History

Ghost Signs of Philadelphia: Maritime Phantoms in Old City

May 9, 2022 | by Jordan Keiffer

Recent news regarding the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s plans for the Central Delaware includes a new 11.5-acre park to reconnect the city to the Delaware River. The proposed amenity effectively tunnels Columbus Boulevard and I-95 between Front Street to the river and north to south between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. Understanding Philadelphia’s historical connection to the river is vital for developing the waterfront for recreational and residential use. Some of the first settlers took up shelter in caves along the banks of the Delaware. William Penn arrived near what is now Penn’s Landing. Dock Creek provided a natural harbor for commerce. The city expanded north and south along the river, and generations have found employment and past time enjoyment on the waterfront. The original high water line has moved due to dredging, and the creation of Columbus Boulevard and I-95 destroyed much of the residential life that thrived along the banks of the Delaware, while effectively cutting off the pedestrian connection to the oldest parts of the city. The new park is an attempt to reestablish that connection by drawing businesses, residences, tourism and recreation back to the water.

A stone ghost sign for Riggs Watches located on the sidewalk in front of 310 Market Street. | Photo: Jordan Keiffer.

Thankfully, Philadelphians looking for material, historical connection to the Delaware River can still see several ghost signs of businesses in Old City that catered to the shipping industry. Three of these signs can be found within a block from each other and are near the proposed park on Chestnut and Market Streets.

Located at 310 Market Street, one ghost sign is carved into stone and situated on the sidewalk. The stone is very large and centered in front of the main entrance to a store. Part of the left side has been cut to abide a basement entrance, meaning the original piece may have been bigger and more symmetrical to the storefront. Riggs Watches, as the stone reads, points to the business’s early history of manufacturing and repairing watches, but there is more tied to the waterfront than the sign indicates.

The cover of the 1919 Riggs & Brother Nautical Almanac showing the store at 310 Market Street. | Image: WorthPoint.com

Riggs & Brother was founded in 1818 by William H.C. Riggs, and the company was best known as a nautical instrument manufacturer. Records show that Riggs lived at 244 S. Front Street and may have started his business there. The company changed its name to W.H.C. Riggs & Son in 1863 and then to Riggs & Brother in 1865. Riggs was originally a clock and watchmaker, which later aided his ability to work with advanced nautical instruments that required precision and a steady hand. Riggs ran a successful business until he died in 1861 at the age of 66. He is buried at Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia.

Riggs & Brother stayed in the family after its founder died. The company published a well-known nautical almanac for many years. It continued to sell navigating instruments like chronometers, compasses, and sextants as well as clocks, watches, jewelry, silverware, and charts to local mariners and the U.S. government. The company also offered repair work on jewelry and pieces of silver. The Winterthur Library in Delaware holds a daybook from 1889 to 1893 which includes correspondence, orders, invoices, bills, and receipts. One inquiry in the daybook includes a Kansas City firm inquiring about a telescope for use in the Grand Canyon by visitors. Sources vary, but Riggs & Brother may have been in business through 1973.

Statue of a mariner using a sextant. Shown on its original pedestal above the storefront at 310 Market Street. It is now part of the collection of the Independence Seaport Museum. | Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Old photos of the storefront at 310 Market Street show a wooden statue prominently mounted above the door of a mariner using a sextant. Since 1973, this statue has been on display at the Independence Seaport Museum, which also holds a wealth of the company’s cash books, invoice books, day books, inventories, and correspondence. A 1976 report by the Historic American Buildings Survey states that the statue may have originally been erected on the southeast corner of Dock and Walnut Streets and then moved with the company to 310 Market Street in 1896. You can still see the wood pedestal that the statue was mounted on above the ground floor entrance today. The storefront at 310 Market Street has hosted many different businesses over the years and was recently renovated for a sushi restaurant. Thankfully, the stone Riggs Watches sign has endured for all of these years.

Another nautical ghost sign can be found on the west facing wall of 241 Chestnut Street. It is a bit faded, but reads: JOHN E. HAND & SONS CO NAUTICAL INSTRUMENTS 243. An image of a compass can be seen above the word NAUTICAL, and ocean waves border the top and bottom of the sign.

Ghost sign for John E. Hand & Sons Co. on the west-facing wall of 241 Chestnut Street. | Photo: Jordan Keiffer

The company was founded by optician and Liverpool, England immigrant John Enos Hand in 1872. It quickly gained a reputation as a manufacturer of nautical instruments and a compass adjuster. In fact, Hand had the unique claim as “the first man in America to adjust a compass aboard an iron ship.” The business also operated a chain of retail outlets with service stations in Baltimore, Newport News, Norfolk, and New Orleans until closing them in 1956. Hand published The Nautical Almanac until 1920 and The Hand Book after 1926, which were comprehensive reference guides for seafarers. These books included tide charts, coastal and geodetic surveys, compass reading instructions, Morse code, and the Beaufort scale of winds.

Although the sign is on the exterior of 241 Chestnut Street, the business occupied the two-story brick building at 243 Chestnut Street. The building was designed by Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre Jr. in 1897 and built around 1900 for Borie Brothers Bank. Directories show Hand occupying the building between approximately 1939-1949. Hand and his sons, John L. and Bartram, were inventors with numerous patents for instruments. Commercial and private contracts made up most of their business until World War II when they switched primarily to government contracts for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. Notable developments by the company were wrist compasses for the Navy in the 1950s and the Mark VII Model 5 Navy Standard Binnacle. The company later added dental and surgical equipment to their catalog.

An advertisement for John E. Hand & Sons Co. from 1938. | Images eBay.com.

Hand had several locations around Philadelphia and New Jersey throughout its history. Its headquarters were moved to Cherry Hill in the 1960s and the company was sold in 1997 to California-based Sunset Cliffs Merchandising Corporation for $100,000. The building at 243 Chestnut Street was last home to The Little Lion, an American food restaurant and bar. In February 2018, a four-alarm fire ripped through this historic block of buildings, temporarily closing The Little Lion and several other businesses that never recovered. Damages were estimated at $20 million and 160 people were displaced. The Hand ghost sign was covered by  scaffolding over the last few years, but it has recently been exposed again.

A photograph from the 1960s showing the John E. Hand & Sons Co. sign at 243 Chestnut Street. | Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Seaport Museum

Down the street from Riggs & Brothers is another nautical merchant ghost sign at 202 Market Street, which can be seen through the red paint and letters of the newer Olde City Food Market sign. It reads GOLDBERGS’ MARINE CENTER 202-204.

Goldbergs’ Marine was founded in the mid-1940s by World War II veterans Charles and Harry Goldberg along with their brother Jack. The Goldbergs sold marine and boating items like anchors, rope, horns, and electrics. Later, the company was known for its “foul-weather suit,” ship-to-shore radios, CB radios, and fish finders. The store’s tagline was “Where thousands of boaters save millions of dollars.”

Ghost sign for Goldbergs’ Marine Center at 202 Market Street. | Photo: Jordan Keiffer

In 1958, the brothers moved the store to 202 Market Street and owned a warehouse at 40 N. 2nd Street. In the 1960s, they opened a second retail store in midtown Manhattan due to their success. The Goldbergs also published a catalogue that was distributed nationwide. Items in for sale included portable radios, clothing, electronics, tools, galley gear, teak wood briefcases, and U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifesaving equipment.

Charles Goldberg behind the counter of a display at the 1958 Philadelphia Sportsmen’s Show. | Photo: Newspapers.com

At one point the business also occupied a building at 330 Oregon Avenue.  The Goldbergs sold the company to E&B Marine Inc. in the late 1980s, which was then purchased by West Marine. Charles Goldberg passed away in April 2014.

Advertisements for Goldbergs’ Marine Center from issues of Motor Boating and Sailing magazine, 1973 and Cruising World magazine, 1988. 

The neighborhoods of Queen Village, Society Hill, Old City, Northern Liberties, and Port Richmond have always been connected to, and thrived because of, the Delaware River. Many would-be remnants of nautical history, especially those that originally could be found along Front and Water Streets, have been lost to time and redevelopment. These existing ghost signs echo the history of the city’s lost shipping industry. As Philadelphians attempt to reconnect themselves to the Delaware River, it is important to remember our historical connection to the water. It is possible that a reinvigorated appreciation for the river will create new businesses near the waterfront that are inspired by the nautical ones that came before them.



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About the Author

Jordan Keiffer has been documenting Philadelphia’s ghost signs on the Instagram page Philly Ghost Signs since 2019. His goal is to connect people to the forgotten stories of these faded signs through historic narratives and supplemental images. His work was featured in a special exhibition on ghost signs at the Neon Museum of Philadelphia. A native of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Keiffer is a proud Temple University alum and enjoys long runs through the city.

3 Comments:

  1. Anne Gulick says:

    Just fascinating! A part of Philly history we “moderns” don’t always get introduced to, sadly. Thanks for the research and carefully-selected photos. This article really stirred my imagination!

  2. Bob Skiba says:

    Thanks, Jordan a great look at the ghostly remnants of Philadelphia’s commercial history. Oddly enough, though, Wm. Penn landed near what is now Penn’s Landing, not near Penn Treaty Park.

  3. Carmen D. Valentino says:

    The entire contents of Riggs & Bro. were sold at public auction by S.T. Freeman & Co in either 1973 or 74. The auction was held on the site starting on the very top floor where the company archive was.
    It was warm and stuffy as I recall.

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