Making Houses

Review: James McSwain on Donna Rilling

Donna J. Rilling, Making Houses, Crafting Capitalism: Master Builders in Philadelphia, 1790-1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. 261 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8122-3580-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James B. McSwain, Department of History, Tuskegee University.
Published by EH.NET, July 2001.

Donna Rilling, historian at SUNY Stony Brook, examines organized housing construction in Philadelphia in the first half of the nineteenth century. She looks at apprentices, journeymen carpenters, and entrepreneurs who erected, finished, and sold houses in dynamic and changing markets. Some became wealthy master builders, grasping the growing complexities of contracts and building codes, while making efficient use of labor and arranging advantageous supply contracts. Those who survived used credit, barter, and available cash to stay in business. Others never escaped their humble beginnings, ultimately succumbing to the instability and risks of the larger economy.

Rilling examines the careers of several construction tradesmen and builders to see how their careers fared. John Munday, for example, came to Philadelphia in 1793. Without cash he borrowed funds to acquire lots entailed by "ground rent," in which one paid a relatively small annual fee (rent) for a perpetual title. Beginning builders could then spend their limited capital on the construction of homes or buildings, that at sale provided funds to repay loans, satisfy material debts, and settle up the wages of daily workers. Munday built many residences, but generally mistimed the market and often had to sell off unfinished homes to pay creditors. War and economic downturns forced him into semi-retirement in 1798. He died in 1803 leaving his family an estate of less than $100.

In contrast Moses Lancaster, a Bucks County Quaker, came to Philadelphia in 1802 and quickly advanced to master carpenter using personal contacts and financial resources from the Friends' community. Lancaster repeatedly mortgaged property to obtain cash for new projects or to pay for labor or materials advanced in anticipation of housing sales. He kept certain properties, relying on the income they produced to stay afloat during hard economic times. When possible, Lancaster hired apprentices to lower his wages costs and employed journeymen by the day, by the job, or for a specific task to make their labor efficient. Lancaster bought and sold real estate, sold titles to raise cash, and obtained ground rents to supplement his income. In 1823 he purchased a lumber yard and branched out into the materials side of building, enabling him to cut project costs, swap supplies for labor with other carpenters, and get out from under the constant need for cash to do business. Despite his skills and contacts Lancaster suffered reverses in1828-30, and retired in 1841 to the countryside where he lived for many years on a modest income from rental properties. When he died in 1879 he was dependent upon the Carpenters' Company for daily needs. Lancaster's life in building makes clear the difficulties many men faced even when they achieved modest success as a master builder. His fortunes showed that many factors such as relationships, economic cycles, the scale of activities, the convergence of career stages and market developments, and diversity of interests, determined whether or not one could advance from apprentice to wealthy master builder in the construction business.

Rilling next addresses the issue of credit. Ground rent was an important form of credit and a key element in Philadelphia construction. In New York and Boston grantees obtained land without any entailment, but had to pay high prices for it. This meant merchant capitalists or established families completed most housing developments. But in Philadelphia an artisan or workingman could through ground rent gain access to land and build low-cost houses. It was in effect a loan upon which one paid only interest each year, though the rent payable could be transferred to others by sale, collateral, loans, or exchange.

The drive to accumulate and move up spurred many young builders and carpenters such as William Green, who had several cheap ground rent lots, to obtain mortgages from private capitalists to start homes. Brokers who arranged such transactions drafted contracts suited to increasingly intricate or legally complicated agreements. Though the grantors of ground rent and a mortgage might be different people, often it was the same person hoping to encourage property development. Successful financiers such as Isaac Lloyd advanced artisan builders weekly mortgage portions to cover wage and material expenses. If the builder got ahead of his cash allotments, he might resort to swapping labor, accepting promissory notes, or bartering favors to keep his crew working. Thisso-called Philadelphia credit system, as Rilling makes clear, eased "cash-flow problems," and promoted artisan cooperation, autonomy, and speculative development of affordable housing.

Chapter Four is about fundamental building materials -- lumber, brick, quicklime, and marble. As Rilling explains, it took enormous effort, and eventually large amounts of capital, to harvest, transport, and stockpile these heavy and bulky materials. Lumber demand drove suppliers deep into eastern forest belts. They exploited canals and rivers for transportation and developed several intermediary specialties in cutting, hauling, and rafting timber to urban markets. Simultaneously, the arrival of steam-powered saw mills affected prices and availability. Farmers with access to great stretches of trees and urban builders who combined their construction activities with lumber yards and finishing shops, were the principal sawmill operators by 1850 around Philadelphia and the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers. It represented a trend towards capital intensification. Mill equipment became quite expensive and required more capital, professional operators, and knowledgeable mechanics to pour out lumber, forcing consolidation of sawmill operations and retail lumberyards to remain price competitive and efficient.

After lumber the next most important building component was brick. Providentially for Philadelphia builders, an enormous bed of clay, sometimes only twelve feet below the surface, underlay much of the city. Laborers cut clay from the ground and from April to November turned it into bricks. Of the seven steps to produce finished bricks, molding was the most crucial. It demanded skilled, experienced workers to slam the clay down on tables into rectangular forms. Several days later laborers put the bricks into kilns, often 80,000 at a time, raised the temperature to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, and watched them carefully for at least forty-eight hours. This too took skill, for an improper burn produced unusable bricks that crumbled, had inconsistent texture, or were the wrong color. Demand for brick and the amount set aside for sale, in addition to production costs, determined final prices, so that brick makers had to keep an eye on local building trends to know how much clay to burn. The unpredictable nature of supplying builders with their materials, whether marble or timber, meant that "price, abundance, and quality" could change dramatically and create chances for gain or open the gate to failure for the workers and builders who participated in the dynamic Philadelphia construction market.

Rilling's final chapters focus on specialization and assembly. Many workers and masters survived the winter months, when it was too wet or cold to work outside, by mass-producing windows, door assemblies, staircasings, and cabinets. By 1850 skill divisions and the economies of scale situated many workers permanently in a subcontracting role, including full-time manufacturing of window sashes, stair balusters, door panels, and shutters. The easy transition from nailing up rafters to obtaining loans, swapping materials or notes of credit, visiting lumber yards, or making windows on rainy days that many laborers and carpenters took for granted from 1800 to 1830 gradually disappeared thereafter. It left many workers operating steam-driven joiners in a shop, supervising a job, or putting up a roof, but usually not all of these tasks.

Rilling closes her study by looking at carpenter Joseph Montgomery, who in 1849 started on a thirty-two row housing development in Philadelphia. Montgomery obtained lots on a ground-rent conveyance and borrowed one third of the project cost from George Cadwalader. Montgomery toiled for a year and a half organizing the work force, gathering materials, and securing fresh loans and prospective buyers for two parallel rows of sixteen, inexpensive homes. Shortage of materials, bad weather, labor conflicts, and mounting city regulation made it a difficult job. When winter hit, Montgomery moved his men indoors to lay floors, to tack wood laths on ceilings and brick for plastering, or to install pre-fabricated windows. Plastering, bricklaying, and painting came next but had to be adjusted to the weather to avoid high humidity or unseasonably cool temperatures. When the ground softened in the spring, Montgomery had laborers dig privies, one for every four houses, twenty-eight feet deep, about five feet in diameter, and brick-lined so they could be emptied repeatedly. Unfortunately, the general economy went sour by 1852. Montgomery had to sell the homes to his creditor, Cadwalader, for much less money than sales to the public might have raised. Montgomery continued to build and to work as a carpenter. He learned from his project that large-scale construction did not guarantee success, and that despite his inventiveness and diligence, the rhythms of the general economy and the ongoing difficulties of coordinating supplies, labor, and buyers could frustrate making a profit from "on-site assembly."

Rilling concludes that journeymen, master carpenters, and builders played a central role in the Philadelphia economy from 1790 to 1850. They participated creatively in the real estate business by obtaining land, credit, labor, and materials to build homes for new markets. They exemplified the nineteenth-century notion of "independent men." Yet, external and structural forces, including specialization, professionalism, the economies of scale, and capital intensification, plunged artisans into an economic turmoil of ubiquitous risk and frequent failure. Rilling's main point is that the experiences of these construction tradesmen showthat a central portion of antebellum urban workingmen willingly participated in the maturing capitalist economy without coercion from the captains of industry and finance.

Although Rilling is concerned with the day-to-day productive behavior of laborers, her book, nonetheless, touches upon broader issues addressed in contemporary works such as Robert J. Steinfeld's Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge 2001). Steinfeld demonstrates that free markets and labor contracts in nineteenth-century America often produced situations that by present day standards constituted "coerced contractual labor." This suggests that wage labor did not have a timeless quality making it by definition free from coercion, compulsion, or punishment. In comparison, Rilling underscores the independence enjoyed by Philadelphia construction workers and builders, despite the uncertainties of the market, that many industrial and agricultural workers, according to Steinfeld, never attained. She clearly documents that in the Philadelphia building industry unsettled markets, speculation, worker aspirations, capitalists, brokers, and suppliers, and a raft of economic forces and complex structural developments, made labor coercion difficult to implement. In fact it was impossible to maintain if individuals could risk labor and capital under the condition that they could find new employment, seek better working conditions, or secure a higher return on invested money, if they wished.

Rilling's book is clearly written and well researched. She uses many arcane court and civil records from Philadelphia and Chester counties to pull together the obscure details of artisan building careers and businesses. Her depiction of the daily struggles of journeymen and upstarts working carefully, planning, and maneuvering to construct homes tells the reader much about the organization of production, accumulation and disposal of capital, and nineteenth-century values and aspirations.

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Posted: 18 July 2001