William Russell Birch. “Jail in Walnut Street Philadelphia.” From the City of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia: 1804. Second edition. 8 ¼ x 10 5/8 (image). Engraving by W. Birch. Hand color. Faint mat burn in margins. Old glue stains in top and left margins not affecting image. 20th century paper backing. Else, good condition.
The Walnut Street Jail was built 1773-76 and demolished about 1835. It stood directly behind Independence Hall.
When issued in 1799-1800, William Birch’s prints of Philadelphia formed the first series of views of any American city. As the first comprehensive picture of an American city, illustrating its buildings and street life, this work is of great historical importance. The superior quality of the work is evidenced in its scope of conception, the artistic excellence of the prints, and their fine execution. The prints provide a unique visual record of Philadelphia at a time when it was the most important and sophisticated city in the western hemisphere, and for a time was the capital of the newly formed United States. Each print shows a scene of the vibrant city, with the buildings providing a stately backdrop for the bustling activity that characterized Philadelphia, thus presenting both a physical picture of the city and a feel for its texture and vitality.
The project of producing this series was carried out entirely in Philadelphia, and while many other individuals had a role, including Birch’s son Thomas who provided many of the original drawings, the prints were mostly the product of the efforts of William Birch. Not only did he conceive and plan the project, but he also drew many of the scenes and did much of the engraving and publishing. The first edition, published in 1799-1800, included 27 plates engraved by S. Seymour, and it was a great success, its subscription list numbering 156, including Thomas Jefferson. The print thus gives us a rare and privileged view of a fascinating but lost part of Philadelphia history.
Other prints by William Birch: