Back of State House, Philadelphia (Engraving)

  Back of the State House, Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

Artist/Maker: William Birch (1755-1834) and Thomas Birch, artists and engravers, with Samuel Seymour (active 1796-1823), engraver, and William Barker (active 1795-1803), engraver 

Created: 1799 (engravings executed 1798-1800, published December 31, 1800)

Origin/Purchase: Philadelphia

Materials: From The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania, North America; as It Appeared in the Year 1800 - folio containing engraved map of the city of Philadelphia,  hand-colored line-engraved frontispiece and 28 plates

Dimensions: 27.9 x 33 (11 x 13 in.)

Provenance: Dr. Milton A. and Joan P. Wohl; by gift to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1992

Accession Number: 1991-29

Historical Notes: William Birch's monumental publication The City of Philadelphia captured the vibrant capital as Jefferson knew it during his vice presidency (1797-1801). Birch and his son Thomas immigrated to Philadelphia from England in 1794, and in 1798 they produced their first engravings for the series. Birch's twenty-nine scenes of the city were innovative in their high level of detail, which conveyed a cross-section of city life. New vantage points for familiar sites, evident in the three plates of the Statehouse, set Birch's work apart.[1]

The collection was published on the last day of 1800 and celebrated Philadelphia's progress over the preceding century. In his introduction, Birch wrote of the city:

The ground on which it stands, was, less than a century ago, in a state of wild nature, covered with wood, and inhabited by Indians. It has, in this short time, been raise, as it were, by magic power to the eminence of an opulent city, famous for its trade and commerce, crouded in its port, with vessels of its own producing, and visited by others from all parts of the world...This Work will stand as a memorial of its progress for the first century; the buildings, of any consequence, are generally included, and the street scenes all accurate as they now stand; the choice of subjects are those that give the most general idea of the town..."[2]

Jefferson was among the 156 original subscribers to the work, which ranged in price from $28 for an uncolored, unbound copy to $44.50 for a colored, bound copy.[3] Other subscribers included Gilbert Stuart and the architect Latrobe, whose Philadelphia Waterworks and Bank of Pennsylvania were represented. According to Birch, Jefferson prominently displayed his bound copy of The City of Philadelphia in the President's House:

During the whole of [Jefferson's] presidency it layed on the sophia in his visiting Room at Washington till it became ragged and dirty, but was not suffered to be taken away."[4]

Once he returned to Monticello, Jefferson kept the folio outside of his library.[5] In 1815 he sold Birch's City of Philadelphia, along with most of his library, to help form the Library of Congress. It was likely destroyed in the 1851 fire that devastated the Library.[6]

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 186.

Further Sources

Footnotes

  • 1. Martin P. Snyder, City of Independence: Views of Philadelphia before 1800 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975), 226. See also Martin P. Snyder, "William Birch: His Philadelphia Views," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 73 (July 1949): 271-313.
  • 2. William Birch, The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1800), introduction.
  • 3. MB, March 17 and May 5, 1800; Snyder, "William Birch: His Philadelphia Views," 279; Birch's subscription book is in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  • 4. William Birch, "Autobiography," Historical Society of Pennsylvania, cited in Snyder, "William Birch: His Philadelphia Views," 281.
  • 5. James Gilreath and Doug Wilson, eds. Thomas Jefferson's Library (Washington D.C.: The Library of Congress, 1989), 102.
  • 6. Sowerby, 4:295-296.

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