” Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin 22 (March 1927), view on Zotero.
- Norris 1867, view on Zotero. For the date and history of Norris’s unpublished manuscript (posthumously published in 1867), see Stabile 2004, 4, view on Zotero.
- Weber 1996, view on Zotero.