Tag: grid system

Marks, Manicules, and Markland: Street Signage in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia

A signage doubleheader at Walnut Street and South Second Street NE, detail (HABS).


Here we are in the famously gridded city of Philadelphia, in the 1830s, when Frances Trollope and Tyrone Power reported that the city was easy to navigate. As Power said, “the stranger’s course [is] an exceedingly easy one” (Impressions of America, During the Years 1833, 1834, and 1835 [1836], 1:81). But there in the Public Ledger of July 25, 1836, is an anonymous rant claiming that it is impossible to find one’s way around Philadelphia, even for elderly Friends who have lived here all their lives. Navigation Continued: “Marks and Numbers of Streets,” from the Philadelphia PUBLIC LEDGER, 1836

Is this really a contradiction? If we think about legibility, the patterning or reference system described by Kevin Lynch, we can say that Philadelphia was compact and regular, set out in the narrow waist between two rivers. Inhabitants should always have known where they stood in relation to the points of the compass, the rivers, and agreed-upon local landmarks.

The complaint in the Public Ledger was about legibility in a less sophisticated sense. The city was impossible to navigate, it was claimed, because of the regularity and similarity of the streets, which made blocks look alike (a point also made by Frances Trollope), and because there were scarcely any street signs, except for a few faded boards, possibly relics of Penn’s era. Streets could be found by counting squares on a map. The grid needed guide boards.

Could it be that the former national capital, the city of the Society of Friends and of Benjamin Franklin, was so lacking in civic common sense as to neglect street signage? And what about all the inset marble (or brownstone or metal) street signs, often paired at the corner, that survive on brick buildings in old neighborhoods? About 240 have survived demolition, stucco, and siding. About a quarter of those signs–prized among the prizes–are for street names that no longer exist (please see my Flickr album of signs). If those signs did not exist in 1836, when did they go up? And who was responsible for them?

Old images are full of street signs, but they appear incidentally. Marble, metal, or painted wood–it’s hard to tell, though signs that were affixed rather than inset tend to have shadows at the bottom. A search of old images found more than fifty vanished signs that were probably inset, and made of marble. About twenty of them are in pairs, usually meeting at the corner.

Those images can’t tell us when the signs went up. Records of street name changes provide the earliest possible dates for signs. The records also provide latest possible dates for former-name signs. It seems that, of the former street names, ten changed at dates yet unknown, five changed in 1858, and about thirty changed in 1897. Indeed, if you look at the Bromley atlas for 1910, you will find current names all over town. A few names turn up in maps after being changed by the city (e. g., Hull for Elkhart in the 1910 Bromley). The still-ubiquitous white on blue wall signs turn up in photos starting about 1900. Everyday incised signage seemed to wane with the century, though many buildings before and since have been designed with incised (or separate-letter) street signs to add gravitas to banks, electric stations, or self-conscious new housing.

Was the city responsible for the incised signs? Not according to Common Council records (available for ca. 1836-1919, with possible gaps, thanks to the HathiTrust). It is unlikely that the city, which had to change signs when the names changed, would have been scraping out and replacing incised signs. Our dozens of former-name survivors suggest that that was not done. We can’t know how many incised signs existed, or where they were, but enough old images show brick corner buildings without street signs, to suggest that they did not go up according to a plan. Besides, though almost all the signs are at stringcourse level, some are a story higher; some corners have paired signs and others only one. We find a both-ends, opposite-sides signage plan on a few blocks of surviving speculative housing: Silver (Bishop) and Seltzer (Coffman) between Thirteenth and Park; Darien above Somerset; Napa (Chalfont) between Spring Garden and Hamilton; and Wakefield (Fairfax) between E. Price and E. Rittenhouse. But developers of uniform blocks left hundreds of corner buildings without incised signs.

Then what did the city do about signage, and what types are mentioned in the records? Clearly, it was managing street signs by the late 1830s. (Perhaps the ranter of 1836 was an unsung hero, an instigator of signage reform.)

In Common Council records for the late 1830s, there are repeated references to the painting, putting up, repairing, and updating of street signs. The city also monitored damage to, and removal of, signs. Appropriations for these services were a regular part of the budget. At the end of the 1830s, the council considered plans that were carried out at the time of consolidation: numbering north-south streets from the Delaware to the Schuylkill, rather than numbering from both rivers toward the center; and adding directions N, S, E, and W “at the corners of all the Streets and Alleys” (street signs were no longer rare), “E” and “W” breaking at Broad, not, as we see now (for the most part), at Front.

With marble signs, we have little history, but plenty of examples. With municipal signage before 1900, we have lots of history, but few surviving examples. Several types of signs are mentioned, but the terminology seems vague, flexible, and changeable. Why define precisely what everyone sees every day?

The 1836 complaint speaks of old guide boards of the “shape, size and color of a weather beaten shingle.” City records from the 1830s to ca. 1900 speak of corner signs, painted and apparently wooden (they were made and maintained by a city carpenter), finger boards or fingerpoints, painted index boards, index plates (possibly metallic), and sign boards. The metallic signs might have been painted like the white on blue wall signs, or “typeset” from metal letters, like the ones that survive at Lemon and Tenth NW, Pine and Ninth SW, and Waverly and Sixteenth SE (with the former name, Stone). If we can trust image searches, it seems that guide boards (1836), direction boards (1837-39), index boards (city records, intermittently, 1838-80; but John Fanning Watson [Annals of Philadelphia. . . 2: 492] had noticed index boards ca. 1800), and finger boards (1839, 1840, 1841, 1854), might point away from themselves. Sign boards (1848, 1857-74, 1883-89, 1891-95, 1897-1912) may be the rectangular, non-pointing signs in old images, fastened to the wall (as a board would be), rather than inset. (Or they might be marble insets.) A survey of old images revealed about twenty that could show one or the other, with another thirty most likely sign boards.

In the midst of these ambiguous and overlapping designations, two old signage styles stand out.

The first to appear was the fingerpoint or finger board, a wall sign (also seen in clusters on a pole, at highway intersections) with a pointing hand at one end, like the manicule in the margin of an old manuscript (or pointing up or down on a tombstone). I have found about 48 fingerpoint signs in old Philadelphia images.

Arch Street and North Seventh Street NE, ca. 1845, and detail. Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections.

Bank Alley and Dock Street, ca. 1839, and detail. Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections.

Tamany (Buttonwood) Street and York Avenue (part of the lower end, now existing only in small sections, of Old York Road), ca. 1851, with detail. Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections.

Walnut Street and South Front Street, ca. 1855, with details. Extra points for finding a fourth fingerpoint here! Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections.

They are charming, but puzzling. Pointing signs usually direct attention away from their location, but the decipherable fingerpoint signs seem to be on the streets they name. “FRONT ST.” on the Front Street side of a building is a label, not a pointer. Then what does the pointing mean? The orientation is not toward the corner; some point away from the corner. Perhaps they regulated traffic? I found three Chestnut Street fingerpoints, all pointing east, but that could be coincidence. And why have traffic regulation on Plynlimmon Place, a dead end narrower than nearby Elfreth’s Alley? In fact, one-way streets seem to have appeared here only in the twentieth century.

The second example of striking signage shows how sidewalk corners pick up public functions. As rowhouses acquired porches, bay windows, elaborate corbels, turrets, and abundant greenery, wall signs persisted, but might have been hard to see. For other buildings, like houses of worship, they seem to have been considered inappropriate. So, while also taking into account the increasing speed of travel, sidewalk signage became attractive. In 1868, Thomas T. Markland Jr. patented a “new and useful Improvement in Street-Lamps and other lamps,” which he proposed for use in Philadelphia. His improvement was “street-lamps with name-plates in the main body of the lamps, but [attached to the frame and] separate and distinct from the large glass plates,” so the names would not be lost if the plates broke. Markland’s patent speaks of perforated letters, but the Common Council speaks of “block letter[s]” with spaces in between, as shown in the right-hand image below, and in other old images. There would be signs on all four sides, so that the street names could be seen from all directions. (By the way, note the contrast below between Fifth and Fifth and Chestnut and Fourth.) They were also, unlike wall signs, at their best after dark.

T. T. Markland Jr., street lamp patent, 1868.

This system was taken up by the city, but coexisted with other forms, so that we read of money for “sign boards at the corners of streets and street names on lamps” (1884-85), and of expenditures for “street names upon the public lamps, sign boards, and road posts” (1887-1912). The first image in this article shows a rare corner (Walnut and Second NE, ca. 1869) where a surviving fingerpoint sign (the hand is on the right above the first “R” in Krider) coexists with Markland signs. Unlike the marble signs, the Markland name-plates seem to have been added systematically. In photographs from the decades after the patent, one can see lamps with street names at one corner after another in Center City, especially on Chestnut, and as far north as Broad and Stiles, or perhaps (in a sketch from Perspective of Philadelphia in 1886) at Columbia and Tenth; other possibilities include Butler and Second and Market and Thirty-eighth. I found about 24 clear images of street lamps with signs, with 13 images too faint for certainty. In images of the time there are many corner lamps without name-plates; perhaps the signs were concentrated in Center City.

At a favored intersection, which, or how many, corners got the signage lamps? The Markland lamps in old images are divided almost equally among the four corners. But the Library Company has two images from ca. 1868 that show Markland signs at Walnut and Fourth, on the NE and SW corners.

Chestnut Street and South Seventh Street, ca. 1870, 1876, detail. Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections.
Chestnut Street and South Nineteenth Street, ca. 1875, and detail. Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections. [Chestnut Street east from Nineteenth Street, Philadelphia] [graphic] / James Cremer, photographer and publisher, 18 South Eighth Street, Philadelphia. | Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections
Ranstead Street and South Fifth Street, and detail. Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections (scroll down in album). Photograph album of Philadelphia and vicinity [graphic]. | Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections
St. Mary [Rodman] Street, and detail. Edward Strahan (pen name of Earl Shinn), Picturesque Glimpses of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania (1875), p. 185. Internet Archive.

Lamps could combine multiple public functions on a sidewalk corner: illumination, signage–and a mailbox, following the 1858 patent by Albert Potts. Images of Arch and North Seventh NW (across from the site of the ruffled fingerpoints!) show the house known as Fort Rittenhouse with a plain street lamp; with businesses moved in and a Potts letter box added; with different businesses, the Potts letter box, and Markland signs; and a successor building with the signs and a round-top letter box.

“Fort Rittenhouse.” Charles J. Cohen, Rittenhouse Square: Past and Present (1922), p. 299. Internet Archive.
Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections (scroll down in album). https://digital.librarycompany.org/islandora/object/digitool%3A119977#page/6/mode/1up
Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections (scroll down in album). https://digital.librarycompany.org/islandora/object/digitool%3A119627#page/37/mode/1up
Photograph from 1885, and detail. Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections. https://digital.librarycompany.org/islandora/object/Islandora%3A4233

Advertising on lamps (perhaps not city-owned lamps) also turns up in old images (see Chestnut and Seventh above). Advertisements were not restricted to corners, or to lamp posts, but also appeared on lamps attached to buildings. Unlike the street names on Markland’s shatterproof name-plates, the advertising was usually applied to the glass itself, but there was at least one lamp that put a business name (THE TIMES, at Chestnut and Eighth) on a metal strip.

The Markland lamps and their competitors went the way of gas lamps here and elsewhere, but in the garden of the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture, and at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, you can see a few “street names upon the public lamps.” That is not to say that they are Markland’s name strips; the street names are black on a white opaque background, the style seen in images of working street lamps in Baltimore. In Boston, a collector added, or restored, sign plates to a lamp from the intersection of Salem and Hull.

The editorialist of 1836 should have been pleased with fingerpoints, sign boards, and lamp signs. But what would the writer have made of the 1915 proposal discussed in Common Council to place “street names on telegraph, telephone, electric light, or other poles or posts”? Definitely a topic for another time.

Navigation Continued: “Marks and Numbers of Streets,” from the Philadelphia PUBLIC LEDGER, 1836

Navigation Continued: “Marks and Numbers of Streets,” from the Philadelphia PUBLIC LEDGER, 1836

We hope that the examination of old advertisements in



You Must Take the Red Car

has shown how hard it was for Philadelphians to find a building under the old system of numbering. Below is an anonymous complaint about the difficulty of finding streets in our famous checkerboard of a grid, without the help of markers or signs. This is not an advertisement, though it is a newspaper article, and it has been transcribed for ease of reading.

Public Ledger, 25 July 1836, page 2

Marks and Numbers of Streets.—Every stranger, —psha! every resident, yes! every resident, even among those who were born and reared and raised and brought up in our right-lined, right-angled, right-looking, right-conducting city, must have experienced, at least once per day in his life, especially if he have lived long, the difficulty of telling his whereabout [sic], his bearings and distances, latitude and longitude in our streets. He may start from any given point, which he well knows when he sees it; as, for instance, Mr. Pagoda Arcade Brown’s arcade [see below]; but before he can get to the distance of five squares, he is totally on soundings and lost in the fog, and can no more tell where he is, than a sailor when out of sight of land, and the sun cannot be seen for taking an observation. We are daily accosted by elderly citizens, inquiring the way; many of them in the garb of Friends, and therefore genuine Philadelphians; people who have been born in the city, and have seldom been out of it. Not wishing to confess ignorance, we always reply that we are strangers. It goes against our grain thus to fib about the matter. But what can we do? By confessing ignorance, we must either libel ourselves or the streets, and we have too much self-respect, and too much respect for the streets, to libel either. And so we get over it by a white one now and then. Besides, we are sometimes tempted to read Jemmy MacFib’s Gotham Herald [perhaps James Gordon Bennett Sr.’s New York Herald], and “evil communications corrupt good manners.” The fact is, the streets are all alike. They are of the same length, breadth, thickness, height, complexion, appearance, aspect, look, countenance and configuration. They look as much alike as so many bed cords, spun by the same hand, upon the same wheel, of the same number of strands, out of the same lot of hemp. They have no difference, distinction, discrepancy, dissimilitude or dissimilarity. Each looks like all the rest, and all the rest look like each. They are all dressed in uniform like a volunteer company,

The streets of Gotham look like its own regiment of fantasticals; or rather like the farmer’s sons, of whom none looked alike but Benjamin. Each has its peculiarities to strike the eye, the ear, the nose or the shins. One has some half dozen magnificent churches, with steeples towering far above the city smells, into the regions of pure air. Another has no steeples at all, but is distinguished by shanties, pig styes, and slaughter houses. One is full of carts and drays, clattering like Milton’s devils in a pandemonian dispute. Another is full of omnibuses, roaring like Niagara, with the occasional scream of a woman or child, run over by the sober and orderly and well regulated drivers. The mud in one is knee deep; in another it reaches only to the ankle; while in a third, you sink over head, as in a Lybian quicksand. In one the eye is regaled by scores of dead cats; in another the nose is saluted with the odors of sundry dead dogs. In Broadway you are knocked down by an omnibus, in Pearl street by a cart, and in the Bowery by the Chicester gang. In short, no two are alike, each has its distinguishing characteristics, and you can not only tell where you are, but always perceive that you are where you ought not to be. But notwithstanding these striking, imposing, convincing differences, yet you find a guide board at every corner. So if you stumble over a dead dog in one street, and afterwards, in your course, stumble over a dead dog in another street, you have only to look up at the corner, to perceive that you are actually in another street, that you have not wandered back to your point of departure, and that the second dead dog is actually a different dead dog from the first dead dog.

But how is it in this rectangular city, which must look to every crow that flies over it as it looks to mortals on the map, like a chequer-board or a checked shirt? In Market street you may occasionally see at a corner, something in the shape, size and color of a weather beaten shingle; and if the sun shine full upon it, you may discern a few lines of a shade slightly darker. What these marks import we know not, for we might as well decypher a charred manuscript from Pompeii in which the paper is burnt black, and the ink is—black too. Our oldest citizens tell us that according to a tradition which they received from their grandfathers, these faint lines were letters, and spelt High street.—There is a tradition that William Penn ordered guide boards to be put at each corner throughout the city, with the name of the street in fair letters, the board of one color and the letters of another. It is possible that these few brown shingles in Market street may be the remains of them. We will venture, with all due humility, to suggest to our city councils that much time might be saved, and much inconvenience and many vexatious disappointments prevented, by putting not less than two guide boards at every corner. For instance, at the intersection of High and Sixth streets, let one be on High, the other forming an angle with it on North Sixth, a third on High upon the opposite side, a fourth at an angle with it on South Sixth, and so throughout the city, at every corner. Let the boards and letters be of different colors; and we would suggest as a fact in natural philosophy, which we have read in some book, that black and white present the strongest contrast. Doctor Franklin once said of a book presented to him, that the paper and ink were too nearly of a color. The printer seems to have borrowed his notion from the old Market street guide boards.

To show the inconvenience to which strangers are subjected for want of guide boards in our verisimilitudinous streets, we would inform the councils that it cost Mr. Van Buren a walk of seven miles, to find the office of the Ledger. He walked from the Mansion House [located at 372 Market, at Eleventh, according to advertisements of 1840 and 1842] to the extremity of the Northern Liberties, and back to the extremity of Southwark, in pursuit of Chesnut street, and found a Chesnut street at every intersection. He then went up Spruce street from the Delaware to the Schuylkill, looking at each intersection for Sixth, and found they were all sixes and sevens. He knew Christ church because it had a steeple, and St. Andrew’s because it had a barn door; High street because it resembled a farm yard furnished with sheep sheds; the Arcade, because it resembled nothing in heaven above, the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth. But where to find the Arcade! At length he politely inquired if a building opposite to him were the State House [i.e., Independence Hall], and was told it was the Moyamensing Academy [likely Moyamensing Prison]. It is unpleasant for a stranger to be thus wandering about, like a turkey in the dark in pursuit of a roost.

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

Now about “Pagoda Arcade Brown”! Peter Arrell Browne (after whom P.A.B. Widener was named) acquired this nickname from his friends or detractors, thanks to the coincidence of his initials with the names of two extravagant and unsuccessful projects he undertook with John Haviland: the 1826-27 Philadelphia Arcade (said to be the first shopping arcade in the United States, it featured scores of shops, restaurants, and other public businesses, as well as the Peale Museum) on the north side of Chestnut between Sixth and Seventh, and an 1828 pleasure garden, dominated by a pagoda a hundred feet tall, near the Waterworks. Poe, who lived not far from the site, satirized the fondness for pagodas in his architectural writing. There was a Pagoda Street in the area long after the pagoda was lost. The pagoda itself is marked in the 1831 Simons map, and the street appears in the 1849 Sidney, 1858-60 Hexamer & Locher, 1862 Smedley, 1875 Hopkins, and 1895 Bromley maps. In the 1849 and 1862 maps, the block of Wallace that runs east-west at the northern end of Pagoda Street (which would be called North Taylor now if the block still existed) is called Arrell. Browne was a lawyer, professor, and advocate for science; for example, for the establishment of a state geological survey.  He was active in the Franklin Institute, around the corner from the arcade in another Haviland building. The Academy of Natural Sciences holds his albums of presidential hair (it should be added that his studies of hair also led him to harmful racial theorizing); some of his samples were put on display during the 2016 election.