Contractor Bosses (1880s to 1930s)


As Philadelphia expanded physically after its 1854 consolidation of city and county, building contractors wielded a greater degree of political power as they paid politicians and civil servants handsomely for the rights to construct the city’s infrastructure. The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of the “contractor boss”—a construction magnate who wielded political power directly rather than through intermediaries. Reformers bemoaned the rise of a “contractor combine,” which dominated Philadelphia politics from the 1880s to the 1930s and enriched itself on overpriced deals that cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

A black and white photograph of Philadelphia City Hall, taken just after its completion in the early twentieth century.
The construction of Philadelphia’s City Hall is an example of the sway contractor bosses held over Philadelphia politics in the late nineteenth century. (Library of Congress)

Like many American cities, Philadelphia experienced astonishing growth after the Civil War in terms of population, geographic expanse, and wealth. As the city grew into an industrial powerhouse, every year larger portions of the municipal budget were pledged to infrastructure for the fast-growing metropolis: street paving, gas and water mains, sewers, docks, schools, hospitals, public transportation, and large-scale civic projects. Philadelphia’s expansive spirit was symbolized by the new Public Buildings, or City Hall, at Broad and Market Streets. When its cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1874, Philadelphia City Hall was projected to become the tallest building and most luxurious municipal structure in the world.

This period also saw the emergence in Philadelphia of an omnipotent Republican machine known as the Organization, which controlled nearly every elected and appointed political office. Philadelphia became a one-party city: between 1891 and 1915, the Democratic vote withered from 39 percent to less than 4 percent. The Organization devoted itself to maintaining its power base and enriching its leaders, often at the expense of Philadelphia taxpayers. More than 90 percent of city employees were forced to make illegal “voluntary contributions” to the Organization, adding more than $3 million to its coffers between 1903 and 1913. In 1904, journalist Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936) pronounced Philadelphia “the worst-governed city in the country.” While “all our municipal governments are more or less bad,” Steffens conceded, “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.”

Widespread Graft

Philadelphia’s new seat of government became a symbol of its entrenched corruption and the influence wielded by well-connected contractors. Thanks in part to widespread graft, construction on City Hall dragged on for three decades, while its cost spiraled from $10 million to more than $24 million. When the by then outmoded Second Empire structure was declared complete in 1901, it was dismissed by essayist Agnes Repplier (1855-1950) as “that perfect miracle of ugliness and inconvenience, that really remarkable combination of bulk and insignificance.”

Soon after its inception, the Republican Organization found powerful allies among builders willing to pay for the privilege of participating in big-budget projects like City Hall. In the 1870s, political boss David Martin (1845-1920) began to recruit Irish Catholic contractors into the Republican Party, until then a bastion of Protestantism. Israel W. Durham (1854-1909), one of Martin’s rivals, formed an alliance with John Mack (1852-1915), head of numerous paving companies and later president of the Keystone Telephone Company. Thanks to Durham, Mack’s businesses acquired municipal contracts worth $33 million.

Martin and Charles A. Porter (1839-1907) became two of the first men to straddle the worlds of private enterprise and municipal service as true contractor bosses. During the 1880s and 1890s, while Martin served in various state offices and Porter was a state senator, they joined forces with John Mack to form the “Hog Combine,” so called because “they hogged everything in sight and more.” Martin and Porter’s Vulcanite Paving Company received 888 contracts valued at over $6 million, while other companies controlled by Porter were awarded contracts worth more than $2 million. Among the projects handled by the Hog Combine were the paving of Broad Street and the construction of the East Park and Queen Lane Reservoirs.

cartoon from about 1906 showing caricatures of the contractor bosses.
This political cartoon from about 1916 depicts the city’s ruling bloc of politicians and contractor bosses. (Collection of Thomas H. Keels)

By the early twentieth century, two political blocs run by competing “contractor kings” battled to control the Republican Organization. State Senator James P. “Sunny Jim” McNichol (1864-1917), whom historian Dennis Clark (1927-93) called “the first Irish Catholic to become a top Republican potentate in the Philadelphia firmament,” ran the northern half of the city.  McNichol’s interests included the Filbert Paving and Construction Company, which earned $3 million in city contracts between 1903 and 1911, and the Penn Reduction Company, a garbage-collection business with annual contracts in excess of $500,000. His Keystone State Construction Company handled contracts for the Market Street Subway, the Torresdale water filtration plant, and the Northeast Boulevard, Philadelphia’s first major parkway. Later renamed the Roosevelt Boulevard after Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), the parkway’s original straight route was remapped to zigzag through land parcels acquired by Organization members, who sold them to the city at exorbitant markups. After McNichol was awarded a $1.4 million contract to build the boulevard, reform politician Rudolph Blankenburg (1843-1918) dubbed the enterprise the “McNichol Boodle-vard.”

A Trio of Vare Brothers

South of Market Street, the three Vare brothers ruled: George (1859-1908), Edwin (1862-1922), and William (1867-1934).  Born to a poor family in the marshy wasteland known as the “Neck,” the “Dukes of South Philadelphia” developed a lucrative trash collection business, later expanding into street cleaning and contracting. Protégés of First Ward leader Amos Slack (1840-1899), the Vares used their political contacts to collect over $18 million from fifty-eight city contracts between 1888 and 1911.

The Vares invested their profits in building an unstoppable political machine in South Philadelphia, using their clout to win more contracts and earn more money. Their sway increased significantly when voters elected George to the State Legislature in 189o and to the State Senate five years later. When George died suddenly in 1908, Ed assumed his Senate seat. Bill rose from the Philadelphia Select Council to become U.S. congressman for Philadelphia’s First District, which encompassed his home district of South Philadelphia. In the years before World War I, Vare-controlled men headed most of the important City Council committees, including Finance, Highways, and Street Cleaning.

A black and white photographic portrait of Boies Penrose.
Boies Penrose represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate for over a quarter of a century. During his tenure, he was caught up in the battle between the two big contractor factions of the city, State Senator James P. McNichol and the Vare brothers. (Library of Congress)

In theory, the McNichol and Vare blocs agreed to divide the city at Market Street to ensure peace within the “contractor combine.” In practice, the two camps waged a bloody struggle for control of the Republican City Committee, composed of the party leaders of the city’s forty-eight political wards.  The upper hand in the ongoing battle was held by Boies Penrose (1860-1921), who represented Pennsylvania’s corporate interests in the U.S. Senate for twenty-five years. While Penrose usually favored McNichol, he borrowed significant sums from the Vares, paying them back by arranging private contracts with major corporations.

The deaths of McNichol, Penrose, and Edwin Vare between 1917 and 1922 left William S. Vare as the undisputed boss of Philadelphia. During the 1920s, he commanded more political power than any other single Philadelphian before or since. A Senate investigation in 1926 concluded that thanks to Vare’s army of election “watchers,” the average Philadelphia voter had a one-in-eight chance of having his ballot recorded accurately on Election Day. One commentator compared Vare to the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), with the distinction that the citizens of Rome enjoyed clean water, clean streets, and efficient transportation, unlike the citizens of Philadelphia.

Lavish Public Works Program

When Vare’s protégé, Receiver of Taxes W. Freeland Kendrick (1874-1953), took office as mayor in 1924, he launched a lavish program of public works, reversing the austerity measures of his predecessor J. Hampton Moore (1864-1950). Ground was broken for the Broad Street Subway, expanding the city’s mass transit system beyond the Market-Frankford line. Work stepped up on the Delaware River Bridge, the Free Library, and the Museum of Art, projects that had languished under Moore. The city allocated funds to rebuild Philadelphia General Hospital, to construct a new hospital complex at Byberry, and to erect a City Hall Annex. Millions of dollars were devoted to a Sesquicentennial International Exposition to mark the country’s 150th anniversary in 1926, a dismal failure that attracted half the visitors of the 1876 Centennial.

A black and white photograph of William S. Vare near the front door of a building.
After the deaths of James P. McNichols, Boies Penrose, and Edwin Vare, William S. Vare became the most powerful figure in Philadelphia politics between 1922 and 1929. This photograph is from 1923. (Library of Congress)

William Vare benefited directly and indirectly from much of this largesse. The Vare Construction Company received eleven major contracts totaling more than $1.4 million during the Kendrick administration, including work on the Broad Street Subway, the Museum of Art, and the Municipal Stadium. Vare used his influence to have the Sesquicentennial Exposition relocated from Center City to South Philadelphia, effectively bankrupting the fair but ensuring that his constituents would receive millions of dollars’ worth of jobs and infrastructural improvements.

In 1926, William S. Vare ran as the Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Pennsylvania, winning by a significant margin. Alarmed by Vare’s reputation as a corrupt urban boss and his plans to modify Prohibition by permitting the sale of beer and wine, the U.S. Senate refused to seat him until it had investigated the conduct and financing of his campaign. Under the stress of the Senate inquiry, in August 1928 Vare suffered a massive stroke that left him partially paralyzed. After deliberating for more than three years, the Senate voted in December 1929 to deny Vare his seat. Although Vare remained the nominal head of the Republican Organization in Philadelphia until shortly before his death in 1934, his political dominance effectively ended with the Senate rejection.

The Great Depression, with its devastating impact on jobs, municipal expenditures, and construction, marked the end of the golden age of the contractor boss. As the Depression abated, a new generation of influential contractors emerged in Philadelphia, but none dominated the political landscape as had McNichol or the Vares. Many of the later contractor bosses were Democratic and Irish Catholic, reflecting the city’s changing demographics: John B. Kelly Sr. (1889–1960), Matthew H. McCloskey (1893–1973), and John McShain (1896–1989).

While the era of the contractor kings had passed, Philadelphia remained in many ways their creation. The expansionist legacy of the contractor bosses remained manifest in such physical landmarks as City Hall, Roosevelt Boulevard, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Market-Frankford Subway-Elevated Line, and Benjamin Franklin Bridge. This durable infrastructure served as a testament to a body of men who bent the political will of a major American city to accommodate their own personal and professional interests.

Thomas H. Keels is a local historian and the author or coauthor of six books on Philadelphia, including Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City (Temple University Press, 2007).  His latest work, Sesqui! Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926, a study of the ill-fated Sesquicentennial International Exposition, will be published by Temple in early 2017. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Boies Penrose, 1911

Library of Congress

Boies Penrose represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate for over a quarter of a century. During his tenure, he was caught up in the battle between the two big contractor bosses of the city, state Senator James P. McNichol and brothers Edwin and William Vare. The understanding between the rivals was that the doling of city contracts would be divided evenly, with McNichol getting contracts for any job north of Market Street and the Vare brothers securing contracts for everything south of Market Street.

In spite of this understanding, McNichol and the Vare brothers constantly battled for control over the Republican City Committee, which was composed of the party leaders for the city’s political wards. Whoever gained control of the committee gained control over the city’s coffers. Boies Penrose had substantial sway over the committee and often favored McNichol. However, he also borrowed significant sums from the Vare brothers. He paid back these loans by connecting the Vare brothers to large contracts offered by private companies. In this way Penrose maintained the balance of power between the contractor bosses of Philadelphia.

City Hall, c. 1900-1910

Library of Congress

The construction of Philadelphia’s City Hall is an example of the sway that Philadelphia’s contractor bosses wielded during the late nineteenth century. William Stokley, an obscure local politician, played a large role in the selection of the site at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets. After his role in selecting the site, Stokley became mayor of Philadelphia, a position he would hold for over a decade. Using his newfound political power, he directed contracts for the building materials and labor necessary to build City Hall to various political allies in the city. His doling out of patronage would set a precedent.

The project’s budget, initially set at $10 million, more than doubled by the completion of the project to nearly $25 million. The widespread patronage also caused the project to drag on for thirty years. By the time the building was complete, the building’s Second Empire architectural style was out of vogue. Agnes Repplier, commenting on the building and its location, called City Hall “that perfect miracle of ugliness and inconvenience, that really remarkable combination of bulk and insignificance.” The power of the contractor bosses turned what was to be one of the largest and grandest municipal buildings in the world into what some viewed as a public embarrassment.

William S. Vare of Pennsylvania

Library of Congress

Between 1917 and 1922, James P. McNichol, Boies Penrose, and Edwin Vare died, leaving William S. Vare as the contractor king and undisputed political boss of Philadelphia.

William Vare continued in his brother’s footsteps aided by his protégé W. Freeland Kendrick, who became mayor of Philadelphia in 1924. During the administration of Kendrick, ground was broken on the Broad Street Subway, and work intensified on the Delaware River Bridge (later known as the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Because of these projects the Vare Construction Company received eleven major contracts from the city totaling more than $1.4 million. Seeking more political power, Vare ran for the U.S. Senate in 1926 and won. Due to his reputation as a corrupt urban boss and his views on Prohibition, the U.S. Senate denied Vare his seat after a three-year investigation. The rejection by the Senate ended Vare’s dominance of Philadelphia politics.

Contractor Bosses as Caricatures

Collection of Thomas Keels
This cartoon from the Philadelphia Record around 1916 depicts the city's ruling bloc of politicians and contractor bosses, ironically and with apparent glee declaring that "No contractors shall rule this town-n-n!"

They are (from left) U.S. Senator Boies Penrose, lawyer and future Pennsylvania governor George H. Earle Jr., State Senator James P. McNichol, State Senator Edwin H. Vare, and U.S. Representative William S. Vare.

The Vares' diminutive stature—especially when compared with such oversized figures as "Big Grizzly" Penrose and "Sunny Jim" McNichol—made them an easy target for caricaturists, who often depicted them as schoolboys wearing knickers.

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Abernethy, Lloyd M.  “Progressivism: 1905–1919.”  Philadelphia: A 300-Year History.  Weigley, Russell F., ed.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Beers, Paul B. Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday: The Tolerable Accommodation.  University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Clark, Dennis. The Irish Relations: Trials of an Immigrant Tradition.  London, England: Associated University Presses Inc., 1982.

Clark, Dennis. The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of Urban Experience.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973.

Dudden, Arthur P.  “The City Embraces ‘Normalcy’: 1919–1929.” Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. Weigley, Russell F., ed.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Gillette, Howard F.  Corrupt and Contented: Philadelphia’s Political Machine, 1865–1887.  Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1970.

__________.  “Philadelphia’s City Hall: Monument to a New Political Machine.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 97, Issue 2 (April 1973): 233-249.

McCaffery, Peter. When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine, 1867-1933.  University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Salter, J.T. The People’s Choice: Philadelphia’s William S. Vare.  Jericho, New York: Exposition Press, 1971.

Tinkcom, Margaret B.  “Depression and War: 1929–1946.”  Philadelphia: A 300-Year History.  Weigley, Russell F., ed.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Related Collections

Related Places


Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy