Philadelphia Information Locator Service
Architectural Research Resources at the Philadelphia City Archives & The Department of Records


Architectural Research Resources at the Philadelphia City Archives & The Department of Records


Click on the name to jump to the appropriate section

Building Permits
City Directories
Deeds
Exemplication Records
Fairmount Park Deeds
Grantor & Grantee Indices
Maps and Atlases
Mechanic Liens
Mortgages
Partition Deeds
Patents, Warrants & Surveys
Sheriff's Deeds
Tips and Related Facts including calendar changes, street name and numbering changes.


I. DEED AND REGISTRY RECORDS

The chain of title of any property in Philadelphia utilizes sources available both at the Registry Unit, Department of Records, Room 154 City Hall, and at the Philadelphia City Archives, Suite 150, 3101 Market Street. All of the transfer sheets are available on microfiche at the Registry Unit. The City Archives has the deed books between the period 1683-1951, and the matching index books.

A. Transfer Sheets
The transfer sheets were devised in 1865 when the Pennsylvania Assembly required the Bureau of Surveys to keep a registry of owners of a particular property by location rather than by owners. The Registry Unit was merged into the Department of Records in the mid-1950s and the transfer sheets discontinued in 1958 in favor of microfilming the actual deed. The system devised by the Bureau of Surveys of using Plan and Plot numbers is still in effect. The city is divided into a grid pattern and plan numbers assigned to each space of the grid. Those properties north of Market Street will have an "N" in the number, i.e. 1-N-1, those south of Market Street will have an "S". The plot numbers within the plan will have no relation to the assigned house number. Plot numbers will be altered whenever the property boundaries are redrawn.

When you have reached the first transfer sheet of the microfiche which you are using, check to see if it says "original" at the bottom of the sheet. If it does, you would then go onto the grantor/grantee indices to find the actual deed on microfilm in order to continue the chain of title. If it says "subdivision of Number __", you would then request that plot number for the same plan and continue your search through the transfer sheets. You should not find any transfer sheets marked "original" after the 1870s.

(Note: Transfer jackets may not have been updated after 1992. The Department of Records is currently instituting a new system which will replace both the transfer sheets and the grantor/grantee indices by assigning a tax parcel identification number to every piece of property within the city. Eventually all information on Philadelphia properties after 1995 will be accessible through this system.)

B. Grantor/Grantee Indices

The grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer or purchaser) indices are organized by first letter of last name for the volume and first letter of the first name within the volume. For example, to look up the transaction in which William Carty buys property from Jacob Hess, you would pull the grantee book "C" for Carty, and look under the letter "W" for William. Then when you find an entry for William Carty, look in the column marked "grantor" to see if this is a transaction involving Jacob Hess.

Make sure when you find the citation that you write down both the deed book letter series as well as the volume number. To request a deed in volume 2, page 425 means little to the Archives staff as over fifty deed book series exist between 1682 and 1995 with a volume 2.

C. Deed Books

The deed books are organized more or less chronologically as the deeds are recorded, not chronologically according to the date of the deed. Often months or years would pass between the execution of a deed and the act of recording in the city's record deed books. The deed books prior to 1777 are organized on an alphanumerical basis starting with the letter "E" and progressing to the letter "I". From 1777-1799, the deed books were kept in a numerical progression. In the late 19th or early 20th century, these numerical deed books were prefaced with the letter "D". From 1799 to the present, the books are kept in an alphanumerical system. The letters are the initials of the Recorder of Deeds (and later the Commissioner of Records). For the list of deed book series click here.

The deeds themselves are divided into several major parts: the opening paragraph with the date of the deed, names of the parties and the consideration; the body of the deed with the description of the property being sold; the covenants; and the signatures. In a chain-of-title, the section with the description is the most important. This paragraph begins with the words "All that lot or piece of ground. . ." If the words "with the messuage or tenement" or "with the buildings or improvements" appear immediately after these words, then a house or building sits on the property. After the description, there should be the phrase "Being the same property which (name) sold to (name) on (date) and recorded in Deed Book (series, number and page)." If the recital clause is included, this eliminates the need for continuing checking the grantor/grantee indices for deed book citations. NOTE: Measurements in Pennsylvania during the 17th, 18th &19th; centuries used an early English system. Straight line measurements were not kept in yards and feet but in perches. A perch is the same as a rod: 16.5 feet.

In early deed books, several deeds may actually have been recorded at the same time, so a partial chain appears in one deed book. Sometimes, the recital clause will contain the phase "and intended to be recorded." Check the pages of the deed book immediately before and after that deed for an earlier deed. Despite the recording laws, many early deeds for property outside of the original city of Philadelphia were not recorded.

When researching 17th and 18th-century transfers of properties which lay within the present bounds of Berks or Montgomery Counties, remember that Berks County was created in 1752 and Montgomery County in 1784. Once these counties were created, the Philadelphia Recorder of Deeds refused to record any deeds for property within these counties, even though the deed was executed years and even decades earlier. It is not uncommon to find deeds from the 1730s and 1740s for land within present-day Montgomery County being recorded in the Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds after the turn of the 19th century.

NOTE: Many properties develop concurrent chains-of-title during the 19th century, one transferring the property, the other transferring the ground rent on the property. Make sure that you are following the chain of title on the property itself. A ground rent deed will indicate that a ground rent is being transferred at the beginning of the second paragraph before the description of the actual property. Ground rent deeds are not important to the actual chain of title, with some rare exceptions.

D. Court Deeds

1. Sheriff's Deeds & Indices

Many people lost their ownership rights to property not through a bargain and sale deed but through court action, in which the sheriff seizes the property and sells it to satisfy a debt. There are two county courts in which such actions were handled: the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the Philadelphia County District Court. The sheriff's deeds for the Common Pleas Court cover the period 1736-1905; those for the District Court for the period 1811-1874.

During the period immediately after the Revolution, some sheriff's deeds were filed in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Those deeds are in the custody of the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg. Some, but not all, have been transcribed in the regular deed books. (The City Archives now has available microfilm copies of the Supreme Court deeds, please ask for them). There are also a few federal marshal's deeds located at the National Archives, Mid-Atlantic Regional Branch.

The sheriff's indices are arranged exactly as the grantor/grantee indices, except they are divided between defendant and purchaser.

As both courts numbered their books in an alphanumerical and later numerical sequence, please determine in which court the sheriff's deed is located. This is always given in the recital clause of the ensuing deed.

2. Partition Deeds

When a large estate is broken up among several heirs, the heirs sometimes cannot agree upon a fair and equitable arrangement of division. They then petition the court to appoint a master or arbitrator to create such a division and agree to abide by the court's decision. There are indices for these deeds.

E. Patents, Warrants & Surveys

Any land grant from William Penn, his commissioners and agents, or from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is called a "patent". Once you have found the patent, your search is all but over. Although these are state records, the City Archives has the patents on microfilm.

But the patent is actually the third step of a three-step process which Penn and his commissioners had to devise, by necessity. The first step, after the initial purchase of an unlocated set amount of acres, was the issuance of a "warrant" from Penn or his commissioners to the Surveyor-General requiring the Surveyor-General to survey out this set amount of acres. As there were many requests in those early years, often as much as five years might transpire before the Surveyor-General's staff could conduct a survey and make a return to Penn's commissioners. Upon the receipt of this survey return, a patent could be drawn up for the land.

Owing to political differences between the citizens of Pennsylvania and the Penn family in 1759, transcriptions of most of the warrants and surveys filed in the Surveyor-General's office prior to that year were made. The City Archives owns these transcriptions and they have been indexed as Warrants and Surveys of the Province of Pennsylvania including the Three Lower Counties, 1759.

Click here for the City Archives' holdings.

F. Exemplifications

Exemplification is a legal term meaning "a true copy." After the state government left Philadelphia for its eventual new home of Harrisburg, many Philadelphia land records which had been transcribed into state record books by mistake left Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania state legislature allowed the Philadelphia Recorder of Deeds to come to Harrisburg and make transcriptions of all records relating to Philadelphia county and city. These records, which include patents, deeds, mortgages, letters of attorney, etc., are located in 14 volumes marked either "Exemplifications" or "Letters of Attorney." Two indices are available for the records in the Exemplification series: Guide to the Sale of Commonwealth Property in Philadelphia County, 1780-1798, and Guide to the Philadelphia Exemplication Records Series . . . 1669-1838.

Click here for the City Archives' holdings.

G. Mortgages

Generally, the mortgage records do not have to be consulted in assembling a chain-of-title to a property. Occasionally, mortgage records are instrumental in ascertaining construction of a house on a property or in jumping a break in the chain of title. Like the deeds, the mortgages are accessed by mortgagor/mortgagee indices. A note of warning: the mortgagor is the owner of the property, the mortgagee is the person or institution advancing cash to the owner. From 1723-1755, the Provincial Assembly established a General Loan Office for certain mortgages granted by the Provincial government. An index to the entire General Loan Office series, whose books are both at the City Archives and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, sits in the Reading Room entitled Guide to the Mortgages of the General Loan Office of the Province of Pennsylvania, 1724-1756. [This index has also been published by the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.]

H. Fairmount Park Deeds and Titles

The City Archives possesses the actual deeds and titles to all properties within Fairmount Park and to all properties outside of Fairmount Park acquired by the City of Philadelphia between 1683 and 1951. Indices exist for both sets of records. The index for the Fairmount Park properties will be available on the front table. Each folder is indexed by the name of the owner from whom the Park Commission acquired the property, not by the name of the most famous owner or occupant. A key map published in 1868 is available for consultation. Although many folders contain the actual deeds for the property for up to 100 years before the acquisition of the property by the Commission, many others contain only the most recent deed.

I. City-owned Property Deeds and Titles

All properties purchased by the City of Philadelphia have files containing the deed to the property, title papers, many older deeds, and, if owned by the 1930s, a chain-of-title prepared by the W.P.A. The property records held by the City Archives includes most properties owned by the City of Philadelphia or the School District of Philadelphia prior to 1952. A series of card indices exist for the city-owned property: by name of seller or grantor, by street location, and by type of structure erected or use of the property by the City. No index exists for the school property files. These are arranged alphabetically by the name of the school.

II. MAPS AND ATLASES

A. Land Ownership & Fire Insurance Atlases

These atlases cover much of the city for the period between 1857 and 1930. The basic land ownership atlases will show a building's footprint, number of stories, name of the owner (sometimes), composition of the building through the use of color, dimensions of the property, house number, and some street information (water mains, transit lines, etc.). The fire insurance atlases, prepared by E. Hexamer and Sanborn, are more detailed in their coverage, indicating location of windows, location of fire-fighting equipment, usage of the building, etc. The best collection of land ownership and fire insurance maps and atlases, both in terms of coverage and availability, is located at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The City Archives has a fair collection: most of these are in poor condition and are not available.

B. Survey Records

The 3rd Survey District of Philadelphia covers the original city from Vine to South streets, river to river. This district took over most of the old records of the city surveyors, including individual surveys and survey returns filed by the various surveyors. These surveys do not cover every single property in center city, but many of them are represented, several of them two or more times. The dates of the surveys span from ca. 1780 to 1917.

From 1780 to 1814, many of the Center City lots were given numbers in accordance to their sale by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. There are several maps which have these lot numbers. It has not been determined if a full set of the maps can be obtained from the several incomplete sets available either at the City Archives or the Free Library of Philadelphia. These numbers will often appear as part of the deed. These numbers were discontinued after 1814 when the city's surveyors devised a plan and plot number system not unlike that put into place in 1865.

The City Archives also has survey records from Southwark from 1785-1870 and some records from the Northern Liberties dating from 1825-1828 and Kensington dating from 1828 - 1851

III. TAX RECORDS

The City Archives possesses tax records for many of the city wards and county townships and boroughs for the late 18th century. The earliest tax record is in 1769. The dates vary for each township, district or ward. Generally, these records are scant after 1810.

IV. CITY DIRECTORIES

The City Archives has a complete run of the city and business directories for the period 1785-1935 on microfilm. These directories are an alphabetical listing of residents of the city, giving their occupation and address. They are usually published between January and April of each year: the information is generally current as of October of the previous year. The issuance of these directories is sporadic in the early years, so there is not a directory for every year. Similarly, there are gaps in the period from 1917 to 1928 in which no directory was published. There are no directories for the years from 1931-1934. The 1929 and 1930 directories also contain "reverse directories" in which a listing by street and house number is provided. These are not all-inclusive of the entries in the regular alphabetical index. The 1935/1936 directory is the only directory in which the wife's name is given after the head of household.

V. BUILDING PERMITS

Building permits were required by the city as early as the mid-19th century. However, all permits prior to July 1889 are lost. The permits from 1889 to 1895 give only the barest of information about construction of a building, an addition, or an alteration. Starting in 1895, two different forms were used: one for the construction of a new building, the other for repairs, alterations, additions, etc. In both cases, the forms contained spaces for the names of the owner, architect, contractor and applicant as well as spaces for details about the construction. Demolition permits were also required after 1895. There is an index of these permits covering the years 1906-1966. One may consult the index at the Central Clerical Section of the Department of Licenses & Inspections in the Concourse level of the Municipal Services Building at 15th & John F. Kennedy Boulevard. The actual permits are now in the collections of the Philadelphia City Archives at 3101 Market Street.

VI. MECHANIC LIENS

Contractors and sub-contractors had the right to sue if the owner, general contractor, architect, or other responsible party failed to pay them for work performed. These mechanic liens are not indexed by address, only by the name of the plaintiff and defendant. The lack of a suitable index limits the use of the mechanic liens severely. A search through the liens during the time period in which a building was erected may elicit entries about the building, revealing the names of the contractors and some of the suppliers.

VII. PHOTOGRAPHS

The City Archives possesses thousands of photographs of Philadelphia, generally taken to illustrate work on streets, public improvements, etc. However, many of the street scenes show buildings either in detail or in the background. There exists an index to the major bulk of the photographs.

VIII. PENNSYLVANIA ARCHIVES (published)

Many early tax lists and records regarding confiscation of property are available in the various series of the Pennsylvania Archives. The City Archives has a complete run of the Colonial Records and the Pennsylvania Archives.

TIPS AND RELATED FACTS

Calendar:

Prior to 1752, the English-speaking world used the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar. March 25th was the first day of a new year; March was the first month. January and February dates are often written with a double year, i.e. 1732/3. 1732 was the Julian year; 1733 the Gregorian year. You must remember to convert dates written in longhand prior to 1752: 25th day, 5th mo., 1732 is not 25 May 1732 but 25 July 1732. The 7th, 8th, 9th & 10th months are September, October, November & December which is the source of their names.

Street Name Changes

In 1858 and 1897, the City of Philadelphia imposed radical changes to the street names of Philadelphia in order to eliminate many duplicate street names and to standardize the name of a street in relation to the major streets throughout the city. Other street names have been passed by Council thoughout history. A list of the street name changes is available in the Reading Room.

Street Numbering and positioning

Above and below a street does not refer to the geographical points of North, South, East and West. Rather it refers to the numerical designations of the blocks. For example, the 200 block of Market Street is Market Street, below 3rd; the 300 block is Market Street is Market Street, above 3rd. The 6000 block of Wayne Avenue is Wayne Avenue, below Walnut Lane: the 200 block of W. Walnut Lane is Walnut Lane, below Wayne Avenue.

Prior to 1856/1857, there was no break in the numbers to allow for street crossings. In 1856, to be effective in 1857, the system of the 00 block, 100 block, etc. took effect. Don't think that if the address of the person changed from 76 S. 4th Street in 1857 to 148 S. 4th Street in 1858 that he or she has moved. Only, the address of the property has changed.

Generally, the entire city was renumbered under the Ordinance of 1856. However, two additional massive renumbering projects were undertaken by the Board of Revision of Taxes in the late 19th century. The first involved Kensington in which the present system was installed. This happened in the early 1880s. The second occurred in the mid-1890s in Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill. Owing to the intense development in these areas, more cross streets were designated to divide the "hundreds" in order to create additional numbers. For instance, what used to be the 6600 block of Germantown Avenue became the 7900 block of the same street. At the same time, the sides of the east-west cross streets were reversed: the even side became the odd side and vice-versa. An example of this may be found at 37 W. Southampton Avenue which was known as 40 W. Southampton Avenue before this change.


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For additional questions or comments, contact the Philadelphia City Archives at archives@phila.gov
Last updated on 9 September 1999