American Unknown : Mose: Life in Philadelphia
American Unknown (Mose: Life in Philadelphia)

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Artist: American Unknown
Title: Mose: Life in Philadelphia
Year: c. 1848
Media: Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper, 12 3/8 x 9 3/8 in.
Description: Formerly entitled "A Man in Front of the Arch Street Theater"

Inscribed in ink at lower left: “ARCH St. Theatre/BURTON manager/MOSE/LIFE IN/PHILADELPHIA”

This work is an advertisment for the immensely popular Mose series of plays. The actor Frank Chanfrau (1824–1884) played Mose in an afterpiece for a benefit at Mitchell’s Olympic Theater in New York City in 1848. Chanfrau performed a small excerpt from the play A Glance at New York by Chanfrau’s friend Benjamin Baker. The performance was so well-received that the play was rewritten with Mose as the main character and retitled New York as It Is. It became a tremendous success, running for a record-breaking 47 straight nights. Chanfrau began traveling the country making appearances as the New York “bowery b’hoy” fireman Mose.

The inscription on the poster at the lower left provides valuable clues that help to date this watercolor. The title of the play advertised in the poster most closely corresponds to a farce by an unknown playwright called Mose’s Visit to Philadelphia that was performed at the Arch Street Theater nine times during the first two weeks of July 1848. The somewhat comical figure standing in front of the theater is the play’s main character, the fireman Mose. While it is unclear if Frank Chanfrau himself played Mose in the 1848 production, he is known to have appeared there in September of 1849.

The Arch Street Theater, which seated approximately two thousand people, was built between Sixth and Seventh streets in 1828. The original theater was torn down and replaced by the second Arch Street Theater in 1863.

William Evans Burton—who's name is inscribed on the poster—was a noted playwright, comedian, and theater impresario who immigrated to the United States from England in 1834 and settled in Philadelphia. He became manager of the failing Arch Street Theater in 1844, oversaw extensive renovations to the building in 1846, and had a tremendously successful season in 1848. Burton has been described by one historian as “the figure that stands at the keystone of the Philadelphia Theater through the fifth decade of the nineteenth century.”1 He later moved to New York and operated his own theater on Chambers Street.


1. Arthur Herman Wilson, A History of the Philadelphia Theater 1835 to 1855, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935), p. 35; the dates of the performances are listed on p. 618.

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Price: This item is no longer available for sale
Inventory: RS 5552
Category: •a:American•nineteenth century•Philadelphia•city•architecture•theater•actor•fireman•Arch Street Theater•Mose•Chanfrau, Frank•
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