In overlapping local collections there are set of large-format photographs of Philadelphia-area houses that form a distinct set datable to the late 19th century.
The photographs are loose, but were once apparently part of a series of portfolios
with a title page for one that survives in the set at the Historical Society
of Pennsylvania (where it is Graphics Collection V49). This reads:
"PHILADELPHIA SUBURBAN HOMES.
WELLS & HOPE CO."
Relatively few other hints to their issuance have been identified, other than what one can infer through research about the houses depicted. A set with three times as many plates as the Historical Society's is held in the Print and Picture Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Another substantial set is in private hands, and some single plates survive in individual collections.
Most of the photographs are accompanied by letterset captions in red ink below each photographic image (as mocked-up here). Typically this will give two or three lines: the first, at lower left, will often be the name of the house, distinguished by stylized lettering. Below, or instead of that, will be a line reading "RESIDENCE OF MR. . . . " in capital letters, and this will rather infrequently be followed by another line indicating a location, usually the name of a train station. Below the lower right corner of the photograph, in the majority of cases, there will be a line identifying "ARCHITECT, . . . " There are some variants on the format and position of these inscriptions, and a number are given only in pencil, as if part of some sort of proof version of the portfolio not ultimately distributed to patrons.
Most of the houses are large individualized Victorian structures designed by Philadelphia's leading architects, located on substantial holdings of several acres or more, but a number are older or more modest houses with no architect's name given -- leading one to wonder if some were included by subscription of their owners. A number of the inscriptions on these plates provide the sole basis for crediting well-known Victorian architects with works of otherwise unknown authorship.
Putting together evidence from a wide variety of sources, it has been possible to determine the precise locations and dates of many of the houses. The latest houses in the set appear to date from the late 1880s or early 1890s, which probably dates the issuance of at least some "sections," or portfolios.
The properties are mostly located on the train lines or major old turnpikes leading out from Philadelphia in several directions. Generally, they are near the Bristol Pike (to the northeast of the city), the Old York Road (to the north), Germantown Avenue (to the northwest), Lancaster Avenue / The Main Line (west-northwest, but south of the Schuylkill River), and the Baltimore Pike (to the southwest). There are also a few houses in New Jersey suburbs east of the city.
One may start to explore the houses by location, or by architect and date, and link from there to scanned images of the photographs and to research notes on them.
Notes will be added to the website as we encounter and compile new material on these properties. Further information or insights into these would be welcomed from others who might be able to help with pieces of the puzzle.
-- J. Cohen, July 2000