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AN OLD HOUSE TALKS
Here is a story my old house told me:
"BE CAREFUL-On Saturday last, a woman in Second Street, undertook to quench her thirst by taking a drink with her mouth placed over the nozzle. She soon found that she got something in her mouth more substantial than water, when, ejecting it, it was found to be nothing more or less than a young eel two or three inches in length."
The story is from the "City Gleanings" column in the "Public Ledger" newspaper we discovered in our house on Green Street.
It was on a hot August day. We were in the attic crawl space preparing to blow in insulation. The attic looked barren when we bought the house but today we were using a flashlight. We were sweating profusely, and very dirty.
In one of the tiny chambers between the roof and the ceiling we pulled up the local newspaper from November 9, 1841.
Workmen builing the house must have left it on top of the wooden lattice. Then they coated the lattice with plaster and horsehair to make the ceiling. The newspaper had lain there undisturbed for over a hundred and twenty-five years!
The stories in the paper help us reach back into the daily lives of the people who lived in our house when it was first built. Its four pages are filled with what worried people, entertained them, and the events in the world.
In those days, the news is about muggings, the Barbary pirates, an epidemic of yellow fever in New Orleans, and anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant tension in the city. Testimony is presented from the trial of John Frederick Oschman and Nicolaus Reinhardt for the murder of Jacob Crist.
A wet nurse, with references, has posted a situations wanted. Employers are seeking hat trimmers and coachman. There are lots of ads for tonics, lozenges, and expectorants that are guaranteed to cure the gout, worms, baldness, etc. "French Lunar" pills are $1 a box and come with a $500 challenge if proved to be a "quack nostrum".
Tickets are for sale to theatre, poetry readings, and demonstrations of hypnotism ("animal magnetism"). Price: twenty-five cents. Prices are also listed from the Philadelphia exchange of stocks, currencies (both foreign and domestic) and commodities. Many farms are for sale. A 12 acre one in Haverford lists for $3000. Brick homes in the city range from $960 to $15,000 and are sold "on accommodating terms".
Newspapers in those days were printed on rag paper, not modern newsprint which turns brittle and falls apart. This meant we were able to clean and frame our find. The November 9,1841 Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper now hangs in our hallway and interests every visitor who has a curiosity about the past.
Old houses can yield their stories in various ways. One day I noticed how wide the gaps were between the floorboards of our coat closet. This was in the one area of the first floor that was not open directly to the basement below. It was over a false basement ceiling. I pried up some of the closet's floorboards and removed a bucket of dust and dirt. Carefully sifted, it surrendered several attractive buttons and two half-cent coins dated 1801 and 1821. After this find I looked carefully at our other closets but there are no gaps between the boards.
Also, the basement had a dirt floor. When it was dug up to be cemented a dozen old glass bottles were unearthed. The little garden area yielded many attractive marbles and one small bronze sculpture of a seated naked woman.
In the local library I looked at a book on the value of collectibles. None of these finds are worth any serious money but their value is the story they tell about our home.
City Hall is another place to learn something about your home. The Department of Records keeps a microfilm picture of every deed, and every transfer of ownership, of every property in Philadelphia going back almost to the beginning.
To search for when your house was first sold, and to find out who owned it in the past, go to room 154. This is on the first floor of City Hall, on the West side of the portal that leads to South Broad Street.
My first visit here was right after we found the old newspaper. The process of discovery took less than an hour and it confirmed 1841 as the first time the house was sold. It also listed a progression of German and Jewish surnames on a half dozen deeds since then.
One time our house was recorded as being sold for $1. I learned that this has been a common practice when the house is transferred within a family and/or without being taxed.
I recently went back and checked out the process again. Anyone can still have access to the microfilm but all records before 1950 are now stored near 30th and Market. However, the search still begins at room 154. And the doors open at 8 AM.
Owners are not necessarily residents. If you want a lot of information on who actually lived in your house a long time ago you need to look at the Census. A friend of ours went to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and gave us an "Historic Property Certificate" from there about our house.
She found our house in the 1880 census. The residents listed are Charles and Fredericca Widmaier, both age 51. Charles was a bookkeeper in a Brewery and Mrs. Widmaier's occupation is listed as "keeping house". They had five daughters ages nine to 21 who also lived in our house.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is the place to access old census reports. They are open Tuesday to Saturday 10AM to 2 PM except Wednesday, when they are open 2PM to 8:45 PM. All researchers are charged a $6 fee
The day we bought our old row home in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties neighborhood I went into the attic, found it empty, and was very disappointed. I'm glad I never stopped looking for treasure here, and for all the stories this old house has told me.