Philadelphia Merchant Isaiah Williamson Betrayed his Stingy Reputation

The 19th-century investor funded the Williamson College of Trades, among other philanthropic endeavors.

Sometimes, it’s all in how you ask.

In the 1870s, Philadelphia merchant Isaiah Williamson was thought a bit of a skinflint. Then a local physician hit him up for a donation to what would become the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Williamson—who had built a $20 million fortune through business and investments—discovered he liked philanthropy, so he proceeded to give it all away.

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Williamson’s largest bequest was $2.1 million (about $50 million today) to found the Williamson College of the Trades. The school, which opened in 1891 in Media, still provides a free education to young men of “good moral character” in such areas as masonry, carpentry, turf management, and power-plant technology.

“It was seeing boys, ragged and barefooted, playing or lounging about the streets, growing up with no education, no trade, no idea of usefulness, that caused me to think of founding a school where every boy could be taught some trade free of expense,” Williamson explained to the Philadelphia Times.

Born on a Bensalem farm, Williamson was one of eight children of Quakers Mahlon and Charity (Vansant) Williamson. He attended a neighborhood school until he was 12, then transferred to the Quaker school at Fallsington, a daily walk of eight miles. After three years there, he apprenticed himself to local storekeeper Harvey Gillingham.

“[Williamson] showed a developing aptitude for business, though not in an extraordinary manner,” wrote his friend John Wanamaker, the department store magnate. “He was a prompt, painstaking, dependable, industrious fellow with good sense and right principles, with a greater liking for a store than the farm.”

The store was a business center for surrounding townships. It was the point to which farmers delivered their produce and from which they obtained everything for the farm and home—iron stoves, tools, clothing, fabric, soap. “Young Williamson threw himself, with heart and soul, into this whirl of country trading life,” wrote Wanamaker. 

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As was the custom, he lived with the Gillingham family, receiving board, lodging and clothes, plus $50 per year, with raises as time passed.

Eighty years later, an elderly woman of the neighborhood remembered her mother describing Gillingham’s apprentice as “a young man of sterling worth, prompt and deft in waiting upon customers, respectful and polite to all, an admirable clerk, as much interested in the business pertaining to the store as was [the owner].”

Until his death, Williamson claimed that his experience with Gillingham was the best thing that had ever happened to him. The only downside was that he fell in love with Gillingham’s daughter, Mary, who died of tuberculosis.

“Isaiah’s life was powerfully affected by the loss of his companion,” wrote Wanamaker. “This sorrow was regarded at Fallsington as the chief reason of his going to Philadelphia when he’d completed his apprenticeship.” 

Williamson never married.

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At the end of his apprenticeship in 1825, he moved to Philadelphia and went to work as a salesman at a store on Second Street, near Chestnut. Within a year, he learned that the owner of another store, at Second and Pine, was ready to sell. Williamson had $2,000 in savings, but first turned to a cousin and his father for advice. Both were enthusiastic. Mahlon even sold cattle to make his son a loan.

Williamson did well. Part of the reason was that he had brought his thrifty country habits when moving to the city. A clerk, Nelson Burroughs, had worked at a store in Taylorsville, also in Bucks County, and the two were “congenial” in their approach to getting things done. Unlike other merchants, who might hire out projects, these two did everything themselves, if they could.

“Many a time, Williamson might have been heard to say something like this: ‘Nelson, get out the wheelbarrow, and we’ll bring over those goods I bought at auction,’” relayed Wanamaker. “If they could save cartage, so much the better.”

Williamson later made a partner of Burroughs, who had a talent for soliciting business from Southern merchants visiting the city. “He used to go to see them at their hotels, won their confidence, entered into their social life, and thus obtained a large share of their trade,” Wanamaker explained. “It is said that he sometimes sold goods to the amount of $300,000 in a year—a phenomenal showing for a young salesman in those days.”

While Burroughs went on to become a bank president, Williamson was becoming Philadelphia’s foremost dry-goods merchant. By 1838, he’d built an estate worth roughly $100,000 (about $2 million today) and retired. He was only 35.

At the time, it was not uncommon for successful men to retire from business relatively young for a life of leisure. Williamson spent a lot of time reading. He studied French. He traveled through much of the United States and Europe. And within a couple of years, Williamson was screaming bored and a bit depressed.

Wanamaker explained: “He had cut the connection with the living forces and activities of his time. He could not rid himself of the thought that he was a lone man, without an object in life.”

 

Back in Philadelphia, Isaiah Williamson focused on his investments. He had put money into railroads and coal mines and, in the 1840s, the growth of both was about to explode. Perhaps anyone might have gotten rich in that environment, but Williamson approached investing as a job. “He made himself thoroughly familiar with all the corporations, their men and methods of management, and the possibilities of advancing values,” wrote Wanamaker. “The hardheaded, thorough businessman that he had always been held him off from being drawn into operations through friendship or sentiment.”

Williamson questioned everything. A decision to invest was only the beginning. He often insisted on joining a company’s board, then became active in one or more committees. Williamson’s business experience helped him anticipate real estate trends. “By his foresight, he went ahead of the changes and revolutions ever going on in city localities, buying properties sure to advance and holding them for a time,” wrote Wanamaker. 

But he didn’t sit on real estate for years. “His practice with all his investments was to sell at a fair profit and not wait to get all the advance, letting others have the chance for a part of it.”

According to Wanamaker, Williamson began thinking about philanthropy on his foreign travels. Europe’s great universities, its public buildings, and much of its art were made possible by rich—or royal—patrons. “The world,” he said, “grew larger and finer to him as he wandered through the British Museum and the National Gallery of London. The great universities were, to him, the living representatives of the wise and good, whose benefactions had made possible these great seats of learning.”

But how to apply that insight to Philadelphia? When Williamson first arrived there, Stephen Girard had been the talk of the town for success in a business career that didn’t begin until he was past 40. Girard had died in 1831, but the 1848 opening of Girard College reignited quite a few memories.

“[Williamson’s] conscience was now keenly alive to what Girard had done—after he was 40—and to the fact that he himself had stopped before he was 40,” said Wanamaker.

Here, accounts diverge. According to Wanamaker, Williamson began giving away his money in the 1850s. His giving was always anonymous and always followed careful research. “He would put his finger on [recipients’] weaknesses and waste,” wrote Wanamaker, “and he made it a rule to leave those which he decided were sentimentally impractical so severely unhelped as to call down upon him the condemnation of some of his friends.”

Williamson later said that he’d begun thinking about a trade school for poor boys in the 1850s. But not until the mid-1880s did he outline the idea.

Nevertheless, insisted Wanamaker, Williamson gave away “thousands and tens of thousands of dollars” to asylums and orphanages, hospitals and benevolent societies, libraries and universities.

A different picture was painted by historian and Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in his 1901 history of Penn. When the planning for its hospital began, the state legislature appropriated $100,000 in 1872, on the condition that another $250,000 be raised from other sources. According to Chamberlain, Penn provost William Pepper approached Williamson, “a man noted for his wealth, but almost equally for his unwillingness to give from it.”

Despite that “repellent” reputation, Pepper and a colleague visited Williamson’s “dark little office in an obscure building on a narrow street.” They talked for 30 minutes, during which Williamson asked only two questions, then ended the interview, saying he would think about it. 

A few weeks later, a check for $50,000 arrived. It was, by far, the largest contribution to the hospital fund. Another $50,000 followed, along with $100,000 in Williamson’s will.

It could be that Wanamaker overstated Williamson’s previous generosity. Perhaps his preference for anonymity and some high-profile refusals meant that Chamberlain did not have a true picture of the man. Regardless, the moment marked a turning point, and Williamson’s giving became more public, especially for causes benefiting children—orphans of Union soldiers, for example.

Williamson later said that he’d begun thinking about a trade school for poor boys in the 1850s. But not until the mid-1880s, when he was in failing health, did he outline the idea to the business associates who would make it happen.

Williamson’s top concern was structuring the bequest to reflect his beliefs, not those of whatever trustees would follow. Opposing the “architectural
display” that many administrators with a pile of free money wouldn’t be able to resist, he suggested using existing buildings on the site “until the number of [students] is sufficient to justify” construction. Williamson also proposed that students should live with local families and work on getting the building into shape.

He toured the chosen site on New Middletown Road in February 1889, pronounced it “very nice,” then died two weeks later. He was buried at the entrance to the administration building.

Some things changed. The school later hired architect Frank Furness to design seven campus buildings, some of them dorms. Chapel is still mandatory, and the 250 students remain all male. 

“There should be nothing in history like Mr. Williamson’s vast gift,” enthused the New York Sun. “It surpasses in magnitude the benefactions of Peabody; it exceeds the magnificent Girard bequest; it is larger than the entire endowment of Harvard, Yale or Columbia.”

Thank goodness that someone thought to ask.

Williamson College of the Trades in the early 20th century.

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