Print and Politics in the First American Architectural Books

Carolyn Yerkes

Fig. 1. Dedication page from Abraham Swan, A Collection of Designs in Architecture, Containing New Plans and Elevations of Houses, for General Use (Philadelphia: Printed by R. Bell, Bookseller, next Door to St. Paul’s Church, in Third-Street, 1775). Image courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

A revolutionary referent opens the second architectural book published in the American colonies, a new edition of Abraham Swan’s A Collection of Designs in Architecture, Containing New Plans and Elevations of Houses, for General Use, published in Philadelphia in 1775 (Fig. 1). A central column or pillar, gripped on both sides by thirteen outstretched hands, is topped with a liberty cap, the classic symbol of the freed slave. The column stands atop a podium that is inscribed with the words “Magna Charta,” flanked by spears, and backed by a cannon. Coiled around this ensemble, an ouroboros—or snake that bites its own tail—bears a motto: “United now alive and free / Firm on this basis liberty shall stand / And thus supported ever bless our land / Till time become eternity.” A text below is addressed to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and to the other members of that “honorable and august body.” Combined with the phallic image, the punning text has a masculine tone that, while bordering on the crude, has a serious intent. These representatives of the people are invoked as “the patrons of the liberal, useful, and ornamental arts, as well as the exalted patterns, of every patriotic virtue, which can ennoble the inhabitants of the thirteen united colonies, and carry them victoriously through every danger, in the glorious struggle, for constitutional freedom.” After throat-clearing through no fewer than six closing clauses, the project’s “undertakers,” Robert Bell and John Norman, finally sign off. The dedication is an unexpected beginning to a reprint of an almost twenty-year-old set of house plans.

The Philadelphia edition of Swan’s Collection of Designs is an exceedingly rare book, extant in only three copies. Perhaps for that reason no one has yet explained why this extraordinary dedication appears in an architectural book, let alone in one of the earliest such books printed in the American colonies. Along with its immediate predecessor, The British Architect: Or, the Builders Treasury of Stair-cases, also by Abraham Swan and reprinted by Bell and Norman in 1775, the Collection of Designs usually gets attention solely for being part of a pair of chronological firsts. Yet in certain ways, the first two American architectural books do not fully deserve that distinction, as scholars have noted.[1] Copies of the London editions of these books had circulated in the American colonies for years before the Philadelphia editions appeared, so their contents were not new, even to their local audience.[2] The significance of these books can be found instead in their framing, particularly in the printed subscriber list of the British Architect and the dedication of the Collection of Designs. These paratexts, or materials added to an author’s main text by that text’s printers and publishers, embed the books within the foment of late eighteenth-century Philadelphia.

Paratexts offer points of connection between a book’s makers and its audience. The extra material added to the Philadelphia editions of the British Architect and the Collection of Designs links these objects to individuals, and suggests how they factored into a particular historical moment. Like most of the architectural literature available in the colonies, these two books are often considered primarily as transatlantic vehicles for models, techniques, and style. Rescuing them from the condescension of posterity requires considering them as something other than reprints, to understand how they might have been understood within their context. The paratexts that Norman and Bell added to these books first identified a specific group of people and then spoke to that group’s common interests: artisans who sought a radical agenda within their local government and ultimately within a national one. That the first architectural books in America could serve, in effect, as instruments of cohesion relates directly to the way that they functioned for the people who read them.


The biographies of the earliest American architectural books are necessarily linked to the biographies of the people who created them. John Norman (c. 1748–1817), who engraved the plates for both books, made them only shortly after immigrating from London, where he had been apprenticed to an engraver and cartographical publisher.[3] In Philadelphia in the spring of 1774, he rented premises as a printer for hire and began casting about for business, billing himself as an “architect and landscape-engraver.”[4] By August he had opened an engraving shop on Front Street, and announced his intention to have an evening drawing school there.[5] Norman’s proposal to print an American edition of Swan’s British Architect ran in newspapers that December.[6] He made no claim to originality, nor did he have to: his customers knew the book from the London editions already available. Boasting that his own edition was cheaper than those by ten shillings, he pitched the book on subscription, and noted that the engraving was already well underway. He may have proceeded this far on the project as a solo effort, but when the book was ready for sale by June 1775, Robert Bell’s name appeared as its printer and bookseller.[7]

“His buffoonery was diversified and without limit,” wrote William McCulloch, a prominent Philadelphia printer whose letters to Isaiah Thomas reveal a mild fixation with Bell and his antics.[8] Bell earned the attention. The manifold aspects of his peripatetic career as a book auctioneer, binder, importer, seller, and printer have been discussed by James Green and Richard Sher, who portray Bell as something of a prophet for the colonial book industry as well as its first true publisher.[9] Like Norman, he was a recent immigrant, having arrived in Philadelphia in 1767, where his activities extended to nearly every sector of the trade. Thomas provided some essential facts of Bell’s life, from his training as a bookbinder in Glasgow, to his salad days as an auctioneer and book pirate in Dublin.[10] In Philadelphia he became famous for the anecdotes he told at the auction block, often while drinking beer. He also began printing new editions of imported books, finding early success with William Robertson’s The History of the Reign of Charles V in 1770–1771 and William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1771–1772. Bell’s involvement in the first architectural books produced in the colonies suggests the extent to which he saw them as similarly profit-generating ventures.

That copies of the British Architect were widely available did not discourage Norman and Bell, who planned to outsell the older editions by undercutting them in price, not by enhancing them with revisions or expansions. Imported books may have been more expensive on the colonial book market, but constant shortages meant that it was still cheaper and more reliable to print on imported paper, as was evidently the case with Collection of Designs.[11] In the 1770s, Bell had become involved in efforts to boost Philadelphia papermaking.[12] He promoted local industry as a patriotic form of financial independence, a way to answer the growing need for self-reliance in the supply chain.

In the process of reprinting the British Architect and the Collection of Designs, Norman and Bell made almost no alterations to the originals. Norman’s plates reversed the illustrations of the older editions, but other changes were minimal, and the texts remained nearly identical.[13] Their choice of books was based on what they thought the local market would sustain, and there was a clear market for these ones. In a timber-based building industry, typically the house builder or carpenter assumed many of the traditional roles that are today assigned to the architect, functioning as a combination of artisan and general contractor.[14] A carpenter could serve as overseer for other craftsmen of varying skill levels, and administered the project from its conception to its completion.[15] Builders and carpenters could use books, but not for basic how-to questions or for technical advice—these they picked up from practical experience. Books were useful sources for what one did not learn manually, including pricing, terminology, models of house plans, and templates for ornamental details. A majority of the architectural books available in early America were builders’ guides, carpenters’ manuals, and pattern books containing these kinds of information, largely imported from England.[16]

Fig. 2. “Names of the encouragers,” from Abraham Swan, The British Architect: Or, the Builders Treasury of Stair-cases (Philadelphia: Printed by R. Bell, Bookseller, Third-Street, next Door to St. Paul’s Church, for John Norman architect engraver, in Second-Street, 1775). Image courtesy of Getty Research Institute.

Swan’s British Architect was a hybrid of all these genres. The subscriber’s list of the Philadelphia edition, printed over four pages at the front of the book, shows that the primary demand came from the tradesmen who built houses rather than from the clients who paid for them (Fig. 2). Among the book’s 187 “encouragers” are 111 house-carpenters and 62 master builders; other stated occupations include plasterer, cabinet maker, painter, tanner, ship joiner, and tallow chandler (candle maker). As Roger Moss has noted, this evidence suggests a reality at odds with the Jeffersonian idea of the amateur architect building a library of books to use as inspiration: only two merchants and two gentlemen appear on the list.[17]

Of the many hands involved in the book’s production, its owners made their own contributions. Several extant copies of the Philadelphia British Architect have traceable provenances to carpenters, house builders, and other tradesmen. John Hall, listed among the subscribers as a house builder, owned the copy now at Ohio State University. The volume bears evidence of active use, with architectural plans laid into it and mathematical calculations written on its pastedown. At the Carpenters’ Company Library in Philadelphia, an inscribed copy belonging to John King (d. 1804), a builder active in the Philadelphia area in the 1770s, has two drawings tipped into it that are thought to be by him.[18] A copy at Yale has the inscription Hezekiah Augur, his book, bought of [?] Beene, August the 10th, 17[?]. Augur (1791–1858), a sculptor, was the son of a carpenter, and in his youth was a woodcarver himself. Personal paratexts like these demonstrate the British Architect’s practical value. Norman and Bell were not builders or carpenters, but they had made a savvy calculation about how to serve builders’ and carpenters’ needs.


Their calculation had been based in part on the well-established demand for the British Architect in the American colonies. Norman and Bell chose to reprint a book that had immediate practical value for artisans and that also spoke to the professional and social aspirations at work in colonial society. From its earliest editions, the British Architect’s appeal to builders and craftsmen lay in its readily applicable knowledge, the defining trait of a popular genre: the trade secret revealed. In Britain, this genre’s rise had inversely mirrored the apprentice system’s decline over the eighteenth century, as books became the vehicles for passing on knowledge that had formerly been the province of trade organizations. At first, the British Architect appears to be less of an essential reference and more of a hodge-podge. Its coherence emerges, however, when it is considered as a guide for carpenters seeking to upgrade houses through the judicious application of select ornamental elements.

Fig. 3. Plate XVI from Abraham Swan, The British Architect: Or, the Builders Treasury of Stair-cases (Philadelphia: Printed by R. Bell, Bookseller, Third-Street, next Door to St. Paul’s Church, for John Norman architect engraver, in Second-Street, 1775). Image courtesy of Getty Research Institute.

Abraham Swan himself had been such a person. He was active in England and Scotland as a carpenter and joiner between 1745 and 1768, though little evidence about him survives outside of a few documents relating to his work at country houses and his published pattern books of designs.[19] Of these, the British Architect appeared first, issued as a sixty-plate folio in 1745. The first series of plates is devoted to the architectural orders, based on examples from Palladio, Scamozzi, and Vignola. Swan’s practical intentions that these should supply models for builders to copy can be deduced from plate 16, which “Shews the Manner of Glueing up columns” (Fig. 3). The plate converts the stone architecture of the sixteenth-century Italian treatise into eighteenth-century British carpentry, translating the visual idiom of the landed gentry from one context to another.

For British colonists in early America, the architectural models available from imported pattern books were elements of a familiar language. Carpenters able to construct elaborate doorways or chimneypieces from them functioned as semioticians, creating signifiers of wealth and status for the houses of merchants and lawyers. Sections of the British Architect devoted to chimneypieces, doorframes, and roof trusses address those areas of the house where the carpenter had the greatest freedom to ply his trade—and the areas where a book proved most useful as a tool, in that it supplied visual models to copy and large-scale instructional diagrams to follow. Colonial builders who used it this way included William Buckland (1734–1774), who, after training as a woodcarver, designed chimneypieces and doorways for the Brice and Hammond-Harwood houses he built in Annapolis following illustrations from the British Architect, which he owned in its 1745 edition.[20] George Washington’s Mount Vernon has chimneypieces modeled on the book’s pages, as do several other houses along the eastern seaboard.[21]

Fig. 4. Plate XXXVI from Abraham Swan, The British Architect: Or, the Builders Treasury of Stair-cases (Philadelphia: Printed by R. Bell, Bookseller, Third-Street, next Door to St. Paul’s Church, for John Norman architect engraver, in Second-Street, 1775). Image courtesy of Getty Research Institute.

The heart of the British Architect, as indicated by the second part of its title, Builders Treasury of Stair-cases, takes up that building component of direct relevance to Swan’s own client base, the carpentry stair. The book demonstrates why the staircase might have been considered one of the builder’s prime trade secrets, and the one best revealed through printed images. Staircases are more difficult to construct than doorways and chimneypieces, which for all their ornamentation are essentially frames. In addition to featuring as much detail as these types of surrounds, a staircase carries a fluctuating weight load and serves a crucial planning function. The pages of the British Architect teach a carpenter how to pull off this combination through examples. Details of turned balusters, foliated scrolls, and molded rails are supplemented with diagrams that show how to handle the more complicated aspects of curvature, such as the diminution of a volute or the twist of a flight of steps. The series culminates in three-dimensional renderings of staircases that put these elements together. These renderings demonstrate why it is in the staircase that printing and carpentry come together in a perfect state of mutual dependency (Fig. 4). For most of the other details included in the British Architect, the accompanying captions are brief and all but unnecessary: the picture provides the model to follow. In the captions to the staircases, however, a reader follows the descriptions as if the carpenter is speaking over his shoulder, giving directions. These directions include drawing instructions, too, for those elements that require compass work.

The staircase is the architectural form in which pretension itself is made concrete: this essential part of the carpenter’s claim to expertise was also part of his client’s claim to status. Swan himself had designed a grand staircase at Blair Castle in Perthshire, Scotland, for the second Duke of Atholl, and devoted four plates in the second volume of his Collection of Designs to it.[22] Strictly speaking, a grand, open staircase is impractical, because its plan takes up more space than necessary for circulation and allows heat to escape: its true function is symbolic, in that it provides a parade route for formal entertaining that occurs over multiple floors.[23] A functional element that is fancier than it needs to be is the very definition of architectural affectation, which is why both landed gentry and, eventually, wealthy colonists wanted elaborate staircases in their houses.

The career of Thomas Nevell (1721–1797) demonstrates how the staircase could become a carpenter’s calling card, a set piece to impress clients and land projects, and how these set pieces directly related to architectural books. In 1753, Edward Shippen, a prominent lawyer, hired Nevell to construct a double-twist staircase for his house on South Fourth Street; this stair was based on another at the nearby house of Thomas Willing, the merchant who eventually became the first President of the Bank of the United States.[24] Nevell later coordinated the work at Mount Pleasant, begun in 1763 for the Scottish privateer John MacPherson, which has a double-height stair open to the central hall. In addition to operating a carpentry business and selling books, in 1771 Nevell opened a drawing school for those “anxious to improve themselves in the art of architecture.”[25] This was one of the first attempts to establish formal architectural education in America. He publicized a class “for instructing a small number of Youth in the Art of Drawing … also the most expeditious and approved method for striking out the ramp and twist rails for stair-cases,” among other drafting skills.[26] Nevell’s pupils were mostly other carpenters and builders, and drawing had become part of their necessary skill set.

Both Nevell and Norman, who had started his own school for engraving immediately upon arriving in Philadelphia, trained in an apprentice system and had apprentices themselves, as did Bell. Yet in the 1770s, the apprentice system was changing: this form of unfree labor which an apprentice performed in exchange for room, board, and training in a trade was gradually being replaced by contract employment.[27] It is in the context of this increasingly wage-based economy that Nevell, Norman, and Bell all became involved in architectural book production, which, like school-centered education, was a means to advance professionally outside of the apprentice system.[28] 


With the Collection of Designs, which followed on the heels of the British Architect, Norman and Bell seemingly turned their attention from house builders to house owners. The slim book delivers only the first part of its title page’s promise to provide plans and elevations of houses, sections of rooms, details of their architectural decoration, and designs for bridges, screens, and pavilions. Although the Collection of Designs had subscribers, Norman and Bell did not begin the book with a list of their names, as they had in the British Architect. Subscriber lists were normally the last part of a book to be printed, and the house plans may have been printed first as a form of prospectus to drum up interest.[29] The book opens with the dedication to Hancock and the other members of the Continental Congress, followed by Swan’s short preface, captions, and ten plates of paired elevations and plans. Of the book’s three known copies, two were first owned by delegates to the Congress. The Avery Library’s copy has “Richd. Smith Novr. 15. 1775” written on its title page; Smith (1735–1803) was a lawyer and delegate from New Jersey. John Dickinson (1732–1808), lawyer and delegate from Pennsylvania, owned the New York Public Library copy.[30]

The limited provenance information available about the Collection of Designs suggests that its dedication had been a successful marketing strategy, designed to induce the so-called “patrons of the liberal, useful, and ornamental arts” to buy a fancy book of house plans. Bell had pioneered this strategy in his edition of Robertson’s History of the Reign of Charles V, when he added his own dedication to John Dickinson alongside Robertson’s original dedication to the king, citing all gentlemen subscribers, including those in manufacturing professions, as encouragers of American manufactures.[31] The Collection of Designs dedication may also have been a shrewd business calculation of another kind: government publication contracts were lucrative, and Bell presumably wanted to capture more of the Continental Congress’s printing business.[32]

Fig. 5. Journal of the Proceedings of the Congress, Held at Philadelphia, September 5, 1774 (Philadelphia: Printed by William and Thomas Bradford, at the London Coffee-House, 1774). Image courtesy of Donald Heald Rare Books.

Yet although Bell and Norman surely wanted to sell books, they designed their dedication with other objectives as well. The most crucial element of the Collection of Designs dedication would have been immediately recognizable to readers: the emblem at the top had a storied history. It recalls the one printed on the cover of the Journal of the Proceedings of the Congress, the official record of the first Continental Congress, held in Philadelphia in 1774 (Fig. 5).[33] That emblem, whose designer is not known, includes a monument made phallic by a liberty cap, standing atop the “Magna Charta.” Referencing the colonists’ Anglo-Dutch past, the Continental Congress emblem portrayed their current struggle as the legacy of political revolutions.

The Proceedings emblem derives from a medallic tradition that associates certain pictorial elements with government overthrow and republicanism. In the decade leading up to the revolution, liberty poles were used throughout the colonies as symbols of opposition to British governance. They were erected as rallying points, depicted on currency, and included on all types of political art. The liberty pole achieves monumental stature in the Proceedings emblem, held up by twelve extended arms representing the colonies with delegates at the Congress. Around the border, the phrase “Hanc tuemur, hac nitimur” translates to “this we defend, this we lean on.” The combination of image and inscription seems to imply that as the colonists defend their liberty, their own history supports their effort.[34] The phrase can be found on coins and medals relating to the Dutch Republic, where it encircles the Dutch Maiden, the personification of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, who carries a liberty cap on a pole. This iconography was developed during the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648), a famous instance of republicanism achieved through democratic revolution. It also appears on a commemorative medal from the coronation of William and Mary in 1689, struck for celebrations in the Hague, and on coinage throughout the eighteenth century.[35] Medals made perfect models for emblems, which were printed from matrices of similar size, shape, and potentially also material.

Fig. 6. The New-York Journal, or, the General Advertiser, no. 1667, December 15, 1774. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

The Collection of Designs dedication was not the first reconfiguration of the Continental Congress’s emblem. When John Holt inserted a version of it within the masthead of his radical newspaper, the New York Journal or General Advertiser, on December 15, 1774, he added a coiled snake as its border (Fig. 6). This gave the deep historical allusions of the original design a more recent valence. The snake ultimately derives from Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” vignette, which may be America’s first political cartoon and is certainly its most famous.[36] Franklin introduced the image, which is the earliest known representation of the union of the colonies, in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754, to promote unity during the French and Indian War. Two decades later, the snake had become a symbol of the colonies’ collective independence from the crown.[37] On Holt’s masthead, the Latin inscription that had appeared on the cover of the Proceedings was gone, replaced by the “United now alive and free” slogan.[38]

A variation of this version appears in the Philadelphia Collection of Designs, now with a thirteenth arm (Georgia) helping to support the monument. The book’s etched emblem refines the earlier prints that appeared on the Proceedings and on Holt’s masthead, which had been cut either from wood or from type metal.[39] Although none of these variants ever gained traction as an official representation of the colonies, the emblem made an obvious appeal for colonial liberty and for unity in the face of oppression, one that had accumulated multiple frames of historical reference, both local and transatlantic.[40]

Why Bell and Norman used this emblem, and its accompanying petition to the Continental Congress, to open the Collection of Design is less obvious. The book has no self-evident political content, and neither does the British Architect. We have no direct evidence of Norman’s political activities during this time, though in 1775, as he was working on the plates for the British Architect, he also engraved the diagrams for The Prussian Evolutions in Actual Engagements by Thomas Hanson, an American militiaman, and would produce several maps of the colonial theater of war.[41] We have more direct evidence about Bell’s. Since arriving in Philadelphia, Bell had imported and reprinted books on Scottish and English political and legal history; Green and Sher have discussed how these works that Bell published and sold in the 1760s and 1770s—especially those by Robertson and Blackstone—had encouraged the development of revolutionary ideas in the colonies. Furthermore, Bell promoted local industry in the language of economic patriotism. A final point to be made about him, and one that has not yet been discussed in relation to his architectural books, is that early in 1776, Bell joined the recently formed Committee of Privates as a member of its Committee of Correspondence.[42] Formed in the militia, the Committee of Privates led the coalition of poorer tradesmen and laborers in the city: this extralegal body pressed for a radical agenda against the more moderate and conservative factions that controlled the local government. With this fact in mind, we can set the publication history of the British Architect and the Collection of Designs against the events that took place in Philadelphia in 1774 and 1775 in order to reinterpret their structure and character.


When Norman arrived in the city in the spring of 1774, the tradesmen, or mechanics, of Philadelphia were agitating in favor of a non-intercourse policy toward Britain, an objective that favored local manufacture and that they achieved in the fall of 1774. The mechanics were successful in large part because they had begun to organize, and the carpenters were the most organized of the trades.[43] When the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26, 1774, the delegates convened at Carpenters’ Hall. The building belonged to the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, the most prominent trade organization in the city and perhaps the oldest in the country. That the Congress met at its hall, rather than at the legislative Assembly Room, signaled the tradesmen’s burgeoning power.[44]

That fall, as the Philadelphia mechanics lobbied the Congress delegates, Norman worked on the plates for the British Architect. His announcement that ran in newspapers in early December said that the book was nearly complete, and included his promise to print the subscriber list. The printed subscriber list is a common publishing strategy, an incentive for customers to invest their money upfront in a book that will appear later. It is uncommon, however, for such a list to appear in a carpentry manual, and less common still for subscribers’ names to appear on such a list together with their occupations, as they do in the British Architect. Like the dedication to Hancock, this strategy was one that Bell had pursued before, in his edition of Robertson’s History of the Reign of Charles V.[45] In the third volume of that work, Bell identified subscribers by name and occupation and grouped them by area of residence. The list provides a cross-section through daily life. Stated professions include lawyer, merchant, printer and bookseller, apothecary and druggist, cabinet-maker, clergy, soldiers of various military ranks, painter, watchmaker, bricklayer, professor of languages, tanner, currier, steel-manufacturer, clerk, shoemaker, doctor, tobacconist, and distiller—among many others—distributed along the Atlantic coast. Reading the eighteen pages of names leaves a cumulative impression of a common interest that cuts across social rank or geography. In his address to these subscribers, Bell thanked them for their patriotic support for the colonial book industry, and defended his right to reprint foreign books in it.

Ninety-two percent of the occupations given on the British Architect subscriber list are house-carpenter or master builder: this remarkable homogeneity is the most striking difference between that list and the one in Robertson’s History of the Reign of Charles V. The British Architect list is also decidedly local, as Bell declared at the top that “Those names, to which no residence is annexed, are all inhabitants of Philadelphia.” When these Philadelphia carpenters and builders opened their copies of the British Architect, they found their names printed among their fellow tradesmen and neighbors in large, generously spaced type, as if on an association membership roll. Rather than a mere byproduct of marketing, that result may have been one of the guiding intentions behind the list, which provided a public demonstration of trade unity at a heated political moment. The choice of title, too, feels pointed. Of all the carpentry and building guides available on the colonial market that Norman and Bell could have copied first—and there were many—the British Architect alone had a title that explicitly referred to the origin of the book being coopted.

The American edition of the British Architect, as Norman advertised it, was ready for sale by June 1775, and copies of it contained the proposal for the Collection of Designs. The success of the mechanics’ lobby, including for non-intercourse, had brought with it a new risk: the potential loss of political unity among the mechanics. Increasing radicalization over the summer and fall of 1775 led to the formation of the Committee of Privates, which drew its membership from Philadelphia’s militia companies and argued on their behalf. The committee represented some of the poorest social groups in the city, and its leaders were tradesmen and teachers. When the Committee of Privates formed a subcommittee of correspondence in January 1776, Robert Bell served on it, along with eight other members.[46] Two of these members, Patrick Logan and George Nelson, were house carpenters who had subscribed to the British Architect; Thomas Nevell also served on the Committee of Privates and had subscribed to the book.[47] The Committee of Correspondence’s immediate responsibility was to circulate a petition urging militia reform throughout Pennsylvania’s counties, a task for which the well-connected and well-traveled Bell was particularly suited.

The first and only installment of the Collection of Designs appeared in the fall of 1775, sometime between June 26, the date on the proposal for it printed within the British Architect, and November 15, the date Richard Smith inscribed on his copy, now at Avery.[48] Its dedication would have provided an explicit reminder to Hancock and the Second Continental Congress, which had been meeting since May 10, of the mechanics’ agenda. It is easy to see the dedication as a document directed up: it can be taken at face value as a plea for colonial unity and for the cause of independence. Yet who was really meant to read that plea? Hancock did not need a slim folio of house plans to remind him of the Congress’s stakes. Although the Collection of Designs does not have a subscriber list, we can surmise that Norman and Bell sought subscriptions for their second architectural book among those who had supported their first, even as they sought new clients among house owners. The dedication thus can be read as a document also directed down, a demonstration to each group of the building tradesmen’s collective political power.

In this light, both the British Architect subscriber list and the Collection of Designs dedication—each a paratext added to a reprinted English book—can be understood as attempts to create a craft identity.[49] In early America, where guilds had never operated with the regulatory force that they had in Britain and where the apprentice system was declining, books often substituted for aspects of that system. Architectural books, as we have seen, fulfilled meaningful teaching functions, especially in regard to certain aspects of drawing and design. The first American architectural books’ paratexts replicated two other aspects of the guild system, which were the feelings of commonality and association of belonging to a group, and the functioning of that group as a collective entity. A meaningful first step toward creating a craft identity is to establish the identities of craftsmen—which is exactly what the British Architect subscriber list does in most literal fashion, with its public association of carpenters and builders by occupation. Identities established, the Collection of Designs dedication then takes a second step, by declaring the group’s common purpose. The dedication’s emblem now can be understood as a device that had additional local meaning beyond the iconographical history of its elements. When Norman and Bell adopted the emblem for an architectural book, the representation of colonial unity evoked the unity of the mechanics, and the liberty pole made monumental became their construction.

To underscore how the Philadelphia editions of the British Architect and the Collection of Designs might have touched on the particular conditions of local politics, it helps to remember one of Bell’s next projects. In the early days of 1776, Bell published the single most important pamphlet of the period, and one of the most consequential pieces of writing in American history, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. He assumed some personal risk in doing so, because the pamphlet first appeared without Paine’s name on it.[50] Benjamin Rush, who operated as the go-between, had chosen Bell for the job based on his reputation as a fearless republican printer. That reputation began to disintegrate when Bell and Paine had an ugly public imbroglio over the right to reprint subsequent editions of Common Sense, and it finally dissolved after Bell decided to stay in Philadelphia during the British occupation, when he opened a circulating library that was popular with the officers.[51] Yet in the run-up to the war Bell’s republican bona fides were still intact. His editions of architectural books, as works that spoke both to and for tradesmen, had helped establish them.

Fig. 7. Proposals, for printing by subscription, the Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Assistant. Philadelphia, June 20, 1775. Image courtesy of Getty Research Institute.


Along with the British Architect and the Collection of Designs, Norman and Bell had planned to produce a third book together, before war interrupted their work. Within some copies of the British Architect circulated a proposal for a book of household furniture designs entitled The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Assistant (Fig. 7). According to the proposal, the book would have had two hundred designs engraved by Norman, based on drawings by John Folwell (d. 1786), a Philadelphia joiner, cabinetmaker, and carver.[52] Evidently Folwell had based his book on Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director, first published in London in 1754, and available in Philadelphia at the Library Company.[53] Although we do not know what, if any, paratexts this book would have had, Folwell himself provides a coda to the story of the first architectural books printed in America.

Fig. 8. John Folwell, Chair for the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Legislature, 1779. Image by Joseph Sohm, courtesy of Getty Images.

What we know of Folwell we know mainly from the objects that he made. He built the pulpit of Christ Church, Philadelphia (1769–1770) and the case for the orrery now at the University of Pennsylvania (1771), projects that suggest that their maker had achieved some degree of renown.[54] In 1775, Folwell designed the standard of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, the militia unit in which he served during the revolutionary war. The silk flag combines a rococo cartouche, an element of the cabinet-maker’s vocabulary, with iconography that includes a liberty pole.[55] Folwell is best known, however, for the Speaker’s Chair that he built for the Pennsylvania state legislature in 1779 (Fig. 8).[56] When the legislature first convened, it had the most radical constitution of the thirteen states. That constitution extended the franchise from property owners to all free male citizens wealthy enough to pay taxes—still a notably exclusionary group—and had an elected plural executive without veto power instead of a governor.[57] The seat of power for a legislative body organized around these principles could not be a throne.

Folwell appears to have designed the chair to have specific local resonance in a city only recently occupied by the British army and in the throes of internal political strife. Its iconography is carefully tuned. Wheat sheafs allude to Pennsylvania’s agricultural base and cornucopias suggest its abundance; military banners give the whole a martial cast.[58] Over these, a gilded sun rises. With George Washington presiding over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin reportedly said that he had often looked at this sun without knowing whether it was rising or setting, but that he now saw that it was a rising sun. Today the Speaker’s Chair is often referred to as the Rising Sun Chair, a name that both obscures its origins and also encourages viewers to focus on that element and miss the one at the chair’s apex. A gilded liberty cap, not the sun, tops the work: when the speaker, an annually elected councilman, took his seat, this anti-crown would have capped his head. Visible throughout legislative sessions, the liberty cap offered a reminder of the roots of the legislature’s power in an expanded franchise—a franchise that had been part of the mechanics’ radical agenda.[59] The craft identity of the building tradesmen, inscribed in nascent form in the paratexts of the Philadelphia British Architect and the Collection of Designs in 1775, had contributed to the construction of that political entity.

Carolyn Yerkes is Associate Professor of Early Modern Architecture at Princeton University, NJ

I thank the two anonymous reviewers and the two editors—Chanchal Dadlani and Ünver Rüstem—for shaping this article. Nicholas Adams, Bridget Alsdorf, Marisa Bass, Karie Diethorn, Yaacob Dweck, Edward Eigen, James Green, Teresa Harris, Daniel Healy, Christopher Minty, Peter Wirzbicki, Charles Wood, and David Yerkes improved the work in countless ways.

[1] Charles E. Peterson, “Introduction,” The Rules of Work of the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia 1786 with the Original Copperplate Illustrations, Annotated, with an Introduction, by Charles E. Peterson, F.A.I.A. (Princeton: The Pyne Press, 1971), ix, and Adolf K. Placzek, “The Opening Books,” in Adolf K. Placzek, ed., Avery’s Choice: Five Centuries of Great Architectural Books: One Hundred Years of an Architectural Library, 1890–1990 (New York: G. K. Hall, 1997), 139–140.

[2] There were three London editions of the British Architect prior to 1775: these appeared in 1745, 1750, and 1758, with a reissue of the third edition c. 1768; the London edition of the Collection of Designs was published in 1757. See Paul W. Nash, Nicholas Savage, Gerald Beasley, John Meriton, and Alison Shell, eds., Early Printed Books 1478–1840: Catalogue of the British Architectural Library Early Imprints Collection, vol. 4 (Munich: K. G. Saur, 2001), 2041–2047.

[3] David Bosse, “‘To Promote Useful Knowledge’: ‘An Accurate Map of the Four New England States’ by John Norman and John Coles,” Imago Mundi 52 (2000), 145; D. F. McKenzie, ed., Stationers’ Company Apprentices, 1701–1800 (Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, 1978), 121.

[4] Pennsylvania Journal, April 27, 1774. On Norman see Alexander J. Wall, Books on Architecture Printed in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925), 3–5, reprinted from Bibliographical Essays: A Tribute to Wilberforce Eames (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), 299–311; Dumas Malone, ed., “John Norman,” in Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 13 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), 550–551.

[5] Pennsylvania Journal, May 11, 1774, and August 24, 1774. The advertisements mention a partner named Ward.

[6] Pennsylvania Packet, December 5, 1774. Norman had by then moved to premises in Second Street.

[7] Pennsylvania Journal, June 28, 1775.

[8] “William McCulloch’s Additions to Thomas’s History of Printing,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 31 (Apr., 1921), 97, 176, 219, 225, 228, 232, 247.

[9] Richard B. Sher, The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 474–476, 510–531; James Green, “Robert Bell and the Beginning of a Native Reprint Trade,” in Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, eds., A History of the Book in America, vol. 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 283–291. Other sources on Bell include Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer [1938, 1964], 2nd ed. (New York: Dover, 1994), 149–150; Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, The Book in America: A History of the Making and Selling of Books in the United States, 2nd ed. (New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1952), 57–59, 88; Edwin Wolf, “The Dispersal of the Library of William Byrd of Westover,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 68 (1958), 19–106, esp. 24–30, and The Book Culture of a Colonial City: Philadelphia Books, Bookmen, and Booksellers (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press, 1988), 156–159; Sarah Knott, Sensibility and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 29–31.

[10] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers [1810], Marcus A. McCorison, ed. (New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 394–396.

[11] A watermark in the copy at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library shows that it was printed on paper from the English firm J. Whatman & Co. The other two known copies of the book are at the New York Public Library and the Winterthur Library.

[12] Among other activities, he participated in rag appeals and reprinted a treatise on papermaking.

[13] On the changes between editions see Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750–1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), 6.

[14] On the professional roles of carpenters in colonial building see Mary N. Woods, From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 10–13. On their books see David T. Yeomans, “Early Carpenters’ Manuals 1592–1820,” Construction History 2 (1986), 13–33.

[15] Roger W. Moss, Jr., “The Origins of the Carpenters’ Company of Philadelphia,” in Charles E. Peterson, ed., Building Early America: Contributions toward the History of a Great Industry: The Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia (Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1976), 41; see also idem, Master Builders: A History of the Colonial Philadelphia Building Trades (PhD diss., University of Delaware, 1972).

[16] The essential references are Helen Park, A List of Architectural Books Available in America before the Revolution, rev. ed. (Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1973), and Janice G. Schimmelman, Architectural Books in Early America: Architectural Treatises and Building Handbooks Available in American Libraries and Bookstores through 1800 (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1999).

[17] For discussion of the list see Moss, “The Origins of the Carpenters’ Company,” 41. Two master builders, Robert Alison and Benjamin Loxley, each purchased two copies, perhaps an indication that they wanted to use one copy in the field and keep another clean.

[18] King was a student at Thomas Nevell’s school (discussed below) and worked at Mount Pleasant; see Roger W. Moss, Jr., “John King (fl. 1770, d. 1804): Master Builder,” at Philadelphia Architects and Buildings,

[19] Eileen Harris and Nicholas Savage, British Architectural Books and Writers 1556–1785 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 450–454; Gerald Beasley, “Abraham Swan,” in Susan Higman and Nancy Eickel, eds., The Mark J. Millard Architectural Collection, vol. 2: British Books Seventeenth through Nineteenth Centuries (Washington, DC; New York: National Gallery of Art; George Braziller, 1998), 312–314.

[20] Rosamond Randall Beirne and John Henry Scarff, William Buckland 1734–1774: Architect of Virginia and Maryland (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1958), 97, 121, 126–129, 149; Lawrence Hall Fowler and Elizabeth Baer, The Fowler Architectural Collection of the Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore: Evergreen House Foundation, 1961), 274–275. On Buckland’s use of architectural books, including builders’ guides, see Luke Beckerdite, “Architect-Designed Furniture in Eighteenth-Century Virginia: The Work of William Buckland and William Bernard Sears,” American Furniture 1994 (1994), 29–33.

[21] On Mount Vernon see Hugh Morrison, Early American Architecture from the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period [1952] (New York: Dover, 1987), 363–364. For other examples of American houses with elements based on Swan’s pattern books see Heckscher and Bowman, American Rococo, 1750–1775, 18–21.

[22] Abraham Swan, A Collection of Designs in Architecture, vol. 2(London, 1757), pl. 29–32. Norman and Bell did not publish their own edition of this second volume. See Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600–1840, 3rd ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 944; and on Blair Castle see Arthur Oswald, Country Life (Nov. 4, 11, 18, 1949), 1362–1366, 1434–1438.

[23] Richard L. Bushman, “Stairways and Parlors,” The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 118­–122.

[24] Hannah Benner Roach, “Thomas Nevel (1721–1797): Carpenter, Educator, Patriot,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 24:2 (May, 1965), 154; citing the Shippen Letter Book at the American Philosophical Society (Jan. 28, 1754, Shippen to Charles Brockden). For Nevell see also Roger W. Moss, Jr., Master Builders, 121–124, and “Thomas Nevell (1721–1797): Master Builder; House Carpenter, Architect,” at For Nevell’s valuation of the staircase built for John Dickinson’s house see Nicholas B. Wainwright, Colonial Grandeur in Philadelphia: The House and Furniture of General John Cadwalader (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1964), 92–93, 147.

[25] Pennsylvania Gazette, October 31, 1771; discussed in Roach, “Thomas Nevel,” 156.

[26] Pennsylvania Gazette, October 7, 1772; discussed in Roach, “Thomas Nevel,” 157.

[27] Steven Rosswurm, Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and ‘Lower Sort’ during the American Revolution, 1775­–1783 (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 16; Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 43–44. On the apprentice system in the American colonies more generally see Howard B. Rock, Artisans of the New Republic: The Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson (New York; London: New York University Press, 1979); and W. J. Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[28] Moss, “Thomas Nevell (1721–1797)”; on Nevell and training in architectural drawing more broadly see Charles E. Peterson, Robert Smith: Architect, Builder, Patriot 1722–1777 (Philadelphia: The Atheneum of Philadelphia, 2000), 13–14.

[29] I thank James Green for the suggestion.

[30] Both copies are cited by Herbert Mitchell in Avery’s Choice, 141.

[31] On this dedication see Sher, The Enlightenment and the Book, 519.

[32] Eric Slauter, The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 61–62.

[33] Sinclair Hamilton, “‘The Earliest Device of the Colonies’ and Some Other Early Devices,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 10:3 (Apr., 1949): 120–123.

[34] For the emblem’s bodily imagery in the context of revolutionary political culture see Slauter, The State as a Work of Art, 55–63.

[35] There is an example of this medal in the British Museum (M.7746).

[36] Albert Matthews, “The Snake Devices, 1754–1776 and the Constitutional Courant, 1765,” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 11 (1906–1907), 409–452; J. A. Leo Lemay, “Assembly Sessions, the Snake Cartoon, and the Albany Conference, 1754,” The Life of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 3, Soldier, Scientist, and Politician, 1748–1757 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 364.

[37] Holt later ran the masthead with the snake-encircled monument atop his newspaper’s issue from July 11, 1776 that contained the printed Declaration of Independence.

[38] Karen Severud Cook, “Benjamin Franklin and the Snake That Would Not Die,” British Library Journal 22:1, Images and Icons of the New World: Essays on American Cartography (Spring, 1996), 105.

[39] Hamilton, “The Earliest Device,” 121.

[40] On the official seal see Frank H. Sommer, “Emblem and Device: The Origin of the Great Seal of the United States,” Art Quarterly 25:1 (Spring, 1961), 57–76.

[41] Harry B. Weiss, “John Norman, Engraver, Publisher, Bookseller; John Walters, Miniaturist, Publisher, Bookseller; and the ‘World Turned Upside-Down’ Controversy,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 38:1 (Jan., 1934), 5–6.

[42] Charles S. Olton, Artisans for Independence: Philadelphia Mechanics and the American Revolution (Syracuse University Press, 1975), 74; Richard Alan Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765­–1776 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 161 n. 41; Rosswurm, Arms, Country, and Class, 260–261.

[43] Gary B. Nash, “Up from the Bottom in Franklin’s Philadelphia,” Past and Present 77 (Nov., 1977), 79.

[44] Olton, Artisans for Independence, 69; Peterson, Robert Smith, 116–118.

[45] On this subscriber list see Richard B. Sher, “Charles V and the Book Trade: An Episode in Enlightenment Print Culture,” in Stewart J. Brown, ed., William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 184–192, and The Enlightenment and the Book, 522.

[46] Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 7, 1776. On the formation of the Committee of Privates and its Correspondence Committee see Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun, 133–134, 161.

[47] Rosswurm indicates no profession for Patrick Logan and identifies George Nelson as a clerk; I identify both as house-carpenters based on their stated occupations in the British Architect (Arms, Country, and Class, 260).

[48] Presumably it was printed after July, when Georgia officially sent its delegates to the Second Continental Congress.

[49] On craft identity in early America see Barbara McLean Ward, “The European Tradition and the Shaping of the American Artisan,” in Francis J. Puig and Michael Conforti, eds., The American Craftsman and the European Tradition, 1620–1820 (Minneapolis, MN; Hanover, NH: Minneapolis Institute of Arts; University Press of New England, 1989), 15.

[50] Richard Gimbel, “Introduction: An Account of the Publication,” Thomas Paine: A Bibliographical Check List of Common Sense with an Account of Its Publication (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 15–57.

[51] McCulloch, “Additions,” 176, 219.

[52] The proposal has the printed date of June 20, 1775, which is commonly used as the terminus ante quem for the British Architect. Thomas Nevell appears in the list of persons receiving subscriptions for the book; he is the only one not described as either a bookseller or a store-keeper.

[53] Heckscher and Bowman, American Rococo, 1750–1775, 8; Morrison H. Heckscher, Chippendale’s Director: A Manifesto of Furniture Design, published as Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 75:4 (Spring 2018), 45.

[54] William Macpherson Hornor, Jr., “The Famous Rittenhouse Orrery Case Made by the Philadelphia Chippendale, John Folwell,” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum 27:145 (Jan., 1932), 81–90, and Blue Book: Philadelphia Furniture William Penn to George Washington [1935] (Washington, DC: Highland House Publishers, 1977), 74–77, 236.

[55] Hornor, Blue Book, pl. 98; William Rea Furlong and Byron McCandless, So Proudly We Hail: The History of the United States Flag (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1981), 68–69; Heckscher and Bowman, American Rococo, 1750–1775, 14–15.

[56] Hornor, Blue Book, 95, 176, 186, 216, pl. 97; Slauter, The State as a Work of Art, 1–5. There is much that we do not know about the Speaker’s Chair, including how Folwell got the commission, or how much control he had over its design. Folwell was elected to the state legislature in 1777 but it is unclear whether he served in it. I am grateful to Karie Diethorn, Chief Curator of Independence National Historical Park, who shared her expertise with me.

[57] Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, 134.

[58] Hornor, Blue Book, 186.

[59] Gary B. Nash, “Artisans and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” in Ian G. Quimby, ed., The Craftsman in Early America (Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1984), 62–88.

Cite this article as: Carolyn Yerkes, “Print and Politics in the First American Architectural Books,” Journal18 Issue 11 The Architectural Reference (Spring 2021),

Licence: CC BY-NC

Journal18  is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC International 4.0 license. Use of any content published in Journal18 must be for non-commercial purposes and appropriate credit must be given to the author of the content. Details for appropriate citation appear above.