Briefs of Title


Historical Context




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Where Did Briefs of Title Come From?

Briefs of Title grew out of the legalisms of land transfer in the colonial era. In order to establish legal claim over a piece of property, one needed not only to produce an original deed but also to show prior deeds proving the ability of the previous owner to sell. Together, these create a “Chain of Title” back to, in the case of Pennsylvania properties, William Penn or his family. Although, in theory, all deeds were recorded with the county so that there was an independent means of verifying claims on land, in reality it could take years, sometimes decades or more for these deeds to be properly recorded. In addition, property could change hands in other ways, such as being left in a will, which would not produce a deed to be recorded. Typically, when one purchased property, the previous deeds and originals of other legal documents would come with it, so the ability to produce these documents would act as further proof of ownership, and provide easy access to the chain of title.

This system worked fine when single properties changed hands, but in the nineteenth century, the dynamic of city expansion changed. The increase in population and prosperity meant that there was a massive demand for small, middle-class single family dwellings. Where large lots of land close the city had previously been useful either as farms or as country estates for the very wealthy, now housing was in such demand that farmers and the wealthy alike were willing to sell their large holdings to be subdivided. Those who still held large estates and farms at the edge of urbanized Philadelphia saw the value of their land increase, and subdivision for development became popular. This eventually gave rise to the huge tracts of thousands of brick row houses, many identical to the one on either side, which the city is famous for.

How was the developer to give each individual house-buyer an original copy of every deed all the way back to the Penn Family? Today photocopies or multiple printouts would do, but at the time, the only means of duplication was by hand or the printing press.

In lieu of all these deeds, the developer paid to have a small paperbound booklet printed with a detailed legal description of every property transfer that affected legal ownership or “Title” to his land. One would go to the purchaser of each house or lot. This “Brief” version of the title contained “Abstracts” of these documents, boiled-down versions which quoted and highlighted only the important parts, and so were called “Briefs of Title” or “Abstracts of Title.”

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When were they made?

Briefs of Title have their “heyday” in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Briefs indexed here range from 1830 to 1933 in publication date, but most were printed in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Their rise at this time is as a result of the increasing subdivision of the land in the Philadelphia area, where farms and large estates were being converted into many middle-class houses. With the rise of title insurance, where a buyer purchases a policy which protects him or her in the event that the seller did not have a “clean” title, sellers stopped producing Briefs. Why go to such great lengths of researching and producing Briefs of Title when your buyers preferred the iron-clad insurance instead?

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What does a Brief of Title Contain?

Briefs can be formatted differently, but they usually contain about the same information generally. Some contain discussion about the present owner and property, almost as if they were used as part of the sales pitch, while others jump straight into the legal jargon and make no effort even to clearly describe the boundaries of the land in question or the person or entity selling it.

Most Briefs of Title contain information related to one contiguous geographical area in the City of Philadelphia or its nearby suburbs, although occasionally several disconnected but nearby pieces would be developed at once and so a single Brief would be produced. Sometimes, the property being subdivided would have existed with its then-boundaries for a long time with little change, and so the Brief would describe its relatively straightforward transfer from A to B, B to C, C to D and so on. However, more often the land would have been bought up by the developer from several sources, each of which would be traced in amazing detail in a range of—sometimes confusing—arrangements.

As mentioned above, Briefs of Title contain detailed information about every previous deed, but property changes hands in many ways: sale, will, auction, etc. Many have special circumstances, such as contested wills, or wills with perpetual legal provisos or restrictions. (These legal impediments can be especially important in the story of a piece of land, as they sometimes explain why prime lots are initially kept off the market when the urban edge first reaches the site; as the wave advanced, the value of the bypassed land would begin to outweigh the legal cost of untangling the title, and this delay in building would certainly change the character of what was eventually build there.) All of these legal documents need to be explained and described as well, and so every legal case, every will or other legal document that pertains to the property being subdivided is also abstracted. Frequently, these descriptions include reference to where (in what county, book, and page) these wills and other documents are to be found, saving the researcher from tackling unwieldy indexes.

Most Briefs contain a section called “Searches” (although it is not always titled as such or at all) which contains statements from county clerks and other public officials who have been asked to search the official records for any discrepancies or disputes about previous owners of the land, especially unpaid mortgages. The goal was to assure any purchasers of the newly subdivided properties that no one else had any claim over the land besides the developer, so that if they purchased a lot or a house, no one would come to them to make a claim.

A few include very precise information about the property’s history, such as a list of all tax assessments made on the property, including quotes listing what was taxed (i.e., what was built there) and for how much, owned by whom, and where the record of these assessments can be found.

Many briefs, especially later ones, contain maps of the property, occasionally with information about owners and neighbors written in. A few have “continuations:” handwritten sections which add information not available at the time of publication or about events which took place afterwards.

Finally, many Briefs contain “Opinions,” statements written by a real estate lawyer who has reviewed the Brief and all the relevant documents and who asserts their validity.

Without meaning to, these Briefs also contain a great deal of information about Philadelphia at the time of subdivision: the “Conveyancer,” a person who handles the transfer of property from a seller to buyer—roughly equivalent to today’s Real Estate Agent—and developer are both usually named. This provides an interesting window on this period of subdivision in Philadelphia, the 1860’s through 1890’s, and those involved.

Note: The author is indebted to Mr. Jefferson Moak for much of the historical information presented in the above discussion.

See Also:
Moak, Jefferson M. "Architectural Research in Philadelphia: A Guide to the Resources Available throughout Philadelphia." Philadelphia: The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2002 (especially pages 28, 29, and Appendix 21).

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