Old Court House – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
While touring the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, we were captivated by a large-scale painting by an unidentified artist in their collection. It was produced circa 1825 and is attributed to John Woodside. They reproduce the intersection of Second Street and High Street (today known as Market Street). Mr. Woodside who was a sign-painter could easily be the source of this idyllic depiction of the commercial life of Philadelphia in the early 19th century. The more likely source is James Kidder as identified by Whitney Martinko in this scholarly article. Of particular interest to us is how the painting depicts the commercial life of the city at a very particular time.
Detail View #1
We start with a primary focal point of the composition. A tower with internal staircase and an upper floor balcony gave visitors to the market a vantage point to see what was happening all around them. The scale of people on the porch compared to those on the ground makes them more of a focal point of the composition. The life on the street for the market seems haphazard, hectic, uninviting, and difficult to navigate. Tables are seemingly randomly organized. One has a few bushels, other has some objects and products. The wares on display appear to continue inside. One has to admire the street vendors attempting to make a livelihood.
Detail View #2
The layering of features in the painting is quite interesting. The largest elements by area are the street, sidewalk, and buildings with their extended awnings. These serve as a sort of backdrop for the activity of the street. Notable are the cobbled street as opposed to a coarser and more common dirt. People seem equally content walking on either the sidewalk or the street. The absence of any horses or carriages is notable.
The fabric awnings appear to be a canvas material strung between fixed points on the building surfaces, and posts set on the edge of the sidewalk where this meets the street. This creates a sort of privileged area for people to pass through and escape the heat or rain. If our reading of the system is correct, there are half-elliptical bays at the cornice level on the side of the building that has no awning. These would theoretically cap the opening created by the canvas when it is pulled taut further protecting the space beneath from the elements.
Other features in the landscape are barrels beside the store, likely for displaying and selling product from, a thick post of waist height at the corner. This may be either a hitching post or a survey orientation marker. There is a Classical tradition of having memorial posts where major roads meet, or to identify a significant place. This is likely not the case here. A single lamp on a very tall post is at the corner. Whether this was repeated along the entire street to allow illumination at night, or if it stood on its own at this location with none others nearby is unclear.
Detail View #3
Here we are given a more detailed glimpse into the life of the street. The building is generously outfitted with display windows. People are congregating near a door for the building. The awnings continue here as well with a similar design to the others. There are apparently different awning structures and systems for different storefronts, indicated by their slightly different color. In the foreground is a wheeled cart seemingly randomly placed, likely used by a merchant. A table is also on the extreme left of this detail shot. The location of each in the middle of the street as opposed to on the sidewalk, indicates the sidewalk was more for use by bricks and mortar merchants, while the street was a common space that could be used by everyone including people who did not have stores of their own. The apparent lack of any signage in the picture is interesting. It may be that of the few merchants in town at this time they were all very well known. It could also be that the artist omitted the detail of commercial signage, thinking this view was more pleasant instead.
Here are the closest visual approximations we can find to the view of Market Street and 2nd Street today. Westward orientation along Market Street itself was selected given the orientation of the sheds extending several blocks. Had the direction been eastward these sheds would have extended directly into the Delaware River. Clearly little from the 1825 painting remains. More detailed research of historical maps, photos, and newspaper articles could shed additional light on the changing use of this space through the years.