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Making Houses, Crafting Capitalism: Master Builders in Philadelphia, 1790-1850

Author(s):Rilling, Donna J.
Reviewer(s):McSwain, James B.

Published by EH.NET (July 2001)

Donna J. Rilling, Making Houses, Crafting Capitalism: Master Builders in

Philadelphia, 1790-1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,

2000. 261 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8122-3580-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James B. McSwain, Department of History, Tuskegee


Donna Rilling, historian at SUNY Stony Brook, examines organized housing

construction in Philadelphia in the first half of the nineteenth century. She

looks at apprentices, journeymen carpenters, and entrepreneurs who erected,

finished, and sold houses in dynamic and changing markets. Some became wealthy

master builders, grasping the growing complexities of contracts and building

codes, while making efficient use of labor and arranging advantageous supply

contracts. Those who survived used credit, barter, and available cash to stay

in business. Others never escaped their humble beginnings, ultimately

succumbing to the instability and risks of the larger economy.

Rilling examines the careers of several construction tradesmen and builders to

see how their careers fared. John Munday, for example, came to Philadelphia in

1793. Without cash he borrowed funds to acquire lots entailed by “ground

rent,” in which one paid a relatively small annual fee (rent) for a perpetual

title. Beginning builders could then spend their limited capital on the

construction of homes or buildings, that at sale provided funds to repay

loans, satisfy material debts, and settle up the wages of daily workers.

Munday built many residences, but generally mistimed the market and often had

to sell off unfinished homes to pay creditors. War and economic downturns

forced him into semi-retirement in 1798. He died in 1803 leaving his family an

estate of less than $100.

In contrast Moses Lancaster, a Bucks County Quaker, came to Philadelphia in

1802 and quickly advanced to master carpenter using personal contacts and

financial resources from the Friends’ community. Lancaster repeatedly

mortgaged property to obtain cash for new projects or to pay for labor or

materials advanced in anticipation of housing sales. He kept certain

properties, relying on the income they produced to stay afloat during hard

economic times. When possible, Lancaster hired apprentices to lower his wages

costs and employed journeymen by the day, by the job, or for a specific task

to make their labor efficient. Lancaster bought and sold real estate, sold

titles to raise cash, and obtained ground rents to supplement his income. In

1823 he purchased a lumber yard and branched out into the materials side of

building, enabling him to cut project costs, swap supplies for labor with

other carpenters, and get out from under the constant need for cash to do

business. Despite his skills and contacts Lancaster suffered reverses in

1828-30, and retired in 1841 to the countryside where he lived for many years

on a modest income from rental properties. When he died in 1879 he was

dependent upon the Carpenters’ Company for daily needs. Lancaster’s life in

building makes clear the difficulties many men faced even when they achieved

modest success as a master builder. His fortunes showed that many factors such

as relationships, economic cycles, the scale of activities, the convergence of

career stages and market developments, and diversity of interests, determined

whether or not one could advance from apprentice to wealthy master builder in

the construction business.

Rilling next addresses the issue of credit. Ground rent was an important form

of credit and a key element in Philadelphia construction. In New York and

Boston grantees obtained land without any entailment, but had to pay high

prices for it. This meant merchant capitalists or established families

completed most housing developments. But in Philadelphia an artisan or

workingman could through ground rent gain access to land and build low-cost

houses. It was in effect a loan upon which one paid only interest each year,

though the rent payable could be transferred to others by sale, collateral,

loans, or exchange.

The drive to accumulate and move up spurred many young builders and carpenters

such as William Green, who had several cheap ground rent lots, to obtain

mortgages from private capitalists to start homes. Brokers who arranged such

transactions drafted contracts suited to increasingly intricate or legally

complicated agreements. Though the grantors of ground rent and a mortgage

might be different people, often it was the same person hoping to encourage

property development. Successful financiers such as Isaac Lloyd advanced

artisan builders weekly mortgage portions to cover wage and material expenses.

If the builder got ahead of his cash allotments, he might resort to swapping

labor, accepting promissory notes, or bartering favors to keep his crew

working. This so-called Philadelphia credit system, as Rilling makes clear,

eased “cash-flow problems,” and promoted artisan cooperation, autonomy, and

speculative development of affordable housing.

Chapter Four is about fundamental building materials — lumber, brick,

quicklime, and marble. As Rilling explains, it took enormous effort, and

eventually large amounts of capital, to harvest, transport, and stockpile

these heavy and bulky materials. Lumber demand drove suppliers deep into

eastern forest belts. They exploited canals and rivers for transportation and

developed several intermediary specialties in cutting, hauling, and rafting

timber to urban markets. Simultaneously, the arrival of steam-powered saw

mills affected prices and availability. Farmers with access to great

stretches of trees and urban builders who combined their construction

activities with lumber yards and finishing shops, were the principal sawmill

operators by 1850 around Philadelphia and the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers.

It represented a trend towards capital intensification. Mill equipment became

quite expensive and required more capital, professional operators, and

knowledgeable mechanics to pour out lumber, forcing consolidation of sawmill

operations and retail lumberyards to remain price competitive and efficient.

After lumber the next most important building component was brick.

Providentially for Philadelphia builders, an enormous bed of clay, sometimes

only twelve feet below the surface, underlay much of the city. Laborers cut

clay from the ground and from April to November turned it into bricks. Of the

seven steps to produce finished bricks, molding was the most crucial. It

demanded skilled, experienced workers to slam the clay down on tables into

rectangular forms. Several days later laborers put the bricks into kilns,

often 80,000 at a time, raised the temperature to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, and

watched them carefully for at least forty-eight hours. This too took skill,

for an improper burn produced unusable bricks that crumbled, had inconsistent

texture, or were the wrong color. Demand for brick and the amount set aside

for sale, in addition to production costs, determined final prices, so that

brick makers had to keep an eye on local building trends to know how much clay

to burn. The unpredictable nature of supplying builders with their materials,

whether marble or timber, meant that “price, abundance, and quality” could

change dramatically and create chances for gain or open the gate to failure

for the workers and builders who participated in the dynamic Philadelphia

construction market.

Rilling’s final chapters focus on specialization and assembly. Many workers

and masters survived the winter months, when it was too wet or cold to work

outside, by mass-producing windows, door assemblies, staircasings, and

cabinets. By 1850 skill divisions and the economies of scale situated many

workers permanently in a subcontracting role, including full-time

manufacturing of window sashes, stair balusters, door panels, and shutters.

The easy transition from nailing up rafters to obtaining loans, swapping

materials or notes of credit, visiting lumber yards, or making windows on

rainy days that many laborers and carpenters took for granted from 1800 to

1830 gradually disappeared thereafter. It left many workers operating

steam-driven joiners in a shop, supervising a job, or putting up a roof, but

usually not all of these tasks.

Rilling closes her study by looking at carpenter Joseph Montgomery, who in

1849 started on a thirty-two row housing development in Philadelphia.

Montgomery obtained lots on a ground-rent conveyance and borrowed one third of

the project cost from George Cadwalader. Montgomery toiled for a year and a

half organizing the work force, gathering materials, and securing fresh loans

and prospective buyers for two parallel rows of sixteen, inexpensive homes.

Shortage of materials, bad weather, labor conflicts, and mounting city

regulation made it a difficult job. When winter hit, Montgomery moved his men

indoors to lay floors, to tack wood laths on ceilings and brick for

plastering, or to install pre-fabricated windows. Plastering, bricklaying, and

painting came next but had to be adjusted to the weather to avoid high

humidity or unseasonably cool temperatures. When the ground softened in the

spring, Montgomery had laborers dig privies, one for every four houses,

twenty-eight feet deep, about five feet in diameter, and brick-lined so they

could be emptied repeatedly. Unfortunately, the general economy went sour by

1852. Montgomery had to sell the homes to his creditor, Cadwalader, for much

less money than sales to the public might have raised. Montgomery continued to

build and to work as a carpenter. He learned from his project that large-scale

construction did not guarantee success, and that despite his inventiveness and

diligence, the rhythms of the general economy and the ongoing difficulties of

coordinating supplies, labor, and buyers could frustrate making a profit from

“on-site assembly.”

Rilling concludes that journeymen, master carpenters, and builders played a

central role in the Philadelphia economy from 1790 to 1850. They participated

creatively in the real estate business by obtaining land, credit, labor, and

materials to build homes for new markets. They exemplified the

nineteenth-century notion of “independent men.” Yet, external and structural

forces, including specialization, professionalism, the economies of scale, and

capital intensification, plunged artisans into an economic turmoil of

ubiquitous risk and frequent failure. Rilling’s main point is that the

experiences of these construction tradesmen show that a central portion of

antebellum urban workingmen willingly participated in the maturing capitalist

economy without coercion from the captains of industry and finance.

Although Rilling is concerned with the day-to-day productive behavior of

laborers, her book, nonetheless, touches upon broader issues addressed in

contemporary works such as Robert J. Steinfeld’s Coercion, Contract, and

Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge 2001). Steinfeld

demonstrates that free markets and labor contracts in nineteenth-century

America often produced situations that by present day standards constituted

“coerced contractual labor.” This suggests that wage labor did not have a

timeless quality making it by definition free from coercion, compulsion, or

punishment. In comparison, Rilling underscores the independence enjoyed by

Philadelphia construction workers and builders, despite the uncertainties of

the market, that many industrial and agricultural workers, according to

Steinfeld, never attained. She clearly documents that in the Philadelphia

building industry unsettled markets, speculation, worker aspirations,

capitalists, brokers, and suppliers, and a raft of economic forces and complex

structural developments, made labor coercion difficult to implement. In fact

it was impossible to maintain if individuals could risk labor and capital

under the condition that they could find new employment, seek better working

conditions, or secure a higher return on invested money, if they wished.

Rilling’s book is clearly written and well researched. She uses many arcane

court and civil records from Philadelphia and Chester counties to pull

together the obscure details of artisan building careers and businesses. Her

depiction of the daily struggles of journeymen and upstarts working carefully,

planning, and maneuvering to construct homes tells the reader much about the

organization of production, accumulation and disposal of capital, and

nineteenth-century values and aspirations.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century