Society Hill: The Man Full of Trouble Tavern — Maintaining Mischief in Colonial Philadelphia

Within the rich historical heart of Philadelphia’s Society Hill, 127-129 Spruce Street houses a small Georgian building that has a very interesting sign post. The sign depicts a colonial couple, with the man holding a parrot in his hand and a monkey on his shoulder while a cat rests on the woman’s basket. Yet, during the colonial era this image would have been recognized as a much more humorous one - a man carrying his wife piggy back. This is the Man Full of Trouble Tavern, a home for hot food, warm beds, and ale since its establishment in 1759 - and the only remaining pre-Revolution tavern in Philadelphia.

A plasterer named Michael Sisk constructed “Man Full” and rented the property to Joseph Beeks. During this time period, The Man Full of Trouble was one of twenty-one taverns on Dock Street. However, unlike its elite counterpart, The City Tavern, “Man Full” was a hub for incoming sailors and deckhands who arrived to Philadelphia from the banks of Little Dock Creek. The building was a three floor structure: patrons could rent a bed on the second floor, often four men to a mattress; the ground floor was the center for drinking and entertainment, while the cellar housed the kitchen, storage, and bedrooms for hired hands and maids.

Although the Revolution took a heavy toll on Philadelphia’s taverns, “Man Full” survived under multiple owners. One of the more notable owners was the widow Martha Smallwood, who took over the property in 1793 and supervised “Man Full” for thirty-three years until her death in 1826. Martha is an example of the twenty percent of female owners who managed taverns, coffee shops, and other drinking establishments in the city during this era.

As time went on, however, the Man Full of Trouble did not function only as a tavern. By the 1860s, Philadelphia’s budding industry outgrew the small, local taverns, and many were demolished as a result. Yet, the “Man Full” remained. In 1851, Benjamin Naylor purchased the property and transformed it into a hotel known for its oysters and changed the mischievous name to the B. Naylor Hotel. By 1900, the location changed to a grocery store, and then to a chicken market in 1955.

Photographs from this time period show just how hard the years had been on the building. In 1958, a photograph shows the “Man Full” supporting modern additions like a metal sheet awning. Yet, another photograph from 1961 shows the building without it, and the canopy seemed to be hiding a very serious problem. The windows were shattered, the roof was falling off, and even more dangerous, the building’s structure seemed cracked and was leaning backwards, ready to fall over at any minute.

In the 1960s, the Man Full of Trouble’s luck changed. Virginia Knauer, a city councilwoman and President Nixon administration official, purchased and restored the tavern and opened it for historical tours. In 1966, Virginia and Wilhelm Knauer invited the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate class in historic archaeology sites to explore the structure’s basement. Inside of a brick drain beneath the cellar floor and a cistern underneath the sidewalk, the group discovered several of artifacts from the 1750s to the 1850s. The objects gave an insight into the daily lives of urban colonial Philadelphia, ranging from pottery, toys, combs, coins, and pipes. The Man Full of Trouble became a museum whose doors opened one Sunday a month to display the life of ordinary tavern goers who would have littered the streets in colonial Philadelphia.

However, the public’s access to the building ended in 1994 when Knauer closed the museum. The University of Pennsylvania purchased the property and still operates it as a private residence. Today, the street sign remains, a symbol of past residents’ laughter and good times and the endurance of Philadelphia’s colonial history.







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