The Rise of Balloon Photography in Philadelphia

“Balloon View of Philadelphia from about one mile high, July 4th, 1893.” By William Nicholson Jennings. (PhillyHistory)

Jean-Pierre Blanchard wanted to make a splash, figuratively, not literally. He arrived  from France, 220 years ago, planning a display of showmanship that would, if successful, be the first balloon ascension in Americaand his 45th.

On January 9, 1793, the French aeronaut and inventor readied his balloon in the prison yard at 6th and Walnut Streets, accepted best wishes from President George Washington and other luminaries, and floated skyward. Blanchard metaphorically lived his motto: Sic itur ad astra—to the stars. More precisely, he went to Deptford, New Jersey.

If not made useful, such feats of technology, skill, daring and luck were of little value. Blanchard made use of his time aloft conducting a variety of measurements and experiments, the results of which were recorded in a small book published in Philadelphia with a pleasant illustration of his balloon. Engravings were all they had in Blanchard’s time; it would be nearly half a century before photography allowed aeronauts to dream of returning to earth with “you-are-there” documentation.

The first successful aerial photographs in America,” taken above Boston in 1860, were made from Samuel A. King’s balloon, the “Queen of the Air.” And President Lincoln’s war machine soon put aerial photography to work against Confederate troops. But King didn’t much care for sharing his basket with photographers. Another three decades passed before he went aloft with Philadelphia photographer William Nicholson Jennings.

In the early 1890s, King, brought the “Eagle Eyrie” up from his home in Tinicum to Fairmount Park for annual July 4th ascensions. In 1934, Jennings reminisced about their partnership in “Snapshots from Cloudland,” published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute.

William Nicholson Jennings’ view to the east: Girard College, Eastern State and North Philadelphia. July 4, 1893. (PhillyHistory)

As King prepped, Jennings found a moment to approach “the genial aeronaut to make a bid for a place in the basket for the purpose of making aerial snapshots.” King stared back “with an eye blue as the sky he loved to sail in; stroked his long beard, fleecy as any cloud he had passed through, and remarked: ‘My charge for a passenger is fifty dollars; but if you expect to make good photographs on your first balloon trip … you will be wasting your time and money.’” A first-time passenger would succumb to nerves and produce double exposures, blurred images, use erroneous settings, and on top of all of that, the summer’s “blue haze between balloon and landscape” would result in “thin,” “washy” negatives. Plus, King added, “escaping coal gas from the balloon would create a chemical fog.”

Undeterred, Jennings conducted experiments from the top of the Washington, Monument and devised a combination of orthochromatic plates and a light yellow lens filters and got him “bright, snappy” negatives. He made a “gas-tight” camera, and showed both to King.

Re-enactment of the Nation’s First Air Voyage, in “La Coquette.” January 9, 1968. (PhillyHistory)

On the Fourth of July, 1893, as “the Municipal Band struck up ‘My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,’ all Jennings had to do was to “forget nerves, wait until the desired section of landscape came into view” hold his breath and press the button.” He “made several exposures while passing over Philadelphia at the height of about a mile…securing sharp, crisp, clear-cut negatives, from which I afterward made a number of 40” x 50” enlargements for exhibition at the Crystal Palace, London.”

King and Jennings would continue to collaborate, but their demise (King in 1914; Jennings in 1946) would hardly mark the end of the Philadelphia balloon story.

In 1956, when Hollywood adapted Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, producer Mike Todd lined up an all-star cast including David Niven and the young Shirley McLaine. The film, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, also featured appearances by Noel Coward, Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra. For the all-important role of the balloon, Todd turned to his friend; the self-described Philadelphia “balloonatic” Constance Wolf, who lent  her beloved “La Coquette.” The first woman to cross the Alps in a balloon, Wolf would promote the film by piloting “La Coquette” over London and Paris after its release. No surprise that, in 1959, she would replicate Blanchard’s first American ascension, and would inflate “La Coquette” again for another re-enactment, seen here, in January 1968.

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Before the Academy: Classical Music in the Quaker City

338 Spruce Street in 1961, home of Francis Hopkinson, the composer of “The President’s March,” otherwise known as “Hail, Columbia!”

During the late eighteenth century, Philadelphia’s Quaker elite had a dim view of the performing arts.  For a sect that prized plainness, industry, and silence, European high culture represented frivolity and unnecessary “fanciness.”  Having a harpsichord or fortepiano in one’s house could mean being “read out” of meeting, and Friends schools forbade keyboard instruments until the 1900s. As theater was banned in the city proper,  the town of Southwark (today’s Queen Village) became the de facto entertainment district for colonial America’s most populous city.

Yet things changed when President George Washington took up residence on Market Street in 1790.  Washington could not play an instrument or carry a tune.  The extremely image-conscious Washington loved the theater.  His favorite play was Joseph Addison’s play about the Roman Republican hero Cato.  He loved dancing even more. During the 1790s, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, a coterie of musicians organized performances of orchestral music by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and other European masters. They also sprinkled their own compositions into the programs.  These American pieces were written in the  classical style but frequently quoted patriotic songs such as “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia,” as well as Irish and Scottish folk songs.  And then there was Benjamin Franklin, who loved music so much that he invented a new instrument that became all the rage in Europe and America: the haunting, ethereal “glass harmonica.”

Mozart: Adagio & Rondo for Glass Harmonica & Quartet – Adagio

This stylistic pastiche shamelessly played on the cultural insecurity of Philadelphia’s literati, who yearned for sophistication but did not want to be seen as un-Republican British imitators.  During the French Revolution, composers would also insert bars of controversial, anti-aristocratic songs such “La Marseillaise” and “Ca Ira” into their works, provoking either wild applause or hissing from the audience.  Although Americans had recently ridden themselves of a king, not everyone was sure that the violent overthrow of Louis XVI was such a good idea.

“A Toast” by Francis Hopkinson, starting at 2:00.

One American in this coterie was Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson, a renaissance man of means who dabbled in writing plays and political satire, as well as playing the harpsichord and organ. He even composed a short revolutionary propaganda opera, entitled American Independent or The Temple of Minerva. Shortly before his untimely death in 1791, Hopkinson published “Seven Songs for Harpsichord or Piano Forte,” dedicated to George Washington.  Hopkinson seems to have thought rather highly of himself,  declaring in the dedication: “I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.”

“The Federal Overture” by Benjamin Carr, c.1795. The French Republican sympathies of Carr’s Philadelphia audience are pretty obvious in this piece.  Note also the inclusion of the famous Irish gig “Mother Hen” and Francis Hopkinson’s “The President’s March” (aka “Hail, Columbia!”).

The most famous of President Washington’s “court composers” was Alexander Robert Reinagle.  The son of a Hungarian father and a Scottish mother, he immigrated to America from Edinburgh in 1786.  By the 1790s, Reinangle was writing concert music for professionals and amateur ensembles, holding concerts at the City Tavern’s Assembly Room and the Chestnut Theatre.  Compared to British and Viennese ensembles, Reinangle’s players were doubtless rather rough-and-ready.  Reinagle’s compositional style had its roots in the classicism of Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, which perfectly matched the simple, well-proportioned “Federal” style of architecture.

The Chestnut Theater itself, opened in 1794, was the work of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the mastermind of the Fairmount Waterworks.  Able to seat around 1,100 people on four levels, its stage was crowned by a sculpture of a soaring eagle in the clouds. George Washington was a frequent, enthusiastic attendee of Reinagle’s concerts; he even entrusted the composer with the musical education of his stepdaughter Nellie Custis.

Benjamin Carr: Rondo on “Yankee Doodle” (1804)

Another Philadelphia composer was London-born Benjamin Carr, who arrived in the city in 1793 as a voice and keyboard teacher.  In addition to teaching and composing, he served as organist and choirmaster at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church and then St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Carr’s most famous work is the “Federal Overture,” written for full orchestra in 1794.

The Musical Fund Hall, 1959, after being sold to a labor organization. The Victorian facade was added in the late 19th century.

Yet Carr’s most important contribution to the musical life of the city was co-founding along with artist Thomas Sully of the Musical Fund Society in 1820. Its charitable board sponsored the city’s first symphony orchestra. Headquartered in a magnificent auditorium designed by William Strickland, the Musical Fund Society was the forerunner of The Philadelphia Orchestra. The Society’s purpose was “first, to cultivate and diffuse musical taste, and secondly, to afford relief to its necessitous professional members and their families.” Designed by William Strickland, the Musical Fund Hall was a Greek Revival structure with an auditorium on the second floor.  Playing host to such distinguished guests as singer Jenny Lind and author William Thackeray, it was the city’s grandest concert hall until the Academy of Music opened on South Broad Street in 1857.


E. Digby Balzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1979), p.319.

Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres A-Z (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1986), pp.84, 172.

Philadelphia Scrapple: Whimsical Bits Anent Eccentrics & the City’s Oddities (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1956), p.141.

Philadelphia Composers: Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809),

Francis Hopkinson, 1737-1791.

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Happy Holidays from PhillyHistory Blog

The first public tree goes up in Independence Square in 1913.

Lists reflecting on the bests and worsts of the waning year are nearly as abundant as egg nog and cardboard-flavored cookies in the weeks leading up to the holidays. But unlike the transience of yearly in memoriams, Philadelphia’s rich tradition of holiday decorations is long and vibrant.

We hope you’ll think of this collection of holiday photos in Philadelphia not as a list, but as ongoing documentation of the persistence of cheer and lights and, sure, brotherly love, in a city that has kept the holiday spirit alive even in times of hardship.

As PhillyHistory and PlanPhilly have explained, the tree pictured right in front of Independence Square marked the city’s first public Christmas tree and seems to have heralded a tradition of “civic Christmas trees” that has subsequently lit the city during the darkest winter days.

But everyone knows the city doesn’t just celebrate with trees. A collection of carolers gathered in Reyburn Plaza in 1958, with two children sitting, apparently enchanted, in the foreground. In 1956, the city installed a live Santa and a child-sized train set in Reyburn Plaza, but according to the St. Joseph Gazette, no children arrived to ride the train or convey their Christmas lists to Santa. Our guess is that they were relying on the “real” Santa at the Wanamaker Building.

Today we know the holiday seasons would be incomplete without the audiovisual familiarity of jingling bells and red kettles from the Salvation Army. That was true in 1962, too. Below, volunteers celebrate the unveiling of the Salvation Army Christmas billboard that year.

Although the red kettle tradition actually began in San Francisco, Philadelphia was the site of the first Salvation Army meeting in 1879, nearly a century before this photo was taken.

Mayor John Street, looking festive, took a ride in a carriage at the city’s annual tree lighting and holiday festival in 2002. Since Street’s tenure, the yearly ceremony has expanded to include a Christmas Village. This year, due to the construction on Dilworth Plaza, the celebration took place at Love Park across the street.

And with that look at the holidays through years, here’s a graceful, 1962 holiday message that means the same today as it did then:

A lit sign carrying warm wishes over the frozen water at Kelly and Girard.

As a holiday bonus, here is a smattering of trees from 1959, 2002, and 2004:

The 1959 Christmas Tree display at City Hall.

Christmas in Love Park (2002).

The city’s 2004 tree at twilight.

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The First and Only to One of Many: How a Coffee Shop Helped Transform Spruce Hill

Excavation in front of 4239 Baltimore Avenue on June 18, 1912. The building housing the Green Line Cafe was originally a pharmacy with the owners living upstairs. Note the striped shades meant to keep the rooms cool during the hot spring and summer months.

Soon after moving to West Philadelphia in 1995, Douglas Witmer joked with his brother-in-law Dan Thut that one day they would open up a coffee shop in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia.

Neither had business experience. Douglas studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His wife’s brother Dan had a background in history and had run a language school in Guatemala. After graduating from PAFA, Douglas realized that real estate was a great way to supplement his income as an artist and curator.  In the late 1990s, he and his wife purchased a multi-unit building at 44th and Osage.  Prices were low, and there was a healthy demand for student housing.

Witmer and his family loved Spruce Hill neighborhood.  Its Victorian architecture, academic flavor, and socio-economic diversity appealed to his creative sensibilities. “There’s no other place in America like this neighborhood,” Doug maintains.  “Take any spectrum you want – income, race, you name it – it’s really heterogeneous. It’s a walkable community, and it’s also a very green neighborhood. All these elements that make it unique.”

The longer they stayed in Spruce Hill, Douglas said, “the joke about starting a coffee shop became serious.”

Despite the bustling student scene, there was no coffee neighborhood in Spruce Hill, no where art could be displayed, residents mingle, and people could study, read, or just converse.

“We did it out of wanting to create something in the neighborhood that we wanted for ourselves,” he recalled.

In 2001, a three story brick building came up for sale at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore, on the northeast corner of Clark Park.  A florist shop occupied the ground floor, and apartments on the upper two stories.  Built around 1900 when Spruce Hill was a prosperous, upper-middle class neighborhood, it was originally a pharmacy, with the owners living above the store.

The structure was quite run down when Witmer and Thut purchased it from a large local property owner.   An underground creek running under 43rd Street had weakened its foundations, as well as those of several of the other houses in the area.  A dropped ceiling, boarded -up clerestory windows, and other alterations had compromised the original interiors.  Yet what really captivated Witmer and Thut was the bow-front window that commanded a view of Clark Park, visually connecting the future coffee shop to the bustling street and urban green space.

It was right across the street from a Green Line trolley stop. A century ago,  It was the streetcar that made West Philadelphia a desirable commuter suburb. So Witmer and Thut named their new coffee shop “The Green Line Cafe.”

Renovation of the coffee shop space in progress. The mirror on the left is the only original furnishing from the c.1903 pharmacy.  Photograph courtesy of Douglas Witmer.

The gun-renovation of 4239 Baltimore Avenue took about a year to complete. Douglas and Dan let their creative sensibilities make this space one-of-a-kind. “We don’t come from business backgrounds,” Douglas said.  “We were thinking more in terms of a space for the neighborhood to come together.”  The contractor removed the rotted floor and replaced it with salvaged, honey-hued pine boards, and sheathed the coffee bar with antique pressed tin.  Light from stained-glass windows streamed into the brightly-lit room.  A large mirror, topped by an egg-and-dart cornice, was the only surviving piece from the early 1900s.

The Green Line Cafe opened its doors in 2003.  It quickly became a home for neighborhood art shows and concerts, as well as a haven for families, writers, and cramming graduate students.  When the Clark Park Farmer’s Market set up shop on Saturdays, scores of people flooded into the cafe every hour, including many of the Amish farmers.

The coffee shop became financially successful enough for Witmer and Tuth to open up two more branches: one at 45th and Locust and another in Powelton Village. Penn’s massive redevelopment of the area, most notably the construction of the nearby Penn Alexander School at 42nd and Locust, gave a massive boost to adjacent property values. Soon, local real estate agents were using “Close to the Green Line Cafe” as a selling point in their apartment listings.

Green Line Cafe co-founder holding up the “Philadelphia Weekly” special on his establishment. Click on the picture to read the feature. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Witmer feels very lucky that a running joke with his brother-in-law turned into a successful business proposition.  The Green Line has provided an indoor “public” space complementing Clark Park, a gathering place for the diverse residents of Spruce Hill.  He just hopes that his coffee shop does not become a victim of its own success: “After 2005, we had five other businesses competing with us.  It’s a challenge from being the first and only to being one of many.”


The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park, April 10, 1910.


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The Skeleton Man, the Jersey Devil and a Multitude of Other Attractions

C. A. Bradenbaugh’s Museum, Northwest corner of 9th and Arch Streets, 1890 (Free Library of Philadelphia).

Admission cost a dime at the 9th and Arch Museum. Indeed, dimes ruled the for-profit world of Victorian-era museums.  But in the end neither the entertainment, nor the dimes, were enough.

For more than half a century, the corner of 9th and Arch sustained Philadelphians with opportunities for diversion, education and voyeurism. The public came and went—and so did the owners. First was Colonel Joseph Wood, fresh in town having been burnt out of his Chicago emporium. The Colonel opened the doors on a relatively simple affair: menagerie plus performance space. By 1883, the venue re-launched under the new ownership. Hagar, Campbell & Co. Dime Museum advertised “Entertainment Designed Expressly for Ladies and Children,” and claimed they had the “only great show in town.” It featured everything from “Barnum’s Original Aztecs,” the “Che-Mah Chinese Dwarf,” the “Cannibal Fan Child,” the “Living Skeleton” and “the “White Moor.” Hagar and Campbell piled on the attractions, adding “Dens of Serpents,” “the Merry Monkeys” and Punch and Judy, Johnson’s Original Tennessee Jubilee Singers, and “a multitude of other attractions.”  (.pdf)

Even so, audience demands, and museum costs, proved too high. The Dime Museum soon changed hands again. This time, Charles A. Bradenbaugh re-invented the destination as the “9th and Arch Museum.” And this time, place and the public connected. Bradenbaugh kept the audiences coming from 1885 to 1910.

What would a visitor see behind Bradenbaugh’s colorful façade? “On the first floor,” Joseph Jackson tells us, “there were numerous forms of apparatus for testing grips, lungs, lifting power, etc. “On the second floor were cages of monkeys, a prairie dog ‘Village,’ and a few other menagerie specimens.”  The third floor provided a lecture hall packed with a series of platforms, with living “human freaks.” Regulars came to know “The Skeleton Man,” “The Fat Woman,” the “Real Zulus,” “The Human Bat,” “The Bearded Lady,” “The Elastic-Skin Man,” “The Glass Eater,” and “The Dog-Faced Boy.” Every hour, the gawking public would be invited back down to the main auditorium where they’d sit for a popular play that, no matter the length of the original, was condensed into forty minutes, give or take.

In the 1890s, Bradenbaugh dabbled in movies, allowing his visitors to enjoy that emerging medium. But the Dime Museum’s array of 19th-century offerings remained a complicated and layered activity for the public. The simpler experience of the 20th century movie house required, and got, a venue all its own.

A decade into the new century, Bradenbaugh saw the writing on the wall and sold out. Soon enough, the new owners of the 9th and Arch Museum recognized the same reality and did their best to turn it into an opportunity. In 1911, the museum’s new manager, T.F. Hopkins, and his press agent, Norman Jeffries, engineered (literally) a favorite local legend: the Jersey Devil.

After giving birth to her 12th child, the story goes, “Mother Leeds” declared that the 13th, if she had it, would be the Devil. Lo and behold, one dark and stormy night in 1735, Mrs. Leeds gave birth to her 13th. As promised, it immediately transformed into “a creature with hooves, a horse’s head, bat wings and a forked tail.” The newborn “growled and screamed, then killed the midwife before flying up the chimney. It circled the villages and headed toward the Pines.”

According to Andrea Stulman Dennett in Weird & Wonderful: the Dime Museum in America, the headlines screamed: “The Fabulous Leeds Devil Reappears after an Absence of Fifty Years.” A “monster with long hind legs, short forelegs, a tail, horns on its head and short wings” had reportedly been captured by a farmer in New Jersey “after a terrific struggle” and would soon be “placed on exhibition at the Ninth and Arch Museum.”

“Caught!!!  And Here!!!!  Alive!!! THE LEEDS DEVIL, read Hopkins and Jeffries posters. “Swims! Flys! Gallops! … Exhibited securely chained in a Massive Steel Cage. A LIVING DRAGON more famous than the Fabled Monsters of Mythology. Don’t Miss the Sight of a Lifetime.”

In fact, the museum’s short-lived center of attention was a kangaroo with wings attached. And the audiences this mutant marsupial drew to 9th and Arch kept the doors open for only a few more weeks. The day of the Dime Museum had passed. Frank Dumont soon bought the building for his thriving troupe of minstrels.

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The Rise and Fall of Blackface Minstrelsy in The City of Brotherly Love

Dumont’s Minstrels. Northwest Corner of 9th and Arch Streets, May 7, 1914. (

A century before one of the last gasps of American blackface minstrelsy played out at the corner of 9th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia lawyer-turned-cartoonist Edward Williams Clay pioneered his art of stoking white ridicule. Clay’s racist “Life in Philadelphia” caricatures targeting  African Americans quickly grew into an international success. And while Clay was adding insult to injustice in Philadelphia, white actor and playwright Thomas D. Rice adopted African-American vernacular speech, song and dance to build audiences in New York. In both cases, and during the very same years, art appropriated, exaggerated,  entertained, and suppressed. Blackface minstrelsy was born.

“Minstrelsy is the one American form of amusement, purely our own,” wrote a proud Frank Dumont in 1899. “It has lived and thrived even though the plantation darkey, who first gave it a character, has departed.” Dumont’s career in minstrelsy before the Civil War culminated by the turn of the century with two off-stage achievements: the  publication of his Witmark Amateur Minstrel Guide and Burnt Cork Encyclopedia, and a massive scrapbook now at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (.pdf finding aid). Dumont’s troupe then performed at the Eleventh Street Opera House, near Ranstead Street. By 1911, when Dumont’s name had become synonymous with blackface minstrelsy, he relocated to Ninth and Arch.

Dumont learned how to keep his material fresh with monologues, sketches and burlesques adapted to “current fads and follies.” His “Scenes at Wanamaker’s,” “Broad Street Station,” “Atlantic City Storms,” and “The Trolley Car Party” allowed audiences to mock themselves and, with the help of blackface minstrelsy, to mock others.

How, exactly, did Dumont’s Minstrels “black up” for every show? One evening, Dumont allowed a reporter to witness the nightly ritual. A written account made its way into Dumont’s Burnt Cork Encyclopedia (and this photograph made its way into the archives at Temple University):

Make a paste of burnt cork and water and take some, “into your left hand, rub it over the palms as if about to wash your face; then smear it over the features as if applying a cosmetic. Carefully apply it around the eyes and about the lips … when you have applied the cork and left the lips in the natural condition, they will appear red to the audience. Comedians leave a wider, white margin all around the lips. This will give it the appearance of a large mouth, and will look red to the spectator.”

Dumont’s Minstrels in 1917.

Readers of The Burnt Cork Encyclopedia did exactly that and followed Dumont’s stage instructions and scripts for burlesques he shared on the following pages. They became proficient lightening eyebrows with chalk, affixing woolen chin whiskers and finishing off their stage faces with “large brass rimmed spectacles” on their blackened noses.

With the face complete, Dumont continued: “I take a small soft brush…to rub off the particles of cork from my features to prevent them from falling on my white shirt front and white vest …I put on my creamy white shirt… a paper or celluloid collar, a small black tie… my white vest… my swallow-tail coat with a flashy flower or ‘boutonniere’ in its lapel and I resemble a perfect Beau Brummel.… We wear black satin knee pants, black stockings and low cut patent leather shoes. This is very genteel, dressing and in keeping with minstrelsy.”

Also in keeping with the minstrelsy was the nightly ritual of removing the costume, and the burnt cork. “No hard rubbing is necessary. Plenty of lather and a sponge. Then go over the face once more and … rinse your ‘features’ in a bucket of fresh water—if you can get it—and once more you are a Caucasian ready to take up the ‘white man’s burden’…”

Frank Dumont died in 1919, at work in his box office at 9th and Arch. Dumont’s Theater went up for sale in 1928 and burned in 1929. Live blackface minstrelsy on stage in Philadelphia had come to an end, although the screen version, thanks to Hollywood, was only getting started. Philadelphia’s mummer tradition of “blacking up” would continue until 1964, when the courts finally declared that the practice had, after nearly a century and a half, finally run its racist course.

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William Warren Gibbs: The Rise and Fall of A Gilded Age Promoter

William Warren Gibbs (1846-1925)

William Warren Gibbs arrived in Philadelphia around 1880 with little more than a smooth tongue and gas-making equipment for sale.  Born in 1846 in the small town of Hope, New Jersey, Gibbs dropped out of school to work in a local store, and then married Frances Ayres Johnson, the daughter of a prominent Hackettstown merchant.  Not content with a life in central New Jersey farm country, he wanted to move to the thriving “Workshop of the World “and become a wealthy entrepreneur.

Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, Gibbs quickly gained a reputation as one of the most persuasive men in the city, able to sell anything to anyone, especially influential men with money. Those around him realized that Gibbs had a real knack at setting up companies and issuing securities. He teamed up with another up-and-coming Philadelphia businessman — Peter Arrell Brown Widener — and formed the United Gas Improvement Company, a massive trust that sought control over the city’s gas mains.  Another vested interest in UGI was W.G. Warden of John D. Rockefeller’s powerful Standard Oil Company.  The arrangement worked well for Widener, who parlayed the fortune he gained supplying meat to the Union Army into trolley lines and new real estate development in North Philadelphia.   By the 1890s, UGI had helped make Widener and his cronies extremely wealthy.  According to contemporary reports,  UGI was “the most successful enterprise of its kind in the country, already owning and controlling the gas works of about fifty important towns and cities.” That year, the outstanding stock of the United Gas Improvement Company was worth $5 million and sold “at a high premium, while the actual assets will aggregate at a much larger sum.” Eventually, the United Gas Improvement Company solidified its position by getting a 30 year lease on Philadelphia’s entire gas lighting system.  It also had a reputation for political corruption. In 1903, for example, UGI was accused of making an illegal $20 million profit on the sale of stock in the United Electric Company of New Jersey.

The United Gas Improvement Company headquarters at 1401 Arch Street…conveniently close to City Hall.

The business and social bonds between Peter Widener and William Warren Gibbs probably explain why they owned neighboring mansions on North Broad Street during the 1880s– Widener at 1200 and Gibbs at 1216.

In 1888, Gibbs struck pay dirt again when he trotted out the Electric Storage Battery Company, which made batteries for industrial uses. According to business historian Alfred Chandler, Gibbs “quickly worked out an agreement with leading Philadelphia capitalists to raise $4.0 million” in 1893, much of it from Widener and Elkins, who needed batteries to power their electric streetcars. With this money, Gibbs purchased several smaller companies and bought out patents belonging to Brush Electric, Edison Electric, and other American electric manufacturers.” He then supervised the creation of a network of factories and distributers to manufacture and sell these electric batteries to big clients such as General Electric and Westinghouse.  The company proved to be a great success, bolstering its organizer’s reputation and enriching him further.

The Widener mansion at 1200 N. Broad Street. The Gibbs mansion is a few houses to the north at 1216 N. Broad Street. It may have had interiors designed by architect Frank Furness.

Yet Widener and Gibbs’s paths diverged by the early 1900s.  Widener invested in companies for the long term, branching out into steel, oil, and steamships (including his friend Clement Griscom’s International Mercantile Marine — owner of Britain’s White Star Line ).  By 1912, when Widener lost both his son George and grandson Harry in the Titanic disaster, he had a highly-diversified portfolio worth over $100 million. William Warren Gibbs, on the other hand, remained a serial entrepreneur, and had little interest in active management in his start up’s affairs after it went public.  He became known — perhaps somewhat mockingly — as the man who sat on more boards of directors than any other man in America.  One his more far-fetched schemes was financing the construction of a massive bridge across the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie. Although the structure was a wonder of engineering, the bridge company itself went into receivership and left Gibbs $100,000 poorer, and had “cost lots of big men big fortunes.”   This misadventure probably deepened Gibbs’s lack of respect for engineers.

The Drexel-Gibbs mansion at 1733 Walnut Street, when it was one of the grandest homes in the Rittenhouse Square area. It was torn down in 1913 and replaced by an apartment building.

By 1900, William Warren Gibbs had amassed enough clout (and a $15 million fortune) to purchase a mansion from banker Anthony Drexel Jr.  at 1733 Walnut Street, on the northeast corner of Rittenhouse Square.  The house, built in 1847 when Rittenhouse Square was on the edge of the countryside, was now surrounded by some of the finest homes in the city,  Gibbs and his made their own lavish improvements to the house, which already boasted ceiling frescos, plaster moulding, solid walnut doors, and gold and silver leaf stenciling.  They also added a high iron fence, gate, and a new stone port-cochere at the rear of the house, and a raised portico at the Walnut Street front door.  Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs, as well as their five children still living at home, enjoyed the most modern amenities: electronic service bells to summon five live-in servants, steam heat, hot and cold running water, and gas lighting.  He joined the Union League, his wife threw lavish parties at hotels, and his young boys William Francis and Frederic Herbert learned how to play tennis at prestigious suburban country clubs.  Their eldest daughter Augusta May married the son of a prominent banker in 1899, and a local paper described her as “a splendid musician [who] paints beautifully and rides and drives well.”

Yet Gibbs’s inability to invest in a company for the long-term finally caught up with him.  He invested in more and more peculiar ventures — dye, gunpowder, and cellulose battleship insulation —  and seemed more interested in playing the market than creating sustainable companies that actually made things.  The Philadelphia Inquirer observed in 1901 that, “the days of skylarking for these stocks are over, and lacking the support of Mr. Gibbs, each issue is heavy in the market.  Not, so far as is known, are they likely to receive any support which will make them attractive as speculative issues, stocks which a person may buy and sell quickly at a handsome profit…” The same article also noted due to some suspect financial activities, “It is quite likely that some of the shareholders of record of the Alkali Company unite in a defense and make a test case.”

In 1902, Gibbs’s wheeling-dealing caught up with him, when one of his companies, the American Alkali Company, was found out to be little more than a stock-jobbing scheme in possession of worthless patents.  The company went bankrupt, and Gibbs was accused of concocting a “fraudulent scheme,” in which he illegally pocketed  over $350,000 in cash.

The 2100 block of Pine Street. The Gibbs family lived in the building on the right during the late 1910s.

It took another eight years for the downfall of William Warren Gibbs to reach its tragic finale. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted snarkily a few years after the Alkali scandal in its “Clubs and Clubmen” section that, “W.W. Gibbs is said to have made half a million in diamonds.  He collected a big bag of them, laid them aside in his safe until the price went up 50 per cent, and then sold them out.”   In 1910, the family suddenly deserted their enormous house and retreated to a small cottage on the Main Line.  Creditors swiftly foreclosed on the house for nonpayment of two mortgages.  Three years later, the deteriorating mansion was torn down and replaced by a luxury apartment building.

The Gladstone Hotel, just prior to demolition in 1971.

The Widener family does not appear to have offered assistance following this very public downfall.  The Gibbs family kept on the move, taking up residence at an apartment building at 21st and Pine, and then in the Gladstone Hotel at 11th and Pine. Despite his best efforts, William Warren Gibbs never made a come-back. The once-wealthy and powerful financier died in abject poverty in 1925 while residing in a North Philadelphia sanitarium.


His son William Francis Gibbs (1886-1967) dropped out of Harvard following his father’s financial ruin.  He moved to New York and rose to became America’s greatest naval architect, even though his father considered engineers inarticulate and financially inept.   The man who designed the fastest, safest, most beautiful ocean liner in history — the SS United States — said that he “never would have amounted to anything” had his father not gone bankrupt.


Note: Steven Ujifusa is the author of A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States, published in July 2012 by Simon & Schuster.  To learn more, click here.


“Allege $20,000,000 Fraud,” The New York Times, October 4, 1903.

Philadelphia and Popular Philadelphians (Philadelphia, PA: The North American, 1891), p.166.

“Elegant Wedding at St. James: Miss Augusta M. Gibbs Becomes the Wife of Mr. W.H.T. Huhn,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1899.

“New Suit Against Alkali,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 12, 1902.

“Now Seeking a Receiver,” The New York Times, October 29, 1891.

“Skylarking Over; Now for Business,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 9, 1901.

“Suit Against W.W. Gibbs,” The New York Times, April 20, 1902.

Alfred Dupont Chandler, Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1990, p.403.

Winthrop Sergeant, “Profiles: The Best I Know How,” The New Yorker, June 6, 1964, p.73.

Stuart Wells, “The Residence at 1733 Walnut Street,” HSTVP 600 Documentation and Archival Research, Dr. Roger Moss, December 12, 1986, Collection of the Philadelphia Athenaeum, HR 86.4., p. 8.

John Russell Young, Memorial history of the city of Philadelphia from its first settlement to the year 1895 (New York: New York History Company), 1895-1898, pp.457-58.


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When Navy Dragged Army Through the Mud

The Army-Navy Game at Franklin Field, December 1, 1934.

“Bands, crowds, spectacles, chevrons and gold lace, brass hats, officials, politicians and dignitaries and still just a football game,” wrote Paul Gallico in the days leading up to the annual Army-Navy game the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1934. “Of all the thousands of football games played all over the country from October to December, this is the one game that really matters…”

“Borries and Buckler, two star backs, are playing their final game and both should throw a party worth attending,” read folks as far away as Los Angeles. The day before the game, Gallico urged ticket-holders to “take a look at Midshipman [Buzz] Borries tomorrow as he fades back to make a pass. Note how cool and unflustered he is; how with a quick glance he takes in the situation and adapts himself to it immediately. Ten years from now, Borries will be a commander, perhaps in charge of a destroyer, or a sub, or a nest of war birds.”

The game took place midway between West Point and Annapolis, in Philadelphia, but the game-day scene unfolded in Washington, D.C. as “seven special trains pulled out from Union Station at an early hour carrying hundreds of members of Capital society, clad in… their best furs and smartest sports clothes… women wearing either the navy’s yellow chrysanthemums tied with huge blue bows, or the Army’s knots of black, gray and gold.”

Franklin Field couldn’t begin to accommodate all of those who wanted in. Leading up to the game, according to The New York Times, 40,000 were turned away. With all 78,079 tickets sold, prices “rocketed to $40, $50 and $75 a pair, as scalpers began to infest cigar stores, shoe-shine parlors and restaurants.”

After all the anticipation, excitement and expense, the final score had Navy on top by 3, a single field goal kicked by “Big Slade Cutter, the Middie’s right tackle.” Did a mere 3-0 score dampen the day’s excitement? Not hardly, claimed Gallico, who wrote: “Of all the Army-Navy games I have seen this was by far the most beautiful and the most awesome.” And he wasn’t talking about the game.

“Wind and weather and nature set the scene,” Gallico wrote in an article titled “Weather on Parade at Big Service Game.” Here, “inside the giant fortress of the field, the entertainment was the “storm tortured sky to the west seen over the grim ramparts of the stadium…while to the east, the sun still sent slanting rays to the earth and illuminated the massed throngs in the east stand like a stage set lit by spotlights from the balcony.”

“With the first…dash of rain the massed thousands on the sides of the stadium turned themselves into a tapestry woven of colors as the women donned their colored rain capes against the downpour. Powder and marine blues were the prevailing colors, with sprinklings of reds, greens, yellows and whites. The west stands…resembled a tulip bed in Holland in springtime. The colors were so sharp and well defined.”

“There was one weird moment of flatness such as I have never seen before,” Gallico continued, “in which, due to the way the light struck from the storm overhead, and the mud that covered the football men from head to toe and rendered them all an even, ghostly grey, the whole scene resembled nothing so much as a photographic negative. Everything was inverted. Blacks were while, whites were blacks, and the gray men running on the field shining with mud and water looked like the negative film one sees run thorough in the cutting rooms of the newsreel studios.”

“Football in the mud is a much more fluid and rhythmic game to watch than on a dry field because …the 22 men do not come to a stop as abruptly as they do where the turf is solid and sure. The pileups dissolve in the grease and the ball carriers move to come sort of completion, either forward or backward, depending on how hard they are hit until they skid gently to a stop.  Blockers, too …slide gracefully on their chests for 5 and 6 yards at a clip… “

If you don’t believe Gallico (who quit sports writing two years later for a prolific and successful career as a novelist) see for yourself in this vintage video when Navy dragged Army through the mud—and vice versa.



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Gothic Ruins: A Last Glimpse Inside Northeast Manual Training High School

Northeast Manual Training High School, September 15, 1906.

The former Northeast Manual Training High School looks as if it had been plucked from the Princeton campus and dropped into the middle of North Philadelphia.  Constructed in 1903 at the intersection of North 8th Street and West Lehigh Avenue, the “Collegiate Gothic” building has walls of granite, traceried windows, and gargoyles sprouting from the central tower.  The auditorium boasted a magnificent pipe organ. This was not a school for the rich and privileged, but for the sons of working class Philadelphians.  The School Board believed that traditional beauty could be a form of uplift for the students, most of whom lived in tightly-packed, tree-less neighborhoods, befouled by smoke from the surrounding factories. Architect Lloyd Titus followed his client’s wishes, and created a dignified structure that loomed dreamily above the neighborhood’s squat rowhouses and warehouses.

It is an edifice built to last.  Over a century after its completion, there is not a crack in the foundations and walls are still plumb and level.

Yet on August 3, 2011, the school caught fire and the upper floors were completely burned out.  Nothing short of a total gut-renovation could make it fit for reuse.  The school, most recently known as the Julia DeBurgos Middle Magnet School, had been closed two years before the conflagration.  Because it was not properly sealed, the old school became a magnet for squatters, drug-addicts, and vandals, and quickly fell into ruin.  The four-alarm fire, possibly the result of arson, was the coup de grace.

Last Tuesday, I stood with demolition superintendent Devon Jackson in the groin-vaulted Gothic vestibule of the school’s auditorium, just as demolition started.   It was a dreary, gray day.  Rain spat through the vacant windows, and bright construction lights shone through the swirling dust.  Piles of rubble filled the courtyard. A few weeds still clung tenaciously to life, poking through the debris.

“The toughest part of the demolition is removing all the wood from the structure,” Devon explained.  It was not just in the floor planks and joists, but also buried behind plaster walls. Much of the wood that escaped the fire was either water-damaged or had succumbed to rot.

I asked Devon if it was OK for me to step into the auditorium.  It was a cavernous space, two stories high. The stage, surrounded by crumbling plaster moulding, still remained.  A tattered blue curtain shung from the proscenium. The seats had already been removed, the flooring material ripped up.  The pipe organ once stood behind the stage.

The pipe organ at Northeast Manual Training High School on December 18, 1934, damaged by fire.

Guion Bluford, a Philadelphia native and the first African-American astronaut, being honored on the auditorium stage, November 1983.

Eric Smith, Jackson’s supervisor at A.T. Russell Construction (the company in charge of demolishing the school), was alerted to the long-sealed organ shortly after demolition started, but by the time he arrived to photograph it, his workers had dismantled the instrument.  While wandering through the school, Smith saw pitiful reminders of the squatters who used the squalid structure as their home.  One illegal tenant had set up a suite of sorts, using a room for discarding his soiled clothes, one as a closet, and another as his bedroom.  Since the building had no working plumbing, he poked a hole in a chair and used it as a toilet.  Bottles he used for urination lay scattered around the space.

Taking down such a massive structure is no easy task, yet Smith predicts that his team of about 20 men will demolish it in a mere three months.  The first task is to gut the interior and salvage anything of value. Unusable wood components will be shredded into mulch, and sheetrock pulverized into gypsum fertilizer. The 10-inch veneer of exterior granite, as well as the gargoyles, cornices, and window tracery, will be sold to architectural salvage dealers, who have found a brisk market for such elegant pieces of history.  Men wielding sledgehammers and a swinging wrecking ball will then knock down the brick-and-masonry structural walls.

Smith knows he has a job to do and that economically the building is probably beyond saving.  Yet he still regrets its destruction.  “It’s a shame to see a building like that torn down,” he said. “You take a school hat’s been around for 110 years and then replace it with a Save-A-Lot, Burger King or a sneaker store. Change is necessary, but it would be nice if there was a better way to preserve structures like that. Even if you tried to save a portion of the building and preserve the history of the site.”

Note: to read Ken Finkel’s 2011 post about the former Northeast Manual Training (Thomas Edison) High School, click here.

To about read Steven Ujifusa’s May visit to the William S. Shoemaker Middle School in West Philadelphia, click here.


The burned-out shell of the former Northeast Manual Training High School. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Stair tower. The railing have been removed. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.


The rubble-filled courtyard. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Auditorium vestibule, with plaster groin vaults. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Exterior bas-relief above the south entrance to the high school, part of an Art Deco addition. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Auditorium. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Gothic buttresses and windows. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

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Standing His Ground: Abraham Lincoln in Philadelphia

President-elect Abraham Lincoln raising flag in front of Independence Hall in honor of admission of Kansas to the Union, February 22, 1861. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards.

Weeks after Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on November 6, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. And in the months before his inauguration in Washington, D.C. in March, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana followed. Jefferson Davis would be elected and inaugurated as the Provisional President of the Confederacy.

A burdened Lincoln timed his trip to the Capital, and to his presidency, with a visit to Philadelphia on Washington’s birthday in 1861. At Independence Hall, he raised a flag with 34 stars, one for each recognized state plus a new one for the recently-admitted Kansas. And as he raised the flag that cold February day, Lincoln spoke of the nation’s dire situation:

“I am invited and called before you to participate in raising above Independence Hall the flag of our country, with an additional star upon it. I propose to say that when that flag was originally raised here it had but thirteen stars. . . . under the blessing of God, each additional star added to that flag has given additional prosperity and happiness to this country until it has advanced to its present condition; and its welfare in the future, as well as in the past, is in your hands. . . . I think we may promise ourselves that not only the new star placed upon that flag shall be permitted to remain there to our permanent prosperity for years to come, but additional ones shall from time to time be placed there . . .”

During his lifetime, Lincoln visited Philadelphia four times. And this visit on February 21-22, 1861 was by far the most meaningful. He arrived from New York via Newark and Trenton about 4PM on the 21st to stay at the new Continental Hotel at 9th and Chestnut Streets. There he talked with advisers about the rising tensions and learned of a newly-discovered assassination plot. The following morning, Lincoln went to Independence Hall to ceremoniously raise the nation’s new flag. He hadn’t prepared a speech but spoke to the issues of the day, and of his own demise:

“I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. … in my hands is the task of restoring peace to the present distracted condition of the country. …  all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated and were given to the world from this hall. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. … It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

Lincoln’s Funeral Procession on South Broad Street, April 22, 1865. (Credit: The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Then Lincoln spoke clearly of the coming war:

“Now, in my view of the present aspect of affairs, there need be no bloodshed and war. There is no necessity for it. I am not in favor of such a course, and I may say, in advance, that there will be no bloodshed unless it be forced upon the Government, and then it will be compelled to act in self-defense.”

Lincoln turned to go to the platform outside on Chestnut Street, raised the 34-star flag and left for Washington, D.C. and his presidency. Before he arrived, Texas had voted to approve secession. Five weeks after his inauguration, Southern forces bombarded and captured Fort Sumter. The Civil War was underway.

Lincoln visited Philadelphia one more time—to support fundraising efforts for Army Hospitals in June, 1864. In another year, the assassinated President’s remains would ceremoniously, somberly return to Independence Hall to lay in state, before a final trip to Springfield, Illinois.

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