Philadelphia Information Locator Service
From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, Number 30, February 1977
by Ward J. Childs
Philadelphia was almost a century old at the time of Independence. Many of its homes, in fact many of the same homes that are standing today, predate 1776. The method we use to date houses and buildings here in Philadelphia, the subject of this article, depends on the specifics of our local records and records keeping systems. However, similar information is probably available for most places and it is a matter of locating the particular sources in one's own locale.
The initial approach to the dating of an historic house, or any other house for that matter, often depends on the searcher's knowledge at the start. The approximate age of a house generally is immediately evident. Its architectural style or the neighborhood in which it is located betray its age. The gambrel roofs and dormer windows which form the skyline of many of the older sections of Philadelphia indicate pre-1840 construction just as leaded windows, turrets, and other gingerbread embellishments bespeak the Victorian period. Cast iron architecture can only be post-1840; oversize brownstones, post-Civil War. The colonial and federal periods are as much identified with Society Hill and Queen Village homes as post-World War II is with the ranch style of Levittown or the Gilded Age with homes in certain sections of North and West Philadelphia. However, appearances can be deceiving. Buildings can be, have been, and probably always will be, updated. From behind the Victorian cornice often peeks the eighteenth century dormer. The gambrel roof gives lie to the permastone front. It seems that the passion to be modern is endemic to every age. For this reason it is necessary to go beyond appearances and know how to use historic tools in dating your house.
One quick way to approximate the date at which a house put up after 1860 was constructed is by the use of atlases. Major collections of these are to be found at the City Archives, the Free Library and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Atlases of Philadelphia may be found in the form of ward atlases and insurance atlases. Each type of atlas is useful to the person attempting to date a building because their plans are usually coded to indicate the type of construction, property lines, number of stories and address. Larger, more important buildings are identified by name. Large tracts of land usually indicate ownership. Some later atlases also name the owner of every property. The chief difference between the ward atlas and the insurance atlas is that the latter codes the buildings by class in relation to the degree of fire hazard.
The first Philadelphia atlas was a fire insurance atlas, the Hexamer and Locher published in seven volumes between the years of 1857 and 1860. It was the epitome of what a fire atlas should be with two exceptions. It omitted one fourth of the city's wards and only included the built-up areas of the Clty. A number of sets of later atlases of the City of Philadelphia were published at various times in the 19th and 20th centuries by various publishers. Currently the principal insurance atlases in use are published by the Sanborn Map Company of New York City. The atlases were published either in single volumes, or in multiple volumes, like the Hexamer and Locher, over a period of years. Some were published in both formats.
Although the use of atlases is a quick, simple means by which to date construction, it is not without drawbacks. Most atlases are intended to be used for a number of years. In order to take into account any changes in the real estate patterns of the ward during this period, most atlases are intended to be updated by the use of paste-ins of changes. While the researcher often may find this beneficial, just as often he finds it a nuisance. Moreover since atlases are designed for long-term use, it is very rare that the researcher will find atlases for consecutive years for the same ward. Even by using those published by a number of publishers, he is liable to find that he can only approximately date a house at best within a five or ten year span. Some atlases raise more specific problems. The 1862 Smedley for example, does not indicate specific properties for city blocks and does not code buildings. Since it is the only atlas between the Hexamer and Locher and those published in the early seventies, the researcher begins with an automatic handicap. However the Smedley does have the redeeming feature of indicating specific buildings in rural areas.
The fundamental step in dating a house is a search of the chain of title, without which it is usually impossible to identify the exact year of construction, especially of older buildings. Only when equipped with the list of successive owners of the property, provided by a title search, is the researcher able to use efficiently other sources to determine precisely the year of construction .
A title search should begin with the Title Registry of the Department of Records. The Registry was established in 1865, as a bureau in the Department of Surveys, in order to maintain a permanent record of property ownership by address. In the late 1950s the Registry was transferred to the Records Department. The records in the Registry consist of an oversize map of the city in six parts, which divides the city into sections each corresponding roughly to a square block. These refer to plot plans, one for each of the sections of the large map, which show the dimensions of the block and of each property thereon, street names, registry number and often house numbers. The plot plans lead to individual jackets which contain the film strips of the forms on which successive property transfers are registered.
if the house is part of a row house development, or if its age is confirmed by architectural style, this may ile enough to date it, because it usually indicates that the developer was selling the houses that he had built or that the new plot was purchased to erect a house. When dealing with an older house, the abstracts of title for each number that appears in the plot will usually have to be searched. Sometimes the number on the plot leads to a jacket whose abstract of title is so recent that it is virtually useless. There often is reference to some other method of transfer, such as a sheriff's deed or inheritance, or to another jacket. If not, abstracts of adjacent properties should be searched in order to see if any of them makes reference to the subject plot or leads to a common ancestor from which both plots devolved. When the abstract of title in the microfilm strip goes back only a short distance in time and none of the aforementioned methods can be used to take it back any further, it is usually an indication that the property has remained in one family and always has been transferred by will or letters of administration. On the other hand, there are sometimes circumstances when pre-1865 transfers also have been registered and the researcher will pleasantly find that the Title Registry carries him back much further than anticipated.
When one is attempting to date a house, particularly an older one, the Registry is, at best a short cut to avoid a longer search of deed indexes and deed books. A search of these invariably is the next step in the chain of title. All deeds and deed indexes from 1683 to the present have been microfilmed and are on file in the Reading Room of the Department of Records, and the City Archives also holds the hard copy of these for the period 1683 to 1863. The researcher begins with the earliest entry on the title registry. From this he selects either the name of the grantor (seller) or the grantee (purchaser) to search, as we index each in separate indexes. It is usually wise to select the name beginning with the letter of the alphabet that appears less frequently. In the index, which gives the deed citation, he will be able to identify the transfer because both names appear. This is necessary because the earlier ~ Registry entries do not include the deed citation. If he is lucky this will be the last time that the indexes will have to be used because most deeds have a recital or being clause (because it begins with the word "Being'') which indicates where and how the grantor obtained the property and where the transfer is recorded. Properties that always have been transferred by deed are relatively easy to trace because all the researcher has to do is jump from recital to recital and in fact can take it back to William Penn. This usually is not necessary as few, if any houses remain, built by purchasers of land from Penn himself.
The researcher will find that it is a rare instance when a title can be traced from recital to recital without running into some difficulty. One of these is inheritance, either by will or letters of administration. Others are the presence of a sheriff's deed or partition deed in the chain of title, or at times a lack of recital. When a property that is being transferred has been inherited by the grantor, the recital names the deceased from whom the property was inherited, and may give his date of death, or the date of a will or letters of administration. This is sufficient to establish the grantor's legal right to sell the property. However, since a will or administration rarely indicates where the deceased obtained the property, the researcher is obliged to determine this before he can continue his chain of title.
A similar type of situation arises when one runs into a sheriff's deed, a partition deed or an inadequate recital in a title search. A sheriff's deed is a record of a sale by the County sheriff of real estate which he has seized from a defendant in execution of a judgement of the Court. In a sheriff's deed the role of the sheriff is analogous to that of a grantor in a deed in fee. The statement of the Court action that resulted in the sheriff 's sale is analogous to the recital. In short, it indicates where the sheriff obtained the property he is selling, just as the recital does for the grantor. However, there is one big difference. The recital in a deed in fee usual ly leads to a previous transfer. The statement of the court actions in a sheriff's deed only leads to a person, the defendant, without indicating when or how he obtained the property. A partition deed is a division of land held by joint tenants or tenants in common, particularly a judicial partition, a division made by the sheriff and twelve jurors by order of the court. In many cases a partition occurs when one member of a family petitions the court for a division of a property inherited jointly or in common by several members. Sometimes the partition deed does not indicate how the joint or common tenancy came about. In either case it does not tell where the property came from, and causes as much of a problem as an inheritance, sheriff's deed or a recital that does not refer to a preceding deed.
In all of these situations the researcher should proceed in much the same fashion in order to try to carry on the chain of title. The first step is a search of the Grantee index to deeds. This can sometimes turn out to be a long arduous task, especially if the deceased, the defendant, or the tenant purchased real estate in great volume. Sometimes, if the search has been carried back far enough in time and the researcher knows that the property being searched is a parcel from a large piece of real estate whose holder is identifiable, he can resort to a search of Grantor books. In theory a title search should be able to be made using either the Grantor or Grantee index. In practice, however, the many divisions that a large tract goes through, makes title searches through the Grantor index feasible only in the instances mentioned. Another method is to search in the Grantee index for the name of persons mentioned in the property description as owners of contiguous properties, and then runs a chain of title for these properties. This sometimes leads to a common ancestor for both parcels. If the researcher can identify owners of contiguous properties he may also use consecutive volumes of tax records to determine a series of owners. Survey records can also serve the same purpose.
The City Archives holds sheriff's deeds from the Common Pleas Court for the years 1736 to 1905 and from the County District Court from 1811 to 1874. Occasionally one encounters a sheriff's deed resulting from an action in the State Supreme Court. Sheriff deeds from the Supreme Court are in the custody of the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission at Harrisburg. In the rare instances when a property is sold by a federal marshal the record can be found in records at the Federal Records Center. The City Archives also holds Partition deeds from the Common Pleas Court 1740 to 1869 and the County District Court 1811 to 1874, tax lists 1769 to 1854 and surveys from the Third Survey District, which encompasses the old City of Philadelphia, 1780 to 1915. Other tax lists may be found at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and at the University of Pennsylvania. Partition dockets are held by the Orphans Court for the period 1769 to 1857. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission holds partitions from the Supreme Court, 1791 to 1857 and 1861 to 1863 and sheriff's deeds 1796 to 1876.
While tracing the chain of title to a property the researcher who is trying to date a house will attempt to determine what, if any, improvements (meaning buildings) are located on the site. He usually will find these mentioned in the property description of the deed. This is true for all deeds including Partition and Sheriff's deeds. In a deed the term that generally will be found as a description of a house is "messuage or tenement," often with modifying adjectives which describe the construction material and number of stories. Other kinds of buildings will often be specifically identified, such as "a shed." Sometimes, the only description of buildings is "improvements" or there even will be no description of buildings at all.
If no building or improvements are described in the deed, the researcher may be near the end of his search. The difference in descriptions of the property indicates during whose tenure the house was built, unless the deed has a defective description. This gives the beginning and ending date during which the house was built. It is always wise to carry the chain a few steps further back.
Tax assessment ledgers may be used as an alternative method of checking. Since they make specific reference to the real estate that is being assessed, they are invaluable for determining what the term "improvements" may refer to, and for pinpointing the specific year of construction. The tax assessor often makes reference to buildings under construction at the time of assessment. If no assessment ledger has survived for a year, a tax duplicate, or collector's copy, or a poor tax duplicate may suffice. The City Archives holds tax duplicates from 1773 to 1822 and poor tax duplicates for the years 1803 to 1853. In these the property owner's name juxtaposed to those of his neighbors, which can often be learned from property descriptions in deeds, will indicate that he was on the property to pay taxes. If there is any reference to his "estate" the land is vacant.
There are also a number of other types of records which may be used to determine physical occupation of a property. City directories, for example, are second in value only to tax books in connecting an individual to a location. They were published between 1785 and 1935. Especially useful for the early period are those published for the years 1795, 1796 and 1801 which are arranged by location rather than alphabetically. Survey records often indicate the presence of buildings on the property surveyed. The City Archives holds surveys for the old City. Surveys for other areas of the City in the post-consolidation period are in the custody of the District Surveyors. Executors' or Administrators' accounts, which include receipts or disbursals for rents, mortgages, or sales, will often indicate a house's location. These are usually filed, with probate records in the Register of Wills. Also filed with them are inventories of estates, which are useful as a guide when trying to furnish a house in the style of its period. For later buildings the researcher may wish to make reference to the records of building permits for the period 1889 to 1920 which are in the custody of the Department of Licenses and Inspections. These are indexed by year and address. Or he may wish to consult The Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders Guide 1886-1910 which is especially useful for identifying the architects of buildings erected during those years. The presence of buildings on properties outside of the old City in the pre-Consolidation period may often be determined by reference to a variety of records from the County's districts, boroughs and townships including surveys, corporation and vehicle taxes, accounts for foot paving and accounts for water and lighting. For specific references to the records of each political sub-division we refer the reader to the Descriptive Inventory of the City and County of Philadelphia.
Of the procedures for dating an historic home outlined in this article, perhaps only one, the title
search, is generally applicable. The others will be useful, at best, in specific situations. What
method or combination of methods the researcher will use will depend on factors such as period
of construction, location and availability of records, and perhaps, above all, the researcher's