Carpenters' Hall

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An 18th-century "Safety Net"

Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia
Colonial schoolmaster and student. The Carpenters' Company not only helped educate children of deceased members but often found them positions as apprentices.

Retirement, pensions, life insurance and government assistance of any sort were unknown to 18th-century Philadelphians. Few men could afford to retire; most worked as long as they were able. Their care and eventually that of the widow and children fell to friends, religious organizations or for the poor, the almshouse.

Not so, however, for members of the Carpenters' Company. Dues and income from real estate investments proved a lifeline for more than one master builder and his family. As late as 1926, three women were on the "widows list for assistance."

Here is the story of one family, the Derbyshires. John Derbyshire was elected to the Company in 1799, one year before the federal government relocated from Philadelphia to the as yet un-named city on the banks of the Potomac. That same year, shortly before Christmas, the nation mourned the death of its first president.

Less than ten years after his election, Derbyshire — then living near 8th and Spruce Sts. — fell on hard times, possibly because of illness. The Minutes of the Managing Committee tell how, for 13 years, the Company provided a "safety net" for Mr. and Mrs. Derbyshire, as well as their three children.

1809 — Two members of the Managing Committee to visit the Derbyshires and "offer relief should they be in want." Later, the Committee authorizes payment to John Derbyshire for becoming caretaker of the Hall. Compensation is "$20 per quarter with house rent, fire and wood."

Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia.
Betsy Ross, America's best known woman entrepreneur, operated her famed upholstery shop on Arch St. without assistance from the Company. Elizabeth Griscom (her maiden name) was three times a widow but none of her husbands was a member. Hence she would have failed to qualify for aid. Both her father Samuel, and Tobias, her grandfather, were members.

1811 — "$20 for the relief of John Derbyshire ... $10 for walnut coffin for Mr. Derbyshire ... $6 for winding sheet and laying out of Mr. Derbyshire... $11 sundry expenses for John Derbyshire, deceased."

1813 — Shortly after her husband's death, Ann assumed his responsibilities at the Hall. A typical entry: "$18 for two months' salaries and sundries."

1814 — Of equal importance to the Company was the welfare and education of the three Derbyshire children — Mary Ann, Caroline and Alexander. Again, the Minutes tell the story: "A committee is appointed to furnish the children of Mrs. Derbyshire with such clothing they may stand in need of."

"Tuition of Derbyshire children, $12.17."

1819-1822 — Until her death in 1821, the Company continued to employ Mrs. Derbyshire at the Hall and pay for her children's education. Some entries:

"$6.50 schooling for Alex Derbyshire."

"$10 to pay for Mary Ann Derbyshire learning a trade."

The final entry: "$8 advanced to widow Derbyshire's daughter to learn a trade."

The concluding entry in the Minutes is not the end of the story. Alexander James Derbyshire made good use of his education to become a prosperous Philadelphia merchant. Possibly out of gratitude for assistance given his family, Mr. Derbyshire made this bequest: "I give and bequeath unto the Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia, of which my deceased father was a member, the sum of one thousand dollars ..."


Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Open free to the public daily, except Mondays (and Tuesdays in Jan. and Feb.), from 10am-4pm

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