A Small World Story of Two Images from the DE Historical Society

With Delaware being such a small state it is not uncommon to come across surprising connections. This is even true behind the scenes at the Delaware Historical Society. In one recent “small world” connection, the same week that the Society published an image of Lillie Donohoe, Delaware’s first woman postal carrier, on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram, the family of Ms. Donohoe visited the Society’s Research Library to make a donation of a framed photo by the photographer Arthur Sanborn.

Read on to learn more about these two historically significant images and the connection between them.


Lillie Donohoe

Lillie Donoho, believed to be Delaware’s first female postal worker

The First Image – Lillie Donohoe Postcard

Lillie Donohoe was a postal carrier in Delaware from 1905 -1908, who is believed to have been the first female postal worker in Delaware and secretary of the Delaware Rural Letter Carriers Association. She delivered the mail in a horse-drawn carriage on a route that ran from Penny Hill to Arden. During the holidays, Donohoe sent handwritten postcards to households on her route that read, “Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

The postcard was recently shared on the Society’s social media channels as part of our regular “Throwback Thursday” posting series and received an overwhelming response. Throwback Thursday is a worldwide social media phenomenon for which posters share images from the past. It is a natural fit for a historical society!

This postcard is part of the Delaware Historical Society’s Purnell Postcard Collection, which was donated by Harold W.T. “Skipper” Purnell in 1990.

Gathering of Wilmington merchants, possibly Wilmington chapter of DE Chamber of Commerce at Rodney Square, ca. 1920s

The Second Image – Arthur Sanborn Photograph

Two of Ms. Donohoe’s descendants visited the Research Library by happenstance the very same week we shared the postcard featuring an image of Lillie Donohoe. While Donohoe’s family are aware of her historical significance, they had never before seen the image of her standing before her postal carriage–that is, until Leigh Rifenburg, the Delaware Historical Society’s Curator of Images, shared it with them.

During their visit, the family very generously donated a framed photograph by Arthur Sanborn, who is one of the major photographers represented in the Society’s image collection. Sanborn, a former watchmaker, operated the Arthur N. Sanborn Photographic Studios at 404 Market Street in Wilmington from 1904 to 1959. His son, Arthur Nelson Sanborn Jr., continued to run the studio until 1964.

The recent Sanborn donation is of an image of a large group of well-dressed people in Rodney Square, sometime in the 1920s. The photograph dates from the fall of 1922 or later, since the Caesar Rodney statue, installed in July 1922, is evident in the background. The subjects of the photograph include the donors’ great-grandfather, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandfather, who were the owners of Broadbent Jewelers in Wilmington. The donors were uncertain about the nature of the gathering, but think it was likely of a group of Wilmington merchants–the subjects are all wearing matching lapel pins. Leigh Rifenburg, the Delaware Historical Society’s Curator of Images, believes the photo may be of a gathering of the Wilmington chapter of the Delaware Chamber of Commerce. She plans to conduct more research to discover the provenance of this fascinating contribution to our collection.

Know of any other interesting Delaware historical connections? Please send them our way at the Delaware Historical Society. You may get in touch at 302-655-7161 or deinfo@dehistory.org.

Image credits: Delaware Historical Society

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