When I think of classic Philadelphia buildings, I always think of red brick structures, such as the Gloria Dei or Old Swede’s Church, depicted here in this silkcreened WPA poster by an unknown artist from somewhere between 1936 and 1941.
The lovely brick of Independence Hall, shown in a lithograph from 1876, is emblematic of Philadelphia, with its stately, solid brick. This image of Independence Hall appears to have been made as a box cover for a commemorative souvenier for the centennial.
The charm of brick is evident in Elfreth’s Alley’s Federal and Georgian townhomes, built between 1720 and 1830, as seen in this photograph from the Highsmith collection.
Of course, brick is used all over the city, for less grand structures such as this abandoned home at 20th and arch streets, photographed in 1938,
Or this privvy, which was once behind the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Why so much brick? Is it simply that brick endures? Floods and fires would destroy wooden structures, but brick would remain. However, I don’t believe there’s been a conflagration like the Chicago or San Francisco fire to explain the abundance of brick in Philadelphia.
The answer could be just below our feet, but we’ll need to dig for it.
Here we have a general soil map of Pennsylvania. Note the narrow band of yellow at the lower right. According the the map key, the yellow indicates a substrata of marine clay and sand.
This map of Philadelphia from 1797 shows that the English and Swedish occupiers of this area were very familiar with the building material that lay beneath their feet. They recognized the clay and sand as ideal raw materials for making bricks. The curious little pond-shapes with accompanying solid dots show where the brickworks and kilns were located within the city. There are at least a dozen in this image. Bricks, which shaped the look of the city, were shaped by the site of the city itself.
Indeed, brick manufacturing took off in Philadelphia, with 14 brick kilns within the city by 1794. Brickmaking, and building with brick employed enough people that the Bricklayers Company was formed by 1799.
A search of Philadelphia directories from the late 18th and early 19th centuries tells us more about who these brick makers were, and where they lived as well as where the many bricklayers lived.
https://archive.org/stream/philadelphiadire1801phil#page/80/search/brickmaker I found this image from the 1801 Philadelphia Directory in the Internet Archive, contributed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
That bricklayers were an important groups of trades people in the city of Philadelphia is evidenced by this wonderful document, which describes the procession order for a parade in 1788, which honored the establishment of the constitution of the United States. The brickmakers marched just after the cabinet and chair-makers, right before the painters, and the bricklayer marched between the fringe and ribband-weavers and the taylors.
Another interesting piece of evidence about bricks in Philadelphia is John Cromwell’s Brick Layer’s Company membership certificate from 1811, now in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
It is always thrillng to see how dull-sounding historical documents like membership certificates can provide a window into the past: this certificate includes a detailed illustration of early 19th century building practices, tools, worker’s clothing, and of course, the city.
Following my curiosity led me to a variety of primary sources, from soil maps to early city maps and directories, and bits of ephemera, resulting a better understanding of why I see what I do. Now I see Philadelphia's buildings with even more curiosity, wondering what other stories they have to tell.