Joseph Brevitt Townsend papers supplement

Biographical and Historical Notes

Joseph Brevitt Townsend

Joseph Brevitt Townsend (1821-1896) was a prominent Philadelphia lawyer who practiced estate law and also acted as legal consultant to several commercial, insurance, and trust companies. In addition to a successful legal career, he was involved in the management of many other city institutions including the Board of Guardians for the Poor, the Pennsylvania Hospital, Jefferson Medical College, and the Western Savings Fund Society of Philadelphia.

Joseph Brevitt Townsend was born in Baltimore County, Maryland, to Joseph and Sarah (Hickman) Townsend. The son of a saddler, Joseph Brevitt was educated mainly at the well-respected Bolmar's Academy in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Upon completion of his schooling, he apprenticed with prominent Philadelphia lawyer Eli Kirk Price. Townsend passed the bar in 1842 at the age of twenty-one and practiced law in Philadelphia for the duration of his career. Townsend’s private practice mainly focused on estate law but included commercial and insurance law as well. He served as legal consultant for several commercial, insurance, and trust companies.

Joseph Brevitt Townsend was married twice. His first marriage, to Mary E. Price, lasted only nine years, ended by Mary's death in 1856. J.B. and Mary Townsend had three children: Edward Shippen Burd (1849-1851); James Price (1851-1900); and Eleanor Holliday (1853-1894). Three years after Mary's death Townsend married Adaline (Ada) E. Barton. J.B. and Ada had three children: Joseph Brevitt, Jr. (b. 1861); John Barton (b. 1865); and Charles Cooper (1867-1914). Although Joseph Brevitt Townsend worked in Philadelphia, he and his family lived in the suburb of Overbrook. The four Townsend sons who survived into adulthood entered the law profession, and worked with their father at certain points in their careers. J.B. Townsend, Jr. graduated from the Law School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1884, and was admitted to the bar in that same year. He then went into practice with his father, and they worked together until the death of J.B. Townsend, Sr. in 1896. In addition to his legal practice, Joseph Brevitt, Jr. was the solicitor for the Western Saving Fund Society of Philadelphia, and the director of both the Provident Trust Company, and the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company, of Philadelphia. After the death of his father, Joseph Brevitt, Jr., was joined in his legal practice by his brothers James Price and Charles Cooper. The three brothers maintained their father's practice under the name Townsend, Elliot & Townsend. A fourth son, John Barton, pursued the study of law in his father's law office after he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1884. In 1885 he became a clerk for the Provident Life and Trust Company. He remained with this company for the duration of his career, eventually becoming vice-president.

Eli K. Price

Eli Kirk Price (1797-1884) was a prominent lawyer and law reformer of Philadelphia and handled the most important estates in the city. He specialized in equity and real property law, and mentored J.B. Townsend in such law when he was preparing to enter the bar.

In 1828 Eli Price, a Quaker, married fellow Friend Anna Embree and they had three children. He served in the State Senate from 1854 to 1856 and in these years was involved in the passage of legislation that allowed for Philadelphia's growth. He was also instrumental in city improvement projects such as the creation of Fairmount Park in 1867. As a legal reformer, Eli K. Price focused on revising conveyance laws, particularly to protect women's property rights in marriage.


T.L. Montgomery. Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography, Vol. 14. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1914.

Chronicle of the Union League of Philadelphia, 1862-1902. Philadelphia: Union League, 1902.

Scope and Content Note

The Joseph Brevitt Townsend papers supplement, spanning the dates 1800-1920, contains substantial additions to the original collection and documents the professional career of the Philadelphia lawyer, Joseph Brevitt Townsend. The supplement comprises 5.8 linear feet of legal and personal correspondence, wills and estate records, legal proceedings, legal account and receipt books, and other judicial and financial records.

In tandem with the original collection, the supplement also exhibits the professional work of Eli K. Price (Townsend's mentor and later business partner), as well as the work of Townsend's four sons: James Price, Joseph Brevitt Jr., John Barton and Charles Cooper.

The supplement is arranged into three series: I. Correspondence, II. Legal documents, and III. Financial documents.

Series I. consists of legal and personal correspondence of Joseph Brevitt Townsend and various Philadelphia legal entities during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The majority of the correspondence concerns mortgages and the settlement of estates. These include letters relating to the estate of Confederate Brigadier General Alexander W. Reynolds (1817-1876), as well as Philadelphian Charles Picot, whose estate records may be found in the original collection. Other notable correspondence includes a letter to architect Horace Wells Sellers, (1857-1933), a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) committee that restored Independence and Congress Halls in the early twentieth century. James P. Townsend’s correspondence includes the last will and testament of William (W.G.) Malin who served as steward of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in West Philadelphia (now the Kirkbride Center) from 1841-1883.

Series II. comprises documents divided into two subseries: estate records and legal documents. Series II.A. consists of inventories, appraisements, and settlements of estates. It also includes indentures, summonses, receipt books, wills, leases, charters, and affidavits. The materials document the proceedings of Townsend and Price in private practice and within the Pennsylvania court systems including, the Supreme Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the High Court of Justice-Chancery Division, and the Orphan’s Court of the City and County of Philadelphia. The series also includes the last wills and testaments of Joseph B. Townsend and his wife Ada E. Townsend.

Joseph Brevitt Townsend and Eli K. Price were the executors of the will of Philadelphia lawyer Edward Shippen Burd (1779-1848), whose estate records include various construction agreements for the Burd building (now demolished) on Ninth and Chestnut Streets. The Burd Building estate records include letters from prominent Philadelphia architect John McArthur, Jr. regarding the building’s use of marble. Other notable estate records include documents relating to Woodlands Cemetery which was purchased by Eli Kirk Price in 1840.

The series also includes the last will and testament of Francis Darley, who bequeathed an “original study of Victoria, Queen of England,” as well as other original works by his grandfather, artist Thomas Sully, to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Series II.B. consists of general legal documents relating to the professional work of Eli K. Price, Joseph Brevitt Townsend, and his sons. Spanning 1800-1920, the subseries is arranged chronologically by decade, and contains contractual documents, checks, receipts, indentures, wills, and other judicial records. These documents are representative of the role of Eli Kirk Price, Townsend, and his sons in the settlement of land disputes, general mortgages and deeds of trust, conditions of sales, statements of payment, and exemplification of deeds. Documents relating to the Provident Life and Trust company, including its charter and bylaws, further demonstrate the work of the Townsend sons who managed many of the company’s affairs. This series also contains documents relating to the original deed to the Free Quaker Meeting House on Fifth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia.

Series III. contains financial documents including account books of J.B. Townsend, James P. Townsend, Charles C. Townsend, and the firm Townsend, Eliot, and Townsend. The series also contains receipt books, checks, planners, bills of sale and other financial documents.