The Company

Some 150 men and women, all of them prominent architects, building contractors or structural engineers, carry on the 300-year tradition of The Carpenters' Company of the City and County of Philadelphia — giving form to the future. From the 18th-century members who erected Independence Hall, Christ Church and Carpenters' Hall to the members of today, innovation in design and technical achievement have contributed to their pre-eminent reputation.

The Mission of The Carpenters' Company of the City and County of Philadelphia

To preserve and maintain historic Carpenters' Hall;

To interpret for the public the significant events that took place in or around the Hall and the history of building construction;

To preserve the history and traditions of the Company;

To provide a forum of professional association and fellowship for builders, architects, and engineers;

To provide encouragement, education, and support for men and women entering the construction industry;

To develop and maintain professional relations with other organizations who have similar interests;

To encourage support, research, and publication of history relating to the Company and its members and to the development of building construction and architecture.

900 Members... 300 Years


Just inside the entrance to the Hall and to the left are pictured most of the 900-plus members who for three centuries have shaped the structures of Philadelphia and its environs. Not shown are the illustrious early members who lived before the era of photography and could not afford portraits. Nevertheless they were giving form to Penn's "greene country towne" prior to the Company's founding in 1724. One of the earliest future members was James Portues, an apprentice carpenter who stepped ashore from the ship "Welcome" with William Penn in 1682. Later he erected the house (now the site of Welcome Park on Second St. just above Walnut) where Penn lived during part of his second visit.

In modern usage the name "Carpenters' Company" is misleading; members were neither carpenters as such nor were they a company. Certainly, they were skilled craftsmen who, for example, created much of the fine woodwork for the State House (Independence Hall) and — on short notice — built a highly imaginative parade float designed by artist Charles Willson Peale for the parade on July 4, 1788, celebrating the Constitution's ratification. But their unique talent lay in drawing plans for a building, hiring bricklayers, glaziers and carpenters, then supervising construction and engineering. They were truly "Master Builders" and referred to themselves as such.

Although they had officers, committees and rules for membership, the men used the term "company" in the old English sense of an association. Early members emigrated from England and were well acquainted with London's Worshipful Company of Carpenters, rooted in the medieval trade guild tradition.

Eighteenth-century Philadelphia benefited from a unique combination of Quaker fairness and geology. Many early members were Quakers who strongly believed a worker should be paid fairly for his labor but, equally important, should give good value. Their credo found expression in the Carpenters' Company Rule Book which used a form of "unit pricing" to set the cost of every stage in construction. Bricks were not imported, they were made in local brickyards. This city is not built on bedrock — as is New York — but on the outwash plain of the Appalachian mountains. Clay beds, the raw material of bricks, are just beneath the surface.

Innovation has been a Company hallmark from the eighteenth century to the twenty first.

Christ Church steeple, designed by Company member Robert Smith, was for decades the city's tallest landmark. Smith used ships' "knees" to brace the tower and employed shipwrights in 1754 to erect it.

In the 19th century, Company members specialized in home-building, reflecting the city's growth. Mansions along Broad Street for newly-minted industrialists and block upon block of row houses — all were in demand. One member (George Harmstad) in 1830 built for himself one of the area's first houses in the new Victorian style.

The 20th and 21st centuries also have witnessed innovations.

  • the first Philadelphia skyscraper erected with an interior steel frame.
  • the nation's first baseball stadium built with reinforced concrete.
  • concrete delivered by the truck-load in "ready-mix" vehicles to form the city's first subway.
  • designs for a new generation of high-speed transcontinental passenger trains.
  • the country's greatest number of former office towers transformed by "adaptive re-use" as premier hotels and apartment houses.
  • company involvement in the cities “greenest” buildings & sustainable building practices.
  • construction of the tallest building in Pennsylvania, the Comcast Technology Center.

Wherever you travel in the region, Carpenters' Company members continue to shape the future.

How We Got Our Name

The complete ten-word name of the Company – probably a record-breaker – fills two lines within the gilded frame which encloses the membership list.

The complete ten-word name of the Company – probably a record-breaker – fills two lines within the gilded frame which encloses the membership list.

History is to blame. The name "Carpenters' Company," in modern terms, is a complete misnomer. There are no carpenters among its members, nor is it a company. Quarterly meetings of the membership are attended by architects, building contractors and structural engineers. Each is a principal in a company of their own. In the 18th century, members modestly described themselves as "house carpenters" and were indeed skilled craftsmen. Unlike today's members, they combined the talents of architect, contractor and engineer. Philadelphians recognized them as "Master Builders" who created the colonial capital's mansions and public buildings.

Then, why the name? History of an organization closing in on its third century is best told by tales. Here are two of them.

Founding members of the Company stepped ashore soon after William Penn, bringing with them affection for things British, in particular the Worshipful Company of Carpenters of London. Some no doubt learned their trade as apprentices to its members and determined to use the guild — dating from the 1300's — as a pattern for their American counterpart. The name presented no problem. Both groups referred to master builders as "carpenters;" the word "company" was traditional for an association.

Philadelphia in 1776 (shaded area of map) had a population of 25,000. The house at 7th & Market Sts. — where Jefferson penned the Declaration — was the last in the city. Westward to the Schuylkill river were farms and woods which had been surveyed for future streets.

Philadelphia in 1776 (shaded area of map) had a population of 25,000. The house at 7th & Market Sts. — where Jefferson penned the Declaration — was the last in the city. Westward to the Schuylkill river were farms and woods which had been surveyed for future streets.

A second tale explains what lies behind today's lengthy, ten-word name: The Carpenters' Company of the City and County of Philadelphia.

As laid out by William Penn's surveyor, the city was two miles wide river-to-river and one mile from Vine to South Sts. Philadelphia county originally included portions of neighboring counties before being reduced to its present boundaries. Some Company members lived in the city; others in the county. The Company reflected this reality when it became incorporated in 1790.

Population boomed during the next 50 years, mostly in the county. By mid-century there were 13 townships, 6 boroughs and nine districts. Each had its own government, police force and taxing powers. Finally, Pennsylvania brought this chaos to a halt. A single piece of legislation, the Consolidation Act of 1854, abolished the 28 mini-municipalities and made the city and county limits identical.

Patterned after the Worshipful Company of Carpenters of London

Speech given at the Fall Quarterly Meeting, October 20, 1997 Carpenters' Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, Carpenters' Hall

by Jasper Ridley, Historian Emeritus, London Carpenters' Company

Thank you for inviting me here today, it is a very great pleasure to come here. It's a great pleasure to come to the city of Philadelphia, to the home of the American Revolution which was supported by only the best and most progressive elements in England at that time.

And it is a great pleasure too, to renew our connection with The Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia. Your Carpenters' Company of course, is in some ways different from ours in its organization. That is because ours dates from the thirteenth century and therefore has certain practices which you would possibly consider rather strange.

Our members are divided into Freemen and Liverymen, you cannot become a Liveryman unless you first become a Freeman. But not all Freemen become Liverymen, most of them do nowadays; most Freemen hope to go on to become Liverymen, and most of them do. But we do grant the Freedom to a number of people who have no intention, or hope, of becoming Liverymen. All the servants of the Company, the porters, the stewards, the man who keeps the avenue clean, after they have been in the service of the Company for seven years, we make them Freemen, but they do not go on to become Liverymen.

The Carpenters' Company ever since it started, and we think it started about 700 years ago, the first written records we have are 1333 but we think it was already in existence some thirty or forty years earlier. And you could become a Freeman and a Liveryman by patrimony, that is to say if your father was a Freeman or Liveryman, provided that he was already a Freeman or a Liveryman at the time of your birth, and this has sometimes the rather curious result that younger sons can become Freemen and their older brothers cannot because the older brother was born before the father became a Freeman. And also from the earliest times, the Livery companies have taken in new members by redemption. In the Middle Ages it was the usual practice for sons to carry on their father's trade, so most carpenters' sons were themselves carpenters, but not all of them were. And those who were not could nevertheless become Liverymen of The Carpenters' Company.

And it also became quite usual as early as the fourteenth century, for ambitious city politicians who wanted to get on in the city to join some livery company with which they were in no way connected at as far as there trade was concerned, because they thought it was useful for their political ambitions. And the livery company was quite pleased to have them if they were prominent people in the city who were likely to be influential. And by the end of the fourteenth century that great livery company, the Merchant-Tailors, had more than half its members were not tailors at all and they even included King Edward III himself,. who was made a Liveryman because the Company lent him money for the Hundred Years War which they knew he had no intention of repaying but in return he condescended to become a Liveryman of the Merchant-Tailors, which was of course a great boost to their prestige.

In the case of The Carpenters' Company, we continued for longer than many Companies to be purely connected with the trade. Because these ambitious politicians did not really want to join The Carpenters' Company because we weren't powerful enough or rich enough, so they preferred to join the Mercers, the Grocers, the Drapers or the Merchant-Tailors. But by the nineteenth century, we too began to include other members that were not directly connected with the trade and we now have a considerable number of lawyers. We have a lot of naval officers. And we do of course also have people who are connected in some way or other with the building trade, and we try to ensure that at least one-third of the members are connected with the building trade; and when we grant the livery by redemption now, we not only give priority to applicants connected with the building trade but try and make quite sure that one third of the new intakes are connected with the building trade.

The governing body of the Company is the Court of Assistance, according to our ancient statutes the Master and the Wardens — there are three Wardens, who are now called the Senior Warden, the Middle Warden, and the Junior Warden — and any members who have held the office of Master or Warden are members of the Court of Assistance. Now the method choosing the governing body of the Court of Assistance differs in all the companies in the City of London. There are 100 Livery Companies in London. There have been quite a few increases in recent years. When my father was Master in 1955 there were 78 Livery Companies, when I was Master there were 99, and there are now 100. The Information Technology Company is quite a modern sounding Company as compared with the Mercers and the Grocers and some of the older ones. And they all have different methods of choosing their Courts. We are rather unusual in that only the three Wardens have not passed the chair. Our Court consists of the Master, the three Wardens,and past Masters. And in our Company you come onto the Court by seniority, there are some exceptions to this we are perfectly free to vary the order and in the form laid down by the Charter granted by King James the First in 1607 says that the Liverymen, meeting once a year in the General Court of the Livery, can elect the ones they prefer to the office of Master and the three Wardens and who are nominated by the Court, they can't choose anyone else. But in fact, they always choose the man the court wants them to choose, there is a form of an election, three people are nominated by the Court, but the one whose name appears first on the order paper is the one the Court wants to be elected, and except very occasionally about once every sixty or seventy years he always is elected unanimously, and he is chosen by seniority, this is not the same in other Companies and it has the advantage we think, that you do not have lobbying and arm pulling at election to decide who shall be the Master and Wardens. The drawback, perhaps, is that because they come in by seniority they tend to be rather old. In fact, our present and senior past Master, Derek Stuckey, who last week celebrated his 60th anniversary of joining the Livery; he was Master at the age of 59. He was the youngest Master this century and the only Master who was under 60 when he became Master.

You come onto the Court as a Junior Warden for one year. Then in the next year you are Middle Warden, in your third year you are Senior Warden, and in your fourth year you are Master. In your fifth year you are Deputy Master, which does not entail any duties except to substitute for the Master if he is absent, ill, or for any other reason. After that you remain on the Court for the rest of your life, so the Court consists almost entirely of past Masters. The Junior Warden, who is serving on the Court for the first year, is in a rather ambiguous position because he is in fact the fourth in precedence in the Company — after the Master, the Senior Warden, and the Middle Warden — and he will find all the old past Masters on the Court will insist that he goes through the door ahead of them because he has precedence, but if he opens his mouth at a meeting of the Court they will look at him and say "You new boy, what business of you is it to say anything at all? until you have been on the Court a little longer." but Junior Wardens know how to live with it. The number of the members of the Court of course fluctuate, a new one comes on as Junior Warden every year, and some of course die, but the Court stays at roughly 15 or 16, at the moment we have 16 members on the Court.

Despite the fact that we have members of these other professions in, we do consider ourselves very much, our first job is to maintain the building industry. We have a building crafts college, we also have various other charitable institutions which we help including an alms house started by our Master Richard Wyeth in 1618 and a convalescent home at Rustington started only 100 years ago, just celebrating its centenary. And when people say, as they occasionally do, that these livery companies are an anachronism, they are not being very strongly criticized at the moment. We came under strong attack in the 1870s when there was a movement among certain sections of the liberal party to abolish them. and seize all our assets. But fortunately the liberal chancellor, Lord Silva, was himself a Liveryman of the Mercers Company and he managed to persuade the government to squash this movement. And we haven't had any very serious threats since. But occasionally people criticize us, and say we that we just eat and drink and why should we run all these things but our answer to this of course is that if all the property owned by the Livery Companies were not owned by the Livery Companies, who would own them? Either the state or the local authorities, and the property owned by the local authority do not always lead to happy relations with the tenant. Or it would be a property holding company who would pay very much more in dividends than the advantages we give our members of two dinners a year, would certainly pay very much more to the directors than the perks given the members of the Court and would spend far less on charity. We now spend only about 3% of our income on entertainment, it was much higher over 100 years ago, about 30% of it went on dinners in the middle of the nineteenth century, now it is only 3% and a substantial amount goes to charity.

Our Companies, of course, differ in their organization, but we have had very happy relations with The Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia, and I want to end by thanking you once again for having invited me here today. Thank you.

Historians have a tendency to remember battle dates and elections while forgetting the people who actually created a civilization. Our Master Builders, largely unknown today, were not quoted in newspapers and their portraits were not painted for posterity.
— Charles E. Peterson