The Derham Body Company: Dignified Simplicity on Four Wheels

A 1920s advertisement for the Derham Body Company of Rosemont and Philadelphia, featuring a Locomobile owned by Rodman Wanamaker II. Locomobile, based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, claimed theirs was the “best built car in America.”  Edward T. Stotesbury, flamboyant owner of kids bounce house Whitemarsh Hall in Wyndmoor, owned a similar Locomobile.

The so-called annual model change (also known as “planned obsolesce”) dates back to the 1920s, when General Motors transformed automobile styling from an afterthought into high fashion.   Dazzling new body styles, vibrant colors, and powerful engines enticed the aspiring American middle class, who began going into debt to buy a lifestyle accessory rather than a mere vehicle.

Yet between 1895 and 1930,  car buyers were often more attached to their car’s body than the actual machine , a holdover from the days of the horse-and-carriage, when highly-skilled artisans produced a variety of open and closed bodied coaches: landaus, victorias, phaetons, brakes, and cabriolets, to name a few.Bounce house for sale

Philadelphia was never much of a car-manufacturing city, with the minor exception of the short-lived Biddle Motor Car Company. Yet Philadelphia’s custom car coachwork was famous throughout the world.  John Joseph Derham, an Irish immigrant, set up shop in 1887 in the new Main Line community of Rosemont, building fine carriages for the horse-loving residents. By the early 1900s, J.J. Derham’s well-heeled customers were buying their first automobiles. Rather than buying a factory-built car body, a Derham client like department store heir Rodman Wanamaker II would opt to purchase only the chassis.  Wanamaker would then have the car (consistenting of only a wheels, frame, engine, and radiator) delivered to Derham, where he would then work with master craftsmen to come up with the car of his dreams.

This could be a daunting undertaking.  The cars that Derham’s customers chose sold for around $5,000 for the chassis alone ($100,000 in today’s money): Locomobile, Cadillac, Rolls-Royce, Lincoln, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Mercedes, Minverva, and Packard.  Building a custom-built body for hat chassis could set the owner back another $10,000 to $20,000. The body styles boasted the same names as the horse-drawn carriages they replaced.  A sporty two seater body, for example, was known as a cabriolet.  An enclosed formal body for opera night at the Academy of Music was a brougham.  An four door car open body, good for summer driving on winding suburban roads, was a phaeton.  Although some very rich customers owned several cars, others preferred to use two or more bodies on the same car.  According to a history of J. Gibson McIlvain & Company, Derham’s principal wood supplier in the 1910s and 20s:

“Largely because most early automobiles were manufactured with open, touring car bodies, the business prospered. Wealthy citizens of Philadelphia who wished to drive their cars in winter would come to the Derham company to a have a closed body custom-built. Every Spring the closed body would be removed and stored with Derham. In the Fall, the body would be installed in time for the cold weather.”

In an era before government-mandated safety standards, coachbuilders were free to indulge their client’s wildest fantasies.  Body panels were aluminum, and the frames constructed of seasoned ash.  Interiors were lined with velvet and leather, and accented with strips of rosewood, walnut, and mother of pearl.  To keep up with demand, every spring Derham would send a representative to the McIlvain yard to “make his selection of the finest oak, northern ash, and hickory.”

There was at least one Philadelphia lady who took the attachment to a specific body style to an extreme. Louise Audenried’s first car was a 1907 Zeidel, with a custom-built Derham body.  When Audenried bought a new car several years later, she demanded that the old body be transferred to the new chassis. Derham gave her the bad news that the old body wouldn’t fit onto the new chassis.  Louise Audenried refused to budge — she wanted exactly the same type of body.  So, Derham built a replica body that fit onto the new chassis.  In the 1920s, Audenried purchased a new Pierce-Arrow, and once again, Derham obliged.  Finally, in 1938, Audenried purchased a magnificent Packard Super Eight.  Yet rather than fashion a modern, streamlined body for this chassis, Derham did exactly as the client wished: constructing a boxy, Edwardian body on top of a powerful Art Deco drivetrain.

The J.J. Derham & Company had an office at 237-45 S.12th Street, nearby another auto body shop. Photograph dated January 10, 1917.

For coachbuilders like Derham, the good times ended with the stock market crash of 1929, which wiped out the fortunes of many of their loyal clients. Even those who still had money opted to simply buy a Cadillac or Lincoln with standard, factory-built bodies.  Most of the old line, East Coast coachbuilders  went out of business.

During the lean years of the 1930s, Derham miraculously held on, designing formal cars for the King and Queen of England, Pope Pius XII, Gary Cooper, and even Josef Stalin.

After surviving on custom jobs and classic car restorations, including a presidential limousine for Dwight Eisenhower, Derham’s Rosemont shop finally closed its doors in 1971.

A Duesenberg advertisement featuring a convertible town car body built by the Derham Body Company of Rosemont, Pennsylvania.


“Derham Body Company,” Coachbuilt,, accessed September 28, 2017.

William Barton Marsh, Philadelphia Hardwood: The Story of the McIlvains of Philadelphia, 1798-1948 (Philadelphia: William E. Rudge’s Sons, 1948), p.63.



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“To be, or not to be?” That was no longer the question.

Bell Telephone Company Founder’s Week Parade Float, Broad and Spruce Streets, October 7, 1908. (

Alexander Graham Bell found only fifteen customers in all of Philadelphia the year after he demonstrated his telephonic invention at the Centennial. The question he transmitted: “To be, or not to be?” was still very much unanswered in 1877.

By 1890, the telephone’s prospects were looking somewhat less dire. More than 3,000 Philadelphians had gotten wired up. It looked as if the telephone might be on its way to becoming useful. Indispensable and omnipresent would have to wait.

When the city threw itself a massive, self-congratulatory celebration in 1908, the telephone industry jumped at the chance to brag about their 102,000 early adopters. In three lavish floats, Bell Telephone pitched their services to the hundreds of thousands of holdouts who lined Broad Street from Diamond to Snyder.

“The Founders Week celebration,” sniffed the New York Times, “is the most pretentious undertaking this city has ever attempted.” The daily parades illustrated “progress of the city from its founding…down to the present day.” Re-enactors created 68 scenes from Penn’s Treaty with the Indians to “The City Beautiful.”

From Telephone Statistics of the World, American Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1912. (

Wednesday October 7th was entirely dedicated industry. Organizers had hoped to limit the number of floats to 100 but they ended up with twice that many. “Every phase of industrial activity, labor, agriculture, science, and all the applied arts, weaving, spinning, soap making, transportation, fortune, cigar making, the manufacture of crude and partly finished materials into the finished product, were shown with wonderful reality in the procession which moved down Broad Street between two walls of closely packed humanity.” The Tacony saw manufacturers Henry Disston & Sons had five floats; the city’s lager brewers had four; Baldwin Locomotive Work had two. Bell Telephone had three.

Twenty red and gold-trimmed horses pulled the first and largest, a 46-foot display divided into eight room-like sections. The first presented “a woman in her boudoir using the telephone.” Next came a manufacturer’s office illustrating “the benefits of telephone service;” then a lawyer and a broker’s office, “each showing the convenience of telephone facilities.” On the opposite side of the float we’re four more scenes, “each fitted up in a similar manner to illustrate the uses of the phone.” Above, on the roof of a house portion of the float, were “two boys, talking over the string and tin can methods of voice transmission,” a reminder of the primal, universal appeal of voice communication. “On the ends of the float there will be three young women switchboard telephone operators, showing the system of today.”

Bringing up the rear of the telephone float trio was a horse-drawn bar graph with giant model telephones representing “the rapid rise of adoption.” Bell Telephone proudly celebrated the numbers with increasingly large model telephones from 1883 when there were 3,674 subscribers to 1908, when there were 102,193.

By 1917, Philadelphia would have 175,000.

Comparing Philadelphia with, say, Paris: Philadelphia had lagged behind through the 1890s. But by 1905, the American city had more than double the telephones per capita of its European counterpart. By 1911, Philadelphia had close to three times the phones of Paris.

The American investment in infrastructure had paid off. From 1901 to 1912, the total telephone wire mileage on earth increased from five to 29 million miles. Half had been unspooled in the United States. In 1908, there were four million American telephones in use. By 1912, there would be eight million. Total American telephone conversations topped 14 billion, more than double what the rest of the world could claim.

The American love affair with the telephone—and with winning—was only getting revved up.

[Sources: “Founders Week Industrial Day,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 24, 1908;  “Philadelphia Opens Its’ Founders Week,” The New York Times. October 5, 1908;  “Miles of Float Show Industries’ Progress March – Nearly two hundred displays on wheels delight thousands,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 1908; Telephone Statistics of the World (American Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1912); David Glassberg, “Public Ritual and Cultural Hierarchy: Philadelphia’s Civic Celebrations at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 107, No. 3 (Jul., 1983); “Telephones,” by Lucy Davis in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.]

Bell Telephone Company Founder’s Week Parade Float, Broad and Spruce Streets, October 7, 1908. – detail. (

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Dr. Kirkbride’s Country Cure

Entrance to the Pennsylvania General Hospital (Old Blockley), c.1900. Source: Wikipedia.

Before it became a fashionable streetcar suburb, West Philadelphia was infamous as as place where the city’s indigent, and mentally ill were warehoused out of sight and mind. As historian Robert Morris Skaler wrote, “if one was incurable, insane, consumptive, blind, orphaned, crippled, destitute, or senile, one would most likely end up in a faith-based charitable institution or asylum somehwere in West Philadelphia, beyond the pale.”  It’s famous institution was the Blockley Almshouse, a charity hospital founded in 1797 and for many years located at the intersection of 34th and Walnut Street.  Although Blockley sold a large chunk of land to the University of Pennsylvania for its new campus in 1871, the institution continued to operate as the Philadelphia General Hospital until the 1977, Inflatable Irish pubwhen it went bankrupt.  Nonetheless, a group of dedicated physicians and reformers lobbied the Commonwealth to make mental asylums more humane and aesthetically pleasing, hoping that beauty, air, and natural light would help improve the patients’ condition.  This part of the “Romantic” aesthetic that was sweeping the nation. One example of this aesthetic was Laurel Hill Cemetery, a pastoral urban park meant to elevate the spirits of the bereaved.  Opened in 1836 on the banks of the Schuylkill, this burial ground was a departure from the crammed, bleak urban cemeteries of the past.

Samuel Sloan, one of the city’s most prolific architects of the so-called “Picturesque style,” was best known for his suburban villas and country homes.  His charming Italianate residences can be found all over West Philadelphia, most notably on Woodland Terrace.   These homes radiated Victorian propriety, yet also had a splashes of whimsy: gingerbread porches, glass cupolas, and Tuscan eaves. Yet Sloan’s largest surviving commission in Philadelphia is not a mansion, but rather the sprawling Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disease, completed in 1859. Also known as Kirkbride’s Hospital, it originally occupied a vast swath of land bounded by 46th Street to the east, 50th Street to the west, Market Street to the south, and Haverford Avenue to the north.

The original Samuel Sloan building for the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital, c.1860. Source: Wikipedia

The institute was founded by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a physician at the Pennsylvania Hospital who treated  the mentally ill in an age before depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder were medical mysteries, not diagnosed conditions. As a young medical student, Kirkbride saw the mentally ill treated (and punished) like convicts. As he built his own practice, Kirkbride theorized that in order to find the root cause of insanity, “we would have to go back to a defective early education the want of proper parental discipline,’ in which…(his) mind was always linked to parental affection.”  For him, the best treatment was compassion.  “It is only by a constant remembrance of the principles of an enlightened religion, and by untiring efforts to elevate, in every rational mode, and character of all these institutions, and by leaving nothing undone to extend and improve their facilities for treatment, that we shall be found practically to adopt that golden maxim which should be seen, or it not seen, at least practices in hospitals for the insane everywhere, ”all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even to them.”

Kirkbride’s plan for mental hospitals set the standard for over half a century.  Hospitals built according to the “Kirkbride Plan” had a so-called “batwing” floor plate.  The central administration block was located at the center of the structure, and was usually topped by a dome or tower.  The patient dormitories radiated out from this main block.  The more independent patients of the institution would be in the wings closer to the center of the structure.  The less independent ones would be placed in the more remote wings.  Each wing had its own parlor and restrooms, as well as dumbwaiters and speaking tubes to ensure smooth communication between the wards.

Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809-1883). Source: Wikipedia

The resulting structure resembled a British stately home more than a traditional mental institution. The buildings were surrounded by 130 acres of lawns and trees. Inmates could stroll, work in the kitchen garden, or go for carriage rides.  Dr. Kirkbride also set up lecture series for the edification of the residents.

Yet there was one grim reminder of the complex’s purpose: a stone wall encircling the entire site, keeping the residents in and curiosity seekers out.

A Beaux-Arts addition to the original Samuel Sloan campus of the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital, 49th and Market Streets, September 11, 1931.

Ultimately, grand architecture and beautiful gardens did not make up for the lack of scientific knowledge of the mentally ill . Despite Kirkbride’s best intentions, abuse and maltreatment ran rampant in even the most beautifully designed mental institutions, most notably at the infamous Pennhurst State School in Spring City, Pennsylvania. By the late 20th century, most of the grand asylums built according to the “Kirkbride Plan” were shuttered, their inmates given medications that, state officials hoped, would allow them to better integrate into greater society.

After the arrival of the Market Street Elevated in 1907, much of the acreage was sold off and developed into rowhouses.  Yet Samuel Sloan’s administration building survives largely intact. It still serves its original purpose: housing the Kirkbride Center, a 250-bed privately-owned treatment center for mental illness and addiction.


Richard S. Greenwood, “National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form, Kirkbride’s Hospital, Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital,” United States Department of the Interior, 1958.

Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.7.

“Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride,” Kirkbride Buildings., accessed September 13, 2017.

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Sculptural Meaning vs. Carved Ornament

The Schuylkill Permanent Bridge High Street [Market St.] Philadelphia. (Free Library of Phila.)

Philadelphia’s first bridge over the Schuylkill River, confidently named “the Permanent Bridge,” wasn’t actually. It took only an hour before the bridge was “totally destroyed, consumed by fire and fallen into the river” one Saturday afternoon in November 1875. Only the masonry piers remained.

Gone was Timothy Palmer’s giant span of wooden trusses set in place in the early years of the century. Gone, too, was Owen Biddle’s roofed and gabled covering, painted and sprinkled with marble dust to create the illusion of stone. And gone were two allegorical sculptures by the “masterly chisel” of William Rush, “recumbent figures embodying Agriculture and Commerce” prominent in the pediments over the covered bridge’s entrances.

Sculpting Ornament on the Market Street Bridge (

Sculpting Ornament on the Market Street Bridge, September 7, 1932. (

When installed in 1812, these two elusive sculptures (no images of them survive) completed the bridge. Rush’s figures were far more than ornament, they augmented the functioning bridge, which connected the east and west banks of the Schuylkill, with the symbolism and imagery of the city. Real commerce thrived at the eastern, urban (Center City) side of the bridge. Actual agriculture resided at the western, rural (West Philadelphia) side. Equipped with its allegories, the bridge provided a living link between vision and reality.

From the first, a ship representing commerce and a plow representing agriculture were on the cartouche of the official city seal. More than 120 years after the city’s founding, the actual bridge merged the physical and the symbolic into the real, the here and now. Commerce on the east and Agriculture on the west echoed Philadelphia in theory (as expressed in the city’s coat of arms) and in practice (as played out in the city itself). As citizens utilized the bridge for their livelihoods, they breathed life into the ideal. By joining identity, narrative and urban life, Rush’s sculptures elevated the bridge to a kind of civic theater, a functional version of a meaningful symbol.

Plaster Cast of Model for Bridge over Market St. over Schuylkill River, ca. 1932 (PhillyHistory)

Where else have we seen this merger of citizenship, public space and public art? Look to the sculptural program in City Hall’s courtyard (which we wrote about several years ago). In that case, the pedestrian/citizen/symbol is simultaneously representing, witnessing and expressing the meaning of place. The People animate and complete the sculptural program.

After the Rush allegories burnt, the successive Market Street Bridge would never again regain its deep-set sense of sculptural place. Subsequent sculptures would be decorative afterthoughts, punctuation in limestone. The current Market Street bridge, constructed by the Dravo Contracting Company of Pittsburgh at a cost of nearly $4,000,000, opened on a rainy night in November 1932. On it were carved swags, stylized dolphins, ram heads, lion heads, human heads all impressive additions by talented craftsmen, but baubles bereft of narration and any real civic meaning.

[Sources:  Linda Bantel, William Rush, American Sculptor (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1982); New City Span at Market St. is Dedicated, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1932.]

Plaster Cast of Model (Lion ) for Market Street Bridge, ca. 1932 (

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Coleman Sellers, Powelton Village, and the Gilded Age (Part II)


George Escol Sellers, in a photograph taken shortly before his death in 1899 at age 90. Source: Wikipedia.

The real Colonel Sellers, as Castle jump house I knew him in James Lampton, was a pathetic and beautiful spirit, a manly man, a straight and honorable man, a man with a big, foolish, unselfish heart in his bosom, a man born to be loved; and he was loved by all his friends, and by his family worshipped. It is the right word. To them he was but little less than a god. The real Colonel Sellers was never on the stage.

-Mark Twain, Autobiography

Poor George Escol Sellers could never quite match his older brother Coleman Sellers’ fame and success.  Yet what really bothered him was that he served as a literary stand-in for Mark Twain’s cousin James Lampton, a charming fool who was constantly dreaming of riches…and always falling short.

Escol, as his family knew him, had moved to Cincinnati as a young man. where he designed early steam locomotives with Coleman.  In addition to coming up with a process of making paper with vegetable fibers, he also was the author of Improvements in Locomotive Engines, and Railways, published in 1849. Ensconced at the Globe Rolling Mills and Wire Works, he dreamed of expanding the North’s burgeoning railroad system into the agrarian, slave-holding South. Bales of “King Cotton” would no longer travel to the looms of New England or the docks of New York by packet ship or river steamer, but swiftly by rail. He also dreamed of a transcontinental railroad that would one day link California with the rest of the country and earn him and his partners tremendous profits: $14.65 million a year, he estimated.

However, in 1850, Escol rashly sold his patent for a grade-climbing locomotive to an old friend from Philadelphia for $10,000 (about $200,000 today).  He then signed a consulting contract with the Panama Pacific Railroad, which built tracks to span the 50-mile isthmus between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  When the first two of Escol Sellers’ locomotives arrived, however, his friend had left the company, and the railroad refused to honor the inventor’s patents. His brother Coleman, who also designed locomotives for the Panama Pacific Railroad, was somehow unable to lobby successfully on his brother’s behalf. Escol Sellers sued and lost, but walked away with a $20,000 pay off, a sum that allowed him to live in comfort for the rest of his life. He spent his free time amassing and curating a considerable collection of Native American artifacts.  When the transcontinental railroad was finally finished in 1869, Sellers could only read about the celebrations from afar.

Four years after the golden spoken was driven into place in Utah, the first edition of The Gilded Age rolled off the presses. The plot was focused on the Hawkins family, which tried to get rich selling 75,000 acres of unimproved land in Tennessee. They failed, and so the Hawkins’ adopted daughter Laura moved to Washington.  There, she tried to use her charm and beauty not just to climb the social ladder, but also to convince the federal government to purchase her family’s unwanted property. Although Twain and Warner skewered corrupt big city life and Washington high society, they also poked fun at small town ambition in the person of Colonel Escol Sellers, who appears throughout the book as as the eternal optimist, always in search of riches.

“The Brains,” a cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1871, published in Harper’s Weekly.

After one harsh financial setback, Twain wrote of Colonel Sellers: “It was hard to come down to humdrum ordinary life again after being a General Superintendent and the most conspicuous man in the community. It was sad to see his name disappear from the newspapers; sadder still to see it resurrected at intervals, shorn of its aforetime gaudy gear of compliments and clothed on with rhetorical tar and fathers…He had to bolster up his wife’s spirits every now and then. On one of these occasions he said: ‘It’s all right, my dear, all right; it will all come all right in a little while. There’s $200,000 coming, and that will set things booming again.”

Twain appears to have taken a cruel delight in co-opting the name of the distinguished Philadelphian that his co-author Charles Dudley Warner had briefly met in Cincinnati many years ago.  “We will confiscate his name,” Twain wrote gleefully.  “The name you are using is common, and therefore dangerous; there are probably a thousand Sellerses bearing it, and the whole horde will come after us; but Eschol Sellers is a safe name — it is a rock.”

The novel was a runaway success in 1873. and its title soon became synonymous with the shoddy ethos of post-Civil War American capitalism. Naturally a copy found its way into the hands of George Escol Sellers.  The distinguished inventor was so incensed that he took the train to Hartford, Connecticut and showed up on the doorstep of Warner and Twain’s publisher.

“My name is Escol Sellers,” he huffed. “You have used it in one of your publications. It has brought upon me a lot of ridicule. My people wish me to sue you for $10,000 damages.”

In response to a possible lawsuit, Twain and Warner halted production of the first edition and substituted the name Beriah Sellers for the next print run.  Yet another man named Beriah Sellers vehemently objected to this.

Finally, the two authors settled on the name Mulberry Sellers. But the damage to Escol Sellers’ reputation was done.  Despite his engineering prowess, he was forever branded as the Micawber-ish Colonel Sellers.  Matters were made worse when Twain revived the Colonel Sellers character in the 1892 novel The American Claimant.  And then there was the traveling stage version of The Gilded Age, in which actor John Raymond played Colonel Sellers to hoots and guffaws to audiences throughout the United States.

Escol Sellers died in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1899, comfortable but obscure, unlike his famous brother Coleman, a millionaire industrialist who resided in a sprawling family compound in West Philadelphia.

The Sellers ultimately had the last laugh, as Mark Twain squandered his own substantial fortune (and his wife’s inheritance) in a series of disastrous investments, and “get-rich-quick” schemes. The flamboyant author in a white suit most of his later years on the traveling lecture circuit, scrambling to rebuild his own reputation and riches.

33rd Street, looking north from Baring Street. The twin houses Coleman Sellers II built for his children Jessie and Coleman Jr. are on the left. The family referred to these houses collectively as the “Dove Cote.” Photo dated November 7, 1956.


“410 N. 33rd Street,”

Barbara Schmidt, “We Will Confiscate His Name: The Unfortunate Case of George Escol Sellers,”, n.d.,

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1874), p.244.

Dominic Vitiello, Engineering Philadelphia: The Sellers Family and the Industrial Metropolis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), p.54.

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Coleman Sellers, Powelton Village, and The Gilded Age” (Part I)

Coleman Sellers II (1827-1907). Source;

While ‘The Gilded Age’ commercial obstacle course touches on many themes as it shifts uncomfortably between melodrama and satire, occasionally verging into burlesque, it always projects a powerful message about the futility and self-destructiveness of chasing after riches.

-R. Kent Rasmussen

Now divided into apartments, 3301 Baring Street is an imposing Italianate style mansion completed in 1857 for John McIlvain, a prominent lumber merchant, and his wife Sarah.  When it was built, the Powelton district of the newly annexed West Philadelphia was a fashionable suburban retreat for the city’s gentry, its street-lined streets worlds away from the smoke and noise of the burgeoning industrial metropolis.  The district was accessible only by horse-drawn streetcar, and its houses boasted spectacular views of the Schuylkill River and the Fairmount Waterworks.

At the end of the Civil War, the McIlvains sold the house to industrialist and inventor Coleman Sellers II and his wife Cornelia. Coleman Sellers was one of the kingpins of Philadelphia’s Quaker establishment. He also had the arts in his blood, as his mother was the daughter of Philadelphia’s famous painter Charles Wilson Peale. Born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania in 1827, Coleman was trained as an engineer and spent his formative years in Cincinnati, Ohio as the superintendent of a rolling mill operated by his brothers George Escol and Charles.  Yet what really made Sellers’ career was locomotives — by the early 1850s, he had become a master engineer of these new machines that could transport the riches of the heartland to the East Coast at over 30 miles per hour.  Flush with cash, Sellers returned to his native city and built a thriving machinery works in the Spring Garden neighborhood.  As the 19th century continued and blossomed (or devolved) into what satirist Mark Twain called the “Gilded Age,” Sellers expanded his investments into other concerns, such as Midvale Steel in East Falls and the Millbourne Mills in his native Upper Darby.

Socially, Coleman Sellers enjoyed great success as well, joining the ranks of the Saturday Club and the Union League.  Yet his work ethic never flagged.  He designed and built locomotives for William Henry Aspinwall’s Panama-Pacific Railroad (a 50 mile rail line that cut down the travel time between New York and the new state of California from months to weeks), oversaw the construction of the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant, served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, and patented an early motion picture camera that he christened the kinematoscope. His firm also built the shafting to the Corliss engine that powered the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  His true pet project was the Franklin Institute, the scientific powerhouse which he served as vice president and president.

He was also a firm believer that machinery needed no applied ornamentation, as its innate aesthetic beauty lay in its function. Foreshadowing the architecture of functionality later espoused by Louis Sullivan and LeCorbusier, Sellers declared that “we find that a new order of shapes, founded on the uses to which they are to be applied and the nature of the material of which they are made, have been adopted and the flaunting colors the gaudy stripes and glittering gilding has been replaced by this one tint, the color of the iron upon which it is painted.”

The Coleman Sellers II mansion at 3301 Baring Street, December 14, 1962.

Yet Sellers also somehow found the time to live graciously (and in colorful Victorian style) at his home at 33rd and Baring, which he and his wife expanded and lavishly redecorated over their four decades in residence.  According to his grandson Harold Colton in his 1961 book North of Market, Coleman “extended the west side adding a second room for his extensive library and enlarged the dining room making it quite long. The walls he hung with many portraits of the family by his grandfather Charles Wilson Peale. On the second floor the master bedroom over the dining room was lengthened and over the new library a sunny glass-enclosed conservatory was built, where his wife Cora could keep her flowers in the wintertime. Besides the improvements to the west wing he built between the kitchen and dining room a pantry over which were private baths on each floor. On the third floor over the kitchen wing he built an office for himself and a laboratory or shop reached by new back stairs. After the improvements were complete Jessie [Sellers, his daughter] was given the large bedroom on the third floor not only with a private hath but also with a fireplace.”

In fact, the 3300 block of Baring became something of a Sellers family compound.  Siblings and cousins pooled $23,000 to purchase it for their own homes.  In the early 1880s, the patriarch built Queen Anne twin houses at 410 and 412 North 33rd Street for his son Coleman Jr. and daughter Jessie, respectively.

Yet as Coleman Sellers’ star rose, the one of his younger brother and former business partner George Escol Sellers plummeted, in no small part due to a certain fictional character created by authors Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their collaborative 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today: Colonel Mulberry Sellers.

As Twain wrote: “Many persons regarded ‘Colonel Sellers’ as a fiction, an invention, an extravagant impossibility, and did me the honor to call him a “creation”; but they were mistaken. I merely put him on paper as he was; he was not a person who could be exaggerated.”


“3301 Baring Street,”

“Coleman Sellers (1827-1907),, n.d.

Barbara Schmidt, “We Will Confiscate His Name: The Unfortunate Case of George Escol Sellers,”, n.d.,

Dominic Vitiello, Engineering Philadelphia: The Sellers Family and the Industrial Metropolis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), p.177.

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Some Jump Rope Songs from Camingerly, ca. 1959

Roger Abrahams, 1933-2017  (University of Pennsylvania)

Not far from his small rented house on Iseminger Street, Roger Abrahams could hear echoes young girls chanting to the distinctive slap of jump rope on pavement.

Folklorist antenna up, Abrahams recognized the chance to collect what he guessed wouldn’t be around much longer in his gradually gentrifying neighborhood—a community White newcomers called Camingerly. He took out his notebook and tape recorder and got to work documenting the rhymes of his young neighbors.

“I found out early that when I went more than two blocks away from the area in which I was known, I ran into a stone wall. To many Negroes in this section of Philadelphia,” Abrahams wrote in the early 1960s, “a white man is either a policeman, a landlord, or a bill collector.” Most of what he collected was found within the two city blocks around Iseminger and Lombard Streets. “I never went farther east than Twelfth Street, farther north than Pine, farther south than South Street, and farther west than Juniper,” he later wrote.

The games documented in 1958 and 1959 seemed “considerably more complex than those observable in most places elsewhere.” In early 1963, Abrahams published much of what he found in the journal of the Pennsylvania Folklore Society.

“In common with the singing games collected in this neighborhood, there is great emphasis on individuals doing dance steps and other difficult feats: Wiggling, doing the ‘rumba,’ touching your toes, going ‘up and down the ladder’ (jumping toward one end and then toward the other, the return often being backward jumping), ‘pepper’ (jumping while the rope is turned faster), and hopping.” Abrahams noted that as many as three or four girls would jump at the same time until one missed a step. She then would be become the object of “amused abuse.”

Here are a few from Abrahams’ collection, starting with a vestige of popular culture from the 1890s, including references to local features (the Delaware River and the Daily News,) and concluding with a parody of Dream Lover, Bobby Darin’s Rock and Roll hit recorded in April 1959:

1219 Waverly Street, May 1961 (PhillyHistory)

Teddy bear, teddy bear, show your shoe, shoe.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, I love you.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground, ground, ground.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn all around.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, one and two, two.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, I love you.


Acka-backa, soda cracker.
Does your father chew tobacco?
Yes. No. Maybe so.
Yes. No. Maybe so.

(Girls who missed on “yes” and “maybe so” were laughed at.)


Ladies and Gentlemen,
Children, too.
There’s a little white girl
Going looking for you.
Hands up, torch-a-torch.
Two years old, going on three.
Wear my dresses upon my knee.
Sister has a boyfriend,
Comes every night,
-Walks in the parlor
And turns out the lights.

Peep through the keyhole,
What did I see?
Johnny, Johnny, Johnny,
Put your arms around me.
Girls, girls, ready for a fight.
Here comes the girl with the skirt all tight.
She can wiggle, she can friggle,
She can do that stuff.
But I bet she can’t do this.

(Jumping while the rope is turned faster.)


Postman, postman, do your duty
Here comes Susie just like a beauty.
She can rumba, she can tango,
She can do the strip.
She can wear her dress above her hips.

Policeman, policeman, do your duty.
Here comes Adelaide the American beauty.
She can wiggle, she can waggle,
But she sure can do the split, split, split.

(The jumper then straddles the rope.)


Blondie and Dagwood went downtown.
Blondie bought an evening gown.
Cookie bought a Daily News,
And this is what I say to you
Close your eyes and count to ten.
If you miss, you take the end.
1, 2, 3, etc.
Ice cream soda, Delaware punch,
Tell me the name of your honeybunch.
A, B, C, etc.


Dream lover, where are you?
Upstairs on the toilet stool.
Whatcha doing way up there?
Washing out my underwear.
How’d you get them so clean?
With a bottle of Listerine.
Where’d you get the Listerine?
From a can of pork and beans.
Where’d you get the pork and beans?
In the City of New Orleans.
How’ d you get way down there?
‘Cause I killed a polar bear.
Why’d you kill the polar bear?
Cause he dirtied my underwear.
I want a dream lover,
Never have to dream alone.

[Sources: Roger D. Abrahams, “Some Jump-Rope Rimes from South Philadelphia,Keystone Folklore Quarterly, Spring, 1963 and Roger D. Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970,) 2nd edition.]

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Redefining Urban Folklore in Philadelphia’s “Camingerly”

421 South Iseminger Street, March 2, 1959.  (PhillyHistory)

The neighborhood called Camingerly doesn’t exist. What’s more, according to the list of nearly 400 Philadelphia neighborhood names, current and defunct, it never did. But thanks to the fieldwork of the late folklorist Roger Abrahams, Camingerly survives in scholarly literature, if not in the hearts and minds of would be Camingerlites.

Abrahams explained his work of more than a half-century ago: “Camingerly was really just us white folks name for what the [African-American] men called the 12th Street neighborhood, the place the old Twelfth Street gang used to rule until they got old enough to have jobs, ‘old ladies’ and to get thrown down by circumstances. ‘Camingerly’ was our abbreviation of Camac, Iseminger, and Waverly between Twelfth and Thirteenth, Pine and Lombard.” If not for his living at 421 South Iseminger Street in the late 1950s, Abrahams wouldn’t have done the work that led him to initiate University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Folklore & Ethnography.

So what’s the deal with the neighborhood a few called Camingerly?

“These old row houses built as servants’ quarters as satellites to the square and townhouses on the larger thoroughfares,” wrote Abrahams. We called them ‘Father-Son-Holy-Ghost Houses,’ as did some of our neighbors, because they each had three rooms, one on top of the other. Some of them, in fact most of them, had a lean to kitchen appended to the first floor; and some of them had indoor plumbing. All the houses on our street were electrified, but not those two blocks to the south of us. The local hardware stores carry the stock of the country store, because in many ways the city life hadn’t reached these parts completely.”

Abrahams continued: “This was not the heart of black Philadelphia, though it was only a block from one of its main centers of activity, South Street. It was a little too far north, too close to the high-priced townhouses and stores. It was pimp country. Alice’s Playhouse [an African-American bar at 522 South 13th Street] barbecued-chicken-on-the-corner country, but just one block north was Pine Street with all its antique stores and its police station (run by Frank Rizzo…”

By 1970, Abrahams noted, the neighborhood had “become all white.” And even as he lived there in the late 1950s, gentrification was beginning to take hold.  “Camingerly already had a number of invaders from Center City,” he wrote. “Miss Haines, had lived there for years, a Quaker nurse of great sensibility who was home wherever she found herself. And there were four or five others, more recently come, attracted by the closeness to downtown Philly.”

“But,” Abrahams observed, “in 1958 the place was unmistakably black.” And, for an emerging folklorist, full of possibilities.

Abrahams’ story as to how he arrived: “I was a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and I needed quarters close to transportation to Penn. …I had a friend, a roommate from college, living just a block away, and he was willing to take me to his landlord and to help me strike the same kind of bargain he had been able to make—reduced rent if improvements were made by the tenant. … So I moved to 421 S. Iseminger and began the never ending job of fixing the place up.”

419-421 South Camac Street, 1963 (

“One of the reasons why moving into the area was exciting was that a couple of years before, my wife-to-be and I had been driving through the area and had seen an old man sitting on a doorstep playing his five-strong banjo. I was a folksinger then, just beginning to collect songs and singers, and so we leapt out of the car and had a delightful hour with “Old Banjo,” as he called himself. So in moving to Camingerly I had hopes of collecting oldtime songs, survivals of the trip north by immigrant singers. However, after I moved I soon found that “Old Banjo” had been dead a year and that not only were there no old bluesmen in the area, but that kind of ‘down-home’ music was scorned by my neighbors. So I quickly gave up hope of finding a store of folkloric material.

“Ultimately, it was not vestiges of the past traditions that exploded in my folkloric imagination, but the oral traditions that were largely the product of the urban experience—the performances of ‘sounds,’ the openly heroic, wildly imaginative, coercive, often violent stories and epic poems manufactured and performed by the young men.”

According to anthropologist and collaborator John F. Szwed, Abrahams rejected the “argument that black Americans suffered not only from poverty but from a deficient culture.” What Abrahams found in Camingerly was “a portrait of a highly verbal, articulate people whose daily lives are charged with the importance of wit, metaphor, and subtlety in a thousand ways.” Abrahams took what he observed from his base at Iseminger Street and “redefined what folklore was, in every sense. He moved it from the written text toward performance, and put the material into a political and cultural framework.”

Abrahams described meeting Bobby Lewis who performed his material and introduced others. “Fortunately for me,” wrote Abrahams, “a number of good performers from the neighborhood liked the idea of getting their entire repertoire down on tape (and listening to it played back). … John H. ‘Kid’ Mike was the first of the great talkers to come by, and he soon agreed to tell me his stories and toasts. He recorded a few of them—‘Shine,’ ‘Stackolee’ and one of the ‘Signifying Monkey’ toasts—and I immediately made transcriptions. Being a graduate student in folklore, I brought the texts to my professors, MacEdward Leach and Tristam Coffin. They both became excited about the stories and their performance and encouraged me to write about them in a term paper.”

Abrahams did more than a paper. He completed his dissertation “Negro Folklore From South Philadelphia” in 1962 and published a book one year later. “Abrahams described a new and vibrant verbal world, exuberant, profane and endlessly inventive” wrote William Grimes in The New York Times’ obituary.  “He explained the fine points of the dozens — a street-corner battle of wits in which participants traded insults — and analyzed traditional poems like “The Signifying Monkey,” whose opening line provided Professor Abrahams with the title of his book.”

Szwed and others described that book, Deep Down in the Jungle, as an “underground classic.” Twenty more books and scores of chapters and scholarly articles by Abrahams would follow. And much of it transformed the field of American urban folklore.

Even if the neighborhood name of Camingerly never caught on.

[Sources: Roger D. Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970,) 2nd edition; John F. Szwed, “Review of Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Sep., 1971), pp. 392-394; William Grimes, “Roger D. Abrahams, Folklorist Who Studied African-American Language, Dies at 84,: The New York Times, June 29, 2017; Bonnie L. Cook, “Roger D. Abrahams, 84, Penn folklorist, writer, and performer,”, July 7, 2017.]

Next Time: A Sampling 


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After 200 Posts, What Left in the Void?

Row of Houses, 1406-08-10-12 North 7th Street, August 30,
1904 (PhillyHistory)

After six years and 200 posts here at PhillyHistory, I have a handle on what’s in the archives, at least the portion of it that’s online. So now’s a good a time as any to take a moment to reflect on what it means to delve into thousands upon thousands of images and write the better part of 175,000 words. To consider what’s next and what’s likely to never be the subject of posts.

Yes… I’m asking, what’s it all mean? For what earthy reason do I persist in researching and writing? And why do you continue reading?

First a little background. This blog was underway long before I got here. It started in 2006, May 30th to be exact, a year after the launch of its parent site, I was working then as head of WHYY’s Arts & Culture Service. About the same time, web manager Rich Baniewicz urged me to start a blog about the city’s creative culture. An opportunity soon presented itself with the 45-day deadline to keep (or lose) Thomas Eakins’ painting, The Gross Clinic. On November 16th I published the first in a series entitled “Eakins Countdown” in an effort to help keep the painting in Philadelphia.

I liked to think the name of that blog, The Sixth Square. was resonant in a city with five original, physical squares. The stated upfront purpose: to “serve as a convener of ideas, a framer of issues, and a source of facts relevant to this important civic conversation.” A few others agreed with this mission. When I left for Temple University in 2008, WHYY kept The Sixth Square alive—for a time.

In 2010, Jonathan Butler invited me to write a weekly column at the Philadelphia clone of his successful Brownstoner Blog in Brooklyn, New York. Thirty-four columns later that project came to an end, but proved again that we had more than enough material, and sufficient interest, to share discoveries about Philadelphia.

Then the folks at Azavea offered me this gig. I jumped right in and got to know many of the city photographers. Some were identified only by partial names: Thum, Primavera, Madill in the 1920s. A few others: D. Alonzo Biggard, Andrew D. Warden and Julius Rosenberg (also in the 1920s). Wenzel J. Hess in the 1930s, Francis Balionis and Atheniasis Mallis in the 1950s. I got to know and appreciate work by Haag, Ebba, Cuneo, and Abuhove. And then there’s the unnamed and immensely talented photographers whose identities may be lost to history. I’m partial to the anonymous master worked on North 7th Street (and elsewhere) in the first decade of the 20th century, producing images that always stand out. The “Row of Houses” illustrated above is more than a document, it’s a testament to architecture, to the poetry of frontality and symmetry.

I got hooked. There’s a rich, wonderful and still untold history to those photographers and their fantastic work. Someday they’ll get their due.

West side of 7th Street – 1340 to Corner of Master Street, August 30, 1904. (PhillyHistory)

The images are more than illustrations. I’d be adrift without the photographs, just as I’d be lost without the foothold of historical research. Where the books and articles help me grasp what I’m looking at, the images offer an aesthetic connection more emotional than informational. When the photographer made a connection with time and place, we get to “feel” the scene, the moment, the time and the place. The images ground the stories, making them readable beyond the words. They enable us to connect place, space and story with an emotional grasp; they are the glue that morphs information into meaning. From my point of view, experiencing that burst of discovery again and again makes the search all the more exciting. When a connection is made, when a nugget of visual realization joins historical narrative, we’ve accomplished something special.

There’s nothing like the combined power of images and narratives.

Which is why blogging has worked (mostly, I think) for a couple of hundred times—and why Rutgers University Press will publish 95 in a book to be entitled Insight Philadelphia. (More on that another day.)

What’s next for me during year seven here at the PhillyHistory Blog? I’ve kept a running list of ideas, a list that I started with every intention of ticking off the topics, and shrinking the list, one by one. But darn if it doesn’t grows longer every time I look at it. And then there are image files I’ve compiled. They grow, too. There are hundreds awaiting research. I have no doubt, if I was so fortunate to write another 200 posts here, or even 400, that there’d still be a long and promising list for the future. That’s the kind of collection the City Archives is. That’s the kind of city Philadelphia is.

I am looking forward to publishing posts on subjects from displacing the pig farmers of South Philadelphia to the manufacturing of subway cars and the evolution of street games. And then there are those images that don’t easily attach themselves to any narrative. Those images can be powerful in what they project, yet weak in that not much can be found out about them. These I keep in a growing file entitled “Too Good To Ignore.” It includes the “Row of Houses” of 1904 (illustrated) and others by the same photographer. And then there’s another file entitled “Word on the Street,” my compilation of signage, painted walls, etc. Pictures just too good to let go of. “West side of 7th Street,” also by the 1904 photographer (illustrated above) is a stellar example. Call it urban visual vernacular. Call it worth the effort.

Turning to the “VOID” photograph (below) as metaphor, I’m pleased to report there’s much more out there in the void. Only some of it is in hand, other of it is yet to be found. But when it is uncovered, I am absolutely certain, there’ll be no shortage of images and stories to reconnect.

That’s the kind of collection the City Archives is. That’s the kind of city Philadelphia is.

Northwest Corner of Broad and Somerset Streets, May 14, 1959. (

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A Century of Selling the Parkway as Cultural Cluster

The Parkway Model, Fairmount from the South, (detail), 1911. (

The lost 30-foot model of the Parkway from 1911 was hardly the first time Philadelphia’s professional, public and political following was wowed in 3-D. In April 1875, Philadelphians enthused over a 40 by 20-foot model of Fairmount Park complete with the Centennial buildings exhibited at the Masonic Temple. And in 1947, the Better Philadelphia Exhibition featured a gigantic, rotating model of the entirety of Center City.

The big idea about the Parkway in 1911? It wasn’t the grand diagonal boulevard. That notion had been around since 1884. (See this image at the Free Library.) New here was the plan “advocated by the Fairmount Park Art Association in 1907 and … formally accepted and approved by the city government in an ordinance by councils, approved September 20, 1909.”  This plan promoted a Parkway, lined, end-to-end, with civic, religious, and cultural institutions, the latter clustering on and at the foot of Fairmount itself.

It was hardly a given that this grandiose, extravagant idea would be widely accepted. And so the opportunity to sell it arrived in the Spring of 1911 when Philadelphia hosted city planners from around the world.

As the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) put it in 1912: “Very satisfactory progress has been made by the movement for improved City Planning, to the promotion of which the energies of the Association have been largely devoted in recent years. The movement is now thoroughly organized on national and even international lines and the Third National Conference on City Planning, which was held in Philadelphia on May 15, 16, and 17, 1911, was much the most important and successful event of this kind that has ever occurred. The conference was held under the joint auspices of the City Government, the Fairmount park Art Association, and the City Parks Association. His Honor Mayor Reyburn gave the conference his cordial and active support and its sessions were held in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall. Out of the fifty cities having a population of over 100,000 in the United States more than forty were represented, a very large and instructive exhibition of the projected improvements planned by the different cities forming one of the most impressive features of the conference. It was the first exhibition of this kind, arranged on any such lines as these, to be held in America and the expressions of appreciation and approval which were elicited from all who attended it were extremely gratifying. Some 900 exhibits were brought together, showing plans for the betterment; partly it is true, on economic and sanitary, but very largely, after all, on artistic, lines of more than one hundred cities of this country, Canada, South America, and Europe. They bore eloquent testimony to the strength and vitality of a great movement in which the Fairmount Park Art Association was one of the first, if not the very first, to lead.”

“The central feature of the exhibition at City Hall was a large model of the Fairmount Parkway constructed in the Bureau of Surveys.” Demolition had been underway since 1907, but this model made it clear that the improvement was not merely about creating a street, or even a boulevard, but a civic and cultural district populated by, according to the model, 18 public buildings of various types stretching from Logan Circle to Fairmount. One would be the Free Library. Another, dominating the Parkway atop Fairmount itself, would be the “Municipal Art Gallery” – a/k/a the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Parkway Model, Fairmount from the West, (detail), 1911. (

At the time, only two institutions, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Roman Catholic Cathedral, were in place. Over the next several years, no less than 22 institutions several would at least consider relocating to the Parkway. The comprehensive array included the American Catholic Union; American Philosophical Society; Architecture Department of the University of Pennsylvania; Art Club; Boy Scout Headquarters; Cathedral (Episcopal); Central Manual Training School; Convention Hall; Franklin Institute; Free Library of Philadelphia; Johnson Collection; Medico-Chirurgical Hospital; Museum of Commerce and Industry; Pennsylvania Museum’s School of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia College of Pharmacy; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Post Office; Rodin Museum; School Administration Building; Temple University; Wills Eye Institute.

The city built the Parkway, though only six institutions of the 22 listed above (those in bold) came.

At the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, the notion of a cultural cluster of Parkway-based cultural destinations had a revival. A contingent led by Mayor Ed Rendell attempted to persuade the estate of sculptor Alexander Calder to relocate its collections in a promised new museum on the Parkway. That idea failed. And in 2002, 95 years after the idea of the cultural cluster first surfaced, Rebecca W. Rimel, president of Pew Charitable Trusts, claimed that if the way could be cleared to move the Barnes Foundation to the Parkway from Merion, “Philadelphia will have a “magic museum mile.” The Barnes opened at 19th Street and the Parkway in 2012, 101 years after the big idea was first promoted.

[Sources:  David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989); Fairmount Art Association, Fortieth Annual Report of the Board of Trustees, (Philadelphia, 1912); Patricia Horn and Patrick Kerkstra, “Barnes Wants to Move Art Collection to Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 2002; Edward Sozanski, “Rendell Courting Museum of Alexander Calder Works,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 29, 1999.]


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