Commercial Panoramas of 19th-century Philadelphia

For an initial demonstration project we have chosen to focus on a very distinctive species of view from the 19th century, the commercial panorama. Three sets of these were published, one by Julio H. Rae in 1851, embracing nine of the first ten blocks of Chestnut Street, and two others by Dewitt C. Baxter, one set from 1859-61 and the other from 1879-80.

Rae's Philadelphia Pictorial Directory and Panoramic Advertiser, published as a wide folio volume in 1851, depicted buildings on both sides of Chestnut Street between Second and Tenth streets in sxiteen lithographed plates. Both sides of the street were shown on each plate, each covering about half a block; the south side was shown at top, the north side, inverted, was below.

In his preface Rae spelled out some of his intentions, recalling that he had "some time since conceived of the idea of a new system of advertising," one which he believed was unique and original. It would "give the FORM AND FEATURE, as it were, of each place of business within certain limits." Rae interleaved the panorama plates with typeset sheets laid out with approximations of business cards for those who paid for these, giving this publication advertising value. In addition, he would add names on otherwise blank signboards for those who purchased volumes. This must explain the typeset names pasted on certain plates on some copies of the volume (e.g. the blacking symbol atop #50 Chestnut on pl. 1, "Milnor & Shaw" on #110 on pl. 4, "Adams & Co. 's Express" on #116 on pl. 5).

This image is Rae's view of the eastern half of the south side of Chestnut (or "Chesnut") Street's 300 block. Note that the modern numbering system, coordinated by hundreds with cross streets, had not yet been adopted, leaving 300 Chestnut as number 96, at left. This plate from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia's copy has a pasted emendation at right, apparently to update the last shop's proprietorship.

Rae's preface noted that he intended "to issue the Panoramic View annually, giving all the alterations in the structures in the structures, and the changes in the business of Chesntut Street." He proposed to turn next to Market Street, from the Delaware to Broad Street, but apparently this did not reach fruition.

Rae's commercial motive was evident in his choice of blocks; as the plates show, they were almost entirely occupied by business, although many of the buildings had been built for domestic purposes and were more recently adapted to commercial life, mainly by opening shop windows into ground-story fronts. This urban landscape would very soon be transformed architecturally, as brownstone and marble fronts rising to elaborate cornices replaced brick fronts crowned by dormers, and many facades were given the guise of historic detail.

The result was a richly varied streetscape of contrasting styles, profiles, and colors. The rapid change was proudly documented in a new set of panoramas, "The Baxter Panoramic Business Directory," whose first dated plates appeared 1859 (although Baxter claimed he had established the project two years earlier, the date it was copyrighted in U.S. District Court). His coverage was less straightforward, as he chose blocks for their potential for advertising revenue. It therefore tracked scattered blocks in an expanding commerical district rather than a continuous streetfront, and thus included blocks on Market Street, Walnut Street, Third, and Fourth streets. In what must be one of his earliest plates, possibly from 1857, he spelled out some of his expectations, which also included Second and Front streets and what he called "the city front," but that he would move forward only with blocks for which he found eight "subscribers" at $25 each, for which they would receive one or more of the 16 business card spaces, in this case below the image of only one side of the block, their name on their edifice, and 100 free copies for them to distribute.

Baxter issued his plates not in a bound volume like Rae's, but independently, initially as large two-color woodcut sheets and later as lithographed broadsides in printings of 1000. Some blocks reappeared in revised editions incorporating changes in the block. Over the course of three years he published some twenty sheets covering some 16 different blocks, some with variant advertising copy below the image.

Baxter suspended his efforts on the eve of the Civil War. He claimed to have distributed no less than 5000 copies of each image in his first series, and 50,000 of several. As he explained when he renewed his effort in 1879 (on panorama number 1 of the second series, of the 900 block of Chestnut Street, from April of that year), it had been "interrupted in its publication owing ot the national disturbance of 1861-65, and since then for other causes." "It is now designed," he continued, "to carry out the original object of its projector, and compile into BOOK FORM, PERFECT VIEWS of all the prominent business blocks in the city." He had already selected 125 blocks to be recorded, he explained, forty-five of which had already "received the finishing touches of the artists employed on the work." At first, however, he planned to publish these as single sheets. Each block's "architectural peculiarities" and signs (of subscribers), would be represented, along with the business-card-like notices below the images, sometimes themselves illustrated with product images. The plates were to be distributed gratuitously, all the revenue to come from the "subscriptions or advertising." Although the project bore Baxter's name, the "Publishers & Proprietors" were identified as A. C. Weaver & Co., which specialized in "photo relief plate engraving." Weaver & Co. noted that "Copies of this Square may be procured gratuitously of any of the above subscribers, or at the office of publication." Not coincidentally, the publisher's place of business address, 916 Chestnut Street, was on the first block recorded in the second series, published in April 1879.

This shows Baxter's plate two, from May 1879, of the north side of the 600 block of Chestnut Street. This may have been one of his more successful offerings, for he almost immediately printed a second edition of this block. [research: differences?]

In June 1879, in the fifth number of the new series (of the opposite side of the 600 block of Chestnut Street), Baxter further discussed the transformation of this part of the city:

"It is within the recollection of the present generation that a store in any block on Chestnut Street, west of Ninth Street, was a rare exception, while the broad front, substantially built mansions of some of our most opulent citizens were the prevailing feature of that thoroughfare, but which has given way to the inexorable demands of trade, until the few that are left look venerable and out of place surrounded by their younger and gayer intruders. But it is not only on Chestnut Street where improvement has made gigantic strides -- Eight, Ninth, Arch, Race and Spring Garden Streets; also Girard and Ridge avenues seem destined to be given over wholly to trade." About sixty panoramas were "ready for the solicitor's work."

Baxter also laid claim to some noncommercial goals:

"Laying aside entirely tthe value of this work as an advertising medium, it appeals to the individual pride of the liberal minded as a local history of our city, in which they will take pleasure in being identified, and while they may not value it in any other respect, the small cost should not be compared to their own satisfaction, or the gratification they will bestow on others who in after years will rise up to thank them for such an historical treasure." [indeed. thanks.]

He planned to give a set to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and to public and private libraries around the country, so that these views would "descend to the distant future, thus making a valuable connecting link, binding the present to the past for all time."

Baxter seems to have published thirty-six panoramas in his second campaign, bring the total for both periods to about sixty. A working inventory of his and Rae's panoramas appears in a separate document [Inventory]. As he explained, he had prepared many others, and drafts for these aborted blocks survive, along with drafts for many that reached publication, in a large bound manuscript volume, now part of the Dreer Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This includes 51 sheets pieced together on sheets backed with linen. The drawings measure about seven to nine inches high (with fold-outs added for tall buildings and towers) and some thirty, forty, or even fifty inches across. They are at a scale of perhaps eight feet to the inch [research: determine exactly], about twice that in the resulting publication. These sheets show Baxter's technique, which involved drawing architectural features very precisely in ink (usually black, but sometimes purple, and with some evidence of penciled guidelines). The fronts on Chestnut were rendered orthographically, but oblique views and even perpendicular streetfronts were rendered in perspective or oblique projection. Foreground scenes -- pedestrians, carriages, crates on the sidewalks -- were rendered in ink and sometimes white gouache, but these, and occasionally repetitive architectural borders, were sometimes reproduced mechanically and pasted onto the buildings along with typeset lettering for the signboards on facades. Instructions on these sheets -- notes such as "reduce this to 9 7/16 exact" -- record phases in the production process.

Philadelphia collector Ferdinand J. Dreer presented this manuscript panorama volume on 15 October 1885, according to an inscription on it. Baxter had died in May 1881, a year after the last known panorama was published.

More information on Rae and Baxter and others involved is collected in a separate document [Panoramists].

Link to: [Panorama Inventory] [More Information] [A Map-Based Index] [Home]
url:; last rev. 8 August 1997