- Historic Sites
The Lewis Albums
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
With Johann’s son John, born in 1791, wealth and social position came to the Lewis family. Not only did John F. Lewis do well early in life in the burgeoning China trade (next page), but he was evidently an extremely personable young man —so much so that at age twenty, he was able to persuade Eliza Mower, twenty-three, to marry him over the strong objections of her own family (who had intended her for a rich gentleman). John and Eliza in 1814 moved into a pleasant three-story house at 82 North Second Street (above). But improving business conditions and an expanding family—three sons had arrived —led the Lewises in 1818 to move to a finer establishment, at 124 South Third Street (right). There two more sons were born, and Albert relates that when General Lafayette visited Philadelphia in 1824 the Lewises entertained him. John and Eliza lived at No. 124 until late in 1824, when their increasing affluence enabled them to buy the grand new house where Albert Lewis himself was born (pp. 72–73).
There was much money to be made in the early nineteenth century importing tea, silks, and other items from China to the eastern United States. John F. Lewis rose rapidly in the employ of Silas Weir, until in 1825 the firm became known as Weir, Lewis & Co. Then disaster struck. In the panic of 1828 the company was all but wiped out; Weir himself died two weeks after the failure. Nothing daunted, John Lewis went into business for himself, paid back all the old firm’s debts, and proceeded on to new heights of prosperity.
At times the company had more than a dozen ships (listed opposite), which would sail out to China, perhaps carrying Spanish dollars (below, left), then return to Philadelphia in the charge of one or another of Albert’s older brothers as “supercargoes.” The ships would dock near the Lewis headquarters (left), and their goods, each marked with the Lewis chop, or trademark, (below) would be duly recorded in the company’s counting room (opposite) for sale in American markets.
The commodious house at 149 South Second Street, where the Lewises lived between 1824 and 1841, was a splendid establishment. Its large back-yard garden had an elaborate summerhouse (top) where young Albert could play, and it was also an ideal place for setting off fireworks recently shipped in from China; dinner guests could watch the display from the back-parlor window. A hoist lifted hogsheads of wine to the attic for storage. But most remarkable of all was a huge buttonwood tree nearly nine feet in diameter (opposite) that towered over the neighborhood. The sound of wind through its branches, Albert later remembered, was “like the roar of the surf.”
The ample interiors of the Second Street house were the subjects of some of the best water colors in the Lewis albums. They also evoked some entertaining memories on the part of Albert Lewis as, years later, he recalled his own boyhood. He remembered standing with his mother at a high dormer window, looking out over the rooftops and watching for one of the Lewis ships arriving up the Delaware from Canton. His parents gave large parties, and Albert describes the “many beautiful ladies in full evening dress sweeping through those large and elegant parlors and hall, in the flickering yellow light of numerous candles.…” He would venture out from his bed to sit on the stairs, and “hold my breath to listen to the music and singing. When if discovered by a maid—woe would be me!” His fondest recollections, however, were those of Christmas, “When the garden and yard were banked high with snow, and the winter’s blast roared through the branches of the great tree. When my dear Mother gave me a big stocking, and helped me hang it up in the chimney of her room for Kris Kringle to fill with toys and candy. Oh! the bliss of that old Christmas morning hour—when my eyes first beheld that wellfilled stocking…fairly stuffed and bulging with toys and good things…I affirm without fear of error, that was for me, and must have been for my precious parents, one of the happiest days in the old home life in 2d Street.”