Asa Packer and Nineteenth-Century America
"Who in the Hell is Packer?"
Welcome to a digital exhibit that explores the life and times of Asa Packer. In many ways, Packer embodies the classic nineteenth-century characters of Horatio Alger. A hard working laborer as a youth, Packer’s thrift and foresight allowed him to build a vast fortune and provide a real life example of Alger’s mythos. While it would be easy to generalize the life of Packer, a closer study reveals more to Packer than an uncomplicated archetype. The colorful phrase above, "Who in the Hell is Packer," derives from a comment made when Pennsylvania delegates put forward his name for president at the 1868 national convention. Although a man of great wealth, Packer was a man of few words. He neither wrote extensively nor spoke much during his lifetime. In many ways, the greatest challenge of this exhibit is uncovering the life of a man who altered his century, but left few records to document those changes or his personal beliefs. Rumored to be the wealthiest man in Pennsylvania, and perhaps all of America at one point, Packer remains a relatively unknown historical figure outside of the Lehigh Valley.
This digital exhibit includes new research about Asa Packer, acknowledges information and approaches in previous biographies, and contextualizes events from the nineteenth-century in order to show how Packer shaped—and was in turn shaped by—his surroundings. After a short introduction, we have oriented our exhibit around four thematic categories, “Asa Packer: A Man in the Age of American Industrialization,” “Asa Packer the Politician,” “Asa Packer the Educator,” and “Asa Packer the Victorian." As a visitor to this digital museum, you can consider the four themes as distinct exhibition rooms. As the names indicate, each room follows a particular theme central to explaining Asa Packer’s life while situating his life in and among other nineteenth-century events. Before continuing on, please consult the timeline below for an overview of major events in the nineteenth century.