Department of Records - City of Philadelphia

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From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, # 24 (February 1975) and # 25 (June 1975)


by Ward J. Childs

Urban historians long have been interested in housing as an important facet of urban life. It is appropriate that Philadelphia, which has traditionally prided itself on the sobriquet, "City of homes," should be an important center for housing data. The source of much of this data is private social service agencies. The Urban Archives of Temple University has accessioned much material on housing and other aspects of urban living from these agencies and certainly deserves credit for doing so. To accompany the importance of private sources of housing data, we wish to focus attention on the records, held by the City Archives, which have their provenance in the activities of municipal government.

The most basic of these activities is legislation. Building codes, housing codes, health codes and any other police regulation which directly or tangentially relate to housing must have their origin in some form of legislation. Legislation creates housing commissions and other regulatory bodies. In Philadelphia legislation takes the form of Acts of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania or councilmanic ordinances. Since 1956 Ordinances in effect at any given time are contained in Code of General Ordinances . . . published by the City Solicitor's office. Included are the building, fire, health, housing, plumbing and water and sewer codes. The history of housing legislation for Philadelphia may be traced from the series of "Digests of Ordinances and Acts of Assembly" dating from 1812 to 1910, the Ordinance and Joint Resolutions of Council 1854 to date and the Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania 1676-1809. Since most legislation emanated from the State before Philadelphia obtained home rule, the digests and statutes at large are especially valuable. Legal opinions and interpretation are contained in the Opinions of the City Solicitor and in footnotes to the later Digests of Ordinances and Acts of Assembly.

The activity of government which the new homeowner first encounters is the recording of his deed and mortgage. The City Archives holds deed books for the year 1684 to 1951 and mortgage books from 1749 to 1963 which were maintained by the Recorder of Deeds. It also holds records of mortgage contracts in the General Loan Office, 1736 to 1755. Later deeds and mortgages to the present time are on microfilm in the Reading Room of the Records Department. These records provide an invaluable insight into the economics of 18th and early 19th century real estate transactions. They contain information on metes and bounds ant price of the property, ground rents, restrictions on ownership such as rights of widows, and amount of mortgage. No doubt intense research into these records would reveal the amount of land speculation and the names of speculators within the city. Information on occupation and place of residence is useful for establishing the relationship between geographical mobility and class structure. Used in conjunction with the City Archives' tax assessment ledgers and the probate records held by the Register of Wills, these records could provide a fairly complete picture of the economy of early Philadelphia .

Often the homeowner entered official records in unpleasant fashion. If he failed to pay his bills or taxes or failed to compensate artisans for household repairs, he could become a defendant in a civil suit. If the suit was lost a tax or mechanics lien would be placed against his property, or a judgment might be executed and his property sold at a sheriff's sale. The City Archives holds Judgment, Execution, Tax Lien, City Claim, Mechanics' Lien and Sheriff 's dockets for both the Common Pleas and County District Court for the first three quarters of the 19th century. Later records of each type are held by the office of the Prothonotary, or the clerk of the Common Pleas Court. Even if the homeowner avoided these pitfalls, he still was faced with yearly bills for city, county and state taxes. The county and state tax assessment ledgers, which have survived to 1854, provide a fascinating picture of the relative values of real property from ward to ward within the city and within the county at large. They can be used to determine the proportion of house renters to house owners, to trace decline in real estate values, and to date the construction of buildings. For the year 1798 there is also a United States Direct Tax, on microfilm, in which housing of the Federal period is described in terms of location, size, and construction material and assessed value. Rather quaintly, it also lists the number of windows in each building. Aldermen's and Magistrates' Landlord and Tenant Dockets give a glimpse of the problems faced by the landlord in dealing with his tenants in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Housing conditions are closely related to conditions of public health and safety. Well into the twentieth century the threat of disease was synonymous with urban living. Since 1803 the Board of Health and its administrative successors, have been charged with guarding the public against conditions that breed disease. Board of Health Minutes are rife with complaints of stagnant water, dead animals and filth in streets and alleys, noxious odors and gases from manufacturing concerns, overflowing and filthy privies and other public nuisances that prompted Board action. Household privies were an ever present nuisance. Ample evidence of the amount and condition of waste material from the nineteenth century household is provided by the privy Well Measurer's Book 1852-1854 and by the volumes of Privy Wells abandoned 1865-1866, 1893. The Nuisance Bill Book 1867-1875, with its entries of debtors names, amounts paid and lien notices gave an idea of Board Action when orders to remove nuisances were not complied with.

From the Act of the General Assembly of February 28, 1710/11 providing for the "regulating of party walls and buildings in Philadelphia" there has been public concern for the safety of its citizens' housing. That this concern caught up with technological development in building construction by the second half of the nineteenth century is evident from the annual reports of a number of bureaus or departments which are contained in the Mayor's Annual Message and Reports of Departments 1856 to 1938. Included among these are reports of the departments and/ or bureaus of Boiler Inspection, Building Inspection, Elevator Inspection, Fire Escape Inspection and Fire Marshall, all of which became part of the Department of Public Safety in 1887. These reports contain statistics on such things as the number of buildings, boilers, elevators and fire escapes inspected, and the number considered unsafe and condemned, number of building permits issued and estimated cost by ward, character of building by ward, reports of fires, of fire escapes obstructed and reports of defective flues. The Mayor's Messages . . . also contain information and statistics on related areas of interest to the householder such as police and fire protection, street lighting, health, street cleaning, and transportation in the reports of the bureau and/or department of those names. For some years after 1908 the Mayor's Messages also included a report of the Division of Tenement Houses, with general information on the condition of repairs, cleanliness, fire escapes, halls, bedrooms, lighting and ventilation in the city s tenement buildings. Later Mayor's Messages . . . contain some photographs. However, the most valuable pictorial record of Philadelphia housing in the twentieth century is the City Archives Photographs Collection with its photos of houses, slums, tenements and related subjects.

In 1951 the Department of Licenses and Inspections became the heir to many of the police functions of the Health and Public Safety Departments. Licenses and Inspections' Annual Reports, 1952-1966, provide the researcher with statistics on the enforcement of the housing, building, electrical, fire and plumbing codes and inspections of weights and measures. Information on license issuance, prosecution of violations, and reports of the Board of Licenses and Inspections Review, Zoning Board of Adjustment, Plumbing Advisory Board and Board of Building Standards are also contained in the annual reports. Included in the Department's "Neighborhoods Inspection Program" Files 1962, 1965-1966 are reports from the Community Action Councils of the Philadelphia Anti-Poverty Action Committee containing details of unsanitary conditions, vacant houses, abandoned automobiles and rodent infestation, which provide a dimension of grim reality not immediately evident from statistics. In February, 1967, the Department of Licenses and Inspections began to administer the Neighborhood Renewal Program which terminated last year. The City Archives holds seventy-two cubic feet of Neighborhood Renewal Program completed case files for the years 1972-1973. In them is an unimaginable amount of data of interest to the social and economic historian. "Blight" becomes less an abstract concept and more a quantatively definable phenomenon when itemized in terms of defective wiring, leaky roofs, or broken window for each house. "Rehabilitation" becomes a matter of bids, contractors, costs, federal loans, inspections and paper work. Because Neighborhood Renewal was a federally funded program there is often personal data about the owner in the files not usually available in other primary sources. Information about homeowners includes race, occupation, place of employment, assets, liabilities, taxes, fixed monthly charges, and often verification information statements from employers, banks and other institutions. Housing is described in specific detail.

The Mayor's Fair Rent Committee Files 1957-1959, and the closed Fair Housing Commission Case History Files, 1962-1966, reflect the activity of two bodies created to protect the renter from paying for unfit living quarters. The files contains a world just hinted at by the Annual Reports. It is a world of seedy houses and apartments, avaricious, greedy, and evasive landlords, destructive tenants, and broken promises, which materialize from data on accommodations, rents, complaints and public hearings. The bare bones of the published statistics begin to take on flesh as the researcher reads the files from which they were compiled. Since the Fair Housing Commission was created to remedy the lack of effectiveness of the Fair Rent Committee, comparison of these records is a case history of the effectiveness of legislation with teeth.

The Great Depression of the 1930's ironically produced much of the data which enables today s scholars to illuminate many of the substrata of that society. Among the hordes of Americans put to work by the Works Progress Administration were a number engaged in the gathering of social data.

Perhaps no other era of Philadelphia housing has been so well documented as the 1930s. A series of Works Projects Administration Reports for the years 1933 to 1939 were compiled for the City Planning Commission. There are reports on population trends, tax exempt, real estate, sewage treatment and waste disposal, collection and disposal of refuse and cost analyses of city social services. There are also real estate, physical and social surveys. Some of there reports are accompanied by large quantities of work papers. Related series include the W.P.A. Projects, Work Papers, 1933-1939; Social Survey SS1A Population Data, Work 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 1934, and the Real Estate Survey, Girard to Washington Avenues East of Broad Street, The Physical and Economic survey, for example, gives extensive data concerning land use including paving of street, alley, lot or yard, its use, its condition, its size, occupancy, use, condition and size of building, condition of cellar and roof; recommended repairs; bathroom, cooking and heating, equipment, kitchens and baths per floor, number of families, number of occupants, ages, occupations, work status and form of transportation for each address. There are also a great many other City Planning Commission series including annual reports, files, Capital Program reports received and Commission reports, and information bulletins too numerous to describe in detail. The Real Estate Property Survey, General Survey Tables 1939 of the Philadelphia Housing Authority help to round out the picture of the 1930s. The history of the Housing Authority can be followed in its Annual Reports, while drawings of the Queen Lane and Whitman Housing Projects provides an idea of the end product of the Authority's activities in the early 1950s.

The very existence of a City Planning Commission implies the recognition of a concept of the evolutionary nature of city housing patterns. Neighborhoods change. The block of fashionable brownstones of yesterday become the rundown rooming houses of today. Farms and estates disappear and are replaced by developments of row homes. The ethnic mix redistributes itself. Since 1929 the City Planning has devoted itself to studying these changing patterns, and, no doubt, the researcher interested in Philadelphia as a dynamic social organism would begin his research with City Planning Commission records. He should examine the public Information Bulletins on population distribution, assessed and market value of real estate, industrial and retail trade, and transit networks. Also of interest are Area Redevelopment publications, reports issued by the Commission and the volumes on the Capital Program.

However there are other types of records in the City Archives, which the researcher might overlook, that contain equally valuable information on the evolution of the city. Ward Atlases originally were issued for insurance purposes: to provide a cartographic reference of relative insurance risks presented by buildings in the city's wards. Today they are an invaluable cartographic record of the evolution of the city in the period from 1855 to 1930. Buildings are identified in regard to dimension, construction materials, number of stories, and use. Some later Atlases also add the owner's name. Issued at intervals of five to ten years for each ward, they are useful for tracing the history of land use in neighborhoods. They can also be used to date construction and external renovations of houses, changing property lines, and distribution of industry.

The Board of Revision of Taxes' "Tabulation Statements of Properties" 1915-1956 contains information, by ward and year, of the total number of brick, stone or frame houses in each ward and divides each of these categories by number of stories. They also tabulate by ward specific types of industrial, commercial, educational, charitable, and public buildings. The Board's Annual Statements, Real and Personal Property, 1895-1954 list, by ward, the annual totals of assessed value of real estate at city, suburban and farm rates and the assessed value of tax exempt real estate, total annual tax allowances, and tax rates. The Register of Tax Exempt Properties, 1880-1900 list address, owner, assessed value, number of years of exemption and amount of exemption for each city ward. Considered by themselves, the records of the Board of Revision are useful for studying changing residential patterns, patterns of concentration of business and industry, shifts of wealth as represented by real and personal assessments, building construction pattern, and distribution of schools, churches, and public buildings. Used in conjunction with other records such as the annual reports of the Registration Commission or census data, the records could be useful in studying the intricate relationships of voting patterns, economic status and ethnicity. The Bureau of Building Inspection Permits, 1912-1951, are a valuable index of economic trends reflected by the construction industry. The Files 1955-1958, and the Blue Prints and Drawings of the Historical Commission give us an insight into a very special aspect of the City's evolution-the recycling of its oldest homes into living historical artifacts. The Commission's records are useful for information on restoration, architectural detail and for dating construction.

As we mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, we have limited our discussion only to records in the City Archives. As we have seen they contain a wealth of material. There is also a great deal of information in the records of a variety of social service agencies, which are either held by the agencies themselves or which have been transferred to archival institutions. The material is certainly there. It only needs the imagination to exploit.

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