There’s Much that We Know (and much we do not) about that Tavern: the Penny Pot

The “Penny Pott House” is portrayed in the earliest known painting of Philadelphia—the first known painting of any American city, for that matter!    A man assumed to be a sign painter, Peter Cooper, painted a fanciful rendering of the city skyline in 1720 and numbered twenty-four sites he considered worthy of attention.  Barely making it into the picture, the “Penny Pott House” is number twenty-four: it is the farthest building on the right of the canvas.  The dark bulk of the hull of a ship can be seen to the left of the building, closer to the river.  The painting, once a piece of trash fetched from a rubbish pile in mid-ninteenth century London, was sent as a curiosity to the Library Company in Philadelphia where it was cleaned, restored, and is today considered one of their most prized possessions.  The story of the Library Company, as well as the story of the painting is worth telling, but to do so would be to digress from the topic at hand.  You can find information on the painting at:

http://lcpdams.librarycompany.org:8881/R/?func=dbin-jump-full&object_id=59429&local_base=GEN01

Reprints of the painting are offered for sale at:

http://www.dianepublishing.net/PhotoGallery.asp?ProductCode=lcp%5Fcooper

As the painting is entitled, “The South East Prospect of Philadelphia” it is surprising that our multiple-great grandfather’s shipyard and tavern made it into the picture at all, being just beyond the northern-most boundary of the city proper.

So, what do we know about the Penny Pott Tavern?  We know that it is thought to have been the second tavern built in Philadelphia, built some time after the Blue Anchor was built in 1682.  We know that it was licensed under the King of England to sell beer for a penny a pot: it offered a cheap brew made using molasses.  We know that James West purchased the tavern “of the Widow”, though it is not clear who the first owner was.    Did the family at any time reside in some portion of the building?  If Peter Cooper’s painting is to be believed, by 1720 there was already an extension added onto the original tavern.

The next image of the Penny Pot Tavern appears in Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia, published in 1830.  It shows, as was implied in the painting by Peter Cooper, that there is little more than the building’s depth separating it from the hull of a ship currently under construction.  The Library Company of Philadelphia has a nice digital copy of this work:

http://lcpdams.librarycompany.org:8881/R/?func=dbin-jump-full&object_id=64815&local_base=GEN01

It is believed that West purchased the Tavern to assist with cash-flow problems, common in the Americas at the time.  While reliant upon the currency of England, the exchange of money for goods or services was not always as readily accomplished as might have been desired, so barter was often used.  By running a tab at the Penny Pott Tavern for his workers, James West was able to keep the men close to the work site and make additional profit from from the wages they spent at the tavern, while potentially making use of meat and produce he might barter for.

The 2012 dig was disappointing in that one of the stated goals was to find the foundation of the Penny Pott Tavern, and this was not clearly accomplished.  We know that Peter Cooper’s painting shows very little development at that time to the south of the Penny Pott Tavern, that the tavern was located at Vine Street wharf, and that Vine Street was reportedly fifty feet wide at that time.  In The Historical Magazine, Volume I, published by C. Benjamin Richardson in 1857 and digitized by Google in 2007, it is reported on page 139 that the Penny Pott House was located “on the upper side of Vine street, on or near the present line of Delaware avenue”, and that “as early as 1701, Penn decreed that Penny Pot Landing should be left open and free to all”.  This was largely because Philadelphia had very few favorable landings until the wharves were built between vine street and Dock: the ground was reported to be a high bluff.  In fact the first child born in Philadelphia, John Key, was reported to have been born in one of the caves “near the spot where the Penny Pott House was afterwards built”.

Carol

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