West of the Schuylkill River
The Drexel Colony in West Philadelphia
Anthony J. Drexel established a “Drexel colony” in West Philadelphia when he purchased a home on the city block bounded by 38th and 39th, Walnut and Locust Streets in 1856.
By moving west of the Schuylkill River, Anthony made it clear he did not wish to live near the most fashionable set of elite Philadelphians, whose social center swiftly became the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood in the early 1850s. Horsecar omnibus lines were established in West Philadelphia only in 1854, and row home developments were built in the area over the next several decades. Visit the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia to discover more about the history of West Philadelphia.
The new residence built for Anthony and his family, an Italianate-style mansion, would have certainly stood out when it was completed around 1858. Anthony and Ellen lived in Rittenhouse prior to moving to West Philadelphia; the freedom to move away from fashionable society confirms the family’s secure social status. Explore their home.
As Anthony and Ellen's children reached adulthood and married, Anthony Drexel bought up several adjacent plots for new homes. Frances Drexel and James W. Paul, Jr., George W.C. and Mary Drexel, and Anthony Jr. and Margarita Armstrong Drexel all maintained residences on the block.
The permanent Drexel connection to West Philadelphia remains at the Woodlands historic gardens and cemetery, where Francis M. Drexel established a family mausoleum and adjacent plot.
Who Lived at 39th and Walnut?
While Anthony and Ellen had eight children, the family of ten were not the only occupants of the Drexel mansion. A number of domestic employees cared for the home, coaches and horses, and the Drexels themselves, allowing them to maintain their privileged lifestyle. According to an 1870 census record, when the eldest child Emilie was 18 and the youngest, George, was 2, nine people lived and worked at the home.
The record does not list individual occupations, but these domestic workers likely fulfilled the roles of cook, nurse, maid, butler, and valet. A few scant details are revealed: John Ballard, 40, and Charles Wilson, 20, were Black men born in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, respectively. Silas Maurur and Ferdin Seutner were both 30 years old at the time and born in Württemberg, Germany. Mary Colflesh was a white woman of 45 born in Pennsylvania, while Mary Dufoor and Elice Durand were born in Hungary and Switzerland, respectively. Margaret Clay and Mary Duffee, both around 60 years old, were born in Ireland.
Anthony and Ellen often hired domestic workers born in Ireland and Germany. The largest period of German immigration to the United States began in the 1820s, and it could be that Anthony wished to employ German natives as his father Francis had relied on the German community when he came to Philadelphia, and was a member of the German Society of Pennsylvania. It was extremely common at the time for wealthy and middle-class families to hire Irish women as maids. These women were part of the mass migration of Irish people to the United States during the mid-19th century as a direct consequence of the Great Famine.