Here to return to
GLIMPSES OF BUSINESS LIFE
WHALING AND WHALEMEN — HE WANTED HIS SHIP INSURED — STEPHEN GIRARD’S RISE TO POWER — A PHYSICIAN WHO CURED ALL HIS PATIENTS — THE GOLDSMITH’S ACCOUNTS — WHY BRYAN O HARA INCREASED HIS CHARGES — DIFFICULTIES OF TRADE DURING THE REVOLUTION — ROBERT MORRIS IN FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES — HUMOR IN THE PRISON
ONE is startled to find in William Penn’s “Further Account of Pennsylvania” a paragraph that speaks of an industry that in the minds of most people could not be connected with Philadelphia. He said:
“Mighty Whales roll upon the Coast, near the mouth of the Bay of Delaware. Eleven caught and workt into Oyl one season. We justly hope a considerable profit by a Whalery, they being so numerous and the Shore so suitable.”
Later in the same document he quotes from a letter written to him in August, 1685, by one of the residents of Philadelphia:
“I do understand three Companies for Whale Catching are designed to fish in the River Mouth this season.”
For many years whaling was a profitable pursuit, and even as late as 1814, the unwieldy denizen of the deep was not a stranger to Philadelphia. On December 3 of that year an announcement was given publicity, which told the people of the city by the Delaware:
“The Whale which was harpooned and taken by four barges after an arduous chase of three days, in the river Delaware, near Trenton Bridge, will for a few days be exhibited near the High Bridge, Kensington. This whale is believed to be of the familiar species called the Spermacetti Whale. It has been viewed by several efficient Whale Fishers, and all agreed that notwithstanding his great size and extraordinary strength of frame and muscle, he is a young Whale. . . . It may never occur that the present generation may have an opportunity of gratifying a laudable curiosity at so little trouble, and so trifling an expense as they now can. The Whale is pickled, and in as pure a state, as the day it was caught.”
The business acumen that led some of the early colonists to go after whales and taught a later resident of the city to make capital out of a “pickled whale,” was a characteristic of Philadelphia’s merchants from the beginning of the city’s history. They knew how to turn their hands to anything and to make profit wherever they turned.
The ledger of Judge William Trent — for whom Trenton was named — shows that he was “a shipping merchant and a ship owner, a dealer in or handler of cord-wood, wine, brandy, rum, pottery, flour, bran, tobacco, bread, salt, molasses, tallow, cordage, powder, servants, corn, butter, negroes staves, blankets, ‘oyl,’ wampum, yarn, insurance, exchange notes, ‘orders,’ real estate, ships, horses, cows, knives, anchors, and dry goods. In 1703 he handled 282,018 hundredweight of tobacco and 2579 skins, besides the furs and skins of 48 elk, 1269 deer, 101 beaver, 104 otter, 1381 raccoon, 1209 bear, 752 fox and wolf, 687 mink and marten, 738 muskrats and 330 “sundries.”
Most of these goods were sent out of the country, for his chief business was supplying cargoes from Philadelphia and receiving cargoes sent to the city in return. It is said that he had an interest varying from one-sixth to the whole in every “voyage” or “venture” that came to or went out of that part of Philadelphia in 1703.
An associate of Judge Trent was the William Hudson who became mayor in 1725. To his work as a tanner — he owned a number of tanneries in and near the city — he added that of the ship owner and shipping merchant. For nearly fifty years he was one of the city’s leaders in business.
As early as 1710 Philadelphia’s water front was a busy place. Richard Castleman, “Gent.,” who came to town during that year, said:
“There are several coves and docks where large ships are built; and by a moderate computation there have been loaded from the stocks of the city . . more than 300 sail of ships, besides small craft, which may in some sort give us an idea of the opulency of the place.”
For many years much of the wealth was tied up in vessels and their cargoes. At one time one merchant controlled or owned twenty vessels, ships, brigantines, schooners, and sloops. In these vessels he received rum and sugar from Barbadoes, linen from Liverpool, rice from South Carolina, wine from Madeira, and spirits from Jamaica; and he sent muskets, pistols, cutlasses and gunpowder to Jamaica, onions to Antigua, and chocolate to Virginia.
A letter sent to “Mr. Wharton” from New York, dated January 28, 1756, indicates that a large business in ship insurance must have been done here. The letter was written by a vessel owner who wished to make a better bargain in insuring a ship that had been a long time on its way than he had any right to expect to make. He asked Mr. Wharton to advise him what “Insheurence” could be made on “ye Schooner Margret” From hence to ye Coast of Affrica & From thence for Barbadus, for advice, if no warr from Barbadus to Charlestown, So Carolina — If a warr to sell at Barbadus, or proceede to Jamaca.” He added the information that the vessel sailed on November 16, 1755, that she was “mounted with 4 Carege Gunns & 5 Swivald Blunderbuses, a Sofishent quantity of muskets & Ammonisen.” He wanted £1000 Inshuerence made on Vessel and Cargoe — but he was unwilling to pay more than a modest premium.
Ship builders as well as ship owners had an eye to the main chance. An early advertisement offered for sale “the ship Ocean, copper fastened and copper sheathed to the bends, and ready for an Indian voyage or any other voyage.” To this announcement was added the information that the vender had for sale “a few pipes of old high-flavored 4th proof Charante brandy.”
The story of a ship of that day from the stocks through the various voyages that helped to fill the coffers of its owner is suggestive. There is, for instance, the record of Stephen Girard’s ship Good Friends. 1
She was bought, a wreck, in 1792. When rebuilt she was of 246 tons and carried twenty guns. In 1793 she went to Bordeaux where she was held because of the embargo. In 1795 she was again at Philadelphia. Later voyages were made to Hamburg, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Isle of France, and Leghorn. In 1806 she was boarded by a British privateer. In 1808 she was laid up on account of the Long Embargo. In 1809 she sailed for Gothenburg but was captured by a Danish privateer. She was released a year later. In 1811 Girard sent her to England. In 1812 she put in at Amelia Island, off the coast of Florida. Later she was seized by United States Customs authorities for violation of the Non-Importation law. Suit was entered against the owner for $915,000. Then she went to Charleston for cotton destined for Europe. On her capture by the British she has sold to Barings for £3000, but after the close of the war they offered to resell her to Girard. He was unable to buy “that favorite vessel,” because of the impossibility of obtaining register
But the story of Stephen Girard himself is far more interesting than that of any of his ships. In May, 1776, while on his way home to France, in a ship of which he was master as well as part owner, a storm drove him into Delaware Bay. A pilot was secured, and the vessel was taken to safety just in time to escape the British fleet. Captain Girard had no money then current in Philadelphia, so he borrowed from a stranger the amount of the pilot’s fee. Thus the future philanthropist came on borrowed money to the city which was later to benefit by his gifts.
Disposing of his vessel, he engaged in commerce. On October 27, 1778, he took the oath of allegiance to the country that had received him so graciously. At the time he was living at Mt. Holly, New Jersey. Return to the city became possible in 1779. A vessel was built for him and sea ventures were once more undertaken.
In 1791 and 1792 he built six new ships, marvels of speed, which were at once employed in trade to all parts of the world. The extent of the commerce is indicated thus by Ingram in his biography of Girard:
“A ship would sail with a cargo of cotton and grain for Bordeaux, where it would reload with fruit and wine for Saint Petersburg, and there discharge this cargo, replacing it with hemp and iron. In turn this would be sold in Amsterdam for specie, laden with which the ship would sail for Calcutta and Canton, where tea, silks, and East India goods would be bought for the return voyage to Philadelphia.”
The list of exports from Philadelphia in the years following 1765 is surprising. They included wheat, flour, bread, stoves and beading, corn, iron, soap, flax seed, furs, lard, butter, beef, pork, walnut logs, deerskins, potash, brown sugar, loaf sugar, “melasses,” wine, oil, rum, fish, candles, chocolate, salt, cotton, wool, leather, rice, coaches, chariots, chaises, sulkys, wagons, wheelbarrows, drays, ploughs, barrows, pumps, boats, carts, saddletrees, cartridges, stoves, bricks, lime, tobacco, indigo, turpentine, paper, pasteboard. Of course the quantity of some of the products was quite small. Before the Revolutionary War many things were shipped as raw material to foreign markets, and were later returned in a manufactured state. But after the war much of the raw material was manufactured at home, and the finished production sent abroad.
Philadelphia merchants did a large business with the country districts, in spite of the fact that transportation arrangements were of the crudest. Frequently a visitor to the city was entrusted with all sorts of commissions to the stores, or a resident would be asked by some country cousins to give freely the benefit of his leasure for a trip to the markets. Before the Revolution Neddy Burd, of Lancaster, who was attending the college which later became part of the University of Pennsylvania, sometimes had so many commissions given to him that his studies must have suffered. Once he was asked to get for Granny yarn, “as near the color of the sample as could be got.” Then he was asked to secure lemons and a Gloucester cheese. He succeeded in buying the last cheese on sale in the city, so he wrote home, “Unless this had been secured you must have waited for English cheese until the agreement of our merchants about Non-Importation should be dissolved by a Repeal of the Revenue Act.” His grandfather took his turn by asking him to procure such necessary things as a bottle of red ink, twenty-five gallons of molasses and a lot of salmon.
Among the records of business and professional life in the city some of the most curious are the bills of physicians. One of these, dated 1717, and made out by Doctor Jones to John Russell, was remarkable for the fact that all the charges were for cures. There were eight of these charges, some of them being: “To curing his Seruant’s knee, £1;” “To curing his mans foot,” 4 shillings; “To curing his daughter’s foot,” 3 shillings; “To curing his Sons sore Eye,” 3 Shillings. Surely no man could object to paying a bill like that!
Dr. Benjamin Rush presented to the estate of John Lukens a bill whose greatest peculiarity was that it covered items for three years, from 1773 to 1776. The charge of a goldsmith in 1734 included a silver thimble and topping another, making a milk pot, “Soydering a Tankard and Beading out ye Bruises,” a set of Breeches Buttons, a chain and strainer for Tea Pot, a Soup Spoon, making and mending a Scizzor Chain.
Unless the goldsmith was an exception, bills ran a long time and were very seldom paid in full. Remnants of the charge remained for years.
There were not lacking in the city men who felt that training and experience in London was a great recommendation. In 1746 a stone mason advertised thus:
“At the new Marble Shop, at the sign of the Mason’s Arms in Arch Street, Philadelphia, are sold Chimney-Pieces, Slabs for Hearths, Monuments, Fonts for Churches, Tombstones and Head-stones, with all sorts of Marble Work, by George Harrison, who serv’d a regular Apprenticeship to that Business and followed it for several years in London.”
To this advertisement was appended an “N.B.”
“The said George Harrison was imploy’d by several Gentlemen in England as a Surveyor, in the Designing, Making Draughts of, and superintending their Buildings: and having had very considerable Practice there, is also desirous to serve any Gentlemen in these Parts; that may have Occasion for any Thing in that Way.”
Those who made out the bills for goods sold a hundred and fifty years ago and more must have had ample leisure as well as a rich fund of good humor. Thomas Livezey, on June 29, 1764, sent to Thomas Wharton a message that ought to have brought a prompt remittance, and without any claim for abatement:
“It is thirty bushells I have sent thee, and Notwithstanding the Labour and Care I have taken to oblige thee which the bran itself will testify to anyone Who is a Judge I have charged only 15 pr. bushel — Lower than Can Well be afforded; but I shall not regard that as it is to a friend — it May appear to thee perhaps that I have Said Rather tomuch in praise of the bran yet upon Examination I think it will appear [illegible] for if it Don’t fully answer the Description I have Given it I should Not be unwilling to make some abatement in price — this from thy Most Respectfull & Sincere friend Thomas Livezey.”
A bill of another sort was sent to Thomas Wharton by Bryan O’Hara, who, instead of talking of an abatement in charge, gave notice of an increase. Perhaps this was due to the troubled politics of the day, for the bill was sent in 1774. It was for “one year’s Sheaving and dressing your Wigs,” and the amount was £2.0.0. To the bill was appended this note:
“Sir I take this method of informing you, that I think the above too little for doing your business 2/3d of my customers pays me three pounds a year and does not get quite so much done, for instance Messrs John Reyne & John Bringhurst pays it, wou’d be much obliged to you to consider it, for the Ensuing Year, I am Sir your H’ble Servt BRYAN O HARA.”
Elliott Duncan, who, in 1767, had a shop “nearly opposite Christ Church,” was as brief in advertising his goods as Livezey was verbose in his bill. He contented himself with stating that he carried “a neat and General Assortment of both Wet and Dry Goods,” including Muslin, Cambrick, Lawn, Chintzes, Poplins, Shalloons, Calicoes, Calimancoes, Durants and Tasumies, Oznabrigs, Sattin, Peelong, Figured, and Plain Scarcenet and Modes Taffaties.”
The day book of David Evans is
exceedingly interesting because of the variety of his goods, the amount of his
charges, and the character of his customers. Here are some sample items:
1774, Sept. R. Clement Biddle, 1 Mahogany Sofa, £5.
1776, July 20. United States of America, 161 sets of Tent Poles 4/6 each. August 12, Charles Thomson, a Reading Desk for Congress, £1.5.
November 29. Making Benches for the Jew Synagogue.
1777, Jany 16. Ornamenting Brig. Gen. Mercer’s Coffin with plate and handles and attendance at funeral, £5.
July 4. Charles Thomson, 1 large writing Table, £2.1.3.
1778, Feb. 26. Lieut. Hoysted 64th Regt., making a box for camp equipage.
1779, July 14. Estate George Ross, Esqr. Mahogany Coffin, inscription plate, handles & case, £175 (continental currency).
1781, May 12. Library Company of Philadelphia. Making and Staining a frame.
1781, July 19. Capt. Audubon. Making a house for his Squirrels.
1785, April 4. State Lottery. Making 6 boxes.
1786, January 9. Dr. Boss, Making a Walnut Medicine Chest. £5.12.
April 8. Ordered by Michael Gratz small planed boards on which to make cakes for the Passover for Jewish Congregation.
1787, May 27. Made a sign for a man at corner Market and Sixth street — the sign of ye Greyhound. Sept. 4. Hon. John Penn. Making a Walnut Coffin for Sabina Francis, a servant of his Uncle Thomas Penn, late Proprietor, £6.
1789, June 29. Dr. Ewing, Made a large Mahogany clock Case for the University of Pennsylvania, £11.
1790, December 9. Philadelphia County Commissioners — 6 Venetian Blinds for Congress, with plain fronts in Senate Chamber and Committee Room in County Court House, at £4.10 each. 9 ditto for Arch windows down stairs in the House of Representatives of U. S. at £6 each.
1791, October 31. John Adams, Vice President 2 Mahogany Boards, to fix Chesters, repairing Dining Table. £10.0.
1791, December 9. Bank of the United States. Making a Clock case for the Directors Room, £4.
1792, April 18. Spanish Minister. Repairing a Card table.
1796. United States of America, making platform in Congress Hall larger and hanging 2 Doors, £3.15.
1799, November 9. Dr. Benjamin Rush, to making 1 Mahogany Bureau Table, £7.1 as a compensation for my son Evan Evans’ ticket of admission attending his lectures for 1798.
1801, July 21. Shipped on the sloop Highland, for Gen. Dearborn, 16 Venetian Blinds for the War Office, Washington, D. C. $91 pr. Blind.
1803, June 30, United
States. 6 Venetian Blinds for the Captain’s Cabin of frigate Philadelphia.
Capt. Bainbridge, $48.
It will be seen that several of the charges made above are for the making of furniture, a craft for which Philadelphia was noted. Museums and private collections testify today that elaborate and beautifully carved pieces were made for the discriminating and appreciative as culture and worth increased, as well as large quantities of rather simpler but handsome furniture for those of lesser means but equal taste.
In those days, too, architecture was accounted a necessary part of a liberal education, and that such knowledge was deeply grounded will be realized when it is remembered that the State House, Christ Church and
In November 1800, John Inskeep, who was elected mayor on October 21, 1800, put in operation in Philadelphia the new method of computation in dollars and cents.
St. Peter’s were all designed by Philadelphia men and executed by its master-carpenters.
The difficulties of merchants during the Revolution are illustrated by the experiences of J. Peters, as revealed in a letter written to Francis Oberlin, a Bethlehem merchant, on August 24, 1779:
“The blind way of trade puts me at a stand. I cannot purchase any Coffee without taking to one bill a tierce of Claret & sour, & at £6.8 per gall. Sugar I may purchase at about the limited price, & that is the only article that can be brought. I have been trying day for day, & never could get a grain of Coffee so as to sell it at the limited price these six weeks. It may be bought, but at about 25/ per lb. Then it is very dangerous to get it out of town; for the least triple you must produce your bill, & swear that you have given no more, & made no presents, neither that you intend to make any presents after you have a certificate or permit. Some time ago I might have sent wagons out of town, & never have been stopped, but that time is over. Should you want sugar, I will buy for you, but I think you’d better wait till this Committee is broke. It cannot last long, for we must all very soon shut up stores and starve.”
But after the signing of the treaty of peace business improved. One of the evidences was the increased demand for conveyance. Quarrier & Hunter, the city’s leading carriage builders, had a shop on Filbert Street, between Seventh and Eighth Streets. Not only did they have many local patrons, but they numbered among their customers the ministers of France and Holland, as well as officers of the navy and army. They were manufacturers of coaches, chariots, chaises, phaetons, sulkies, “sociables.” These were finished in olive, black, yellow, drab, green, brown, or purple.
On the day books of the firm the
following charges were made:
1780. The French Minister: Painting body of phaeton, borders, and moulding, cypher and flowers; painting Coach.
John Adams: Painting phaeton and coach, and three cyphers in gilt.
1781; John Adams: Painting chair, phaeton and carriage and ornaments.
1782. President of Congress: Painting arms on coach, cleaning and varnishing.
1783. Thomas Jefferson: Painting phaeton green, crests on the back.
Painting chariot olive green, cheek vermilion, and gilding.
Robert Morris was at the time of this charge at the height of his prosperity. But a few years later he became involved in financial difficulties through too sanguine investments in real estate. After struggling for years to extricate himself he was arrested for debt on February 15, 1798. George Eddy made the complaint against him that led to the crisis. Of him Morris spoke in a letter to a friend:
“I am here in the custody of a sheriff’s officer. George Eddy is the most hardened villain God ever made. I believe if I had bank bills to pay him with he would refuse them on the ground of their not being legal tender.”
The next day the writer was taken to the debtor’s apartment of the old Prune Street Prison, where he was confined until August 26, 1801.
But the imprisonment did not crush the man to whom the country owed so much and was repaying so little. On March 13, less than a month after his arrest, in a letter to his unfortunate partner, John Nicholson, after speaking of Dr. Benjamin Say, whose notes to him had not been paid, he wrote:
“When Doctors of Physick instead of their pills Become dealers in Paper, not Bank notes or Bills, Intent on their gains they lie without fear. That Morris or Nicholson caught by the ear Can by this Touch Stone on any one day Detect lying Lusty, or, unconscionable, Say.” Charles Henry Hart says of the patriot, who lay for long months in the debtors’ prison:
“The country for whose independence, safety and salvation he had pledged and given his private fortune in the hour of its deepest depression and most desperate need, forgot him when adversity crowded upon him, and neither by word, act, or deed, helped to alleviate the burden of his unfortunate situation. The Congress which, without his aid, never would have had an existence to hold a session, sat within the shadow of his prison walls but lifted not a voice or a hand to save him.”
It is pleasant to know that in 1798 Washington called on his old associate in the prison, and that when Mrs. Morris and her daughter were visiting in Virginia he and Mrs. Washington sent to them a joint letter inviting them to go to Mt. Vernon. In this letter they asked her to “be assured we ever have and still do retain the most affectionate regard for you, and Mr. Morris and the family.”
On April 4, 1800, Congress passed the first bankruptcy act of the United States, and on July 1801, a commission of bankruptcy was issued, upon the petition of John H. Huston, a creditor of Robert Morris. Four weeks later proof was made of debts amounting to $3,000,000. At once Morris was released. Next day he wrote, “I obtained my liberty last evening, and had the inexpressible satisfaction to find myself again returned to my own home and family.”
Early in December following the proceedings of Bankruptcy were concluded. “I now find myself a free citizen of the United States,” he said, “without one cent that I can call my own.”
Not a stain rests on the name of Robert Morris. He was unfortunate but he conducted himself throughout his misfortune in such a way that the honor in which he was held even increased. In spite of his failure for a sum that was large for those days his record adds to the glory of Philadelphia business life._________________________
1 An illustration in color of this vessel will be found in the second volume of “The Life and Times of Stephen Girard” by John Bach McMaster, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1918.