Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Charles S. Philips Photographic Collection

Greenbank Mill and the Philips House
There are many resources available to historical researchers in their attempts to reconstruct and make sense of the past. Public documents like censuses, birth, death, and marriage certificates, and government reports can give you an idea of what was going on where. Personal documents like letters and diaries can give insights into the why's of past lives. But for my money (such as it is) there's nothing quite like old photographs. Somehow, actually looking at an image (no matter how blurry) of a person or a place can make them seem real in a way that words on paper never can.

From what I've seen, at least, most of the historic photographs we have from the late 19th/early 20th Century era tend to come to us from professional photographers. Some are portraits taken in a formal studio, while many others were likely taken "in the field" by itinerant photographers. These were men (mostly) who traveled around with their camera and equipment and took pictures of those in rural areas who didn't have easy access to a studio in the nearest city. Some of these same itinerants took many of the photos for the postcards of the day, too.

All that being said, once in a while we're lucky enough to have some photos from a different kind of source -- an amateur photographer. Cameras were certainly not as common then as they are now, but they were not impossible to get or use, either. (In my own family, I have a great-great grandfather who had a camera in that era, and took some really cool shots. One was a triple exposure with three of him sitting around a table playing cards.) However, the process of taking and developing photographs at that time was still fairly involved. The people who did it really liked photography, and were probably very methodical people. They took pictures of things that interested them. We're fortunate enough that one such person like this hailed from Mill Creek Hundred, and came back to the area to take some wonderful photographs. Many of these photographs will be on public display later this month (August 2016).

Fell Spice Mill

Charles Sumner Philips was born on November 27, 1871 in Greenbank, Delaware, the eighth child of Isaac D. and Caroline Philips. At the time of Charles' birth, his father and his Uncle William were the operators of the Greenbank Mill, which they had adapted to do woodworking. Charles grew up on the grounds in the Philips House, which had been built nearly a century earlier by his grandfather's uncle. The family moved into Wilmington after selling the Greenbank property in 1888, and that's where Charles would find work.

Harlan-Chandler Mill in Milltown

Charles Philips found a job as a draftsman with the Pusey and Jones Company, makers of steel-hulled ships, railroad cars and other complex machinery. He would later hold the same position with Dupont. Perhaps it was growing up around the mill, but Charles developed an engineer's eye for machinery that certainly helped in his professional life. In the early to mid 1890's, he also developed (no pun intended) an eye for something else -- photography. Philips was a single (he didn't marry until later in life), comfortably middle class man with no television or internet to distract him, so he had the time and means to do something very constructive -- document on film many of the places and things that meant something to him

Many of those photographs Philips took are now in the care of the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS). Their collection contains over 450 glass plate negatives taken between 1895 and 1912. The locations reflect the places Charles Philips lived, including Wilmington, northern New Castle County, and southern Chester County. There is also a group taken in the Newport News/Jamestown, Virginia area, where Philips lived for a time around the turn of the century. The subjects reflect what he found interesting -- things like houses, mills, bridges, and meeting houses (the Philips family were Quakers).

Faulkland Road looking east. Faulkland Station is visible

Fairly early on, mostly between 1895 and 1897, Philips took a series of photographs in the MCH area. Many of them were along the Wilmington & Western Railroad line, then the Landenburg Branch of the B&O. The existence of these photos recently came to the attention of members of Historic Red Clay Valley (HRCV), the parent organization of the Wilmington & Western Railroad. HRCV obtained a grant to have professional, high quality digital scans made of approximately 60 of Philips' glass plates.

Marshall Paper Mill at Wooddale, station on left

On Friday, August 26, 2016, HRCV will host an exhibition gala celebrating the Philips Collection, at its Marshallton headquarters. More information can be found here. I've run across items from the collection over the years, but I never knew the story behind them. Some of the photos I've posted in the past are displayed on this page, along with some of the newly-printed railroad related ones. Looking at a comprehensive list of the CCHS's collection, there are still several dozen (at least) photo's that I don't think I've ever seen that would be fascinating to look at. Perhaps someday prints can be made of those, but in the meantime HRCV's new exhibit is a priceless look into the Red Clay Valley of the late 1800's.

Ashland Mill and station


  1. Very cool! I've already got August 26th circled on my calendar. I'm looking forward to see these prints~

  2. HRCV has also obtained several dozen digital images of the Landenberg Branch they will display in slideshow fashion. These are B&O photos taken in 1927 when damming the Red Clay Creek was under consideration for the construction of Hoopes Reservoir. A display of Landenberg Branch railroad right-of-way maintenance artifacts will also be on display. Parking is at Greenbank Station with The Paul Revere providing shuttle service to Marshallton.

  3. Wow! The Philips family didn't even know about this event! Looking forward to seeing my ancestor's exhibit.

  4. From what I was told, the people at CCHS were unsure of Charles' family connections. In my research looking at census and city directory information, I'm quite confident that he's who I say he is. Very cool for me since it adds another layer of MCH connection. Also explains his interest in the area and the Red Clay Valley.

    1. Thanks - my siblings and I are members of Greenbank Mill, as was my dad before us, and my sister even volunteers there as a shepherd. Rockwood, where I volunteer, (no connection) has a glass photo on display, and they are very cool.

    2. I'm related to the Philips family through Parmenio Phillips. He was born at the Phillips farm and mill in the 1810s.

    3. That's awesome! I remember the name, and I think you've commented before. Thanks for sticking around. As I'm sure you know but I'll tell everyone else. Parmenio was the son of John R, whose father Robert built the Philips House at the mill. Charles was the son of Isaac, son of John C., son of James. James and Robert were brothers. (Makes sense if you write it out.) Parmenio and Isaac were the same generation, so Charles and Parmenio may have been second cousins once removed. Not sure of that, though.