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Irish (The) and Ireland

Contacts between the Philadelphia region and Ireland began in the late seventeenth century, shortly after the creation of Penn’s colony. Long a part of the urban fabric of Philadelphia, Irish Catholics endured nativist assaults of the Bible Riots of 1844 and did not see one of their own become mayor until James H. J. Tate, who served from 1962 to 1972. By the twenty-first century, the Irish continued to exert significant cultural and political influence in the region, especially in South and Northeast Philadelphia and in surrounding suburban counties.

The region’s ties to Ireland extend to Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn (1644-1718), who was part Irish on his mother’s side. His father, Sir William Penn (1621-70), aided in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland and was rewarded with land confiscated from Irish Catholics in Macroom, in County Cork. Named an admiral in the English navy, Sir William also assisted in the Stuart Restoration of Charles II and received more land in Kinsale, Shangarry, and Cork City. William Penn himself helped suppress a mutiny in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, in 1666, and became the English purveyor of goods in Cork. He converted to Quakerism in Cork in 1667.

[caption id="attachment_29646" align="alignright" width="248"]Map of Ireland published in 1797 A New Map of Ireland : Civil and Ecclesiastical, published in London in 1797, depicts the homeland of Irish immigrants to the United States. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Turmoil in Ireland in the decades prior to the founding of Pennsylvania produced conditions that prompted emigration to America. In the seventeenth century, the English under the Catholic Stuart king, James I, began a colonial endeavor called the Ulster Plantation, which brought thousands of English and Lowland Scots into Ireland and dispossessed native Irish from their lands in counties Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry, Tyrone, and Fermanagh. Many of the Scots Irish colonists, facing economic marginalization by English and Scottish merchants who feared competition from less expensive Ulster products, fled the island for America. Over two hundred thousand Scots Irish settled in the British North American colonies in the eighteenth century before the American Revolution. Arriving in the ports of Philadelphia and New Castle, many Ulster-born immigrants pressed on into the interior to the Shenandoah frontier to escape the colonial government.

During the eighteenth century, a combination of religious, economic, and other conflicts fueled immigration of Irish Catholics. Many farmers dispossessed of their land by colonization in Ireland in the late seventeenth century were Catholic. To escape long-term hardships during the Protestant Ascendency, when Anglican Protestants loyal to the monarchy held all political power, many Catholics emigrated and some began arriving in Philadelphia. One result was the construction in 1733 of the earliest Catholic Church in British North America—Old St. Joseph’s—in Willings Alley south of Walnut Street. Another parish, Old St. Mary’s, was founded in 1763 on Fourth Street between Manning and Locust Streets. Newly arrived Irish (many from Ulster) helped push the city’s Catholic population to one thousand in 1785, according to an estimate by Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815).  

Riverside Settlement

Most Catholic Irish immigrants settled in neighborhoods adjacent to the Delaware River waterfront, and over time followed both skilled and unskilled employment opportunities into other working-class neighborhoods stretching north along the river. These neighborhoods included some that were later termed the “river wards” (including Northern Liberties, Kensington, Port Richmond, Bridesburg, Frankford, Wissinoming, Tacony, and Torresdale), as well as some to the northwest (including Germantown, East Falls, and Manayunk) and southwest (including Kingsessing, Elmwood, and Eastwick). Other Irish immigrants settled west and north of Philadelphia in Delaware, Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks Counties; in the New Jersey counties of Gloucester, Camden, Burlington, and Mercer; and in the northern part of New Castle County, Delaware. 

In addition to churches, organizations and rituals united the Irish as a community and sustained Irish culture. The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick was established in Philadelphia at Miller’s Tavern on March 17, 1771, as a charitable organization for the relief of Irish immigrants. Created as a nonsectarian organization, its members were native-born Irishmen or their sons. It sponsored the city’s first St. Patrick’s Day Parade at its founding in 1771.

Several Catholic immigrant members of the Friendly Sons, including Stephen Moylan (1737-1811), John Barry (1745-1803), and Thomas Fitzsimmons (1741-1811), were among about eight hundred Catholics from Philadelphia who served in the American Revolution. Wexford-born Captain Thomas Fitzsimmons served as a delegate to the Continental Congress and became one of only two Catholic signers of the U.S. Constitution. He later served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Financier John Nixon (1733-1808), whose father was from County Wexford, did the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall). Thomas McKean (1734-1817), of Scots Irish parentage, served as the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from 1777 to 1799. 

[caption id="attachment_29635" align="alignright" width="234"]Portrait of Mathew Carey Matthew Carey, a Dublin-born writer, publisher, and economist, founded the Hibernian Society for the Relief of Immigrants to aid Irish newcomers to Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Some Irishmen made a mark in Philadelphia business. For example, John Barclay (1749-1824), born in County Donegal, helped found the Insurance Company of North America in 1792. Joseph Tagert (1758-1849), born in County Tyrone, served for forty years as president of the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, which was founded in 1809 and became the largest bank in Philadelphia by the second half of the nineteenth century). He was also the president of the Friendly Sons from 1818 to 1849. Dublin-born Matthew Carey (1760-1839) published newspapers and books, including the first American Douay Reims version of the Bible for Catholics. In 1790 he founded and served as the first secretary of the Hibernian Society for the Relief of Immigrants, which provided charitable aid to Irish immigrants arriving in Philadelphia.  It was one of the earliest of such immigrant relief organizations in the United States.

Railroad and Canal Labor

A new wave of Irish Catholics came in the nineteenth century, many of them individuals seeking employment. Most had been excluded from the emerging industrial economy in Ireland and had never earned a wage for their work on rural farms. Between the War of 1812 and the Great Hunger produced by the potato famine of the 1840s, some five hundred thousand Irish Catholics came to the United States, drawn by prospects for work. From the 1820s through the 1840s, these immigrant laborers built the early infrastructure of rail lines and canals all along the East Coast, and in particular in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York, for twenty-five cents a day. A substantial number came to work on the Main Line of Public Works in Pennsylvania, on sections of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad and the Allegheny Portage Railroad, and on sections of the Pennsylvania Canal. Irish immigrants were also drawn to work at the duPont family’s Eleutherian Mills gunpowder plant on the Brandywine Creek north of Wilmington in New Castle County, Delaware.  The mill, which opened in 1802, eventually employed so many Irish (and Italian) Catholic laborers that in 1841 the duPonts built a Catholic church for them, St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, on Barley Mill Road in Greenville, Delaware.

Irish Catholic immigrants faced great depths of animosity during this era. Historian Dennis Clark summarized the roots of the bigotry in his seminal work The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of the Urban Experience: “The antipathy toward them rested not only on their reputation for violence and their religious difference from the bulk of the city’s natives, but also upon their competition for jobs at the lowest occupational levels, their menial status, their foreign aspect and clannishness, and their notorious intemperance.”

[caption id="attachment_29633" align="alignright" width="300"]color photograph of a large celtic cross shaped headstone, surrounded by 57 Irish flags and a large plaque on the ground directly in front of it In West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, fifty-seven Irish flags line the Duffy’s Cut memorial grave, one for each deceased rail worker. (Photograph by William E. Watson)[/caption]

Sectarian violence was common. In 1831, the Philadelphia Orange Riots erupted between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants over a Protestant parade commemorating Protestant King William III’s victory over Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). During the cholera epidemic of 1832, fifty-seven immigrant railroad workers from Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry died of cholera and violence at a site called Duffy’s Cut in Chester County (Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad mile 59), six weeks after arriving in Philadelphia. Contractor Philip Duffy (1783-1871), himself a Catholic immigrant, was a purveyor of his countrymen for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad (P&C), the West Chester Railroad, and the Reading Railroad. He naturalized some of them and held indentures for others from his home in Port Richmond. 

[caption id="attachment_29647" align="alignright" width="300"]Illustration of damage caused by riot in Kensington Many of the Irish in Philadelphia settled in the river wards, including Kensington. The nativist riots of 1844 left a path of destruction, depicted here. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Kensington experienced riots in 1828, 1840, 1841, 1842, 1843, and most violently during the nativist riots of May and July 1844. The riots in Kensington and Southwark cost twenty deaths, about one hundred injuries, the loss of many Irish homes and businesses to fire, as well as the destruction of Sisters of Charity convent (Second and Phoenix Streets), and the churches of St. Michael (Second and Master Streets) and St. Augustine (Fourth Street south of Vine). In Southwark, a nativist mob shot cannons at St. Philip Neri Church (Queen Street), and the services of the state militia were required to quell the riot.  The destructiveness of the riots led to police reform and the consolidation of suburban districts with the city. It also contributed to the establishment of the Catholic parochial school system, as controversy over using the King James Bible over the Catholic Douay Bible played a role in the riots. The evolving anti-Catholic atmosphere of Philadelphia fostered the growth of the school that became Villanova University, located in Radnor Township some ten miles from the city.

Irish Famine Relief Committee

[caption id="attachment_29630" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph of the Irish Memorial statue. The statue is about thirty feet wide and has many figures carved in to its bronze surface. An older couple, a man and woman, are looking at the statue with their backs to the camera. A monument at Penn's Landing commemorates Ireland’s Great Hunger of the 1840s, also known as the potato famine, potato blight, or great famine, which drove thousands of Irish to Philadelphia in search of economic prosperity and political freedom. (Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

By 1850, some seventy-two thousand Philadelphians were Irish-born immigrants—17.6 percent of the city’s total population—and more came in families than in earlier times. Ireland’s Great Hunger of 1845-52, caused by a potato blight and British policies of neglect and eviction, resulted in the death or emigration of a quarter of the Irish population by 1852. One million to one and a half million Irish emigrated abroad, with perhaps nine hundred thousand coming to the United States. The non-denominational Philadelphia Irish Famine Relief Committee formed to collect food, money, and clothing to help the starving population in Ireland. Quakers became particularly active in supporting famine relief. 

[caption id="attachment_29636" align="alignright" width="210"]Photograph of the Magee family Irish immigrant Mary Magee, in the rear of the photograph, poses with her American-born son and daughters in Germantown in 1895. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the second half of the nineteenth century following the Great Hunger, many Irish immigrants found work as common laborers on the railroads and canals. Others worked in Philadelphia factories, such as the hundreds of textile mills that dominated the industrial landscape in Kensington, Germantown, Port Richmond, and Manayunk, and the thousands of smaller workhouses scattered throughout the city. The Baldwin Locomotive Works employed many Irish laborers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, first in Philadelphia and then Eddystone, Delaware County. Irishmen were drawn westward to work in textile mills in Delaware County, such as at Kellyville (Drexel Hill). A great many Irish women worked in domestic service in Philadelphia and surrounding communities, continuing the type of work long performed by poor Catholic women in the homes of wealthy Protestants in Ireland. Although many of the Irish worked in industry, after 1850 they were less likely than the Irish in Boston to be engaged in manual labor. As in other urban areas throughout the eastern United States, Irish Americans served in law enforcement and fire protection. According to Clark, between 1850 and 1870 the number of occupations held by Irish Philadelphians nearly doubled from thirty-two to sixty-two, demonstrating a degree of social mobility unknown to Irish Americans elsewhere at the time.

As the Irish population grew, the greater Philadelphia area became an increasingly receptive environment for Irish nationalists. The cause had local support as early as the eighteenth century. Irish revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98) lived in Philadelphia, West Chester, and Downingtown in 1795 before going to France to secure support for the Society of United Irishmen. In 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) came to Philadelphia to raise funds and awareness for the Irish National League, and by 1881, several dozen local branches of the Irish Land League formed. Tyrone-born Joseph McGarrity (1874-1940), who settled in Philadelphia, became one of the U.S. leaders of the Irish nationalist organization Clan-na-Gael, which raised funds for the struggle for Irish independence. 

Many second and third-generation Irish Philadelphians rose to prominence in business and politics. Thomas Dolan (1834-1914) operated the Keystone Knitting Mills (later, Thomas Dolan and Company) at Hancock and Oxford Street and Columbia Avenue in Philadelphia, and then in Springfield, Delaware County, and later, the United Gas Improvement Company. He served as director of the Union League from 1884 to 1890. Morton McMichael (1807-79), of Scots Irish background (and nativist proclivities), became mayor of Philadelphia, serving 1866-69, and was one of the founders of the Union League. At the time of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the city’s Irish elite expressed confidence in their place in American society by unveiling the large, ornamental Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain in Fairmount Park. Featuring sculptures and portrait medallions of Irish-American heroes of the American Revolution and the Catholic Church, the fountain was a project of the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America, which sought to curb drink among the Irish in America.

Irish in Catholic Church Hierarchy

Irishmen also came to dominate the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia, as they did in many other cities of the Atlantic Seaboard. Patrick John Ryan (1831-1911), born in County Tipperary, became Philadelphia’s second archbishop and oversaw construction of numerous churches and Catholic schools as the number of Catholics in the archdiocese grew to more than half a million during his tenure. The construction projects continued under the third archbishop of Philadelphia, Edmund Francis Prendergast (1843-1918), also from Tipperary. Prendergast was succeeded by Dennis J. Dougherty (1865-1951), an Irish-American from Ashland, Pennsylvania, whose parents were from County Mayo. Dougherty, who was made Philadelphia’s first cardinal in 1921, became the longest-serving archbishop in the history of the Philadelphia archdiocese (1918-1951). He opened 106 new parishes, 146 schools, seven nursing homes, seven orphanages, and a new cardinal’s residence on City Avenue.

Significant numbers of Irish Americans in the Philadelphia region also joined religious orders, including the Christian Brothers, Jesuits, Franciscans, Augustinians, Sisters of Charity, Sisters Servants of the Immaculata Heart of Mary, Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Mercy, and Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus The Irish also had a significant regional impact in education, in parochial schools and at Catholic institutions of higher learning such as Villanova, St. Joseph’s, La Salle, Chestnut Hill, Rosemont, Immaculata, Cabrini, Gwynedd Mercy, and Neumann.  

In the first few decades of the twentieth century, another half million Irish came to the United States, but far fewer after a national quota system was implemented in the 1920s. From the 1930s to the 1980s, perhaps 150,000 Irish arrived in the U.S., with severe drops during the world wars and during Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” the conflict between Irish nationalists and the British government and their Unionist supporters.

[caption id="attachment_29631" align="alignright" width="225"]Color photograph of a group of men playing bagpipes. They are wearing kilts and other traditional Irish clothing. Behind them city hall and a large crowd of spectators is visible. For decades, Philadelphia’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade has celebrated Irish heritage through song, dance, costume, and general revelry. (Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Irish American politicians and civic groups flourished in the Philadelphia region in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. In 1962, James H.J. Tate became the first Irish Catholic mayor of Philadelphia, followed by William J. Green III (b. 1938) in 1980 and James Kenney (b. 1968) in 2016. Irish Americans also remained active as ward leaders and members of City Council in Philadelphia and in surrounding counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick continued as a significant regional charitable organization, while additional Irish-American organizations and civic groups formed. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, started in 1771 by members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, was administered after 1952 by the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association, which emphasized the essentially Catholic nature of the parade. The Commodore Barry Irish Center in Mount Airy, founded in 1958 and led for most of its existence by Donegal immigrant Vince Gallagher (b. 1944), served as a general meeting place for local Irish organizations and county societies. The Brehon Law Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1976, fostered the profession of law among Irish Americans and promoted an appreciation of Irish culture among jurists. The Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center opened in 1998 on South Cedar Lane in Upper Darby, Delaware County, to assist Irish immigrants.  Numerous Ancient Order of Hibernians divisions were established in Philadelphia and nearby counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, as well as schools of Irish traditional dance and bagpipe bands. Many Irish civic and business groups helped erect a bronze Irish Famine Memorial at Front Street near Penn’s landing in Philadelphia in 2003.

Suburban Migration

As with other ethnic groups, suburbanization trends that began in the 1950s reshaped where Irish Americans lived. Delaware County came to contain one of the most dense Irish-American populations in Pennsylvania, especially in Upper Darby, Havertown, and Crum Lynne. In the 1970s and 1980s, many Irish-Americans moved also from inner ring suburbs to communities farther from the city, westward into Montgomery and Chester Counties, northward to Bucks County, eastward to New Jersey, and southward to New Castle County, Delaware.  By 2015, Pennsylvania  had 2,137,575 self-identified residents of Irish extraction, the third-highest among states in the nation (but seventh in percentage of Irish Americans, at just over 16 percent). The highest concentrations of Irish Americans by county were in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, including Delaware County (26.4 percent), Montgomery County (21.9 percent), and Philadelphia County (11.6 percent). The smaller state of Delaware had a higher percentage of Irish-Americans residing within it (over 130,000), at 16.6 percent of the total population. Wilmington’s population was 13 percent Irish American. New Jersey had more than 1.3 million Irish Americans, almost 16 percent of the state’s total population.

Philadelphians also sought to build and sustain business relationships between the region and Ireland through organizations such as the Irish-American Business Chamber and Network, founded in 1999 by Bill McLaughlin (b. 1945). In 2010, Philadelphia also gained a branch of the Irish Network-USA, established by the Irish government to promote cultural and business ties. American pharmaceutical companies and technology companies establishing branches in Ireland, and vice versa. By 2016, an estimated seven hundred American companies operated in Ireland, employing 150,000 Irish citizens, while some two hundred Irish companies operated in the U.S. and employed about the same number of American citizens. Irish companies setting up branches in the Delaware Valley included Adapt Pharma in Radnor, Delaware County, and S3 Group (a computer tech company), in Philadelphia.

Irish-Americans helped to define the labor force and build the industrial infrastructure of the Greater Philadelphia area since its earliest days. They heavily influenced the urban politics, educational system, and the Catholic Church in the region, and their culture and their traditions left an enduring imprint on the Delaware Valley.

William E. Watson is Professor of History at Immaculata University and Director of the Duffy’s Cut Project. He received his PhD in European history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990.

Historic Districts

Throughout the Philadelphia area, in communities large and small, concentrations of buildings, landscapes, and natural features that collectively reflect the region’s cultural and historical development have been documented and recognized as historic districts. Often described as areas where the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” historic districts have been at the core of modern historic preservation planning and policy in the United States since the mid-twentieth century.  While the specific meaning of designation as a historic district depends on what body made the designation, these areas have encompassed thousands of homes, commercial and institutional buildings, and landscapes relating to significant periods or themes in economic, social, and architectural history.

[caption id="attachment_29196" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph depicting a modern-day Elfreth's Alley. Located between Second Street and the Delaware River, Elfreth’s Alley is a historic district that contains thirty-two Federal and Georgian style homes. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by Jamie Castagnoli)[/caption]

Historic districts emerged in the United States in the 1930s when Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, passed local ordinances designating large areas of those cities as places of historical and architectural significance. On the federal level, historic districts first gained recognition under the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) program, authorized by the Historic Sites Act of 1935. Beginning in the early 1960s, a number of districts in the Philadelphia region received NHL status, including Elfreth’s Alley (1960), Brandywine Battlefield (1960), Colonial Germantown (1965), Washington’s Crossing (1961), Princeton Battlefield (1960), and the New Castle Historic District (1967). Some of these districts were initiated by historians at the National Park Service, while others were the result of community organizations seeking recognition for places that were at risk from disinvestment and increasing suburban development. These districts also earned listing in the National Register of Historic Places when it was created in 1966, because the Register included districts as one of the eligible property types. Over time the National Park Service developed guidelines for how to recognize, define, and document historic districts, and eventually dozens of districts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware encompassing several thousand buildings and significant cultural landscapes joined the National Register.

Listing in the National Register or as an NHL served to raise awareness and generate pride in the history of these communities at a time when the United States was changing rapidly. National Register listing did not restrict private property owners from altering or demolishing properties in the districts, but did help to protect places such as Elfreth’s Alley from destruction related to construction of I-95. Over time, some of the Philadelphia’s most significant and iconic neighborhoods including Society Hill and Old City, Chestnut Hill, and Spruce Hill, became National Register Historic Districts as a result of efforts by community organizations. Many National Register districts in the city, especially in Center City and West Philadelphia, were initiated by the city and developers in an effort to make rehabilitation projects for historic buildings eligible for federal historic preservation tax credits.  Beyond the city’s oldest and grandest residential neighborhoods, commercial areas such the South Broad Street corridor, landscapes such as FDR Park and Fairmount Park, and midcentury modern architecture such as Greenbelt Knoll in Northeast Philadelphia have been listed in the National Register. The Yorktown Historic District in North Philadelphia, significant as a mid-twentieth-century example of community planning to provide quality housing opportunities for African Americans, became a National Register Historic District in 2012. 

Cooper Grant and South Camden Districts

[caption id="attachment_29314" align="alignright" width="237"]A map of the proposed Cooper Street Historic District. In this proposed map of the Cooper Grant Historic District in Camden, buildings have been designated as contributing or not contributing to the significance of the district. (National Park Service)[/caption]

In southern New Jersey, many of Camden’s neighborhoods, including Cooper Grant in 1989, and South Camden in 1990, were listed in the National Register. These distinct neighborhoods illustrated a variety of housing types, from early twentieth-century middle-class residences to intact worker homes that housed the backbone of industrial New Jersey. Commercial corridors and residential neighborhoods in Collingswood, Haddonfield, Berlin, Burlington, Bridgeton, and many other communities throughout the state were designated historic districts, as were more rural neighborhoods, such as South Tuckahoe in Cape May County and Recklesstown (Village of Chesterfield) Historic District in Burlington County. In Delaware, historic districts listed on the National Register included the duPont-era industrial resources and landscapes along the Brandywine River in New Castle County, small towns such as Odessa, Smyrna, and Delaware City, and a number of historic neighborhoods in Wilmington. 

Cities and municipalities have also designated historic districts through local ordinances. Unlike the National Register, local designations generally have required some form of review of alterations and demolition to buildings in the districts. While Philadelphia’s historic preservation ordinance was enacted in 1955 under the Home Rule Charter, it did not include the authority to designated historic districts. Main Street in Manayunk was the first city historic district, but it was designated under special legislation intended to preserve the textile mills and commercial corridor around them during a time when the textile industry was struggling and the community was organizing to help revitalize the neighborhood.  When the city’s preservation ordinance was overhauled in 1986 it included provisions for creating historic districts, and numerous neighborhoods, including Rittenhouse-Fitler Square, Old City, Girard Estates, Spring Garden, Awbury Arboretum, Diamond Street, and Parkside, among others, subsequently became designated as historic. These designations put in place certain restrictions on how buildings could be altered or demolished in an effort to preserve the setting and context created by the concentration of older buildings. This was a conscious move away from prior preservation practice, which tended to focus only on individual buildings, especially the oldest and grandest properties or places associated with prominent individuals or events. 

In 1961 the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Historic Districts Act, which gave cities, boroughs, and townships outside of Philadelphia the authority to designate historic districts in their communities. This law did not apply to Philadelphia because the home rule charter gave the city wide latitude to develop its own laws and policies related to land use and historic preservation. In the ensuing decades, Cheltenham Township, Doylestown, East Bradford Township, Lower Merion Township, Ridley Park, Wester Chester, and numerous other municipalities in Greater Philadelphia took advantage of this power. In New Jersey, the Municipal Land Use Law was amended in the 1980s to include specific authorization for local historic preservation ordinances, including districts, and municipalities throughout the southern part of the state, including Cape May, Haddonfield, Burlington City, Camden, Evesham Township, and Salem City, created local preservation programs and designated historic districts. In Delaware, counties and independent municipalities have created locally designated historic districts in Wilmington, New Castle, Centreville, Christiana, and other smaller communities throughout New Castle County.

[caption id="attachment_29508" align="alignright" width="300"] Buildings representing a range of architectural styles from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries line the streets of the Mount Holly Historic District, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Communities throughout Greater Philadelphia have designated historic districts to recognize and protect both urban neighborhoods and rural communities where the individual buildings and landscapes may not be individually unique, but when taken together reflect important aspects of the region’s historical and architectural heritage. These districts not only exemplify the region’s historical and architectural significance, but also encompass many of the area’s vital business centers and desirable residential neighborhoods.

Cory Kegerise is the Community Preservation Coordinator for Eastern Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office.  A native of Berks County, he lives in Philadelphia and holds a master’s degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.


Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, known as PSFS, was the first savings bank in the United States, founded in 1816. For most of its history, PSFS emphasized practicality in its operations, architecture, and community orientation. The historic organization added a modern accent to the Philadelphia skyline in 1932, when it opened a new, International-style building at Twelfth and Market Streets.

[caption id="attachment_29034" align="alignright" width="196"]An etching with a chest on the top. Above the chest are the words to save is to earn, and below the chest it states economy secures independence. The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society sought to instill in its customers the virtue of saving. To achieve this end, PSFS offered savings accounts to poor and working-class customers, who kept track of their deposits in passbooks like the one depicted here. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The merchants who organized PSFS, led by Condy Raguet (1784-1842), hoped to replicate the success of savings banks in Great Britain. PSFS founders avoided using the word “bank” in the name due to public suspicion of financial institutions.

PSFS had a modest mission: to uplift poor and working-class communities through the virtue of saving. The bank placed a priority on accessibility for customers and long-term stability. Reflecting this caution, PSFS invested primarily in government bonds and mortgage-backed loans.

Management’s pragmatism led to compromises and adaptations. To secure incorporation in 1819, PSFS leaders agreed to let the commonwealth set deposit limits. Depositor behavior—particularly migrants’ short-term use of accounts to accrue targeted savings—also shifted bank policy. PSFS hired interpreters to assist its large immigrant customer base and stood ready to pay out balances on short notice. During the Civil War, PSFS leaders donated to the city’s defense.

Evolving bank policies combined with Americans’ increasing use of savings banks to yield a rapidly growing customer base, including significant populations of African Americans, immigrants, and women. By 1900 approximately 15 percent of Philadelphians held PSFS accounts.

PSFS relocated several times during the nineteenth century, driven by increased business to seek larger facilities. Modest beginnings at Sixth and Minor Streets gave way to locations in the 300 block of Walnut Street. In 1868, PSFS built an expansive headquarters at 700 Walnut Street. During the early twentieth century, several branch locations served a suburbanizing population.

The PSFS building that opened at Twelfth and Market Streets in 1932 was an instant landmark. Designed by George Howe (1886-1955) and William Lescaze (1896-1969) in the functional International style, the glass and steel high-rise garnered criticism and acclaim. It was anything but low profile. The thirty-two-story tower, the first International-style skyscraper in the United States, became a dominant part of the Philadelphia skyline. Observers could not miss the red neon PSFS lettering on top or the WCAU antenna tower added in the late 1940s.

By 1940 PSFS was the largest financial institution in Philadelphia, and grew to serve 80 percent of local households. Many children knew PSFS through its school banking program.

[caption id="attachment_29030" align="alignright" width="206"]A color photograph of the PSFS building. The building is rectangular in shape, with a blue sign on the top with the letters P, S, F, and S in capital letters. The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society moved into the iconic PSFS Building at Twelfth and Market Streets in 1932. The WCAU antenna to the left was added to the tower in the late 1940s. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

PSFS also tackled urban problems. In 1968, civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore (1915-79) partnered with PSFS President R. Stewart Rauch (1914-2001) to bring black and white leaders together to form the Good Friday Group. Hoping to prevent riots, the group raised $1 million to support an array of social programs. In 1975, PSFS joined with two other banks in the Philadelphia Mortgage Plan, aiming to lend in formerly redlined neighborhoods.

By the early 1980s, PSFS had become the nation’s largest mutual savings bank, but it struggled to adapt to deregulation. In quick succession PSFS absorbed the troubled Western Savings Fund Society, changed its name to Meritor Financial Group, and abandoned mutual ownership to become a publically traded stock. Subsequent attempts to diversify investments were unprofitable. Meritor sold fifty-four branches and the PSFS name to Mellon Bank in 1989, but the institution did not survive long. Regulators seized and sold Meritor’s remaining assets in December 1992.

In its prime, PSFS encouraged savings and homeownership, built significant infrastructure, and acted as a concerned corporate citizen. After the demise of PSFS/Meritor in 1992, real estate developers transformed its flagship office tower into a Loews hotel. They preserved many design elements, including the neon lettering, to remind visitors of a once-prominent institution.

Alyssa Ribeiro is an Assistant Professor of History at Allegheny College. Her research has examined relations between Puerto Rican and African American residents in postwar Philadelphia.

Anglican Church (Church of England)

[caption id="attachment_28831" align="aligncenter" width="470"]A colorized photograph of Christ Church taken in 1901. A prominent georgian church dominates the photograph, with a gated green courtyard to the right of the main church building. Inspired by English architect Christopher Wren’s Georgian designs, members of Christ Church began construction of a new church near Second and Market Streets. The building, pictured here in 1901, was completed in 1753. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Anglican Church came to Philadelphia under the terms of the 1681 Pennsylvania charter, which welcomed all who “acknowledge one almighty God.” In 1695, thirty-nine Anglicans formed Philadelphia’s Christ Church, the first Anglican congregation in Pennsylvania, and requested a minister from the bishop of London, who oversaw the Church of England in the colonies. Members of Christ Church, Philadelphia, joined several Swedish Lutheran churches as the only non-Quaker places of worship in the colony. Facing the dominant Quaker power and the region’s ethnic and religious heterogeneity, Anglicans embraced religious pluralism and a diversity of theological views by their ministers. Anglicans, especially in Philadelphia, vigorously participated in colonial society and commerce, as well as the political debates surrounding the American Revolution (1775-1783). While Anglicans faced unique challenges during this conflict, persons who shifted allegiance to the new state played a pivotal role in the formation of an American Episcopal Church independent from Great Britain.

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglican Church was characterized by its status as a state church, its episcopal governance, and its adherence to the Book of Common Prayer, which contained vital theology and forms of worship that distinguished Anglicans from those outside the church, termed “dissenters.” Early Anglicans optimistically dreamed of recreating the Church of England in the colonies, but only the prayer book existed in Pennsylvania, and colonists looked to the distant bishop of London for guidance and oversight.

Through the 1690s Anglicans in the region complained about Quaker principles and doctrines, including pacifism, refusal to swear oaths, and resistance to most forms of entertainment, and saw Quaker control of the Pennsylvania colony as a threat to orderly society. Their leaders petitioned to turn Pennsylvania into a royal colony and for the appointment of a bishop, and worked to bring “heathen” Quakers back into the true church. By 1695 members of Christ Church Philadelphia erected a small brick church at Second Street and High Street and soon secured a salary from the Privy Council for a minister and schoolmaster. The London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), founded in 1701, also provided material and financial support to colonial ministers and churches across the colonies. Unlike in colonies where the Anglican Church was established as the state church and local churches were supported by parish taxes, Pennsylvania’s Anglican churches relied on the generosity their members.

Within ten years of Christ Church’s establishment, Anglicans formed congregations in the Pennsylvania settlements of Oxford, Perkiomen, Great Valley, Radnor, Whitemarsh, Marcus Hook, Concord, and Chester. Church officers, vestrymen, and annually elected wardens oversaw church finances and outreach, especially the distribution of moneys to the poor. While eastern New Jersey proved more receptive to Anglicanism, congregations formed in nearby Burlington, Hopewell, and Salem. Churches in New Castle and other communities in Pennsylvania’s lower three counties along the Delaware also operated within the orbit of the region’s oldest Anglican church. Despite these successes, Anglicans failed to convert many Quakers or undermine the Quaker proprietors, and by 1715, Anglicans were forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of other denominations. This enabled them to compete and occasionally cooperate with other religious denominations and sects without the animus that characterized Anglican-dissenter relations elsewhere in the American colonies.

Outnumbered Anglicans

Ethnic and religious diversity often posed a challenge to Anglican outreach; across the region, Anglicans remained outnumbered by dissenters. A lack of missionaries fluent in the language left predominantly Welsh-speaking Anglicans at Trinity Church in Oxford and St. David’s in Radnor with no regular minister until the 1730s. One missionary expressed fear that a Welsh Presbyterian minister would draw congregants from these churches. Anglican cooperation with Swedish Lutherans, whom they viewed as fellow representatives of the “true” apostolic church, was a notable exception. Ministers supplied each other’s pulpits, and several Swedes received Anglican orders or stipends from the SPG to preach in Pennsylvania. However, as a rule, churches remained understaffed and faced near-constant financial uncertainty because of their reliance on donations from individual congregants. By the 1770s seven SPG missionaries served some 1,500 Anglicans in nineteen congregations across Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia, visiting congregations at least once a month. In their absence, lay members led services from the prayer book.

In contrast to rural churches, Philadelphia’s Anglican community grew in pace with the city. Beginning in 1727, members of Christ Church began construction on an ornate new structure modeled on famed English architect Christopher Wren’s Georgian designs, with a brick exterior, the first Palladian window in the colonies, and a steeple, completed in 1753, which contrasted with the modesty of other religious buildings in the Quaker city. Still requiring more space, Anglicans sponsored the construction of a second church, St. Peter’s, which opened on Third Street and Pine in 1761 on land donated by Thomas Penn (1702-1774) and Richard Penn (1706-1771), who had inherited the Pennsylvania proprietorship from their father William Penn (1644-1718) and publicly converted from Quakerism to Anglicanism. To prevent competition between congregations, Christ Church and St. Peter’s remained organizationally united and served by the same ministers until 1832. Architecture, material culture, and music all distinguished Anglicanism from other denominations. Organists at The United Churches, James Bremner (?-1780) and Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), were the region’s preeminent musicians. Both churches have retained many eighteenth-century features, including box pews, organ cases, and communion silver and a walnut baptismal font, purportedly used by William Penn before his conversion to Quakerism.

Through the mid-eighteenth century Anglican churches struggled with the growing influence of evangelical theology. Lack of oversight also allowed for internal conflicts between clergy and members of the laity, which were mediated by the bishop of London. After the bishop sided with Philadelphia clergymen who opposed the elevation of evangelical SPG missionary William McClenachan (c. 1710-1766) to the United Churches, over a hundred individuals broke away to form St. Paul’s Church, which used the “liturgy, rites, ceremonies, doctrines, and true principles of the Church of England” but allowed the selection of ministers by the congregation without input from the bishop of London. This schism between St. Paul’s and the United Churches ended in 1773 when St. Paul’s asked the bishop to ordain their minister so they could rejoin their sister churches. By the 1770s Anglicans comprised 18 percent of the population of Philadelphia, or approximately 2,500 persons, divided between three congregations. While Pennsylvania Anglicans never gained a resident bishop, their experiences with religious pluralism and diverse theology prompted them to adopt compromises and share power within local churches and the church hierarchy in England.

Elites and Members of Moderate Means

[caption id="attachment_28833" align="alignright" width="300"]A certificate on parchment, with the remenants of a red seal prominent on the left side of the parchment. Richard Peters, an Anglican, held several posts in the proprietary government of Pennsylvania until he retired in 1762 to become rector of Christ Church. Pictured here is his Certificate of Priesthood in the Anglican Church. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphia Anglicans represented a cross-section of the city. Leading churchmen participated in voluntary associations, such as the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company, and the Freemasons. Four-fifths of the trustees of the Charity School and Academy, which became the College (and later University) of Pennsylvania, were Anglican, including Richard Peters (1704-1776), who served in numerous posts in the colonial government until 1762, when he retired to become rector of Christ Church. Alongside colonial elites and persons of moderate means, who purchased pews and served as elected leaders, close to a third of congregants numbered among the city’s poorest, and Christ Church routinely provided poor relief to needy persons, especially widows. In 1772, Dr. John Kearsley (1684-1772) founded the Christ Church Hospital (later renamed the Kearsley House), an almshouse that provided for widows and spinsters in their old age.

[caption id="attachment_28843" align="alignright" width="198"]Image of Absalom Jones Absalom Jones, one of the earliest civil rights leaders in African American history, was married in Christ Church in 1770 before purchasing his freedom. (New York Public Library)[/caption]

The church also made limited efforts to convert persons of color. In 1746, the SPG provided a stipend for an assistant minister to catechize free and enslaved African Americans. Ten years later, the London-based Bray Associates helped open a school in Philadelphia dedicated to providing religious and practical education to enslaved children. More than 250 free and enslaved African Americans were baptized and over forty couples married at Christ Church and St. Peter’s before 1776. Absalom Jones (1747-1818), who married a fellow slave at Christ Church in 1770, played a major role in the city’s growing free black community and in 1792 helped found the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, where he was eventually ordained as the first African-American priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church.

Although lay Anglicans were involved in the political and economic debates of the 1760s and early 1770s, clergymen stayed largely apart from events until September 7, 1774, when Samuel Adams of Massachusetts solicited Christ Church’s Reverend Jacob Duché (1737/8-1798) to open the First Continental Congress in prayer and serve as its chaplain. Adams’s choice of Duché was a deliberate attempt to court the favor of Anglican delegates from influential southern colonies. When war broke out the following April, Philadelphia’s Anglican clergymen remained supportive of the patriot cause. In a June 1775 letter to the bishop of London, they justified their efforts to effect a peaceful and mutually advantageous outcome and remain in good standing with their congregations.

[caption id="attachment_28832" align="alignright" width="219"] Reverend Jacob Duché, a prominent minister in the Anglican Church, delivered the opening prayer at the First Continental Congress, but he fled the colonies before the end of the Revolution. (New York Public Library)[/caption]

Congress’s Declaration of Independence forced Anglican clergymen to choose whether to disregard their former oaths of loyalty to the crown or close their churches. At a July 4, 1776, meeting, Duché and the vestry decided it “necessary for the peace and well being of the churches” to replace prayers in the liturgy for the king with prayers for Congress. Duché was arrested by the British when they entered the city in October 1777. Accused of treason, he recanted and tried to convince George Washington to sidestep the Congress and sue for peace before fleeing to England. With the exception of the United Church’s assistant minister, William White (1748-1836), who shifted his allegiance to the new country, Philadelphia’s other clergymen similarly fled as loyalists.

Outside of Philadelphia, Anglican clergymen had difficulty maintaining public worship. In September 1776, the Reverend Daniel Batwell of York insisted on reading prayers for the king and was arrested and eventually exiled. The Reverend Thomas Barton (1730-1780) of Lancaster similarly refused to omit prayers and ministered privately to congregants until 1779, when Pennsylvania authorities accused him of “being very instrumental in the poisoning the minds of his parishioners.” Deported to British lines, Barton died before he could depart for England. William Currie (1709-1793) and George Craig (?-1783) who together served five rural congregations, made out better than most. Shuttering their churches, they avoided comparable harassment.

Divided Loyalties

While the majority of Anglican ministers chose exile rather than conforming to revolutionary demands, Anglican laity were divided into loyalists, neutrals, moderate revolutionaries, patriots in favor of radical changes, and persons who underwent changes of heart over the course of the conflict. In Philadelphia, the removal of neutral and loyalist church members who accompanied the British to New York in late 1778 left ardent revolutionaries in control of the United Churches vestry, which remained the lone functioning congregation in Pennsylvania.

[caption id="attachment_28848" align="alignright" width="205"]Portrait of Bishop William White. The image is from his waist up. He is seated, with his right arm crossing his body in the lower half of the fram. He is an older white man, bald on top of his head but with longer, curly white hair around the sides and back of his head. He wears a religous robe. Bishop William White led efforts to revitalize congregations during the War for Independence. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

As the war continued, William White led efforts to revive neglected congregations, which after 1784 were organized within the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. In 1785, the diocese included Philadelphia’s three churches and six rural churches. That year, White helped found the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. Originally an all-boys school, it prepared students for the ministry and admission to Pennsylvania College, providing free education for persons with limited means.

The 1783 peace settlement between the United States and Great Britain prompted renewed debate over the formation of an American Protestant Episcopal Church. In an August 1782 pamphlet titled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, White proposed modifications to the Book of Common Prayer and altering the episcopal structure of governance to reflect both lay and ecclesiastical representation. Over the next years, deputies to the Pennsylvania Diocese routinely gathered to discuss joining with other Episcopalians, and White helped chart a middle path between the low-church South, which wanted lay control and no bishops, and vocal New England clergy, who catered to ex-loyalists and wanted clerical control and strong bishops. In 1787, White and James Provoost (1742-1815) of New York traveled to England, where they were consecrated as bishops. Finally, in 1789, clerical and lay representatives from nine state dioceses met in Philadelphia and, agreeing on liturgy and governance, created the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Because the region’s religious diversity had forced Anglicans to compromise with competitors and operate without state support and limited oversight, Pennsylvania Anglicans were uniquely equipped to operate independent of Great Britain and lead efforts to sever ties with the Church of England.

Ross A. Newton received a Ph.D in History from Northeastern University. His current book manuscript explores Anglicans in colonial and revolutionary Boston, Massachusetts, and their connections within the larger British Atlantic World.

Ross A. Newton

Ross A. Newton received a Ph.D in History from Northeastern University. His current book manuscript explores Anglicans in colonial and revolutionary Boston, Massachusetts, and their connections within the larger British Atlantic World.

Freedom Train

[caption id="attachment_28202" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A black and white photograph depicting a 1940s train painted mostly white with a red, white, and blue tribar running horizontally along the center of the train. The seven-car long “Freedom Train” began its 29,000-mile-long journey across the United States in Philadelphia on the 160th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. (National Archives)[/caption]

On September 17, 1947, a seven-car train arrived in Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station carrying 130 articles of American history, including documents, prints, pictures, and flags, intended to represent this history's most important legacy: freedom. After its launch in Philadelphia, the Freedom Train went on a 29,000-mile journey to three hundred communities throughout the United States, reaching 3.5 million "passengers" who boarded the train in addition to over forty million people who attended "Re-Dedication Week" ceremonies at each stop. The Freedom Train served as an early effort to unify the American people against the encroaching threat of communism at the beginning of the Cold War.

[caption id="attachment_28201" align="alignright" width="300"] Marines stood guard over the Freedom Train and its contents 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (National Archives)[/caption]

The idea for the Freedom Train often has been attributed to Attorney General Tom C. Clark (1899-1977), who sought to devise a plan for civic revitalization to counter any disintegration of unity among Americans after World War II. Clark drew his inspiration from an aide who, after visiting an exhibit at the National Archives that contrasted Nazi documents with the charters of American liberty, was struck with the idea to send this display on tour in a specially fitted railroad car. The idea gained momentum quickly within both the public and private sectors, leading to the incorporation of a nonprofit foundation called the American Heritage Foundation (AHF), which embarked on the project that came to be known as the Freedom Train.

[caption id="attachment_28199" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph with a passenger railroad car with word Pennsylvania spelled out above the windows of the train car. The Pennsylvania Railroad donated three train cars for the Freedom Train. A workshop in Wilmington, Delaware, repurposed the passenger cars to serve as history exhibit on rails. (National Archives)[/caption]

Three of the Freedom Train cars were supplied by the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Railroad and outfitted at workshops in Wilmington, Delaware, to display the historic documents. Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station was chosen as the starting point of the train’s journey because of the city’s significance as the site of the drafting and signing of the documents, especially the U.S. Constitution. The train’s departure date, September 17, 1947, coincided with the 160th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

Constitution Day and the arrival of the Freedom Train in Philadelphia were celebrated as part of the city’s Re-Dedication Week ceremonies, which consisted of six days of patriotic celebrations and activities, including a veterans day, a religious freedom day, a women’s day, a youth day, and three days for tours of the train. The events supported the Freedom Train’s slogan: “Freedom is Everybody’s Job!” For three days, thousands of people lined the streets of Center City to tour the train and sign their names on a Freedom Pledge Scroll.  Notable local and national speakers at the Freedom Train festivities included Tom Clark, future secretary of state John Foster Dulles (1888-1959), Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Edward Martin (1879-1967), and Philadelphia Mayor Bernard Samuel (1880-1954). Clark brought a message from President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), who emphasized the unique importance of America’s concept of personal liberty. Clark warned a crowd of youth that if Americans “don’t buckle down and work at keeping freedom in good working order, we can lose it.” Dulles’s words were more pointed, emphasizing that the battle for maintaining freedom would be won in American homes, churches, schools, and union halls.

[caption id="attachment_28200" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph depicting the zig-zagged interior of the Freedom Train's exhibit car. The walls creating the zig-zag are lined with cases holding historic artifacts. Inside the Freedom Train’s cars, visitors examined documents protected by cases with temperature and humidity controls. (National Archives)[/caption]

The Freedom Train departed Philadelphia for a stop in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 21. More than ten thousand people turned out in threatening weather to tour the train and rededicate themselves to their American heritage in a ceremony led by Atlantic City Mayor Joseph Altman (1892-1969). Many of the attendees were children, who had spent the previous week in school learning about the significance of the rededication. The train also stopped in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 21. A reported average of one thousand people per hour visited the train, while addresses were given by Governor Walter Beacon (1880-1962), Wilmington Mayor Joseph S. Wilson (1888-1967), and Circuit Judge Paul Leahy (1904-66).

Not all Americans were receptive, however. In Philadelphia, members of the Philadelphia Committee for Amnesty to All War Objectors picketed the Freedom Train and distributed leaflets that decried the hypocrisy of displaying the documented guarantees of freedom while at the same time many Americans were being denied their right to conscientious objection. The project’s focus on the nation overshadowed this kind of local conflict, but further contradictions with the freedom message became clear later when the train reached the segregated South. The program largely succeeded in gaining African American participation despite the fact that African Americans were deliberately excluded from its planning. In southern states, the American Heritage Foundation wavered on its policy of prohibiting segregation at the exhibit, canceling stops in some cities that insisted on segregated lines and tours while stopping in others that implemented the same prejudiced policies.

Many viewed the train and the implications of its message with a degree of skepticism. However, at a time when American freedom seemed to be at risk, the Freedom Train embodied the values of the documents that it carried, created in the “cradle of liberty,” Philadelphia.

Matt Trowbridge is a graduate of Rutgers University-Camden (2015) and is pursuing his Master’s in Library and Information Science at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information.

Library Company of Philadelphia

With a handful of like-minded associates, the twenty-one-year-old Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) formed a self-improvement club in 1727. By reading, conversing, and improving their minds, members of the Junto believed they would also improve their circumstances, their social position, and their community. Four years later, much the same group institutionalized edification and self-improvement by establishing the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Together, shareholders acquired books that, as individuals, they would not be able to know about or afford. And from the 1730s to the middle of the nineteenth century, this earliest subscription library in the colonies grew into the largest public library in the United States. By the mid-twentieth century it transformed into an independent research library documenting every aspect of U.S. history from the colonial period through the Civil War era and beyond.

The institution supported forward thinking in the spirit of engaged inquiry—knowledge through experience. The first surviving catalog from 1741 lists 372 titles, "best sellers" from the first half of the eighteenth century. Shareholders tended to choose books they considered practical: science, history, or literature more than theology, theater, or classics in Greek, even though the library’s first directors envisioned Philadelphia as “the future Athens in America.” Acquisitions included do-it-yourself builder’s dictionaries and architectural style guides to help Philadelphians emulate London as rebuilt by Christopher Wren (1632–1723). The most expensive early purchase was the six-volume Historical and Critical Dictionary by French philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), known for its tolerant and rational perspective. By 1770, the library’s collections had expanded to 2,033 books, and the character remained similar, reflecting, as Librarian Edwin Wolf 2nd (1911–91) would much later describe it, “the basic character” of American colonial culture.

[caption id="attachment_28059" align="alignright" width="300"]A colorized engraving depicting the first Library Company building. Depicted in this engraving by William Birch, the first Library Company building occupied a site on Fifth Street facing the State House Square. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Throughout the eighteenth century, the library was itinerant, though always well-situated, occupying the west wing of the State House in 1740 and the second floor of Carpenters' Hall by 1773, where it served as the library of the Continental Congress and of the Constitutional Convention. By the 1790s, with more than five hundred members (about a tenth of the city’s households), the library also played a part in the new federal government complex on the State House (later Independence) Square. In the first building of its own just south of Chestnut Street, at Fifth and Library Streets, the Library Company served as the de facto Library of Congress until the government moved to Washington, D.C., in 1800.

[caption id="attachment_28057" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph depicting the Ridgway Building. The Ridgway Building is a Greek-Revival structure. The Library Company's Ridgway Building, which later became the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, was funded by a million dollar bequest of Dr. James Rush. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Over the next several decades, the collections outgrew the original building. In 1869, a bequest of books and cash from Dr. James Rush (1786–1869), son of Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), enabled a much-needed new library. In his will, Rush called for a Center City location, but in a subsequent codicil he left the location to the discretion of his executor. Hoping to keep the Library Company from evolving into a typical urban public library, Rush’s bequest banned "every-day novels, mind-tainting reviews, controversial politics," and daily newspapers. Library directors had little choice but to accept the quirky terms and out-of-the-way location, accepting a new Greek Revival temple at Broad and Christian Streets (later the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts). To maintain a presence in Center City, library directors commissioned architect Frank Furness (1839–1912) to design another building eight blocks to the north at Juniper and Locust Streets.

[caption id="attachment_28058" align="alignright" width="300"] Architect Frank Furness designed a more central building for the Library Company at Juniper and Locust Streets. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

After the Free Library of Philadelphia was chartered in 1891, the Library Company’s public role faded further and its purpose grew marginal. The Great Depression diminished the endowment, and during World War II the library briefly operated as a branch of the Free Library. By the middle of the twentieth century, it had become clear, as Librarian James N. Green (b. 1947) later wrote, “a new raison d'etre had to be found, or the library would cease to exist.”

With virtually all the books acquired in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still on the shelves, the library chose to move away from the circulating library model and transform into a research institution. Beginning in 1955 under the direction of Edwin Wolf 2nd, the library articulated the scope of its main interests as American history and culture up to about 1880. Wolf guided relocation back to Center City in a new building adjacent to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with a modern reading room and environmentally controlled book stacks. Now side by side, the two institutions formed an unprecedented collaborative, collection management agreement in the mid-1960s—possibly the first in the city’s cultural community.

[caption id="attachment_28055" align="alignright" width="236"]This photograph depicts the eight story location of the Library Company of Philadelphia, near the corner of 13th and Locust Streets. As the library refocused its mission into a scholarly research resource, it also moved to a new location at Thirteenth and Locust Streets. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Library Company’s collections continued to grow into one of the best in the nation to study early American intellectual history, enabling new ways of seeing the past. By 1969, with a broad and growing interest in African American history, Edwin Wolf decided to make that an institutional priority. A groundbreaking exhibition, Negro History: 1553–1903, was followed by a printed bibliography with 16,500 entries that became a classic reference. Ongoing acquisitions in African American history added thousands more books and graphics, transforming an interest area into one of the library's strongest single subject areas. Over time, the library applied the same interpretive focus and collecting technique to the history of women, U.S. education, philanthropy, agriculture, and natural history, as well as Philadelphia prints and photographs and other areas of interest to researchers.

Into the twenty-first century, the Library Company continued to encourage scholarly use of its collections by offering fellowships for research within the scope of its collections. It mounted changing exhibitions of materials from the collections in the gallery, often accompanied by printed catalogs and online exhibitions. The library also sponsored scholarly symposia and published the proceedings, and its online catalogs and databases enabled access to more than five hundred thousand books and seventy-five thousand graphic materials anywhere, anytime. The city’s oldest cultural institution embraced the digital age while rededicating itself to stewardship of the past and continued sharing of useful knowledge with both scholars and the public.

Kenneth Finkel, professor (teaching/instructional) in American studies and public history at Temple University, served as curator of Prints and Photographs at the Library Company from 1977 to 1994. He is a regular contributor at the PhillyHistory blog.

Whig Party

The Whig Party thrived in the Philadelphia region from its founding in 1834 through its demise twenty years later. The party, which emerged from the National Republicans in opposition to Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) and his Democratic Party, claimed the Whig name from the patriots of the American Revolution. Whigs controlled Philadelphia government through electoral victories and circulation of Whig-leaning papers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the North American during a tumultuous period of racial conflict, nativism, and the consolidation of the city with Philadelphia County.

[caption id="attachment_27921" align="alignright" width="209"]A lithograph of Henry Clay, who is seated as he looks into the distance away from the viewer of the portrait. A leader of the Whig Party and one of the most influential politicians in U.S. history, Henry Clay is depicted in this 1844 lithograph. Clay advocated a system of policies that he dubbed the “American System,” a program of internal improvements and tariffs to help spark the development of industry. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Whigs often struggled from appearing to be little more than an opposition party to Jackson and the Democrats. Generally, though, Whigs championed Henry Clay’s (1777-1852) American System, a program of tariffs and internal improvements. They also supported a national bank to manage currency. The party achieved more success regionally than at the national level, finding issues that drew in voters. In the Philadelphia region, these included improvements to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (in which Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland invested) and the widening of the Morris Canal in New Jersey. Throughout the era, Pennsylvania and New Jersey remained competitive statewide. Pennsylvania Democrats kept a strong hold on the state House of Representatives and governorship. Whigs sometimes controlled the state Senate. New Jersey Whigs ruled state offices from 1837 to 1848. Newark, Trenton, Elizabeth, Burlington County, and Jersey City were anti-Jackson strongholds. Camden County, which favored Democrats, formed from Whig-leaning Gloucester County in 1844. Delaware Whigs controlled Kent and Sussex Counties and sent a Whig delegation to Congress.

[caption id="attachment_27918" align="alignright" width="300"]A ninteenth century political cartoon depicting Andrew Jackson being roasted over a barbecue, with several people watching and commenting on his demise. Opposition to the defunding of the Second Bank of the United States was one of the central issues of the early Whig Party. This 1834 political cartoon features President Andrew Jackson roasting over the fires of Public Opinion over his war against the Second Bank of the United States. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s Whig Party developed from economic concerns and, as a result, appealed to voters of all socioeconomic groups. Although Pennsylvania supported Jackson in the 1828 presidential election, the president waged war against the Second Bank of the United States (headquartered in Philadelphia), protective tariffs, and internal improvements—all important to the commonwealth’s voters. Nevertheless, Jackson remained very popular despite his administration working against Pennsylvania’s interests. He lost Philadelphia in the 1832 election, but carried the state. He also won New Jersey, but the Garden State elected an anti-Jackson legislature. In congressional elections, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware all voted for candidates who opposed Jackson in the bank debate. In 1834, despite the early gains, anti-Jacksonians, by then called Whigs, lost seats in Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature, partly from the economic malaise that followed Jackson’s veto of a new charter for the national bank. The bank’s credit restrictions during the Bank War, Jackson’s popularity, and Election Day riots contributed to Whig defeats.

Riots and Nativism

Whigs saw both successes and challenges through the following years. Lawyer John Swift (1790-1873), a Whig, served as Philadelphia’s mayor for much of the 1830s. In 1839, he won reelection by popular vote, the first mayor so chosen (rather than by vote of the City Council). Racial conflicts marked Swift’s years as mayor. Many Whigs were anti-slavery; some leaned toward abolitionism. A riot in August 1834 became an election issue. Whigs claimed that Democrats in Southwark and Moyamensing started it for political reasons; Democrats countered that the riots resulted from the ineptitude of Whig governance and called for a combined city-county government. Swift was unsuccessful in preventing violence in 1834, and he failed again in 1838 when he lukewarmly tried to prevent anti-abolitionists from burning Pennsylvania Hall, built by abolitionist groups.

[caption id="attachment_27919" align="alignright" width="207"]A black and white photographic portrait of Theodore Frelinghuysen. Frelinghuysen is seated in an appointed parlor looking into the camera. Theodore Frelinghuysen, posing in this 1855 photograph by Matthew Brady, was a U.S. Senator from New Jersey who became the Whig candidate for Vice President in 1844. A leader in the nativist, anti-Catholic American Bible Society, he was put on the ticket to appeal to the nativist base of the party. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The city’s voters continued to back Whigs despite setbacks, hoping that their policies would lead to economic growth. Swift’s successor was John Scott (1789-1858), who led the city through additional turmoil as the Whigs became more associated with nativism (policies favoring native-born Americans over immigrants). In the summer of 1844, when nativist riots occurred in immigrant (particularly Irish) and Catholic neighborhoods, Scott tried to end to the violence. At St. Augustine Church on May 8, he pleaded with the rioters for peace to no avail. The mob hurled rocks at the mayor and burned the church. Such nativist violence likely cost the Whigs Philadelphia in the 1844 presidential election, when their candidate for vice president was former New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen (1787-1862), a leader of the nativist, anti-Catholic American Bible Society. Whig President John Tyler (1790-1862) vetoed a national banking bill, further damaged Philadelphia Whigs’ election hopes, despite the fact that national leaders expelled Tyler from the party.

[caption id="attachment_27920" align="alignright" width="183"]A man dressed as a nineteenth century general sits atop a throne of skulls. Two Mexican-American war heroes, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, were among the competitors for the Whig Party’s presidential nomination in 1848. In this 1848 political cartoon, the central figure (not clearly identified as representing Scott or Taylor), sits atop a pile of skulls. The caption reads, “An Available Candidate, the one qualification for a Whig President.” (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

By the time Whigs convened in Philadelphia for their national convention in 1848, the party was splitting along sectional lines. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, many Whigs rallied around war hero Zachary Taylor (1784-1850). As a slaveholder, Taylor drew in some southern support. Some northerners backed Taylor, seeing him as a ticket to regaining the White House. Other northern Whigs backed Henry Clay. At the convention, which opened on June 7 in the former Chinese Museum building at Ninth and Sansom Streets, Pennsylvanians favored Taylor but New Jersey Whigs preferred Clay. Taylor ultimately defeated his divided opposition in four ballots. With Whigs actively seeking the nativist vote, Millard Fillmore (1800-74) received the vice presidential nomination. In the campaign, Whigs tried to lure working-class voters by blaming a recession on the 1846 Walker Tariff, which substantially cut duties. The bill was so unpopular that Philadelphians burned city native Vice President George M. Dallas (1792-1864) in effigy for casting the tie-breaking vote. Philadelphians, regardless of class or party, believed tariffs to be economically beneficial to the city’s businesses. This matter helped to put Pennsylvania into the Whig column. Taylor also comfortably won New Jersey and Delaware on his way to defeating Democrat Lewis Cass (1782-1866) and Free Soil candidate Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) for the presidency.

City-County Consolidation and Demise

[caption id="attachment_27922" align="alignright" width="254"]A ninteenth century map of Philadelphia after its consolidation with the surronding County in 1854. Various parts of the City are shaded in different colors. Throughout the antebellum era, Democrats and Whigs debated the issue of consolidating the City of Philadelphia with surrounding Philadelphia County. Although Whigs in the city opposed the merger, it eventually passed in the heavily Democratic state legislature and was signed into law by a Democratic governor. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Through the 1840s, Philadelphia Whigs and Democrats debated the idea of consolidating the city (then bounded by South Street, Vine Street, and the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers) with Philadelphia County. The 1844 nativist riots called attention to the need for greater law enforcement in the city’s suburbs. Whigs, who controlled the city through the decade, opposed merging with the Democratic-leaning county. After years of effort in the legislature, on February 2, 1854, Democratic Governor William Bigler (1814-80) signed the Act of Consolidation that joined the city with Philadelphia County. It set up twenty-four wards with a mayor serving a two-year term. Despite the expanded territory of the city, Whigs retained control of the mayor’s office as a coalition between Whigs and Know Nothings (a nativist political movement) elected Robert T. Conrad (1810-58), a businessman, judge, and playwright, the first mayor after consolidation.

While nativism propelled Conrad into elected office, it ended the career of another Whig politician, Joseph Chandler (1792-1880). He served on the City Council from 1832 until 1848, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He also helped the Whig paper Gazette of the United States gain some national attention. Highly respected by Philadelphians because of his work to improve the city, he was not renominated in 1854, he believed, because of his conversion to Catholicism. His supporters blamed Know Nothing influence in the faltering Whig Party.

Many identified as Whigs because of politics or economics, but a reformist movement within the party contributed to its demise. Nationally, the Whig Party splintered over sectional tensions—particularly over slavery. The Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 divided Whigs in Congress. After New Jersey’s two Whig senators voted against the Compromise of 1850, voters replaced them with conservative, unionist Democrats. In Delaware, the party’s antislavery wing pushed for an abolition bill that narrowly failed in the legislature. Upper-class Protestants steered the party toward nativism, advocacy for temperance, and high tariffs, which hurt the party among immigrants, Catholics, and the working class. Philadelphia voters split between the American Party (which formed from the Known Nothing movement), the new Republican Party, and the People’s Party (which avoided the slavery issue but was ideologically similar to the Republicans). By the early 1860s, the city was becoming a Republican stronghold.

The work of the Whigs’ elder statesman, Henry Clay, on measures such as the Compromise of 1850 gained for the party a reputation for compromise and union. Long after the demise of the nineteenth-century Whigs, this legacy inspired the Modern Whig Party, a centrist, grassroots movement founded in 2007 with the goal of luring voters disenchanted with the Republicans and Democrats. In 2013, a candidate running under this revived Whig banner, Robert Bucholz (b. 1974), won election as a Judge of Elections in Philadelphia’s  56th Ward. He was the first Whig elected to an office in nearly 160 years since Whigs dominated the region’s politics.

Andrew Tremel is an independent researcher and public historian at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

Matt Trowbridge

Matt Trowbridge is a graduate of Rutgers University-Camden (2015) and is pursuing his Master’s in Library and Information Science at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information.

Kenneth Finkel

Kenneth Finkel, professor (teaching/instructional) in the History Department at Temple University, served as curator of Prints and Photographs at the Library Company from 1977 to 1994. He is a regular contributor at the PhillyHistory blog.

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