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. Many 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. Merchants 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 also flourished in the years immediately following independence.
With growing prosperity, Philadelphia’s private sector also began to increase its commercial presence. 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.