The J. G. Brill Company Records, 1877-1930

(240 boxes, 15 volumes, 50 linear feet )

Collection 1556

© The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
1300 Locust Street * Philadelphia, PA 19107

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Table of contents
The J.G. Brill Company and its various incarnations dominated the world of trolley and undercarriage manufacturing for most of its seventy-year history. Based in Philadelphia, Brill was founded in 1868 by a German immigrant and held in family hands well into the 1930s. At its height, The J.G. Brill Company owned plants in six states as well as in Canada and France. The collection consists of approximately 16,000 photographs, 6,000 glass-plate negatives, 10,000 acetate negatives, and thirteen order books, and documents the wide array of products manufactured by Brill. The photographs include interior and exterior views of railroad cars, trolleys, buses, ambulances, and trucks, as well as images of undercarriages, small parts, and seats. The collection also documents the factory grounds at 62nd and Woodland, particularly for World War I. Order books provide information on the quantity and types of items purchased, the companies purchasing them, and their dates of order and delivery.

Background note
Throughout the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to the United States in search of a better life. It was in 1847 that one of those immigrants, a thirty-year-old German cabinetmaker named Johann Georg Brill (later known as John George or J.G.), arrived in Philadelphia with his wife and two children. After working for almost twenty years with Murphy and Allison, the prominent Philadelphia railroad car firm, Brill, with his son Georg Martin, founded J.G. Brill and Son in 1868. This small company located at 31st and Chestnut Streets would later become an international corporation with plants in Philadelphia, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Missouri, Canada, and France serving clients on all of the continents except for Antarctica.

During its more than seventy-year history, the J.G. Brill Company produced over 45,000 railroad cars, buses, and most importantly, trolleys. At its height, Brill was manufacturing between one-third and one-half of the country's trolley cars, as well as being one of the world's largest producers of undercarriages. During World War I, the plant converted almost entirely to the production of war materials for the United States government, as well as for governments of several other Allies. Over 10,000 automotive trucks and ambulances were manufactured by The J.G. Brill Company during World War I for the United States military alone. Firing platforms for howitzers, limbers and caissons for searchlights, radio telegraph units, and hundreds of thousands of shells came out of the Brill factories to support the war effort. Orders from the Allies brought Brill almost $16,000,000 from 1914 to 1918.

In addition to its significant production, the Brill company persisted in being an innovator in the field. The company, its engineers, and its employees held hundreds of patents on everything from signal bells and door-opening mechanisms to full car designs. Among the items patented by Brill employees were: two different styles of convertible cars, the Narragansett car, the Dedenda gong, the Renitent Window Post, and several different types of seats.

The corporate structure of The J.G. Brill Company went through numerous incarnations in its history, surviving mergers, acquisitions, and dissolutions. In 1887, the firm was officially incorporated as The J.G. Brill Company, and by 1890, had moved their Philadelphia plant to 62nd and Woodland Avenue. Beginning in 1902, Brill began to expand by acquiring other manufacturers around the country. The American Car Company, G.C. Kuhlman Car Company, John Stephenson Company, Wason Manufacturing Company, and Danville Car Company were purchased in rapid succession in the period between 1902 and 1908. That period also saw the formation of Compagnie J.G. Brill (also known as Cie Brill) in France to help support the growing demand of the European market. In addition, the Canadian Brill Company was formed in 1921, but dissolved a short two years later.

This rapid expansion may, in fact, have been too fast for the changing economic environment. At the same time that Brill was growing larger, the market for trolley cars and trolley buses (the company's main product) was diminishing. By the middle of the twentieth century, most American cities had focused their transportation systems around buses, a product Brill did not even begin to manufacture until the 1940s and one that would never be a major component of the Brill line. Within fifteen years of their purchase, several of Brill's acquisitions folded, and by 1937, only one still existed. In the 1930s, Brill became a part of the larger Brill Corporation, which encompassed all of the existing Brill plants as well as Fageol Motor Company, Hall-Scott Motor Car Company, and American Car #38; Foundry Motors Company. By 1940, Brill was out of the trolley car business entirely, and finally, in August 1944, the remaining Brill Corporation subsidiaries had been absorbed by larger companies not affiliated with the industry.

Scope and content
The records of The J.G. Brill Company consist of roughly 16,000 photographs and thirteen order books. The records were all kept for internal use, but it is unclear for what purpose they may have been used or what department might have kept them. Each photo has a photo number and an order number in the image. The order number corresponds to an entry with that number in the order books (Series IX). The entries include the name of the firm that ordered the item, the type of item ordered, the date the order was received and the date the order was delivered. Some orders also include information about the wheels and axles, including where and when they were ordered. The photos in Series II through VI are duplicates of photos in Series I, but are arranged according to different aspects of the order information, including name of railroad, location of railroad, and type of item ordered. Series II includes images of items ordered by American companies, and is arranged alphabetically by state. Within each state, the photos are arranged by company name. The images in Series III also represent images ordered by American companies, but they are arranged alphabetically by railroad, and not by geographic location. Series IV contains photos of items ordered by companies outside of the United States, arranged alphabetically first by continent and then by country. The photos are organized alphabetically by railroad within each country. Series V includes images of items manufactured for the United States Government, primarily during World War I. This series also includes two presentation albums bound in black leather. The images in Series VI represent the products manufactured by The J.G. Brill Company for industrial purposes.

The photographs in Series I-VI include interior and exterior views of buses, trolleys, railroad cars, funeral cars, trucks, and ambulances. In addition, there are images of undercarriages, various smaller parts, and seats.

The "X" series (Series VII) of photographs comprises the majority of images of the factory grounds, workshops, and buildings. The series includes a large grouping of photographs taken during World War I, showing views of women working in the factory and large war rallies. The series also contains several views of safety-related billboards and signs, as well as images of workers with injuries. Interior shots of the infirmary, locker rooms, dentist's exam room, and electrical generator rooms are also included.

The Miscellaneous series (Series VIII) contains several smaller groupings of photos, including Assignments, Stock, Test, United States Unidentified, and Miscellaneous Parts.

The collection also includes approximately 6,000 glass-plate negatives of images with photo numbers 1-6310, as well as approximately 4,500 acetate negatives.

Series I Chronological (by Photo Number) 129 boxes
Series II United States 71 boxes
Series III Railroads (United States) 19 Boxes
Series IV International (by Continent and Country) 11 Boxes
Series V U.S. Government 1 Box and 2 albums
Series VI Industrial 2 Boxes
Series VII "X" Photos 6 Boxes
Series VIII Miscellaneous 2 Boxes
Series IX Order books 13 Volumes

Administrative information
Restrictions on use
The collection is open for research.

Preferred citation
Cite as: [Indicate cited series and item here], The J. G. Brill Company Records (Collection 1556), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Other formats available
Order books have been microfilmed.

Gift of A.C. Brill, 1946.

Accession number: Not known.

Processing notes
Processed by: Mindy Steinberg and Jack Gumbrecht

Processing Completed: November 2002

The processing of The J. G. Brill Company Records was funded by a grant given to the Historical Society by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. At the beginning of the project, the collection had been partially processed. The photos now in Series IV-VIII had been re-housed, and it is unclear whether original order had been maintained. The photos now in Series I-III were housed in albums with redwell covers. Under the grant, these albums were disbound and re-housed in Mylar sleeves and archival boxes. In addition, all the photos with numbers higher than 6310 were shot by The Society's staff photographer, and master negatives were made for future reproduction. The photos were entered into a Microsoft Access keyword-searchable database, merging the information from the photo and its corresponding order in the order book.

Additional information
Related material
Materials at HSP related to The J. G. Brill Company:

Brill Magazine. Philadelphia: J.G. Brill Company, 1907-1927.

History of the operations of J.G. Brill Company, car and truck builders: Sixty-second and Woodland Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa. Philadelphia, Pa.: Armstrong #38; Fears, [1895 or 1896?].

History of war material production, 1919. Brill Car Company.

Language(s) represented

Brill, Debra. The History of The J.G. Brill Company Indiana University Press: Bloomington, Indiana, 2001.

Added entries
  • Electric Railroads--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia--Cars
  • International trade
  • Philadelphia (Pa.)--Manufactures
  • Railroad equipment industry--Philadelphia (Pa.)
  • Trolley buses
  • Trolley cars
  • Women--Employment--Philadelphia (Pa.)
  • World War, 1914-1918--War work--United States
  • Contributors
  • ACF-Brill
  • American Car #38; Foundry Motors Company
  • American Car Company
  • Brill Corporation
  • Brill, Johann Georg
  • Canadian Brill Company
  • Compagnie J.G. Brill
  • Danville Car Company
  • Fageol Motor Company
  • G.C. Kuhlman Car Company
  • Hall-Scott Motor Car Company
  • John Stephenson Company
  • Wason Manufacturing Company
  • Contact information

    The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
    1300 Locust Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19107


    Processing made possible by a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

    Collection inventory