Re-framing History, John and Rebecca Head’s Home

John Head left “my House and Lot or piece of ground in Mulberry Street wherein I now dwell, joyning to Mary Pounds Lott” to his daughter Mary Head Lawrence. The house was on the north side of Arch Street (the name of the street was changed from Mulberry to Arch before the end of the eighteenth century), 40 feet east of Third Street, on a lot measuring 20 by 110 feet.  It was demolished before 1874.  The fact that John Head’s house and shop did not survive to the tercentenary of the earliest dated entry in his account book is not surprising.  No shops where joiners, cabinetmakers, or carvers working in the eighteenth century survive in Philadelphia.  Most did not survive into the 1860s when there was at least a chance they might be recorded on film.  So it was a wonderful surprise that during research for The Cabinetmaker’s Account, John Head’s Record of Craft and Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718-1753, an albumen print made by Robert Newell (1822-1897) c. 1870 was uncovered in the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia that included Head’s house and shop appearing very much as it would have during the eighteenth century.  The photograph was made to document the newly constructed Union National Bank Building on the northeast corner of Third and Arch Streets, but at the right side of the image – 40 feet east of Third Street – is the house that John and Rebecca Head built for use as a home and shop and that Head at his death left to his daughter Martha.

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Photograph by Robert Newell (1822-1897) c. 1870.  Library Company of Philadelphia.

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Detail of photograph by Robert Newell (1822-1897) c. 1870.  Library Company of Philadelphia.  The home of John and Rebecca Head and their family.

Insurance surveys of the property were conducted in 1757 and 1784 for the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire (formed in 1752 by Benjamin Franklin and his fellow volunteer firefighters.)  The surveys describe the house as 16 feet wide by 22 feet deep with three stories in the front and two at the back. There were two brick buildings at the back of the property, an 18 feet 2 inches by 9 feet wide kitchen and a 23 feet 6 inches by 10 feet 6 inches back building, both two stories high.  In 1784 the property was described as “old and very plane, the Roofs much worn.”  Head needed space for a shop in which he and apprentices could work, storage for wood, and a place to keep completed furniture while finish was applied and before it was delivered or picked up.  Did Head have his shop on the first story at the front of his house as so many others working at a craft did or did he use that space as a small showroom for completed work and goods for barter and have his shop in the building behind the kitchen?

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Corn Exchange National Bank and Trust Co.  Northeast corner of Third and Arch Streets, Philadelphia.

The Union National Bank Building was itself demolished by the turn of the twentieth century.  The Corn Exchange National Bank and Trust Co. constructed the building currently at the northeast corner of Third and Arch Streets between 1902 and 1907.  The building went through a series of owners over the next century .  In the twenty-first century it became the setting for the fifteenth season of MTV’s reality television show The Real World, with 42 cameras and a disco ball installed for the series.   The building is currently the headquarters of Linode, a company providing cloud hosting services.

While the Old City section of Philadelphia is still a haven for the arts with numerous art galleries, artist studios, and shops, the area is also imagining future possibilities – N3RD is the newly minted designation for the Old City/Northern Liberties tech corridor.

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Corn Exchange National Bank and Trust Co.  Northeast corner of Third and Arch Streets, detail.

Buildings may come and go but property lines tend to stay put.  In the photo above, the bulkhead cellar door in the sidewalk begins exactly 40 feet east of Third Street, approximately where the alley to the west of Head’s home seen in the 1870 photo was located.  It is 18 feet from the right side of the cellar door to the end of the bank building. Head’s plot is mapped out for us almost exactly in the modern streetscape, from the cellar door to the banks east wall.

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North side of Arch Street, between Second and Third Streets, Philadelphia.

On the same side of Arch Street that Head’s house once stood, at the middle of the block between Second and Third Streets, there is a group of two and three story houses that were very likely built in the eighteenth century.  The pair of three story houses at the right share several architectural features with Head’s house – belt courses formed of brick between the second and third story windows (there is also a belt course between the first and second stories of Head’s house.  New facades at street level cover this detail on the surviving houses), arched brick headers on the second story windows, and the second and third story windows are placed asymmetrically, an arrangement that disappeared when small row houses no longer needed to accommodate multiple fireplaces and their flues.

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217 Arch Street, Philadelphia.

The gable roof was converted to a flat roof and a nineteenth century cornice was added to the building in the above image. The first story fronts of this row of houses have been altered as various businesses have come and gone over the centuries, and the brick has been painted, but these houses, and other like them that survive in the Old City and Society Hill neighborhoods of Philadelphia, assist in our connection with the past, so much of which has been lost, including Head’s home, the other houses he had built in town and a country house he built for himself and his family on Frankford Road in the Northern Liberties. (Head’s dealing in real estate is extensively detailed in his account book and the entries clarified in The Cabinetmaker’s Account, John Head’s Record of Craft and Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718-1753.)

We can’t fail to mention another eighteenth century house that stands on Arch Street across a courtyard to the east of the Corn Exchange National Bank and Trust Co. building.  Commonly known as the “Betsy Ross House”, the historic maker on site does not make the claim that Betsy Ross ever lived here.  But as a tourist destination open to the public, and with the first story front room set up as an upholstery shop, visitors can walk into the space and feel how a house very similar in plan to Head’s might have been used as a working space.

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IMG_6178adjAdam Bowett said in his forward to The Cabinetmaker’s Account, John Head’s Record of Craft and Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718-1753 that “the discovery of the account book and the dissemination of its contents … confirms John Head’s prominence in the history of Philadelphia as well as in the history of American furniture making.”  There may be no plaque on Arch Street, 40 feet east of Third Street today commemorating the Head family, but we have the evidence that there could be.

 

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