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Phillips family business records

Creation: 1793-1838
Accession: 1924


The Phillips family were prominent Philadelphia merchants and manufacturers over four generations. The records consist of four volumes of merchant and importer William Phillips (1771-1845), a daybook from the textile firm of Lewis, Phillips & Co., and an unrelated receipt book of Philadelphia wine merchant Francis Coppinger, dating from 1794 to 1795.


  • Creation: 1793-1838



6 volume(s)

Biographical Note

The Phillips family were prominent Philadelphia merchants and manufacturers over four generations. John Phillips (1702-1762), the founder of the family in America, was the son of a Welsh curate. He ran away to sea, and he eventually rose to be a successful merchant captain. Quarreling with his wife's family, he determined to emigrate to America. He sailed to Barbados and purchased some ill enslaved persons from the captain of a slave ship with the profits of the voyage. After they recovered from illness, Phillips sailed to Philadelphia, where he established a rope walk with his mate as a foreman and the enslaved persons as laborers. His son, John Phillips (1739-1806), continued the business.

William Phillips (1771-1845) clerked in the counting-house of George Meade (1741-1808) and became a merchant and importer. He began in the French trade but later extended his operations to the West Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Far East, generally trading Pennsylvania foodstuffs for rum, wine, spices, and cloth. He maintained a large house in Philadelphia and a farm and summer home on the Delaware River north of the city. He also invested in city real estate and speculated in land in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Kentucky.

John Smith Phillips (1800-1876), the eldest son of William, was a skilled mechanic and manufacturer. His first venture was a partnership with Joseph S. Lovering (1796-1881) in a sugar refinery. He later joined his brother-in-law, David Lewis (1802-1895), operating a cotton-weaving mill in Holmesburg. In 1825, Lewis, Phillips & Co. took a ten-year lease of the Old Sable Forge and Nail Works at Rockdale on Chester Creek and built a cotton mill with 200 power looms. The sugar refinery failed in 1826, and William, who had endorsed his sons' notes, lost a portion of his fortune, while Lovering was briefly jailed for debt. By contributing his expertise to the textile business, John Phillips overcame his reverses. In 1835, when the Rockdale lease expired, he removed the operation to Fairmount in Philadelphia.

John S. Phillips was a founding member of the Franklin Institute in 1824. He was also a leading member of the Academy of Natural Sciences and an accomplished conchologist. In later life, he invented a slide lathe to cut screws of irregular sizes and engaged in the manufacture of fine ivory turnings. He privately supported the technical training of young mechanics. He assembled a large collection of "Old Master" prints and engravings, which became part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art collections.

Scope and Contents

The records consist of four volumes of William Phillips dating from 1771 to 1845 and a daybook from the firm of Lewis, Phillips & Co., plus an unrelated receipt book of Philadelphia wine merchant Francis Coppinger, dating from 1794 to 1795.

The personal account book of William Phillips dating from 1793 to 1807 details his numerous merchant ventures, including voyages to the Caribbean, Canton, Dunkirk, Morocco, and Calcutta. It records profits and losses for individual voyages and wages paid to seamen, his transactions in Philadelphia real estate, and speculations in frontier lands. William's household expense book dating from 1808 to 1818 records payments to servants and farm laborers, with names, occupations, days worked, and wages. The volume also records payments for household provisions, some of which came from his own farm. It also contains accounts for a trading voyage with the ship Margaret to Guernsey and London from 1795 to 1796. William's Riversdale Farm accounts dating from 1821 to 1830 document the commercial production of butter, eggs, pork, and cider, as well as the purchase of manure from the city streets, the raising of livestock, and the cutting of firewood. A second personal account book dating from 1826 to 1838 documents William's activities after he ceased to be an active trader and transferred his money into real estate and stocks. The accounts record house and ground rent on his sizeable holdings within Philadelphia County and as far away as Virginia. Non-real estate investments include several turnpike companies, banks, and insurance companies. The companies include the Frankford and Bristol Turnpike Road Company, Germantown and Perkiomen Turnpike Road Company, Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, and Susquehanna and Lehigh Turnpike Road Company, among others. The volume also includes thirty pages of accounts documenting William's involvement in his son's textile firm and the losses sustained in the sugar refinery.

The daybook of Lewis, Phillips & Co. dating from 1825 to 1830 documents the operation of the Rockdale cotton factory with occasional references to the operation at Holmesburg. It includes the construction costs for the Rockdale mill, the purchase of raw materials, and the shipment of products, including shirting, sheeting, ticks, calicoes, etc. One entry records an expense for advertising for weavers in Philadelphia.

The receipt book of Francis Coppinger dates from 1795 to 1796 and documents personal expenses as well as Coppinger's mercantile trade in wine, sugar, and cotton with the brig Nancy. Transactions include board and lodging for Coppinger and his servants, servant's wages, cellar rent, laundry bills, wharfage, etc. The Coppinger family was apparently associated with William Phillips in several ventures. Some entries in the Coppinger volume are in French and German.

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Finding Aid & Administrative Information

Phillips family business records
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Revision Statements

  • 2022: Angela Schad

Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA