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The Lewis Albums

May 2024
6min read

In the closing years of his life, around the turn of this century, a Philadelphia banker named George Albert Lewis compiled a truly remarkable series of family albums. He and his wife Anne (their pictures appear on pages 76 and 80), in setting out to record for their grandchildren the story of their forebears and the homes they had inhabited, were merely obeying an urge common to many elderly people. But Albert Lewis brought special skills and imagination to the task. First, he was unusually observant. Second, he was a gifted water-colorist. His delicate, endlessly delightful paintings, scattered throughout the albums amid all the daguerreotypes and old clippings, provide the viewer with a fascinating insight into the life and ways of nineteenth-century urban American society. On these pages A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents paintings and illustrations from two of the books—one written (in longhand) by Albert, the other by his wife, but both illustrated by him. The title page of one of them appears above.

Lewis, born in 1829, was the youngest son of a prosperous merchant engaged in the China trade. Early in life he took it upon himself to act as family historian, and if he had not himself seen a certain house, he collected information about it that would enable him to sketch it. Starting with the homes owned by his grandfather just after the American Revolution, he portrays the Philadelphia houses and offices of the Lewises over a period of more than a century.

The story of the Lewis family in this country begins with Albert’s grandfather, Johann Andreas Philipp Ludwig, who was born in Crailsheim in the duchy of W’rttemberg and came to America during the Revolutionary War as a soldier in one of the Hessian regiments hired by the British. The events that ensued are heralded in one of the Lewis albums by a device (left) bearing stars with letters spelling out the home base of the regiment, Anspach. There is also a painting of young Ludwig in his regimental uniform (opposite). In 1783, during the last months of the war, as Albert Lewis recounts the tale in his meticulous hand (above), the Anspach unit was encamped near Philadelphia, and it happened that Ludwig at this time fell seriously ill. He was thereupon entrusted for care to a local German-American family named Klingemann. One of its daughters, Anna Maria Klingemann, helped nurse him back to health, and as Albert puts it, “As the days wore on his recovery was complete. Hence, the old, old story. Gratitude—regard—love.”

Back with his regiment again, Ludwig made a great decision. Although a post in his government in Germany was being held for him—the Ludwig family had a tradition of public service, and Johann’s younger brother was at that time Royal Bavarian Privy Councillor—he chose instead to remain in the United States. He resigned from his regiment, and two years later, in 1785, he and Anna Maria were married. Ludwig changed his name to Lewis and settled down in Philadelphia to begin a busy life in the new nation.

1st Generation

The first house owned by Johann Ludwig—now Johann Lewis—in Philadelphia was a neat two-story brick dwelling on North Fifth Street, which he and his wife purchased in 1791. His grandson Albert, in describing the sketch he made of the house years later (above), remarks that the location was an excellent one on the edge of town, “away from the whirl and bustle of the…city.” Lewis had taken employment as a prothonotary—a kind of clerk, or notary—in the city government, and his rising stature and success prompted him and his wife to move in 1797 to a larger residence (left) at 60 North Fourth Street. There Lewis carried on his duties as clerk and “scrivener” from an office on the ground floor. For a time in the late 1790's a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia forced the family to move out of town, but Lewis would return whenever his signature was needed on some official document. The family was still living in the Fourth Street house when German-born Johann Lewis died there in 1803.

2nd Generation

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).

The Family Business

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.

Grand Surroundings on Second Street

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.”

A Happy Philadelphia Boyhood

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.”

3rd Generation

In 1841, with the Second Street neighborhood becoming commercial, the Lewises sold No. 148 and moved to a house at the corner of Walnut and Sixteenth Streets, which was “furnished newly and handsomely, with decorations in the latest style.” Atop the coachhouse stood a three-foot-high carved wooden weathervane (right) representing a Prussian dragoon, whose paddles indicated the direction and force of the wind. It was in the Walnut Street house that Albert Lewis began married life, for in 1851 he wed Anne Larcombe, a clergyman’s daughter, and for four years they lived in the third-floor front room (above). It was a happy time for them, for they had glorious afternoons boating on the Schuylkill (opposite), and in 1854 their first child, Alberta, was born (“during an eclipse of the moon!”). But the 1850’s were also a time of change for the Lewises. The China trade had been dwindling, and in 1856 the family firm closed down; Albert Lewis went into banking. His father died in 1858, and later that year the Walnut Street house was sold. Meanwhile, Albert and Anne had moved to their own home.

The house at 325 South Eighteenth Street to which Albert and Anne Lewis moved in 1855 is described in the Lewis album that was written by Anne herself. “Here twenty years of our life were to be passed,” she wrote, “but we thought little of the future then, the present was enough for us…Our new home was of moderate size and plainly built, yet we made it very pretty with but small expenditure.” For her volume, her husband did a painting of the parlor (opposite), also including a piece of the handsome green damask that they used for the curtains, for the furniture coverings, and for inlaid panels below the windows. Anne tells of the birth of their second child, Hermann; of the excitement and anxiety of the Civil War and the sorrow at Lincoln’s death (below); and of the fun the whole family had in the wintertime going out on the horse-drawn trolley cars to ice skate at Eastwick Park. The family lived on Eighteenth Street until 1874.

A Growing Household

An Epilogue

Late in 1874 the Lewises bought their final home, at Number 1834 Delancey Place. Their children married and moved away, and presently there were grandchildren—for whom these albums were prepared. Anne died in 1898; Albert (below) lived on until 1915. One grandchild, Hildegarde Allen, shown at right in the small photograph, today owns one of the Lewis albums. The little boy beside her, her brother “Fritz,” grew up to cover the family with national distinction. As the great Harper’s Magazine editor, author, and popular historian Frederick Lewis Allen, he wrote about the hectic America of the 1930’s and 40’s (in such famous social histories as Only Yesterday and The Big Change ), much as his grandparents had done about a happy private family in quiet Philadelphia long ago.

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