The Philadelphia Contributionship Digital Archives: Introduction (2024)

The Philadelphia
Digital Archives

About the Company

About the Collection

  • Introduction
  • Key Documents
  • Digitizing the Collection

Essays and Exhibits

  • Surveying the Present: Preserving the Past

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The Philadelphia Contributionship Digital Archives: Introduction (1)
Account book of John C. Evans, Surveyor

On this page:
The Philadelphia Contributionship Archives, Insurance Surveys, Surveyors

The Philadelphia Contributionship Archives

The archives of The Philadelphia Contributionship span the period from 1752 until the present. They comprise roughly 300 linear feet and consist of Minutes of the Board of Directors, Committee Minutes, Treasurer’s Reports, ledgers, surveyors’ books and other underwriting registers.

In addition to these basic records are the correspondence files of treasurers and directors as well as assorted miscellaneous files such as publications, real estate, and as separate listings within this group, volunteer fire companies and mutual fire insurance companies. The company also maintains its canceled surveys and policies. Researchers draw most heavily upon these latter files for details on individual properties as well as more general information on the socio-economic structure of the city in prior years.

Insurance Surveys

The early directors of The Philadelphia Contributionship adopted the English custom of inspecting and appraising a property to determine its value before accepting it for insurance. At the Board’s second meeting, the directors appointed two of their own members, Joseph Fox and Samuel Rhoads, as surveyors for the year, stipulating that at least one of them survey each house proposed for insurance. The surveyor was to make"a report in writing to the Clerk." These reports or surveys would then be discussed by the entire Board at its next meeting, which would determine the extent and rates of insurance. As compensation, the Board allowed the surveyor 2 shillings and sixpence for "Surveying and reporting the state of the Buildings to be Insured in one Policy."

The Philadelphia Contributionship Digital Archives: Introduction (2)
Benjamin Franklin's Wine Store
1752 Survey
The Philadelphia Contributionship Digital Archives: Introduction (3)
Archbishop's Residence, Philadelphia
1932 Survey

Early surveys contained a minimum of information: name of the owner (and often the tenant), the location, dimensions, and number of stories, building materials and a broad architectural description of the property. As the directors' and surveyors' experience with losses grew the surveys became somewhat more detailed. By the early nineteenth century the surveyors began to list various rooms in the houses, methods of construction and to describe in detail specific architectural features. Owners signed the survey, attesting to its veracity. As years passed, sketches or maps of the area often accompanied the surveys. The rise of photography in the late nineteenth century added a new facet to surveys. Photographs could show in detail those features, which were often so difficult to describe, and by 1910 these were a standard part of every survey. The twentieth century heralded in the era of standardized forms. Although surveys had always followed a set format, now all the surveyor needed to do in making his report was to list the dimensions, location, and underline the appropriate features. Together with a photograph these forms provided all the data needed to estimate the desirability of the risk, and the rates and amount of insurance needed.


The Philadelphia Contributionship was fortunate in its first surveyors. Joseph Fox and Samuel Rhoads were skilled master builders and would become future presidents of the Carpenters' Company, one of America's most prominent building guilds. Their successors were also members of the Carpenters' Company who, in addition to serving on the Board of Directors of The Philadelphia Contributionship, served the company on a free-lance basis. Besides surveying, they also assessed fire damages, carved shields for fire marks, installed the marks and in later years, handled fire repairs.

They kept accurate records of their surveys, filing loose records in one file and (from 1768 forward) keeping a second set of these in bound ledgers or survey books. They also kept separate account books, in which they listed the various properties inspected, the amount owed and the fees collected. Separate memorandum books list appointments, receipts of materials and repairs to properties.

Early surveyors included:

Joseph Fox & Samuel Rhoads

Although there was English precedent for surveying properties, Joseph Fox and Samuel Rhoads presumably designed the format for The Philadelphia Contributionship surveys. They worked together on the first ones as they assessed what was critical in the information. Both came from strong building backgrounds. Born in 1709, Joseph Fox was considered one of the city's most influential master builders, a title also allotted to Samuel Rhoads, born a few years later. Their paths crossed frequently; both were politically active and took a major role in civic affairs. Their participation in the formation and operation of the city's first insurance company was a natural role for each and they jointly served as Surveyors for the first ten years of the Company's existence.

Joseph Fox, Surveyor 1752-1762, Director, 1752-1762; 1767-1779.

  • Read a biography of Joseph Fox from the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings project.

Samuel Rhoads, Surveyor 1752-1762; Director, 1752-1762.

  • Read a biography of Samuel Rhoads from the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings project.

Gunning Bedford, Surveyor 1762-1802; Director, 1762-1802.

Gunning Bedford was a loyal and stalwart Surveyor for The Philadelphia Contributionship, beginning his association with the company at age 42 and remaining affiliated until his death in 1802. Bedford, a well-respected carpenter and builder, and influential member of The Carpenters' Company provided the continuity in this key aspect of the company's operations as he worked along side William Dillworth, Samuel Wetherill, Jr., Joseph Rakestraw and David Evans.

  • Read a biography of Gunning Bedford from the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings project.

William Dillworth, Surveyor 1762-1765; Director, 1762-1765.

William Dillworth (b. 1725, d. 1765), born in 1725 in Bristol Bucks County, married Ann Wood in 1747. He, too, was a member of the Carpenters' Company and is credited with the building of St. Paul's Church. John Logan also paid him for his assistance in building his back porch. He was appointed a Surveyor of The Philadelphia Contributionship in 1762 and elected to the Board. He died unexpectedly at the age of 40.

Samuel Wetherill, Jr., Surveyor 1765-1778; Director 1765-1778.

Samuel Wetherill replaced William Dillworth as a Surveyor for The Philadelphia Contributionship upon Dillworth's death in 1765. His election marked a major change. While undoubtedly a skilled carpenter, he was not a member of the Carpenters' Company, but instead was one of the organizers of the Friendship Carpenters' Company in 1769, a rival company of young Philadelphia carpenters. They issued their own price guide, one apparently at variance to that of the Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia. Samuel Wetherill was one of a group of men who framed the articles for the new company in 1769. He continued his survey work for The Philadelphia Contributionship until he moved out of the province in 1778. His removal was brief; in 1779 the Society of Friends disowned him for his role in the Revolutionary War, and he returned to Philadelphia to found the Society of Free Quakers in 1781. In the interim Wetherill had become a merchant, dealing in cloths, and in later years, chemicals.

Joseph Rakestraw, Surveyor 1778-1794; Director, 1778-1794.

Joseph Rakestraw, the nephew of Joseph Fox, was elected a Surveyor in 1778 when Samuel Wetherill, Jr., moved out of the province. He was not unknown to the company; as early as 1758 he began to make and erect the Company's fire marks. He continued this practice after his election as Surveyor and it became a part of the duties of the post, although he received an additional stipend for each mark erected. His tasks in early years were light; no new policies were written between August 21, 1778 and April 20, 1781, probably as a result of both the war and currency problems. Business revived in the 1780s and Rakestraw supplemented his income by doing some of the fire repairs himself. In addition to his work for The Philadelphia Contributionship, Rakestraw did the State House repairs in 1788 and helped with the construction of both the Library Company and the President's House. Rakestraw continued to perform surveys for The Philadelphia Contributionship until his death in 1794 from yellow fever.

  • Read a biography of Joseph Rakestraw from the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings project.

David Evans, Surveyor 1794-1810; Director, 1794-1809.

David Evans took over the work of Joseph Rakestraw in 1794, serving as a Surveyor with Gunning Bedford until Bedford died in 1802. The job of affixing fire marks fell to Evans as well as supervision of the repair of fire losses and procurement of materials. Evans also had a thriving career as a builder: major works he built or supervised include Pennsylvania Hospital, Fairhill, and City Hall. He frequently subcontracted The Philadelphia Contributionship's work to others, including his son David Evans, Jr.. In 1804, Evans wrote of recommending another distant relative and neighbor, John Evans, for repair work and in 1809, at the age of 76, relinquished his position as surveyor to him.

  • Read a biography of David Evans from the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings project.

John C. Evans, Surveyor 1809-1850; Director 1809-1819.

John C. Evans began his association with The Philadelphia Contributionship doing carpentry repairs for fire losses in 1805. He was elected to the Board of Directors in 1806 and in 1809 replaced David Evans as the company surveyor. Evans' long-time tenure as surveyor introduced a number of changes in the position. After 1819, he no longer served on the Board of Directors, becoming instead a "free-lance" Surveyor. He kept meticulous records, not only recording his surveys in books (until 1837) but also keeping detailed account books, a practice he seems to have begun in 1818. At that point he was to receive $3 for each survey made; $6 if insurance was effected. The additional $3 paid for the attaching of a fire mark and delivery of the policy. It may have been at this time that the policyholder signed the survey as well, indicating that it was an accurate description. Evans also noted on the survey if additional fees were to be paid for travel expenses.

In 1836 Evans was requested to report to the office on a daily basis. The use of badges or fire marks ceased around this time; subsequently Evans would receive $3 for each survey when the property was accepted for insurance as well as charges for all resurveys and surveys on non-insured properties. The Board, however, guaranteed him $500 per year, an amount that rose through the years. Surveys became more elaborate under his watch; as the Board recognized increased risks to document. In 1839 the Directors required that the Surveyor include an estimate of the probable value of the building to be insured along with the nature of the adjoining building. In 1842 wallpaper was to be mentioned and in 1844 it was agreed to cover the building and any fixtures in use, regardless of the purpose of the building. It therefore became essential to list anything of importance in the building including specific architectural and ornamental features.

John C. Evans died suddenly of a heart attack on June 9, 1850, at the age of 72. The Board, shocked at the news gathered at a special meeting to appoint a new Surveyor and record their sorrow at the death of their long-time colleague. As a mark of their esteem they directed that the next quarter of his salary due on June 24 be paid to his heirs along with an appropriation of up to $300 should any member of the family be in need. That sum was later paid to his oldest daughter, Mary Ann, and son, Morris.

Daniel R. Knight, Surveyor 1850-1868.

Daniel Knight (b. Circa 1797, d. 1871) was chosen to succeed John Evans, at a salary of $900 per year. Like most of his predecessors, Knight was a respected member of the Carpenters' Company (elected 1829), having served on the managing committee for a number of years. From the beginning of his tenure at The Philadelphia Contributionship the workload increased considerably, so much so that by 1852 the Directors raised his salary to $1200 per year. Prior to joining The Philadelphia Contributionship, Knight pursued an active career as a carpenter and builder. He lived on Cherry St, east of Ninth and erected a double row of buildings there known as Knights' Court. Knight retired from his position in 1868 for reasons of health and died in 1871. Fire insurance atlases were introduced during Knight's tenure, detailed block by block maps of the city showing risk information of value to property insurance companies including location descriptions, lot sizes landmarks, fire protection and prevention systems and they became tools the surveyors used heavily.

J. Louis Moore, Surveyor 1868-1889.

The last of the company surveyors with a Carpenter's Company connection, J. Louis Moore began his survey work for the company in 1868. He was the first to devote all of his time to The Philadelphia Contributionship and the Directors valued his service. He reinstated the idea of survey books, recording in them abbreviated surveys, some reports of fire losses, rebuilding costs, certificates of electricity and specific risks. Moore's declining strength necessitated the hiring of an assistant in 1885, and William W. Trapier was appointed. Trapier was responsible for surveys and whatever else the Secretary entrusted to him. While Moore retained the title of Surveyor, his duties were confined to whatever the Secretary felt was important. Four years later, on January 31, 1889, a train struck and killed Moore as he was walking on the tracks near Media Station. At the time of his death, a note to the family of William Sellers advising them that Mr. Moore was to make a survey of their house on Vine Street, was found in his pocket. The Board directed that Moore's salary for the remainder of the year be paid to his representatives and that an additional $250 be paid to his elderly sister, Anna Moore, and $250 to his niece, Mary E. Robertson who also served as his housekeeper.

William W. Trapier, Surveyor 1889-1905.

William Trapier was elected Assistant Surveyor, working under J. Louis Moore, in 1885, and upon Moore’s death in 1889, assumed the title of Surveyor. Trapier, an engineer, brought his new skills to the task of surveying and the Board took advantage of them. The survey now was to include the heating system, plate glass, extra finish, decorations etc. Trapier often included floor plans in his beautifully written surveys, which now extended through multiple pages. He traveled farther afield to do his work, as more Philadelphians moved to outlying areas. Bills for surveyors' carfare appear as incidental expenses in these years.

Burton D. Blair, Surveyor 1905-1944.

Yale educated, with a degree in engineering, Burton D. Blair spent most of his career at The Philadelphia Contributionship, beginning in 1902, as an assistant to William Trapier. Despite serving an apprenticeship under Trapier, Blair soon developed his own style, typing his surveys. In 1904 the company purchased a camera from the Photographic Supply House and soon both men were incorporating photographs into their surveys. Photographs provided sufficient detail that the Company soon felt comfortable switching to a standardized form for surveys. These forms contained much of the same information the surveyors were accustomed to recording: construction and architectural features, information about heating, lighting and cooling systems. All the Surveyor needed to do in making his report was to list the dimensions and underline the appropriate items on the form.They could also reference the insurance atlases, which provided substantial information about not only the risk but also the surrounding neighborhood. Blair was the first of the Surveyors to have a company car, emblazoned with the symbol of the four clasped hands on the side. He retired in 1944 at the age of 75.

The Philadelphia Contributionship Digital Archives: Introduction (2024)


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