Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

City of Firsts

An image of the Philadelphia Contributionship Fire Mark, which has four hands interlocked. The hands are made of metal and they are mounted to a wooden board.The symbol of the Philadelphia Contributionship, established by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. (Camden County Historical Society)

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.

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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.

Discouraging Pattern

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"

Gallery: Innovations and "Firsts"

Philadelphia Contributionship Fire Mark
Philadelphia Contributionship Fire Mark

Camden County Historical Society (Explore in Insurance).

Carpenters’ Hall
Carpenters’ Hall

Library of Congress (Explore in Continental Congresses).

Congress Voting Independence
Congress Voting Independence

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Continental Congresses and Declaration of Independence).

Richard Allen (1760-1831)
Richard Allen (1760-1831)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Abolitionism, African American Migration, InsuranceMother Bethel AME Church, and Yellow Fever).

Mother Bethel
Mother Bethel

Partners for Sacred Places (Explore in Mother Bethel AME Church).

First Bank of the United States
First Bank of the United States

Library Company of Philadelphia (Explore in Banking).

The Grand Depot
The Grand Depot

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Department Stores).

Centennial Exhibition
Centennial Exhibition

Library Company of Philadelphia (Explore in Centennial Exhibition).

Uriah Stephens
Uriah Stephens

Library of Congress (Explore in Knights of Labor).

Central High School
Central High School

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Public Education: High Schools).

Public Baths Association of Philadelphia
Public Baths Association of Philadelphia

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Public Baths and Bathing).

Eldridge Johnson
Eldridge Johnson

Camden County Historical Society (Explore in Recording Industry).

The Cheesesteak
The Cheesesteak

Visit Philadelphia (Explore in Cheesesteaks).

National Freedom Day
National Freedom Day

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries (Explore in National Freedom Day).

Cherry Hill Mall
Cherry Hill Mall

(Explore in Shopping Centers)

Timeline: Innovations and "Firsts"

Colonial Era
Colonial Era

1688: Germantown Quaker Protest Against Slavery, first in North America.

1690: First paper mill in America founded near Germantown by William Rittenhouse.

1731: Library Company of Philadelphia founded; America’s oldest cultural institution.

1743: American Philosophical Society founded; first learned society in America.

1751: Pennsylvania Hospital, first in America, founded.

1752: Philadelphia Contributionship founded; first successful fire insurance company in America.

Image credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Benjamin Franklin (1706-91)
Benjamin Franklin (1706-91)

Selected Scientific Work and Inventions:

  • Experiments with Electricity
  • Franklin Stove
  • Bifocals
  • Lightning Rod
  • Map of the Gulf Stream
  • Mechanized Armonica
  • Flexible Urinary Catheter

 

Image credit: Library of Congress

 

 

American Revolution
American Revolution

1774: First Continental Congress meets.

1779: College of Philadelphia (founded 1751) seized by state, becomes new nation’s first university (later University of Pennsylvania).

1780: Pennsylvania Assembly passes first gradual abolition law in the U.S.

1782: Bank of North America, first commercial bank in U.S., founded.

1784: Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, first U.S. daily newspaper, published.

1787: John Fitch successfully tests a steamboat on the Delaware River.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Capital of the United States
Capital of the United States

1790s: First political parties form.

1790: Philadelphia Stock Exchange, first securities exchange in U.S., created.

1791: First Bank of the United States founded; Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal Company, first public canal company in U.S., chartered.

1792: U.S. Mint established.

1794: Bethel Church founded; grows by 1816 to become anchor of African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

1794: The Columbianum, first society for promotion of fine arts in U.S., established.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Nineteenth Century Before 1854
Nineteenth Century Before 1854

1801: Centre Square waterworks, the first of its kind, begins pumping (drawing by Benjamin Henry Latrobe shown here).

1804: Oliver Evans invents the Eruktor Amphibolis, first steam-powered land carriage.

1824: Franklin Institute founded to promote “the mechanic arts.”

1827: American labor movement originates with Mechanics Union of Trade Associations.

1829: “Pennsylvania System,” solitary confinement with labor, instituted at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Nineteenth Century Before 1854
Nineteenth Century Before 1854

1848: Philadelphia School of Design for Women, first visual arts college for women in U.S., founded by Sarah Worthington Peter (later Moore College of Art & Design).

1850: Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, world’s first medical school for women, founded (later Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania).

1855: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia founded; first hospital devoted exclusively to the care of children.

1856: First national convention of Republican Party, Musical Fund Hall.

Image credit: Library Company of Philadelphia

 

Nineteenth Century After 1854
Nineteenth Century After 1854

1859: Zoological Society of Philadelphia, first of its kind in U.S., chartered; opens Philadelphia Zoo in 1874.

1869: Knights of Labor, initially a secret society, founded.

1876: Centennial Exhibition (shown here), first world’s fair held in U.S., marks nation’s 100th anniversary.

Image credit: Library Company of Philadelphia

Twentieth Century Before 1945
Twentieth Century Before 1945

1901: Victor Company in Camden makes region the birthplace of the American recording industry (shown here).

1908: First official observance of Mother’s Day, founded by Philadelphian Anna Jarvis.

1920: Gimbel Brothers department store sponsors nation’s first Thanksgiving parade.

1926: Journalist George Morgan popularizes Philadelphia as a “city of firsts” with his history The City of First.

1930: Harry and Pat Olivieri invent the Philly steak sandwich (Cheez Whiz comes later, 1952).

Image credit: Camden County Historical Society

Twentieth Century After 1945
Twentieth Century After 1945

1946: ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, shown here), first all-purpose digital computer, built at the University of Pennsylvania.

1959: Percent for Art Program, enacted by Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, first in nation to require developers to commission public art.

1963: University City Science Center founded.

Image credit: U.S. Army

Twenty-First Century
Twenty-First Century

Co-working spaces and business incubators such as Indy Hall in Philadelphia and South Jersey Technology Park at Rowan University encourage entrepreneurship.

2011: First annual Philly Tech Week celebrates and generates new technology initiatives.

2011: First annual Philadelphia Science Festival (pictured here) celebrates region’s strengths in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Image credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia

Map: Innovations and "Firsts"

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