The earliest published series of views of an American city and a celebration of Philadelphia as the young nation's capital.
A native of England with a strong academic training in art, William Russell Birch adopted Philadelphia virtually upon his arrival in America in 1794, In his preface he writes a reverant tribute to the burgeoning city: "The ground upon which [Philadelphia] stands, was less than a century ago, in a state of wild nature; covered with wood, and inhabited by Indians. It has in this short time, been raised, as it were, by magic power, to the eminence of an opulent city….This work will stand as a memorial of its progress for the first century…." Aside from being an artistic paean of the city itself, the images would serve, according to Birch's unpublished autobiography, as an advertisement to attract trade and commerce, along with industrious, entrepreneurial settlers from Europe. Birch set out to record the city by portraying not only "the background for living, but also … the full quality of the living itself" (Snyder). The artist and his son patiently recorded incidents and impressions that imparted the work with the vibrancy and true color of everyday life: the ships and cargo that came into port; the elegant civil and private edifaces; the markets and the produce sold there. The streets bustle with coaches, wagons, and wheelbarrows; there is a military drill, and a procession commemorating the death of George Washington. Fashionable Philadelphians attend to business or recreation, while native American Indians in colorful costumes leisurely stroll through gardens.
The roster at the end of the portfolio lists 157 initial subscribers, including such noteworthies as Philadelphia publisher and bookseller Matthew Carey; the mayors of New York and Philadelphia; the Marquis d'Yrujo, Spanish Ambassador to the United States; the former Governor of Pennsylvania T. Mifflin; and Vice-President of the United States (and ardent bibliophile) Thomas Jefferson. In his autobiography, Birch wrote of Jefferson's copy: "During the whole of his presidency, [it] laid on his sopha … till it became ragged and dirty, but was not suffered to be taken away."
Birch published three later editions of the portfolio, with some variations, in 1804, 1809, and 1828. For nearly thirty years, Birch's monumental work remained the sole record of Philadelphia as it appeared upon the eve of a new century. "His was essentially an act of faith," writes Snyder, "a record of the present made with a conscious eye to what the future would think when looking back upon it,: