Special Delivery

Sarah J. Weatherwax, Senior Curator of Graphic Arts

For many of us isolating ourselves during the Covid-19 pandemic, deliveries have become our lifeline to the world outside our homes. From food and clothing to books and exercise equipment, pretty much anything can be ordered and arrive at our door within a relatively short period of time. While today our packages reach us via a U.S. Postal Service or Fed Ex truck or possibly even a drone, horse-drawn delivery services connected 19th-century Philadelphians to the larger world.

Established in Boston in 1840, Adams Co. Express (also known as Adams & Co.) opened offices in major cities up and down the east coast, making it well-positioned to move goods around the country, and even internationally. In this circa 1850 advertisement, the company emphasized its connections to all modes of transportation by placing an image of its delivery wagon between views of a large sailing ship and a railroad train.

Label for the Philadelphia branch (est. circa 1843) of the rail express service company started by Alvin Adams of Boston in 1840. Contains an ornate border and vignettes. Vignettes depict a horse-drawn delivery wagon transporting several crates; sailing ships; and traveling railroad trains. Border details include filigree and flowers.

Adams & Co. Express. Philadelphia, ca. 1850. Lithograph. Gift of Madelyn Wolke, Lucianne Reichert, and Clifford A. Mohwinkel Jr.

Plate depicts section of the 300 block of Chestnut Street circa 1851.

Julio Rae. Plate 5 from Rae’s Philadelphia Pictorial Directory & Panoramic Advertiser, Chestnut Street, from Second to Tenth Streets, 1851. Lithograph.

Opening about 1843 on what is now the 300 block of Chestnut Street in the heart of the city’s commercial district, Adams & Co. paid to have its Philadelphia office identified with its name in this panoramic view. Advertising on the facing page reminded the public that the company moved “Merchandise, Specie, Baggage &c. &c.” and assumed all responsibility for anything lost or damaged while entrusted in its care.

Adams Co. Express wagons became a ubiquitous part of everyday life, even inspiring a mid-19th century musical composition. As befitted a company whose reputation was built on speed, the music was a polka and the sheet music cover showed not only the company’s Philadelphia office, but featured a high-stepping horse pulling a California Express wagon briskly along Chestnut Street.

Adams & Co.’s Express “Polka.” Philadelphia: G. André & Co., 1852. Philadelphia History Museum.

Finally, to everyone who is in despair over whether their package will ever arrive, take heart that the delayed receipt of packages has long been a source of frustration to those eagerly awaiting them. In contrast to the bustling Chestnut Street scene on the sheet music cover, so little is happening in front of Independence Hall in this comic postcard that the “Quick Delivery” driver is able to park his wagon on the streetcar tracks and indulge in an undisturbed nap. Few packages will make it to their final destinations this day.

Depicts a "Quick Delivery" truck standing in the middle of the street, the driver napping and the horse eating grass from the street. A cop leans on a lamppost and twirls his nightstick. Children play marbles in the street, and a dog sleeps. The building in the background resembles Independence Hall.

Philadelphia on a Busy Day. Photomechanical postcard, ca. 1915.