The Chew House, also known as Cliveden, belonged to Benjamin Chew (1722-1820), the patriarch of an influential Quaker family. He was one of Pennsylvania’s largest enslavers. Partly because of its historical significance as the Revolutionary War site of the Battle of Germantown, the Library Company holds a number of graphic materials that depict the estate. Recent scholarship, however, has uncovered the Chew family’s involvement in the slave trade and has affected contemporary interpretations of the site. The stereograph that includes Black groundskeeper James Smith on the property disrupts past narrative omissions of this history. Although Smith was not enslaved, his physical presence makes visible histories that are often hidden within visual materials and their descriptions.
During the 18th century, London Coffee House, at Front and Market Streets, was frequented by merchants and businessmen. This lithograph is a reimagining of the site, with a scene of an auction of recently-arrived enslaved Africans. The illustration was part of the 1830 edition of Annals of Philadelphia, which was a volume by antiquarian John Fanning Watson (1779-1860) that traced the cultural history of Philadelphia. Despite being billed as a comprehensive narrative, Watson did not note the auction that Breton illustrated. In the hundreds of years since the publication of Annals, a historical marker has been placed where the building stood to acknowledge the site’s connection to the slave trade that was previously omitted in the historical record. This evolution in how the site is remembered and commemorated exemplifies the need to recognize the malleable and ever-evolving nature of historical interpretation, which is also deeply informed by the eras in which we live.
This watercolor by Alexander Kitzmiller (b. ca. 1839) is a caricatured adaptation of an illustration in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Kitzmiller was incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary when he made this work and gave it to Samuel G. Woodhouse (1821-1904), the prison’s resident physician. The Annual Report of the Library Company for 1997 situates the watercolor within a broader history of minstrelsy in the 19th century, which is described as both disparaging and with admiration of African Americans. Nearly twenty-five years later, a different interpretation of the image, which departs from the original and much more sympathetic print in Frank Leslie’s can be offered. The racism of the depictions of the figures is more palpable. Additionally, our understanding of the nature of the conditions at Eastern State has evolved. The artist possibly understood his innate freedom in direct contrast to that which the formerly enslaved African Americans were beginning to experience, and he likely imbued that sentiment in his work.
This photograph by amateur Philadelphia photographer George Mark Wilson (1879-1925) shows an African American woman standing beside a row home situated a few blocks east of the current Library Company building. Primarily interested in documenting Philadelphia’s architecture, Wilson remarked in notes on the back of the image that the residence was, “a good example of a mechanics home.” He also noted that the depicted woman was vocally resistant to her photograph, but then did eventually oblige him. A document of 19th-century architecture, it is also an encapsulation of the voyeuristic and racist dynamics that could undergird the practice of photography in Philadelphia’s urban spaces.
Although the identity of these sitters is unknown, much can be inferred about these individuals and their circumstances through visual clues. The nicely painted background and tree trunk prop in the Snyder & Walton photograph suggest that the studio served an upper-middle class clientele. The woman’s immaculate clothing provides further proof of this. The portrait of the man, however, is a collage of the sitter's image and an ornate background. This presentation suggests that the man could not afford to sit for a portrait at a more well-resourced studio. The details of these different studio settings showcase the divergent socioeconomic statuses and experiences that African Americans had in the aftermath of slavery. The portraits also show that the desire to signal a refined appearance to counter racial stereotypes was one that crossed class boundaries.
Amateur photographer Marriott Canby Morris (1863-1948) was a descendant of the prominent Philadelphia families, the Perots and Morrises. These images taken during Morris family visits to Bermuda show portraits of Perot family relatives New York Comptroller of Customs Robert Elliston (1681-1756) and his wife Mary that hung in a family friend’s home, Smiths’ Parish. Morris’s ancestors, who were Caribbean merchants, benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade. Most likely intended as views to show his family, friends, and fellow photographers at social gatherings, the lantern slide images are also historical markers of the Morris family ancestry that facilitated their upper-class status. This standing, which was achieved through the labor of enslaved Africans nearly 700 miles away, is also reflected in these photographs.
In 1856, Frederick Gutekunst (1831-1917), a prominent Philadelphia portrait photographer, opened a studio at 712 Arch Street. Gutekunst photographed prominent figures, including future president Woodrow Wilson, as well as middle-class Philadelphians. The African American caregiver was possibly among his daily clientele during the 1860s, or her copied image was originally taken by a different photographer. Viewing these portraits together, we can begin to question dominant narratives of U.S. visual culture that have long relegated Black working-class women to the margins of the country’s socioeconomic history. Until recently, the historical record has primarily focused on figures like Wilson, despite the fact that Black women have always been present in the spaces wherein history was written, and in this case, photographed.
This trade card advertises the Lancaster, Pennsylvania bookselling business of S.H. Zahm (b. ca. 1839). Whereas many of the era's trade cards used racist caricatures to promote products and industries that were typically associated with Black labor, such as housework and agriculture, this card appears as an anomaly. A direct connection between bookselling and racial stereotyping is, at first, difficult to perceive. This dissonance demonstrates the ubiquity of visual stereotypes in the realm of commerce and the social acceptance of this harmful imagery as a marketing tool. The trade card also symbolizes the ways that the physical labor and bodies of African American people were integral to the workings of capitalism in the United States.