History is everywhere in Philadelphia. It echoes in centuries old buildings, historic sites and attractions scattered thick over the terrain. From the earliest printed views of the colonial era through commercial lithographs of the post-Civil War period to an exceptional body of images of the Centennial, they comprise a momentous and far-reaching body of American iconography.
A significant slice of those original prints and maps have resided-- at one time or another-- at the Philadelphia Print Shop. Tucked on a cobblestone corner in the lively village of Chestnut Hill in northwest Philadelphia, the shop first opened its doors nearly three decades ago.
On a sun-splashed morning a trio of visitors steps inside the handsome brick façade building. Perched behind a front counter, Don Cresswell warmly greets the newcomers who are part of the brisk Saturday “walk-in” trade. A trim man with a distinguished gray beard and an easy smile, Cresswell co-owns the business with Chris Lane who recently opened a “Print Shop West” in Denver.
If the duo looks a tad familiar, you’ve probably seen them in their roles as expert appraisers on the PBS Antiques Roadshow over the past dozen years.
“People around Philadelphia realize that so many 18th century treasures were produced right here,” says Cresswell, a youthful 69. “That’s why we put Philadelphia in our name, most Americans relate to the city in historical terms. I tell our patrons they are trolling in some of America’s richest waters of antique prints and maps.”
A sloping walkway towards the front door hints to the room’s former life as a butcher shop. Prints smother the wall space and overflow from racks. Countless oak and pine file cabinets and display cases are crammed and stacked high with antique views that flow to the rear of the building. The shop is as it should be cluttered but everything in its place. Poking about is highly encouraged.
Vivid horseracing and foxhunting prints span the 18th and 19th centuries from both America and England. A rich procession of historic moments and political cartoons catch your eye. Nearby, stunning illustrations of flora and fauna are displayed along with the glorious birds of John James Audubon and 125 prints of Currier & Ives Americana.
“People love Currier & Ives prints because they tell some of the best stories of life in the 19th century, like folks skating on a lake or a railroad scene,” observes Cresswell. “The railroad was such a powerful force in America back then.”
After graduating from Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, Cresswell worked at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. on its collection of Revolutionary War prints. He was a college librarian and later worked for Graham Arader Galleries that specialized in antique prints and maps.
The Print Shop sells antique prints and maps — no reproductions — to the casual shopper, beginning collectors and famed institutions. A collector’s approach to choosing prints should be based on theme, publishing history and condition.
“They are precious artifacts, physical vestiges of which we are as much care-takers as owners,” Cresswell says. “It’s better to spend a bit more than one might prefer to acquire an appropriate print. The chance to add that print to your collection may never occur again.”
The Print Shop’s greatest coup was the sale of the 100,000,000th acquisition to the Library of Congress that Cresswell handled in 1993. It was a lot of 600 original prints and drawings from the early 19th century artist John Rubens Smith and his family.
The Print Shop employs a staff of seven, and exhibits at four book fairs and 15 major antique shows around the country, including Philadelphia and the 48th Delaware Antiques Show, November 4-6.
“Don has been a valued contributor to our success since 1984 and is one of our consistent participants whom our clientele expect to see each year,” says Harry Gordon, Winterthur Museum’s dealer liaison volunteer at the show.
Strolling to the rear of the shop the chromolithograph “The Old Violin” grabs your attention. In the late 19th century chromolithographs were hailed as "the democracy of art" for middle-class families, selling for less than $10.
The work was created by Philadelphia silver engraver William Harnett who studied drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. The painting was purchased by a Cincinnati printmaker who turned it into chromolithographs that sold briskly.
“The blues, the browns, the reds, they all were layered up, and this gave them a texture and richness and feel of an oil painting," Cresswell explains. “Heavy oil-based inks were used to create the effect, and they have prevented fading over time. At antiques shows, people think they're original oil paintings. The quality is that good."
We climb the stairs and enter a warren of rooms where venerable wooden floors show years of travel. Streams of bookcases bulge with reference works, rare plate books and a broad inventory of antique maps and atlases.
Maps have guided the quest of man since the earliest days of civilizations. ere, Here, the maps vary from whole countries to patches of land in this area. The most common maps printed on paper that survive today are those inside books or atlases, but others were created as separate broadside maps, folding saddle-bag and pocket maps, and the ever-popular wall map.
The Print Shop’s most prized one is a saddle bag map of pre-Revolutionary War Pennsylvania from 1759 by William Scull that has survived the typical wear and tear of modern day foldable maps and still remains in excellent condition. Its price tag is $110,000.
“To have lasted so long in such good condition is remarkable,” Cresswell notes. “It’s a wonderful picture of the times.”
Early European cartographers represented include Sebastian Munster, Abraham Ortelius, Gerard Mercator, Willem Blaeu and Englishman John Speed.
You might find some of those mapmakers’ gems being appraised by Creswell and Lane on Antiques Roadshow. Part adventure, part history lesson, and part treasure hunt, each week nearly 10 million viewers tune in for the PBS program. Six shows are taped each summer. More than 5,000 folks march into selected convention centers all over America to gain free appraisals of yard sale bargains, items salvaged from attics and basements, and cardboard boxes filled with a range of heirlooms and kitsch.
“Initially it was Chris (Lane) who sold me on it, so we auditioned and got the positions,” Cresswell recalls. “We have somewhat more outgoing personalities than perhaps some other print and map dealers so that might have swayed the decision.”
The partners receive no appearance payment or even expenses to travel to sites around the country. The Print Shop’s payoff: its name and location is flashed up on your television screen as they begin each appraisal.
“The exposure has opened the doors to a wealth of opportunities,” Cresswell acknowledges. “However, appraisers are forbidden from buying or selling on the floor. There is a table with our business cards that allows folks with valuable items to contact us a day or two later, and sometimes we broker a sale.”
This summer Creswell visited Minneapolis, Atlanta and Pittsburgh where he manned his station from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The lines lengthened throughout Saturday morning forcing attendees to wait hours before arriving at a triage table where initially the Roadshow’s staff examines the items. The fortunate ones get face time with an appraiser. While many believe they possess a lost treasure of Americana, mostly Cresswell is charged with telling visitors that their family heirlooms are not worth much at all.
“After doing the show for so long, you realize is that it's as much about the people as it is about the objects," he observes. "It's not about always the value of the items. Some are about the provenance or the esthetics, how beautiful the object is. But a lot of times it's more about the fascinating family stories."