City of Firsts
The Convention and Visitors Bureau touts Philadelphia as “a city of firsts.” The Independence Hall Association lists five pages of “Philadelphia Firsts” on its website. A walking tour of the city links “Philadelphia Firsts” to its home page. George Morgan may have been the first to title a book on Philadelphia The City of Firsts, in 1926, but even that far back he acknowledged the research of others who had been tracking those firsts for “many years past.”
The firsts did not begin with Ben Franklin. Philadelphia was a vision before it was a city, and its grandest innovations were in place before Franklin was even born. The ideas that revolutionized the West, religious freedom and political democracy, were proclaimed by William Penn and put into practice by the first sturdy settlers of his colony.Read More
Franklin did do mighty work. But he never did it alone, and the work went on after he left the city and even after he died. Together, in the years before 1800, Philadelphians organized almost all the essential institutions of the modern America that emerged in the nineteenth century. They created the country’s first banks, first insurance companies, and first stock exchange. The first daily newspaper, the first magazine, the first political cartoon, and the first public library. The first patent and the first trade show. The first turnpike and the first steamboat. The first non-sectarian college and the first university, and the first night school. The first hospital, the first medical school, and, maybe more tellingly, the first asylum for the insane. The first law firm and the first formal teaching of the law. The first labor organization and the first strike. The first protest against slavery, the first anti-slavery society, and the first independent African American church. The Army, the Navy, and the Marines, and for that matter the nation itself, and its first flag besides.
The pace of invention scarcely slowed after 1800. In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia claimed America’s first automobile, electric car, advertising agency, collegiate school of business, museums of science and of art, telephone, photograph, professional schools for women, books and magazines for the blind, municipal waterworks, Newman Club, rabbinic college, religious newspaper, YMCA, and more. In the twentieth century, it had the country’s first radio license, television station, modern skyscraper, airmail delivery, scientific management, black-owned-and-operated shopping center, computer, and more.
Fanciful Firsts, Too
And the city birthed not only those great engines of progress but also inventions of delight: the nation’s first circus, balloon flight, merry-go-round, ice cream, soda (and then, inevitably, ice cream soda), pencil with eraser, Girl Scout cookie, western novel, bubble gum, zoo, movie, revolving door, Slinky, uniforms with numbers to identify players, and more.
Still, the census did announce that New York surpassed Philadelphia in population in 1800, and Washington did displace Philadelphia as the national capital at the same time. Later commentators have speculated with numbing regularity that Philadelphians developed an incorrigible inferiority complex after those losses and that the sense of inferiority came naturally to a city of Quakers.
But those speculations are rubbish. Philadelphia was never a city of Quakers – by 1800, Friends were less than a tenth of its population – and Quakers were never so modest. In William Penn’s portrait, he wore a gleaming suit of armor. He turned to Quakerism to temper his pride and try to turn it to love. And the non-Quaker majority was never modest either. Ben Franklin expected that Philadelphia would become the capital of the British Empire and that king and Parliament would in time relocate from the Thames to the Delaware.
When the 1800 census counted more people in New York than in Philadelphia, arrogant Philadelphians simply refused to credit the count. Even in 1810, when the next tally found New York’s advantage increasing, Philadelphians still maintained that their city was larger. By 1820, they did finally concede that New York might have more inhabitants, but they insisted that Philadelphia excelled its upstart rival in law, medicine, science, art, architecture, and every other amenity of cosmopolitan culture.
Philadelphians did eventually grow discouraged competing with the emerging colossus to the north. After decades, even generations, of primacy, they did ultimately reconcile themselves to second place in the American urban pecking order. And when they did – when they gave up measuring themselves against New York – they launched on their most distinctive and most marvelous innovation of all.
Others cities followed New York, and in boosting and boasting they still do. Long before the nineteenth century was out, Philadelphia ceased to be an American city in that sense. It gave up braggadocio as a way of life.
It did, to be sure, mount the Centennial of 1876. It did send the Liberty Bell on promotional tours of the nation for decades. But it did so in its own chastened way. As observers as different as Henry James and Lincoln Steffens said, it became a city peculiarly contented with itself. It did not imbibe modesty from its Quaker founders, but it did not imbibe the American disease of belief in divine blessing from them either. Quaker egalitarianism precluded such a sense of chosenness. Quakers considered themselves merely a people among peoples. They lived well, but they did not trumpet that they lived better than anyone else.
In the nineteenth century, in New York, the Four Hundred made fabulous fortunes while the Four Million scrambled to escape the city’s tenements and slums. In Philadelphia, the American Dream that Franklin first formulated actually touched the masses. As one observer put it, in 1877, the city “exceeded in comfort within the reach of the poorest classes any other city in the world.” At a time when barely a fifth of New Yorkers did, most Philadelphia families owned their own homes. The city’s people were skilled workers who made good wages, not de-skilled employees whose labor made their bosses rich. In significant numbers, they even had vacation homes in the mountains or down the shore, a full generation or two before unions and the New Deal brought such benefits to workers elsewhere.
When Philadelphia ceased to be the first city, it took to itself the title of city of firsts. The title was at once a harmless expression of pride and a profound expression of identity. It signified a place that could look backward and appreciate its past as New York never did. A city civilized in an un-American way. A city urbane as well as urban. A city of well-being as well as wealth. A city that could be an object of affection as well as an arena of ambition. Perhaps, as Penn hoped, a city of love. Certainly, a city to love.
Michael Zuckerman is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.
Topics: Innovations and "Firsts"
A group of six amateur scientists with an interest in natural history gathered at a private residence at High and Second Streets in Philadelphia on January 25, 1812, and founded the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for, according to its charter, “the encouragement and cultivation of the Sciences” and “the advancement of useful learning.” ⇒ Read More
Well before the Declaration of Independence, in 1743 Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) and his friend the Quaker botanist John Bartram (1699-1777) established the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia as a declaration of scientific independence from Great Britain’s scientific domination. The APS developed from a group of local intellectuals keen on expanding human knowledge to serve informally ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia area is a recognized “hearth” of early American arboretums. Starting almost exclusively within a tight-knit community of Quaker botanists with a reverence for nature, early Philadelphia arboretums left a legacy of emphasis on native plants. Over time, the region’s arboretums also encompassed English naturalistic designs showcasing North American species and increasingly global perspectives, ⇒ Read More
Dox Thrash (1893-1965) was an accomplished draftsman, printmaker, watercolorist, and painter, whose art reflected his experiences as an African American in Philadelphia. He became well known in the 1940s after developing the Carborundum printmaking technique at the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop (311 Broad Street) of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. By rubbing coarse ⇒ Read More
As skilled laborers who hand-crafted their goods on a per-customer basis, artisans played a central role in the formation of Philadelphia’s prerevolutionary economy: producing essential goods and services and providing social stability within households composed not just of immediate family but also of journeymen and apprentices. American independence brought artisans new economic opportunities as the ⇒ Read More
Philadelphians embraced the study of celestial phenomena and bodies, such as stars, planets, and comets, from an early date. As early as 1769, the American Philosophical Society’s involvement in tracking that year’s transit of Venus gained transatlantic scientific attention. Astronomy remained a popular scientific pursuit throughout the region’s history; the Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia has a rich ballet history that spans centuries. Although initially not hospitable to dance, the city developed into an attractive destination for international ballet dancers and teachers and eventually produced the first genuine ballerinas born in the United States, the first thoroughly American ballet troupe, and one of the most prominent of the regional ⇒ Read More
Chartered in 1791 as part of the financial and economic reform plans of Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), the first secretary of the Treasury, the first Bank of the United States played an instrumental role in establishing the nation’s credit. Based in Philadelphia, then the national capital, the bank drew many principal investors from the region and ⇒ Read More
Conflict over renewing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States triggered the 1830s Bank War, waged between President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) and bank president Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844). Operating from its Parthenon-style building on Chestnut Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets in Philadelphia, the bank served as a reliable depository for federal money ⇒ Read More
Greater Philadelphia’s banking roots go deeper than those of any region in the country. Philadelphia was the home of the first commercial bank (1782), the first national bank (1791), the first savings bank (1816), and the first savings and loan association (1831). Until the mid-1980s, celebrated local institutions such as First Pennsylvania, Girard, and Provident ⇒ Read More
Located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Garden, considered the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America, has served as a monument to the storied history of Philadelphia’s botanical endeavors and to the genius of John Bartram (1699–1777) and his descendants. Established as a family farm and garden by John Bartram in ⇒ Read More
Beginning in the eighteenth century with the botanical enthusiasts who explored the world around them as part of a larger interest in natural history, botany became an integral part of the Philadelphia region’s national and international reputation. It brought scholars and enthusiasts from across the globe to study and explore Philadelphia’s collections and gardens, influenced ⇒ Read More
American cartooning began in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin (1706–90), who introduced cartoons to North America, used images to galvanize viewers to action on the issues of their day. As the political, economic, and cultural capital of the early United States, Philadelphia became a center for producing political cartoons and humorous caricatures. Although New York eventually supplanted ⇒ Read More
Over a period of four decades, from 1840 through 1880, a commercial district of distinctive cast iron buildings developed in Center City Philadelphia. Born of the iron wealth of Pennsylvania and fashioned by the city’s architects and mechanics at a time of technological innovation, these buildings helped define the downtown of the emerging modern city. ⇒ Read More
The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, more simply known as “the Centennial,” opened in Fairmount Park to great fanfare on May 10, 1876, and closed with equal flourish six months later. Modeled after the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and the first in a long ⇒ Read More
Since the eighteenth century, chemical or chemical processing industries have been an important part of the economy of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley region and have reflected larger trends in the industry. The earliest chemical companies manufactured products such as sulfuric acid and white lead pigments for local consumption, while other manufacturers, such as tanners, ⇒ Read More
Philadelphians used chemistry to enhance manufacturing, household practice, and artisan trades, mixing scholarly with practical aims from the outset. Furthermore, chemistry’s relationship to other scientific disciplines, including botany, geology, and medicine, made Philadelphians particularly keen to promote and diffuse chemical knowledge. Encouraged by widespread interest in chemistry between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, a number ⇒ Read More
The Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania was founded in 1882 by a group of predominantly women volunteers to address social issues plaguing the city of Philadelphia, such as drunkenness, child homelessness, and rampant crime. Child welfare advocate Helen W. Hinckley led the charge, assisted by Cornelia Hancock (1840–1928), who had volunteered as a nurse in ⇒ Read More
In 1843, a student at the “med school of the University of Pennsylvania,” as he called it in a letter to a friend in Boston, declared Philadelphia “decidedly the city of the Union for doctors, the facilities for study making it a perfect little Paris.” The comparison reflected the renown of the French capital at ⇒ Read More
Classical music stands apart from vernacular (or “folk” music) and from “popular” music (in the form of simplified commercial entertainment) in its complexity of structure and high level of performance requirements. Philadelphia established a major position in American classical composition and performance in the early nineteenth century, and maintained that position through its premier professional ⇒ Read More
Clockmaking in colonial and early republican Philadelphia and its environs was considered an intellectual profession requiring great artisanal skill and scientific knowledge. Among rural communities surrounding the city, the mathematical precision and mechanical intricacy of the profession put it at a superior rank to the crafts of blacksmithing and carpentry. Clockmakers like David Rittenhouse (1732-96) ⇒ Read More
In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia banks and entrepreneurs played a pivotal role in facilitating the emergence of coal as the nation’s principal energy source for industry, transportation, and heating, by creating and financing the firms that first brought to market anthracite coal, mined exclusively in rugged eastern Pennsylvania. To mine anthracite, or “hard coal,” on ⇒ Read More
One of the oldest professional medical societies in the United States, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia was founded in 1787 “to advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery.” At the time, Philadelphia, home to the first general hospital and medical college, was the center of American medicine. The College of ⇒ Read More
The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall (then known as the Pennsylvania State House). The convention drafted the United States Constitution, the world’s oldest written national constitution still in use. The document, which divides power between the federal government and the states, launched a new phase ⇒ Read More
Shoemaking, one of the most lucrative trades in Philadelphia during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, also proved to be one of the most contentious. Dissension within the trade worsened in the last decade of the eighteenth century and climaxed with the Philadelphia Cordwainers (shoemakers) Trial of 1806. This trial proved to be not only ⇒ Read More
The rise, fall, and rebirth of the sport of cricket in the Philadelphia region reflected political, social, and economic change. Cricket once flourished in the city, which produced some legendary players known throughout the cricketing world. The rise of other leisure activities supplanted the game, however, until a moderate resurgence in the late twentieth and ⇒ Read More
As dentistry slowly emerged as a profession in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, innovative dentists in Philadelphia helped to shape dental care, procedures, and tools. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, dental colleges, journals, and societies contributed to the expansion of dental training and practice, which gradually but increasingly became accessible to women and people of ⇒ Read More
As department stores became central to retailing in American cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Philadelphia played a major role. Led by John Wanamaker, whose store was a national model, Market Street became home to the giant stores known as the “Big Six,” which were close to rail terminals and subway stations. ⇒ Read More
In 1965, protesters at a Dewey’s restaurant lunch counter in Center City Philadelphia demanded access to public accommodations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. It was the first known protest of its kind in Philadelphia, and one of the earliest such demonstrations in the United States. Dewey’s was a chain of hamburger restaurants ⇒ Read More
Eastern State Penitentiary, considered by many to be the world’s first full-scale penitentiary, opened in Philadelphia in 1829 and closed in 1971. Known for its system of total isolation of prisoners and remarkable architecture, Eastern State proved to be one of the most controversial institutions of the antebellum period. Abandoned as a prison in the ⇒ Read More
Developed in Philadelphia during World War II, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) made history as the world’s first general-purpose, nonmechanical computer. Unveiled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering in 1946, the ENIAC consisted of 40 nine-foot-high cabinets containing 18,000 vacuum tubes, 10,000 capacitors, 6,000 switches, and 1,500 relays. Unlike ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia and its nearby vicinities became important sites for entomological study by the nineteenth century due to the presence of the Academy of Natural Sciences (established in 1812) and the American Entomological Society (1859). Entomological writing and illustration also flourished in this center for book production. Over time, entomologists’ interest in insects shifted from the ⇒ Read More
For more than two centuries, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works provided two vitally important, but different, services to the city. The first began when Philadelphia’s municipal water system—the first of its kind anywhere in the modern world—was moved to Fairmount and enlarged. Thanks to its charming design and placement beside the bucolic Schuylkill River, its second ⇒ Read More
Fox hunting, the sport of mounted riders following a pack of hounds that are hunting a fox by scent, became a popular leisure activity of the emerging gentry in the Philadelphia region during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It survives as a twenty-first-century pastime, even though development has reduced the available countryside, and animal-rights activists ⇒ Read More
From the founding of Philadelphia in 1682 until the late 1800s, a vibrant community of cabinetmakers plied their skills alongside specialists in carving, chair making, and turning. Others who worked with wood included carpenters, coopers, shipwrights, and wheelwrights. These tradesmen were as diverse as the city itself, and their complex webs of language, ethnicity, religious ⇒ Read More
Following the birth and success of suburban shopping malls, the Gallery at Market East was Philadelphia’s attempt to revitalize the city’s deteriorating retail environment in order to lure suburban shoppers back to Center City. In an effort to emulate the popular suburban shopping experience, Philadelphia urban planners created an enclosed, multistory shopping center and attempted ⇒ Read More
The first general strike in the United States occurred in Philadelphia in 1835 when the short-lived General Trades’ Union (GTU) of the City and County of Philadelphia led a citywide general strike to demand a ten-hour workday. The successful action set a precedent followed by other labor organizations in the nation later in the nineteenth ⇒ Read More
The first successful women’s magazine and most widely circulated magazine in the antebellum United States, Godey’s Lady’s Book offered fashion illustrations and advice, literary pieces, and articles on current events and popular culture. Founded in Philadelphia in 1830 by Louis Antoine Godey (1804-1878) and edited for four decades by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), the magazine provided ⇒ Read More
From the early nineteenth century onward, Philadelphia spawned an abundance of mysterious tales starring shadowy strangers, fantastic happenings, and deadly conspiracies. Prominent genre writers including Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), George Lippard (1822-54), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) made the City of Brotherly Love the birthplace of American gothic literature. Although the gothic arguably reached its ⇒ Read More
“Hail, Columbia,” written in Philadelphia in the closing years of the eighteenth century, became a popular patriotic song in early America and served for many years as the unofficial national anthem. Bands began to play it in honor of the vice president of the United States in the 1830s, and later it became the official ⇒ Read More
From barns and airfields throughout the Delaware Valley, during the twentieth century innovative individuals and local companies made greater Philadelphia the nation’s cradle of rotary-wing aviation. They successfully launched autogiros, gyroplanes, and helicopters, and the Boeing Company paired with Bell Helicopters in Buffalo, New York, to produce the world’s first production tilt-rotor aircraft, the V-22 ⇒ Read More
Over the course of three hundred years, urbanization and habitat loss in the Philadelphia region threatened amphibians and reptiles that once fostered rich scientific discussions. Nevertheless, pioneering herpetologists influenced medical, paleontological, and ecological studies of these creatures in North America. Beginning in the eighteenth century, naturalists on both sides of the Atlantic became entranced with ⇒ Read More
Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans started establishing historical societies to collect and preserve historical materials. In 1815, Philadelphia became the fourth U.S. city to host a historical society, the American Philosophical Society’s Historical and Literary Committee. The city’s religious tolerance and central location made it a natural location for religious and ethnic societies. ⇒ Read More
A hoagie is a sandwich made on a long Italian roll containing a variety of Italian meats and cheeses, lettuce, tomato, and onion, and dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and spices. Its exact origins are uncertain, but by the end of the twentieth century a mayoral proclamation declared the hoagie to be the “official sandwich” ⇒ Read More
Although Philadelphia has been a premier city for medical innovation since the mid-eighteenth century, the diverse peoples of the region also have used home remedies to heal themselves. Home remedies preserve traditional domestic healthcare practices, and they have persisted into the twenty-first century as part of alternative medicine and mainstream scientific therapies. Medical recipes often ⇒ Read More
Insurance is sometimes called an “invisible” element of commerce, but in Philadelphia, it has never been far from view. From the eighteenth century through the twenty-first, Philadelphia’s leadership in the field of insurance has enhanced the city’s preeminence in many types of commercial and communal endeavor. Insurance in Philadelphia, over the years, has meant everything ⇒ Read More
“Do you love truth for truth’s sake?” If the answer is yes, you are one-fourth of the way through the initiation ceremony of the Junto, which Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) founded in 1727 in Philadelphia. The 21-year-old Franklin, according to his autobiography, established the Junto as a club for “mutual improvement,” inviting acquaintances to meet weekly ⇒ Read More
The Knights of Labor, the first national industrial union in the United States, was founded in Philadelphia on December 9, 1869, by Uriah Stephens (1821-82) and eight other Philadelphia garment cutters. Intended to overcome the limitations of craft unions, the organization was designed to include all those who toiled with their hands. By mid-1886 nearly ⇒ Read More
On a November day during the severe winter of 1805, a parcel containing over sixty plants, rocks, and fossils arrived at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Collected by Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), these were specimens from the Corps of Discovery Expedition (1803-1806), the western journey of Lewis and William Clark (1770-1838). While the explorers became ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia’s literary societies typically have combined the social with the intellectual and artistic, with ongoing shifts in the balance between the two. As descendants succeeded the founding members, they prized the relationships and traditions handed down over generations, perhaps more than the original literary pretext of the organization. Philadelphia has often been described as a ⇒ Read More
For over one hundred and twenty years, railway locomotives were built in Greater Philadelphia. From the pioneering manufacturers of steam locomotives in the Spring Garden section of the city in the 1830s to the sprawling plant of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Delaware County in the twentieth century, the products, the companies, and the buildings ⇒ Read More
Founded in 1800, the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia was the first institution in the United States concerned with caring for and reforming “fallen women.” A good many women in nineteenth-century Philadelphia apparently preferred prostitution for a variety of reasons, notably as a means of support in order to achieve economic independence from an oppressive family ⇒ Read More
The U.S. medical publishing industry got its start in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century, and the Philadelphia region has maintained its preeminence in the industry ever since. The industry grew with the general book-selling industry, flourished as medicine acquired a solid scientific foundation starting around the end of the nineteenth century, went through a ⇒ Read More
Philadelphians have pursued significant scholarly and popular interests in meteorology, the scientific study of the atmosphere, since the eighteenth century. Pioneering individuals, including Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) and Reuben Haines (1786–1831), tracked meteorological data, and scientific societies made the practice increasingly systematic by the late nineteenth century. Short-term weather forecasting became possible as technological innovations such ⇒ Read More
For centuries, the American military valued Philadelphia because of its size, manufacturing capability, and location. Bases and other military facilities in the region contributed to the United States’ national defense while also serving as economic engines for surrounding areas, creating jobs not just on the installations but also in surrounding communities. Closures, conversely, led to ⇒ Read More
The Model Cities program was the last major urban aid initiative of the Great Society domestic agenda of President Lyndon Johnson (1908-73). The legislation called for the coordination of federal services to redevelop the nation’s poorest and least-served urban communities. In 1967, North Philadelphia was designated for renewal under this program. Rather than serving to ⇒ Read More
Although an unemployed Philadelphia salesman, Charles Darrow (1889-1967), was long credited as the creator of the world’s most popular board game, the origins of Monopoly stretch several decades before Parker Brothers purchased the rights from Darrow in 1935 and beyond the iconic streets of Atlantic City featured in the game. The proper history of Monopoly ⇒ Read More
Established in the crucible of the American revolutionary era, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is recognized as the genesis of black religious organizing spirit. The church is mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, formed in 1816. Located at Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood, the church sits on the ⇒ Read More
The history of nursing in the Philadelphia area is one of long and storied traditions. Men and women have often nursed their sick families and friends at home, which for millennia represented the best, safest, and most comforting site for treatment and care. Bringing a stranger into that home to provide nursing care was a ⇒ Read More
For over 125 years, the family headed by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) documented Philadelphia’s leading citizens and created paintings to decorate their homes. The Peales’ involvement in the arts enriched the cultural landscape of Philadelphia, and their work as naturalists and museum entrepreneurs advanced the causes of art, science, and science education in the United ⇒ Read More
In March of 1681, King Charles II of England (1630-85) granted William Penn (1644-1718), gentleman and Quaker, the charter for a proprietary colony on the North American continent. Although both English colonial policy and the organization of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, were works in progress between the years 1682 and 1701, in ⇒ Read More
Founded in 1787 as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the Pennsylvania Prison Society quickly became a leading advocate for the humane and salutary treatment of the incarcerated. From the restructuring of the Walnut Street Jail in the eighteenth century, to the construction and oversight of the Eastern State Penitentiary in ⇒ Read More
Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra developed into an iconic organization for Philadelphia through its musicianship, commitment to culture and education, and service as a cultural ambassador. The musical tastes and personalities of a series of influential conductors infused the orchestra with a rich history and distinctive sound as it became one of the finest ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia Social History Project (PSHP) was a large and ambitious interdisciplinary project that played a central role in transforming the study of urban and social history. From its inception in 1969 until the project’s closure in 1985, the PSHP employed dozens of research associates and computer programmers, as well as hundreds of undergraduate students, ⇒ Read More
When American patriots declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, the single largest boon to their cause was the nation’s ability to feed itself—as well as much of the Atlantic world. Beginning in the mid-1700s, crop failures across Europe and an expanding slave population in the West Indies created a huge demand for food from ⇒ Read More
For thousands of years before European settlement, Native Americans inhabited North America and left behind evidence of their lives in the form of artifacts, which archaeologists have studied and interpreted. The archaeological record for Philadelphia and the surrounding area reveals the complex relationship between prehistoric peoples and the region’s changing environment. Archaeologists also have learned ⇒ Read More
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia became a leading center of printmaking in the United States. While publishing companies had operated in the city since the eighteenth century, the technological innovations of the firm of Peter S. Duval (1804/5-86) transformed Philadelphia’s lithographic trade into a booming industry. Duval’s commitment to improving printmaking methods and achieving ⇒ Read More
From radio’s inception to contemporary times, Philadelphia-area innovators, performers, and manufacturers contributed to shaping the industry. Like its technological forerunner, the telegraph, radio made possible the direct, real-time transmission of information. The immediacy and intimacy of radio waves arriving directly into listeners’ homes made radio revolutionary. The medium quickly became not only a technology for ⇒ Read More
The birthplace of the American “record” industry, the Philadelphia region for more than a century has been home to a thriving industry of recording studios and record companies. In Camden, New Jersey, the Victor Company in the early 1900s was the nation’s largest manufacturer of musical recordings. Since then, Philadelphia’s unique concentration of diversified industries, ⇒ Read More
Parochial schools in the Philadelphia region share a common Catholic mission and similar patterns of growth and development. For more than three centuries they have responded to the changing characteristics of the region’s Catholic population. Several of these developments, such as schools for specific ethnic groups, occurred in Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., and Wilmington, Del., within ⇒ Read More
Parishes stand at the center of Roman Catholic religious life. Since the arrival of Catholicism in the Philadelphia region in the early eighteenth century, parishes have shaped Catholics’ sense of communal identity by functioning as both the administrative unit of a diocese and the primary site of Catholic worship. Developing into expansive complexes that often ⇒ Read More
Root beer, a popular beverage in the United States since the late eighteenth century, began as a medicinal beverage produced at home. In the nineteenth century, carbonated root beer grew in popularity, particularly after Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires (1851-1937) presented his version of root beer at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Although the popularity of ⇒ Read More
The “Scientific Management” movement was born in early twentieth-century Philadelphia factories but spread rapidly, transforming not only management techniques but also popular conceptions of industrialized society itself. According to its founders, the system simply sought the “one best way” to perform any task. But its time-study engineers, along with the assembly line, came to symbolize ⇒ Read More
Since the eighteenth century, Philadelphia-area scientific societies have promoted scholarship and innovation, increased access to scientific knowledge and played an important role in the professionalization of various disciplines. Longstanding institutions, including the American Philosophical Society (1743), the Academy of Natural Sciences (1812), and the Franklin Institute (1824), have garnered national and international accolades, while many ⇒ Read More
During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Philadelphia helped give birth to the single tax movement, one of the country’s more influential, if less well-remembered, reform movements. The idea of a “single tax” on the unimproved value of land, rather than on productive activities, was popularized by Henry George (1839-97), a native of Philadelphia. The ⇒ Read More
Invented by accident in a Philadelphia shipyard, the Slinky is a stack of coiled metal that becomes a bit of oscillating magic, a moving, traveling toy perfect for flipping head-over-heels to “walk” down stairs. Always made in Pennsylvania, the Slinky became standard-issue equipment for generations of American children and a familiar, fun plaything for grown-ups ⇒ Read More
Sports card collecting, a classic American hobby, has strong ties to Philadelphia. Its history can be traced through Philadelphia firms such as the American Caramel Company, Fleer Corporation, and Bowman Gum Company. Those three, all pioneers and innovators in the sports card industry, helped to build collecting as a popular hobby. Sports cards developed from ⇒ Read More
After Charles Willson Peale’s The Staircase Group emerged from a private collection in the mid-twentieth century, the Philadelphia Museum of Art placed the compelling trompe l’oeil (deceive the eye) double portrait on display and it became widely reproduced in American popular and art historical literature. Its contemporary popularity echoed the popularity it enjoyed at Peale’s ⇒ Read More
The telephone revolutionized communications by allowing messages to be transmitted instantly to nearly anywhere in the world. Following the public debut of the device at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, Philadelphia became home to many of telephony’s milestones and a center of telephone innovation, promoted by pioneers and supporters including inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia region had a key role in the ascent of television in American popular culture. From the manufacturing of television sets to the production of innovative programming, researchers, technicians, and creative talents in the region produced many of the “firsts” that propelled television to success as a new mass medium in the twentieth century. ⇒ Read More
Although inspired by a 1621 feast shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving traditions emerged from more than two centuries of celebrations influenced by social classes, ethnic groups, and the rise of consumer culture. Some of the most popular practices of Thanksgiving by the twenty-first century originated in Philadelphia. In colonial America, ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia helped define the toy industry in the United States with simple yet engaging toys that became beloved by generations. Although social, cultural, and economic changes produced challenges for the industry, a few iconic toys stood the test of time and continued to promote imagination, creativity, and discovery for people of all ages. Philadelphia’s first ⇒ Read More
For nearly a hundred years from 1693 to 1781, Tun Tavern served residents and visitors of Philadelphia near the Delaware River waterfront with food, spirits, and sociability. Also a meeting place for social and military organizations, Tun Tavern is best remembered as the “birthplace” of the United States Marine Corps. Its patrons included such noteworthy ⇒ Read More
Although the federal government under the U.S. Constitution went into operation in New York City in April 1789, the capital moved to Philadelphia late in 1790 and remained until 1800. This decade encompassed formative years for the U.S. presidency, including nearly seven years of the administration of George Washington (1732-99) and more than three years ⇒ Read More
Coins have been minted in Philadelphia as long as the federal government has produced legal tender coins. First authorized by Congress in 1792, the U.S. Mint’s Philadelphia facility (commonly known as the Philadelphia mint) in the early twenty-first century remained the nation’s largest producer of coins. Its history has been intertwined with the complicated history ⇒ Read More
The University City Science Center, the nation’s first and oldest urban research park, represents a pivotal chapter in the story of American urban renewal, its associated racial tensions, and the important role played by institutions of higher education. Established in 1960 in West Philadelphia adjacent to and intertwining the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania ⇒ Read More
The vegetarian movement in the United States was born in Philadelphia, and the city was pivotal in several of its most important developments. Throughout, Philadelphia maintained an ongoing community of vegetarians, including those who became known as vegans. Predating an organized movement, individuals practiced vegetarianism and some produced vegetarian cookbooks. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) spent several ⇒ Read More
Military veterans began organizing in the Philadelphia area during the waning days of the Revolutionary War. As the Continental Army disbanded, its veterans often met at City Tavern and the first general meeting of America’s first veterans’ organization, the General Society of the Cincinnati, occurred there on May 4, 1784. Just as regularly, however, veterans ⇒ Read More
The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, founded in 1850 as the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, was the first medical school in the world for women authorized to award them the M.D. It was established in Philadelphia by a group of progressive Quakers and a businessman who believed that women had a right to education ⇒ Read More
As home to the first chartered school for girls in the United States, the country’s first medical college for women, one of the earliest chapters of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and coeducational and women’s colleges, the Philadelphia region provided pioneering models in women’s education. These innovations operated in the context of national ⇒ Read More