221 Church Street’s Little Known Past – Old City Coffee
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221 Church Street’s Little Known Past

221 Church Street’s Little Known Past

One of the things our customers love about visiting our cafe, besides our great coffee and treats, is our beautiful, historic location on Church Street in Old City. Our sunny little cobblestoned street has been around since the first days of Philadelphia. Originally called Church Alley, it’s seen everything from founding fathers strolling to services at Christ Church, to being the picturesque background of countless photo shoots.

 

What many people don’t know is that our location was once home of the foremost banjo manufacturer in the country! From 1886–1899, the S.S. Stewart Banjo Manufacturer produced and retailed banjos, parts and music as well as printed and published the S.S. Stewart’s Banjo & Guitar Journal at 219, 221 and 223 Church Street. Today Stewart’s banjos are very collectible, considered to be some of the finest examples of the classical banjo. Samuel Swaim Stewart himself is remembered especially as a promoter of the banjo in popular culture and as an important innovator of the instrument’s form.

The earliest photo we’ve found of Church Street, c. 1890. At left 223 Church Street, middle and right, 221 and 219, now occupied by Old City Coffee. Photo courtesy of The Sibley Music Library of the Eastman School of Music from S.S.Stewart’s Banjo & Guitar Journal.

Masthead of the S.S. Stewart’s Banjo & Guitar Journal August 1889 courtesy of The Sibley Music Library of the Eastman School of Music.

Advertisement from S.S. Stewart’s Banjo & Guitar Journal August 1886 courtesy of The Sibley Music Library of the Eastman School of Music.

Rough Woodworking Department upstairs at Old City Coffee!

Detail of a fine Stewart Banjo.

Stewart, born in Philadelphia in 1855, was a music enthusiast from a young age reportedly tinkering with instruments of all sorts before settling on the banjo as his primary interest. He set his sights on popularizing the banjo among the middle class.

“Toward this end, Stewart built a large manufactory where he oversaw the production of thousands of quality instruments that satisfied the customers’ desires for goods that signaled their newly acquired wealth and leisure. He also developed an extensive publishing empire through which he tirelessly proselytized for the banjo in general and his instruments in particular, assuring his readers (and would be customers) that to own and play a Stewart banjo marked them as tasteful, sophisticated consumers.” –America’s Instrument, The Banjo in the 19th Century by Philip Gura and James Bollman

Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal (published from 1884-1899) reveals a fascinating personality and reads as a contemporary blog. In it, he writes on the history of the banjo, DIY repairs, technique for musicians and includes articles on musicians, letters, business news, classifieds, obituaries, cartoons, fiction, poetry and pages of sheet music. Most funny are his rants about other popular manufacturers, imitators, the Philadelphia post office, and his customers who he sometimes refers to as “The Cranks of the Banjo World”. Raves and advertisements are included as well, and are often humourously immodest self-promotions.

In 1884 Stuart moves his business to Church Street from 412 N. Eighth, publishing the following humble notice of removal in his Journal

“Owing to the enormous increase in the sale of my Parlor, Concert and Orchestra Banjos and new patent Banjeaurines, and also the great increase in demand for my celebrated Banjo Books, Music Songs, Charts, etc., as well as the constant increase in the circulation of the now widely-read and well-known Banjo and Guitar Journal, I have been obliged to seek more commodious accommodations in all the various departments of my growing business. I have therefore removed my establishment from the building formerly occupied by me at No. 412 N. Eighth Street, to the commodious four-story building situated at No. 223 Church Street, Philadelphia. Church Street, in which millions of dollars of business is done annually, is situated in the heart of the business centre. It lies between the broad thoroughfares of Market and Arch streets, running east and west, parallel with them. It was named from the grand old building known as Christ Church, where General Washington used to attend services, and which is situated on the corner of Second and Church Streets.
My Banjo manufactory proper, occupies the entire fourth floors of the three buildings, Nos. 219, 221 and 223 Church Street, whilst the balance of building No. 223 Church Street is occupied as follows:
First Floor.—Store and Counting House.
Second Floor.—Office, Packing Department and storage of Music and other Printing.
Third Floor.—Music Plate Printing Department, for printing Banjo Music, with Presses, etc. therefor.
Fourth Floors of Entire Three Buildings.—Banjo Manufactory, etc.
Basement (under the store).—Used for Storing Packing Cases, Coal and other materials.
The high rents, tax rates, as well as high rates of insurance, have prevented any other musical instrument manufacturer from entering this locality.”

Stewart was certainly right about Church Street being a hubub of commerce as this Insurance map from 1897 shows. While anchored by Christ Church at the east and the sugar refinery at the west, other Church Street neighbors include mill and dye suppliers, a paper box factory, book factory, cloth and shirt cutter, furniture and clothing makers, an umbrella factory and yes-you guessed it-a coffee roaster! Unfortunately, no name is given for the coffee roaster, but it appears on the 4th floor of 236 Church Street.

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Natalie Butts vocalist November 26 3 p.m. in the Cafe Gratis for cafe patrons.