By Michael Schreiber
Members of the Stewart family, buried in the churchyard of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’ Church), had a long relationship with another important Philadelphia landmark—Carpenters’ Hall. The latter building, home to the Carpenters’ Company, served as the site of the First Continental Congress in 1774 and of the founding assembly of the state of Pennsylvania in 1776.
As a youth, James Stewart might have gone to sea (in later life, James was often addressed as “Captain”). Around 1809, he married Sarah Potter (born in New Jersey in 1790) at Gloria Dei. Their eldest son, Reuben, who later became a carpenter, was born about 1810, and their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, arrived in 1815. John, also a carpenter, was born in 1816, Sarah in 1818, James W. (later a sea captain) in 1824, Catherine (Kate) in 1827, Martha in 1829, Thomas in 1830, and Margaret in 1835.
By 1818, at age 31, James Stewart was listed at 17 Plum Street as a carpenter. He was elected to the Carpenters’ Company in 1833. One year before his election, according to Stewart family tradition, James worked on the partial demolition of the old Robert Morris mansion at Sixth and Market Streets, where Presidents Washington and Adams had resided in the 1790s.
In that year, 1854, the Stewart family moved from Plum Street to 2 Carpenters’ Court, in a house in the narrow alley that leads from Chestnut Street to Carpenters’ Hall. “Captain” James Stewart, now 67, seems to have retired from active work in the carpenters’ trade, and now worked for the Carpenters’ Company to carry out janitorial and maintenance work at the Hall and perhaps at nearby buildings. His wife Sarah assisted him in the job.
On Feb. 18, 1856, James Stewart Sr. passed away. His funeral took place at Carpenters’ Hall, from which a procession proceeded to the churchyard at Gloria Dei.
In June 1857, Carpenters’ Hall was renovated. Most of the major changes took place on the second floor of the building; the interior was divided into two sections, bisected by a hallway. On one side, the carpenters constructed a commodious library, which also was to be used as a meeting room. On the other side, living quarters were built for the family of the Superintendent (also called the “janitor” and the “keeper”) of Carpenters’ Hall.
The Company appointed Sarah Stewart as Superintendent. The choice was a logical one. Since she had been helping her husband in janitorial and gardening tasks, she was known and liked by Company members.
A year later, in late July 1857, the restoration of Carpenters’ Hall, though still not finished, had progressed to the extent that Sarah and her family were able to move into the second-floor apartment. Joining her were her own daughters Martha and Margaret.
Sarah’s duties went far beyond janitorial work. She was also given the responsibility of supervising the Carpenters’ Company’s library, which lent books on a wide range of topics to members and their families. Sarah also planted and maintained the small garden on the Carpenters’ Hall grounds—just as she had done while her husband was still alive. Sarah also served as a tour guide for visitors who wished to see the hall and its collection of framed documents and artifacts from the carpenters’ trade and from the period of the Revolution.
On Feb. 16, 1872, after acting as guardian of Carpenters’ Hall for twenty-six years, Sarah Stewart died after a lingering illness. She was 82. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (Feb. 20, 1872), the funeral was held at the Hall a day earlier and “nearly all the members of the Carpenters’ Company” joined in the procession from the Hall to Old Swedes’ Church, where the funeral sermon was preached at her graveside. Her remains were interred beside those of her husband, who had died exactly sixteen years earlier.
Following her mother’s death, Martha Stewart, who had shared many of the responsibilities at Carpenters’ Hall, serving particularly in the role of librarian, was provisionally appointed Superintendent. In May 1872, Martha was hired on a permanent basis at a salary of $50 a month.
Martha Stewart soon became a noted and beloved figure at Carpenters’ Hall. She played a major role in the activities staged at the hall during the 1876 Centennial celebration. That year saw close to 70,000 people visit the hall, although the heavy crowds engendered the need for major “cleansing,” painting, and repairs following the close of the Centennial. On Jan. 17, 1877, Martha was commended for her “ladylike bearing in greeting visitors to the Hall” during the Centennial.
In the early morning of Feb. 8, 1893, Martha Stewart passed away at Carpenters’ Hall at the age of 64. Her death was noted in newspapers around the country.
In Martha’s obituary, the papers commented that “her face has been a familiar one to men who have grown aged and whitehaired while following commercial pursuits in the business heart of Philadelphia.” Private services were held at Martha’s residence in Carpenters’ Hall, and the funeral took place at Gloria Dei, where Martha was interred.
departed this life
February 18th 1856
in the 69th year of his age.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyelids close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown
And behold thee on thy throne
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee
widow of James Stewart
Born Oct. 30, 1789
Died Feb. 16, 1872
“So many there."
Martha J. Stewart ...
- Foot Stone -
the memory of
Capt. James Stewart
son of James &
and Josephine his wife
who were lost at sea
Type of Marker: Headstone and footstone
Issues: Biogrowth, blistering, sugaring, sunken
Comments: Base is 1ft below grade
Recommended Treatment: Cleaning w/ biocide, consolidation, fill cracks/blisters, pinning and gluing, raising, removing old pins
Historic Integrity: Intact
Structural Integrity: Good
Material Integrity: Good
Legible Inscription: Poor
Degree of Bioturbation: 1/4 sunken
Inventory Number: 252
Plot Number: 508
Historic Number: 217
Ledger Book Number: 293
Cemetery Section: 5
Marker Height/Length (in): 41
Marker Width (in): 22
Marker Thickness/Depth (in): 5
Footstone Height (in): 15
Footstone Width (in): 16
Footstone Thickness (in): 3