Briefs of Title


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Briefs of Title are limited-edition publications intended for a small audience that contain all the legal documents, statements, and information necessary to establish a claim of ownership over a property. Thousands of these briefs were published, each distributed to hundreds of owners of newly subdivided properties, and many have survived the decades because of their legal status. Some have found their way into historical repositories such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Briefs of Title are a fascinating and useful resource, a relic of nineteenth century land development, and treasure troves of information about properties, places, and people. It is the goal of this project to help make the Briefs which exist for parts of the City of Philadelphia accessible. This project grew out of a class in Historical Documentation taught by Professor Jeffrey Cohen at the University of Pennsylvania.

Because they were published for very specific purposes and a very specific audience, their scope is so narrow that they are considered by some to be of little value. As a consequence, they were rarely an active focus for public collections, rarely consulted and if indexed at all generally only by their unwieldy titles. However, for those researching a property covered by a brief, the potential payoff is enormous: each brief contains what would otherwise require many hours of research on previous owners, the location of records such as deeds and wills, and the dates and circumstances of every transfer of ownership for dozens or even hundreds of properties. All of this is at your fingertips, and the only challenge is to find it!

This website builds on the substantial work of Jefferson Moak, who indexed the collection of these Briefs being stored at the Free Library of Philadelphia and one of the four known groups at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Mr. Moak is also credited with much of the information contained in the discussion of the Briefs’ historical context.

This index has about 900 entries, 400 hundred coming from Jefferson Moak’s index, 200 indexed for the first time, 100 extrapolated from Moak’s index to create “see also” headings for secondary owners (so that one may search for a Brief by any owner, not just the first one listed) and another 200 extrapolated to provide separate entries for each duplicate brief (listed in Moak’s list under a single entry) in order to most accurately reflect the holdings of each institution. It represents an indexing of about 550 individual briefs of title to land in Philadelphia.

This site makes this work available, expands upon it, and attempts to put Briefs of Title in their Historical context as tools to be used in the research of historic places in Philadelphia. Click on “Historical Context” above to read more about Briefs, why they exist, for whom they were made, and what is in them, or click on “How To Use The Index” to learn more about the data, its presentation, and what to do when you have found a record you want to view.

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Scope Note:

Three Philadelphia libraries hold six large sets of Briefs of Titles for Philadelphia properties, and others are doubtless scattered among many other institutions. Four large groups are currently covered by this index, and abstracts for one of the remaining collections are also available here for downloading. The four indexed here include that held at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and three collections under different call numbers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, “WK.421,” “WK.3” and “WK.315” (see How to Use this Index for more on accessing these collections).

Not covered by this index are the Briefs held at the Fairmount Park Commission, and a fourth collection held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania under the call number “WK.31.” Time did not allow the inclusion of the sixteen volumes under the WK.31 heading—each containing about twenty briefs—but it is hoped that a future project will incorporate these; at least some of these Briefs are indexed on the OPAC of the Historical Society, searchable online at the HSP Website. The Fairmount Park Briefs have been abstracted and separately indexed by owner only by Jefferson Moak. That information is available for download in Word format here, or Text format here.

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John M. Chenoweth, Fall 2005
for HSPV 600, Documentation, University of Pennsylvania, J. Cohen, Professor.