Just as houses reflect their owner's aspirations, business owners want commercial
buildings to make a statement about the businesses that occupy them. Particularly
before the emergence of mass media, a commercial building may have been the most
powerful advertisement for the business within.
In colonial America business operated at a relatively small scale since many of the
larger economic operations, like banking, were taken care of in the mother country. Most
businesses operated out of the homes of their owners. Craftsmen would sell their wares
out of their houses and merchants would live above their shops. Businessmen would
gather in taverns to make deals and investments.
After the revolution, Philadelphia was both the new nation's capital and its largest city. In
finance, the new nation followed the English example and chartered a national bank to
manage its money supply. Several other public and private banks followed. With
growing prosperity, Philadelphia's private sector also began to increase its commercial
presence quickly. Established businesses like insurance companies grew rapidly and
outgrew their earlier locations. Merchants got together and formed an early commodities
exchange and hired an architect to build a building to house it.
Remember though, these large, monumental buildings only tell a very small part of the
nation's early commercial history. Just the way surviving houses often tell the story of the
rich and famous, almost all the small commercial shops and workplaces have not
survived. Since commercial buildings are often on a city's most valuable ground, even
most of the larger commercial buildings from before the Civil War, like shopping
arcades and large emporiums, are gone and replaced by newer structures.