top of page

Oil Cloths at Bush Hill

Oil cloth is a closely-woven cotton or linen cloth that is made waterproof by applying a coating of boiled linseed oil. In colonial times patterned oil cloths were placed over hardwood floors for protection and gave the appearance achieved by linoleum today. Linoleum was first developed in 1860 and is similar, but the backing is burlap or canvas, again treated with linseed oil. Modern linoleum uses polyvinyl chloride as the backing. What does this have to do with the Baldwin Park neighborhood, or, in former times, what was called the Bush Hill neighborhood?

oil cloth carpet.jpeg

An oil cloth on the dining room floor in colonial era Craig House in Baltimore. This, obviously, would be a high-end model.

Isaac Macauley (1782-1854) began the first oil cloth business in the United States in 1816 at Broad and Filbert Streets. In 1818 he purchased the three-story brick Bush Hill Mansion that had been built for Andrew Hamilton in 1740, but by 1818 had fallen on hard times, especially due to a fire in 1808 that gutted the interior. He converted the mansion on Buttonwood (then Fairview) Street between 17th and 18th (then Schuylkill 6th and 5th respectively) Streets into an oil cloth factory, and added a few adjoining buildings at the southeast corner of 18th and Spring Garden. His purchase extended from Spring Garden to Pennsylvania Avenue, and he erected his own mansion on Hamilton Street between 17th and 18th. His success spurred expansion into carpet manufacturing, but the 1837 recession forced him out of the business, though the business listing persisted at this address up until the 1847 Philadelphia directory under the name of Isaac Macauley, Jr. 

morris 1810 map.jpeg

Portion of an 1810 map showing the Bush Hill Mansion in upper right.

bush hill 1818 castner flpM.png

Bush Hill Mansion had been built in 1737 by Andrew Hamilton, as discussed on our website here. It later served as the Vice-President's house for John Adams in 1790-1791, then as a hospital run by Stephen Girard during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

This bill from 1818 has the view of the structures from the south (photo credit here).

bush hill girard first floorS.png

This mural is one of four on the first floor of Founders Hall at Girard College. It depicts Stephen Girard, in shirtsleeves at center, supervising the admission of another yellow fever patient at Bush Hill hospital.

Tours of Founders Hall can be scheduled in person or virtually at outside link here.

Bush Hill hospital remained a general infectious disease hospital until 1795.

oil cloth macauley ad 1831.jpeg

Ad from 1818 in Paxton directory  Macauley notes that he did some remodeling to Bush Hill before moving in with his oil cloth manufacturing. The building in this ad is the Fairview (now Buttonwood) Street aspect of the Bush Hill Manor, which was the original main entrance.

Can't blame a business for touting its historic address.

oil cloth 1831 map.jpeg

Portion of the 1831 City Atlas

The Bush Hill Manor is part of Macauley's carpet factory on 18th Street between Fairview and Morris (now Buttonwood and Spring Garden) Streets. The zig-zag shape in the center of this image is Macauley's plant, apparently one of the very first businesses in our neighborhood. The numbered lines are elevations.

Thomas Potter had worked at the Macauley plant before starting his own oil cloth works in 1840 on 3rd Street in partnership with James Carmichael. In 1849 Potter bought the Bush Hill property from the then owner Charles Henry Fisher, and ran his oil cloth factory independent of Carmichael, who stayed on 3rd Street. Potter continued at Bush Hill until the widening of Spring Garden Street in 1871 spurred him to relocate. He sold the property to Isaac Budd, who subsequently sold off parcels as residential lots. Potter himself did well at his new location at 2nd and Erie Avenue, said to have the largest such business in the United States, producing one million square yards of oil cloth and 1.5 million square yards of furniture and carriage cloth per year. Potter died in 1878 at his country estate, Evergreens, in Chestnut Hill.


This history is found in the section on "Oil Cloth" in the 1887 book here and updated in the 1905 book here. There is also a 14-page report on Philadelphia carpet manufacturing in the Congressional Record of 1894 here. A section on Potter from the 1891 book Philadelphia and Popular Philadelphians is here.

oil cloth potter 1849.jpeg

1849 ad for the firm of Potter and Carmichael at 135 North 3rd Street, an early N3RD.

oil cloth hexamer 1866.jpeg

Portion of the Hexamer map from 1866 showing Thomas Potter's Oil Cloth Manufactury at the southeast corner of Spring Garden and 18th Street. Spring Garden Street runs horizontally at top and 18th Street vertically on the left. On the top right are the buildings of the defunct Norris Locomotive Works.

Building #5 is a three-story brick and stone building of the same width as the Bush Hill Mansion.

potters oil cloth 1867 map.png

Portion of 1867 map showing Potter's factory at the southeast corner of 18th and Spring Garden Streets

Isaac Budd sold off lots that sprouted large four-story homes lining Spring Garden Street. These homes stayed intact until the 1970's, at which time vacancies and dereliction led to the demolition along the entire block by 1980. There was a Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) substation on the northeast corner of Buttonwood and 18th Street from the 1950's until 1985, when the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) added a building that connected to the old Mint building via a pedestrian bridge over 17th Street.

oil cloth north sg 1958.jpeg

South side of the 1700 block of Spring Garden Street in 1958, prior site of the Bush Hill Mansion, Macauley's, and Potter's. The sidewalk needs mowing.

oil cloth 1736 sg 1958.png

1736 Spring Garden Street in 1958. This building housed a social club, accounting for the sign on the front, and this may explain why this was the last house to be demolished on this block in the 1970's.

Charles Cramp, the president of William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building, lived here in the last decades of the 19th century.

oil cloth peco 1958.jpeg

Looking east on Buttonwood in 1955.

The plain brick PECO substation is on the left.The Mint is in the back left. Notice the first two buildings on the right, which seem to be almost twins (minus the clerestory windows on the southern one). They front 17th Street and are between Buttonwood and Hamilton Streets. In 1955 they served as warehouses before being demolished by 1965. A CCP building now occupies the site of these twins.

Most of the history articles on this website seem to highlight change, so it's nice to recognize persistence. Following the changing yet persistent Bush Hill Mansion from 1737 to 1875 through multiple usages is one example. Another is looking at the twin buildings on the right in the photo above and following them back in time.

sellers factory 1868.jpeg

View looking east down Hamilton Street in 1868 at the William Sellers & Company Machine Works. Sellers occupied this site until 1943.

The buildings in front left are those twin buildings seen in 1955. Sellers bought them from Richard Norris after Norris Locomotive Works abandoned the site in 1866.

norris 1855.jpeg

View looking north on 17th Street in 1855 at the Norris Locomotive Works. Hamilton Street runs left to right on the near-bottom of this sketch. Those same twin buildings, here with the southern one having clerestory windows, are seen at lower right. Norris built most of these structures on or after 1836.

oil cloth buttonwood st.jpeg

View from 2020 looking northeast at the southeast corner of 18th and Spring Garden Street, one of the few empty lots in the neighborhood. The street sign in top right says  "<- 1800 Buttonwood St," but Buttonwood Street doesn't exist now on either side of 18th Street.

thomas potter school 1897 pab.png

The Potter name still lives in Philadelphia.

This image from 1897 is of the Thomas Potter Grammar School which was built in 1891 about a half mile from Potter's oil cloth factory, then run by his son. As noted in outside article here, the current Potter-Thomas School was formed by the merger of Potter School and Thomas School, both named after Thomas Potter, and was highly regarded for its bilingual education in what was an area with many Spanish speakers.

oil cloth macauley potter.jpg

Forever linked.

Grave of Isaac Macauley and kin in a prominent location at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The obelisk on the far side of the tree in the distance is that of Thomas Potter Jr, who followed his father Thomas Potter Sr. in the oil cloth business, as his father had followed Macauley at Bush Hill. All were wealthy enough to afford prime real estate in cemeteries, Potter Sr. being buried in the Woodlands Cemetery.

Potter Jr.'s wife could also afford a ticket on the maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912, and she was in the first lifeboat leaving the damaged liner. She would die in 1954 at age 98, and is buried here in Laurel Hill with her husband. For more on Lily Potter see outside link here.

authored by Joe Walsh, June 2020

bottom of page