Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide

About the Builders' Guide

If "newspapers are the first rough draft of history," the Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide is the first rough draft of Philadelphia's building history. Published weekly between January 1886 and November 1940, the Builders' Guide is unquestionably the single richest published source for documenting buildings in Philadelphia, containing hundreds of thousands of specific building references as well as statistical and editorial analysis of the building trades during the city's most dramatic period of growth.

Modeled after the Real Estate Record of New York City, which began publication in 1868, Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide was founded in 1886 by publishers McNamee & Bright, both of whom had worked in the real estate advertising departments of established Philadelphia daily papers. By 1900 there would be similar papers with similar titles in Chicago, Montreal, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The Builders' Guide differed from mass circulation papers in that its target audience was not the general public, but the building profession. This included not only architects and builders, but general contractors, real estate developers, bankers, investors, conveyancers, and a host of tradesmen of all sorts from bricklayers to plumbers to glaziers to electricians.

The Builders' Guide provides unmatched detail of the activities of, and complex relationships between, architects, engineers, bankers, builders, developers, and tradesmen of all kinds from roofers, to plasterers, to garden suppliers, to gas fitters. In thousands of cases, the Builders Guide is the ONLY published source that links an architect, developer, or contractor with a specific building. Furthermore, since the format of this newspaper includes "Advance News", "Building News" and "Contracts Awarded" it is often possible to trace sequentially, the history of a building from first announcement of intent to build, to a listing of all architects who submitted plans, to all contractors that submitted bids, to the awarding of those architectural and trade contracts, to the actual construction start, and, often years down the line, the multiple alterations and additions that were done to that building. Also included are listings of property conveyances, liens and sheriff sales.


The only complete, original run of the Builders' Guide was acquired by architectural historian, George E. Thomas, Ph.D., after its disposal by the Free Library of Philadelphia. Beginning in the late 1970s, Thomas and his firm, Clio Group, Inc., were the first to use the Builders' Guide in a systematic, data-driven survey of Philadelphia. Three decades later, in 2001, Thomas gave the Builders' Guide to the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

Value & Significance

The historical period of the Builders' Guide (1886-1940) is one when Philadelphia was the proudly self-styled "Workshop of the World." The Builders' Guide tells the story, week-by-week, of how that came to be, as each mill, warehouse, factory, stable, and garage was erected. In doing so, it provides the details of construction at such internationally significant industrial firms as Stetson Hats, Baldwin Locomotives, the Atlantic (Oil) Refining Company and Campbell's Soup. What is often overlooked in the study of Philadelphia's industrial history, however, is that throughout this period the building industry itself was consistently among the top 10 leaders in capital expended, workers employed, and value of goods produced.

Though the primary focus of the Builders Guide was Philadelphia, its weekly issues featured building starts from Washington DC to Boston, MA. The paper had a national distribution as verified by the masthead claim in 1911 that Builders' Guide advertising agents had offices in New York, and Indianapolis and Europe. The work of nationally significant firms such as Daniel Burnham of Chicago, and McKim Mead & White of New York, regularly had their work featured in the Builders' Guide.

Among the obvious beneficiaries of this digitization project are students and educators in the fields of architecture, urban planning and preservation. The Builders' Guide proves invaluable to economic historians researching the impact of the cyclical depressions of 1893, 1907 and 1929. Likewise, the effect of defense build-ups in 1917 and 1938-1940 are reflected on the pages of this periodical. Scholars of graphic design and advertising can also use this resource, since so much of every issue was devoted to trade advertisements targeted not at the general public, but at fellow building professionals.

Scholars will be mining the research treasures of the Builders' Guide for generations. Digitization of the ONLY known paper copy makes this long-hidden data accessible for the first time. Scanning from the original, as opposed to microfilm, makes the resulting digital resource more attractive, easier to use, and its OCR fidelity more accurate.