Friday, April 8, 2011

Jefferson’s Botanist and Whitman’s Photographer ~ A Two-Part Exploration Prompted by a Coincidence

Part II – Frederick Gutekunst and a Philadelphia Story

Tracy:  Is this your first visit in Philadelphia?
Liz:  Just about.
Tracy:  It’s a quaint old place, don’t you think?  I suppose it’s affected somewhat by being the only really big city that’s near New York.
~ The Philadelphia Story, a play (set in 1939) by Philip Barry

[I]ndustrial Philadelphia was one of the first of the world’s truly big cities, something new under the sun, an agglomeration of people that made inherited notions of a ‘community’ obsolete, for it was too populous and widespread to be truly a community.
~ The Border City in Civil War:  1854 -1865, by Russell F. Weigley in Philadelphia:  A 300-Year History (1982)

In which the blogger considers how complex an organism a city can be – quaint and inbred while at the same time an evolving massive entity.  Though the blogger becomes mired in names and addresses, he does find, buried in the sediment, a small, saving connection to paleontology.

On August 7, 1889, Walt Whitman enjoyed a rare outing from his Camden, New Jersey home.  For several years, his steadily deteriorating health had kept him largely house-bound.  He journeyed across the Delaware River to the Philadelphia studio of photographer Frederick F. Gutekunst, Jr.  An uplifting cadence marks the description of the trip the poet penned in a letter the next day.

Am feeling pretty well for me – good weather here – was yesterday over to Phila:  to Gutekunst’s to sit for big picture (at vehement request) – went in large easy cab – every thing, river, ferry, Market & Arch streets & the vehicles & people look’d so well & bright & prosperous & even gay . . . .
~ Letter to Mary Smith Costelloe, August 8, 1889,  The Correspondence:  Volume IV:  1886-1889, edited by Edwin Haviland Miller (1969) (emphasis in the original)
Whitman’s specific destination for his foray into Philadelphia was 712 Arch Street (the studio and the photographer are shown below).

Whitman (1819 – 1892) liked the photographic outcomes of his journey into Philadelphia that day.  Inordinately fond of being photographed (I suspect he realized that his likeness spoke of wisdom and time), he had sat for Gutekunst on earlier occasions.  The photograph below was taken by Gutekunst; apparently it dates from a year later when the poet was about 71.

The convoluted path that led to the composition of this two-part posting began when I was first introduced to Gutekunst (1831 – 1917) through the acquisition of a carte de visite (front and back shown below) produced in his studio sometime between 1864 and 1866.  (A bit of background on the interesting photographic phenomenon of cartes de visite is provided at the end of this posting.)

During the latter half of the 19th century, Gutekunst ranked among the best known photographers in the nation, with a reputation that extended internationally as well.  Referred to as the dean of American photographers, he practiced his art in Philadelphia for six decades, producing precise, classical photographic images until his death in 1917.  His reputation rested in part on the many photographs he’d taken of prominent Americans – presidents, generals, artists, and, yes, poets, among others.  Known also for photographs taken on the Gettysburg battlefield shortly after the guns went silent, he garnered international attention later in the century with a ten-foot long photographic panorama (made from a series of negatives) of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

Beginning in 1856, Gutekunst ran a studio at 706 Arch Street.  In short order, he added the upper floors of 704 to his establishment (McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directories for 1864, 1865, and 1866, listed him at 704 & 706).  Then, the prosperous business outgrew those premises and Gutekunst moved his entire operation a bit westward up Arch Street to 712 and 714, combining the two buildings and taking the address of 712 Arch Street (this is where the directory for 1867 located him).

[An aside:  I thoroughly enjoyed researching for this posting as it took me into the arcane world of early 19th century city directories for Philadelphia.  At the end of this posting, I provide more information about the fabulous Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network site that aggregates links to these online resources.  I recognize that city directories were not necessarily current, that is, any changes in residence or place of business reflected in the directories that I discuss in this posting might well have actually occurred before the year of a particular directory.  Heck, they may even have been wrong.]

So, what’s the link between Whitman’s photographer and the previous entry in this blog on Benjamin Smith Barton, whom I labeled Jefferson’s botanist?  That connection, what I’ve termed a coincidence, is what I stumbled over when I went to Google Maps to see how Gutekunst’s studio/galleries at 712 Arch Street had changed in the nearly hundred years since the photographer’s death.

What had happened was the Federal Detention Center; it now occupies a big chunk of the south side of Arch Street beginning at 7th Street.  But, as I played with the Google street view, I spotted an historical marker standing on Arch Street in front of the Detention Center.  Ah, I initially thought, recognition of the great Frederick Gutekunst.

The image below of that marker is reproduced, with permission, from the website.

Not Gutekunst at all, Benjamin Smith Barton instead.  Wait, that means that Benjamin Smith Barton also lived on this site in the early 1800s??!!  The ExplorePAhistory webpage on this marker identifies the address as 712 Arch Street which, indeed, is where Gutekunst had his studio.

Not unexpectedly, my first reaction was
What an amazing coincidence!  These two important figures, pursuing vastly different fields, lived or worked in the same location.  Philadelphia is truly a small town.
Though, I must admit, I was somewhat disappointed that the marker bore no mention of the photographer.

Well and good, and there it might have rested, until I realized that none of the addresses I had for Barton squared with 712 Arch Street.  Apparently, in 1803, when he tutored Meriwether Lewis in botany, at Thomas Jefferson’s request, Barton lived at 44 North Fifth Street.  The next time he met with Lewis, in 1807, when the explorer sought his assistance in preparing the scientific volume of the expedition’s report, Barton lived at 184 Mulberry Street.  Shortly, thereafter, he relocated and resided at 241 Chestnut Street when he died in 1815.

So, how do we get from any of those Barton addresses to 712 Arch Street?  Cities are dynamic places, even aspects seemingly fixed are actually mutable, including street names and the numbers assigned to buildings on those streets.  Deciphering the changes in that flux made the challenge of taking 44 North Fifth Street or 184 Mulberry to 712 Arch particularly interesting.  I think I’ve made some sense of it.  And, if I’ve got it right (a big if), the marker has it wrong.

The address at 44 North Fifth Street appears to me to be a non-starter – much as I tried, I couldn’t get there (to 712 Arch Street) from here.  Fifth Street did not morph into Arch Street.  In contrast, Mulberry Street actually did.

From the city’s earliest days, the street carried the official name of Mulberry, but Philadelphians commonly called it Arch Street.  In his Annals of Philadelphia, Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, & Incidents of the City and its Inhabitants from the Days of the Pilgrim Founders, published in 1830, John F. Watson asserted that the effort to extend Mulberry Street eastward all the way to the shoreline of the Delaware River required cutting through a hill where it intersected Front Street, the latter running along the shoreline.  For a time, Front Street apparently spanned Mulberry on a bridge, commonly referred to as an “arch.”

In 1853, Philadelphia officially renamed Mulberry as Arch Street (others changed as well, including High which became Market, Sassafras became Race, and Cedar became South) which, I think, takes care of the nexus between Mulberry and Arch for Barton’s home address of 184 Mulberry.

So, I'm inclined to believe the historical marker doesn’t stand at 44 North Fifth Street where Barton lived in 1803 and where he tutored Lewis in botany.  Might it flag where Barton dwelt in 1807 (184 Mulberry)?

If so, how did 184 become 712?  Well, unfortunately, it probably didn’t.

In 1856, the city Councils “regularized” the numbering of buildings in the city which prompted wholesale renumbering of homes and establishments.  Numbers now increased to the next highest 100s as one moved from one block to the next, going west from Front Street.  (For more on this, see Weigley's Border City in Civil War, in Philadelphia:  A 300-Year History.  Link provided above.)

To gauge what impact this had on 184 Mulberry (Arch), I searched through many city directories to trace that address forward from the first decade of the 1800s (figured I might as well go all the way while I was at it) until 1867.  To confirm what I found, I traced Gutekunst’s 712 Arch Street address backward from 1867 through the 1850s, when the changes in name and numbering occurred.  Based on my geometry, these address arcs do not intersect.  I cannot square this circle.

But, even if my bit of research threatens to separate Gutekunst and Barton, it provides glimpses of a fascinating web linking people and families across these decades.  According to the city directories, merchant Isaac C. Jones lived at 184 Mulberry from 1808 (Barton is last listed there in 1807) until 1822.  By 1828, physician Caspar Wistar occupied the premises.  After a bit of digging, I learned that Wistar was Jones’ son-in-law, having married Lydia Jones in 1826.  Caspar and Lydia lived at this same location until 1867 when he passed away.  A bit more on Wistar in a moment.

The changes in 1853 and 1856 affected Wistar’s street address which became, when all was said and done, 726 Arch Street.  Hmmm, not 712 Arch.

So much for the coincidence that precipitated this whole shaggy dog story.  I suspect that the historical marker is misplaced; more appropriately, it should probably be located further down the block toward 8th Street where it would mark where Barton lived in 1807, not 1803.  Even if I’m wrong about this, I’d love to see another marker added right at the current spot commemorating photographer Frederick Gutekunst.

As for the paleontological component of all this, that’s another of those neat connections that reach back over time.  For this, I have the good doctor Caspar Wistar, who lived for so long at 184 Mulberry (726 Arch Street), to thank.  Amazingly enough, his namesake, his uncle Caspar Wistar was, in fact, another of the preeminent Philadelphia scholars that Jefferson charged with teaching Meriwether Lewis in 1803.  Wistar, the uncle, was

. . . the foremost authority on fossils in America.  He talked with Lewis about that anomalous beast the Megalonyx [an extinct giant ground sloth], which he and Jefferson had discovered, and about the mastodons he and Jefferson believed might still inhabit the prairies.  (Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, p. 91)

Small world, wonderful city.


Cartes de visite (CDV), which originated in France, were a paper photograph mounted on a small card.  An immensely popular item in the U.S. for a couple of decades in the middle the 19th century, particularly during the Civil War years, CDVs were made possible by the development in the 1850s of a reliable process to produce good paper copies of photographs from glass plate negatives.  The date of the CDV shown above can be determined with some precision because of the revenue stamp affixed to it.  In an effort to raise funds to finance the Civil War, the U.S. government, beginning in 1862, required that taxes be paid on various documents and luxury items – the stamp proved the tax had been paid.  In 1864, these taxes were extended to photographs, and then the taxes were repealed in 1866.  (Tax Stamps on Antique Photography, an eBay guide, provides a nice overview of the subject.)

Selected Sources

My obsession with street addresses in early Philadelphia was fed by a wonderful website, Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.  This is a “pilot project of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) to develop a web-based repository of geographically organized historical information about Philadelphia, its geography, its buildings, and its people.”  The Resource Browser on the site gives the user access to a wealth of information about Philadelphia.  I particularly made use of the city directories (from 1785 to 1867) and the maps.  All in all, an amazing resource that helps realize the promise of the Net.

Some of the other sources I’ve used are listed below.

Jordan, John W., Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania (1978).  This has genealogies for the Wistars.

Peacock, Charlene, entry on Gutekunst in Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, edited by John Hannavy (2007), p. 629.

Philadelphia’s Share in American Photography, from Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, June 1903.

An interesting website on the Gutekunst family genealogy, with a focus on the photographer, can be found at this link.

The photograph of Whitman was copied from The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman:  Leaves of Grass (1902).

The photograph of Gutekunst's studio was copied from Philadelphia and Popular Philadelphians, by The North American (1891).

The photograph of Gutekunst was copied from The Photographic Journal of America, edited by Thomas Coke Watkins (1917).

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