Birch’s Views of Philadelphia


Executive Mansion on Ninth
William Russell Birch and his son Thomas collaborated to create this colored print of the President’s House at Ninth Street, which no president ever occupied. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania North America; as it appeared in the Year 1800 is a masterpiece of American copperplate engraving and the first book of views to be entirely produced and published in the United States. Comprising twenty-seven scenes or “views” of Philadelphia’s buildings and streetscapes, the book aimed to give, in the words of its creator William Russell Birch (1755-1834), “the most general idea of the town.” Enormously successful, the work was published both as a bound book and as separate loose-leaf prints, and appeared in three subsequent editions over the next thirty years. It is significant as a record of Philadelphia’s architectural past and as a rich example of urban visual culture in the early Republic.

Market Street at Third Street
The southeast corner of Third and Market Streets, featured in the first edition of Birch’s Views. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

The first edition of Birch’s Views, as the work came to be known, was part of a larger boom in population, visitation (as tourism was termed at the time), and book and map publishing that the city witnessed during its ten-year period as the United States Capital, 1790-1800. Birch arrived in Philadelphia from his native England during this time, and his Views lingered on sites of commercial, political, and cultural import, from the High Street Market to Congress Hall to the Fifth Street Library. Throughout, Birch balanced careful renderings of edifices with a feel for city life: Philadelphia’s handsome Georgian facades and characteristic street corners are enlivened by pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, groups of soldiers and Native Americans, and, in the plate “High Street, From the Country Marketplace,” the 1799 funeral procession for George Washington. Together the prints provide a virtual walk through the city, the viewer pausing to take in picturesque sights and local color. Yet these details of daily life also speak to larger ideals of civic identity and national order, as in the bustling shipbuilding scene entitled “Preparation for War to defend Commerce.”

First Chestnut Theatre
The Chestnut Theatre was lost to fire, but preserved as an image by Birch’s Views. (Library of Congress)

Like other engravings and printed books, the Views resulted from a collaborative endeavor. Birch’s son Thomas (1779-1851) painted sketches in watercolor, which were transferred to copper plates by engraver Samuel Seymour or by Birch himself. Birch made changes in nearly every edition, updating existing scenes to better reflect the city’s landscape, adding new views, or simply getting rid of scenes that no longer held appeal. The work thus not only documents many structures later demolished, but also indicates the shifting character of Philadelphia’s built environment and of public taste.

At the time of its first publication in 1800, the Views constituted the most extensive pictorial catalog of Philadelphia to date, an attempt to depict the city in its full range of activities and places and to record it for posterity. Birch advertised the volume as a “Memento for the 18th Century,” and the book’s eminent subscribers, such as Stephen Girard (1750-1831) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), showed that such memorializing carried political and cultural weight among the nation’s elite. City views, annals, and other antiquarian projects gained particular popularity in Philadelphia in the 1820s onward, part of a renewed interest in historical memory. Birch participated in this wave of interest, publishing the fourth and final edition of his Views in 1827-28. Artistic merit and the historical appeal of Birch’s views have ensured their continued popularity.

William Birch's 1798 print of the frigate <i>Philadelphia<i> at the Humphrey's and Wharton Shipyard
Birch captured the construction of frigate Philadelphia in November 1798 at Humphrey’s & Wharton Shipyard on Front Street on the Delaware River. (Library of Congress)

Emily S. Warner received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago (2006) and her M.A. in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania (2012), where she is a doctoral candidate. Her research interests include topics in both nineteenth- and twentieth-century art history and visual culture. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Third and Market, c. 1800

Library Company of Pennsylvania

Street vendors figured in the images included in the book Birch's Views, William Russell Birch’s copperplate engravings of Philadelphia as it was in 1800. This view of the southeastern corner of Third and Market hums with the procession of people, animals, and workers among diverse architectural façades. In the center of the scene, Joseph Cooke’s architectural marvel showcases a well-rendered stone arcade and pediment.

On the walkway, a market place is set for butchers, produce vendors, and customers that wander about. This print was included in the edition of Birch’s Views from 1800.

Some writing beneath the image notes the sale from an R. Campbell and Company, and a manuscript note records its presenter, Thos. Marsh. Today this corner is in the heart of the Old City district.

High and Ninth Streets

Library Company of Pennsylvania

Birch reveals the coexisting civilian and military presences on Ninth and High Streets as carriages and pedestrians pass troops drilling on horseback. This view into late eighteenth-century life in Philadelphia shows political, cultural, and social interactions among the many subjects. An African American man and young boy walk down the street, marking a clear presence of the city’s diversity.

President's House at Ninth Street

Library Company of Pennsylvania

The Executive Mansion, as it was called, or the home intended for the president, is shown here in a colored print, a collaborative representation made by William Russell Birch and his son, Thomas. Thomas would paint in watercolor for Birch or his engraver, Samuel Seymour, to transfer. The building was constructed between 1792 and 1797, but never housed a president. The University of Pennsylvania later purchased the building. Birch included views of the Alms House and House of Employment in the distance behind the Executive Mansion.

First Four Plates of Birch's Views

Library of Congress

The first four plates of Birch’s Views are in their precut incarnations here. In the top row, Birch presents scenes from the Franklin Library at Fifth and Chestnut Streets at left, and Pennsylvania Hospital at Ninth and Pine Streets at right. The bottom row shows Old Swedes’ Church on Water Street between Christian Street and Washington Avenue at left, and the High Street Market at right. The engraving process begins with a surface to etch into, usually copper (which Birch also chose) and a metal graver to hand-cut into the surface. Ink that is brushed upon the surface will settle into the depressions and a mirror image can be printed on paper. Metal engraving managed to soften the gradient of grays given. This technique first started in the early fifteenth century in Europe. By Birch’s time, copper engraving competed with the less expensive wood-block printing technique.

The Chestnut Theatre

Library of Congress

A later edition of Birch’s Views, published in 1804, memorializes a theater on Chestnut Street originally known as The New Theatre, which burned down in 1820. It was the first theater in the United States, constructed in 1791 and finished in 1793 from funds raised by Thomas Wignell, an actor, and Alexander Reinagle, a composer. The Republican architectural façade echoed the model of The Theatre Royal in Bath, England, when Wignell’s brother-in-law obtained the original plans. The theater was equipped with seating for more than two thousand, dressing rooms, green rooms, and a large and ample wardrobe. The cause of the fire was undetermined, but the Chestnut Theatre was built twice again after the fire in 1820, but the final demolition in 1913 marked its end.

Preparation For War

Library of Congress

William Birch captured the construction of frigate Philadelphia in November 1798 at Humphrey’s & Wharton Shipyard on Front Street on the Delaware River. The Philadelphia was commissioned into the United States Navy April 5, 1800, and destroyed just three years later in the Barbary Wars off the coast of Tripoli. An attack by hostile forces left the Philadelphia severely damaged. She was kept in Tripoli harbor as a symbol of American defeat and a threat to other American warships and commercial shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. Under the cover of a ship in distress, Americans entered Tripoli harbor on a February evening in 1804 and burned the Philadelphia, marking the end of her short seafaring life.

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Related Reading

Bellion, Wendy. “Sight and the City.” In Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America, 113-169. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Cohen, Jeffrey A. “Evidence of Place: Resources Documenting the Philadelphia Area’s Architectural Past.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 124, Number 1-2 (January-February 2000): 145-201.

Cooperman, Emily T. and Lea Carson Sherk. William Birch: Picturing the American Scene. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

De Cunzo, Lu Ann. “An Historical Interpretation of William Birch’s Print ‘High Street, from Ninth Street, Philadelphia.’” Pennsylvania History, Volume 50, Number 2 (April 1983): 109-147.

Hallam, John S. “William Birch’s City of Philadelphia: The Politics of the Picturesque and Urban Life in the Early Republic.” Journal of American Culture, Volume XX, Number 4 (Winter 1997): 25-40.

Nash, Gary. First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Rigal, Laura. The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic. Princeton: Princeton University, 1998.

Snyder, Martin P. “William Birch: His Philadelphia Views.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 73, Number 3 (July 1949): 271-315.

——. “William Birch’s Philadelphia Views: New Discoveries.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 88, Number 2 (April 1964): 164-173.

——. City of Independence: Views of Philadelphia before 1800. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975.

Teitelman, S. Robert, ed. Birch’s Views of Philadelphia in 1800. With Photographs of the Sites in 1960 and 2000. 200th anniversary edition. Philadelphia: Free Library of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

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