Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia


Artifact: Face Shield

shield07Plexiglas face shield with embedded bullet, c. 1960s. (Philadelphia History Museum Collection, transfer from Fire Arms Identification Unit, Philadelphia Police Department, 1991, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

This face shield for a police helmet is made of Plexiglas. Whenever it has been on exhibit at the Philadelphia History Museum, it has attracted the attention of visitors, especially boys. Especially fascinating is the bullet that can be seen lodged in the center of the shield. Fired from a gun at close range in a test for the Philadelphia Police Department, the bullet stopped just millimeters from breaking through the inside of the mask. The bullet hit the Plexiglas, which is just under a half of an inch thick, started to melt the plastic, and then expanded and began to break apart. Other, thinner versions of the mask were tested, and they either shattered on impact or managed to slow bullets that melted the Plexi.

This mask came to the Philadelphia History Museum in 1991 from the Firearms Identification Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department, but it is also part of the region’s history of industrial innovation. Plexiglas is a trade or brand name for a clear acrylic plastic developed in the 1930s by the Rohm and Haas Company, based in Philadelphia. Described by company president Otto Rohm (1876-1939) as “organic glass,” Plexiglas is thermoplastic, meaning that it can be heated and then molded or formed into many shapes. It can be worked using readily available tools such as drills and saws. Plexiglas, along with other acrylic plastics such as Lucite and Perspex, had a great impact on everyday life and specialized manufacturing during the second half of the twentieth century

Rohm and Haas began developing its clear acrylic plastics in the early 1930s at the company’s facilities in Darmstadt, Germany, and in Bristol, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. Production of sheets of Plexiglas began in Darmstadt in 1934 and at the Bristol facility in 1936.  While it is one thing to develop a new material, it is quite another find uses for it. Early uses for Plexiglas were in spectacles, display cases, and lighting fixtures. Plexiglas got a big boost at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where many products using Plexiglas were displayed. The General Motors pavilion at the fair had an illuminated sign made of Plexiglas and inside a Pontiac with a Plexiglas body allowed visitors to see the automobile’s inner workings.

[caption id="attachment_23066" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of workers in a bomb assembly plant. The nose of a World War II bomber is made ready for the installation of Plexiglas at a bomber plant in Willow Run, Michigan, in 1942. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

By far the biggest market for Plexiglas was with the military. In 1938 Rohm and Haas sold almost half a million dollars’ worth of Plexiglas, 80 percent of it for use in military aircraft.  Sales soared after the start of World War II, as the military used Plexiglas in bombardier and gunner enclosures, gunner turrets, in side windows and in the tail assemblies of thousands of planes. By 1944, Rohm and Haas sales of Plexiglas reached $22 million, virtually all of it from the military. 

After the Second World War, sales of Plexiglas fell drastically (in 1947, its largest market came from manufacturers in need of clear covers for juke boxes). The company returned to promoting the pre-war uses of Plexiglas in spectacles, light fixtures, and architecture. A major breakthrough for the future came when Dr. Stanton Kelton Jr. (1915-93), a member of the Plexiglas production laboratory, found a dye for Plexiglas molding powder that would not fade with exposure to light. Plexiglas molding powder became the industry standard in the production of tail lights for American automobiles.

Colored Plexiglas also spelled the end of neon signs and altered the urban landscape in the United States and around the world. Before World War II, a sign could be illuminated in one of two ways: by shining a light directly on it or by using neon-filled glass tubes to outline or trace design elements. With the advent of colored sheets of Plexiglas, it became possible to make signs using layers of the colored plastic, and they could be lit internally. Sales of Plexiglas for signs took off in 1948 after Underwriters Laboratories (an independent testing company that cities and insurance companies rely on) developed standards for the use of Plexiglas in signs.

[caption id="attachment_13204" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph showing a large group of police lining the streets. There is a car on the street in the middle of the image, and some people not dressed in police uniforms throughout the crowd. Police, shown here during the 1964 Columbia Avenue riot, sought greater protection from urban unrest during the 1960s. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The object pictured on this page represents an experiment with Plexiglas that did not quite work out. Dating from the late 1960s, when the Philadelphia Police Department sought greater protection for officers facing angry crowds during street demonstrations, it is a Plexiglas face shield for a police helmet. Police helmets already used Plexiglas face shields, but the city of Philadelphia approached the Rohm and Haas Company to see if it could help develop something that could stop a bullet fired at close range. The Department tested a number of face shields of increasing thickness, and this one finally stopped a bullet. Face shields like this one were never used, however, because they proved impractical in another way: weighing just over three and one half pounds, they were too heavy for officers to carry along with their other equipment. Although the experiment failed, it foreshadowed the subsequent use of Plexiglas and other clear plastics as “bandit barriers” to deter robberies of banks and stores.

When the first sheets of clear Plexiglas rolled off the machines in Darmstadt and Bristol, no one knew what its uses would be. Was anyone thinking about jukeboxes in the 1930s, much less bombardier enclosures or millions of back-lit signs? The many uses of Plexiglas developed by Rohm and Haas demonstrated innovation in technology, a hallmark of Philadelphia industry.  The region’s innovators have included such industrialists as saw manufacturer Henry Disston (1898-78), hat-maker John B. Stetson (1830-96), and radio builder A. Atwater Kent (1873-1949).  As they built companies that employed thousands of Philadelphians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like the maker of Plexiglas they each used creative intelligence and technology to develop products that met contemporary needs. 

Text by Jeffrey Ray, Senior Curator of the Philadelphia History Museum for 29 years and now retired.  He keeps himself busy teaching at the University of the Arts, Drexel University, and St. Joseph’s University.

Click here to watch a Rohm and Haas film, "Looking Ahead Through Plexiglas" (1947, via YouTube).


Artifact: Medicine Chest

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Medicine Chest, circa 1830. (Philadelphia History Museum Collection, Friends Historical Association Collection, 1987, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

This artifact serves as a witness to nineteenth-century medical practices. Resembling a large jewelry box, the domestic medicine chest opens on a hinge from the top to reveal twelve compartments of descending size. The compartments are filled with glass bottles sealed with glass stoppers. A drawer pulls out to reveal five more compartments for smaller containers and mixing tools. At the time of the chest’s use, the bottles would have been filled with various medicinal mixtures believed to mitigate, or in some cases, to cure physical suffering.  Some of the bottled remedies may have included peppermint water, used to treat vomiting and diarrhea; lavender, used for digestive ailments and treating depression; and Epsom salts, which were used as laxatives and anti-inflammatory agents.

[caption id="attachment_22024" align="alignright" width="200"]Stephen Grellet, owner of the medicine chest. (Illustration from a biography published in France in 1873, Wikimedia Commons) Stephen Grellet, owner of the medicine chest. (Illustration from a biography published in France in 1873, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

This medicine chest belonged to Stephen Grellet (1773-1855), a French-born Quaker who lived in the Philadelphia region for several years. The inside lid of the box is lined with a bluish-green fabric worn out from years of use. The chest’s portable nature is highlighted by the presence of a rectangular metal handle built into the top of the object.  Scratches on the exterior wood finish attest to the object’s frequent use during the extraordinary lifetime of its owner.

During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, as residents of urban centers battled epidemics like the cholera outbreak that claimed 935 victims in Philadelphia in 1832, this type of medicine chest would have been a common possession in city homes. The boxes were sold by apothecaries, and demand increased with the summertime onslaughts of diseases that thrived in overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions. This intriguing example of one such personal medicine chest is part of the Friends Historical Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of History at the Atwater Kent.

Grellet was neither a physician nor a pharmacist but a Quaker missionary who ministered to his charges both spiritually and physically. Born Etienne de Grellet du Mabillier in Limoges, France, Grellet fled his motherland in 1793 to escape the violence of revolutionary France. After a brief sojourn in South America, he sailed north and took up residence on Long Island in 1795. While visiting the house of a local British Quaker and his French-speaking daughter, Grellet became acquainted with the writings of William Penn (1644-1718). Profoundly affected by a mystical experience that also occurred around this time, Grellet began to attend divine worship at the local Friends Meeting House. He dropped his noble French appellation and henceforth referred to himself simply as “Stephen Grellet.”

[caption id="attachment_22041" align="alignright" width="300"]Grellet came to Philadelphia in the 1790s, an era portrayed in a series of prints by William Birch. This view depicts Second and Market Streets, looking north. (Library of Congress) Grellet came to Philadelphia in the 1790s, an era portrayed in a series of prints by William Birch. This view depicts Second and Market Streets, looking north. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Toward the end of 1795 Grellet moved to the new nation’s capital city, Philadelphia. Now a confirmed Quaker, he regularly attended meetings at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. He embarked on a profession as an educator of the French language for the local population. Grellet’s first experience as a Quaker healer may have come in 1798 during an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia. In his memoirs, Grellet wrote that during a trip to Cape May, New Jersey, he felt and intense calling by God to return to the city to minister to the sick. During such urban epidemics, it was more common for those who had sufficient resources to flee the cities to avoid illness. Grellet, however, at the age of 25, reentered the stricken city and visited the dwellings of many infected citizens. Although Philadelphia’s most devastating yellow fever epidemic had occurred in 1793, Grellet’s account of the 1798 oubreak paints a dismal scene of a desolate city inhabited mostly by the sick and dying, many of whom had been abandoned by family members and friends. Even nurses could not be readily obtained, leaving to non-professionals the burden of administering medicinal remedies and burying the deceased.

The medicine chest pictured above has been dated to circa 1830, indicating that Grellet would have used it later in his life and ministry. Alhough Grellet spent much of his adult life on missionary travels abroad, he spent most of 1830 at home with his family in Burlington, New Jersey, in a house built by Grellet’s father-in-law, the Revolutionary era printer Isaac Collins (1746-1817). In June 1831 Grellet departed on his fourth European missionary tour, which took him and possibly his medicine chest to England, the Rhineland, southern France, and Spain. Before returning home in July 1834, Grellet and his companions visited several hospitals, prisons and asylums in Europe, where they advised local and national magistrates on how to improve sanitary and social conditions in these institutions. In similar travels in the United States, Grellet he proclaimed the message of the Christian Gospel, attended and led Friends Meetings, and pleaded with local governments to provide humane environments for all human beings.  Grellet, like most Quakers, was also a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery.

Stephen Grellet’s medicine chest is a microcosm of a unique world on the verge of monumental change. The artifact holds poignant clues to mid-nineteenth century medical practice.  As the century progressed, advances in medicine  eventually lead to the understanding of germ theory and great improvements in medical practices and public sanitation. Humanitarian missions like those of Stephen Grellet led to improvements in hospital and prison care as well as the abolition of slavery.  The well-traveled chest serves as a testimony to a little-known French connection between Philadelphia and the world.

Text by Christina Virok, an educator and graduate student in the History Department at Villanova University.


Artifact: Atwater Kent Radio

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Radio manufactured in 1923 by A. Atwater Manufacturing Company. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Gift of Roy Shapiro Family, 2014, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

With all the necessary components mounted and displayed on a wooden board, this 1923 Atwater Kent breadboard radio appealed to the curious consumer fascinated by new technology. A harbinger of both technological and social advancements, the advent of the radio drastically changed Philadelphians’ means of communication and connection to communities beyond their front stoop. Founded by A. Atwater Kent (1873-1949), the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company operated in Philadelphia from 1902 to 1936. In order to keep up with ever-evolving machinery, Atwater Kent introduced seven different “breadboard” radio models in 1923 alone. This radio, Model 4052, was the fourth installment.

A breadboard radio, so named for its wooden cutting board-like base, lacks any form of external casing. All of the hardware required to power the radio, receive radio signals, and amplify those signals is installed on top of the wooden board. The tuning dial sits at the far left with the Radio Frequency (RF) Amplifier directly next to it. To operate this radio, a user would need to connect an antenna to the tuner to attract the radio signals, which would filter through the RF Amplifier to be converted to a higher power signal. The potentiometer and transformer sitting to the right of the RF Amplifier fine-tuned the radio signal to make it suitable for home use. These elements were all wired together underneath the board, so they were very easy to assemble. Designed to be simple and utilitarian, the breadboard radio layout kept prices low and parts easily replaceable.

Unlike most other modern appliances, this breadboard radio could not simply be plugged into the wall (the first 110-volt electric radio was not invented until 1926). All of the early Atwater Kent models ran on batteries that connected to the wiring beneath the board. These batteries were large, heavy, and messy—they often leaked acid right on to the living room floor. In addition to leaking acid, the batteries did not hold a charge for very long, so families would keep two sets to swap out a freshly charged pair when necessary.

Once thoroughly charged, the Model 4052 radio had enough battery power to drive a horn or cone speaker. It connected directly to the amplifier, the piece on the right end of the board with the three tubes on top. Earlier models could only connect to headphones for one person to listen at a time, but with the horn and cone speakers, whole families could listen to radio programs, news broadcasts, or music at the same time. In fact, the acclaimed Atwater Kent Hour, a music program broadcast by the company featuring popular orchestral music, had one of the biggest audiences of the 1920s.

[caption id="attachment_20513" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of two Atwater Kent buildings. In 1924, Atwater Kent Manufacturing moved to a new plant at 4745 Wissahickon Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia and eventually expanded to thirty-two acres there. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the early 1920s, breadboard radios were marketed to hobbyists looking to experiment with new technology. They were sold in inexpensive kits and meant to be assembled at home. By 1925, Atwater Kent radio sets ranged in price anywhere from $14 to $5,000. While the wealthier classes of Philadelphia owned enclosed and ornate radio sets by the mid-1920s, radio parts and wiring remained relatively inexpensive for working class families who wanted to build their own. Factory workers of Fishtown could listen to the same news and music as the socialites of Rittenhouse Square.

[caption id="attachment_2307" align="alignright" width="300"]Skilled workers assemble radios at the Atwater Kent factory. (Library of Congress) Skilled workers assemble radios at the Atwater Kent factory. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

By 1925, the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company was the largest maker of radios in America, employing 12,000 people in its Germantown factory. The company began to market enclosed sets, and in 1927, it offered AC-powered radios that ran on in-home electricity. Atwater Kent began manufacturing bigger and more elaborate receivers to keep up with consumer trends, until the stock market crashed in 1929. The Great Depression took its toll on Atwater Kent, and after six long years of declining sales, the company finally ceased operations in 1936.

Although A. Atwater Kent relocated to Los Angeles, Calif., after the company’s dismantling, his legacy lived on in his commitment to the history of Philadelphia. In 1938, Kent purchased the former headquarters building of the Franklin Institute near Seventh and Market Streets for the purpose of creating a museum of Philadelphia’s history. Renamed the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent in 2012, the museum amassed more than 100,000 objects related to Philadelphia’s social history, including this breadboard radio designed by its founder.

Text by Chelsea Clarke Reed, jazz vocalist in the Philadelphia area and public history graduate student at Temple University’s Center for Public History.


Artifact: Philly the Dog

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Philly, the official mascot of Company A, 315th Infantry, 79th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. (Taxidermy specimen, Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, transferred by the 315th Regiment, 1998, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

Although the formal engagement of the United States in World War I was limited, Philly the dog reveals a Philadelphia story of that global conflict. Preserved as a historical artifact, Philly is about sixteen inches tall, and with the mount, she stands at 18.5 inches. The mount reveals that Philly was born in 1917 and died in 1932. The blue blanket that drapes her back states that she was a World War I veteran, a member of the 79th Infantry Regiment. During her fifteen-year lifespan, Philly experienced far more than a typical dog, having gone to war and returned to the Philadelphia area. She traveled to France, witnessed and aided in battle, survived gunshots and chemical warfare, had puppies, and became the official mascot for soldiers from the Philadelphia area.

[caption id="attachment_15514" align="alignright" width="300"]Troops return to Philadelphia from service in the Great War. (Library Company of Philadelphia) Troops return to Philadelphia from service in the Great War. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Philly was a stray puppy when she was found in Maryland by a soldier of the 315th Infantry Regiment who intended to give the dog to a commanding officer as a bribe, in order to avoid disciplinary action. Whether the officer took the bribe is unclear, but the 315th Infantry Regiment of the 79th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces (also known as “Philadelphia’s Own”) befriended Philly and smuggled her to France. The soldiers of “Philadelphia’s Own” found companionship in Philly, while living far from family, friends, and daily comforts of civilian life. Philly also played a significant role as a soldier. After a day in the trenches, the soldiers from North Philadelphia were resting when Philly began to bark. She warned the regiment of a sneak attack by German soldiers, saving her fellow soldiers from a potentially deadly scene and becoming a war hero. During her time in France, she was gassed and shot, and consequently she was awarded two Purple Hearts. After the war, Philly went to live with Sergeant Charles J. Hermann in Philadelphia. She attended parades and regiment reunions, like other veterans, until her death in 1932.

Sergeant Hermann wanted to preserve Philly, but he could not afford to take her to a taxidermist, given the economic downturn of the 1930s Depression. Instead, he buried her beneath his driveway until the 315th alumni finally exhumed her and had her mounted. Philly remained at the 79th Infantry Division’s headquarters through World War II, and then she went missing for a few years. Soldiers and veterans found her for the 315th Infantry Regiment’s fiftieth anniversary in 1967, and she remained in the battalion commander’s office until military downsizing dismantled the 315th Infantry Regiment in 1995.

Before handing Philly over to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the regiment sent her to a taxidermist to have her restored. By the time the taxidermist was finished, the 315th Infantry Regiment was gone and the archive no longer wanted her. By 1998, Philly had a new home at the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent (then known as the Atwater Kent Museum), where she gained new popularity as an artifact that reveals a story of Philadelphia’s experience with World War I.

Text by Minju Bae, the 2014-2015 Allen Davis Fellow at the Philadelphia History Museum and a PhD student in the History Department of Temple University.

Click on the base of the object to learn more about the war in which Philly served.


Artifact: Draft Drum

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Civil War Draft Drum, likely used in the First and Second Districts of Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

A number of Civil War-era draft drums (often referred to during the period as “draft wheels,” “draft boxes,” or “wheels of destiny”) have survived around the United States. New York City draft drums have become especially prized because of their relationship with that city’s draft riot in 1863. While reaction to the draft in Philadelphia was not nearly as dramatic, the Philadelphia drum pictured here, likely used in the FIrst and Second Congressional Districts (but possibly throughout the city), serves as a reminder of how Philadelphians dealt with the draft and ultimately how a majority of Philadelphians came to support the war effort despite antebellum political and economic connections to the South similar to New York.

[caption id="attachment_19492" align="alignright" width="300"]This scene of the draft in New York, published in 1863, depicts the use of a draft drum. (Library of Congress) This scene of the draft in New York, published in 1863, depicts the use of a draft drum. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

When Congress passed the Militia Act in July 1862, authorizing states to draft from their militias to fill each state’s quota of volunteers, Philadelphians had not experienced a draft or a direct military threat since the War of 1812. Most Philadelphians could not remember a time when there had been a draft, and few remembered details of past militia laws. During the Revolution and the War of 1812, Philadelphians had been subject militia drafts. During the Revolution, all white males between the ages of 18 and 53 were subject to the draft. When called, drafted men could hire substitutes to take their place. If the person was drafted into the militia he was expected to serve two months, but if he was drafted into the Continental Line, he was expected to serve seven or nine months. During the War of 1812, drafted militiamen were expected to serve no more than three months. After the War of 1812, the term was extended to a maximum of six months, but that never affected Philadelphians. When the new law in 1862 called for draftees to serve nine months, it was not an unprecedented amount of time, but Philadelphians would have needed  long memories to recall the last time they had been asked for that period of service.

Few Philadelphians doubted the legality of the draft, but some Philadelphians, typically “Peace” Democrats who questioned the conduct and necessity of the war, opposed it. In response, some Philadelphia Republicans and members of the National Union Party (a pro-Union Philadelphia coalition party made up of Whigs, Republicans, and disaffected Democrats) argued that mass conscription was necessary to win the war. To back up their claims, they cited the success of Napoleon’s conscripted army and reminded other Philadelphians that only fifty years earlier, there was, in fact, a draft. Nearly all Philadelphians agreed that a draft would fall hard upon Philadelphia’s middle and lower classes and the effect of the draft would have to be mitigated in some way.

[caption id="attachment_19493" align="alignright" width="300"]Recruiting fairs such as this one in Independence Square, photographed in 1862 photograph, helped to minimize the impact of the draft in Philadelphia. (Library Company of Philadelphia) Recruiting fairs such as this one in Independence Square, photographed in 1862, helped to minimize the impact of the draft in Philadelphia. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

For many, the best way to mitigate the effects of the draft was to avoid it all together. Drawing upon Philadelphia’s earlier experience with the draft and the city’s tradition of volunteerism, Philadelphians began raising money to pay incentives to men willing to enlist voluntarily. Eager to display Philadelphia’s patriotism to the rest of the country and spurred on by fears of social unrest and dislocation connected with the draft, Philadelphians participated in ward meetings to encourage suitable men to volunteer, raise bounties for enlistees, and raise funds to take care of families that might be affected by the draft. By 1862, war contracts had inaugurated a period of prosperity in the city that lasted until the end of the war, and this enabled elites, the middle class, and portions of the working class to donate to bounty funds and later to pay their way out of the draft entirely.

In August 1862, deputy provost marshals enrolled Philadelphia’s white males aged 18-45 into the militia. It was probably around this time that the draft drum pictured here, now in the Philadelphia History Museum’s collections, was built for use in at least the First and Second Congressional Districts. These two districts were nearly opposites when it came to the wealth of their inhabitants. The First Congressional District included the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Wards (Moyamensing and Southwark), and the riverfront portions of Northern Liberties and Philadelphia city districts east of Seventh Street; the Second Congressional District covered the First, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Wards, essentially everything below Wharton Street bounded by the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers plus the area between South and Vine Streets west of Seventh Street to the Schuylkill. The Second District, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted in 1863, had perhaps “the greatest wealth in the city” and “the aristocratical mansions of Walnut, Chestnut and Arch streets.” In contrast to the upper and middle class residents, relatively new housing, and spaciousness of the Second District, the densely populated, mostly working-class First District had a reputation as a slum with buildings that were among the oldest in the city.

In this era following the city consolidation of 1854 and redistricting, the First District was typically a Democratic stronghold, with many immigrant, working-class voters, while the Second District typically voted Whig. After the Whigs dissolved in the 1850s, the Second District voted Democratic in 1861, but then shifted in 1863 to the National Union Party as many of the district’s voters remained suspicious of the anti-slavery Republicans As the war and the draft unfolded, the two districts became Philadelphia’s barometer of the city’s pro-war or anti-war feeling. If any active resistance to the war was going to appear, it was widely assumed that it would happen in one of these districts, but particularly the 1st.

The only major violence associated with the draft in Philadelphia during the entire war took place not in 1863, as might be expected, but on August 29, 1862, in one of the wards that used this draft wheel: the Second Ward of the First Congressional District. When marshals began enrolling men into the militia, they were pelted with rocks by men and women near Eleventh and Montrose Streets in South Philadelphia. Injuries and arrests resulted, but no fatalities. Military provost marshals and city police quickly quashed even the slightest evidence of resistance.

By the time the draft in Philadelphia approached in September 1862, the city was a hectic place: Philadelphians raced to build their bounty fund and to enroll as many volunteers as possible to fill the city’s quota and avoid a draft. At the same time they steeled themselves to resist a possible Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. By the end of September, news of the Confederate invasion of Maryland and subsequent Union victory at the Battle of Antietam overshadowed the draft. Finally, after several postponements to allow for continued recruiting and to double-check recruitment numbers, Philadelphia’s draft was canceled because the city had met its quota through volunteers.

By the end of 1862, the United States government determined that it still needed more men to crush the rebellion A new law passed in March 1863, the Enrollment Act, seemed to some citizens like a radical break with the past. Draftees would serve for three years, but like earlier American drafts, the new law provided incentives to enlist as well as many mechanisms to avoid service that largely favored the well-off. While those who created the law considered a fee of $300 to avoid service to be well within the means of working men, it seemed to many in Philadelphia’s poor and working class that the rich and poor bore unequal burdens in a fight for the freedom and equality of African Americans. Philadelphia Peace Democrats had always argued that the Republicans were would-be tyrants and that the war was being fought for the equality and freedom of African-Americans. Now, with the Emancipation Proclamation and harsher and occasionally unprecedented war measures like the draft, they thought that their predictions of Republican tyranny had come true and encouraged resistance. In Democratic areas, such as the First Congressional District, Philadelphians went to great lengths, including changing names and locations, to avoid the draft. In contrast, Republican papers argued that conscription had precedents and the draft was necessary to win the war and was generally accepted in Republican districts.

In 1863, as in the year before, Philadelphians relied on volunteerism to avoid the draft with little in supplementary funds from Philadelphia’s city budget. Rallies raised money to increase enlistment bounties and to provide for soldiers’ families. By July 1863, however, as bounties inflated nation-wide, it became apparent that a draft would be necessary. As Philadelphians celebrated the Union’s victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Miss., they began to prepare for their first draft in nearly fifty years, scheduled for mid-July.

[caption id="attachment_19496" align="alignright" width="300"]Illustration of New York City draft riots Philadelphians feared that the violent draft riots in New York might be repeated in Philadelphia. (New York Public Library)[/caption]

Meanwhile, news also arrived of the violence in New York City on July 13, two days after the start of that city’s draft. Philadelphians feared a similar outbreak of violence in Democratic and immigrant neighborhoods. Even after the draft began in Philadelphia without signs of imminent violence, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Recorder, warned its readers that white Philadelphians would “not only resist the draft, but will pounce upon the colored people as they did in New York, and elsewhere.” Like New York, Philadelphia had strong political ties to the Southern Democratic Party, economic ties to slavery, and abolitionists who had been targets of ire by many of the city’s whites. However, unlike New York, much of Philadelphia’s anger had shifted away from abolitionists and the nascent Republican Party toward secessionists and people perceived to be their abettors, Philadelphia’s “Peace” Democrats. Further, the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg elated the city and quieted the war’s critics.

[caption id="attachment_19494" align="alignright" width="245"]Portrait of General George Cadwalader Philadelphia elites had confidence that General George Cadwalader, shown here, would quell disturbances. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Fearing the same sort of violence that New York was experiencing, the First Congressional District’s Provost Marshall, former Democratic Congressman William Eckart Lehman (1821-95), warned that the “1st Dist[rict] contains the worst population in the state, and reports are brought to us (but what they are worth is hard to say) of threats of riot, accumulations of arms, etc.” To discourage trouble, the Army sent several regiments of infantry and cavalry and several batteries of artillery to Philadelphia, although they did not arrive until after the draft had begun. Lincoln appointed a popular Philadelphia Democrat, General George Cadwalader (1806-79), as commander of the Philadelphia military district. Cadwalader, a scion of one of Philadelphia’s most powerful families, a Mexican War hero, and the antebellum commander of Philadelphia’s militia, had led the militia that put down the 1844 nativist riots. City elites confidently expected that he would do the same for any draft-related riots.

With an expanded, empowered police department, provost marshals, soldiers ensuring order, and a predominantly loyal city, Philadelphia experienced no notably violent draft-related disturbances from 1863 until the end of the war.
The draft began as scheduled in “loyal” districts in mid-July. Even in purportedly less fractious areas, like the Frankford section of Philadelphia, military forces monitored the execution of the draft to deter to any would-be rioters. The draft did not reach the First or Second Congressional Districts until July 28, and by then tension had declined to the point that troops stationed in Philadelphia for the draft were sent elsewhere. Philadelphia emergency troops raised to meet the Confederate invasion were sent to the anthracite coal district in Northeast and North Central Pennsylvania to guard against any draft disturbances there. When the draft finally reached the First and Second Congressional Districts, it went over with an ease that defied expectations.

The mechanism for the draft in these districts, and possibly most of Philadelphia, was the draft drum at the top of this page. This drum, resembling a cheese box or hat box of the period, was described during the period as “a box” and a “wheel.” While we cannot be certain, evidence suggests that this draft drum was used throughout most of the city because accounts of draft drums used in other congressional districts describe a similar, easily portable “tin wheel” of “about two feet in diameter.” Because of its light weight and portable construction, it could have been easily transported from congressional district to congressional district. With the exception of the days the draft was held in the Fifth Congressional District, which also included parts of Bucks County, the draft took place in Philadelphia one precinct at a time, so only one draft drum would have been necessary to carry out the draft for most of Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_19498" align="alignright" width="300"]Sheet music about the draft "The wheel is turning round, boys," this song calls out to Philadelphia's potential draftees. "Hark the drum is rolling, the rebs you soon will see." (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Use of the draft drum followed a standard process. On the day of the draft, the drum was moved to a platform outside the provost marshal’s office in the congressional district where a ward’s draft was to take place. A crowd of usually a few hundred people gathered to watch the proceedings, which were also attended by the provost marshal, all of the draft commissioners, and other ward representatives. Slips of paper, each of with the name of an eligible man, were placed inside the drum and then jumbled by turning the crank for several minutes. To ensure fairness, representatives of the ward’s political parties observed on the platform, and a blind man placed his hand inside the drum’s opening to pick out the names. After the ward filled its quota, typically after several hours, officials counted the unpicked slips of paper to further verify the fairness of the proceedings.

The draft in the First District did not erupt in violence, contrary to Provost Marshal Lehman’s fears. If the Republican-friendly newspapers were accurate, the 1st and 2nd Districts showed evidence of enthusiasm. In the Fifth Ward of the First District, the Inquirer reported, “Mr. Parvin [the blind person chosen to pick names out of the wheel] sang ‘the Lafayette Song,’ which he stated he sang when he was ten years of age—during LaFayette’s visit to this country. At the conclusion he was called on by the crowd for the Star Spangled Banner, which he also sang with great spirit. The crowd then dispersed amid great enthusiasm.” As the draft continued, newspapers began to compare Philadelphia and New York again, only this time to put Philadelphia’s loyalty in sharp relief. Philadelphians happily contrasted their enthusiasm and order with New York’s bloody riots: “The Quaker city may congratulate itself that the proud name which it has earned as a law-abiding people received new distinction,” the Inquirer boasted.

By early August 1863, Philadelphia completed its draft. More than 20,000 men had been chosen from Philadelphia’s five congressional districts. Those selected had several weeks to hire a substitute, pay a $300 commutation fee, or to show medical reasons that made them not fit for the service. According to historian J. Matthew Gallman, of the tens of thousands chosen, only 21 percent (4,169) were made to join the Army, find a substitute, or pay a $300 commutation fee. Of that total the far majority chose to find a substitute or to pay the $300 commutation fee as only 343 people drafted actually entered the Army Compared to the rest of the state, Gallman concluded, in 1863 Philadelphia and Bucks County (which was part of the shared Fifth Congressional District) provided 28.8 percent of Pennsylvania’s quota but only 9.8 percent of Pennsylvania’s draftees, a testament to the effectiveness of the Philadelphia’s voluntarism and wealth.

To keep Philadelphia’s bounties competitive with neighboring areas, the City Council began paying a greater share of bounties as voluntarism could no longer keep pace. In 1864, the city dedicated nearly half of its budget to pay bounties and support families of soldiers. The lucrative bounties, often around $1,000, enabled Philadelphia to weather the drafts of 1864 with little problem. After the Union asked for 500,000 more volunteers in February 1864, only the Fifth Congressional District was forced to draft, and only fifteen men were forced to serve. By February 1865, when the last draft took place in Philadelphia, the rebellion was nearly crushed. The draft took place in the First, Second, and Fifth districts, and it provided a little under 500 men.

After 1865, Philadelphians did not participate in another draft until 1917 (for World War I) and then 1940 (prior to U.S. entry into World War II). By that time, memories of the Civil War draft had faded, along with this draft drum. Sometime after 1865, this draft wheel was donated to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. During renovations in October 1940, it was rediscovered along with posters offering bounties to men who would volunteer instead of waiting to be drafted. Coming to light merely weeks after the enactment of the first peacetime draft in American history, the wheel and posters became relevant again and displayed in an exhibit about Philadelphia’s Civil War-era recruiting practices. Never again lost from memory, the draft drum remained in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s artifacts collection, later transferred to the Philadelphia History Museum.

Text by Matthew C. White, who earned his M.A. in history at Rutgers University-Camden.


Artifact: Imported Teacup

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Painted porcelain teacup, Chinese export ware, likely early twentieth century. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, gift of William H. Noble Jr., 1950, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

A staggering number of figures are crammed tightly onto only half of this teacup. Upon closer inspection, it appears that all thirteen men bear a striking resemblance to one another. Are they related to one another, or did they fall victim to the hand of a hurried artist? What exactly is going on in this tableau?

[caption id="attachment_23415" align="alignright" width="300"]The Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull. (Architect of the Capitol) The Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull. (Architect of the Capitol)[/caption]

The scene rendered in porcelain above is an interpretation of the John Trumbull (1756-1843) painting, The Declaration of Independence, which portrays the signing of the Declaration by members of the Continental Congress in the Pennsylvania State House. In the painting, Trumbull took a few architectural liberties when he rendered the Assembly Room. Not all of the men Trumbull depicted were present at the same time, five of them never signed the document, and fourteen of the original signers were omitted altogether. After its completion in 1818, the painting was placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. It became one of the most, if not the most, iconic depictions of the signing and was reproduced innumerable times throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

The teacup has an inverted-bell shape, a footed base, and is decorated with a range of colors. Some of the paint has chipped off, but a band of blue stars and alternating purple and pink flowers is still visible on inside lip of the cup. A lack of space on the outside of the cup reduces Trumbull’s forty-seven men to thirteen. They are assembled around two tables upon which rest a book and sheet of paper. Perhaps owing to a need for an economy of effort on the part of the artist, the men wear nearly identical black jackets and white shirts, but their breeches are painted in a variety of colors; blue, purple, yellow, and pink. Barely visible in the background are a light green ground and two brown frames, suggesting doors or windows. A version of the American seal graces the other side of the cup, complete with eagle; red, white, and blue shield; olive branch; and clutch of arrows.  The eagle holds a banner bearing the words “The Declaration of Independence” in its beak. The cartouche under the eagle displays the date 1776.

[caption id="attachment_23417" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of a plate and teacup. Similarly painted pieces have been donated to other museums, including these in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)[/caption]

Approximately seventy-five pieces similar in decoration to this teacup are in the collections of American museums. The miscellany of dishes includes cups, saucers, small pitchers, and at least one tureen, and it is believed that the pieces were created independently of one another. That is, there was never a set of Declaration of Independence porcelain. The highest concentration of Chinese porcelain bearing this design is held by the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington, Delaware, and was purchased by Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) in 1948 from Dr. James McClure Henry (1880-1958), a Presbyterian missionary. Henry had procured them from a single dealer in Canton (Guangzhou), China between 1939 and 1947.

This teacup was a gift from William H. Noble Jr. (1901-92) to the Atwater Kent Museum--later renamed the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent--in 1950.  Noble, a native of Palestine, Texas, later moved to Philadelphia, where he was employed as a lecturer by the University of Pennsylvania Museum as early as 1938. At the onset of World War II, Noble enlisted in the United States Navy. He served in the Office of Naval Attaché in Istanbul, Turkey, from September 9, 1942, to January 5, 1945, and as the Assistant Naval Attaché in Canton, China, from December 1945 to July 1946, when he was discharged from service. His resumed his interest in Philadelphia’s museums after the war. In 1950 the University of Pennsylvania Press published his ninety-six page pamphlet, Philadelphia’s Treasure Houses: A Guide to Museums Open to the Public. It is possible that Noble bought the teacup when du Pont was selling pieces of Declaration of Independence porcelain, or he might have purchased it earlier when he was stationed in Canton. One can easily imagine a Naval officer with a passion for history, museums, and artifacts being drawn to the patriotic imagery on this teacup.

Although often identified as objects related to the surge of patriotism fed by the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, scholars now believe that the dishes were created between the 1920s and 1940s, shortly before Henry procured his cache. In their research, Ronald W. Fuchs II and Jennifer L. Mass found no porcelain with the distinctive pattern in the historic record prior to 1955, when an exhibit catalog referenced two of the Winterthur pieces.

The most conclusive body of evidence comes from an energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF) Mass performed on pieces of the Declaration of Independence porcelain as well as on pieces from President Ulysses S. Grant’s 1869 dinner service. Chromium and zinc levels in the green, cobalt, and black enamel in the depiction of the Declaration of Independence do not correspond to the levels found in nineteenth-century Chinese-made porcelain, but rather to levels of pieces that are irrefutably dated to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  

Although the teacup was not among the constellation of souvenirs created for the 1876 Centennial celebration, it is indicative of Philadelphia’s leading role in the global economy from its earliest days. Colonial Americans were well acquainted with Chinese porcelain thanks to European merchants who imported pieces from the sixteenth century onward. Prominent Philadelphian Robert Morris (1734-1806) backed the first American vessel to initiate direct trade with China, The Empress China, which set sail from New York to China in February 1784. When the ship returned, part of its cargo was consigned to Mordecai Lewis (1748-99) of Philadelphia and sold to the city’s residents. Some of those objects, like this teacup from a later era, ended up in museum collections as reminders of Philadelphia’s connections to the wider world.

Text by Mandi Magnuson-Hung, who earned a master's degree in history at Rutgers University-Camden.


Artifact: Presentation Pitcher

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Silver pitcher, 1841, presented at Mother Bethel AME Church to attorney David Paul Brown "by the disfranchised citizens of Philadelphia in testimony for his moral courage and generous disinterest in advocating the rights of the oppressed without regard to complexion or condition."  Maker: Bard & Lamont.  Design by John Sartain, engraver.  (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Gift of the David Paul Brown Family, 1898, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

At first glance, this silver pitcher may appear to be interchangeable with others from its time period. The shiny exterior, the ornamental carving of the handle and the detailed decoration do not expose the distinct purpose of this item. Take a closer look at the body of the pitcher. What do you see? A sculpted leaf frame directs your eyes to the etching of a kneeling woman. The image, though small and simple in contrast to the elaborateness of the other elements of the pitcher, captures attention. It renders the pitcher as more than a commonplace artifact, but as a symbol of something else. What events led to the creation of such an item?

[caption id="attachment_15523" align="alignright" width="191"]David Paul Brown, photographed in 1861. (Library Company of Philadelphia) David Paul Brown, photographed in 1861. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Mother Bethel AME Church presented a pair of silver pitchers to attorney David Paul Brown (1795-1872) in February 1841. The reverse side of this half of the pair features an inscription to Brown thanking him for his service to African Americans. Although 1841 was several decades after Pennsylvania passed a law for the gradual abolition of slavery and prior to the Civil War, race continued to play a divisive role in Philadelphia courts. On several occasions, Brown served as a lawyer on behalf of African Americans who were accused of being fugitives from slavery. Such an impressive award suggests that Brown acted as counsel on many occasions, although records survive of only a few. In the late 1830s, Brown advocated on behalf of two different women named Mary and both cases were media sensations throughout the city. The etching of the kneeling woman is likely a direct reference to Brown’s involvement in the trials of these women. It also recalls an image of a man kneeling in chains, with the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?” which became a popular symbol of the abolition movement after its creation by Josiah Wedgewood in 1787. Both images of human figures illustrate the fight for human dignity that was central to fugitive slave cases.

In the Court of Common Pleas, located on the first floor of Congress Hall in July 1835, Brown presented the case of Mary Gilmore, a woman in her late teens and of light skin. As a child, she was brought to Philadelphia to be raised by an African American baker on South Sixth Street, near Mother Bethel Church. In 1835, a Robert Atkins of Baltimore arrived to the city and claimed her as a runaway. Despite the witnesses and documents produced by Atkins, Brown successfully proved Gilmore’s position as a free citizen of Philadelphia. Using the testimony of respected African Americans in Philadelphia, he demonstrated her freedom. The case also showcased a thriving community of African Americans in Philadelphia, and in particular showed the members of the Mother Bethel AME Church to be active in the crusade to end slavery. Numerous newspaper articles covered the trial, yet Mary Gilmore vanished from history after its conclusion. Only a scant mention of her case in Brown’s memoir, The Forum: Forty Years Full Practice at the Philadelphia Bar reveals that after winning the case she continued to live a quiet life in Philadelphia.  

In July 1837, Brown again defended a young, light skinned African American woman whose name was Mary Sheppard. As with the Gilmore case, newspaper media converged upon the court, which for this hearing was located in the first floor courtroom in Independence Hall, known at the time as the Old State House. The trial, which lasted several weeks in July, grew especially sensational as it was revealed that Mary Sheppard was pregnant. Not only was her freedom being decided, but so too was the status of her unborn child. The claimant, a John Walke of Virginia, provided several convincing witnesses who testified that Sheppard had been in his service. Relentless, Brown continued to fight on her behalf. Newspaper articles recounted several recesses that Brown was granted by Judge Archibald Randall. Several journalists assumed that Brown angled for additional time in the hopes that the child would be born during the trial, thus born freely in the state of Pennsylvania. Despite his efforts, Sheppard was returned to Walke. She seemed destined for a life of slavery. Surprisingly, this was not the case. Brown recounts her fate in his memoir. He noted that on her trip South, Sheppard outwitted her escorting officer by offering to prepare a special supper for him and then using that moment to escape to Chester County, Pennsylvania, and eventually fled into Canada. Brown wrote his accounts of Sheppard and Gilmore approximately twenty years after their conclusion, but it is clear that his involvement in these cases was an important part of his long and varied career.

These two cases were not isolated incidents in antebellum Philadelphia. In the decades preceding the Civil War, Philadelphia courtrooms were once again the battlegrounds of declaring independence. However, very few cases attracted the extent of press coverage that the two Marys received. While the two women shared a few characteristics, such as light skin, their most important similarity may be their defense attorney—David Paul Brown. Raised as a Quaker, he was known for his fervent belief in abolition. The image of the kneeling female on the pitcher connects directly to some of his most prominent fugitive slave cases in Philadelphia. Whether the image was chosen specifically for him is unknown, but the gift clearly resonates with his work. In his reflections on receiving the award, Brown called the ceremony a highlight of his career. An account from the reception notes that it was attended by many from Philadelphia’s African American community, indicating the respect he earned from them through years of service. A testimony of gratitude is found in Mother Bethel AME Church’s papers, stating:

Last fifth day afternoon, we had the pleasure of witnessing the presentation of a pair of elegant silver pitchers to David Paul Brown by a large number of the colored people of this city, in testimony of their gratitude for his services to the cause of freedom and humanity in his many gratuitous efforts as an advocate before the courts for those whom the oppressors claimed as fugitives from the Southern house of bondage.

The silver pitcher served as a symbol of commitment to the idea of independence and reveals a city that carefully navigated racial lines and continued to debate the idea of freedom. It represents the continued narrative of claiming liberty that occurred in Philadelphia throughout the nineteenth century.

Text by Kelly Weber, who earned a B.A. in history at Saint Joseph’s University and M.A. at Villanova, with a concentration in Public History and nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. She teaches high school at Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Bryn Mawr, Pa.


Artifact: “Success to Infant Navy” Pitcher

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"Success to the Infant Navy" creamware pitcher with transfer print, circa 1790. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

This creamware pitcher from the late eighteenth century celebrates the United States Navy with transfer print images and text that highlight the role of the Navy in the early years of the American republic. The words “Success to the Infant Navy” adorn the pitcher beneath the spout, where an image of the Great Seal of the United States, adopted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on June 20, 1782, also appears.

[caption id="attachment_16858" align="alignright" width="300"]This scene painted by Rear Admiral John William Schmidt (Ret.) (1906-1981) depicting the action of February 9, 1799, when the USS Constellation, commanded by Captain Thomas Truxtun, captured the French frigate L'Insurgente. In action during the Quasi-War, the USS Constellation (depicted at left) captured the French frigate L'Insurgente in the Caribbean. (Navy History and Heritage Command via Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

One side of the pitcher features a splendid image of the naval engagement between the U.S.S. Constellation and the French frigate, L’Insurgente. The two ships met in battle on February 9, 1799, near the island of Nevis in the West Indies as part of the conflict between the United States and France known as the Quasi-War (1798-1800). The caption beneath the image describes the engagement: “L’Insurgent French Frigate of 44-Guns & 411 Men Striking her Colours to the American Frigate Constellation. Commodore Truxton of 40-guns, after an action of an hour and a half in which the former had 75 men killed and wounded and the latter one killed and three wounded.” The United States Navy captured L’Insurgente, won the battle, and suffered far fewer casualties than the French.

The USS Constellation was one of the six frigates approved for construction under the Naval Act of 1794, which authorized President George Washington (1732-99) “to provide, by purchase or otherwise, equip and employ four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each.” Although the United States had a Navy during the Revolutionary War, established by the Continental Congress with a resolution on October 13, 1775, the young nation did not maintain the ships of the Continental Navy after the immediate threat of war ceased. The U.S. Constitution of 1787 affirmed the role of the federal government in organizing and maintaining a naval force, and the Naval Act of 1794 stimulated the process of building American naval armaments for the new republic. 

Construction of the USS Constellation began in 1795 at a Baltimore shipyard. Joshua Humphreys (1751-1838), a Philadelphia ship designer, created the plans for the ship, while David Stodder, a Baltimore shipbuilder, undertook its construction. The federal government in Philadelphia sent Thomas Truxton (1755-1822) to organize and coordinate the shipbuilding efforts, which concluded with the ship’s launch on September 7, 1797, and commissioning in June 1798. Truxton became the ship’s first captain and remained in command of the Constellation during its battle with L’Insurgente in February 1799, as memorialized on the “Success to the Infant Navy” pitcher.

In addition to the naval battle between the United States and the French, the “Success to the Infant Navy” pitcher displays a coastal scene accompanied by a verse from the eighteenth-century political song “Adams and Liberty.” Robert Treat Paine (1773-1811) wrote the song in 1798 as a tribute to President John Adams (1735-1826). The text on the pitcher reads:

Our mountains are crowned with imperial oak;
Whose roots, like our liberties, ages have nourished;
But lone e'er our nation submits to the yoke,
Not a tree shall be left on the field where it flourished.
Should invasion impend,
Every grove would descend,
From the hill-tops, they shaded, our shores to defend.
For never shall the sons of Columbia be slaves
While the earth bears a plant, or the sea rolls its waves.

Paine’s lyrics affirmed the resolve of the United States to defend American shores against foreign invasion. Hence, the song was a fitting tribute to the United States Navy and its role in the early republic. Adams was a strong proponent of the Navy, and during his presidential administration the federal government established the Department of the Navy as a separate entity from the War Department. The “Success to the Infant Navy” pitcher commemorates the United States Navy during an important period in its growth. During the final decade of the eighteenth century, when Philadelphia served as capital of the United States, the Navy grew in both its administrative capacity and its ability to wage war.

Text by Melanie Dudley, a graduate student in history at Villanova University.


Artifact: Bicentennial Beer Can

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Bicentennial commemorative beer can. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

This can makes no secret of its American pride. With red and blue stars flanking a bold sketch of the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia’s Henry F. Ortlieb’s Brewing Company appealed to the patriotic fervor of 1976. The company developed the “Collector’s Series,” releasing one can a month starting in September 1975. Every month, an image on the back of each commemorative can highlighted a different Revolutionary War scene or facet of eighteenth-century life to celebrate America’s Bicentennial, the two-hundred-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Looking to the back of the can, we see Paul Revere on horseback with Boston’s Old North Church in the background, presumably with two lanterns glowing in the window. The scene is titled, “Paul Revere’s Ride: Calling the Countryside to Arms.” Though Revere’s ride took place in Massachusetts, eight of the other twelve sketches had direct ties to the Philadelphia area. With depictions of Elfreth’s Alley and Independence Hall, Ortlieb’s capitalized on the city’s rich colonial history while simultaneously paying homage to the company’s roots.

The Henry F. Ortlieb’s Brewing Company was a family-owned business in the Philadelphia area for more than a century. Trupert Ortlieb (1839-1911), a German immigrant and Civil War veteran, began brewing beer in Philadelphia after being discharged from the army in July 1865. In 1879, he purchased his own brewery on Third and Poplar Streets in the Northern Liberties section of the city. Home to a large German population, Northern Liberties was the site of the first lager beer brewed in America. In 1840, a Bavarian immigrant named John Wagner brewed the first lager beer with yeast from his home country. By 1879, eighteen breweries operated in the neighborhood, predominantly owned by German immigrants. Philadelphia’s brewing industry expanded throughout the city with a heavy concentration in the neighborhoods of Brewerytown and Northern Liberties. Ortlieb’s was one of only seventeen Philadelphia breweries to survive Prohibition and continued to grow in the twentieth century.

By the 1960s and 70s, competition from large national breweries threatened Ortlieb’s loyal local following. Following national trends, Henry A. Ortlieb (1948-2004) developed the Bicentennial can series to prompt sales outside the region. From September 1975 to August 1976, patriotic consumers and can collectors from Philadelphia, the Midwest, and New England awaited the next installment of the “Collector’s Series.” Seeing the success of Ortlieb’s campaign, executives at Schmidt’s beer, another Northern Liberties brewery, decided to release their own series of collectible cans.

Philadelphia breweries were not the only companies seeking to profit from the 1976 celebrations. Throughout the country, American manufacturers packaged, sold, and commodified major historical figures and symbols for sale in nearly every possible form during the Bicentennial. Toilet paper, banjos, whiskey bottles, butter packets, and even caskets were marked with Liberty Bells, bald eagles, or any number of American images in order to commemorate the Bicentennial.

In 1977, hoping to continue the success of patriotic advertising, Ortlieb’s started another can series called the “Americana Collection.” However, in 1981, Joseph W. Ortlieb (b. 1929), grandson of the founder, sold the business in response to intense competition from large national brands. Although the brewery was torn down in 2013, the Ortlieb’s Brewpub, located just beside the old brewery, remained a staple of Philadelphia jazz history. From 1987 to 2006, the pub, renamed the Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, was one of the best jazz venues in the city. With no cover at the door, musicians and jazz lovers came to Ortlieb’s to hear local legends like Shirley Scott (1934-2002) and Granville William “Mickey” Roker (b. 1932) or world famous out-of-towners like Cecil Payne (1922-2007) and Al Grey (1925-2000). After years as a renowned jazz club, the old brewpub switched owners in 2006, but Ortlieb’s remained a staple of the Northern Liberties’ beer-drinking public.

Ortlieb’s has been a mainstay of the Philadelphia community from its beginnings as a lager brewery to its current status as Ortlieb’s Lounge, a popular rock venue in the city. Whether featuring local beer, local history, or local music, the Ortlieb’s name signifies Philadelphia pride. During the Bicentennial, Ortlieb's capitalized on a surge of patriotism nationwide by highlighting Philadelphia's unique role within the history of the American Revolution.

Text by Chelsea Clarke Reed, jazz vocalist in the Philadelphia area and a graduate student at  Temple University’s Center for Public History.


Artifact: Painted Fire Hat

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Parade Fire Hat, 1847. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, gift of the Honorable Glover C. Lander, 1945, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

With the elegance of a beaver top hat and the patriotic imagery expected of the military, this colorful painted, pressed-felt parade fire hat features an eagle stretching its wings while standing on a red, white, and blue shield by the ocean. David Bustill Bowser (1820-1900) painted this hat for the United States Fire Company in 1847. During a period when firemen were perpetrators of mayhem who ignored their company by-laws by stealing hoses, disassembling fire carriages, and even shooting guns on neighborhood streets, they also were celebrated volunteers who saved lives and marched in parades. As historians Amy S. Greenberg and Mark Tebeau have illuminated, the politics of nineteenth-century fire suppression were riddled with ironies of civil service and deviance.  What is particularly curious about this fire hat, though, is the intersection of these politics and the legacy of its painter.

[caption id="attachment_23321" align="alignright" width="260"]Painting of African American soldier bayoneting a Confederate soldier. For a regimental flag for the U.S. Colored Troops, Bowser painted an African American in uniform bayoneting a fallen Confederate soldier. (Photograph of painting, Library of Congress)[/caption]

A son of Jeremiah Bowser (1766-1856), a fugitive slave who became a Quaker elder and oyster-house keeper, David Bustill Bowser grew up in Philadelphia with radical roots that nurtured his growth as both an artist and politically-engaged citizen. Renowned family members included cousins Frederick Douglass (1818-95) and Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-82), as well as grandfather Cyrus Bustill (1732-1806), a founder of the Free African Society. Like others in his family, Bowser was politically engaged.  In 1860 he lobbied the state against streetcar segregation and railroad harassment as part of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League, and in 1863 he signed a broadside written by Philadelphia's Committee for the Recruitment of Colored Troops. While most active in the United Order of Odd Fellows, in 1866 Bowser also became a charter member of the Union League of America. In 1878 he created a connection between blacks in Philadelphia and those in Vicksburg and New Orleans through his fund-raising work for the Yellow Fever Relief Committee of Philadelphia. 

Bowser began his painting career under the guidance of a relative, his cousin Robert Douglass Jr. (1809-87), a respected and skilled sign painter, lithographer, and portrait artist. While Aston Gonzalez's biography of Robert Douglass Jr. mentions little of his alleged studies under American painter Thomas Sully (1783-1872), it does illuminate his experience as one of the first African Americans to exhibit an oil painting within the walls of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Despite this success, Douglass was unable to view his work at PAFA because of his skin color. Instead, he travelled to London to study the great masters at the National Gallery and the British Museum. It seems Douglass chose to portray subjects in his work which reflected his political stance, blending activism with his formalist training.

As an artist, Bowser is perhaps best known as a portraitist of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), whom he painted twenty-one times. In 1941, one of these portraits was found in a barn near the Robert Purvis (1810-98) family home, a stop along the Underground Railroad in Byberry, Pa., but it was not publicly exhibited until 1981 in an exhibition titled Of Color, Humanitas and Statehood: The Black Experience in Pennsylvania over Three Centuries, 1681-1891, curated by Charles Blockson at the museum later known as the African American Museum in Philadelphia.  A number of the Lincoln became part of public and private collections, including Adamson-Duvannes Galleries in California. Bowser also painted John Brown (1800-59), the white abolitionist who, in 1859, led an armed raid of Harpers Ferry's federal armory and was consequently executed. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Bowser also was commissioned to create banners for black Union regiments who trained at Camp William Penn, located northwest of the city adjacent to the estate and Underground Railroad refuge of Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). Bowser's painting Lincoln and Female Slave (1863) became revered for its unusual depiction of Lincoln, likely announcing the Emancipation Proclamation, with an enslaved African woman as the focal point of the work at a time when other painters did not often feature black women together with Lincoln. 

While historians may use Bowser's subject matter as a lens to evaluate his politics and race, equally important is his attention to detail and overall aesthetics. Bowser's fire hat is considerably more intricate than others of the time period. Bowser's detailed scenes of patriotism, in tandem with his portraiture skills, offer stylistic hints of both his cousin Douglass and teacher and artist Thomas Sully. Sully's 1819 rendition of Washington's crossing, Passage of the Delaware, with its clouds textured with greys and pinks, could easily have influenced Bowser's fire hat palate, although Sully’s work appears more realistic due to fine brush strokes and deliberate use of lighting. Bowser's later works, including his banner for the Twenty-Second Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, demonstrated a more realistic touch and finer brush stroke, while the fire hat's eagle was more caricatured and stylized. On most fire hats, the initials of owner were marked on top. This fire hat's initials are T.C.C., but the identity of the person who wore the hat is unknown.

[caption id="attachment_23323" align="alignright" width="325"]The attire and equipment of firefighters in 1800 (top image) and 1866 are depicted in this advertisement published c. 1866 by a Philadelphia insurance company. (Library Company of Philadelphia) The attire and equipment of firefighters in 1800 (top image) and 1866 are depicted in this advertisement published c. 1866 by a Philadelphia insurance company. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Bowser painted this hat for the United States Fire Company, established in 1811, sixty years before Philadelphia professionalized firefighting with a citywide paid department. Operating from a firehouse at Second Street and Peggs Run (the Cohoquinoque Creek) near Spring Garden Street, the United States Fire Company was not Philadelphia's first cohort of firemen, nor was it the last. Volunteer fighting companies originated with the Union Fire Company formed by Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) in 1736 and grew in numbers through the early nineteenth-century, partly in reaction to the flammability of Philadelphia's industrial spaces, especially textile mills. Fire companies attempt to instill order in their ranks with charters visions and by-laws even before the riotous years of the 1830 and 1840. Large events of civil discord at, for instance, Pennsylvania Hall, in Kensington, and along Lombard Street, demanded attention from firemen who quelled flames in keeping with civilian safety and their political beliefs. According to scholar Ken Finkel, in the years following, firemen also rioted amongst themselves and drew strong public criticism for their behavior. In 1854, an altercation between two gangs from the Taylor Hose and Hibernia fire companies resulted in a shoot out; a stray bullet entered a third-story window and nearly struck an infant.

A harsh view of nineteenth-century Philadelphia firemen is fairly common in historical documents, although this view was not often documented by firemen themselves. In an address written for the  thirty-sixth anniversary of the United States Fire Company in October 1847, “a member” echoed critical sentiments about Philadelphia companies. Selected by a committee of U.S. Fire Company Members, the author—not named in the document—reflected on his twenty years with the department, beginning with a lament that Philadelphia firemen had lost something—"a reputation." He wrote that Philadelphia firemen, in living a life of service, had civil duties that did not match their current behaviors. "There is such a manifest dereliction from the duty in the behavior of firemen at the present day—and that dereliction is so entirely at variance with the by-gone reputation of the department," he wrote.  This member was concerned not only with the duty of firemen but also with the behavior of all men in society as he spoke against violence, including a refutation of anyone who celebrated the bloodshed of the Mexican-American War (1846-48).  He also used the Bible to prove his point; he wrote in all capital letters "THOU SHALT NOT KILL." 

At the end of the speech, the request to his brethren was clear.  "We separate with the ardent hope that each one will be the first to exercise an influence to being back to its primitive good the PHILADELPHIA FIRE DEPARTMENT—that our sister cities may no longer jeer us as rowdies, ruffians, and rioters, that our own citizens may again find a willingness on their part of some to retain the integrity that we all know and feel belongs to well-behaved well-disposed united firemen," he stated. In his language about the virtues of wisdom and courage within the city, this member wanted Philadelphia firemen to change their actions to match their duties. This October 1847 speech could have been issued at the moment the United States Fire Company donned Bowser's fire hats on parade, connecting a moment of potential reform among Philadelphia firefighters with the artwork of an elite abolitionist.

Text by Erin Bernard, who earned her M.A. in history at Temple University. She is the founder and curator of the Philadelphia History Truck. Bernard is an Adjunct Professor of History at Moore College of Art and Design as well as Senior Lecturer of Museum Studies at the University of the Arts.


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