Preservation

Carpenters’ Company Celebrates 300 Years with Historic Trades Fair

April 26, 2024 | by Kimberly Haas

The Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia celebrates three centuries this year. | Photo: Michael Bixler

As the United States prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2026, a Philadelphia institution is doing it one better as it commemorates its 300th anniversary this year. The Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia was founded in 1724. “We are an active trades guild with 200 members, the oldest in the United States,” said Emily Winters, operations and development associate at Carpenters’ Hall.

The earliest members were master builders whose work included drawing building plans, hiring the other tradespeople such as bricklayers, glaziers and carpenters, and supervising construction and engineering. They modeled the Carpenters’ Company after London’s Worshipful Company of Carpenters, a medieval trade guild that dates back to the 13th century. Today, Philadelphia’s membership includes architects, building contractors, and structural engineers.

Carpenters’ Hall was built in 1770, based on a Georgian design by architect and member Robert Smith, who also designed the steeple of Christ Church and Nassau Hall, the oldest building on Princeton University’s campus. The building was the meeting place for the First Continental Congress in 1774 and was later employed as a hospital for both British and American troops. Its location, 320 Chestnut Street, is surrounded by Independence National Historical Park. “There was a movement in the 1960s to absorb the building into Independence National Historical Park,” recalled Carpenters’ Company member Bob MacIntosh, who serves as chair of its anniversary committee. “We strongly opposed it.”

It remains an independent entity, but is considered a partner site of Independence National Historical Park. Carpenters’ Hall was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1956 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

As part of its year-long celebration of its 300th anniversary, Carpenters’ Company is hosting its Historic Trades and Crafts Fair. To be held on four sequential Saturdays beginning on April 27, each event will focus on a different trade, their roles in creating colonial Philadelphia’s built environment, and their status today.

The first event will feature blacksmithing. Blacksmiths were essential workers in colonial America. They crafted horseshoes, nails, pots, and other crucial items. Two forges will be set up in the front courtyard of Carpenters’ Hall. In addition to demonstrating their craft, two blacksmiths will engage in a competition, which will be voted on by the audience.

On the second weekend, the focus will be on masonry and the brick buildings that define Colonial Philadelphia. MacIntosh recalled an incident at his work place. “Two years ago we merged with another firm. They came to Philadelphia from the west and said, ‘I’ve never seen so much brick in my life!’”

Philadelphia was so successful in brickmaking because of the clay found naturally in the soil of the area,” explained Amy Hennessy, executive director of the Employing Bricklayers Association.

Students of the Carpentry Academy at Eastern State Penitentiary building skylight covers. | Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

Marion Nicholl Rawson, in her 1927 book Candle Days: The Story of Early American Arts and Implements, wrote “In 1792, Noah Webster wrote to his friend, Timothy Pickering, to ask for a recipe for making bricks, having in mind at the time the building of a State House at Hartford, and stating that Connecticut was sadly ignorant on the subject. Pickering answered saying that Philadelphia has followed closely an old Massachusetts law regarding brick making, and that Philadelphia brick was superior to any in the country. He further stated that ‘New York, a rapidly growing city, furnished no clay, but is supplied from New Jersey with ordinary bricks and good ones from Philadelphia.’”

Carpentry was also a vital trade in 18th century Philadelphia, and the third weekend will be devoted to it. A building’s exterior walls may have been brick, but at its top and throughout its interior, carpentry abounded, from flooring to rafters and roofs. For this event, Colonial-era carpentry tools will be on display and carpenters will be on hand to demonstrate techniques from that time, such as mortise-and-tenon joints.

The final day will feature a variety of other Colonial crafts, several of which would be practiced in most households. Demonstrations will include tinsmithing, basketweaving, broom making, leatherwork, stained glasswork, plastering over wood lath, and stone carving.

Currently, the day-to-day work in these trades doesn’t generally include these old crafts. However, here in Philadelphia, finding tradespeople skilled in historic processes wasn’t as hard as MacIntosh originally thought it might be. “We are a heavily unionized organization. I wasn’t aware how many we could find within the ranks of union carpenters and other trades.”

The events are free to attend and open to the general public. Carpenters’ Company will be accepting donations, which will be given to non-profit groups associated with each of the trades, such as the campaign to restore the historic blacksmithing shop at Fort Mifflin and the Carpentry Academy at Eastern State Penitentiary’s Preservation Trades Center.

The latter offers pre-apprenticeship training programs in both carpentry and masonry, in partnership with the City of Philadelphia’s Rebuild program and other sponsors. “For the carpentry program, they’re building skylight covers for ESP, which helps keep our historic skylights protected,” noted Liz Trumball, director of Preservation, Facilities, and Trade Programs at Eastern State Penitentiary. “We graduated our second class last week. Now, I’m trying to place 10 carpenters with contractors.”

Beyond providing a glimpse into the crafts of these Colonial trades, the fair aims to address another mission of the Carpenters’ Company. “Over the last five to 10 years, we asked ourselves, what is our role beyond maintaining our historic building. For one thing, we’re doing more outreach, offering seminars, scholarships, and resources for students who are interested in the trades,” MacIntosh explained. “It’s heartening to see those trades are still vibrant. There’s a shortage of skilled workers and we want to let people know there are resources available. They’re alive and well and these are great careers for young people.”


The Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia will hold its Historic Trades and Crafts Fair on April 27, May 4, May 11, and May 18 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free and family-friendly. See the fair’s website for details: https://www.carpentershall.org/historic-crafts-and-trades



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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

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