A More Balanced History of Rittenhouse Square

Caption (PhillyHistory.org)

1724 Walnut Street, built for George W. Edwards ca. 1850. Occupied in 1864 by French consul Sir Charles Edward Keith Kortright and Lady Kortright. Subsequently home to the Italian consul to Philadelphia Count Goffredo Galli and Countess Galli (Clara Roberts) and in 1898 by the William Weightman family. Demolished in 1929. Photographed ca. 1865. (PhillyHistory.org)

PhillyVoice called the other day with a burning PhillyHistory question: “When did Rittenhouse Square get its ritzy rep?” And always willing to help out, I explained how the place managed to become and remain “Philadelphia’s most fashionable neighborhood.” Brandon Baker’s fine column (read it here) focuses on the city’s who’s who: the wasp-y aristocratic types, their friends and allies who populated the square and nearby streets with mansions during the second half of the 19th century.

Now there really are two ways to pick apart that question. One is to respond the way I did, something that’s been done repeatedly, in book after book, naming names and ogling great fortunes, grand mansions and lavish weddings. Who can resist the temptation of drawing juicy quotes from Nathaniel Burt’s The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy? And there’s more. We could have turned to Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class where Digby Baltzell analysed the “Victorian gentry” and their “handsome mansions” surrounding the Square.

That’s one way to tell the tale. And while it’s not wrong, it is one sided. Balance, imagined as an afterthought (the French call it L’esprit de l’escalier) was sorely missing. And it would have been supplied by Dennis Clark’s essay on Rittenhouse the nearby companion neighborhood once called “Ramcat,” just to the southwest of the Square.

“It is difficult for Americans today to imagine the grandeur of the elite life-style of a Rittenhouse Square at the end of the nineteenth century,” wrote Clark. “The class culture of such neighborhoods created what amounted to a fairyland of elegance and display protected by Victorian codes of civility and discrimination. These enclaves of privilege combined with architectural eclecticism with passionate embellishment, lavish furnishings, and an adoration of English upper-class family etiquette. Flamboyant architects like Frank Furness and Theophilus Chandler designed edifices for an almost hysterical display of wealth—here a mansion for the sugar baron James Scott, there a Renaissance palace for Mrs. Sarah Drexel Fell. The structures on the square became wildly adorned shrines to aggressive vanity and the obsessive flaunting of riches.”

“But,” Clark continues, “an aristocratic way of life requires much more than money and manners if it is to remain in ascendancy. It demands presumptions of superiority, the exercise of assured authority, and the collaboration of a servant class to do the thousands of jobs necessary to guarantee an elaborate system of personal comforts and princely appointments. … The working people who served were often from such impoverished backgrounds that they had no choice but to serve, and some may even have been beguiled into servility by the mere thought of association with the elegance which they labored to support.”

“In the 1880s, Rittenhouse Square was the scene of an interdependent relationship between rich and poor.” And so Clark fills in the back story: “The servants required to prepare and serve the meals, shop, clean the household, do the laundry, and care for all the details of the privileged establishments on Rittenhouse Square were drawn for the most part from the South Philadelphia Irish community. After 1850, ‘Irish’ in Philadelphia became virtually synonymous with servant.  According to the United States census of 1870, there were 24,108 domestic servants in the city of whom 10,044 were born in Ireland.  Among the remainder a large portion were of Irish parentage.”

“The great households of Rittenhouse Square were caught in a social dilemma. It was impossible to pursue the extravagant life-style of mannered elegance and luxury without servants, but those most readily available were from a group alien in outlook, habits and background. Nevertheless, wealth had to make the best of it and be served by such poor as there were. …  For the Irish a similar ambiguity characterized their connection with Rittenhouse Square. It was demeaning for them to be forced to serve families whose wealth was founded upon notoriously exploitative mills, factories, and railroads. … Many a railroad pick-and-shovel man looked with deeply mixed feelings upon his daughters’ employment in the great houses of men whose railroads had meant for him a lifetime of miserable toil.”

There you have it. Upstairs and downstairs.

Clark’s chapter appeared in the aptly titled book: The Divided Metropolis. Yes, history is always so much better when it reflects reality—complicated, conflicted and contested as it inevitably is.

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The Curious “Afterlife” of the Chicago World’s Fair

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The Commercial Museum in 1956, by then renamed the Civi Center Museum, at 34th and Convention Avenue.

Chicago’s “World’s Columbian Exposition” closed its doors in October 1893 . Its magnificent neoclassical buildings, designed by McKim Mead and White and recently made infamous in Erik Larson’s narrative history The Devil in the White City, quickly vanished.  For all its grandeur, the “White City” was a mirage of plaster and lathe. For a few brief months, its echoing halls and grand boulevards hosted over 27 million visitors, who marveled at paintings, industrial machinery, locomotives, and other curiosities — such as a replica of a Viking ship and prototype of the zipper.

And then there was the Midway Plaisance, which featured crowd-pleasing attractions such as a 263 foot high Ferris wheel, belly dancers, and people from around the world displayed in mock native “villages.”

Despite its brief life, most of the Columbian Exposition’s contents lived on, virtually undivided and intact, for nearly a century, halfway across the country.  One of the attendees was a University of Pennsylvania botanist named William P. Wilson, became obsessed with the idea of a “permanent world’s exposition” that would allow America to continue to display its manufacturing and industrial prowess to the world.  Yet to realize his dream, Wilson needed the ear of someone with power and money.

He found his man in Dr. William Pepper, the recently retired provost of the University of Pennsylvania.  A respect surgeon possessing a family fortune made in brewing and real estate, Pepper had spent the previous decade raising money to expand the University’s faculty and campus.  Philadelphia’s elite knew that the good doctor was a master fund-raiser.  His most recent pet project was the University of Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, located at 34th and South Streets in a hulking Byzantine palace designed by Wilson Eyre Jr.

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The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 33rd and South streets, March 16, 1961.

With massive resources and powerful connections at his disposal, Pepper commanded Wilson to purchase most of the exhibits from the Chicago exposition and ship them by train to Philadelphia.  After several years in a temporary structure, in 1897 the collections of the so-called Philadelphia Commercial Museum moved into a grand neoclassical home located cheek-by-jowl with the University Museum and Franklin Field.  Its main facade bore a striking resemblance to the one of the Louvre in Paris. Although fronted by a green lawn, it was only a stone’s throw away from the chuffing, screeching trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  In the tradition of its predecessor, the Commercial Museum contained exhibits that ranked various civilizations in terms of technology and progress.

Wilson, like many American scientists of his time, was fascinated by eugenics and Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of “survival of the fittest.”  For example, Wilson got a three-year leave of absence from the University to organize and mount a “living” exhibition of 1,200 Filipinos in France.  The timing of this exhibition of “human curiosities” was no mere coincidence.  For the past decade, America had been waging a bloody war against Philippine rebels desiring self-government.  The Philippines–like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam–had been handed over to America by Spain following its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1897.  Cuba was given its independence–albeit with a government friendly to US interests–and Puerto Rico became a territory.  The Philippines, however, was given no such special status.  American imperialists viewed the Filipinos as racially inferior and hence incapable of self-government.  In the ensuing guerrilla war, an estimated 250,000 Filipinos died before the rebellion was put down.


Cartoon by Charles L. Bartholomew, July 1898, Minneapolis Journal. Source: GlobalResearch.ca

Such imperialist behavior prompted outrage by many prominent American businessmen and intellectuals.  Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had fled the British class system in his native Scotland, wrote in 1898 that if America took overseas possessions, then it was in danger of losing its founding republican goals forever:

This drain upon the resources of these countries has become a necessity from their respective positions, largely as graspers for foreign possessions. The United States to-day, happily, has no such necessity, her neighbors being powerless against her, since her possessions are concentrated and her power is one solid mass.

His friend and American Anti-Imperialist League colleague Mark Twain argued that it was the obligation of the United States to set the Filipinos free, and that making them a part of a new American “empire” was hypocrisy:

It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.


Commercial Museum founder Dr. William Wilson. Source: Independence Seaport Museum.

As for the Commercial Museum, it never lived up to its promise of making Philadelphia a center of international commerce.  After Wilson’s death in 1926, its prestige and revenues steadily declined.  By the 1930s, it was completely overshadowed by the Art Deco mass of the Civic Center.  It 2004, after being open only to groups of touring schoolchildren, the deteriorating structure was demolished and replaced by an expansion to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Its collections, the last remnants of the “Great White City,” were disbursed to other Philadelphia institutions such as the Mutter Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Free Library, and the Independence Seaport Museum.

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Proposed alterations to the Commercial Museum by architect Oscar Stonorov, 1956.


Andrew Carnegie, “Distant Possessions: The Parting of the Ways,” North American Review, August 1898, https://web.viu.ca/davies/H324War/Carnegie.Distant.1898.htm

“The Rise and Fall of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum,” Independence Seaport Museum, http://www.phillyseaport.org/rise-fall-philadelphia-commercial-museum, accessed December 27, 2015.

“Midway Plaisance Park,” Chicago Parks District, http://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/Midway-Plaisance-Park/, accessed December 27, 2015.

Mark Twain, The New York Herald, October 15, 1900, http://loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html, accessed December 27, 2015.

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Waiting for the Mummer Crowds


City Hall Spectators ‘ Stand – North Side Looking West, December 29, 1949. Gaffredo F. Aristarco and Charles J. Bender, Photographers (PhillyHistory.org)

Mummery took a fortuitous step in 1949 when weather forced postponement of the New Year’s Day parade. A week later, on Saturday January 8, Nature and Public collaborated to produce the best turnout ever. An estimated 2 million people, double the million celebrants from previous years, came out and lined Broad Street.

As 1950 rolled around, most Philadelphians only dreamed of enjoying the parade from the temporary bleachers surrounding City Hall.

Was good weather and willing citizenry enough to double the size of the crowd in 1949? A close look at contemporary color footage shows plenty of sunshine and packed sidewalks, but no way to guess the size of the crowd that stretched for miles and lasted all day long. For that, we turn to social scientists who practice the finely-honed art of crowd estimation.

They have a name for it. The estimate of 1949 was a SWAG, a “stupid wild-ass guess.”

There are SWAGs almost no one bothers to challenge, and so we live with them. The Boston World Series parade in 2004 (2 million) or the Chicago Stanley Cup parade in 2013 (3 million). In 1949, no one in Philadelphia seemed to worry that two million was about the same as the city’s entire population (in 1950, the census counted 2,071,605). Nor would they question the logic that two million people require a Broad Street many times longer to accommodate a crowd that size. Estimated crowd sizes at parades and celebrations are rarely contested.

Not so with political rallies and protests. Remember the controversial discrepancy in the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C.?  Organizers estimated that crowd between 1.5 and 2 million people; police put the number at 400,000. Controversy-fueled revised estimates moved the needle up to 837,000—with a twenty percent margin of error.

Ah, science.

Mummers parade numbers were accepted without question, except for one memorable case in 1994. Police estimates came in at a paltry 22,000, generating a SWAG that sent shock waves up and down Broad Street. City Hall’s bleachers alone were capable of accommodating nearly that many attendees, argued one official. Twenty-two thousand was about a fifth of the 100,000 estimated the previous two years and less than a fifteenth of the 350,000 of 1991.  “That report has people going crazy,” commented parade grand marshal David L. Cohen. “A ridiculous figure,” declared then City Councilman and Mummer Jim Kenney, a member of the Jokers New Years Association.

Twenty-two thousand—a figure subsequently revised to 70,000—was even lower than the estimate from 1964, perhaps the Mummers’ poorest attended year—the year traditional blackface Mummery was banned. Crowds stayed away in droves, according to The New York Times, after learning about what testimony offered to a three-judge Common Pleas Court considering the case. Police Commissioner Howard R. Leary spoke about the possibility of “physical violence” and “serious upheaval” as a result of “an active recruiting program being conducted in Harlem to come here and protest.” Leary informed the court that the local chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had told him “blood would spill in the streets” if the practice of blackface continued. A former State Supreme Court Justice testified about “the possibility of widespread disorder and rioting.” And the acting director of the Commission on Human Relations confirmed “the possibility of a physical clash and its spreading is very real and very grave.”

The court granted not one, but two injunctions, one banning blackface and another prohibiting picketing by civil rights groups. “Three thousand policemen, more than half of the department’s street-duty personnel, lined the four-mile route.”  Police buses interspersed with string bands and comic divisions made for a tense and relatively muted Broad Street as parade regulars chose to watch the nationally televised broadcast from home. “Instead of the usual million,” reported the Associated Press in a story headlined “No Blackfaces Or Incidents, But Mummers Crowd Small,” attendance estimates came in as low as 35,000.

And then, blackface-free, Mummers parades bounced back to familiar levels: 1 million in 1965; 1.3 million in 1966 and 1.7 million in 1967.

But who’s counting?

(Sources Include: John Woestendiek, “A Mummers Flap Over Crowd Size The First Police Figure, 22,000, Didn’t Sit Well. It Was Adjusted Upward,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1994; Ellen Gray, “When Cops Size Up Mummers Crowd, They Man The Barricades,” The Philadelphia Daily News, January 4, 1994; William G. Weart, “Blackface is Barred In Mummers Parade,” The New York Times, January 3, 1964 and “Mummers March Without Incident,” The New York Times, January 5, 1964.)

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Clarence Siegel’s Garden Court: The Rowhouse Meets the Automobile


1929 Hudson advertisement.

By the 1920s, American city planners and developers were forced to confront the exploding popularity of the automobile. Automobile ownership tripled from 8 million in 1920 to 23 million by the close of the decade. The price of a Model T had fallen to a mere $260 for an open touring car, or the equivalent of about $10,000 for a comparable machine today. In the mean time, somewhat fancier marques such as Hudson, Nash, and Oldsmobile offered cars with more comfort and style than the “flivver” to a burgeoning postwar middle class.  Many of these cars, painted in alluring colors and equipped with powerful straight six or straight eight engines, were sold to consumers by the newly-devised installment plan.   This mass-purchase of depreciating assets on credit would lead to dire economic consequences in 1929.

Although the average Philadelphian still took the trolley or rode the Market Street Elevated to work in the mid-1920s, the mass of parked cars on city streets, especially in residential areas, was reaching a crisis point.  The very affluent escaped the dirt, noise, and congestion of Philadelphia to the Main Line suburbs, where there was plenty of space to park their Packards and Cadillacs.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkqz3lpUBp0&w=480&h=360]
Congestion, chaos, and near-misses in 1920s New York City and Los Angeles, with a cameo of Babe Ruth in a runaway Ford Model T taxicab. Traffic lights and cops were few and far between, leading to complete anarchy.

As a trolley-car based neighborhood, West Philadelphia was not so fortunate. Long the leafier alternative to Center City living for middle-class commuters, this part of town saw its population growth slow and then stagnate. Between 1910 and 1920, West Philadelphia’s population skyrocketed by 110,000 residents, its greatest increase ever.  The residents, as Samuel Bass Warner Jr observed in The Private City, were, “Negroes who had achieved a steady living, Jews and Italians, who having prospered a little, moved out of the south Philadelphia ghettos,” as well as “the rest mass of Irish and old-stock Americans who manned the stores and offices of downtown.”

During the 1920s, however, it grew only by 50,000, leveling off at 411,000 (out of a city of 2 million people).  Despite the size of its houses and strength of its middle class population, many saw the area as dowdy and dull. Warner himself was quite qualified about the district: “West Philadelphia in the 1920s was not a pretty place, but it offered its residents a narrow range of sold benefits: converted rooms in big old houses, brand-new efficiency apartments, solid twins with bay windows and ample porches, a few blocks of expensive detached houses, and miles upon miles of row-house domesticity.”

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Empty land at the intersection of 46th Street and Osage Avenue, looking west, photographed on January 14, 1913. The future site of Garden Court.

One developer, Clarence Siegel, felt the need to create something truly special in West Philadelphia during this transitional period.  He also saw an opportunity to let Philadelphia homebuyers have their cake and eat it too when it came to the car and the row house.   In 1919, he purchased a large tract undeveloped land in West Philadelphia and announced plans for a new development called “Garden Court.”   The land had previously belonged to  heavy hitters Eli Kirk Price and Anthony J. Drexel, and had been largely bypassed by the trolley lines.  Garden Court would be bounded by 46th Street to the east, 52th Street to the west, Cedar Avenue to the south, and Spruce Street to the north.

Siegel’s “Garden Court” development had three components: high-rise luxury apartments on its northern edge (Garden Court Apartments and Garden Court Plaza), a varied selection of semi-attached and attached dwellings its core, and several almost mansion-sized detached homes.  The apartment towers boasted street-level stores and restaurants, as well as an indoor swimming pool and a garage.  The single-family houses, designed by architect John Coneys,  reflected a more informal aesthetic than the big, rather gloomy Victorian twins built a decade earlier: Tudor facades, enclosed sunporches in front, and an absence of dark wood paneling and stained glass windows.  In the rear of these houses were alleys and discreet individual garages. This final feature gave Garden Court, in the words of architectural historian George Thomas, “the only provision of any urban neighborhood for the car, and were so advertised itself in the period newspapers.”

With its easy access to transportation (Market Street Elevated and the Baltimore Avenue trolley lines), proximity to West Philadelphia High School, garages, and stylish housing for a wide spectrum of incomes, Garden Court became immensely popular for upwardly mobile Philadelphians, and was described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as, “the most exclusive residential locale in West Philadelphia,” providing “modern apartments of magnitude, comfort, and luxury, surrounded by beautiful homes.”

One of the semi-detached homes in Clarence Siegel’s “Garden Court.” Source: Wikipedia.com

The area remained relatively stable during the Great Depression, even as homes in surrounding developments were subdivided or neglected.   In his historical nomination form for the Garden Court Historic District, Thomas wrote of Siegel: “few Philadelphia developers dared to provide such variety, but the net effect seems to have been a cause of the long-term success of Garden Court.”

Today, Garden Court remains a highly desirable neighborhood, is racially diverse, and almost completely architecturally intact.  It also provides an interesting alternative glimpse of what mass-suburbanization could have been after World War II: absent of ranch houses, expressways, carports, and strip malls.


George Thomas, “Garden Court Historic District” (PDF). National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1984.

Samuel Bass Warner Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Growth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), p.194.

“The Age of the Automobile,” USHistory.org, http://www.ushistory.org/us/46a.asp, accessed December 23, 2015.

Untitled manuscript on West Philadelphia by Robert Katz, provided by Peter A. Evans to author, pp. 4-5.

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William Rush and What’s Left of the Nymph

Head of Leda From "Leda and the Swan," William Rush, sculptor. Photographed February 20, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

Head of Leda From “Leda and the Swan,” [William Rush, sculptor, 1809]. Photographed February 20, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

This wooden head is all that remains of William Rush’s carved sculpture from 1809. That standing, life-sized “Nymph,” Philadelphia’s first free-standing piece of public art, held aloft a marsh bird, a bittern, which spouted a column of Schuylkill water. Originally, the sculpture and its fountain stood in front of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s pump house at Center Square. For some time now, that’s been the site of the courtyard at Philadelphia City Hall.

Rush started carving figureheads for ships in the 1780s and soon his repertoire included luminaries and legends: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Voltaire, Hercules, allegories of Peace, Liberty, and the “Genius of the United States.” And, of course, monumental eagles.

His earliest public sculptures, Comedy and Tragedy, adorned niches on the façade of Chestnut Street Theatre. “In the execution of this work, read a notice in the American Daily Advertiser on April 2, 1808, “the genius of the artist is truly pourtrayed. He has done himself honor, and added to that of his country.”

In 1812, Rush carved a seven-foot-tall allegory of Wisdom. He added Justice twelve years later, and the pair topped off the arch spanning Chestnut at Independence Hall for the triumphal return visit of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French General essential for Washington’s win in the Revolution. Rush also carved a full-length figure of The Father of his Country.

The sculptor’s self-portrait in 1822 has him draped with boughs of pine. Except they are made of terra cotta. It’s on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

In 1825, Rush again allegorized river water with the Schuylkill Chained and Schuylkill Freed for the waterworks at Fairmount.

The Nymph and Bittern statue is often misidentified as the classical figure of Leda and the Swan. (A little background on that: Zeus admired Leda and transformed himself into a swan and seduced her. That union produced Helen of Troy, Clytaemnestra and the twins Castor and Pollux.) A good story, but that bittern is no Zeus. 


Rush’s Nymph and Bittern, fountain with Pumphouse at Center Square, (detail) ca. 1828 (PhillyHistory.org)

Back on earth in Philadelphia, according to Vanuxem family tradition, “the lovely and socially prominent Louisa Vanuxem (1782-1874),” modeled for Rush. Her father, the influential merchant James Vanuxem, served as chairman of the Watering Committee when Rush received the commission.

Thomas Eakins dearly wanted to believe that Louisa Vanuxem posed for Rush in the nude. Repeatedly, he depicted the scene he imagined. Those paintings now hang in museums far and wide. Eakins also produced his own sculptural studies of Miss Vanuxem.

The popularity of the young, lithe, barely-clad female figure was undisputed, and became legendary. In addition to depictions in prints and paintings, the rowdy members of the Fairmount Fire Company adopted her image as a logo. They wore it proudly on their ceremonial hats.

In 1872, the City of Philadelphia paid  Robert Wood & Co. $1,200 to cast in bronze Rush’s wood original. That figure was then reinstalled in the center of a fountain basin at the Fairmount Water Works. Today it is safely inside at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

By the early 20th century, having almost totally disintegrated, the wooden nymph was moved inside at the Water Works. According to Linda Bantel, “shortly thereafter, John S. Wurts…a great-great nephew of Louisa Vanuxem, salvaged from the fragmentary remains the head and part of the bittern.” That head, illustrated above in a photograph of 1918, was subsequently repainted. Today it is on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

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The Ginkgo Tree of Chestnutwold

The present day Penn Alexander School was once the site of one of West Philadelphia’s great estates: Chestnutwold, built by Clarence H. Clark.

In its time, Clark’s banking concern was one of the most powerful in the nation. And like many businesses in Philadelphia, it was a family affair. Clarence Clark was the son of banker Enoch White Clark, founder of the firm. Enoch Clark was a New England transplant to Philadelphia, a native of Providence, Rhode Island who had made his first fortune underwriting and distributing government securities. In the absence of a national bank–the Second Bank of the United States imploded in 1836 after the machinations of President Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle– opportunists like Clark stepped in to fill the gap. The senior Clark was similar to the Austrian immigrant and former portrait painter Francis Martin Drexel, in that he established an American investment house on par with the mighty banks of Europe, such as Rothschild & Company and Baring Brothers. Clark, like Drexel, also put Philadelphia on the map as a center of American finance.

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Twin houses fronting Clark Park at 4337-4339 Baltimore Avenue, most likely built by the Clark Estate in the 1890s. Photo dated August 24, 1951.

The house of E.W. Clark & Company thrived in the mid-19th century, establishing branches in other American cities. After Enoch Clark’s death in 1854 due to complications from nicotine poisoning (heavy smoking was a stress relief for financiers then as now), his son Clarence took the reins of E.W. Clark & Company and expanded its financial activities into railroads and real estate.  He also was one of the principal backers of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  Naturally, he established the Centennial National Bank (in a handsome Frank Furness designed building) near the railroad station at 30th and Market Street, where millions of fairgoers arrived over the course of several months.   According to a January 22, 1876 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the bank’s purpose was to be the “financial agent of the board at the [Centennial] Exhibition, receiving and accounting for daily receipts, changing foreign moneys into current funds, etc.” In this era before ATMs and electronic bank transfers, it was the perfect place for tourists to deposit their cash during their stay in the Quaker City.  The building survives as the Paul Peck Student Center at Drexel University.

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Centennial National Bank, designed by Frank Furness and commissioned by Clarence H. Clark in 1876. 32nd and Market Street, May 17, 1931.

Like his fellow second generation banking heir Anthony Drexel, Clark eschewed Rittenhouse Square for pastoral but not especially fashionable West Philadelphia.  And like Drexel, Clark decided to shape the area around his house by investing in it.  He purchased tracts of empty farmland, filling with middle and upper-middle class row houses as the trolley lines expanded westward from Center City.  These developments included the distinctive “professors’  row”  on St. Mark’s Square and the flamboyant set of Queen Anne houses on the 4200 block of Spruce.

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“Chestnutwold,” the estate of Clarence H. Clark at 4200 Locust Street, Philadelphia, c.1900. Source: King’s Views of Philadelphia

In the 1860s, Clarence Clark built his dream house, Chestnutwold,  on a  walled lot bounded by 42nd, 43rd, Locust, and Spruce streets.   The  main house, a 34 room brownstone Italianate palace, cost a staggering $300,000, or between $5-7 million in today’s money.  Its interior boasted six foot high mahogany paneling in its principal rooms, stained glass windows, and hand-painted Japanese wall paper that was perhaps inspired by what Clark saw at the Japanese Bazaar at the 1876 Centennial.  A stained glass window in the 125 foot long library bore a quote by Goethe: “Like a star that maketh not haste, that taketh not rest; be each one fulfilling his God-given hest.”


Clarence H. Clark (1833-1906). Source: King’s Views of Philadelphia, 1902.

An inveterate collector, Clark imported the estate’s iron gates from France, and planted a rare Chinese ginkgo biloba tree on the grounds.  As an added bonus, Clark opened a portion of his estate to the public for strolling…and admiration. To provide additional green space for his neighbors, Clark donated the land formerly occupied by the Civil War era Satterlee Hospital to the City of Philadelphia as a public park, as well as a bronze statue of author Charles Dickens. A representation of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop sat by his knee.

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The Clarence H. Clark Jr. house at 4200 Spruce, c.1980.

Chestnutwold proved as fleeting as it was magnificent.  Clarence Clark died in 1906, leaving the huge house vacant.   Although his son Clarence Clark Jr. built a fine house at 4200 Spruce just outside the gates of the compound in the early 1880s, the Clark heirs  decamped from West Philadelphia to the more fashionable suburbs of Germantown and Chestnut Hill. Ten years later, wreckers tore the Chestnutwold mansion down.   The grounds, however, remained intact.  The neo-Gothic structures of the Philadelphia Divinity School, designed by Zantzinger, Borie and Medary, rose on the site in the mid-1920s.   After the divinity school closed in the 1970s, the old Clark estate sat mostly vacant until the completion of the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School in 2001. The school thrives to this day, educating a diverse group of children from the neighborhood Clarence Clark developed a over a century ago.

The Philadelphia Divinity School, constructed in the 1920s.  4201-4245 Spruce Street, 1978.

The Philadelphia Divinity School, constructed in the 1920s. 4201-4245 Spruce Street, 1978.

Of the original Chestnutwold, only the pair of French iron gates at the northeast corner of the four square block lot remain today.  It is unknown if the original ginkgo tree survives on the grounds of the Penn Alexander School, but this species of tree is now ubiquitous on Philadelphia’s streets, as are its stinky fruits.


Engraving of the ginkgo tree. Source: Pinterest.com

Note: for more on the Clark Park/Spruce Hill neighborhood on Philadelphia, click here for “West Philadelphia: A Suburb in a City,” dated June 28, 2010. 


Arnold Lewis, James Turner, and Steven McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), p.46.

“Magnificent  Structure in West Philadelphia Undergoing Demolition by Wrecking Crew,” The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, April 7, 1916. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045211/1916-04-07/ed-1/seq-9/#date1=1836&index=19&rows=20&words=Clark+Park&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=Pennsylvania&date2=1922&proxtext=%22clark+park%22&y=-221&x=-932&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1, accessed December 9, 2015.

“Centennial National Bank,” http://www.brynmawr.edu/iconog/uphp/AABN/centbank/centbank.html, accessed December 9, 2015.

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The Butler Family Feud (Part III)

"Grumblethorpe," the Wister family home at 5267 Germantown Avenue, built by Owen's ancestor John Wister in the 1740s.

“Grumblethorpe,” the Wister family home at 5267 Germantown Avenue, built by Owen’s ancestor John Wister in the 1740s.

Part I and Part II

The Virginian was a tremendous success, selling 1.5 million copies during Wister’s lifetime, and became a template for countless Western novels and movies to follow.

Despite his newfound fame, Wister found subsequent literary success elusive. Like most authors, he did not want to become a one-hit wonder. Once he was back in Philadelphia–a city that he personally despised but never left–he probably let his insecurities and melancholia get the better of him.

Especially when grappling with the ghosts of his Butler ancestors.

His next book, Lady Baltimore of 1906, was an novel about South Carolina, the family seat of Wister’s Butler ancestors.  Named after a type of cake featured in the book, Lady Baltimore was Wister’s attempt at social history, but many critics found that the narrative descended into social snobbery.  Unlike The Virginian, there was comparatively little adventure and action. While the unnamed Wyoming cowboy was stoic and chivalric in his quest to win the hand of school teacher Molly Wood, the protagonist in Lady Baltimore –a Yankee named Augustus–was a comparatively insipid character on a rather different mission: to find royal lineage in his family, at the request of his imperious Aunt Carola back in New York.  Along the way, Augustus was smitten by Eliza La Heu of Kings Port (a stand-in for Charleston). A member of the plantation gentry, the effervescently beautiful Eliza had been reduced to working at a store, but her aristocratic manners (and empty bank account) stood in stark contrast to Gilded Age nouveau riche New Yorkers, exemplified by the character Hortense Rieppe (the consummate vulgarian in Wister’s plot).

Owen Wister at Yellowstone Park, Wyoming in the 1890s.  Source: Wyohistory.org.

Owen Wister at Yellowstone Park, Wyoming in the 1890s. Source: Wyohistory.org.

Yet it was Wister’s treatment of race in Lady Baltimore that shocked many readers of the day, even in the pre-Civil Rights era.  In Wister’s plot, the ultimate insult was that the South Carolinian John Mayrant, described by a contemporary reviewer from The Terre Haute Saturday Spectator as a “fine type of a thoroughbred, high-minded, proud southern young fellow,” has to work under an African-American boss at the customs house.   Mayrant and his relatives are unable to bear this insult to their dignity, and as a result, the reviewer continues, Mayrant must resign from his post, “without raising a scene, if he is true to his instincts as a southerner and a gentleman.”

President Theodore Roosevelt read Lady Baltimore and was reluctant to criticize his friend in public.  As a progressive at home and an imperialist abroad, Roosevelt had Social Darwinist views of his own, quite common among men of his class. The early 1900s was also a nadir in American race relations. The Republicans were still the party of Lincoln and hence of most African-Americans, but in the years since Union troops withdrew from the former Confederacy in 1877, Southern politicians did everything in their power to disenfranchise black voters and restore the plantation system in all but name. After reading his friend’s latest literary effort, the president privately wrote Wister to express admiration for his portrayal of Southern womanhood (after all, Roosevelt’s mother was the Southern belle Martha “Mitty” Bulloch, who refused to let her husband Theodore Roosevelt Sr. fight in the Union Army) and also to scold him for the novel’s descriptions of Northerners (“swine devils”) and African-Americans (“some of the laziest and dirtiest monkeys where we live”).

One chapter in particular, “The Girl Behind the Counter II,” must have irked the publicity-conscious president. In it, Eliza La Heu rants to Augustus about how the President of the United States (unnamed, but Theodore Roosevelt in 1906) had invited a black man (in real life, Booker T. Washington) to the White House for a formal dinner.  The actual dinner, which took place in October 1901, was controversial among both blacks and whites at the time.  One white Southern newspaper editor vented that it was, “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Senator Ben Tillman of Lady Baltimore’s South Carolina used even more violent language upon hearing of the dinner, threatening the deaths of a thousand blacks in the South…so that they would “learn their place again.”

Publication announcement for "Lady Baltimore," London 1906.

Publication announcement for “Lady Baltimore,” London 1906.

At the same time, many African-Americans activists felt that Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, was an accommodationist stooge. Harvard graduate William Monroe Trotter, who in a decade would famously confront another president (Woodrow Wilson) about his re-segregation of the US civil service, wrote of Washington:  “a hypocrite who supports social segregation between blacks and whites while he himself dines at the White House.”

The matter became a sore subject for President Roosevelt, who never spoke of the dinner publicly afterward. Yet he declared that, “I’ll not lose my self-respect by fearing to have a man like Booker T. Washington to dinner, even if it costs me every political friend I’ve got.”

Now, five years later, Owen Wister had brought up the whole affair again– from the Southern point-of-view–in a dialogue between Augustus and Eliza La Heu:

If you mean that a gentleman cannot invite any respectable member of any race he pleases to dine privately in his house–‘  

‘His house,’ she was glowing now with it. ‘I think he is—I think he is–to have one of them–and even if he likes it, not to remember–I cannot speak about him!’ she wound up; ‘I should say unbecoming things.’ She had walked out, during these words, form behind the counter, and as she stood there in the middle of the long room you might have thought she was about to lead a cavalry charge.  Then, admirably, she put it all under, and spoke on with perfect self-control. ‘Why, can’t somebody explain to him? If I knew him, I would go to him myself, and I would say, ‘Mr. President, we need not discuss our different tastes as to dinner company. Nor need we discuss how much you benefit the colored race by an act which makes every member of it immediately think that he is fit to dine with any kind in the world. But you are staying in a house which is partly our house, ours, the South’s, for we, too, pay taxes, you know. And since you also know our deep feeling– you may even call it a prejudice, if it so pleases you–do you not think that, so long as you are residing in that house, you should not gratuitously shock our deep feeling?’  She swept a magnificent low curtsy at the air.

All a besotted Augustus could do was gush admiringly: “By Jove, Miss La Heu, you put it so that it’s rather hard to answer!”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtnOG7LPwjA&w=640&h=360]
Booker T. Washington meets President Roosevelt. PBS documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”

Small wonder that the sitting President of the United States took the time to write a 5,000 word letter of “advice” to Wister regarding this book.

For the Butler-Wister clan, it was a historical irony indeed. Wister’s own grandmother Fanny Kemble–who had fearlessly excoriated the slave system half a century earlier in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839–would probably have been horrified to read Lady Baltimore.  To her, no one could have been more of a “swine-devil” than her slaveholding, libertine husband Pierce Butler II, who lived high on the hog from the unpaid labor of others.

Lady Baltimore sold well, but no where close to the blockbuster figures of The Virginian. Owen Wister himself was never able to muster up the strength to write another major book.  He continued to churn out minor works and articles, often in the paneled cocoon of the Philadelphia Club’s library.  Among them was Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919.

Yet as the 1900s progressed, Theodore Roosevelt grew more progressive and outspoken–lobbying for women’s suffrage and a graduated income tax in his 1912 Bull Moose party presidential run–while his friend Wister– who lived off family money and the royalties from The Virginian–grew ever more gloomy and conservative. One historian speculates that Roosevelt’s criticism of Lady Baltimore, however private, deflated the perpetually insecure Wister’s fragile ego. He toiled away at the manuscript of a novel about Philadelphia that he called Romney, but was never able to finish it.

Perhaps because it was about a subject Owen Wister loved to loathe: his native city.

The city is a shame. They’re proud of it, yet take no care of it. . . . The bad gas, the bad water, the nasty street-cars that tinkle torpidly through streets paved with big cobble-stones all seem to them quite right. . . . Their school buildings are filthy. I heard a teacher who spoke ungrammatically and pronounced like a gutter-snipe teaching the children English. . . . Isn’t it strange that such nice people should tolerate such a nasty state of things?

Before he died in 1938, Wister severed his family’s last ties with the Old South by selling the final remnants of his ancestor Senator Pierce Butler’s Georgia land–for a paltry $25,000.


Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/butler-family, accessed November 18, 2015.

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.385.

Malcolm Bell Jr. Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987),  p.541.

Clarence Lusane, The Black History of the White House.  San Francisco: City Lights Publishers (January 23, 2013), p. 255.

James M. O’Neill, “Owen Wister’s Lost Tale of Phila Published,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 2001, http://articles.philly.com/2001-10-04/news/25305723_1_owen-wister-romney-philadelphia-area-locales, accessed December 1, 2015.

Owen Wister, Lady Baltimore (New York: Hurst and Company, 1906), pp.90-91.

The Terre Haute Saturday Spectator, August 26, 1906.  From Yesterdish.com. http://www.yesterdish.com/2013/12/08/lady-baltimore-cake/, accessed December 1, 2015.



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Chant of the Coal Heavers: “From Six to Six”

Coal Yard. South Side Washington Avenue-East of 11th Street. March 16, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

Coal Yard. South Side Washington Avenue-East of 11th Street. March 16, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

Being a Schuylkill coal-heaver wasn’t much of a life. Bosses hired fresh arrivals from Ireland to unload canal boats at the coal yards. By the hundred, crews manned wheelbarrows on the riverbank for a dollar a day, dawn to dark, six days a week. As many as 14 backbreaking hours during the summer months. One hour break for breakfast, another for supper.

Philadelphia’s appetite for anthracite had mushroomed. More than 6,500 tons passed through the docks in 1825. Nine years later, the coal heavers moved 227,000 tons. As the days grew longer in the Spring of 1835, and the coal-laden canal boats lined up along the Schuylkill’s banks, the heavers appealed for shorter working hours. Laborers in Pittsburgh and Boston had tried, and failed, to get a ten-hour work day. But a few trades in New York City did win their bid.

Now, in the Spring of 1835, Philadelphia’s laborers seized their moment to organize, and to strike.

All 300 coal heavers walked off the job, abandoning 75 coal-laden vessels at the Schuylkill docks. Marching along the riverbank, strikers threatened anyone intent on replacing them. Mayor John Swift visited as many as four times, reported the Inquirer on May 29, and found the strikers “quiet but determined”—and absolutely unwilling to back down.

The “Working Men of Schuylkill” as they called themselves, had an evolving, two-pronged strategy. As they marched, especially at the start of their strike, their leader brandished a sword. When they spoke, their words were impassioned, yet reasonable. In an “Appeal to the Public,” they wished “for nothing but peace, quietness and good order.” But under the “present aristocratic system” that requires work “from daylight to dark,” the coal heavers claimed to be worse off than “galley slaves.” They asked not for more pay, only the guarantee of a twelve hour day—a ten-hour  workday—with a one-hour break for breakfast and dinner.

Pine and Taney Streets, June 11, 1954. (PhillyHistory.org)

Pine and Taney Streets, June 11, 1954. (PhillyHistory.org)

The coal merchants mulled over the strikers demand and presented their counter offer. The dawn-to-dark working hours would remain so would the pay. But laborers would be granted a third hour-long break.

More than a week into their strike, the coal heavers had the entire city’s attention and an increasing amount of sympathy. The humane logic of the “Six to Six” campaign had found a broader following. The coal heavers rejected their bosses counter offer, and on Saturday, June 6th, they marched from the Schuylkill into the very heart of the city—to Independence Square.

Led by fifes and drums, the coal heavers chanted “From Six to Six,” a slogan seen and heard in headlines, on broadsides in store windows, and “scrawled in chalk on fences.” They marched with it on banners, along with another proclaiming “Liberty, Equality and the Rights of Man.”

As the procession closed in on Independence Square, workers from other trades dropped their tools to join in. Still others carried tools as they marched. In the shadow of the State House, speeches called for a ten-hour day in all trades. Philadelphians heard a fiery reading of the “Ten-Hour Circular” from Boston, which argued “the odious, cruel, unjust, and tyrannical system” leaves workers unable to do anything “but to eat and sleep…” Work prevented them from performing “duties…as American Citizens and members of society.”

“We cannot, we will not,” stated the circular, “…be mere slaves to inhuman, insatiable and unpitying avarice.”

“The effect was electric,” wrote John Ferral, an organizer from Manayunk. And in the following days, coal heavers were joined by hod carriers, brick layers, plasterers, carpenters, smiths, sheet iron workers, lamp makers, plumbers, painters and leather dressers—20,000 workers from 20 trades. What started as a strike on the Schuylkill had grown into the first general strike in the city—the first in American history.

“The hum of business is hushed; the coal yards are deserted and shut; and every kind of business is completely at a stand,” reported Niles Register the day of the march. “The militia looks on, the sheriff stands with folded arms,” observed a visitor from France.  “The times,” worried editors at the Philadelphia Gazette, “are completely out of joint.”

But the public had aligned with the strikers. By June 8, the Inquirer reported “the opinion is almost universal that the term of ten hours per day during the summer season, is long enough for any industrious man, whether mechanic or otherwise…” Scharf and Westcott later wrote of the “strong feeling that the demand was just… that the concession ought to be made to toiling men.”

And one by one, the city’s largest employers, from the City of Philadelphia, to Eastern State Penitentiary, to the Commissioners of Southwark, to Cornelius and Son, Lamp and Chandelier Manufacturers, adopted “six-to-six” work days. The coal heavers, and thousands of other advocates of “Six-to-Six,” had won a quick and “bloodless revolution.”

[Sources: From The Inquirer: “The Strike,” May 30, 1835; “Councils,” and “From Six to Six,” June 6, 1835; “From Six to Six,” June 8, 1835; and “From Six to Six,” June 11, 1835. Leonard Bernstein, “The Working People of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the General Strike of 1835,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 74, No. 3 (July, 1950); John R. Commons et al, History of Labour in the United States. Vol. 1 (1921); Philip Yale Nicholson, Labor’s Story in the United States, (Temple University Press, 2004).] 

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The Butler Family Feud (Part II)

A daguerreotype of the unhappy couple: Pierce and Fanny Butler. Southernspaces.org

A daguerreotype of the unhappy couple: Pierce and Fanny Butler. Southernspaces.org

Pierce Butler II did not reform his ways after his wife left him. Rather, he drank, gambled, and philandered his way through his remaining $700,000 fortune. To pay his debts, he sold nearly 500 slaves at auction in 1859.  According to one observer:

On the faces of all [the slaves] was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned . . . some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, . . . their bodies rocking to and fro with a restless motion that was never stilled.

Although the largest sale of human beings in the nation’s history netted Pierce Butler a handsome $300,000 (about $6 million today), he died forgotten and broke after the Civil War.

Fanny Kemble–who reclaimed her maiden name–ultimately got her revenge by publishing Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 in 1864, which became a literary sensation among supporters of the Union cause, especially in her native England. In it, the former master thespian spared nothing in her descriptions of slavery’s horrors, and what exactly the North was up against. Simply reading a Southern newspaper left nothing to the imagination as far as the realities of slavery were concerned, she claimed.  In response to an unnamed apologist for slavery, she wrote:

The Southern newspapers, with their advertisements of negro sales and personal descriptions of fugitive slaves, supply details of misery that it would be difficult for the imagination to exceed. Scorn, derision, insult, menace–the handcuff, the lash–the tearing away of children from parents, of husbands from wives–the wearing trudging in droves along the common highways, the labor of the body, the despair of the mind, the sickness of heart–thees are the realities which belong to the system, and form the rule, rather than the exception, in the slaves experience. And this system exists here in this country of yours, which boasts itself the asylum of the oppressed, the home of freedom, the one place in the world where all men may find enfranchisement from all the thraldoms of mind, soul, or body–the land elect of liberty. 

Such words would have driven her grandfather-in-law, the original Pierce Butler, to apoplexy.  They also rattled the many upper-class Philadelphians who held Southern sympathies.  The hard truth was that out of all the Western powers in 1864, republican America was the very last to outlaw slavery.  England had done so in 1833, France in 1848, and imperial Russia (that most autocratic of regimes) in 1862.

It took a Civil War and 700,000 Union and Confederate lives to rid America of its original sin.

The Philadelphia Club, 13th and Walnut Streets. Originally built in the 1830s as the home of Thomas Butler, relative of Pierce Butler and his son Pierce (Mease) Butler II.

The Philadelphia Club, 13th and Walnut Streets. Originally built in the 1830s as the home of Thomas Butler, relative of Pierce Butler and his son Pierce (Mease) Butler II.

Senator Pierce Butler’s house on Washington Square was torn down in 1859–the year of his grandson’s bankruptcy– but descendants of Pierce Butler remained Philadelphians after the Civil War.  One of the Butler family’s Philadelphia mansions survives to this day as the Philadelphia Club, although its builder Thomas Butler (the disinherited son of Pierce I) died before its completion. The club completed the shell of the hulking structure–which bore a strong resemblance to the Washington Square house–and took up residence in 1850.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Butlers in Philadelphia was left by Fanny’s grandson Owen Wister, who used his own gift with words to portray that most romanticized of American agricultural workers: the Western cowboy in The Virginian.

It’s most famous line: “When you call me that, smile.”

Owen Wister, great-grandson of Pierce Butler I and grandson of Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler II.  Wikipedia.

Owen Wister (1860-1938), author and president of the Philadelphia Club, great-great-grandson of Pierce Butler I and grandson of Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler II. Wikipedia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkOMa_XXQEA&w=480&h=360]


The Virginian (1914 silent film)


Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.440.

Fanny Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1864), p.10.

Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/butler-family, accessed November 18, 2015.

“Pierce Butler, South Carolina,” Constitution Dayhttp://www.constitutionday.com/butler-pierce-sc.html

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The Butler Family Feud (Part I)

The Pierce Butler mansion, 8th Street and Washington Square, c.1855.

The Pierce Butler mansion, 8th Street and Washington Square, c.1855.

Although outlawed after the Revolution, slavery continued to be a critical part of the Pennsylvania economy virtually up to the Civil War. In an era before joint stock corporations, businesses were family affairs. A successful merchant or landowner would pass along his enterprises directly to his descendants, not to trained professional executives. Many prominent Philadelphia families had significant assets in Southern states: plantations that produced lucrative crops such as wheat, indigo, cotton, and tobacco.

One Philadelphia clan fought hard to maintain their way of life–even while perched north of the Mason-Dixon Line–was the Butler family. Pierce Butler, an immigrant from County Carlow, Ireland (albeit the son of a baronet), was one of South Carolina’s largest landowners and slaveholders.  Scarred by the destruction of much of his property (real estate and human) during the Revolutionary War, Butler was determined to rebuild and maintain his family wealth at all costs. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Butler represented South Carolina in Philadelphia, and the man behind the drafting of the infamous “three-fifths clause,” which gave Southern states disproportionate representation in Congress while leveraging their non-voting, enslaved populations.

Pierce Butler I of South Carolina (1844-1822).

Pierce Butler I of South Carolina (1744-1822).

With almost unlimited resources at his disposal, Butler chose to build a northern “summer house” in the nation’s new capital, a rather odd choice considering that Philadelphia’s summers were just as unbearable than those in South Carolina, and as borne out in 1793, just as disease-ridden. Although his daughter Sarah was living there, the move was almost certainly political: Butler probably wanted to keep a close eye on Congress and fight any measures that would threaten his economic holdings and those of his peers. To announce his arrival in Philadelphia society, he build a large, freestanding house fronting then-fashionable Washington Square.  Built in the highest Federal style, it much a monument to the power of Southern money as it was a statement of Butler’s refined taste. Even after the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, Butler continued to spend much of his free time in Philadelphia.

Pierce Butler died in 1822, with an estate that included 1,000 slaves and 10,000 acres of agricultural land. In his will, he disinherited his son Thomas, and instead bequeathed his multi-million dollar fortune to his two grandsons Pierce and John, on condition that they change their last name from Mease to Butler.

No doubt infuriated at this rejection by the imperious and eccentric Butler patriarch, Thomas Butler planned a grand city house at the corner of 13th and Walnut Street to rival his father’s palace to the east, but he died before it was completed.

Fanny Kemble in a portrait by Thomas Sully, 1833. Wikiart.

Fanny Kemble in a portrait by Thomas Sully, 1833. Wikiart.

Like many young men who never had to truly work for a living, Pierce II was simultaneously a charmer and a ne’er-do-well. He successfully wooed the acclaimed British actress Fanny Kemble during her American tour. She proved to have more brains and feistiness than her high-living and empty-headed husband anticipated.  For Pierce II, having a good time (and looking good while doing it) was his raison d’être.

This attitude drove Fanny nuts. “You can form no idea, none, none, of the intellectual dearth and drought in which I am existing,” she wrote a friend about her life at Butler Place, her husband’s country estate (near the present site of LaSalle University).

In 1838, Pierce Butler II took his wife to South Carolina to see the source of the family’s wealth, and the “culture” in which he grew up.

Slave auction in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1861. History.com

Slave auction in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1861. History.com

Kemble was appalled not just at the treatment of the slaves, but also her husband’s utterly callous attitude towards such brutality.  What shocked her the most was how the overseer Roswell King Jr. fathered so many children with the enslaved women under his supervision. For Butler, however, this was the natural order of things. She returned to Philadelphia a committed abolitionist. Within a decade, Fanny and Pierce were divorced.  She took custody of their two children and raised them herself.

Butler Place, located near the intersection of Nedro and Old York Road. LaSalle University.

Butler Place, located near the intersection of Olney Avenue and Old York Road. LaSalle University.

Part II to follow


Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.440.

Fanny Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1864), p.10.

Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/butler-family, accessed November 18, 2015.

“Pierce Butler, South Carolina,” Constitution Day, http://www.constitutionday.com/butler-pierce-sc.html


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