Chestnut Street near Second Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The view looking east on Chestnut Street, between Second and Letitia Streets in Philadelphia, around 1842-1845. Image taken by William G. Mason, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2019:

As with the image in the previous post, the first photo here was taken by William G. Mason, in the early years of photography. It was possibly taken on the same day as the image in the other post, and it shows a similar scene; it was taken only about 50 yards east of the other photo. However, unlike that photo, which is a photograph of the original image, this photo here is the original daguerreotype taken in the 1840s, so it has a much higher image quality.

The first photo here shows a mix of commercial buildings on the north side of Chestnut Street, extending all the way down to the Delaware River in the distance. Most were likely built in the early 19th century, although it is possible that some of them, especially the shorter ones, might date back to the 18th century. Several signs are legible, including two on the three-story brick building on the left with the arched doorway. As indicated by the signs, this building was occupied by wine and liquor dealer John Gibson. Further to the right, the small two-story building has a partially-legible sign advertising lunch and oysters, and even further in the distance is a sign that reads “Refrigerators.” This likely referred to ice boxes, which became popular during this period due to the growth of the commercial ice industry in the United States.

Just a few years after the first photo was taken, the building on the left suffered a fire that destroyed much of John Gibson’s liquor business. The fire, which occurred on the morning of September 26, 1846, started in the distillery in the rear of the property. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, some of the liquor boiled over, igniting nearby flammable materials and spreading to the building here on Chestnut Street. Firefighters were able to contain the fire, which did not fully engulf this building or spread to its neighbors. However, Gibson’s still was almost entirely destroyed, as was some of the liquor that he was producing.

Today, nearly 180 years after the first photo was taken, the streetscape here is not dramatically different. This block of Chestnut Street is still lined with historic 19th century brick commercial buildings, and even the street itself is still paved with cobblestones. However, the buildings themselves are different; all of the ones from the first photo appear to have either been demolished or heavily altered at some point in the 19th century. Based on their ornate facades, the brick building on the left and the two just to the right of the center are clearly from the late 19th century, and the one that is partially visible on the extreme left was built in the early 20th century. The only possible survivors from the foreground of the first photo are the two matching five-story buildings in the center of the 2019 photo. They have similar architecture to the ones in the first photo, it is possible that one or both of these might have been built in the first half of the 19th century and subsequently altered.

Chestnut and Second Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Looking east on Chestnut Street from the corner of Second Street in Philadelphia, around 1843. Image is an 1859 photographic reproduction of a daguerreotype taken around 1843. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

This is likely the oldest historic photo that I have featured on this blog, dating back to the very early years of photography. The actual photographic print was made around 1859 by Frederick De Bourg Richards, but the image appears to have been from a daguerreotype taken around 1843 by William G. Mason. Daguerreotypes were the first commercially successful photographic medium, producing high-resolution images that rivaled even modern digital cameras. However, daguerreotypes were also difficult to reproduce, as the process yielded only a single image on glass. Unlike later plate glass negatives, which could be used to create any number of prints at varying sizes, daguerreotypes could not be directly converted into prints; the only way to duplicate one was to photograph the original, and then make prints of that photograph. The above photo was one such example of this, ensuring the preservation of the image even though the original daguerreotype might very well be lost to history by now.

This image, along with several others taken by Mason during the 1840s, shows one of the earliest photographic glimpses of the streets of Philadelphia. At the time, the buildings along this block of Chestnut Street were predominantly brick commercial buildings, probably built early in the 19th century. The buildings occupied relatively narrow lots, with most being only three window bays in width, and almost all of them are either three or four stories in height. Aside from the two buildings in the foreground, most have pitched roofs. This was fairly typical for commercial buildings of the era, although by the second half of the 19th century flat roofs became more common. Because this image is a photograph of a photograph, there is not much fine detail, and only one sign is readily legible: an awning on the fourth building from the foreground, which identifies it as a leather store.

The buildings in the foreground appear to have been demolished within a few decades after the first photo was taken, in order to construct a building for the Corn Exchange Bank. This was subsequently demolished around 1900, and replaced with the highly ornate Corn Exchange National Bank building in the present-day scene. The building originally consisted of just the section closest to the corner of Chestnut and Second Streets, but it was steadily expanded during the early 20th century, eventually reaching its current form in the early 1930s.

Today, nearly 180 years after the first photo was taken, this scene still consists of historic, low-rise commercial buildings. However, it seems unclear as to whether any of the buildings from the first photo have survived, or if they were all replaced later in the 19th century. Beyond the Corn Exchange Bank, most of the other current buildings have relatively ornate exteriors, suggesting that they were either built or heavily altered during the second half of the 19th century. However, two of these buildings—located at 117 and 119 Chestnut Street—have much more plain exteriors, so it is possible that they may have been built prior to the first photo and expanded over the years.

Bellows Falls Stage House, Bellows Falls, Vermont

The Bellows Falls Stage House, at the northeast corner of Bridge Street and the Square in downtown Bellows Falls, around the 1840s or 1850s. Image courtesy of the Rockingham Free Public Library.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in a previous post, Bellows Falls was the site of the first bridge across the Connecticut River, at a spot just to the east of here, where the river passes through a narrow gorge. The bridge opened in 1785, and by the early 19th century the village occupied an important position along the major trade routes from Boston to Montreal and other points to the north. This led to several different hotels here in the center of the village, in order to serve the stagecoach traffic that passed through here.

Among these hotels was the Bellows Falls Stage House, shown here in the first photo at the corner of Bridge Street and the Square. It was constructed by Colonel Ethan B. Webb and Solomon Snow in 1816, and it was known as Webb’s Hotel. However, they sold it just four years later to John Robertson, and it became Robertson’s Hotel. It would see several more name and ownership changes in the first half of the 19th century, but it was most commonly known as the Stage House, because of its popularity as a stop on the stagecoach routes.

The hotel originally had two stories, but a third story was added in 1834 after Colonel Russell Hyde purchased the property. According to the 1907 book History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont, the first photo was taken around this time, but this is highly improbably, since daguerreotypes were not even invented until 1839. In all likelihood, it was probably taken sometime around the late 1840s or early 1850s. The same book also names the people who are sitting on the front porch in the photo, as identified by Colonel Hyde’s daughter. These identifications probably came many years after the photo was taken, and may or may not be accurate, but according to the book they are, from left to right, “Hon. William Henry, Judge Horace Baxter, William ‘Fred’ Hall, Col. N. T. Sheafe and the boy ‘Jimmie’ Mead.”

The last owner of the Stage House was Charles Towns, who purchased it in July 1859. He did not have it for very long, though, because it was destroyed in a fire on March 14, 1860. It began in a nearby drugstore, and it spread throughout much of the village center, burning a print shop, the post office, a lawyer’s office, and several stores, along with the hotel and its stables. It caused an estimated $40,000 in damage, about $1.1 million today, but there was evidently no loss of life in the fire.

Charles Towns later built a new, much larger hotel on this site. Originally known as the Towns Hotel, and later the Hotel Windham, it opened in 1873. However, it also suffered from a series of fires, burning in 1899, 1912, and 1932. After the last fire, the ruins were completely demolished. A new Hotel Windham was completed here in 1933, and it still stands here today. Although no longer in use as a hotel, it remains an important commercial block in the center of the village, and it is a contributing property in the Bellows Falls Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

US Capitol East Face, Washington DC

The east face of the US Capitol, as seen in 1846. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Daguerreotype Collection.

1840s

The scene in 2018:

This is probably the oldest photo I’ve posted so far on this blog, and it illustrates just how many changes have been made to the US Capitol since it opened in 1800.  In fact, the Capitol of 1846 was very different from the original building – it was heavily damaged in 1814 when the British burned much of Washington.  By 1826, it had been reconstructed, this time with the central dome and the rotunda underneath it.

By 1850, construction began on the expansion of the building – the original legislative chambers were no longer big enough for the senators and representatives of the newly-formed states, so the present-day chambers were added on in new wings.  The original chambers are still there, and the location can still be seen in the 2012 photo, to the left and right of the dome.  The dome itself it probably the most obvious change – the newly-expanded building looked rather silly with such a short dome, so it was rebuilt between 1855 and 1866.

One difference that isn’t as noticeable is the front portico and the columns.  Although they appear to be the same, the entire east portico was expanded and rebuilt 32 feet 6 inches outward, starting in 1958.  During this expansion, the columns themselves were replaced, and the original ones are now on display at the National Arboretum a little over 2 miles away.