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High School Sports

Originating in the nineteenth century, high school sports accompanied the spread of secondary schooling and became a nationwide phenomenon as students initiated team competitions and schools instituted physical education programs. In the Philadelphia region, early scholastic sports gained legitimacy from mentoring provided by the area’s many colleges and from the School District of Philadelphia’s commitment to a comprehensive, exemplary program of physical education. As college attendance became more prevalent, high school and college sports became mutually sustaining and fortified despite the uneven opportunities of secondary schooling in the region.

High school sports emerged at a time when “muscular Christianity”—which aligned physical training and manliness with the development of good morals—justified sport for shaping good habits and character of young men. In that spirit, schoolboys at Philadelphia’s Central High School played baseball in the 1860s modeled after adult clubs and football in the 1870s modeled on college programs. Increasingly, sports became part of high school life in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. High school boys initiated competitive basketball and tennis by the end of the nineteenth century. Contests crossed state lines to include suburban and rural opponents, public and private high schools, non-scholastic organizations, and a mix of secondary and higher educational institutions.  

While school leaders sometimes provided playing venues, students managed these nascent sports largely on their own. Student organizers selected high schools for “league” membership in order to crown champions. In 1887, student managers in Philadelphia private high schools organized the Interscholastic Academic League (Inter-Ac), the first in the nation, and area Quaker schools organized a league for Friends’ schools in 1890. Public school boys organized the Philadelphia Public League in 1901. A Southern New Jersey League formed by 1911, and a Camden Suburban League began in 1928. John Bonner (1890-1945), vice-rector of Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, guided the creation of the Catholic League in 1919. Eventually, across the region schoolgirls began to compete with the same league opponents as their male counterparts.  

Influence of Colleges

[caption id="attachment_24593" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of high school boys runners crossing the finish line at the Penn Relays. High school and college athletes from around the country take part in the Penn Relays, which can draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the University of Pennsylvania each spring. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the late nineteenth century, college athletic programs influenced sports for both high school boys and girls. Mimicking colleges, boys formed football squads. They interacted more directly with institutions of higher education in track meets dubbed “Interscholastics.” Swarthmore College, Haverford College, West Chester Normal School, Rutgers College, Princeton University, and Delaware College all sponsored interscholastic track meets for boys. The University of Pennsylvania’s Relay Carnival, a fund-raiser for its Athletic Association, became known as the Middle States Championship and had the longest influence on high school track in the area. At the inaugural relays in 1895, ten colleges and eight public and private high schools sent teams. Into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, high school boys continued to assemble teams to compete at the Penn Relays and similar meets.  Penn also hosted a National Swimming Championship for high school boys from 1903 until the early 1920s.  Historically black colleges played a similar role for African American students by opening opportunities for college athletic careers through sponsoring interscholastic track meets and basketball tournaments.

Colleges also offered guidance for athletic associations, referred to as AAs, the organizing backbone of early school sport. From the 1880s to the 1920s, following the example set by colleges, high school students organized sports through AAs. With some administrative support for spaces and permission, AAs managed school sport with student leadership, membership dues, and ticket sales.

For high school girls, the collegiate influence came from teachers who had experienced physical education in their college days and, after 1892, competitive games of basketball. At first, Philadelphia’s secondary school for girls, Girls’ High and Normal School, made space for health reformist ideas. Beginning in 1869, girls had classes in the Dio Lewis System of Gymnastics. During the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, visitors toured the basement of the new Girls’ High building at Seventeenth and Spring Garden Streets that was dedicated in part to gymnastics and touted as a model facility for modern female education. In latter decades, Friends’ schools in the region employed former “YMCA men” as gymnasium instructors for their co-ed students. Philadelphia public schoolboys did not have physical education until 1903, when Pennsylvania mandated its addition to the curriculum.

[caption id="attachment_24592" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of local high school girls playing field hockey. Field hockey has a long tradition in Greater Philadelphia, owing to a Bryn Mawr College athletic director who cultivated the sport in the region. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Basketball, incorporated into high school girls’ compulsory physical education classes, introduced competitive sports. Initially only intraclass games were played, but soon girls across the region seized the chance to play basketball on teams representing their high schools. Interest in volleyball, baseball, track, and tennis followed.  Constance Applebee (1873-1981), who introduced field hockey to the United States in 1903, became athletic director at Bryn Mawr College the following year. Her status and influence, including her field hockey summer camp in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, for high school girls (1922-94), made the sport prominent in the region.

Colleges also mentored high school sport across the region through the attendance of many college coaches and athletes at year-end high school sports banquets as motivational speakers and honored guests.  These collegiate emissaries bestowed prestige along with their advice on skills, practice methods, and programs and encouraged many girls and boys to aspire to play on college teams.

Influence of the Philadelphia School District

In 1907 William Albin Stecher (1858-1950), an activist in nineteenth-century physical culture and editorial board member of the national journal Mind and Body, became the first director of the Philadelphia School District’s newly created Department of Health and Physical Education (DHPE).  He instituted a comprehensive, hierarchical, physical education program for elementary to secondary students. The department organized playgrounds, indoor and outdoor meets, and play days for thousands of district students. Capping the program were high school interclass and interscholastic games leading to school and city championships, respectively.

In 1912, the DHPE took major control of sport from students by creating a Supervisory Committee to govern all athletic activities. Similarly across the region, school administrators began to impose eligibility rules based on academic standards and school attendance. From the administrators’ perspective, “playing to win” fit well in the merit-based hierarchy of schooling, but student control did not. The conviction that sport had a place in the curriculum also gained support from the formation of Fathers’ Associations and the awarding of perpetual trophies sponsored at significant expense by the DHPE. Stecher and his successor in 1935, Grover Mueller (1893-1987), a founding member of the American College of Sports Medicine (1954), made Philadelphia a leader in the field of physical education and school sport. Twice, in 1918 and 1932, the school district hosted the national conventions of the American Physical Education Association, which Stecher also cofounded.

As the Philadelphia School District added sixteen high schools between 1908 and 1939, each quickly started girls’ and boys’ sport programs. The district’s commitment to sport had influence beyond its own schools. Outside of Philadelphia, student athletes compared themselves to the larger and older city programs and consistently sought the well-supported Philadelphia teams to fill out their schedules.

At a time when schooling in general aspired to statewide standards, state-level control of athletics emerged amid concern that the teams could be prone to practices incompatible with educational purposes. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) formed in 1913, followed by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) in 1918.  (Delaware did not have a state organization until 1946.) Together with greater oversight by school administrators, state associations eliminated national championships and competition against non-high school opponents and established state championships instead. NJSIAA sponsored a state championship for football in its first year and the following year for baseball, basketball, and track.  The PIAA established most of Pennsylvania’s state championships for boys between 1920 and 1941, adding soccer, football and lacrosse in 1973, 1988 and 2009, respectively. Girls did not compete in state championships until after the federal legislation known as Title IX, which banned discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded activity, changed expectations for girls in sport.

Issues in Girls’ Sport

The earliest contests among schoolgirls, a mix of interclass and interscholastic games, followed the boys’ model but with greater adult supervision to oversee proper demeanor and guard against overexertion. Special girls’ rules reflected cultural concerns about physical exertion and potential overexposure to spectators.

In the feminist milieu of the 1920s, track and field for girls gained impetus from the 1922 “Women’s Olympics” held in Paris. Philadelphia elementary schoolgirls had been competing in running events at district-sponsored field days since around 1903, but inspired by the Women’s Olympics, female students at the seven Philadelphia high schools inaugurated an Interscholastic Track Meet that continued until 1931. From 1921 until at least 1928, Wilmington (Delaware) High School girls ran in a schoolwide track and field meet, and Woodbury, New Jersey, girls started their track team in 1923.  Many suburban schools arranged single, dual, and triple meets, and a Delaware County Meet began in 1924.

[caption id="attachment_24590" align="alignright" width="238"]A black and white photographic portrait of Lou Henry Hoover taken in 1922. Lou Henry Hoover, pictured here in 1922, helped to shape rules affecting girls sports in high schools and colleges across the country as president of the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Just as the girls’ opportunities looked like they would match the boys’, a nationwide effort emerged to eliminate interscholastic sports for high school girls. Women’s physical education professionals saw the increasing publicity and heightened tensions associated with winning competitions as injurious to the players and sought to eliminate the bad effects and expand the good. In 1923, future first lady Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944), president of Girls Scouts of the USA, first female board member and president of the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation, led a national conference that formulated a new platform for girls’ and women’s sports.  In place of interscholastic games, physical educators provided robust intramural programs with point systems for earning the all-important school letter—the same award sought by schoolboy athletes. For decades to follow in cities across the region, intramural programs defined sport opportunities for public high school girls.  Philadelphia and some New Jersey high schools developed annual traditions for girls such as  “The Annual Demonstration,” the “Gym Contest,” “The Frolic,” and “Sports Night.” These required months of preparation, including the crafting of unique class songs and cheers. For many girls these one-day extravaganzas offered a singular opportunity to demonstrate athletic prowess in front of spectators.

While city public schools purposefully eliminated opportunities for girls to play for spectators and attract media coverage, in Philadelphia’s Catholic High Schools things were quite different. Under the guidance of sport enthusiast John Bonner (1890-1945), interschool competition for girls continued and Catholic girls competed for the Catholic League championship. Philadelphia’s Catholic schoolgirls went to all-girl high schools and reveled in interscholastic basketball games widely supported by classmates, families, school faculty, and administrators. Rivalries developed and gained in importance as generations added to the legacy. In the mid-1940s thousands of spectators filled Convention Hall and later the Palestra—iconic venues for college and professional men’s contests—to watch Catholic schoolgirls in Friday night double-headers play some of the best basketball, college or high school, in the nation. Talented Catholic schoolgirls during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s graduated to collegiate play at the region’s many Catholic colleges and other colleges with strong physical education programs. When national collegiate basketball championships for women began in the late 1960s and 1970s, teams rooted in Catholic schoolgirl basketball were in a position to compete and win, most famously the “Mighty Macs” of Immaculata College.

Although a city school, Delaware’s Howard High School in Wilmington also did not suppress girls’ interscholastic competition.  At Howard, the only high school for black Delawareans, the girls’ basketball team reportedly played “boys’ rules,” not the special “girls rules” devised by professional educators to protect girls from the excesses of sport.

Philadelphia’s numerous suburban communities also continued interscholastic competitions for girls. Country clubs shaped notions of suburban female sportsmanship; competitive athleticism was social competency, not a social concern as it was in the city. While interscholastic competition was eliminated in city schools, suburban and Catholic schoolgirls continued to experience the culture of interscholastic competitions.

Twentieth-Century Transformations

Interest in high school sports expanded after World War II, an era of high birth rates, increasing focus on the family, and expanding suburbanization. New suburban community identities formed around rooting for high school teams, and gendered pageantry accompanied the games. In an era that strictly defined gender roles, cheerleading, once an activity for boys and girls, became female-only. Majorettes and flag girls accompanied the band at football half-time shows. Football teams, once only eleven to twenty players, increased to dozens of students. Students were just the athletes, fully organized, monitored, and coached by school personnel.

[caption id="attachment_24591" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Wilt Chamberlain as a 76er playing against the Los Angeles Lakers. Wilt Chamberlain (right), a basketball standout at Overbrook High School, became a legend in the National Basketball Association. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

For schoolboys, athletic horizons expanded. A successful high school player could anticipate going on to college and, if successful there, advancing to a professional team. In Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain (1936-99), who graduated from Overbook High School in 1953, chose Kansas University from over two hundred offers, leading to his professional career.

After Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), representatives of the all-black, multistate high school conference, the South Atlantic High School Conference begun in 1929, terminated the conference after awarding its final championships for boys in football, basketball, baseball, cross-country, tennis, track, golf and swimming.  Thereafter, black and white students in Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland competed together.  

Philadelphia public schoolgirl interschool competitions slowly reemerged between the late 1940s and the 1960s, but their contests paled in comparison to the robust boys programs that culminated in the Public League and City Championships.  The first Philadelphia public school championship for girls in this era took place in the 1969-70 school year for basketball, field hockey, softball, swimming, and tennis. Title IX spurred an expansion in women’s college athletics at a time when more teenage girls were going to college. Consequently, high school sports experience for girls became valuable for admission to college, much as it had for boys since the 1950s.  At the state level, Pennsylvania offered the first state championship for girls, in swimming and diving, in 1972. New Jersey schoolgirls played for state championships for the first time in 1973.

While the 1970s expanded athletic opportunity for female high school athletes in metropolitan Philadelphia, “white flight” and other demographic and political changes increased racial segregation in city public schools and sequestered more black high school athletes in a city league that did not participate in the state athletic association until 2003, and therefore did not compete for state championships. For many decades this was not a concern because in some sports the city championship and the City Title Series (begun in 1938, pitting the best public school boys’ team against the best Catholic school team) carried as much or more prestige than a state title. An indicator of change came when Kobe Bryant (b. 1978) selected suburban Lower Merion High School in 1991 to pursue his athletic aspirations, even though his father had played at Philadelphia’s John Bartram High School, a school with a proud basketball history that included Earl “the Pearl” Monroe (b. 1944) among its graduates.

[caption id="attachment_25121" align="alignright" width="272"]color photograph of Lurline Jones standing at lectern with microphone Lurline Jones was the University City High School coach whose Title IX-based lawsuit in 1979 led to the end of the boys'-teams-only City Title Series until three decades later, when the series resumed for both girls and boys. (Phoenix Club of Philadelphia)[/caption]

To give student athletes in Philadelphia access to state championships and their potential impact on college admission, in 2003 the Philadelphia public schools joined the PIAA, and the Catholic schools followed in 2007. Two years later the Philadelphia City Title Series, dormant since a legal challenge to its all-boys policy in 1979, was also revived for both boys’ and girls’ teams. Even the privileged private schools made changes to include post-season laurels. For decades, private and Friends’ schools did not play beyond their regular season schedule, instead basing their league championships on the season’s win-loss records. In 2010 the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association formed to provide post-season tournaments. In New Jersey and Delaware both private and public schools joined their state interscholastic athletic associations and competed for state titles.

High school sport in the region’s public, private, and religious schools grew from the deep roots of relationships cultivated by area colleges from the 1880s to the 1920s. By the early decades of the twenty-first century, colleges had long since relinquished their mentorship to local and state school educators. However, sports continued to be entrenched in the education system across the nation.  Across gender, race, and religious boundaries, sports made it possible for adolescents in the Philadelphia area not only to compete but also to imagine and experience a relationship with higher education.

Catherine D’Ignazio holds a Ph.D. in Urban Education from Temple University. She is an Adjunct Professor of History at Rutgers University, Camden campus.


[caption id="attachment_24294" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A map depicting the Philadelphia region during the American Revolutionary War. This map, charted by a British cartographer during the American War for Independence, illustrates the extent of the economic region Philadelphia commanded. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia served as a commercial hub for a region that spanned parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Since its founding, Philadelphia has acted as a commercial hub for the surrounding region, its hinterlands. Although New Jersey and Delaware had European settlers before Philadelphia's establishment in 1682, Pennsylvania and its founding city quickly became the focus of economic activity in the region extending both east and west of the Delaware River. With an advantageous location, Philadelphia acted as the region’s principal port, allowing goods from Great Britain, the West Indies, and elsewhere to flow in and serving as a gathering point for produce to be exported. From the late seventeenth through the eighteenth century, Philadelphia's hinterlands grew in size and diversification of products, but as the region developed, other commercial hubs developed to support and rival Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_24171" align="alignright" width="300"]A color image of a map, showing a southern section of the state of New Jersey. Small houses on the map show the locations of various Lenape tribes. This 1673 map of lower West New Jersey displays the locations of Lenape and other Native American settlements. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Delaware River Valley was originally populated by the Lenape, or Delaware, people, who shaped the region’s initial economic activity. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Lenapes retained a strong presence in the river valley, and the various native and European groups generally worked with each other through trade and negotiated rights and privileges. Native American trails became the earliest paths for the colonists, aiding travel, communication, and commerce into the densely forested hinterland. During this early period, Europeans tapped into the preexisting fur trade before developing their own settlements inland. The territory that later became the state of Delaware was first colonized in 1638 by the Swedish, who adopted a plantation pattern in an attempt to emulate Virginia's success with tobacco. However, these settlements were underpopulated, of limited profitability, and experienced conflicts with the local Lenape groups. From 1676 through 1702, New Jersey was divided by a line running from the northwest to the southeast, creating the distinct provinces of East and West New Jersey. West New Jersey was administered by a group of wealthy Quakers, including William Penn (1644–1718), but it was sparsely populated and had no major cities of its own.      

After the founding of Philadelphia in 1682, the region's producers saw the new city as a natural commercial center for the Delaware River. William Penn (1644-1718), founder and first proprietor of Pennsylvania, selected a site near the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers to better facilitate shipping. Pennsylvania grew quickly during the five decades before the American Revolution, adding eight inland counties to the original counties huddled by the river (Bucks, Philadelphia, Chester, and the lower counties that later became Delaware). Immigrants—free, indentured, or enslaved—strengthened the hinterlands' connection to the burgeoning urban center as they spread through the countryside. In addition to Quakers and other English colonists, Pennsylvania attracted Scots-Irish, Germans (including the “Pennsylvania Dutch”), and dissenting religious groups. 

Population Boomed

[caption id="attachment_24293" align="alignright" width="300"]An eighteenth century engraving featuring a view of Philadelphia from the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. Also featured in the bottom right of the engraving is an eighteenth century street map of Philadelphia. To the bottom right are engravings of prominent buildings in Philadelphia including an engraving of the Pennsylvania State House (after the American Revolution it became known by a new name, Independence Hall). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Delaware River connected Philadelphia to some of its hinterlands and the rest of the British world. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

At first, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Philadelphia primarily exported raw farm products and timber from these homesteads of the fertile Delaware River valley lands, and the numerous creeks and rivers served as transportation routes for the goods. In the eighteenth century, the European colonists developed their own settlements in the hinterland areas. Timber resources allowed for a vigorous shipbuilding enterprise. The plantations of Delaware Bay moved away from tobacco to more diversified farm products such as meat, grain, and timber. The population boomed from migration from the Chesapeake Bay region and immigration abroad, though the towns and cities that grew remained satellites of Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_25186" align="alignright" width="300"]roberts-old-mill-germantown-philadelphia-e1348597337449-575x330 During the 1750s the Philadelphia hinterlands evolved into the breadbasket of the British Empire. Grain mills like this one, Roberts' Old Grist Mill in Philadelphia County, developed in Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

By 1750, increasing grain production made Philadelphia's hinterland the breadbasket of the British Empire. The new emphasis led to an increase in flour mills for processing the grain. Mills of various kinds operated throughout the hinterland but had the highest concentration and outputs in Pennsylvania and northern Delaware, where fertile lands combined with strong streams for waterpower to facilitate the milling of grain. Likewise, iron production and its attendant forges and foundries grew during the same period, primarily in Berks and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania and in western New Jersey. 

[caption id="attachment_24291" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of the exterior of an iron furnace. Iron furnaces, like this one in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, began to operate during the 1750s in West New Jersey (now southern New Jersey) and Berks and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Supplies of timber, flour, iron, and similar stores made Philadelphia an important provider of war materials during the colonial wars. However, the Seven Years’ War (1754-63), which erupted from conflicts in far western Pennsylvania, interfered with trade. In Pennsylvania specifically, it created conflicts over the extent of protection the colonial assembly would provide for the hinterlands as the area suffered from destructive raids. During the War for Independence, Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania hinterlands experienced disruption but not for extended periods of time, allowing economic activity to largely continue and cement its role as a producer. By the end of the eighteenth century, it led the new nation in production of textiles and leather goods, as well as metalworking and carpentry. 

Road Improvements

In the late eighteenth century, the creation and improvement of roads from Philadelphia deep into the hinterlands eased travel, improving freight transportation but also pushing the frontiers beyond its reach. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) advocated for improving road networks, emphasizing the communication benefits as postmaster general. Improving communication and mail helped information from centrally located Philadelphia reach its hinterland and other colonies (later states) faster than ever, further increasing Philadelphia's economic and political influence. In 1794, Pennsylvania completed a paved turnpike connecting Philadelphia with Lancaster, which lowered transportation costs by as much as two-thirds and was the first of its kind in the nation. This simultaneously drew Lancaster more into Philadelphia's orbit, and made it a commercial center in its own right, as a gathering point for central Pennsylvania's goods.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia's hinterland reached as far west as Lancaster and Reading on the Schuylkill River, and the city's influence extended to the edge of the Appalachian Mountains and the Susquehanna River watershed. The city commanded the Delaware River Valley as far north as Trenton at the falls of the Delaware. Ships going in and out of Delaware Bay called on Delaware's smaller ports, such as Wilmington and New Castle, creating a connection for Philadelphia at those locations as well. During the same period, however, New York City to the north and Baltimore to the south increasingly grew and rivaled Philadelphia as leading international ports for the mid-Atlantic states, especially from north of Trenton and the Susquehanna Valley, respectively.

From the time of its founding, Philadelphia's location and natural resources made it a commercial hub for the surrounding region. As the eighteenth century progressed, manufacturing capabilities increased and Philadelphia's exports became more diversified while the city increasingly grew as a commercial and political center through the periods of the American Revolution and early Republic. 

Jordan AP Fansler grew up in Pennsylvania, is a graduate of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and has worked at multiple museums in Greater Philadelphia.  His doctoral thesis and scholarly work focus on the relationship of citizens to their state, national, and imperial governments in the early-modern Atlantic World.

Hail, Columbia

[caption id="attachment_24747" align="aligncenter" width="560"]An late eighteenth century page of sheet music for "Hail, Columbia." Unlike other early patriotic songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” both the melody and lyrics of “Hail, Columbia” were composed in the United States. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

“Hail, Columbia,” written in Philadelphia in the closing years of the eighteenth century, became a popular patriotic song in early America and served for many years as the unofficial national anthem. Bands began to play it in honor of the vice president of the United States in the 1830s, and later it became the official song of that office.

Philadelphia lawyer Joseph Hopkinson (1770–1842) created “Hail, Columbia” in the spring of 1798 when he put lyrics to the tune of the “President’s March,” a patriotic instrumental piece written in 1789 by Philip Phile (1734?–93), a German immigrant musician active in Philadelphia in the 1780s and 1790s.

In his later years, Hopkinson related the story behind the song: In April 1798 a young singer-actor named Gilbert Fox (1776–1807?) asked Hopkinson to write a song for Fox to perform at an upcoming benefit concert in Philadelphia. Fox needed a rousing song for the concert and asked if Hopkinson could write lyrics to Phile’s “President’s March.” Hopkinson obliged and came up with lyrics that opened with the stirring proclamation “Hail Columbia, happy land! Hail, ye heroes, heav'n born band.” With Philadelphia then serving as the nation’s capital and the United States on the verge of war with France, Hopkinson envisioned the song as a patriotic rallying cry.

The public first heard the song when Fox performed it at the Chestnut Street Theatre on April 25, 1798. The audience loved it and demanded multiple encores. A Philadelphia music publisher issued a sheet music version a few days later and the song quickly became very popular in both Philadelphia and New York.

[caption id="attachment_24746" align="alignright" width="226"]An engraving of Benjamin Carr, completed sometime in the nineteenth century. Benjamin Carr, depicted in this engraving by John Sartain, was a composer, organist, music publisher, and one of the most prominent musicians in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Unlike other early American patriotic songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America (My Country Tis of Thee),” which featured new lyrics set to traditional English melodies, both the words and music to “Hail, Columbia” were written in the United States. Philip Phile, who wrote the tune, first appears in the mid-1780s as a performer, composer, and music teacher in Philadelphia and New York. In 1785 he led the orchestra at Philadelphia’s Southwark Theatre. He wrote the “President’s March” in 1789, reportedly in honor of the presidential inauguration of George Washington (1732–99). Philadelphia music publisher Benjamin Carr (1768–1831) first published the piece in 1793. Phile died later that year in Philadelphia, perhaps a victim of the city’s infamous yellow fever epidemic.

Joseph Hopkinson, son of well-known Philadelphia patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence Francis Hopkinson (1735–91), was a prominent lawyer who later served as a U.S. congressman and federal judge. Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps in mixing law, statesmanship, and the arts. Francis Hopkinson, in addition to being a lawyer and judge, also became well known as a poet and musician.  Considered America’s first “Poet-Composer,” Francis Hopkinson was the first native-born American to write a popular song, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” composed in 1759.

“Hail, Columbia” remained popular through the centuries and was one of several songs that served as an unofficial American national anthem until Congress officially gave that designation to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1931.  Written in the new nation’s first capital during a formative period in American history, “Hail, Columbia” was one of the first pieces of music to define the young United States in song.  Later, as the official song of the vice president, it continued to play a role in America’s musical identity.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he is currently directing a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region's many small historical repositories. Jack has served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio and is giving several presentations and helping produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's 2016 Philadelphia music series, “Memories & Melodies.”

William V. Bartleson

William V. Bartleson is an independent scholar of military history who has worked with the New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum and the Center for Veterans Oral history. He is a member of Phi Alpha Theta.


Growing, trading in, and manufacturing tobacco were important components of the economy and society of the Delaware Valley for centuries. Early residents raised tobacco for personal use and as a trade commodity, but in most of the region it fell out of favor by the late eighteenth century. The exception was Southeast Pennsylvania, where tobacco remained an important crop well into the twenty-first century. From the 1750s through the 1950s, the region was a center of snuff, chewing tobacco, and cigar production. Health concerns led to a decline in tobacco use after the 1960s, and international mergers and acquisitions, along with an economic recession, resulted in the closing of many regional tobacco manufacturing facilities.

[caption id="attachment_24823" align="alignright" width="240"]color photo of a cigar shop with two men seated outside on the sidewalk. By the early twenty-first century, boutique tobacco shops and cigar bars were a fixture in urban areas. One such store was SJ Cigars, on South Third Street just north of South Street on the edge of Society Hill. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The first tobacco farmers in the Delaware Valley were Native Americans who grew it for chewing, smoking, and religious ceremonies. New Sweden settlers cultivated tobacco, employed it as commodity money, and exported it to Europe. The English who followed also raised tobacco, using it to pay taxes and land rents to William Penn, and exporting it; in 1706, about eight hundred hogsheads of tobacco were shipped out of Philadelphia. In Delaware, tobacco (grown in the lower part of the colony) was an important export crop in the early 1700s but went out of favor by the 1770s. Early New Jersey farmers grew tobacco for personal consumption, but it never became a commercial crop there.

Tobacco grown in the Philadelphia region in the eighteenth century proved inferior to Chesapeake varieties and commanded a lower price. As a result, most local farmers shifted to wheat production, although some still grew tobacco for personal use. After 1815, the market for wheat contracted, and in the 1830s southeastern Pennsylvania farmers began raising seed leaf tobacco (used as cigar filler) commercially. Many tobacco farmers were Lancaster County Amish and Mennonites, whose large families were able to produce the labor-intensive crop economically. By 1859 Lancaster County was producing 65 percent of the state’s tobacco crop.

[caption id="attachment_24378" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the Garret Snuff Mill, situated on the Brandywine Creek. The Garrett Snuff Mill, established in 1782 on the Brandywine Creek in New Castle County, Delaware, manufactured snuff for over a century in a modified grist mill. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Trading in tobacco was profitable because men and women of all ranks in early America used and became addicted to it. Relatively affordable for the working class, tobacco was prized for its stimulant qualities, and smokeless forms could be used at work without fear of fire. Rural storekeepers, tavernkeepers, and urban tobacconists sold the product in many forms. Depending on how the tobacconist processed the leaves, tobacco was chewed, smoked in a pipe, or taken nasally as finely ground snuff.

Healing Qualities Promoted

For the upper class, expensive snuff boxes of exotic wood and metal were status symbols. Snuff also was believed to have healing qualities. In 1756, one Philadelphia tobacconist advertised it as “good for the Headach(e) and a great Preserver of the Eyes.” Snuff was quite popular with elite Quaker women, including diarist Elizabeth Drinker (1735-1807), who in 1803 noted she had used snuff for over fifty years. While snuff and chewing tobacco were widespread, imported cigars were the most expensive form of tobacco in the eighteenth century, and smoking a “segar” was a sign of conspicuous consumption.

In the revolutionary era, tobacco imported from the South became an important trade item for Philadelphia. In 1775 Virginia growers turned to Philadelphia merchants after expelling British firms, and tobacco became Philadelphia’s principal export; one resident described it in 1779 as “our Staple Commodity.” From 1785 to 1787 Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris (1734-1806) enjoyed a monopoly on selling American tobacco to France as the result of his exclusive agreement with the French Farmers-General.

[caption id="attachment_24377" align="alignright" width="230"]A mid nineteenth century photograph of The Old London Coffee House. After the Revolutionary War, the Old London Coffee House at Market and Front Streets was sold to James Stokes, who converted it into his home and a store. By the mid-nineteenth century, the building (seen here) housed Ulrich & Brother’s Tobacco & Segar Store. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Coastal trade in tobacco continued to be a valuable part of city commerce through the nineteenth century. The partnership of Tunis & Annesely, for example, operated sloops that sailed between Philadelphia and ports as far south as Virginia. Their cargo included tobacco that they wholesaled to local and regional tobacconists, including Lancaster snuff maker Christopher Demuth (1738-1818) who, between 1803 and 1813, purchased an average of seventeen thousand pounds of tobacco annually from the firm. Country storekeepers such as Samuel Rex (1766-1835) of Schaefferstown, Lebanon County, also relied on city tobacconists for chewing and smoking tobacco and snuff to resell to rural customers.

Tobacco products helped fuel the regional economy from the eighteenth through the twentieth century. By 1794, Philadelphia’s twenty-seven snuff and tobacco factories employed over four hundred workers. A 1796 tax assessment showed that New Jersey had one snuff mill and Delaware had two, including the Garret Mill, established in 1782 in New Castle County on the Brandywine Creek, which manufactured snuff for over a century in a modified grist mill. Wilmington, Delaware, was also the site of a tobacco manufactory, according to a 1799 traveler’s account. The 1810 report on manufactures by Tench Coxe (1755-1824) documented Philadelphia (city and county) as leading the state in producing snuff and cigars; the latter included more expensive “Spanish” type and a “common” variety. As snuff faded in popularity, cigars became the preference of tobacco consumers in the mid-nineteenth century. A federal government report by E. H. Mathewson in 1912 showed Pennsylvania leading the nation in cigar manufacturing and listed Philadelphia (along with Pittsburgh and Lancaster) as a center of production. Many small factories also flourished in rural villages throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.

Cigar-Maker Immigrants

The lively trade in tobacco (and sugar) between Philadelphia and the Caribbean in the nineteenth century inspired Puerto Rican and Cuban cigar makers to migrate and find work in the city’s tobacco industry, which included, according to one estimate, some nine hundred factories by the turn of the twentieth century. Southwark, an area of concentrated Spanish settlement, became home to many of these facilities, including Bayuk Brothers Tobacco Company, founded in 1896. By the early twentieth century, Bayuk was Philadelphia’s largest cigar producer, manufacturing Garcia y Vega and the popular “Philadelphia Hand Made Perfectos,” which soon became known simply as “Phillies.”

The Northern Liberties hosted many factories, including Theobold & Oppenheimer, which began production in 1860 and moved to a new plant at 1147 N. Fourth Street in 1900. Most of T&O’s seven hundred employees were women. When Philadelphia’s male cigar makers went on strike in 1888, factory owners installed machines operated by female workers, who could be paid less than men. By 1915 city factories employed four thousand three hundred women—more than twice the number of males.

Cigars also were a major industry in Trenton from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. The elegant factory erected by the firm of Henry Clay and Bock & Company in 1932 at a cost of five hundred thousand dollars surrounded a central courtyard and resembled a tropical hotel. (The Henry Clay took its name from its line of cigars named after the famous Kentucky senator.) In their heyday, Trenton’s cigar factories employed as many as two thousand workers, mostly female immigrants from Hungary, Poland, and Italy.

[caption id="attachment_24380" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a farmer in rural Pennsylvania leading a horse drawn wagon full of Tobacco. A Mennonite farmer transports a load of tobacco near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in this 1941 U.S. Farm Security Administration photograph by Marion Post Walcott. Traditionally, the region’s farmers grew “seed leaf” tobacco for cigar filler, but starting in 2005 Lancaster County farmers grew “Burley” tobacco, used in cigarettes. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Much of the raw tobacco that these cigar manufacturers used came from Lancaster County, where tobacco reigned as the leading cash crop from 1840 all the way to 2000, making its warehousing and distribution important components of the Lancaster (city) economy. The industry had close ties with Philadelphia cigar makers, including Bayuk Brothers and Otto Eisenlohr & Brothers, both of whom, in the early 1900s, built large tobacco warehouses on North Water Street in Lancaster. (Bayuk eventually took over Eisenlohr.)

Mergers Undermine Local Production

[caption id="attachment_24379" align="alignright" width="300"]In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many tobacco warehouses and associated buildings were repurposed as apartments, restaurants, or hotel complexes, such as the Rosenbaum Tobacco Warehouse pictured here. (Wikimedia Commons) In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many tobacco warehouses and associated buildings were repurposed as apartments, restaurants, or hotel complexes, such as the former Rosenbaum Tobacco Warehouse, which became a hotel in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Because of the declining popularity of cigars, the economic downturn, and a series of international acquisitions and mergers, the mid-1900s marked the end of major cigar production in the region. Bayuk closed its Philadelphia plant in 1976. In 1982 Culbro Corportion acquired Bayuk’s Garcia y Vega line, and Bayuk sold its Phillies brands to Phillies Cigar Co., a subsidiary of Havatampa, which later became Altadis, U.S.A.  After a period of decline, many former tobacco buildings underwent adaptive reuse, and the former industrial sites became desirable for residences and new business. Henry Clay in Trenton and Theobold & Oppenheimer in Philadelphia were converted into high-end apartments. A number of Lancaster’s former tobacco warehouses were repurposed for hotels, apartments, and restaurants, and many qualified for the National Register of Historic Places.

Another factor that affected tobacco use was the U.S. surgeon general’s 1965 “Report on Smoking and Health,” which led to warning labels on products and a ban on certain forms of advertising. Still, tobacco did not go away, and cigar-smoking enjoyed renewed popularity during the 1990s. By the early twenty-first century, boutique tobacco shops and cigar bars were a fixture in urban areas, and small companies, such as John Hays Cigars of Intercourse, Lancaster County, still made chewing tobacco and cigars using locally grown tobacco. Lancaster Leaf Company, housed in the former Bayuk-Eisenlohr complex, and Domestic Tobacco were the only two tobacco processing operations left in Lancaster, but both carried on sizable businesses. For Lancaster County farmers, tobacco remained a major, lucrative crop. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked Pennsylvania sixth nationally in the value of tobacco.

[caption id="attachment_24376" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of tobacco plants growing in Pennsylvania. Although tobacco like this in 2010 was still grown in the region during the twenty-first century, most of the region's demand for tobacco came from abroad. (Photograph by Diane Wenger)[/caption]

Tobacco played a crucial role in the regional economy for more than three hundred years. Until its adverse physical effects were recognized, growing, exporting, manufacturing, and using tobacco products provided employment and consumer satisfaction to many. Even into the first decades of the twenty-first century, despite negative associations, tobacco remained a major agricultural crop for Pennsylvania. Tobacco production and consumption, although less robust than in the past, continued. In places where tobacco companies failed, many sites associated with the industry were recognized for their historic significance and reinvigorated through adaptive reuse.

Diane Wenger is Associate Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global Cultures: History, Languages & Philosophy at Wilkes University. She is the author of A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania: Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790-1807 (Penn State Press, 2008).

Liberians and Liberia

Greater Philadelphia has had close links to Liberia historically. Free blacks and abolitionists from the region helped colonize and underwrite the nation of Liberia’s founding in the early nineteenth century. Yet Philadelphia and Liberia had little connection between the mid-nineteenth and late twentieth century. Most Liberian settlement in the region resulted from the Liberian civil war of 1989-96 and 1999-2003, when people fleeing conflict were resettled as refugees but granted Temporary Protected Status. This produced a diverse Liberian community in the region, with active civil society organizations working to rebuild Liberia as well as resident communities in Philadelphia and its suburbs. By 2010, Greater Philadelphia was home to the largest Liberian community in the United States, and Liberians were the largest group of African immigrants in the region.

[caption id="attachment_24057" align="alignright" width="215"]A membership certificate for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, an organization that supported the colonization movement. (Library Company of Philadelphia) A membership certificate for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, an organization that supported the colonization movement. Some free blacks from Philadelphia resettled in Liberia. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Liberia was established and colonized by free blacks from the United States, including some from the Philadelphia area, beginning in the 1820s. Some slaves in the United States came from the territories that became Liberia, though more came from neighboring Sierra Leone and Ghana. The colonization movement had deep ties to Greater Philadelphia, though many of the region’s abolitionists condemned colonization and likened it to re-enslavement. Princeton native Robert Finley (1772-1817) founded the American Colonization Society, which underwrote and oversaw Liberia’s early development and the settlement of some thirteen thousand black Americans. Its partner, the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, started in 1826 and in the early 1830s established Port Cresson (later Buchanan, Liberia), named for a society member and Philadelphia Quaker philanthropist, Elliot Cresson (1796-1854). At the bank of the St. John River, the settlement aimed to stem the outflow of more than one thousand slaves per month. Other partner institutions sponsored emigrants as well, including Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, which hosted two former slaves at its campus for training aimed at their migration to Liberia. The abolitionist and physician Martin Delaney (1812-85), who had been born free in Virginia, joined others in Pennsylvania pushing  for emigration to Liberia into the 1860s, citing the poor prospects for blacks in the United States and the imperative of creating a black republic in Africa.  

An independent nation since 1847, when it broke with the Colonization Society, Liberia had relatively little connection to the Philadelphia region from the late nineteenth until the second half of the twentieth century. As postcolonial African emigration took off in the 1960s, some middle class Liberians moved to Philadelphia and other parts of the United States to attend universities, including Temple, St. Joseph’s, and the University of Delaware. Many students returned home, but others stayed for a time. In the 1980s they formed the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), with chapters in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio, hosting social events and helping families cover funeral expenses.

Civil War Refugees

The Liberian civil war of the 1990s transformed the Liberian community in Greater Philadelphia and the U.S. Growing out of longstanding tension and exploitation by Americo-Liberians of the majority African population, the initial rebellion led by Caribbean-born Charles Taylor (b.1948) out of the American Firestone Tire Company rubber plantation ultimately spread to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. Liberians fled to neighboring countries, including Ghana, and to the United States, where many resettled as refugees. As one community leader noted, by the 1990s the Liberian population of Philadelphia and the U.S. was no longer “only college kids.” It had come to include people of varied ages, educational backgrounds, urban and rural origins, and personal and family problems resulting from the war. Liberians resettled in other U.S. regions also moved to Philadelphia, joining relatives and friends. By 2010, the U.S. Census counted roughly eight thousand Liberians in Greater Philadelphia, making up the largest nationality group among almost forty thousand  African immigrants in the region. African community leaders estimated much higher numbers, including as many as fifteen thousand Liberians in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

A result of resettlement and of black people’s segregation in American cities, most Liberians settled in working-class neighborhoods with other African and Caribbean immigrants and African Americans. Liberians of various education levels and occupations lived especially in West and Southwest Philadelphia, where a “Little Monrovia” formed along Woodland Avenue around Sixty-Sixth Street, and in nearby Delaware County suburbs including Colwyn, Darby, Upper Darby, and Lansdowne, as well as in Wilmington and Trenton. Like other African immigrants, Liberians worked a diverse range of jobs, from journalism, social work, and arts education to low-paid, irregular work as parking attendants, house cleaners, and home health aides, reflecting their bifurcation by class. Relative to other groups, in 2010, the median household income of Liberians in the region was $51,000, below the native-born in general ($72,000) but above African Americans ($35,000). Some 42 percent of Liberian households were homeowners (compared to over 70 percent of native-born households).

Liberians and Sierra Leoneans fleeing the civil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s were not accorded permanent refugee status and the ability to remain in the U.S. indefinitely, except in rare cases, although many were resettled through the federal refugee program by agencies like Philadelphia’s Nationalities Service Center and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Rather, the U.S. government granted them Temporary Protected Status, a designation for people from countries, typically at war, where refugee agencies expect displaced people will be able to return when conditions improve. The federal government allowed Liberians’ Temporary Protected Status to expire in 2007, placing them on Deferred Enforced Departure, a status renewable by the White House every twelve or eighteen months, but granted Temporary Protected Status again during the Ebola epidemic of 2014. Liberian community leaders and Philadelphia City Council, at the urging of West Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell (b.1945), regularly lobbied for renewing both statuses, with counterparts in other U.S. regions and Liberia. Under both statuses, Liberians received work permits, but under Deferred Enforced Departure they were not eligible for federal financial aid and could not leave the country. The impermanent nature of both statuses created instability in the lives of many Liberians, though many also attained permanent residency and some became U.S. citizens.

Like other refugees fleeing civil war, Liberians experienced a variety of trauma, compounded by resettlement and life in largely segregated and impoverished neighborhoods and schools of working class neighborhoods. Some Liberian residents of Philadelphia and Delaware County were charged as war criminals, and many testified from Philadelphia as witnesses of episodes in the war for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, assisted by the Transnational Law Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. People from the fifteen counties of Liberia, associated with different sides and events in the war, lived in Greater Philadelphia, meaning that sometimes in the supermarket or on the street Liberians encountered countrymen responsible for the deaths of their family members during the war. Liberian and other black immigrants have also experienced tensions with one another and with African Americans. The most publicized event occurred in 2005, when a 13-year-old Liberian boy was attacked and his skull fractured by African American youth on his way home from school in Southwest Philadelphia. To protect themselves from such attacks, Liberian high school students in the region and nationally formed a gang named LIB.

Civil Society

[caption id="attachment_24142" align="alignright" width="300"]A scene of traditional African dancing portrayed by African performers, at the ACANA festival stage at Penn's Landing. To confront the challenges facing Liberians across the Philadelphia region, the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA) was formed in 1999. Each year ACANA hosts a festival at Penn's Landing, promoting social services and community development as well as art and the culture of Liberians and Africans throughout the region. (ACANA)[/caption]

In response to these and related challenges, Liberians developed a vibrant set of community organizations. The African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), formed in 1999 and based in Southwest Philadelphia, became the largest African immigrant-run social service, arts and culture, and community development nonprofit in the region. Its annual festival at Penn’s Landing has drawn thousands of people each summer, while its adult education, youth anti-violence, health and wellness, and legal services programs have addressed a range of needs among African, Caribbean, and African American constituents in the region. ACANA partnered with Project Tamaa of the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center to serve young Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, and Guineans and their parents and teachers dealing with trauma. Another organization, Multicultural Community Family Services, founded in 2003 and based in Upper Darby, has run job readiness programs, a soccer league, and other community services especially for youth from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the United States. The Agape African Senior Center in West Philadelphia, established in 2000 by a reverend from Liberia, has offered English classes, orientation to the neighborhood, and other basic supports for refugees and immigrants.

Other organizations in the region reflected the diversity of the Liberian community and its strong connections to other immigrant and receiving communities. These included professional and alumni associations, such as the Association of Liberian Journalists, Association of University of Liberia Alumni in the U.S.A., and Monrovia College Alumni Association in the Americas. Liberians played key roles in founding Philadelphia’s two most important Pan-African organizations, the Coalition of African Communities in Philadelphia (AFRICOM, established 2001) and the Mayor’s Commission for African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs (established 2008). The Mayor’s Commission helped organize trade missions, including visits by Philadelphia area entrepreneurs and officials to Liberia as well as hosting Liberian dignitaries in Philadelphia.

Some Liberians who came to Philadelphia in the 1990s were prominent performing artists. Refugee resettlement caseworkers bemusedly recounted the story of waiting at the airport for a refugee couple, only to be told by the husband when they arrived that his wife, a famous singer, had booked tour dates around the United States and had a connecting flight, so could not accompany the caseworkers to the apartment they had arranged for the couple. The Philadelphia Folklore Project, based in Southwest Philadelphia, has supported Liberian dancers and musicians, as has ACANA. The Folklore Project helped former members of the Liberian National Cultural Troupe establish the activist Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change.

In addition to their local activities in Greater Philadelphia, many Liberian community organizations have worked transnationally to rebuild and remain connected to Liberia. The ULAA and members of its Pennsylvania chapter have been deeply engaged in the reconstruction of Liberia’s national government and civil society, supporting democratic elections and reforms. Immigrants and refugees from each of Liberia’s counties formed a nonprofit county association in the U.S., in which Liberian community leaders in Philadelphia have been active. The county associations have provided scholarships for school and university students in Liberia; helped finance, plan, and build schools, medical clinics, and roads, water, and telecommunications infrastructure, usually in collaboration with county governments; sent medical and school supplies; and launched agricultural enterprises. In these ways, Liberians in Greater Philadelphia have worked to revitalize the towns, counties, and nation of Liberia, as well as the city and suburban neighborhoods in which they settled.

Domenic Vitiello is Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and an associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. He has been a member of AFRICOM, served on the board of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, and refereed the annual African Communities Soccer Tournament in Philadelphia and Delaware County.

Brian Albright

Brian Albright is a graduate of Rutgers University-Camden and Senior Historian at AECOM in Burlington, New Jersey. His interests include the industrial, labor, and social history of Philadelphia in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the environmental history of the mid-Atlantic region.

Diane Wenger

Diane Wenger is Associate Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global Cultures: History, Languages & Philosophy at Wilkes University. She is the author of A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania: Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790-1807 (Penn State Press, 2008).

Linda A. Ries

Linda A. Ries is a retired archivist from the Pennsylvania State Archives, part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, where she worked for thirty-five years. She is editor of Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, the scholarly journal of the Pennsylvania Historical Association.

Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

A group of six amateur scientists with an interest in natural history gathered at a private residence at High and Second Streets in Philadelphia on January 25, 1812, and founded the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for, according to its charter, “the encouragement and cultivation of the Sciences” and “the advancement of useful learning.” These enthusiastic, mostly young men, soon joined by entomologist and conchologist Thomas Say (1787–1834), created what has become the oldest institution of natural history in America. The academy continued to produce important original research in biological and molecular systematics, ecology, and biodiversity as it forged important partnerships in the region and the world and eventually affiliated with Drexel University.

In the early nineteenth century, Philadelphia was already home to the American Philosophical Society, the Philadelphia Museum established by Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), and a thriving medical community. But the academy founders, members of the city’s growing professional class, felt excluded and poorly represented by the city’s established elite institutions. For its first home, the young academy rented rooms above a milliner at 94 N. Second Street that included meeting space, a reading room, and a room to keep their growing specimen collection. The first major collection acquired by the academy, a large collection of minerals purchased from prominent local geologist and congressman Adam Seybert (1773–1825) in the summer of 1812, provided the basis for the first series of lectures for the members.

[caption id="attachment_20851" align="alignright" width="300"]Image of a dinosaur skeleton, potentially collected during the museums late nineteenth century interest in Palentology. Dinosaur Hall is a favorite destination for families at the Academy of Natural Sciences. In the late nineteenth century, the field of paleontology occupied most of the museum’s time and resources, spearheaded by the museum’s renowned paleontologists Joseph Leidy and Edward Drinker Cope. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

While the academy’s founders considered the creation and diffusion of knowledge about the natural world important for its own sake, they also enthusiastically embraced the idea that the study of natural science built character in urban young men and was a patriotic duty that would place the sciences in the young United States on an equal level with those in the Old World. Even though membership was restricted to only those people nominated by two current members, the academy continued to grow. By 1817 it became clear that if it were to take part in the international exchange of scientific theories and discoveries as well as specimens, the academy would need to publish a journal. Scottish-born geologist and academy member William Maclure (1763–1840), a generous donor of money as well as specimens and a large number of volumes for the library, championed the idea most strongly. He was so dedicated to public science education and cooperation that he bought the academy a printing press and housed it in his own home where the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences was published for the first few years. The Journal, and later the Proceedings, became important natural science journals.

A History of Expeditions

In 1812, a mere month after its founding, the academy sponsored its first “expedition” to visit the zinc mines in nearby Perkiomen, Pennsylvania. As it grew in size and prestige it organized, sponsored, and staffed more expeditions, often in collaboration with the federal government and other institutions. Army topographer Major Stephen Harriman Long (1784–1864) led one such expedition in 1819 to the Upper Mississippi Valley, which included academy members Thomas Say and Titian Peale (1799–1885), to study and collect the area’s flora and fauna.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the academy’s amateur naturalists gave way to a more professional membership, reflecting a larger trend in American science. The academy continued to collect specimens from around the world through trade, purchase, donation, and sponsorship of expeditions of exploration. In 1834, it cosponsored an expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River with the American Philosophical Society. In 1838 academy members Charles Pickering (1805–78) and Titian Peale, along with several corresponding members, joined the four-year Wilkes Expedition, which explored and surveyed the Pacific Ocean and adjacent land.

[caption id="attachment_23256" align="alignright" width="284"]An engraving from a magazine depicting the Broad and Sansom location of the Academy of Natural Sciences. In 1840, after decades of acquiring collections, the Academy of Natural Sciences moved to a new location at Broad and Sansom Streets, where it stayed until 1876. (The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University Archives)[/caption]

The academy’s collection grew quickly throughout the nineteenth century, forcing it to move five times to progressively larger buildings. In 1840 the institution moved to a new, fireproof building at Broad and Sansom Streets where it became one of the most modern, best-equipped natural history museums in the United States. It boasted, among other holdings, the world's largest ornithological collection. The academy made its final move in 1876, constructing a new building at the corner of Race and Nineteenth Streets, a remote location that later became the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural district. The academy’s location was further enhanced by the creation of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as the showpiece of the City Beautiful movement in 1917.

A Bent Toward Paleontology

Paleontological work preoccupied the academy during the late nineteenth century, thanks to men such as Joseph Leidy (1823–91) and Edward Drinker Cope (1840–97).  Leidy trained as a medical doctor, taught anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and later Swarthmore College, and was a curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences from 1846 until his death. He described some of the first dinosaur fossils in America and led the field of vertebrate paleontology for most of the nineteenth century. Leidy did some collecting locally, but relied largely on field naturalists such as Cope and Ferdinand Hayden (1829–87) to send fossils from the American West.

Following early successes by men such as Leidy and Hayden, the field of paleontology exploded, and the academy was at its center, not always for the better. The most brilliant and controversial of these later scientists was Edward Drinker Cope. A student of Leidy’s, Cope was talented and ambitious, and after the Civil War he embarked on a number of expeditions of the American West that sent huge numbers of paleontological specimens back to the academy. Unfortunately, Cope maneuvered himself into a petty, and sometimes violent, feud over access to fossil excavation sites, interpretations of specimens, and prestige with fellow paleontologist O.C. Marsh (1831–99) of Yale University, a feud dubbed by many historians as the “Bone Wars.” This feud had important consequences for the academy and Joseph Leidy. Outlandish stories of the feud published in the popular press sullied the academy’s reputation, and Leidy, disgusted by Cope’s behavior and tired of being caught in the middle of the feud, eventually abandoned paleontology in the West and turned his attention to other projects and helping local organizations, including serving as the president of the faculty and head of the museum at the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia.

Twentieth Century and Beyond

By the turn of the century, study of natural science began to shift away from museums to university biology labs. However, the academy continued to sponsor expeditions to the Arctic, Asia, Africa, and Central America and conduct original research in several fields. Years before ecology, pollution, and conservation became topics of public debate, in 1947 the academy embarked on a research agenda to study aquatic ecosystems through its Department of Limnology, and in 1948 it established an Environmental Research Division. Throughout the twentieth century, the academy conducted important research in ecology and biodiversity on its own and in partnership with other area institutions. 

[caption id="attachment_20850" align="alignright" width="300"]An image of the current location of the Academy of Natural Sciences at the corner of Race and Nineteenth Streets. The Academy of Natural Sciences moved to its current location (seen here) at the corner of Race and Nineteenth Streets in 1876. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

In 2011 the academy became the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University when it formed an official affiliation with Drexel University. This partnership created a bridge between university-based biological research and museum-based natural history collecting. The relationship combined the institutions’ educational missions and resources and enhanced their ability to collaborate on natural and environmental science research. The affiliation facilitated, among other projects, creation of a joint Department of Biodiversity, Earth, and Environmental Science (BEES) dedicated to research and education in the fields of environmental science, ecology and conservation, biodiversity and evolution, geoscience, and paleontology.

The mission and motto of this new department, “Field Experience, Early and Often,” echoed the interests and ambitions of the founders of the Academy of Natural Sciences. By remaining true to the vision of its founders, America’s oldest institution of natural history remained relevant into the twenty-first century.

Matthew A. White is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Florida. His dissertation, “Patronage, Public Science, and Free Education: William Wagner and The Wagner Free Institute of Science 1855–1929,” was supported by grants from the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (Philadelphia). He is also a museum professional with over twenty-five years of experience in museums of science, technology, and history, and is the Director of Education at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum.

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