Family and a Home of His Own

Durang Family Tree. Design by Victoria Lawrence

Durang Family Tree. Design by Victoria Lawrence

Mary McEwen Durang, dressed for her role as Columbine. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

Mary McEwen Durang, dressed for her role as Columbine. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

After his first New York season with the Old American Company (OAC), John Durang, now a professional man of the stage, returned to Philadelphia in August 1786 to complete some personal business: he was in love. Before he had left for New York, he had hired the theatre’s band to serenade “a young lady for whom I had an honourable sincere attachment. Tho’ music hath charmes to melt the savage brest, to soften rocks and bend the knotet oak, yet it had not charmes enough to melt the heart of the guardian of my love who watched her so close that we could not bid farewell by the hand. The next evening I dressed myself in character of a begger and knocked at the door, to ask for some bread. While the old lady went in to get some for me, in the meantime, I gave a note expressive of my departure &c. ” Theatre skills could serve one well in life! Miss Mary McEwen was his sweetheart, and the “guardian” was her mother. After their marriage, Mary would also appear on the stage in bit parts, singing, and dancing and perhaps it was their common interest in the stage that drew them together.  John and Mary were just eighteen when Durang resumed his wooing by serenading Mary once more, this time successfully. On 25 January 1787, marriage banns for John Durang and Mary McEwen (“McHuin”) were read, a month before the wedding at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Two days after the wedding, Durang writes that he “gave an entertainment of a supper and ball to sixty of my friends. The band of music of the theatre play’d.”

Charles Durang.  by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

Charles Durang. by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

On 17 July of that year, also at St. Joseph’s, sister Catharine Durang and theatrical wizard Charles Busselot were married, with John Durang as witness. Catharine and Busselot worked together in the preceding season with the OAC. Unusually, Catharine’s listings in future OAC programs continue to call her “Miss Durang,” rather than “Mrs. Busselot,” which would have been the usual practice. Jacob Durang, too, married, for apparently Joeann Catharine Arter Durang, John’s mother, had died. Jacob married Mary Chandler, a “Protestant widow” much younger than Jacob, on 28 December 1788, with John Durang as witness. John and Mary Durang were sponsors at the baptism of Jacob’s last child, John Louis, born 23 June 1792.

By then, John and Mary Durang were already parents themselves, having welcomed their son Charles on 4 Dec. 1791.

Charles Durang. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Society Portrait Collection.

Charles Durang. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Society Portrait Collection.

In his nearly eighty years, Charles became a figure in Philadelphia’s theatre and dance circles where he served as actor, dancer, stage manager, prompter, dancing master, and ballet director. He also authored books on dance and theatre, including History of the Philadelphia Stage Between the Years of 1749 and 1853 and Durang’s Terpsichore, or, Ball Room Guide: Being a Compendium of the Theory, Practice, and Etiquette of Dancing.

Title page, The Fashionable Dancers Casket, by Charles Durang (Philadelphia, Fisher & Brother, 1856).  Library of Congress, An American Ballroom Companion

Title page, The Fashionable Dancers Casket, by Charles Durang (Philadelphia, Fisher & Brother, 1856). Library of Congress, An American Ballroom Companion

Like his siblings, Charles grew up in the theatre, nurtured by more experienced actors in a community of theatre families, where the children were educated in the ways of the stage as they performed with the troupes that employed their parents. He was on the stage by 1802 (perhaps as early as 1800), and he married actress Mary White, who debuted at the Chestnut Street Theatre in 1811. Several of their ten children entered the theatre or related professions.

U.S. Gazette, Philadelphia, 11 March 1805

U.S. Gazette, Philadelphia, 11 March 1805

John and Mary Durang’s second son, Richard Ferdinand (known as“Ferdinand” on the stage) was born in 1795 or ’96 and began performing when he was seven years old. During his too-short life (he died in 1831), Ferdinand performed with several companies, including the Chestnut Street in Philadelphia and the Chatham and Bowery Theatres in New York. Ferdinand Durang inherited his father’s pluck: while with the Chestnut Street Company in 1816, he was fined for a perceived infraction. Charles recalled in his History, “With his usual independence,” Ferdinand then resigned from the Chestnut Street and went off to play the lead at a rival theatre. Ferdinand took over roles his father was aging out of, including Harlequin and the hornpipe, and Ferdinand, too, married an actress, the seventeen-year-old Jane Petit of the Baltimore Theatre, in May 1812.

Durang and sons performed throughout this bill. U.S. Gazette, Philadelphia, 18 March 1805

Durang and sons performed throughout this bill. U.S. Gazette, Philadelphia, 18 March 1805

The third son that John and Mary Durang bore was Augustus, born 6 January 1799. At age 6, he débuted at the Chestnut Street Theatre, where his two brothers were also performing. But Augustus ran off to sea as a youth, and probably met an early death, for further record of him is lost.

Playbill featuring the Misses Durangs. American Centinel and Mercantile Advertiser, Baltimore, 22 February 1819

Playbill featuring the Misses Durangs. American Centinel and Mercantile Advertiser, Baltimore, 22 February 1819

John and Mary Durang’s first daughter, Charlotte Elizabeth, was born on 12 July 1803; she died of consumption in 1824, having performed primarily at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and the Park Theatre in New York. Catharine Juliet (Julia, Katharine) was born in 1805 and she, like her elder sister, was a dancer and played soubrette roles, most often in Philadelphia and New York theatres. Mary Ann, John and Mary Durang’s last child, was born 5 January 1808; in her youth, she too danced on the stage, but records for her are scant.

Profession, wife, and children were soon followed in John Durang’s life by land ownership Like his father, Jacob, who had settled on South (Cedar) St., John Durang purchased land“on the South side of South or Cedar Street in the township of Moyamensing,” between Fifth and Sixth Streets, in August 1793. Durang’s property was 20’ broad by 120’ deep, and stretched south of the city’s border to Small Street. Oddly, the deed identifies John Durang as a “hairdresser.” He may have learned that skill from his father, but no record of his practicing it has been found. Perhaps, for the crucial step of purchasing land, Durang considered listing the profession of hairdresser safer than that of theatre performer. A decade would pass before the city’s Directory identifies him as a “comedian”—in 1801, when he bought another property, also on Small Street. From 1802, Durang lived at 216 Cedar Street, remaining there for the rest of his life, and writing his memoir there, when he was elderly, unwell, and retired from the stage.

Old John Durang, writing his Memoir. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

Old John Durang, writing his Memoir. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

Durang, as a proud landowner, improved his property over the course of time: “I was the first builder on the Square when all around me was vacant, and the only one who owns the ground of their buildings in the same Square.” He fenced his property, planted trees and a garden, finished and extended his house, erected outbuildings for horses and carriages, and paved the surrounding walkways.

Second Street north from Market St. wth. Christ Church, Philadelphia.  William Russell Birch, 1755-1834 -- Engraver  Thomas Birch, 1779-1851 – Engraver. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, Digital Library

Second Street north from Market St. wth. Christ Church, Philadelphia. William Russell Birch, 1755-1834 -- Engraver Thomas Birch, 1779-1851 – Engraver. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, Digital Library

As a home- and landowner, Durang was a pioneer, in the lead of the nation’s house-building fever of the early nineteenth century. His story in this regard is probably close to that told by William Priest, a Philadelphia visitor and theatre musician: “The first object of an industrious emigrant, who means to settle in Philadelphia, is to purchase a lot of ground in one of the vacant streets. He erects a small building forty or fifty feet from the line laid out for him by the city surveyor, and lives there till he can afford to build a house; when his former habitation serves him for a kitchen and wash-house.” John Durang’s property improvements were reflected in his rising tax rates: in 1794, his county taxes for “Dwelling and Lott” were $172, rising to $399 for 1798, $500 in 1801, and $600 in 1803.

Map of Philadelphia districts  from E.P. Oberholtzer, Philadelphia: A History of the City and its People, vol. I (Philadelphia, 1912)

Map of Philadelphia districts from E.P. Oberholtzer, Philadelphia: A History of the City and its People, vol. I (Philadelphia, 1912)

By the 1790s, Philadelphia and adjacent suburbs (like Durang’s township of Moyamensing) were home to about 45,000 people. Philadelphia’s commercial and political center was at Market (High) Street, close to the Delaware.

Moyamensing and the Northern Liberties grew rapidly as craftsmen, mechanics, and others settled in them. The 1791 Philadelphia Directory described these areas: “to every purpose but as to their government, [they] are considered as parts of the city.” As capital of both nation and state, Philadelphia was home to government buildings and luxurious homes for President and Mrs. Washington, other statesmen, and the wealthy merchants who formed the nation’s upper crust. The city’s brilliant social life was “the most refined society in the Union.

Exterior view of Independence Hall (c. 1770s). From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Exterior_view_of_Independence_Hall_%28circa_1770s%29.jpg

Exterior view of Independence Hall (c. 1770s). From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Exterior_view_of_Independence_Hall_%28circa_1770s%29.jpg

In addition to buildings supporting its mercantile and shipping functions, Philadelphia had many churches, a hospital, university, almshouses, an abundant market, a public library, fashionable hotels, a museum, three theatres (Southwark, Chestnut Street, and Northern Liberties), pleasure gardens, and a circus. It was just the place for John Durang to establish the first American theatrical family.