Life in Philadelphia


Digital image via Library Company of Philadelphia.

Edward Williams Clay, Life in PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia plates 3, 5, 7, and 11 printed by William Simpson in Philadelphia, 1828-1829. New York lithographs No. 5 and No. 9 printed by Anthony Imbert in New York, ca. 1830. Life in Philadelphia Collection.

Edward Williams Clay was arguably the most prolific caricaturist of the Jacksonian era. Famous for the Life in Philadelphia series published between 1828-30, Clay’s social caricatures lampooned the pretensions and social ambitions of early nineteenth-century middle-class Philadelphians, especially educated, free African Americans. Influenced by increasing racism in the North, Clay depicts African Americans with exaggerated features, wearing outlandish clothes, and speaking in patois and malapropisms that ineptly mimicked white high society. His caricatures address courtship, society balls, fashion, freemasonry, and the election of Andrew Jackson.

While Clay originally published Life in Philadelphia as a set of fourteen prints (via William Simpson, proprietor of a “fancy store”), Anthony Imbert re-issued the series as lithographic prints in New York and London, where they became incredibly popular. The series—and Clay’s fame—continued to grow over the next two decades.