History

Ghosts Signs of Philadelphia: C.B. Porter & Co. in Old City

August 1, 2023 | by Jordan Keiffer

124-26 N. 2nd Street is the former location of the pewter and tin factory of C.B. Porter & Co. | Photo: Jordan Keiffer

The Delaware River waterfront and Old City was once the hub of Philadelphia’s early metal industry. 18th and 19th century importers of tin, copper, lead, bismuth, and antimony, which were all used to make pewter, dotted storefronts and factories along Front, 2nd, and 3rd Streets. In the 1700s, pewter, alongside silver, was used in the production of everyday housewares for the city’s wealthier residents. These products were likely considered the nicest items in a middle class household. The ingredients were easily obtained and had a low melting point between 170 and 230 degrees, making pewter affordable to the average consumer. Pewter’s only limitation was that the items were restricted to the forms that could be made, unlike silver which is hammered into shape by hand. Common pewter items included plates, spoons, tea and coffeepots, funnels, colanders, bedpans, candlesticks, oil lamps, and porringers. It was also used to make mugs and chalices for taverns and churches, syringes in doctor’s offices, stills and syphons in breweries, and for sundials, shoes, and buttons on coats. Another quality of the material was that when an item wore out or broke, it could easily be melted and recast into smaller, simpler items by its owner, such as a button or a teaspoon. Pewtersmiths often stamped their mark on their work, making products easier to identify and collectible today.

Detail of a section of Old City between 2nd and Bread Streets from the 1875 Philadelphia Atlas. Two tin factories can be seen including that of C.B. Porter & Co. | Image courtesy of PhilaGeoHistory.org

This industry flourished in the growing city, and pewtersmiths in Philadelphia became some of the most skilled in the country. A restored ghost sign at 36 N. Front Street for Nathan Trotter & Co., founded in 1789, represents one of Old City’s earliest metal merchants and importers of tin. The company expanded in 1913 to aluminum products and became the exclusive agent for Reynolds Aluminum. While Trotter’s restored signs are a clear reminder of the once thriving metal industry, another ghost sign at 124-26 N. 2nd Street is not as obvious. Neighborhood residents have likely never noticed the remnants of this painted-over ghost sign. Above the main entrance to the storefront, covered in black paint, one can just barely make out the words C.B. PORTER CO. between the numbers 124 and 126.

A ghost sign for C.B. Porter & Co. can still be seen under a thick coat of paint at 124-26 N. 2nd Street. | Photo: Jordan Keiffer

Records show that Christopher B. Porter (1825-1902) was a wholesale tinware merchant that may have lived at 1612 N. Broad Street, now the site of The Shops at Avenue North on Temple University’s main campus. James Fallow, a colleague of Porter’s, had been working as a foreman at the tin toy company Francis, Field, and Francis, also known as the Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory, at 80 N. 2nd Street. By the 1850s, Philadelphia was one of the leading American cities for the manufacturing of tin toys, with many businesses in the area of N. 2nd and N. 3rd Streets near Arch Street. Porter and Fallow appear to have organized their business under the name C.B. Porter & Co. around 1873. Fallow often worked under his own name, however, as an award from the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 listed the James Fallows & Co. with paper and tin toys, “commended for economy in cost, adaptation to purpose intended, and durability.” By the 1880s, Fallow and his sons Henry, Charles, and David were producing painted and stenciled toys such as horse drawn carriages, wheeled vehicles, trains, and river boats under their own name. The company’s shop was located at 229 Arch Street, and it had a line of over 200 specialized toys. Fallow and his sons could not compete with the advent of lithographed tin toys and production ended around 1894.

A 1877 advertisement for James Fallows & Co. | Image: Metal Worker, Plumber and Steam Fitter, Volumes 7-8, 1877

Porter’s business, unlike Fallows, branched out beyond toys and outlasted his colleague. The 1875 Philadelphia Atlas shows the C.B. Porter Tin Factory on N. 2nd Street. A patent filed on October 29, 1874 lists Porter as inventing an improvement for metallic sieves made of tin-plate sheet metal. Porter claimed the design “will be very strong, durable, and easily kept clean, and that the cost of constructing the same over the ordinary metallic sieves in use will be but little if any more.” Another early patent application dated July 6, 1875 was filed for stands for water-coolers with a design that included a drawer to collect dripping water from the stand. These early innovations may have separated Porter from competitors in the area. Between 1890 and 1897 the company was listed as selling general tin and iron ware trimmings as well as tea trays and sheet-metal boxes.

Letterhead and receipt dated June 14, 1901 from the C.B. Porter & Co. | Image: Ebay

A directory from 1895 lists Christopher B. Porter, Charles A. Porter, and Edgar H. Porter working for the company at 128 N. 2nd Street and living at the 1612 N. Broad Street address. Porter’s factory spread out between N. 2nd Street and Bread Street. Letterheads for the business show that they occupied the addresses of 117, 119, 121, and 123 Bread Street. A news article from 1909 states that a fire occurred at Porter’s near 2nd and Arch Streets. The fire caused $50,000 in damage to Porter’s buildings. Luckily, a firewall saved the business’ warehouse. Another article from 1914 lists “The C.B. Porter Company, 117 N. Broad Street, is rebuilding its factory, recently damaged by fire.” It appears that the Porters may have moved their factory after the first fire only to be hit with the same fate. Records show that, in 1916, the business erected a factory of 25 by 140 feet, likely in response to these fires.

Items produced by C.B. Porter & Co. Left: an iron kettle top with Porter’s name and address. Right: a tin measuring cup. | Images: Liveauctioneers.com and Ebay

In 1912, claiming that the business was established for more than 60 years, Charles A. Porter and Amanda A. Porter filed for incorporation along with two other individuals, Harvey J. Florey of 3132 N. 7th Street and William J. Develin of an address on Oak Lane. At the time of the incorporation, the company was estimated to be worth $225,000 and was listed as manufacturing “tinware of all kinds, tin cans, sheet metal goods, etc.” Throughout his time in business, Porter was listed as manufacturing “plain, Japanned and stamped” tinware. The term Japanned Tinware originated in the 17th century in European shops and was considered an imitation of East Asian lacquerware. The process became popular in American shops, especially in the Mid-Atlantic region. Common colors used in this process were black, red, green, yellow, blue, and white. Bright oil paints were used to decorate the items, often with images of flowers or other leafy designs and borders. Commonly made items included boxes, trunks, baskets, and decorative tea and coffee pots.

A 1921 advertisement for C.B. Porter & Co. showing items produced. | Image: Crockery and Glass Journal, Volume 93, 1921.

Little appears to have changed for the company during the 1920s and 1930s. A listing from 1939 shows Porter with 40 employees. The company disappears from directories around this time, indicating that it may have gone out of business in the early 1940s.

A photo of 124-26 N. 2nd Street from 1963 shows Economy Restaurant & Bar Supply Co., Inc. occupying the former C.B. Porter & Co. building. | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

A photo from the Philadelphia Department of Records dated 1963 shows the C.B. Porter & Co. building at 124-126 N. 2nd Street occupied by the Economy Restaurant & Bar Supply Co., Inc. The company used the building as a warehouse until around 2019, with their well-known storefront on the southeast corner of N. 2nd and Arch Streets. Economy recently moved their business a few blocks north to 460 N. 2nd Street. Porter’s building at 124-26 N. 2nd Street currently has a sign in the window advertising it is available retail space as well as three-and four-bedroom condominiums for sale on the upper floors.



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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.

2 Comments:

  1. James says:

    The good thing is that we have a ghost sign to document what kind of a business was located on the site.

    Interesting writing on the bill of sales to document what was bought in the store and the writings were made using a foumntain pen.

  2. Steve says:

    Any connection between Nathan Trotter and Trotter’s Alley off the unit block of South 2nd Street?

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