Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Lance R. Eisenhower

Jewelers Row

Jewelers Row in Center City Philadelphia emerged in the 1880s and over time became home to more than two hundred jewelry retailers, wholesalers, and craftsmen. Many of these businesses were owned by the same families for generations. By the twenty-first century, Jewelers Row had become regarded as the oldest diamond district in the United States, second in size only to the jewelry district in New York City. Located within the East Center City Commercial Historic District, Jewelers Row embodied Philadelphia’s commercial legacy, linking small-scale, family-owned manufacturing businesses with the city’s well-established financial institutions and a retail industry synonymous with quality merchandise.

[caption id="attachment_29235" align="alignright" width="250"]A black and white photograph of 700 Sansom Street in Philadelphia. This building at 700 Sansom Street, one of the remaining original structures of what was once Carstairs Row—named after the architect—was at one time a jeweler’s shop. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Situated in the heart of the original city plan for Philadelphia, on Sansom Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets and on Eighth Street between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, Jewelers Row reflected the architectural and developmental history of the city. These blocks were originally laid out by William Penn (1644-1718) and his surveyor general, Thomas Holme (1624-95). Following Penn's death in 1718, his son Thomas Penn (1702-75) sold the land in 1726 to Isaac Norris Sr. (1671-1735), a prominent merchant and statesman. The property remained in the Norris family for much of the eighteenth century, until its sale in 1791 to merchant and financier Robert Morris (1734-1806). In 1794, Morris began construction of a mansion, designed by the French-born architect and civil engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825), on his newly acquired Chestnut Street lot. However, between the expenses incurred during the American Revolution and a series of failed investments in land speculation, Morris fell into bankruptcy, and his unfinished mansion became known as "Morris's Folly."

After the city government confiscated the land to pay Morris's debts, in 1798 the block of Walnut Street from Seventh to Eighth Streets was purchased in a sheriff’s sale by the Quaker philanthropist and real estate developer William Sansom (1763-1840). He tore down the mansion and bisected the property with an eponymous east-west street. He contracted with Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) to construct speculative housing on the north side of Walnut Street, while the Scottish architect Thomas Carstairs (1759?-1830) was hired to construct housing on the south side of the newly developed Sansom Street. Between 1800 and 1802, Carstairs proceeded to build a block-long series of twenty-two identical Georgian-style row houses known as Carstairs Row, modeled after earlier patterns of row houses constructed in the squares of London, Bath, and Dublin. To attract tenants to this relatively undeveloped area of the city, Sansom paved the street at his own expense.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, increasing industrial and commercial development, spanning an area from Walnut Street in the south to Arch Street in the north, spurred interest in creating new residential districts. Following the consolidation of the city with Philadelphia County in 1854, the city’s wealthier residents moved westward to the more fashionable Rittenhouse Square and new neighborhoods across the Schuylkill River in West Philadelphia. The row houses they left behind in older and increasingly working-class and ethnic neighborhoods became available for commercial uses. The Chestnut and Market neighborhoods became major intersections for horse car, omnibus, and later electric trolley routes from West Philadelphia and Rittenhouse, linking wealthy Philadelphians to the city’s retail and financial institutions.

[caption id="attachment_29234" align="alignright" width="208"]A black and white photograph of the 700 block of Sansom Street in Philadelphia. This view of south side of the 700 block of Sansom Street shows several of the jewelry shops in 1963. The building in the background is the Curtis Publishing Company building, built in 1910. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Before it became a jewelry district in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the 700 block of Sansom Street was the center of a thriving engraving trade, which benefited from its proximity to an established printing industry, including many publishing firms on Sansom Street or nearby on Chestnut Street. The engraving business, with its high level of technical expertise and precision, formed a natural relationship with jewelry and watchmaking crafters and suppliers, who used a similar set of skills and tools. Over time, independent engravers continued to prosper due to the booming publishing industry, but they did not increase in number. Meanwhile, scores of diamond wholesalers, setters, crafters, lapidaries, and similar luxury industries moved onto the Row, bolstered by several waves of Eastern European and Jewish immigrants who settled in Philadelphia between the 1880s and early 1900s. For example, about a dozen engravers plied their trade on the 700 block of Sansom between 1879 and 1908. At the same time, the number of jewelry and diamond sellers and manufacturers exploded from five to more than seventy-five and eventually surpassed two hundred establishments by 1930.

As the jewelry industry flourished, architectural alterations changed the look of the Row, with out-of-fashion Georgian exteriors replaced by in-vogue Victorian styles. More businesses relocated from elsewhere in the city, resulting in the Philadelphia jewelry industry becoming increasingly centered upon the Row. Although prominent jewelry retailers such as Biddle and Co. continued to operate elsewhere, in the early twentieth century more than 50 percent of diamond dealers and more than 80 percent of diamond setters and cutters worked on the Row. Dubbed Jewelers Row in commercial advertisements and local media by at least the late 1910s, the area’s reputation as the locus of Philadelphia jewelry-making was further cemented over the next several decades, culminating in the construction of the Art Deco Jewelry Trades Building on the west end of the 700 block of Sansom Street in 1929.

[caption id="attachment_29092" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of 700 through 708 Sansom Street in Philadelphia. This view of the east end of the 700 block of Sansom Street, photographed in November 2016, shows the various facades of Jewelers Row. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Unlike other local industries, such as styled-textile manufacturing, a combination of factors made Jewelers Row well suited to survive through periods of economic distress and market volatility. Despite cyclical periods of stagnation and contraction, skilled jewelry craftsmen enjoyed a path to proprietorship that was relatively easy and more economical when compared to other industries that relied on rapid technological advances to thrive. At the same time, unlike larger markets such as New York City, Philadelphia's smaller size allowed the luxury industry to better combat over-competition or product oversaturation. Being structurally and functionally divided among final goods makers, component suppliers, and ancillary specialists also benefited Philadelphia jewelers, as it both prevented assimilation by larger predatory entities and avoided disruption during periods of labor activism, while the relatively localized market limited interregional competition. Moreover, Philadelphia's reputation as a thriving and fertile marketplace facilitated the rise of jewelry wholesalers on the Row who redistributed seasonally styled goods to both smaller shops and larger retail outlets. Finally, the presence of established family-owned firms and a deeply rooted Jewish community ensured a strong sense of loyalty among customers who prized Jewelers Row for its imaginative designs and quality craftsmanship.

Once established as Jewelers Row, the various traders and artisans fought to uphold the district's reputation while also competing with larger regionalized retailers. Throughout the early twentieth century, merchants feared losing business to outside the Row. The Sansom Street Business Men's Association formed in 1913 to advance the interests of local shopkeepers and even employed detectives to deter crime. These concerns became increasingly strident over the latter half of the century as suburbanization resulted in a decrease in commercial traffic to Center City businesses. Particularly detrimental to downtown business districts such as Jewelers Row, new shopping malls on the periphery offered many of the amenities and services that had previously attracted consumers to the downtown, but without the burdensome commute. To combat this, local jewelers leveraged their district's storied heritage, forming the Jewelers Row Association in 1986 as a cooperative effort to compete with suburban jewelry retailers by enhancing the visibility, reputation for quality, and aesthetic appeal of the Sansom Street properties.

[caption id="attachment_29091" align="alignright" width="225"]A color photograph of 704 Sansom Street in Philadelphia. 704 Sansom Street, home to Christian Michael Jewelry and Maryanne S. Ritter Jewelers in 2016, displayed signs in the windows of the third story of the building to show support for the Jewelers Row preservation effort. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia[/caption]

In 2016, Jewelers Row became the focus of public attention when a proposed redevelopment of part of the 700 block of Sansom Street by Toll Brothers sought to demolish and replace several of the buildings with a high-rise condominium.  Some of the local businesses and historic preservationists resisted the plan, which developers argued would revitalize the area by attracting new, middle-class residents and also bring much-needed revenue to the city through property taxes. Opponents fought to protect the architectural heritage of the block by nominating three of the five buildings proposed for demolition (704 and 706-708 Sansom Street) to be designated as historic structures by the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, joining several other addresses on the Row that already possessed landmark status. The battle reflected the complex identity of Jewelers Row itself: a mix of old-world craftsmanship, family-owned businesses, and architectural history, combined with modern concerns of urban decentralization, changing demographics, and privatized development in a city looking to the future while at the same time seeking to preserve the legacy of its past.

Lance R. Eisenhower is a doctoral student in American history at Lehigh University and holds an M.A. in history from Villanova University. He is a Lecturer of History at Montgomery County Community College.

Free Society of Traders

The Free Society of Traders, a joint-stock company founded by a small group of English Quakers in 1681, was organized with the intention of directing and dominating the economic life of colonial Pennsylvania.  But, from the beginning, controversy about the Society’s existence revealed fundamental political divisions within William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” and opposition led to the Society’s early demise.

An experienced colonial promoter, William Penn (1644-1718) recognized that the success of his colony rested not only on a healthy supply of emigrants but also on a steady infusion of financial capital. Penn convinced many successful merchants and wealthy gentry that Pennsylvania was a place of both religious freedom and limitless economic opportunities.  Connecting with the urban centers of English Quakerism–Dublin, Cork, Bristol, and London–Penn drew in many of these men to become the “First Purchasers” of land in the fledgling colony and to provide financial backing.  In order to ensure their continued support and much-needed capital, Penn encouraged the creation of what became the Free Society of Traders, a company of elite merchants, landowners, and personal associates who were granted special concessions in order to direct the economy of the young colony.

[caption id="attachment_14017" align="alignright" width="213"]letter to the free society of traders William Penn (1644-1718) sent members of the Free Society of Traders detailed descriptions of Philadelphia and the surrounding area in order to sell large plots of land. (Special Collections, Haverford College)[/caption]

This privileged position was evident in Penn’s March 1682 charter for the Free Society, which granted the company and its members 20,000 acres of land and the promise of three seats on the Provincial Council in Philadelphia. Led by Dr. Nicholas More (?-1689) and James Claypoole (1634-87), the Society laid out an ambitious plan that would take advantage of  resources such as agricultural fields, mining operations, fisheries, a fur trade with regional Indian tribes, and manufactories in Philadelphia, on the Delaware River, or on the Chesapeake Bay.

The Society failed to realize its founders’ ambitions, however. Crippled by disinterested officers and outmaneuvered by independent merchants, it suffered credit and money woes within a year of its founding. Even with its financial status in turmoil, a larger problem arose over the political concessions that Penn granted the company as Swedish, Dutch, and English  settlers already residing in the colony and newly arrived entrepreneurs objected to the Society’s privileged status.  As general dissatisfaction with Penn’s proprietary politics grew, the Society faced even more opposition, including the Pennsylvania Assembly’s refusal to confirm the company’s charter in December 1682.  Further financial crises and a spate of lawsuits reduced the Society to little more than a land company. By 1686, it was forced to sell its extensive property to pay off debts. Still, the members of the Society remained prominent people in early Philadelphia, frequently occupying positions of executive and judicial importance even after the company was dissolved in 1723.  Ultimately, the Society’s demise was symptomatic of the political scene in early Pennsylvania, as newer colonists sought to move the region away from control by Penn and his closest allies to a society directed and governed by the people themselves.

The legacy of the Free Society of Traders and its members is preserved by the neighborhood where its trading house and much of its property once stood, Society Hill.  Extending roughly from Walnut to Lombard Street and from Front to Fifth Street and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, Society Hill preserves much of the architectural heritage of colonial Philadelphia.

Lance R. Eisenhower is a Lecturer of History at Montgomery County Community College. He holds an M.A. in history from Villanova University.


Situated roughly ten miles south of Philadelphia, in Essington, on the west bank of the Delaware River, the Lazaretto is considered to be the oldest and last surviving quarantine station in the United States. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the Lazaretto was the first stop for immigrants and merchants on incoming ships whose passengers and cargo had to be quarantined until passing a health inspection.

The site of the Lazaretto was enriched by layers of historical significance that existed long before the hospital was constructed. Archaeological evidence shows that as early as 1200 CE the region was home to the Okehocking tribe of the Lenni-Lenape, or Delaware, Indians. Furthermore, documentary evidence shows the surrounding area to be the site of a seventeenth-century Swedish colony and first seat of government in Pennsylvania.

[caption id="attachment_3781" align="alignright" width="300"] Drawing by Frank H. Taylor, 1895. (Library of Congress )[/caption]

The Lazaretto was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Board of Health in 1799, largely in response to the yellow fever epidemics that plagued Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century.  The site was chosen for its strategic location on the Delaware River, whereby all incoming ships, passengers, and cargo attempting to dock in Philadelphia and other northern ports were required to be quarantined pending inspection. The ten-acre Tinicum Lazaretto complex opened in 1801. Once docked, ships were searched for sick passengers, infested cargo, or the bodies of those who died during the voyage. Any sign of contagion would result in sterilization and fumigation of the clothing and baggage and quarantine of the passengers at the Lazaretto hospital or at the main building for a period of days or weeks, and sometimes for months. The hospital could accommodate 500 persons. The Lazaretto operated under the authority of the Board of Health of the city of Philadelphia until 1893, when the state took over and ran the quarantine station through 1895.  By then, most of the screening had passed to the National Quarantine Station, near Lewes, Delaware, established in 1884, or the station at Reedy Island, forty-five miles below Philadelphia. In 1913 state authorities consolidated screening procedures at a facility at Marcus Hook.

[caption id="attachment_3782" align="alignright" width="184"] A doorknob on the Lazaretto depicts symbols of authority, scales of justice and key against a shield. (HABS, Library of Congress )[/caption]


Slaves at Providence Island Station

During the summer of 1800 the old quarantine station on Province Island, the predecessor to the Lazaretto, housed more than 170 African slaves after the USS Ganges captured two U.S. ships carrying slaves off the coast of Cuba. The slaves were brought to Philadelphia, where the ships were held during condemnation proceedings. Since many of the slaves were sick or starving, they were held at the hospital for a month before being released to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, whereupon the survivors among them  became part of the Philadelphia-area population of free blacks.

After its closure, the Lazaretto gained new life, first as the Orchard Club, a recreational site owned by the Philadelphia Athletic Club. Following the first seaplane flight in 1911, the site became the location of one of America’s first seaplane bases, serving in this capacity throughout World War I.  The aviation base closed in 1937, but seaplanes continued operating there for some time after.  The Lazaretto passed ownership several times until it was finally purchased by Tinicum Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, in 2005. The site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

In later years, after proposals to build a fire station, banquet hall, and parking lot on the property, a struggle ensued over preserving the Lazaretto.  In November 2006, a compromise was reached between the Tinicum Township and the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia that would allow development on five unbuilt acres of the site while the historic buildings remain unharmed.  The settlement also provided for establishment of the nonprofit Lazaretto Preservation Association of Tinicum Township to oversee the surviving structures and grounds on the remaining ten acres of the site.  In 2008 the site was awarded a historic marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Lance R. Eisenhower holds an M.A. in history from Villanova University.

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