North Side of Chestnut St., Extending from Sixth to Seventh St., 1851. – Tanya Sheehan

Tanya Sheehan, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art, Colby College

Examined only digital image.

Evans, B. R. (Benjamin Ridgway), active 1857-1891.

North side of Chestnut St., Extending from Sixth to Seventh St., 1851. 

Philadelphia, ca. 1880.


Evans watercolors [P.2298.44]

Keywords: bourgeois marketplace; white middle class; commercial life in Philadelphia; fashions; patent medicine


Painted around 1880, this watercolor depicting a bustling Chestnut Street bears a striking resemblance to the streetscape prints that appeared in the 1851 edition of Julio H. Rae’s Philadelphia Pictorial Directory and Panoramic Advertiser. The businesses that bought their way into Rae’s popular directory sought to attract white middle-class customers to their doors, promising that the products and services offered would support their racial and class identities.

On either end of this single city block, we see shops that offered well-to-do customers therapeutic treatments for a variety of ills, including a druggist (A. S. Smith) and the storefront of a patent medicine maker (J. H. Schenck). Schenck provided consultations and examinations at his Chestnut Street office to anyone experiencing symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis, then known as consumption. Schenck’s Pulmonic Syrup promised to cure this disease, which in the mid-19th century was believed to affect those stereotyped as having sensitive dispositions, like the two white bourgeois women approaching Schenck’s shop door in the watercolor. Another famous patent medicine maker (David Jayne) owned the Arcade Building at the center of the block, which housed Dr. Davidson’s Arcade Baths. The cholera epidemic of 1849 led to the construction of bathhouses in large cities like Philadelphia, where gentlemen sought to rid themselves of dirt and its close associations with poverty and disease.

Elsewhere on the block are establishments where men and women could literally fashion themselves as ladies and gentlemen. To the left of the Arcade, for example, is the shopfront of a tailor (E. G. Dorsey), while farther down the street we see L. Benkert’s Boot Store and the publisher of the popular Philadelphia Fashions, which circulated the latest bourgeois clothing styles. Many of the figures in the watercolor look as if they walked out of a fashion plate, with men sporting trendy dark suits, top hats, and canes, and women wearing brightly colored dresses or skirts, shawls, and elegant headgear. These figures appear upright as they stand in conversation with one another, slowly promenade along the street, or gracefully mount the stairs of the Chestnut Street Theatre. This posture contrasts with those adopted by laborers in the scene, like the carriage drivers and newsboys, who lean or lunge in motion. Together the would-be customers and the people who serve them generate a bustling scene of activity, yet the street remains ordered and impossibly clean — even with all of those horses!

By the time Philadelphia jewelry manufacturer and antiquarian Ferdinand J. Dreer commissioned this watercolor reproduction of one of Rae’s streetscapes, three decades after its initial printing, this scene and the world around it had changed considerably. Some of the grand buildings in Rae’s original 1851 print had been destroyed, including the Chestnut Street Theatre (burned in 1856) and the Arcade (demolished by 1860). Many other businesses had closed or changed hands. The United States had also been through a bloody civil war and a failed period of Reconstruction. By attempting to recover the social order expressed in Rae’s vision of Chestnut Street, Dreer was perhaps assuaging the anxiety he and other privileged white Americans felt about the changes taking place across the country. His nostalgia for a genteel Old Philadelphia was, however, a fantasy in which commercial success and individual prosperity were afforded to a small slice of the population, to the exclusion of all others.