Sunday, October 9, 2011

J. G. Brill and the Brill Brothers

John G. Brill (1817-1888)
       Johann Georg Brill was born in Cassel, Germany in 1817. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1847 along with his wife, Juliane, a daughter, Anna, and an infant son, George Martin Brill. Fifty years later, his sons ran the J. G. Brill Co., the largest manufacturer of street cars in North America.
       Soon after John G. Brill arrived in Philadelphia (with his Americanized name), he began working for Murphy and Allison, manufacturers of railroad cars at their plant at 32nd and Chestnut Streets. In 1866, Murphy & Allison became W. C. Allison & Sons. In 1868, they stopped manufacturing horse-drawn passenger cars. J. G. Brill and his oldest son, G. Martin Brill set up a small shop across the street and started making parts for passenger cars under the name J. G. Brill & Son. In the 1870 census, J.G. and Martin reported that they were carpenters. For the first few years, they did not have a proper workshop. Mrs. Brill and three of their sons became confectioners to help support the family. In 1872, J. G. Brill &; Co. acquired a third partner, John Rawl, who brought them much needed capital and important business contacts. They quickly started getting orders for complete cars. In 1873, they had their first foreign sale, to Mexico.

Early Horse Car Built by the J. G. Brill Co. in 1873

        In the 1870s, J.G. moved his family to 3601 Spring Garden St., a large house.  (It has later replaced by a row of three houses.) During the 1880s, the car building shops grew to cover 4½ acres. In 1887, Brill  began building a new factory at 62nd St. and Woodland Ave. (now the site of a shopping mall). J. G. Brill died in 1888 at the age of 71 before the new factory was completed.

J. G. Brill Co. Factory, 62nd St. & Woodland Ave.

      In 1890, the company moved to their new factory.  The site was ideal being situated between two rail lines.  It made possible a big increase in production.

George Martin Brill (1846-1906)

       After the death of J.G., the firm was run by Martin and two of his brothers, John and Edward, along with John Rawle. Martin had worked with his father to build the company.  He now became president and oversaw general operations.  He was also issued over 20 patents. He had moved his family to 414 N. 32nd St. and then, in 1889, to 3613 Hamilton St. (which he purchased for $9,250).  In 1895, he purchased the estate at 3500 Powelton Ave. that had recently been owned by the Du Pont family for $21,000 plus $39,000 for the adjacent land along Powelton Ave.. In 1900, he lived there with his wife, Mary, their three daughters, their son and three servants.

Thee bob tail; car required only one horse and fares were collected by the driver.

       The second son, George, didn’t play a major role in building up the business. About 1870, he moved to Williamsport, Pa. with his wife and worked as a baker. He returned to Philadelphia and the family business about 20 years later.

Edward Brill (1850-1914)

       The third son, Edward, joined the company in 1880. He was in charge of buying and the storing of lumber and other material. He later became treasurer and vice president. In the 1880s, Edward and brother John moved to 3411 Baring St. In 1889, he married Cecilia Shipper, daughter of Francis and Clara Shipper (3313 Baring St.). He had just turned 39 and she was about 23. They did not have any children. In 1900, they lived at 3465 Chestnut St.

John A. Brill (1852-1908)

       John A. Brill was credited with much of the success of the business. He was responsible for many of the most important innovations and he traveled tirelessly selling cars all over the world. He was apparently a great salesman. He never married. During his last years, he suffered from a terribly disabling condition.  In 1900, he lived with his divorced younger sister, Amelia, at 1110 S. 47th St.

Brill was a leading innovator in "trucks."  This 1895 model was for 8-wheeled cars.

        By 1902, J. G. Brill Co. was the largest manufacturer of street cars in the U.S. They began acquiring other companies and opened a factory in France. At the same time, the Brill family’s association with Powelton was coming to an end.  Martin sold 3500 Powelton and moved to Lower Merion. When he died in 1906, his obituary was featured on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Brill made many specialty cars such as this car for export to South Africa in 1895

       The Brill family was among the most successful entrepreneurial families that ever lived in Powelton.

Two important references:
John A. Brill. "The development of the street car from horses to electricity." Cassier's Magazine, Electric Railway Number. Vol. 16.. 1899: 389-424.

Debra Brill.. History of the J.G. Brill Company. Indiana University Press, 2001.

1 comment:

  1. I just found Mr. G Martin Brills ticket book and pass for the grand central terminal from 1906 in an old Peter pan book I bought from an local antique store. He even signed it. He had about 36 rides left out of a 100. How cool is that. Anyone with more info. Or interested in it please email me at