The Philadelphia Custom House records consist of materials generated by and related to the United States Customs Service of the Port of Philadelphia from 1779 to 1932.
Following the American Revolution, and prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, each state attempted to set up its own customs service. However, the adoption of the Constitution transferred the power to levy import tariffs from the states to the federal government and gave Congress control of international trade relations. The United States Customs Service was established on July 31, 1789, as a branch of the Treasury Department. Initially, Congress created 59 customs districts in 11 states, each with a customs collector and a naval officer. Many larger ports, like Philadelphia, also employed surveyors, inspectors, weighers, gaugers, and revenue-cutter crews, all reporting to the customs collector. The Customs Service was instituted to control shipping, enforce laws regulating exports and imports, and prevent smuggling. However, its primary function was to generate much-needed revenue for the new federal government. By 1860, the U.S. Customs Service was responsible for collecting nearly half of the revenue taken in by the federal government.
According to Douglas L. Stein, author of American Maritime Documents, 1776-1860 (1992), the U.S. Customs Service was “originally responsible for the collection of duties on imported goods, the registering and licensing of American vessels, the enforcement of all maritime and navigational laws, and the management of regulations governing the entry and clearance of seamen and passengers. While these functions remained, responsibilities were expanded and became more specialized during the nineteenth century.” (Stein, 59) The Customs Service’s additional responsibilities included issuing regulatory documents, collecting passenger lists from vessels arriving from foreign ports, holding imported goods in bonded warehouses until duties were paid, keeping official records on the sale of vessels, and collecting hospital fees from arriving vessels to fund the Marine Hospital for sick and disabled seamen. The expansion and specialization of the Customs Service also contributed to the rise of brokers, intermediaries who transacted customs house business on behalf of importers and exporters.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania established the Custom House in Philadelphia in 1784, five years prior to the creation of the United States Customs Service. Its first collector, Sharp Delaney, was later appointed as the district collector under the U.S. Customs Service. The Philadelphia Custom House moved several times in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, keeping its offices at 119 South Front Street, in Carpenters’ Hall, and on Second Street below Dock Street. The duties from the Philadelphia Custom House were deposited in the First and Second Banks of the United States, until the federal government removed its funds from the Second Bank in 1833. Following the demise of the Second Bank of the United States, the federal government purchased the land and building. It became home to the Philadelphia Custom House in 1845, where it remained for nearly 90 years. The Custom House moved to its current location on Chestnut Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets in 1934.
A note on provenance and the history of the collection:
In the late 1930s, the Philadelphia Custom House had accumulated a massive collection of records, including documents from various branches of government and other customs depositories. At this time, Congress passed an act that allowed the Archivist of the United States to make recommendations on the disposal of “useless papers.” Although the National Archives and Record Administration specified that only certain materials dated after 1910 be discarded, the clerks at the Philadelphia Custom House were given only a few hours to complete the order for disposal. Their hurried efforts resulted in the disposal of forty tons of records from all periods of the Custom House’s history, most of which were sold to scrap paper companies. Rare book and manuscript dealers purchased some of the discarded records, often paying by the pound. The University of Delaware’s collection of Philadelphia Custom House records was purchased by Samuel Moyerman soon after its disposal by the Custom House staff. Members of the Moyerman family donated the collection to the University of Delaware Library in 1972.
In 1980, the University of Delaware Library allowed the Winterthur Museum and Library to select and microfilm documents from this collection to support scholarship in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. Winterthur staff microfilmed approximately 2,000 items related to the importation of ceramics, glassware, hardware, and textiles. This project generated inquires and interest in the collection from a specialized circle of scholars.
University of Delaware Library Special Collections and Museums. "Selections from the Philadelphia Custom House Records." Accessed December 7, 2017. http://exhibits.lib.udel.edu/exhibits/show/customhouse
Dow, Elizabeth H. Archivists, Collectors, Dealers, and Replevin: Case Studies on Private Ownership of Public Documents. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012.
Futrell, William H. The History of American Customs Jurisprudence. New York: Published Privately, 1941.
Mallory, John A., compiler. Compiled Statutes of the United States, 1913, Embracing the Statutes of the United States of a General and Permanent Nature in Force December 31, 1913, Vol. 3. St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1914.
Stein, Douglas L. American Maritime Documents, 1776-1860, Illustrated and Described. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., 1992.
Wescott, Ralph Wesley. An Historical Account of the Customs Service, The Buildings and Some of the Principal Persons Connected Therewith at the Port of Philadelphia. Camden, NJ: The Haddonfield Craftsmen, Inc., 1934.
Whiteman, Maxwell. Forgers & Fools: The Strange Career of “Baron” Weisberg and the Incredible Story of Documents Destroyed and Disburdened from the Philadelphia Custom House. New York: The Typofiles, 1986.
Custom House Document Collection, 1790-1866, Collection Overview, G.W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport (accessed June 9, 2017)
Ships’ Papers Collection, 1786-1866, Collection Overview, Fairfield Museum and History Center Library (accessed June 9, 2017)
United States Custom House Records, Providence, Rhode Island, 1789-1940, Collection Overview, Rhode Island Historical Society (accessed June 9, 2017)
New York Custom House Records, 1792-1896, Collection Overview, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library (accessed June 9, 2017)
United States, Custom House, San Francisco Records, 1847-1912, Collection Overview, The Bancroft Library, The University of California, Berkeley (accessed June 9, 2017)
Records of custom houses, toll collectors, and the U.S. Treasury Department, 1789-1870, Collection Overview, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School, Harvard University (accessed June 9, 2017)
Neville Peterson, LLP, “Duty Drawback: Fundamental Concepts and Techniques” (accessed June 9, 2017) http://www.npllptradelaw.com/duty-drawback-fundamentals/
Information derived from the collection.
The Philadelphia Custom House records consist of materials generated by and related to the United States Customs Service of the Port of Philadelphia from 1779 to 1932. These records illustrate commercial and shipping interests, as well as foreign trade relations, in the United States from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. The materials also highlight the growth of the U.S. Customs Service as it took on new responsibilities and wielded greater authority over the course of the nineteenth century. In addition to documents related to shipping and paying duties, the collection also contains materials related to marine insurance, the internal administration of the Philadelphia Custom House, and the activity of ship crews.
This collection offers a wealth of information on the economic, political, and maritime history of the United States as well as on transatlantic commerce. A variety of documents chart the movement of commodities through the port of Philadelphia, including both raw materials and manufactured goods. The collection also documents the organic growth of government recordkeeping and the creation of bureaucratic structures within the U.S. Customs Service and Treasury Department.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Customs Service transitioned from handwritten documents to standardized printed forms; however, the production of records by multiple hands in numerous ports guaranteed the persistence of idiosyncratic documentation. Customs officials created records on various qualities of paper and embellished their documents with seals, stamps, and patriotic engravings. Developments in maritime transportation are reflected not only in registration, inspection, measurement, and surveying documents, but also in the changing iconography of ship engravings on manifests, crew lists, and bills of lading.
Although the entire nineteenth century is well-represented in this collection, the greatest amount of material is from the 1820s through the 1880s. There is a small amount of material for the first two decades of the nineteenth century. However, there is minimal information regarding the Embargo Act of 1807 or the War of 1812. Materials from 1861 to 1865 do not directly reference the U.S. Civil War, but numerous outward manifests show camp supplies, munitions, and anthracite coal for steamers going to Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads, Alexandria, and Norfolk, Virginia; New Bern and Beaufort, North Carolina; Annapolis, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Hilton Head, South Carolina, on the account of the United States government.
There is little information in these records regarding immigration apart from a set of immigration vessel inspection reports created in 1880. This set of twenty-two documents is grouped with materials on custom house administration.
There are four "series" in this collection: (1) the Philadelphia Custom House records; (2) the seamen's protection certificates; (3) The Custom House letterbooks; (4) and the microfilm of selected Philadelphia Custom House records. The first "series" comprises the bulk of the collection.
(1) PHILADELPHIA CUSTOM HOUSE RECORDS
This "series" is arranged chronologically by year and then sub-divided into nine groups of document types for each year. These groups include invoices; manifests; entries of merchandise; returns and appraisement; duties and drawback; bonds, receipts, and bills of exchange; marine insurance; custom house administration; and seamen and crews. Some years consist of only one or two groupings of documents, while others feature all nine groupings.
Additionally, material that was included in the 1985 Winterthur Library microfilming project is arranged in the same manner, sorted chronologically by year and then subdivided into the nine groups of document types. To facilitate identification of this "Winterthur material," where applicable, folders designated "W" (Winterthur) are filed behind other collection materials belonging to the same year and document grouping. For example, the folder of ships’ manifests for the year 1830 would be followed by the folder of selected ships’ manifests for the year 1830 microfilmed by the Winterthur Library. The actual microfilm is housed in the fourth "series" of this collection.
Most of the invoices in this grouping relate to the transfer of goods from foreign merchants and manufacturers to recipients in the port of Philadelphia. The person sending the shipment to be delivered, known as the consignor, created an invoice describing the goods being shipped and their total cost to the consignee, usually the receiver of goods. Costs included not only the value of the goods themselves, but also porterage costs and a commission fee to the party brokering the exchange. Most invoices were entitled “invoice,” but others described goods “Bought of” (or “Bot of”) a particular party. Invoices were also entitled “Facture” (French), “Factura” (Spanish), “Fatura” (Portuguese), and “Rechnung” (German) depending on their port of origin.
In addition to a description of goods, invoices also included the names of the ship and captain transporting the goods and the marks and numbers on cargo. Invoices occasionally described on whose “account and risk” the cargo was transported. Many invoices also included consular certificates issued by the American consul in each foreign port. These certified that the consignor formally attested to the accuracy of the invoice. This grouping also includes a number of loose consular certificates that pertain to invoices.
The invoices in this grouping document the exchange of a wide variety of goods, including manufactured goods, foodstuffs, agricultural products, and raw materials for industrial production.
Examples of invoices can be seen in an online exhibition hosted by the University of Delaware Library: Selections from the Philadelphia Custom House Records: Invoices.
Manifests were detailed statements of a vessel’s cargo carried by the shipmaster from the point of departure to the destination. Manifests came in various sizes and formats, but most had columns for cargo marks and numbers, a description of goods carried, the names of the consignor and consignee, the vessel’s name and home port, the owners’ names, and the points of departure and destination. The manifest also included a sworn statement of its accuracy signed by the shipmaster and a verifying signature from the customs collector at the port of destination.
Many early inward cargo manifests also included the names of passengers arriving and any ship’s stores. Beginning in 1820, the shipmaster or captain of a vessel arriving at an American port had to submit a separate list of passengers to the district’s collector.
Most of the manifests in this grouping are inward cargo manifests. However, there are a number of coasting manifests, used for excursions between domestic ports, outward manifests, and passenger manifests. Manifests were the official documents consulted when pursuing legal action regarding a vessel’s cargo. Many manifests had a small engraving of a ship in the upper left-hand corner.
Examples of manifests can be seen in an online exhibition hosted by the University of Delaware Library: Selections from the Philadelphia Custom House Records: Manifests.
Entry of Merchandise
This grouping encompasses the largest variety of document types. Most of these documents were generated and distributed by the Philadelphia Customs Service and pertain to the entry and landing of merchandise and baggage.
The most common document type in this grouping is the inward foreign entry certificate, which the customs collector issued whenever imported foreign cargo arrived in his district. The certificate contained much of the information present on the manifest, including a description of the goods, cargo marks and numbers, the name of the ship and master, and the points of departure and destination. In addition, it required an oath from the consignee or owner of the imported goods stating that the items were legally imported, the manifest was accurate, and that the appropriate duties had been paid. Once completed, the collector signed the certificate and released the goods from the port’s authority. Collectors also issued certificates to vessels going to another U.S. district with inward bound cargo on which duties had not yet been paid, ensuring that all appropriate duties were secured on imported goods before they entered the private market.
When illegal goods, or items on which duties had not been paid, arrived in the port, they were discharged from the vessel and consigned to a customs warehouse, sometimes called the Public Store. The collector’s office then issued a certificate describing the goods delivered into the warehouse. They remained there under the supervision of the customs storekeeper until the consignee paid the duties or the government sold the goods at public auction.
Once a ship’s papers were in order and all relevant duties were paid on imported goods, the custom house issued a permit to land cargo to the shipmaster. This permit was almost always signed by both the collector and the designated naval officer in the port. After presenting the permit to the customs inspector, the shipmaster could unload his cargo.
In addition to dutiable foreign merchandise, the custom house also inspected personal baggage. With the entry of baggage permit, the collector authorized the customs inspector to examine personal baggage for dutiable articles and return all goods that were not subject to taxation. Baggage inspection was the primary method for identifying smugglers.
This grouping also contains a small number of clearance certificates, issued by collectors in Philadelphia and elsewhere to vessels before they could depart for a foreign port. Vessels that departed without presenting their ship’s papers or obtaining a clearance certificate could be subject to a heavy fine.
The final type of document in this grouping is the bill of lading, in which the shipmaster acknowledged the receipt of cargo and reaffirmed his obligation to deliver it to the consignee. Most bills of lading featured engravings of sailing vessels and began with the words “Shipped in good Order.” Although these documents were part of the private transaction between the shipmaster and the owner of the goods, they are often attached to entry certificates in this grouping. To avoid confusion, loose bills of lading are also included in this grouping.
Returns and Appraisement
The Customs Service of Philadelphia employed a wide variety of workers to inspect, measure, weigh, gauge, and transport imported goods. After receiving a permit and inspecting a ship’s cargo, these employees issued returns to the collector, certifying that the quantity and description of goods onboard matched the manifest and invoice and that there were no further dutiable articles. This grouping contains returns from customs inspectors, gaugers, weighers, surveyors, and measurers. Gaugers were responsible for measuring the amount of liquid in barrels, including molasses, wine, spirits, and honey.
The collector of the port appointed appraisers to assess the value of imported goods. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, appraisers primarily assessed damaged goods, recording cargo marks and numbers, the description of goods, the value of goods per the invoice, and the allowance rate for damage. Prior to 1818, the appraisement of goods subject to an ad valorem (value-based) duty were based only on the sworn entry of the importer and the accompanying invoice. This led to rampant undervaluation, so appraisers were then appointed to determine value as well as assess damage. If an importer was dissatisfied with an assessment, he could apply for a second appraisement of his goods. Documents in this grouping pertain to the appraisement and reappraisement of goods.
Examples related to returns and appraisement can be seen in an online exhibition hosted by the University of Delaware Library: Selections from the Philadelphia Custom House Records: Returns and Appraisement.
Duties and Drawback
According to Stein, “during its formative years America did not have many finished products to export. Most domestic products and raw materials did not garner high profits for their exporters. One way in which Americans could make large profits, however, was to participate in the carrying trade, in which the more expensive products from the British and French West Indies (such as sugar) were bought by Americans and resold to Europeans. The first tariff law of 1789 recognized the importance of this carrying trade by providing for a refund, or Drawback, of virtually all duties paid on goods that were imported only to be exported within the year. Drawbacks made the carrying trade profitable.” (Stein, 69) Drawback could also be claimed on imported materials that were made into American manufactured goods and then exported. The use of drawback became popular during the Anglo-French Wars of 1793-1815, when American ships acted as neutral carriers to Europe.
Drawback documents were generated by both custom house officials and American consuls in foreign ports. Stein explains the process of obtaining drawback: “To claim drawback monies, the importer first needed to obtain an entry of merchandise and one that certified his intention of exporting the cargo listed on the form of entry. If the goods were transferred within the United States, the new owner would also need to attest that he intended to export the cargo. If the cargo was transported along the coast, the owner had to obtain forms permitting him to do so. Lists of the transported cargo would be made at the original port and would be checked at the next port, providing that the owner had obtained a form permitting him to unload the goods at those ports. The maximum number of coastwise transfers an owner could make was two, after which the Drawback could not be claimed. When the goods were exported, their owner could apply for a debenture in the amount of the Drawback, but he was required to sign a bond for twice that amount. The bond was released if proof of exportation, usually in the form of sworn statements by the consignee, the principal officers of the delivery vessel, and the American consul at the foreign port, arrived within the time specified within the bond, usually one or two years. Notary documents, swearing compliance with drawback regulations, might also be required to support an exporter’s request for a rebate.” (Stein, 69)
There are a large number of documents pertaining to Drawback in this grouping, including certificates for exporting goods from a district other than the one of original importation, bonds on the exportation of goods, notarized oaths regarding the landing of goods in a foreign port, and debenture certificates. The largest number of Drawback documents can be found in the materials from 1800 to 1860.
This grouping contains other materials related to customs duties, including documents protesting their payment. Some importers protested the payment of duties altogether, arguing that their goods were not subject to tariff. Others protested that duties were too high compared to the value of their merchandise.
Bonds, Receipts, and Bills of Exchange
This grouping includes a number of other financial records generated by both customs officials and private individuals. Most of the bonds in this grouping relate to transactions between the custom house and importers of merchandise. If importers chose not to pay duties on their cargo immediately, they could sign a bond with the custom house stating that they would pay half the duties in three months, and the remaining balance within six months of the importation date. If the importer defaulted on payment, he would be charged twice the original amount of duties. There are also a small number of bonds for foreign voyages dating to the early nineteenth century, in which owners or masters swore that their vessel would not engage in trade with particular nations lest they be obliged to pay a substantial penalty.
Many of the receipts in this grouping pertain to outfitting ships, purchasing goods, and paying assorted debts. Some involved customs officials, but most were created by private individuals.
There are also a small number of bills of exchange, promissory notes, and other negotiable financial instruments in this grouping.
This grouping includes documents pertaining to protection against lost or damaged cargo during a sea voyage. In the late colonial era, marine insurance was underwritten primarily by wealthy merchants who pledged to pay a portion of the cargo’s value if it was lost. These underwriters spread their support across numerous voyages to mitigate the risk of heavy loss and, hopefully, turn a profit. Several companies for marine insurance incorporated in the 1790s, and by the mid-nineteenth century the marine insurance industry was firmly established in the United States. This grouping contains insurance policies, lists of subscribers, certificates of insurance, and abstracts of insured ships. It also includes several notes of protest, claims initiated by shipmasters for lost or damaged cargo.
In addition to formal instruments of marine insurance, this grouping also includes several General Average Statements. According to Stein, the General Average refers to the loss “suffered by the voluntary sacrifice of cargo. Thus if a consignee’s cargo was jettisoned in order to save the ship and the rest of the cargo, it would seem only right that the other consignees compensate the one suffering the loss, since they benefited from the act. The idea of general average contribution was founded upon the principle of co-partnership between the owners of a ship and cargo, for mutual protection, and limited liability against the extraordinary dangers of sea travel…The amount contributed by each co-partner to the total in the event of a sacrifice was directly proportional to the value of his cargo after it was saved.” (Stein, 95) Interested parties were expected to contribute to the General Average whether or not they were insured. The General Average Statement detailed the loss of cargo and the ultimate contribution of each party.
Many of the marine insurance documents from the early twentieth century do not specifically mention the Philadelphia Custom House. Most of these materials are policies from English insurance companies.
Custom House Administration
This grouping consists of records documenting the internal operations of the Customs Service of Philadelphia that were generated in the course of its daily activity. Many of these records document employee compensation, including quarterly, monthly, or daily statements of service and receipts for wages. Inspectors, gaugers, weighers, measurers, appraisers, and night watchmen all submitted statements for payment to the customs collector. In addition to payroll, the collector disbursed payments for debenture, drawback, overcharges, rent of custom house offices, and other incidental expenses. The collector also reviewed employment applications.
This grouping also contains daily and monthly reports generated by custom house employees and submitted to the customs collector or U.S. Treasury Department. These includes reports on cargo weights and measurements, vessels surveyed, vessels arrived, and duties collected.
The Customs Service of Philadelphia also generated a large amount of internal and external correspondence. Most of the materials in this group relate to the customs collector, the appraiser, and various employees in the U.S. Treasury Department. The Treasury Department often issued circulars to collectors at various ports that informed them of the latest legislation and conditions affecting customs administration.
This grouping contains a small amount of materials regarding the licensing, registration, and enrolment of vessels by the Customs Service of Philadelphia. Vessels engaged in fishing or the coastal trade were required to obtain a license from customs officials. Starting in 1793, the U.S. Customs service required vessels over twenty tons engaged in fishing or the domestic coastal trade to be registered or enrolled.
The customs collector occasionally administered oaths of allegiance to the United States. These were especially important during the U.S. Civil War, and several oaths can be found in the custom house administration groupings for 1862, 1863, and 1864.
Finally, the custom house administration grouping for 1880 contains twenty-two reports regarding the inspection of immigrant vessels from Liverpool and Antwerp arriving in Philadelphia. These documents record the names of ships and captains, tonnage, ports of departure, dates of sailing, length of voyages, descriptions of ship ventilators, and numbers of decks. They also include basic demographic data on passengers, and information on passenger space, food, and medical services. All of the reports were generated by Harry H. French and submitted to the customs collector.
Examples of documents related to Custom House administration can be seen in an online exhibition hosted by the University of Delaware Library: Selections from the Philadelphia Custom House Records: Administration.
Seamen and Crews
Materials related to seamen and ship crews often passed through the Philadelphia Custom House. Documents in this grouping include articles of agreement, crew lists, and seamen’s protection papers. The articles of agreement specified the conduct of officers and crew during a particular voyage. It stated the conditions agreed to by a vessel’s managers and its crew, and included each crew member’s signature, station, birthplace, age, height, wages, and other demographic information. A Congressional Act in 1790 required every vessel sailing to a foreign port to carry the articles of agreement, which provided legal evidence of the nature and length of the voyage, duties to be performed, and wages due.
Starting in 1803, masters were required to keep a crew list as part of the ship’s papers and deliver it to the customs collector before departing on a foreign voyage. The collector then presented the master with a certified copy of the list and a clearance certificate. On the voyage, the shipmaster was required to produce the men named and described in the crew list, and to account for any who were not present. The upper section of the crew list contained the master’s name, the ship’s name, the ship’s tonnage, and the voyage’s destination. The body of the crew list consisted of demographic information on individual crew members, including names, ages, birthplaces, residences, complexions, and crew status.
Other materials in this grouping include a list of deserters, documentation on hospital money, and returns of seamen.
(2) SEAMEN'S PROTECTION CERTIFICATES
This "series" includes a small number of seamen’s protection papers dating from 1821-1822 and 1917-1918 that have been separated out from the chronological arrangement and placed in Box 11. Sailors obtained these documents from the custom house, public notary, or American consul in a foreign port. As Stein notes, the protection papers included the sailor’s “name, birthplace, approximate age, height, skin color, hair and eye color, and other distinctive descriptive information, such as the location of scars or tattoos.” (Stein, 145)
Examples of seamen's protection papers can be seen in an online exhibition hosted by the University of Delaware Library: Selections from the Philadelphia Custom House Records: Sailors.
(3) CUSTOM HOUSE LETTERBOOKS
This "series" includes eleven letter books containing internal correspondence within the Philadelphia Custom House and external correspondence involving the Customs Service, Department of the Treasury, U.S. consuls, brokers, and merchants. Most of this correspondence relates to protests of appraisement value, customs regulations, and the activities of employees. The letter books cover the years 1878, 1882-1893, and 1901-1905. These letter books are housed in Box 12.
This "series" includes four reels of microfilm created by the Winterthur Library. The microfilmed documents highlight the importation of consumer goods into the United States during the mid-nineteenth century.
University of Delaware Library Special Collections and Museums. "Selections from the Philadelphia Custom House Records." Accessed December 7, 2017. http://exhibits.lib.udel.edu/exhibits/show/customhouse