Essays » Colonial Philadelphia
We can’t know all the thoughts that coursed through William Penn’s mind when he chose Philadelphia as the name for his new city, tucked onto the peninsula between the Delaware River and the Schuylkill. What we do know is that he chose boldly, aiming for the vault of heaven, daring irony to strike.
How often have you heard people proudly call Philadelphia a “greene country towne,” quoting William Penn’s evocative description of the city he founded? Along with “city of brotherly love,” the phrase ranks as the granddaddy of all municipal brands, pre-dating “Big Apple” and “Big Easy.” Penn didn’t just talk the talk: when he laid out the street grid, he gave Philadelphia the gift of five public squares.
William Penn was convinced that he could construct a "Holy Experiment" with a well-planned settlement and a rational government. He aimed for a social contract that would bind and respect all residents, based not on coercion but on the principle of "what love can do."
Few regions in the United States can claim an abolitionist heritage as rich as Philadelphia. By the time Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison launched The Liberator in 1831, Philadelphia's confrontation with human bondage was nearly 150 years old.
Nestled between Second Street and the Delaware River, thirty-two Federal and Georgian residences stand as reminders of the early days of Philadelphia. Elfreth's Alley exists today as a residential street, historic landmark, and interpreted site labeled the “Nation’s Oldest Residential Street.” The heroic efforts of residents and local historians from the 1930s to 1960s preserved the Alley as a typical colonial street, but it took decades of new scholarship for the Elfreth’s Alley Association to create an interpretation encompassing the everyday lives of all generations who lived on this street.
In the colonial era linen and flaxseed were fundamental to the mercantile life of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Traveling in a circle of trade across the north Atlantic, these goods forged relationships among colonial farmers, backcountry shopkeepers, and British mercantile credit systems.
At the time the first European colonists settled in the Delaware Valley, few places in the world were as well-suited to the cultivation of grains. By 1750 the Delaware Valley produced such a surplus that its wheat and flour not only supplied the American market but also were exported to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.
Located six miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia, Germantown is one of America’s most historic neighborhoods. It is also one that offers provocative examples of how people consider the past.
Originally the Pennsylvania State House, this eighteenth-century landmark associated with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution evolved from a workplace of government to a treasured shrine, tourist attraction, and World Heritage Site. Its history encompasses more than 275 years of struggles for freedom and public participation in creating, preserving, and debating the founding principles of the United States.
On June 12, 1780, Esther De Berdt Reed (1746-1780), penned a broadside entitled “Sentiments of an American Woman” in order to rouse her fellow women to participate in the Revolutionary cause. As a result, dozens of women responded to Reed’s call, forming the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, a group of upper-class women who led a door-to-door campaign raising money for Washington’s Continental Army.
It began inconspicuously as a two-thousand-pound mass of unstable metal; it nearly ended up in the scrap heap; it cracked and lost its voice; it was all but forgotten. But then, gradually, it became a priceless national treasure. For more than a century, the Liberty Bell has captured Americans’ affections and become a stand-in for the nation’s vaunted values: independence, freedom, unalienable rights, and equality.
Northwest Philadelphia, bound loosely by the Roosevelt Expressway to the south, Broad Street to the east, and the suburbs of Montgomery County to the north and west, has origins as old as the city itself. Developing around the Schuylkill and Wissahickon Creek waterways, and later Fairmount Park, the Northwest expanded and changed with the advent of new technologies and the larger legal, political, and cultural trends of Philadelphia.
Perhaps no business, industry, or institution illuminates the history of the Greater Philadelphia region from the seventeenth century to the present day more clearly than shipbuilding and shipyards. This may seem surprising since Philadelphia and nearby Delaware riverfront ports lie one hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Why then did Philadelphia and surrounding southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey riverfront ports develop shipyards and become one of the greatest shipbuilding regions in the United States?