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France and the French

Philadelphia’s long connection with France and the Francophone world took shape over several centuries. French settlers, visitors, expatriates, and refugees contributed significantly to Philadelphia’s early sociopolitical development. Over the years, Philadelphia received refugees from the French Revolution and French-speakers from the Caribbean and Africa who made lasting cultural contributions. Philadelphians celebrated Bastille Day, erected a monument to Saint Joan of Arc, adopted French styles in fashion, art, and architecture, and formed organizations to foster and advance Franco-American relations. As the city and the surrounding region grew and changed, the French connection remained.

[caption id="attachment_35182" align="alignright" width="183"]Map of Joseph Bonaparte's estate at Point Breeze. Joseph Bonaparte purchased an estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, named Point Breeze. This 1847 map shows the extensive gardens and forests that surrounded his mansion. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

French immigrants arrived in Philadelphia as early as the seventeenth century. Many French Protestants (Huguenots) left France after Louis XIV (1638–1715) issued the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, which denied the legality of Protestantism and opened the door for mass violence and persecution against Protestant communities scattered throughout the kingdom. Some of those who fled Catholic-dominated France sought religious liberty in the tolerant Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. Most of these early French immigrants arrived as indentured servants and did not coalesce into a substantial ethnic community.

One of the most influential French Protestant arrivals was the educator and abolitionist Anthony Benezet (1713–84), whose family fled to England in 1715 in search of religious tolerance, and from there to Philadelphia in 1731. In his new city, Benezet embraced Quaker ideals of individual human value and universal humanitarianism. He embarked on a tireless mission of abolitionism, which linked Philadelphia to a network of prominent anti-slavery writers and activists on both sides of the Atlantic. At the Rising Sun Tavern at York Road and Germantown Avenue in 1775, Benezet called to order Pennsylvania’s first anti-slavery organization, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Benezet also established America’s first school for girls in 1754 and a school for black children in 1770. Through his experience with religious persecution, empathy for the oppressed, and humanitarianism, Benezet embodied the spectrum of influence of Frenchmen on the developing Quaker City.

Other early arrivals to the region formed trade networks between France and indigenous North American populations. Rising tensions in Europe prompted French privateers to raid British plantations and ships along the coast of Delaware’s New Castle County in the 1740s, leading Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) to propose a defense association funded in part by Philadelphia’s first lottery. As Pennsylvania merchants sponsored the westward expansion of British colonial trade, French fur traders and their allies—including the Lenni Lenape, native to the mid-Atlantic region—pushed back, eventually resulting in the Seven Years’ War (1754–63, also known as the French and Indian War). During the conflict, over 450 French settlers exiled by the British from the Canadian region known as Acadia arrived in Philadelphia as refugees. Many Philadelphians viewed the newcomers with suspicion, and largely quarantined them in “French Houses” at Sixth and Pine Streets. There, Ann Bryald established an informal French-language school and became the first known Catholic teacher in Philadelphia. Though many Acadian refugees received aid from wealthy French Huguenots, including Benezet, an outbreak of smallpox nearly halved the community by the mid-1760s, and subsequent emigration further diminished it.

The Revolutionary Era

[caption id="attachment_35178" align="alignright" width="300"]Chromolithograph depicting Franklin standing next to several French individuals along a river. In October 1776, Benjamin Franklin departed from Philadelphia on a diplomatic trip to Paris, France. This chromolithograph from 1888 shows Franklin standing next to several French individuals. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Connections between Philadelphia and France intensified during the War for Independence from Britain (1776–83), when an alliance with France became critical for an American victory. As the meeting place of the Continental Congress, Philadelphia received several French diplomats who supported the young nation’s cause. France’s first envoy to the Congress, Julien-Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir (1749–83), met clandestinely in Carpenters’ Hall with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay (1745–1829) to discuss French support for America’s cause. Francis Daymon, a French-born Philadelphian and secretary to the Congress, arranged the meetings, which readied the path for further Franco-American negotiations. In Paris as commissioner for the United States, Franklin helped to forge the alliance that produced the supplies, ammunition, and troops from France that became indispensable for the success of the American war effort. 

Trade as well as politics forged lasting links between France and Philadelphia. French native Stephen (Étienne) Girard (1750–1831), an accomplished sailor and merchant, spent ten years traversing the Atlantic from his native Bordeaux to the French colonies of St. Domingue (later Haiti) and Martinique. He arrived in Philadelphia early in the historic summer of 1776 after severe weather and the increased menace of a British trade blockade diverted his ship and its cargo from its probable destination in New York. Rather than return to France, Girard settled in Mount Holly, New Jersey, and opened a small business on Water Street, selling goods to Philadelphians suffering the consequences of the British blockade. Finding himself at the center of a revolution that spanned the Atlantic Ocean, Girard risked his life and business by sending ships through the blockades to procure supplies for American and allied troops. After the war, he continued his active role in the economic and civic affairs of his adopted city, connecting the port to the far reaches of the globe through trade. This trade empire, along with the labor of enslaved people of African descent working at his Louisiana plantation, made Girard one of the wealthiest men in the country.   

[caption id="attachment_35179" align="alignright" width="300"]Print depicting the Haitian revolt at the port of Le Cap. The Haitian Revolution consisted of several conflicts, including the 1791 revolt by enslaved people in the Haitian port of Le Cap, depicted in this 1815 print. About 3,000 refugees arrived in Philadelphia during this revolution. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

During the last decade of the eighteenth century, when Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital, the region’s French population ebbed and flowed with statesmen, émigrés, and refugees. The United States received approximately twenty-five thousand French exiles following the start of the French Revolution in the early 1790s, and three thousand refugees arrived in Philadelphia following the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Of these, about 30 percent were enslaved people of African descent, who infused Catholicism and Francophone culture into Philadelphia’s free black community. American-born black Philadelphians successfully rallied against legislation intended to allow refugees to maintain ownership over enslaved blacks, though the majority of those emancipated were subsequently indentured to their former enslavers. In 1803, Benjamin Nones (1757–1826), a native of Bordeaux and veteran of Washington’s army, became the official interpreter of French in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Utilizing his leadership role in Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel synagogue, Nones encouraged Jewish refugees from St. Domingue to manumit the enslaved people they brought with them. From his office on Chestnut Street, he also aided Francophone newcomers in obtaining American citizenship.

City Tavern at Second and Walnut Streets became a common meeting place for the city’s growing French community, and a French business district developed in the blocks around it. Refugees received news about their friends and family across the Atlantic through newspapers like those produced in the book and printing shop of Martinique-native Médéric-Louise-Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry (1750–1819). When a yellow fever epidemic swept the city in 1793, French doctors from the Caribbean brought their medical knowledge of the tropical illness to the hospitals of Philadelphia. Among them was Dr. Jean Devèze (1753–1829), whose autopsy research disproved a widespread theory that refugees from St. Domingue had spread the fever.

A Role as Fringe Settlers

[caption id="attachment_35177" align="alignright" width="174"]Steel engraving of Stephen Girard. This 1863 steel engraving depicts Stephen Girard, a French native who arrived in Philadelphia during the historic summer of 1776. He settled within the city and became a staunch supporter of the American democratic cause. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Frenchmen also played a modest role in developing the countryside in Pennsylvania and New Jersey as they settled on uncultivated lands and began small Francophone communities. In 1793, several influential Philadelphians, including Stephen Girard, purchased 1,600 acres of wilderness in present-day Bradford County, Pennsylvania. There, they built the short-lived town of French Azilum as a sanctuary for refugees from the violence of revolutionary France and St. Domingue. The swelling population of refugees also prompted Francophone settlements at Frenchtown (1794) in New Jersey and New Geneva (1795) in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

In Philadelphia, French allegiances converged with controversies over foreign policy during the presidency of George Washington (1732–99). After Washington’s administration implemented the Jay Treaty with the British in 1795, merchants and members of the emerging Democratic Republican party protested that the Jay Treaty was an insult to France, which had been instrumental in procuring America’s independence just over a decade earlier. During the administration of John Adams (1735–1826), the series of naval conflicts between Britain and France known as the “Quasi War” (1798–1800) further strained Franco-American relations, leading to the passage of the 1798 Alien Friends Act, which targeted so-called radical French citizens for deportation.

The Philadelphia French community diminished by the onset of the nineteenth century as many refugees returned to their homeland once the political climate became less volatile. Between the 1820s and 1840s, several hundred English- and some French-speaking Philadelphians of African descent emigrated to Haiti. Although many later returned to Philadelphia, they continued to follow news from the newly emancipated country. The white descendants of permanent French immigrants to colonial and early Republican Philadelphia blended into the cosmopolitan city and did not retain a strong collective French identity.

Nineteenth-Century Impact

[caption id="attachment_35183" align="alignright" width="218"]Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette. Marquis de Lafayette, depicted in this 1782 portrait, became a major general within the Continental Army. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The dissolution of Napoléon Bonaparte’s (1769–1821) empire spurred another influx of French émigrés to the region. In 1815, Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844), the exiled king of Spain and Naples and elder brother of the recently defeated Emperor Napoléon, purchased a house at 260 S. Ninth Street in Philadelphia and later moved to Lansdowne, the former country home of John Penn (1729–95). A desire for greater privacy later led the former king to the environs of Philadelphia where he purchased Point Breeze, the former residence of American diplomat Stephen Sayre (1736–1818) in Bordentown, New Jersey. During the Bonaparte family’s stay from 1817 to 1839, the estate welcomed the elite of both Philadelphia and France, including the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) in 1824.

Lafayette, a French nobleman who came to Philadelphia as a young man to volunteer for service in the American Revolution, returned to the United States in 1824–25 to a hero’s welcome. During the war, he had camped with Washington at Valley Forge and led twenty-two hundred soldiers—including nearly fifty of the Oneida warriors he had recruited to the American cause—in the Battle of Barren Hill (1778). As Lafayette approached Philadelphia in 1824, six thousand uniformed volunteer militiamen greeted him with cannon blasts, and crowds of spectators carried banners featuring portraits of George Washington and Lafayette inscribed with the words, “To their wisdom and courage we owe the free practice of our industry.” French and Americans alike came out to show appreciation for the man who had fought alongside Washington and drafted the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).

Soon after the visit of Lafayette directed Philadelphians’ attention to their history, the death of Stephen Girard in 1831 served to shape the city’s future. In a massive bequest to Philadelphia, the merchant funded the establishment of Girard College, which opened in 1848 as a school for poor, white fatherless boys (expanded later to admit girls and, through court action in 1968, any race). Girard also bestowed funds for the construction of Delaware Avenue, a wide thoroughfare along the city’s busy waterfront, to ensure the continued success of Philadelphia’s port.

As the region continued to develop, new industries emerged. In 1802, French refugee Éleuthère Irénée du Pont (1771–1834) had opened a gunpowder mill in Wilmington, Delaware. With the growth of mining and the outbreak of the Civil War (1861–65), E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company expanded and became the largest supplier of gunpowder to the U.S. military. Other industrial enterprises founded by Frenchmen included Vineland Flint Glass Works, established by Victor Durand Jr. (1870–1931) in Vineland, New Jersey, in 1897.

Cultural Expressions

[caption id="attachment_35180" align="alignright" width="300"]Sculpture of Joan of Arc near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1889, French Philadelphians appealed to the sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet to cast a monument to one of France’s national figures, Saint Joan of Arc. This 2011 photograph shows the statue standing at its current location near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, French culture maintained its presence in Philadelphia. Restaurants in the finer hotels featured French cuisine, and department stores imported French fashions. Black St. Dominguan caterers and craftsmen established business networks that tied together the small community of first- and second-generation refugees from Haiti. Following the 1804 declaration of Haitian independence, black ministers began to deliver annual sermons of thanksgiving to commemorate the day, which coincided with the abolition of the American slave trade. On July Fourth of that year, French- and English-speaking black Philadelphians gathered in Southwark to celebrate another kind of independence—independence from slavery. Annually, Philadelphians also commemorated the fall of the Bastille, the event that sparked the French Revolution. The celebrations included picnicking in city parks, wearing red, white, and blue badges, and singing La Marseillaise in support of the nation. For the 1889 centennial of the storming of the Bastille, the small French community in Philadelphia appealed to noted equestrian sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet (1824–1910) to cast a monument to one of France’s national figures, Saint Joan of Arc (1412–31). Frémiet’s statue stood at the east end of the Girard Avenue Bridge from the time of its dedication on November 15, 1890, until 1948, when it was moved to a more prominent location near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Many civic buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected trends in French architecture, such as the French Second Empire style, which characterized the Louvre in Paris. Philadelphia’s City Hall (designed prior to 1871) became one of the best examples of the style in the United States, and Second Empire features could also be found on mansions and row houses around the region. The Beaux-Arts style, developed in Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts, also featured prominently in Philadelphia public spaces, including Memorial Hall (completed in 1876 for the Centennial Exhibition) and the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (designed in 1896). In an era when many European nations outside of France gravitated away from Beaux-Arts, American architects embraced the style, which gained its grandest local expression with the construction of the Fairmount Parkway (later renamed for Benjamin Franklin, built beginning in 1917). An attempt to renew the urban landscape and ease heavy congestion in Center City, French-born architects Jacques Gréber (1882–1962) and Paul Cret (1876–1945) intended the thoroughfare to emulate Paris’ famous boulevard, the Champs-Elysées. Lining the Parkway are other Beaux-Arts buildings, including the Parkway Central Library (1927) and Philadelphia Museum of Art (1928)—both designed in part by African American architect Julian Abele (1881–1950)—and the Rodin Museum (1929)—designed by Cret—which featured one of the world’s most comprehensive public collections of work by French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917).

French Impressionism captivated the enthusiasm of artists and collectors in the Delaware Valley for more than a century. In 1866, Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), left her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and moved to Paris, where she continued her artistic training and eventually exhibited with the Impressionists. The style also crossed the Atlantic with artists like John Fulton Folinsbee (1892–1972), who studied in France and then settled in Bucks County, where Impressionism found an American expression with the flourishing of the New Hope School. A great supporter of the artistic movement, Albert Barnes (1872–1951), a chemist and businessman, amassed one of the world’s largest collections of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. In 1922, he established the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, making his collection a centerpiece for art education. A new showcase for the collection opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012.

The First and Second World Wars reinforced historic connections between France and the United States. On May 9, 1917, shortly after the United States entered the First World War, a commission of French dignitaries arrived in Philadelphia. Like Lafayette almost a century earlier, these representatives of the French war effort received a heroes’ welcome from more than 100,000 spectators hoping to show their solidarity with France. In addition to soldiers and medical personnel, over six hundred Quaker pacifists deployed to France during the war to build housing for displaced persons under the auspices of the newly formed, Philadelphia-based American Friends Service Committee. Demonstrations of Philadelphia’s affiliation with France continued when war in Europe stirred again. With news of France’s defeat by German forces in 1940, Philadelphia’s annual Bastille Day ceremony took on a somber tone as the Consul of France placed a wreath at the foot of the statue of Joan of Arc. A wistful sonnet written by Pierre Giroud (c. 1856–?), a former professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania, invoked the saint as the community’s rallying point and protector of their homeland.

Contemporary Connections

The Philadelphia region gained new French-speaking populations in the twentieth century as the colonial empire of France crumbled. Haitian migration to the United States resumed in the twentieth century in three waves: during the American occupation of the island from 1915 to 1934, during the regimes of François Duvalier (1907–1971) and Jean-Claude Duvalier (1951–2014) from 1957 to 1986, and after the coup d’état of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (b. 1953) in the 1990s. Philadelphia became a growing destination for Haitians seeking more affordable living conditions. By 2015, the U.S. Census recorded approximately thirteen thousand Haitian immigrants living in the Greater Philadelphia region, primarily centered in three districts: the Olney-Oak Lane section, the Near Northeast, and West Philadelphia. Organizations like the Haitian Professionals of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Haitian American Chamber of Commerce facilitated cultural programming and offer assistance for new immigrants and developing businesses in these communities. Haitians also settled in Upper Darby, Delaware County, and throughout New Jersey, where growing communities in Trenton and Willingboro continued to receive new immigrants and refugees—many of whom were granted Temporary Protective Status following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Immigrants also came from former French colonies in Southeast Asia and West Africa. Refugees from the Vietnam War in the 1970s settled primarily in South, West, and Upper North Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s first Vietnamese retail plaza, established in 1990, helped to make South Philadelphia’s Washington Avenue a commercial center, and associations such as Huong Vuong emerged to serve the growing community. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, Francophone migrants and refugees from Senegal, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast joined a community of West African immigrants living and working in Southwest Philadelphia’s “Little Africa,” home to a thriving restaurant district.

Organizations formed during the twentieth century joined established institutions like the French Benevolent Society (1793) in fostering and advancing Franco-American relations. Philadelphia’s chapter of the Alliance Française, dedicated to promoting French language and culture, held its first meeting at the Acorn Club at Fifteenth and Locust Streets on March 9, 1903. The language classes grew into a school, opened in the 1970s, and the group now sponsors a variety of recreational activities. The French International School of Philadelphia, (École Française Internationale de Philadelphie), located in Bala Cynwyd in Lower Merion Township, opened in 1991 to serve the region’s rising French expatriate population. By 2014, the school enrolled 320 French, American, and international students. The nonprofit association Philadelphie Accueil formed in November 2000 to welcome and provide information to French speakers new to the Philadelphia region.  

On the economic front, Philadelphia gained a chapter of the French-American Chamber of Commerce (FACC), established in 1989 as part of the bi-national nonprofit organization. In 1991, forty-seven French companies operated in the mid-Atlantic region; that number continued to grow as French corporations sought out greater Philadelphia’s central location between New York and Washington, D.C. The largest employers included Saint-Gobain, a manufacturing company headquartered in Malvern, Pennsylvania, and Air Liquide, a supplier of industrial gasses headquartered in Newark, Delaware. In partnership with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and the Chambers of Commerce and Industry in France, in 2014 the FACC-Philadelphia began a business development program that assisted fifteen French enterprises and entrepreneurs in entering into the American market in its first four years. In 2018, French companies employed over seventy-five thousand people in the tri-state area, and France was the largest foreign employer in New Jersey.

French ties to the region were strengthened by the passage of a Partnership City agreement between Philadelphia and Aix-en-Provence in 1999. With the goal of forging lasting economic ties and cultural understanding, Citizen Diplomacy International coordinated exchange trips for students, business leaders, and cultural institutions in the two cities. During a 2014 trip to France to promote Philadelphia as a center for tourism and industry, Mayor Michael Nutter (b. 1957) visited the headquarters of Paris’s bike share program to learn best practices prior to the 2015 launch of the Indego bike share program in Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_35181" align="alignright" width="231"]Photograph of French chef George Perrier at his restaurant, Le Bec-Fin. French chef George Perrier opened Le Bec-Fin on Spruce Street in Philadelphia in 1970. This photograph, taken between 1990 and 2000, shows Perrier standing within his restaurant on Walnut Street, where it moved in 1983. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

From venues for French cooking near Rittenhouse Square—promoted as the “French Quarter”—to cultural showcases at museums around the region, Francophone culture continued to appeal to Philadelphians and draw visitors to the region. From the time of its founding, Philadelphia maintained a trans-Atlantic dialogue with France through commerce in goods, and more importantly in ideas that shaped the character of both nations. Ideas concerning the promotion of abolitionism and universal human liberties were shaped through exchanges between French and American scholars, business owners, and philanthropists. French architecture and art transformed Philadelphia’s urban and cultural landscape. The enthusiasm of Philadelphians for French culture fluctuated with the tides of international political change, but France’s mark on the city remained.

Christina Virok is a Foreign Language educator in the greater Philadelphia area and earned her master’s degree in history at Villanova University.

Lauren Cooper is the Interpretive Planner at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. She completed a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and has worked at cultural institutions throughout Philadelphia.

Mercer Museum

Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) began collecting the tools of preindustrial America in 1897, just as they were becoming irretrievable even from the junk pile. He called his collection “Tools of the Nation Maker” to reflect their purpose and function in everyday life and the construction of the nation. The collection became the centerpiece for the Mercer Museum, which opened in 1916 in a dramatic concrete castle designed by Mercer himself in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In many ways, the museum changed little over the next century with Mercer’s displays and his system of organization intact. However, over time the museum variously interpreted the collection as a dialogue between tradition and progress, a connection between the artisans of the past and the crafters of the present, and a catalyst for a community sense of history.

[caption id="attachment_35368" align="alignright" width="225"]Portrait of Henry Chapman Mercer. Henry Chapman Mercer constructed the Mercer Museum in 1916 to house his collection of preindustrial American tools. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Born in 1856 in Doylestown, Mercer came from a wealthy family and spent most of his life in Bucks County. As a young man, his exposure to the Arts and Crafts Movement through Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) during Mercer’s time at Harvard encouraged an interest in craftsmanship and the preindustrial past. His participation in the founding of the Bucks County Historical Society in 1880 was also a sign of his lifelong interest in local history. Yet an 1876 visit to the Centennial Exhibition’s spectacle of technology and progress equally fostered an emerging interest in the links between the American past, its present, and its future. In addition, his stint as a curator of archaeology at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania from 1894 to 1897 was equally pivotal in forming his attitude toward the importance of collecting objects as historical evidence.

Despite the importance of these varied experiences, in relating the origins of his collection Mercer told a different story. At a meeting of the Bucks County Historical Society in 1907, Mercer explained that one day in February or March of 1897, he went to the country seeking a pair of tongs for an old fireplace, hoping to find them in “penny lots … that is to say valueless masses of obsolete utensils or objects which were regarded as useless.”  However, “when I came to hunt out the tongs from the midst of a disordered pile of old wagons, gum-tree salt-boxes, flax-brakes, straw beehives, tin dinner-horns, rope-machines and spinning-wheels, things that I had heard of but never collectively saw before, the idea occurred to me that the history of Pennsylvania was here profusely illustrated and from a new point of view.” So was born the “Tools of the Nation Maker” collection that soon became Mercer’s museum dedicated to the preindustrial history of the United States as seen through its artifacts. Mercer collected the preindustrial tools of the colonial era that gave birth to the United States, but in doing so he also collected the history of settler colonialism and the European immigrants who used those tools to displace indigenous people and to conquer the North American environment and its natural resources.

The Original Exhibit, 1897

[caption id="attachment_35369" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph, taken between 1980 and 2006, of the Mercer Museum interior. This photograph, taken between 1980 and 2006, shows the interior of the Mercer Museum. Assorted artifacts, including a bellow and carriage wheels, adorn the space. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Mercer and the Bucks County Historical Society installed “Tools of the Nation Maker” in 1897 as an exhibit in the Bucks County Courthouse. As historical artifacts, the tools documented the creation of the nation and the life of a community. As archaeological artifacts, they provided, in Mercer’s words, “a history of our country from the point of view of the work of human hands.” They also represented a moment in time that was rapidly being lost. Mercer focused on saving tools from the era before 1820 and the advent of steam power and industrialization. By saving the artifacts, he hoped to also preserve the work of the past in the face of new modes of industrial production that were rendering obsolete not only the tools but also artisans and their craftsmanship. There seemed to be little nostalgia in Mercer’s work. Mercer collected not to mourn the loss of an idyllic past, but to demonstrate its relevance to human identities, communities, and the nation.

[caption id="attachment_35366" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the West Wing of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, shown in this photograph taken after 1933, reproduced Pennsylvania-German pottery and tiles. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In 1905, Mercer’s aunt left him a large sum of money, which he used to build his home at Fonthill Castle in 1910, the Moravian Tile Works in 1912, and finally the Mercer Museum in 1916. Mercer built all three buildings out of reinforced concrete without blueprints or any other plan besides sketches in his own notebooks. If an error was made in constructing some part of a building, it was torn down completely and rebuilt.

The Mercer Museum’s six-story building “was made for the collection, while the collection was not made for it,” Mercer said. From a central court at the heart of the museum, three floors of galleries spiraled. At each level, rooms and niches of various sizes each displayed dozens of examples of a single type of tool that served a specific function and helped fulfill a specific human need. These moved steadily upwards from tools used to fulfill primary needs on the lower floors—food, clothing, shelter, transport—to secondary needs on the upper floors—religion, art, science, amusement. The objects simultaneously explained human civilization and provided a connection to history by inviting visitors to look at them as tools that made even the smallest, most overlooked aspects of everyday life possible.

In 1923 and again in 1925, Henry Ford (1863-1947) came to Doylestown as research for the museum he was building outside of Detroit. Ford and Mercer shared a concern for salvaging the history of preindustrial America through the everyday artifacts of everyday people. In this, both represented a departure from the professional, university-based field of history that emphasized the military and political campaigns of men like George Washington (1732-99) through documents and writing. Yet Mercer still presented a heroic historical narrative of colonialism, focused instead on celebrating the pioneer spirit of the first European immigrants and those colonists who later set out in Conestoga wagons to conquer the West.

Another Wave of Progress

Upon his death in 1930, Henry Mercer donated the museum and an endowment to the Bucks County Historical Society. Responsibility for its operations passed to the curator, Horace Mann (1890-1951). Mann, like those after him, maintained the museum as a history of everyday people seen through their tools. By the 1950s, new anxieties and aspirations around modern tools and technology echoed Mercer’s earlier ideas, but for a new era. Like the end of the nineteenth century, the 1950s saw new and supposedly improved technologies displace older tools, modes of work, and forms of everyday life in the name of progress. As at the turn of the twentieth century, this also brought with it a turn to the American past and to constructions of the nation, its heritage, and its traditions where white pioneers and their descendants were heroes and non-white people were all but absent. In this context, the Mercer Museum resonated in a society that continued to look forward and back, seeking stories of progress, tradition, and nostalgia that justified current social relationships in order to help manage modern life in the face of social change.

[caption id="attachment_35367" align="alignright" width="213"]Photograph of the Fonthill Castle Library. Henry Chapman Mercer used the money left to him by his aunt to construct Fonthill Castle in 1910. The castle’s library is shown in this photograph, taken after 1933. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The post-World War II era influenced the museum in other ways as well. The growth of Philadelphia suburbs, highways, and car culture made the Mercer Museum a tourist attraction as well as a scholarly resource and a display of local history. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the museum instituted an admission fee and added membership programs, public lectures, and services for school groups. Collections management grew as well, with cataloging the vast collection a perpetual concern. The museum also worked to preserve artifacts, reinstall exhibits, and add labels to make the history Mercer wished to represent legible to nonexpert audiences in a new era.

At the same time, a renewed dedication to demonstrating the functions of these tools also emerged. The first Folkfest, held in 1974, continued into the 2000s as an annual weekend event bringing in craftspeople and reenactors to show off historic practices that ranged from stonecutting and woodworking to folk dancing, calligraphy, and quilting. Workshops and multiweek courses taught some of these practices throughout the year. The emphasis on craft and the appeal to heritage and nostalgia repositioned the meaning of Mercer’s tools, but Folkfest and other events clearly extended Mercer’s understanding that these were not just artifacts, but tools whose uses expressed their purposes.

Museum Expansion

[caption id="attachment_35365" align="alignright" width="243"]Exterior photograph of the Mercer Museum. This photograph shows the exterior of the Mercer Museum sometime between 1980 and 2006. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The museum completed an expansion in 2011 that included classroom space for school groups and exhibit space for temporary displays. Exhibits included displays of the museum’s larger collection as well as exhibits of fine art, contemporary craft, and history, including a new generation of twentieth-century social and cultural history. Although the museum still hosted events with demonstrations and nostalgic, colonial-era activities, in the twenty-first century, more diverse exhibits began to drive programming, many of which incorporated new perspectives—some historical, some artistic, some scientific—on the old collections.

By 2019, the collection contained over forty thousand objects, about doubling what Mercer acquired in his lifetime. Of the sixty rooms that housed exhibits in the 1920s, twenty-four remained as they were, and a total of fifty-five rooms were filled. However, even when objects were reinstalled or rearranged, the organizational logic throughout the core of the museum did not change. The museum continued to collect to fill in gaps in Mercer’s collection, but also expanded its local collections to capture the wider scope of the twentieth century and more recent history. By the twenty-first century, the mission and vision focused less on the specific history of preindustrial tools and work that Mercer wanted to preserve, and emphasized community engagement, a renewed dedication to making the past relevant, and a strong sense of place. The main galleries remained faithful to Mercer’s intentions and his organizational system, but special exhibits and other programming reflected contemporary interpretation of tangible historical trends rather than the abstract history of obsolescence and the changing nature of work.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, lecturer, and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in media and cultural studies from Northwestern University. 

Lauren Cooper

Lauren Cooper is the Interpretive Planner at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. She completed a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and has worked at cultural institutions throughout Philadelphia.

Greater Philadelphia Region

Variously defined as key elements of its identity have shifted over time, the Greater Philadelphia region has been an especially dynamic and unusually fragmented entity compared to other U.S. metropolitan areas.  The region not only crosses multiple state lines; it is further divided into hundreds of extremely small communities, many of which date back to the colonial era. Although that formal fragmentation barely changed across the centuries, informal connections among residents reached across town boundaries, gradually building webs of regional relationships based on economic and transportation connections that linked producers to markets, workers to jobs, and households to churches, stores, and taverns. As those every-day connections multiplied across county and township lines, the fragmentation of governmental authority posed substantial obstacles to coordinated planning for the region–leading citizens to rely on nongovernmental organizations to span the governmental boundaries that subdivide the region.

Natural features shaped the territory’s historical development. A range within the Appalachian Mountains separated the Atlantic coastline from the interior woodlands, stretching from northeast to southwest. The mountains’ long, even ridges, with deep valleys in between, presented an important obstacle to east–west land travel. This meant that the region’s early residents were better connected to other East Coast communities than to the interior, because of the difficulty of traveling across mountainous barriers.

The river system also exerted strong influences on human settlement.  That system centered on the Delaware River flowing south from the Catskill Mountains. Several primary tributaries fed from the north and west into the Delaware River: the Lehigh River originating between ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, the Schuylkill River flowing from what later became the city of Reading, and the Brandywine River flowing from the Welsh Mountains in northern Chester County southeast into the Delaware River at the location where Europeans built the city of Wilmington

The historic homeland of the indigenous Lenape people crisscrossed the entire Delaware River system, creating a complex pattern of overland paths leading to commonly-used locations to ford the rivers and streams. The Delaware River symbolized the regional unity among the Lenape, who explained to the European newcomers that “we reckon ourselves all one, because we drink one water.”

Europeans shattered that regional unity by subdividing the Lenape homeland into separate provinces, counties, and townships and establishing patterns of government that descended down to the twenty-first century. Dutch and Swedish trappers and timber merchants initially visited the territory on the eastern bank of the Delaware River in the 1600s, but they were displaced by British settlers in the 1660s when Britain’s King Charles II (1630-1685) granted the proprietorship of the colony to his brother James (1633-1701). James attracted Quakers to settle in Salem and Burlington and named the area after the isle of Jersey in Britain. In 1674 New Jersey was divided into East Jersey and West Jersey, two distinct provinces of the proprietary colony (a division that was soon reversed in 1702).

William Penn’s Grant

[caption id="attachment_35294" align="alignright" width="300"]Painting of William Penn meeting with King Charles II in 1680. King Charles II of Britain meets with William Penn in this early twentieth-century painting. The meeting occurred in 1680, one year before the king granted the province of Pennsylvania to Penn. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

To develop the territory on the western bank of the Delaware River, Britain’s King Charles II in 1681 granted the province of Pennsylvania to William Penn (1644-1718), who also attracted Quakers and other religious nonconformists to the New World. William Penn’s land grant from the British Crown encompassed what eventually became the state of Pennsylvania. In addition, Penn acquired land farther south on the Delaware, but his rule there was only short-lived, ending in 1704 when the settlers broke away from Penn to form the Lower Counties of Delaware

Using the river as the boundary dividing western New Jersey from Pennsylvania and Delaware, European settlers began creating county boundary lines, and in some instances subdividing those original counties as, for example, when Lancaster County was carved out of Chester County in 1729, and when Berks County was created from parts of Philadelphia, Chester, and Lancaster Counties in 1752.  Well after the American Revolution had formally established state boundaries, citizens continued subdividing territory to create new county units like Montgomery County, Pennsylvania  (carved out of Philadelphia County in 1784); Delaware County, Pennsylvania (carved out of Chester County in 1789); Mercer County, New Jersey (carved out of Somerset and Middlesex Counties in 1838); and Camden County, New Jersey (carved out of Gloucester County in 1844). 

Below the county level, William Penn fervently supported the formation of small towns that could practice direct democracy to conduct local affairs. For example, most of the townships in Delaware County were originally incorporated before 1700. Already-small townships became even smaller wherever residents successfully petitioned the state to carve boroughs out of existing townships. Some settlers favored boroughs because, unlike townships, boroughs provided some public and commercial facilities like docks, weighing stations, and constables who could settle disputes and keep the peace in the area. Many of the townships in Montgomery County were incorporated in the eighteenth century, with boroughs carved out in the nineteenth century. That pattern was repeated in Bucks and Chester Counties.

New Jersey also adopted small townships, measured by both land area and population.  By 1776, the entire state of New Jersey had been divided into thirteen counties, eight of which were ultimately sub-divided into smaller counties, which in turn were split into townships.  Many of those early townships were further subdivided, sometimes reflecting political disputes, but most often to ensure that local farmers and merchants controlled road development and maintenance in their vicinity. From the 1840s through the 1920s, New Jersey incorporated a handful of new municipalities every year, often due to complaints that an existing local government was not responding to specific concerns. In some cases, residents in one part of town simply resisted spending for streets and sewers in other parts of town, thus leading to separation and creation of new municipalities.

Early Settlement Patterns

Early settlers immigrated mainly as farmers, turning both sides of the Delaware River into landscapes of scattered farmsteads that produced agricultural products and livestock. The main cultural groups populating Pennsylvania during the colonial period were the English (who predominated in the city of Philadelphia and townships closest to its borders); Germans (in the northern section of Bucks County and what became Montgomery County, as well as Lancaster County); the Scots-Irish in Chester County; and the Welsh on the northern border of Delaware County. In colonial West Jersey, William Penn’s influence assured the dominance of English Quakers among early colonists. The lower colonies on the Delaware—later the state of Delaware—first settled by Scandinavian Lutherans and Dutch Reformed, subsequently attracted English Quakers and Welsh Baptists. In the eighteenth century, Delaware became increasingly British, with the Church of England gaining adherents before the American Revolution. In all parts of the tri-state region, religious dissenters like Quakers and Mennonites settled in sizable numbers, lured by Penn’s promise of religious freedom.

[caption id="attachment_35292" align="alignright" width="298"]Advertisement for the runaway enslaved person named Oney Judge. The enslavement of Africans and African-Americans persisted in Philadelphia after the Revolutionary War. This runaway advertisement from 1796 calls for the return of the twenty-year-old enslaved woman Oney Judge to the President’s House. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

People of African descent arrived with the region’s earliest European settlers as enslaved laborers as early as 1639, although they were few in number. The first slave ship to arrive in Philadelphia, in 1684, brought 150 slaves into a population of about one thousand. Often arriving from previous bondage in the Caribbean, the enslaved filled many labor needs in the region’s diverse economy. Pennsylvania settlers’ preference for growing wheat on small farms meant they had a limited need for slaves, but Delaware growers cultivated more labor-intensive crops like tobacco and corn. Philadelphia, never as reliant on the institution as New York City, fostered slavery along with indentured servitude for most of a century until the enslaved population reached a peak of about one thousand on the eve of the Revolution. By 1783, however, the enslaved population had dropped to approximately one hundred, while the number of free blacks had increased tenfold to one thousand. Increasing moral doubts about slavery as well as the Revolution’s rhetoric of liberty contributed to gradual abolition, although unevenly across the region. Local free blacks and migrants into the region formed communities around new African American churches in Philadelphia and whole new settlements, especially in southern New Jersey, including Timbuctoo in Burlington County, Free Haven (later renamed Lawnside) in Camden County, and Gouldtown in Cumberland County.  A number of these free African settlements sat along New Jersey’s so-called “Greenwich Line” of the Underground Railroad. In Philadelphia, the number of African Americans continued to climb in the first part of the nineteenth century comprising more than 10 percent of the population by 1810 and climbing to 14,553 in 1830.

 The settlement pattern in this agricultural economy centered on family farms operating as self-contained units and producing most of what families needed. Itinerant craftsmen traveled from farm to farm, selling wares that families could not produce for themselves. The Irish traveler Isaac Weld (1774–1856) reported in the 1790s that between Philadelphia and Lancaster he found “not any two dwellings standing together” except in Downingtown. Towns were simply not necessary to rural life. The network of thriving agricultural towns that William Penn had envisioned failed to materialize in most parts of the region. Some taverns standing at important crossroads offered travelers food, drink and beds, spawning small settlements around them. Even the county seats that sat within thirty miles of Philadelphia (the distance of one day’s ride with a loaded wagon) remained small despite their important functions like holding courts, recording deeds, and registering wills.

Riverside Industrial Outposts

Early industrial outposts sprang up along the rivers because early mills were powered by water wheels.  Already by the American Revolution, the riverbanks of the region were dotted with paper mills, flour mills, textile mills, and ironworks. With advanced mechanization, the Delaware River spawned factory towns like Trenton and Bristol upriver from Philadelphia, along with Camden and Wilmington on the lower Delaware, along with the city of Chester, which by mid-nineteenth century grew into a diversified manufacturing center of ships, steel, iron, and brass. Other manufacturing centers grew on the banks of the Schuylkill, for example Conshohocken, which was spawned in the 1830s by iron foundries that manufactured sheet-iron, saws, shovels, and spades. Also along the Schuylkill River, a major manufacturing district rose in Manayunk, whose massive cotton and woolen mills led it to be labeled “the Manchester of America” in the 1830s.

In the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, sizable iron deposits spawned eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ironworks, while abundant sand enabled the production of glassware well into the twentieth century.  Rather than functioning as rivals, those secondary industrial centers along the two rivers and in southern New Jersey tended to reinforce Philadelphia’s regional dominance because they shipped their products through the port of Philadelphia.

The largest of Philadelphia’s manufacturing satellites was Camden, which grew during the nineteenth century into a major industrial hub, particularly after the Civil War. By 1870 the city boasted factories that produced iron, nickel, oil cloth, and chemicals. By 1880, woolen mills also operated there, and at the turn of the twentieth century, Camden attracted the gigantic New York Shipbuilding Company, which expanded rapidly with the coming of World War I. The Victor Talking Machine Company also employed thousands of workers. Camden became the undisputed industrial center of South Jersey, although it never rivaled Philadelphia’s dominance in the region.

Philadelphia’s business and civic leaders cemented their preeminent position in 1854 when they successfully pressured the Pennsylvania legislature to adopt the Act of Consolidation merging more than two dozen towns clustered near the Philadelphia port. After two decades of social disorder and rioting in the 1830s and 1840s, civic leaders demanded more effective services and security, which they hoped could be provided by a large-scale professionalized government. The state legislature responded to their plea by consolidating twenty-nine separate districts, townships, and boroughs into a single large city, declaring that Philadelphia would henceforth function as both a county and city government.

Economic and Transportation Linkages

While county and township lines gained legitimacy as legal and political boundaries, they did not constrain economic activity. Settlers across the Delaware Valley established cross-boundary transportation links to help them succeed economically.  Early in the colonial era, successful farmers began carting their surplus crops to Philadelphia to sell in the region’s central marketplace or to export by ship. The river separating Pennsylvania from New Jersey posed no great obstacle to New Jersey growers because as early as 1688 a commercial ferry crossed the river between Philadelphia and Camden.

[caption id="attachment_35291" align="alignright" width="300"]1777 Map of the short road stretches leading into Philadelphia This 1777 map shows short stretches of road forming pathways into the city of Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

William Penn had declared Pennsylvania county governments to be responsible for building and maintaining roads–a function that county officials often fulfilled simply by connecting short stretches of roadbed that had been built earlier by settlers.  Such jerry-rigged roadways rarely provided the shortest route to Philadelphia, where most farmers wanted to cart their produce.  The roadbeds were treacherous, clogged by tree stumps and other debris. To improve the situation, the legislatures of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware began chartering private investment groups to build and maintain toll roads, the first of which was the Lancaster Turnpike built between 1793 and 1795.  Dozens of toll roads followed until the advent of railroads.  Along with the turnpikes, early mill owners and craftsmen used the rivers to ship their surplus to other parts of the colonies through the Philadelphia port.

Nineteenth-century railroad builders seized opportunities to deploy the new rail technology not only to tie local industries to distant markets, but also to transport local residents quickly and conveniently around the region. Among the first railroads in the nation, the Camden and Amboy Railroad was chartered in 1830 to provide passenger and freight service between New York City and Philadelphia via Camden, where passengers would shuttle between train and ferryboat to cross the Delaware River.  In 1831, the Delaware Railroad built a line from Philadelphia to Wilmington. It was intended primarily for passenger service but served as a secondary freight route. Then in 1832 the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad (PGN) began operating within Philadelphia County.  Two great railroad companies–the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading Railroad–gradually built and bought out other rail companies in the region to create networks of passenger service to virtually every community within thirty miles of Philadelphia and to recreational locations like the Jersey Shore. 

Across the second half of the nineteenth century, railroad companies shaped development patterns that persisted for a century or more. Nineteenth-century homebuilders created suburban developments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that relied on railroad transportation to carry office workers daily into and out of Philadelphia.  Mostly these new developments sold housing to middle- and upper-income families. For example, in the late 1850s the Pennsylvania Railroad began serving the early residents of the Main Line communities built in the Pennsylvania suburbs of Montgomery and Chester Counties.  Also in the 1850s, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad offered New Jersey suburban residents daily service between Philadelphia and suburbs like Haddon Township. The viability of such desirable suburbs depended upon the thirteen rail branches that ultimately were consolidated into Conrail in 1976.

The Highway Transportation Boom

The internal combustion engine brought massive change to the region, the most obvious sign of which was the highway network built from the 1950s onward, giving individual households and businesses convenient door-to-door access to virtually any location in the region. For the first time since its founding, Philadelphia was threatened by competition from surrounding communities. Both families and companies used their new freedom to move away from the region’s urban centers—not just Philadelphia, but also the region’s other industrial centers: Trenton, Camden, Chester, and Wilmington.  After 1950 all those cities, including Philadelphia, suffered dramatic population losses which they never regained in the twentieth century.

Instead, population gains after 1950 concentrated in the region’s suburbs. The mid-distance suburbs attracted the most affluent households. Early in the history of suburban development, these communities proved to be appealing to well-to-do families who sought to escape the city yet wanted to remain within easy traveling distance of Philadelphia. Even at the turn of the twenty-first century, the majority of the region’s affluent households (that is, those whose annual household incomes exceeding $75,000) still tended to prefer locations far enough from the city to offer a suburban lifestyle, yet close enough to offer a reasonable commute to jobs, entertainment, and other downtown attractions.  A smaller yet significant number of affluent residents gained access to those amenities by moving into row houses and condominiums within walking distance of downtown.

Many of the suburbs closest to the edge of the city developed as working-class communities with older housing stocks built at higher densities. The most challenged communities in the region tended to be older boroughs with affordable housing that attracted residents with modest incomes.  Some older suburbs sat along the banks of the Delaware River, reflecting the early geographic influence of the main commercial waterway and the ongoing decline of manufacturing firms that lined it.  Since these older communities tended to be completely built out, with little room for new investment, they experienced the greatest difficulty maintaining public services on a restricted property tax base. 

Towns at the outer edge of the region proved to be attractive to middle-income households who wanted a suburban lifestyle but could not afford to buy homes in the pricey mid-distance suburbs. They were willing to trade longer commutes in order to gain suburban amenities. Springfield Township, for example, sits on the northern edge of Bucks County, bordering Northampton and Lehigh Counties.  As late as the mid-1960s, over 90 percent of that township’s acreage was in agriculture, woods and water. Yet by the turn of the twenty-first century, the town’s population had exploded to five thousand people, prompting town voters to establish a tax to fund open space preservation by buying land and conservation easements. A New Jersey example was Southampton Township in Burlington County, originally settled by Quakers and slow to develop in the twentieth century. In the 1980s almost three quarters of its land was declared to be part of the Pinelands Preserve, off-limits to suburban development. The small village of Vincentown served as a town center for other parts of the township that came to be dotted with housing developments and retirement communities.

The Cities Assert Themselves

Leaders in the region’s urban centers responded to the threatening tide of post-World War II suburbanization by undertaking massive redevelopment projects to reassert the centrality of cities in the region’s growth. The largest of those urban renewal efforts in the 1960s occurred in Philadelphia with the redevelopment of Society Hill and the construction of the Penn Center office complex near City Hall. Then in the 1970s, planners launched a downtown project that would link the region’s two great railroads, the Reading and the Pennsylvania, into a single transit network. With funding that came largely from the federal government, SEPTA broke ground in 1978 on a massive underground project to connect the two downtown rail hubs. When completed in 1984, the Commuter Tunnel created a unified rail system anchored in downtown Philadelphia that spanned the Pennsylvania side of the region. It also provided access to Camden and the New Jersey suburbs by intersecting with the PATCO High Speed Line at the transit station at Eighth and Market Streets.

Other regional cities also responded to the suburban exodus with revitalization campaigns, many of them designed to accommodate automobiles, a priority regarded as vital to reviving downtowns.  In 1957 Trenton unveiled plans to demolish a declining downtown district known as Coalport in order to replace it with a gleaming new industrial and residential complex. Trenton leaders also supported the state’s proposal to build the N.J. Route 29 highway through downtown Trenton along the banks of the Delaware River (a decision later criticized for separating the waterfront from the heart of the city).  Also in 1957, Wilmington’s city council approved routing I-95 through several of the city’s stable neighborhoods and, in the 1960s, favored urban renewal projects that cleared an African American neighborhood to make way for what would eventually become government buildings.  Camden’s pro-growth coalition, which styled itself the Greater Camden Movement, backed a 1962 renewal plan that based its optimistic vision on the assumption that the urban core could be revitalized by making central parcels of land available and assuring easy automobile access to jobs in the city. 

As they pursued downtown revival, few urban planners in the 1960s foresaw that suburbanites would use highway networks not just to gain access to the city, but also to move easily from suburb-to-suburb, creating new patterns of commuting that bypassed central cities altogether. For example, the U.S. Route 202 corridor spanning Philadelphia’s northern suburbs became a particularly important path for suburb-to-suburb trips. Nor did planners foresee the rapid rise in the last decades of the twentieth century of reverse commuting from city residences to suburban jobs. In 1980, almost 15 percent of Philadelphia workers held jobs in the suburbs; by 2000 that percentage had climbed to almost 25 percent, and it continued increasing in the twenty-first century. Reverse commuters were virtually forced to use increasingly congested highways because the region’s rail system did not easily accommodate reverse commuting.

Some observers speculated that Philadelphia faced unusual difficulty defining its regional footprint because it competed for regional dominance against New York City to the north and Washington, D.C., to the south, the two powerful centers of the U.S. economy and government.  Although long regarded as a drawback, this geographic midpoint appeared by the turn of the twenty-first century to confer advantages in attracting residents and businesses that sought a location in the Northeast Corridor but wanted to avoid the congestion and cost of New York and Washington. 

Who Defines the Region?

Since 1950 the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has defined metropolitan regions for purposes of the U.S. Census. OMB’s original definition of the Philadelphia region in 1950 included the central city plus Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania and Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties in New Jersey. OMB based that definition on the adjacent counties having a high degree of economic and social integration with the central city, measured by commuting and employment. Over the half-century that followed, the federal definition of the region changed multiple times, as the commuting shed of Philadelphia expanded to incorporate more suburban territory. By the 2010 census, the OMB had added three counties to its original definition:  Salem County, New Jersey; New Castle County, Delaware; and Cecil County, Maryland.

Nongovernmental groups, however, have drawn the region’s boundaries in different ways depending on the specific goals they pursued.  Across the twentieth century, a variety of quasi- and nongovernmental commissions, special-purpose authorities and nonprofit associations emerged to pursue particular projects and goals, each of them defining the region to fit its own objectives. Whereas voters expected county and township officials to act for the benefit of their own citizens, nongovernmental organizations had wider latitude to pursue regional goals. Starting in the twentieth century, the region benefited from the work of such nonelected bodies.

[caption id="attachment_35295" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the Ben Franklin Bridge at sunrise. Shown at sunrise in September 2009, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge connects the cities of Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, by spanning the Delaware River. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

For example, the state legislatures of New Jersey and Pennsylvania established a joint commission to build the Delaware River Bridge, which opened to traffic in 1926 (and was subsequently renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge). That regional commission eventually became the Delaware River Port Authority, with responsibility for the operation and maintenance of three more bridges spanning the Delaware: the Walt Whitman, the Commodore Barry, and the Betsy Ross. It also took responsibility for the PATCO High Speedline carrying passengers between Philadelphia and multiple destinations in Camden County.  Over time, DRPA expanded its definition of the Port District to include not only Philadelphia and its four suburban counties (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery) but also eight New Jersey counties (Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean and Salem).  

“Greater Philadelphia”

In the mid-1960s the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission was established as a metropolitan planning agency to receive and expend federal transportation dollars. DVRPC defined the metropolitan area as including five Pennsylvania counties (Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery) and four New Jersey counties (Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Mercer) because these counties shared a transportation network of roads, rails, and airports. “Delaware Valley” was a term in vogue in the mid-twentieth century.  But civic leaders in Philadelphia who were determined to emphasize the city’s primacy as the critical heart of a rapidly growing region favored the label “Greater Philadelphia.”

A good example was the regional chamber of commerce, which until mid-twentieth century had been known as the Trades League of Philadelphia.  As an increasingly regional body, it changed its name to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce in 1950. The chamber’s regional footprint duplicated the set of counties in the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission but added Salem County in New Jersey and New Castle County in Delaware. 

Much of the responsibility for preserving the region’s natural environment has been carried by nonprofit organizations with the ability to work across formal boundaries that separate counties and municipalities. A leading example was the Natural Lands Trust, which began in 1953 as the Philadelphia Conservationists, a volunteer group of avid bird watchers who convinced Gulf Oil to deed 168 acres of prime bird habitat in the Tinicum marsh, property that became the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. In 1961 the group institutionalized itself as the Natural Lands Trust, a nonprofit land conservation organization with a mission to protect remaining open lands throughout the region.  They defined that regional scope broadly, operating in more than a dozen counties in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

The Delaware River Keeper Network, established in 1988, also illustrated the ability of nonprofit organizations to work across governmental boundaries. That regionwide effort to protect the river enlisted volunteers to collect water samples from streams throughout the Delaware River watershed, testing for pollutants and advocating legislation to improve water quality.  The Riverkeeper Network defined the region to include portions of all four states through which the river flows. 

Promoting Tourism

Yet a different boundary line was drawn in 1996 with the creation of the region’s top tourism promoter, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, which became VisitPhilly.com in 2010.  Its definition of “Philadelphia and the Countryside” included only the central city and the four suburban counties of eastern Pennsylvania.  It omitted the New Jersey counties because the agency was heavily financed by the Pennsylvania state government.

Another long-established nongovernmental organization was the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, founded in 1909 as the Municipal Research Bureau (MRB) with a mission to focus on cost-effective government services within the city.  In 1954 the MRB merged with the Pennsylvania Economy League, becoming PEL’s Eastern Division. In addition to its central offices in Philadelphia, the Eastern Division of PEL operated county committees in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties, increasingly focusing attention on the region as a whole. For example, a 1963 Economy League study of regional transportation contributed to the creation of SEPTA. By 2007 the organization had formally re-named itself the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia to reflect its focus on the region, defined as southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware.  As a nonprofit think tank, it analyzed regional problems and promoted policy solutions ranging all the way from high-quality early childhood education in southeastern Pennsylvania to the impact on the region’s economy of extending rail transportation from downtown Philadelphia to King of Prussia.

As is obvious from the examples above, no fixed definition of the region’s boundaries attained universal acceptance. Each organization pursued its objectives by constructing its own definition of the region. Lacking a standard definition of what constitutes “the region,” area inhabitants have rarely identified themselves as residents of Greater Philadelphia, with the possible exception of sports fans throughout the city and suburbs who have historically identified with the city’s major teams.

[caption id="attachment_35293" align="alignright" width="300"]Postcard for the Sesquicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In 1926, Philadelphia hosted the Sesquicentennial International Exposition to commemorate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This 1926 postcard captures the road leading toward the main gate of the world’s fair. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Unlike all but two other U.S. cities, Philadelphia built a giant sports complex where all four of its major sports teams could play their games (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey). That site in South Philadelphia had been developed in the 1920s to house Sesquicentennial Stadium for the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition. In 1971 a new Veteran Stadium became home to the Phillies baseball team and Eagles football team. Not long after that, the Flyers hockey team and the 76ers basketball team moved into the nearby Spectrum Arena. Both facilities served their resident teams until the opening decade of the twenty-first century, when new facilities replaced both venues. Although other locations were considered, both venues chose to remain in the sports complex in South Philadelphia where they could be easily reached from the suburbs by car because of the location near exits of both I-95 and I-76. The fact that thousands of avid sports fans from the suburbs poured into South Philadelphia for every home game fostered their identification with the rest of the region as perhaps no other activity could.

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and Associate Editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Courthouses (County)

The prominent locations of courthouses in the architectural landscape of Philadelphia and the surrounding region mirrored their positions as cornerstones of civic life. By the eighteenth century, courthouses with clock towers and cupolas defined city squares and communal networks. As democracy and citizenship expanded in the years that followed, pressures on the courts rose accordingly as an ever-larger body politic laid claim to justice. Meeting those demands shaped courthouse design in Philadelphia and beyond. Built in colonial, classical, and contemporary forms, over time county court buildings became larger and their interiors more specialized in response to shifts in society and the legal system.

The form of the first courthouses in the Philadelphia region came from English practice, just as the origins of the legal system grew from English common law and county-based courts. Each county had its own court, which made the county seat–where the court met– a social, economic and political hub and a significant visual reminder of the colony’s place within the British Empire. Philadelphia County and the adjacent Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery each had its own courthouse. After 1701, so too did the three counties of Delaware: New Castle, Kent, and Sussex. Similarly, southern New Jersey was divided into counties for governmental reasons: Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland, plus Atlantic and Cape May Counties on the coast, all well within Philadelphia’s city sphere.

In early Philadelphia, the city blocks closest to the Delaware River quickly became the most densely developed of the urban grid planned by Quaker and colony founder William Penn. A social and commercial center flourished near the wharves and warehouses hugging the waterline. Nearby, at Second and High (later Market) Streets, stood not only the Quaker meeting house but also the first courthouse (built in 1707, demolished 1837). The two-story, gable-roofed civic building served dual purposes, with a watchhouse on the first floor and a court on the second. Outside the courtroom was a balcony used for delivering proclamations and addresses, which added emphasis to the street façade visually and symbolically.

Amid the hustle and bustle of city streets below the balcony, urban life jostled around the deferential nature of courtroom ritual and the social hierarchy it reinforced. The legal center abutted several blocks of market stalls in a juxtaposition of street commerce and civic structure, similar to English municipal halls and markets, many of which had arcaded ground floors for the trading and social mixing. A pews-to-pulpit spatial arrangement taken from parish churches influenced the placement of judge, jury, attorney, and witness inside the courthouse, as historian Carl Lounsbury demonstrated in his analysis of both building types.

Mirroring Local Construction Traditions

County seats, particularly the first courthouses, expressed the emerging vernacular architecture vocabulary of the Delaware Valley in materials and scale. In Chester, the initial seat of Chester County, the two-story, stone courthouse (1724) mirrored local construction traditions, readily identified through stone walls, multiple-pane windows with exterior shutters, dual entries, and the pent roof associated with Quaker buildings in southeastern Pennsylvania. Inside, the courtroom occupied the first floor, and the jury rooms were on the second. In the mid-eighteenth century, an apse-like addition offered new space for the judge’s bench, furthering the correlation between church and courtroom interiors. Similarly, the brick courthouse (1732) built in New Castle, Delaware, adopted a Georgian architectural style, seen in its cupola and classical balustrade, central door with pedimented surround, and sash windows. The courthouse (1735) erected in Salem County, New Jersey, also featured brick construction and Georgian architectural details, while the wood-shingled, gable-roofed courthouse (1793) in Sussex County, Delaware, spoke to the region’s building history of wood-frame assembly. These early courthouses occupied central locations in their city plans and in civic life. When the court system outgrew them, their perceived importance to early governance and communal stature ensured the courthouses’ preservation beyond the eighteenth century, and the buildings continued to be used for occasional court activities  even if county seats moved to different locations, as happened in Chester and New Castle Counties.

[caption id="attachment_34933" align="alignright" width="300"]Main floor of Congress Hall, where the House of Representative met. Originally constructed between 1787 and 1789 as the Philadelphia County Court House, the United States Congress met in Congress Hall from 1790 to 1800. This 1975 photograph depicts the House of Representatives Chamber. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The significance of the courthouse and the courtroom’s expression of popular sovereignty and localized law resonated through Philadelphia’s colonial-era history, especially during the Revolutionary War period as a democratic government emerged. The U.S. Constitution was debated and adopted in the Pennsylvania State House (later known as Independence Hall), which had a courtroom on its first floor. When Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital in the 1790s, the nascent federal government claimed Philadelphia’s newly completed civic buildings, including a new County Court House (built 1787-89 at Sixth and Chestnut Streets), which became known as Congress Hall for its federal occupants, and City Hall (built 1790-91 at Fifth and Chestnut), which accommodated the U.S. Supreme Court and then municipal courts in the nineteenth century. Like the public buildings in Philadelphia, courthouses throughout the region fulfilled several civic needs. In Dover, Delaware, for example, the Kent County courthouse coexisted with the statehouse in a structure erected around the same time as Congress Hall. The county opened its first purpose-built court in the 1870s.

Into the nineteenth century, courthouses were among the region’s most substantial buildings in scale and building materials. Initially two or three stories, the court buildings of the new democracy were classically appointed and topped with a clock tower or, later, domes. Beneath the domes and behind monumental porticoes, traditional sash windows and wood paneled doors prevailed. As proclamations of civic pride, courthouses became plum commissions for professional architects who intended their designs to project public grandeur and protect the core of democracy: the jury trial.

The expression of democratic ideals could be seen most readily seen in classically inspired temples of justice reminiscent of ancient Greece and Rome. The association of classical architectural forms with the new democratic government informed public buildings of all types, notably the Second Bank of the United States by William Strickland (1788-1854), Girard College by Thomas U. Walter (1804-87), and county courthouses throughout the region. During the 1840s, Walter’s Chester County, Pennsylvania, courthouse in West Chester and Strickland’s courthouse in Sussex County, Delaware, helped to popularize the Greek Revival style. The two-story, red brick courthouse of Sussex replaced the county’s wood-frame building from the 1790s and kept the court functions at the heart of town. Another notable mid-nineteenth-century example was the courthouse for Montgomery County in Norristown, Pennsylvania, by Napoleon LeBrun (1821-1901).

A New Courthouse Next to Independence Hall

[caption id="attachment_34937" align="alignright" width="300"]Independence Hall by 1875. The Pennsylvania Assembly first used Independence Hall in 1736. Depicted in this 1875 chromolithograph, the Hall served as the meeting place for the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia lacked an architectural temple of justice. In 1867, Philadelphia expanded its court system with a new courthouse, located behind Independence Hall, to better serve the burgeoning population and increasingly burdened legal administrators with additional space for court business: court room, jury box and deliberation rooms, judges chambers, spectators gallery, and prisoner egress. Rather than a monumental portico and classical pediment filled with sculptural iconography, the new judicial edifice echoed the Georgian architecture of Independence Hall.

Philadelphia’s mid-century courthouse provided contemporary commentary on the demographic shifts that altered views on how justice was served and made defendants less a spectacle in punishment and more a part of–and apart from–the public ritual of law and judgment. Public shaming, and subsequent shunning by neighbors and kin, gave way to imprisonment in the eighteenth century. This precipitated another building type in the county judicial centers or courthouse squares: the jail. Almost on completion, these early jails became overcrowded with prisoners who shared living space, regardless of gender or offense. Even new jails with interior and exterior spaces, such as the Walnut Street Jail (built 1790-91), failed to end the comingling or deter debauchery within the walls. These persistent social ills within the corrective institutions urged new design solutions for prisons and the fulfillment of reformist ideals for redeeming the prisoner and returning him or her to society. New prisons, like Eastern State Penitentiary built (1821-36) by John Haviland (1792-1852), were designed to rehabilitate the incarcerated through labor and solitude.

[caption id="attachment_34934" align="alignright" width="218"]The second courthouse for Delaware County. Erected in 1889, the Delaware County Courthouse served from the county seat of Media, Pennsylvania. This 1931 photograph depicts the central position from the south front of the court. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The surrounding counties also sought professional architects, such as Haviland, to expand existing courthouse squares in similar ways. For example, Burlington County, New Jersey, hired Robert Mills (1781-1855) to add a prison to its courthouse complex in Mount Holly, as early as 1808, and Atlantic County, New Jersey, commissioned Walter in the 1840s to add a jail to theirs. In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, civic leaders commissioned Quaker architect Addison Hutton (1834-1916) to design a courthouse and a jail in the 1870s, thereby crafting a cohesive architectural landscape of justice out of separate sites for the county and continuing the reformative approach to law’s administration that Haviland’s design for Eastern State Penitentiary embodied.

Also in the nineteenth century, the same demographic patterns led to the establishment of new county seats throughout the greater Philadelphia region. In two—Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Camden County, New Jersey—the architect, and sometime partner of Hutton, Samuel Sloan (1815-54) won commissions for the new courthouse projects. The county seat of Delaware County moved from Chester, site of a courthouse with a dual-entry, Quaker aesthetic, to Media in 1850. Sloan created a temple of justice, with a classically appointed portico, to assure that Media was not to be outdone by its rival Chester County and its new courthouse in the Corinthian order by Walter of the same period.

Renaissance Revival in Camden

Sloan’s work for Delaware County was in keeping with mid-century taste for classical courthouse design throughout region, whereas his Camden courthouse (1853) revealed his leanings to the Renaissance Revival aesthetic, popular in the later decades of the nineteenth century. The building exterior was a roughcast brick and the floor levels were articulated by belt courses and arched windows; the roof rose from a deep cornice and soared upward through gabled dormers and a square tower. Sloan’s courthouse in Camden likely influenced the architectural program that emerged in neighboring Gloucester County in the 1880s.

When Camden County broke away from Gloucester in 1844, officials began to shape their municipal center. In Gloucester, however, the existing two-story, complex masonry courthouse (1787) sufficed until 1885. At that time, the historic building was demolished and the new courthouse opened. It was a Renaissance Revival design by the Philadelphia firm, Hazlehurst and Huckel. The use of masonry in the early building translated well into the weightiness of the Italian palazzo reinterpreted for the courthouse through structural ornamentation that incorporated rusticated and smooth surfaces and different colors of brick and stone. This courthouse answered Sloan’s in Camden, although neither proved large enough for the demands of the twentieth-century legal system. Camden replaced its Sloan courthouse with a domed court by 1906. Nearby Cumberland County hired the Philadelphia firm of Watson and Huckel, successor to the Hazlehurst partnership, to fashion a new court building in 1909.

Courtrooms in these classically encased courthouses had twofold enclosures: first within symbolic architectural forms, such as monumental porticos, and then within a labyrinth of specialized spaces, such as judges chambers, jury rooms, clerk offices, law libraries, administrative offices for recording paperwork. In the nineteenth century, these enclosures distanced justice from those governed—separated by columnar screens on the exterior or by the bar inside the courtroom itself—and protected their rights at the same time, as Martha McNamara chronicled in her analysis of law’s professionalization and Norman Spaulding demonstrated in his examination of legal administrative spaces.

The rituals of justice conducted in public courtrooms, therefore, reflected the accessibility of law to all citizens even as a maze of jurisprudence few navigated without counsel developed to protect that principle. The architectural choices of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, embodied these ideals in a succession of courthouses placed on the highest point in Doylestown, including the Hutton courthouse of the 1870s, and the houses facing the courthouse square that became known as “Lawyers’ Row” and that received aesthetic upgrades as tastes shifted in the nineteenth century. Hutton’s courthouse met a similar fate to its predecessors in the mid-twentieth century when county officials chose to erect a modern, two-building court and administrative center by Carroll, Grisdale and Van Alen. The courthouse building was round and the greater use of glass in the façade signified contemplation and transparency necessary in the prudent execution of justice. Ultimately the county relocated its judicial center off the courthouse square, leaving the courtroom ideal at the heart of the complex and filling the spaces with administrative offices for the business of the court.

Relocations in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, a similar arc of expansion and debate that occurred in Bucks County over the movement of the center of justice from its traditional location took place, though condensed into the second half of the nineteenth century as plans to relocate the courts and government center from Independence Square were abandoned and City Hall on Center (Penn) Square gradually rose. The multistoried, highly ornamented Second Empire style building designed by John McArthur (1823-90) opened in 1901. The sculptural program of Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1923) added to the ornate character of the building and its enormity, with over 250 figures including blindfolded Justice with her scales. Almost immediately, the administration of justice overwhelmed even its vast interior. Philadelphia’s courts soon occupied auxiliary space in the Widener Building at Thirteenth and Chestnut Streets, and in the late 1930s, the Family Court Building at Eighteenth and Vine Streets designed by John T. Windrim (1866-1934) in the Beaux Arts tradition was added to the court system.

[caption id="attachment_34935" align="alignright" width="300"]Family Court Built in the late 1930s, the Family Court Building served as an expansion of the Philadelphia court system. John T. Windrim designed the building in the Beaux Art tradition, as seen in this 2013 photograph. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The interior iconography of the Family Court Building continued the decorative program of City Hall by featuring scenes in legal and local history rendered in paint, tile, and metal, as well as stained glass from D’Ascenzo Studios. In the paintings in the Family Court, justice came with a dose of paternalism to the wayward young and the newly arrived. The murals, by artists such as Stuyvesant van Veen (1910-88), encouraged a code of conduct focused on labor and deference. They hinted at alternatives to the jury trial negotiated by legal specialists and to shifts in the conveyance of justice away from the sword-bearing, blind-folded classical figure represented in porticoes and statuary through subject matter that instead featured judges pointing to role models, such as Boy Scouts, or highlighted prominent Americans.

Outside of Philadelphia, during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries annexes augmented courthouses as far as civic pride and purses could stretch. Additions to the architect-designed, mid-nineteenth-century courthouses in Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Montgomery Counties consumed full city blocks, while Bucks and Chester Counties forged courthouse clusters of old and new spaces to house their burgeoning legal systems. This was also true in Gloucester County, New Jersey, where a contemporary justice center supplemented the Hazlehurst and Huckel courthouse. In Delaware, Kent County remodeled its 1874 courthouse into a Colonial Revival-styled building around 1920 and added a three-story building around 2010. The addition evoked the arcaded first floor of the colonial period buildings with its entrance recessed behind a monumental columned portico. With this building and other complexes of the twenty-first century, including New Castle County’s fourteen-story, L-shaped court building in Wilmington, floor plans represented due process by providing space for the service of justice. In the early twenty-first century, the Philadelphia County court system included buildings on Arch, Filbert, and Spring Garden Streets. A new Family Court at Fifteenth and Arch Streets, designed by Philadelphia’s EwingCole, opened in 2014 as a replacement for the Windrim-designed courthouse on Vine Street. Gone were the Beaux Arts references to justice and the paternalistic New Deal era murals; instead, the transparency of the fourteen-story glass tower suggested the virtue Prudence, with her abilities to discern the appropriateness of actions. Concurrently, the city’s traffic court moved from its home in the William Steele & Sons designed Studebaker Building (1918) on North Broad Street, Philadelphia’s Automobile Row, to more modern space on Spring Garden Street.

Thus the courthouses of Philadelphia and the surrounding region underwent rebuilding, renovation, and replacement as demands on the court system rose. These architectural expressions of civic pride echoed local building traditions and, in the nineteenth century, expressed national identity as the young republic matured. With modernization and the expansion of democracy, glass-walled courts and an overwhelming series of specialized spaces stripped figural of Justice of her mystique. The administration of law in the ancillary spaces of the courthouse complex, however, preserved the courtroom as the symbol of justice sought and due process for all citizens at work.

Virginia B. Price is a public historian based in the Washington, D.C., area. She received her M.A. from the College of William and Mary and a Master of Architectural History from the University of Virginia.

Philadelphia Pepper Pot

Philadelphia pepper pot, a spicy stew-like dish comprised of tripe, other inexpensive cuts of meat, vegetables, and an abundance of spices and hot peppers, is related to the pepper pot soup of the Caribbean region. By the early nineteenth century, the dish had developed characteristics making it uniquely Philadelphian. Philadelphia pepper pot became popular throughout the country before declining in the early twenty-first century. Although it disappeared from most store shelves and menus, pepper pot could still be found in select restaurants in the Philadelphia area.

Pepper pot (also known as “pepperpot” or “pepper-pot”) came to the Philadelphia area in the mid-eighteenth century from the West Indies region of the Caribbean, at that time connected with the city through trade. A hybrid of Spanish and West African food traditions, pepper pot originated in two versions, one based in cassareep, a sweet and sour syrup derived from the bitter and poisonous cassava, and the other using callaloo, a dish made from greens that originated in West Africa. Edward “Ned” Ward (1667-1731), an English satirist who visited Jamaica in the late seventeenth century, wrote that after eating just a few spoonfuls, all he wanted was “a drop of water to cool [his] tongue.”

Most likely, enslaved Africans brought an indigenous version of pepper pot based on callaloo to Philadelphia in the mid-eighteenth century. Like many Native American, African, and Europe an dishes, especially among the poorer classes, pepper pot was a communal dish. Dishes of this type had no specific recipe, only general guidelines to follow—meat, vegetables, and other available ingredients slowly cooked in one pot and typically eaten with bread. According to tradition the remnants from one day’s meal became the basis for the next, resulting in a dish that could last for decades or even a century.

“West-India Pepper Pot”

By the late eighteenth century, pepper pot had become well known in the American colonies. A recipe for “A West-India Pepper Pot,” clearly indicating the popular belief about the dish’s origins, appeared in the first cookbook produced in America for an American audience, The New Art of Cookery, published in Philadelphia in 1792. The recipe called for a variety of meat, including veal, mutton, ham, and beef; vegetables including onions, carrots, celery, leeks, turnips, and greens; simple dumplings made of flour and water; and spices including all-spice, cloves, and mace. One of the last steps was to “season it very hot with Cayan pepper and salt,” emphasizing the heat associated with the dish.

[caption id="attachment_35186" align="alignright" width="300"]Booklet describing the street cries of Philadelphia. This 1810 booklet describes the street cries of Philadelphia, named after the calls made by street vendors hawking their wares in the city’s market stalls. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Pepper pot became more prominent and characteristic of Philadelphia by the early nineteenth century. The Cries of Philadelphia, published in 1810, included a wood-cut illustration titled “Pepper Pot, smoking hot,” and described the “numerous black women” who sold a “pleasant feast” of pepper pot “made chiefly of tripe, ox-feet, and other cheap animal substances, with a great portion of spice” in markets and on street corners. In 1811, a similar scene titled Pepper-Pot was exhibited at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts by John Lewis Krimmel (1786-1821), an early American genre painter. The painting shows an African American woman selling pepper pot to a diverse group of customers. Created during a period when Philadelphia had one of the largest free black populations in the country, these images documented black women’s work as entrepreneurial street vendors, an alternative to domestic work when options for employment were limited.

Philadelphia pepper pot became well known throughout the country. By the late nineteenth century, advertisements for restaurants serving “Philadelphia” pepper pot as well as recipes appeared throughout Pennsylvania, the Midwest, New Orleans, and Hawaii.  One recipe noted that the cook could add “any other herb or vegetable your taste demands,” much like earlier versions. An account written in 1894 by a New Yorker visiting Philadelphia described pepper pot as a regional dish unique to Philadelphia, much like scrapple, and commented that anyone asking for it in other cities “would be looked upon as a candidate for an asylum.” In 1901, the Clover Club in Philadelphia advertised that pepper pot would be served on its Thanksgiving menu. A later article in San Francisco poked fun at the menu, noting “surely such a combination would never pass muster outside of Pennsylvania.”

Canned Soup

The first canned version of Philadelphia pepper pot appeared in the early twentieth century as one of the original soup offerings sold for 12 cents a can by Camden-based Campbell Soup Company. By 1927, Campbell’s advertised it as the same version “served at the favorite club of Philadelphia’s early Colonial aristocracy,” despite the dish’s origin as a street food. 

[caption id="attachment_35185" align="alignright" width="194"]Campbell Soup advertisement for their pepper pot cans. The Campbell Soup Company began selling the first canned version of pepper pot in 1927. This 1934 advertisement draws upon the historical roots of pepper pot within colonial Philadelphia to entice customers. (Internet Archive)[/caption]

Throughout the early twentieth century, Philadelphia pepper pot remained nationally popular. Restaurants advertised it as a special offering, newspapers published recipes, and cookbooks featured a variety of recipes, many including the traditional tripe. Although the dish dipped in popularity by the mid-twentieth century, it resurged around the United States’ bicentennial celebration in 1976 because of a supposed connection between pepper pot and the Revolutionary War. Legend had it, incorrectly, that pepper pot had been invented to nourish the troops at Valley Forge after their defeat by the British at the Battle of Germantown.

By the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Philadelphia pepper pot fell out of favor, although it continued to be made by home cooks. Many institutions that had served it as a staple dish, such as the Four Seasons Hotel and the Union League of Philadelphia, removed it from their menus.  Campbell’s and Old Original Bookbinder’s, a food division created by a restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia to sell packaged versions of their soups, condiments, and sauces, also stopped selling canned pepper pot by 2018.  Although Philadelphia pepper pot sometimes appeared as a special at restaurants, it could be found consistently in just a few locations, such as the colonial-themed, reconstructed City Tavern, which advertised it as West Indies Pepperpot Soup, “a spicy colonial classic,” and the specialty store Rieker’s Prime Meats

Philadelphia pepper pot originated in the West Indies and migrated to Philadelphia with enslaved Africans, providing them and their free descendants with an inexpensive meal and a ware to sell in markets. For more than a century, Philadelphia pepper pot was a both a popular street food and a specialty dish at high-end restaurants.

Theresa Altieri Taplin earned an M.A. in history from Villanova University. She is a Certified Archivist and museum professional in Philadelphia.

Civil War Museum of Philadelphia

Founded in 1888 by veteran officers of the Civil War, the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia was a monument to those who fought to preserve the United States in the face of rebellion. Originally known as the War Library and Museum, the institution operated in several sites in Philadelphia before settling in a townhouse near Rittenhouse Square from 1922 until 2008, when it closed for financial reasons. In 2016, the museum transferred its three-dimensional collections to the Gettysburg Foundation with artifacts also displayed at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In their new homes, artifacts originally treated as memorial relics—including items from General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85), Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), and lesser-known soldiers and officers—were reinvented in the context of modern exhibits about such topics as slavery, racism, and the broader causes and consequences of the Civil War.

[caption id="attachment_35175" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the MOLLUS Commandry of Pennsylvania outside of General George Meade's headquarters. This 1893 photograph shows the MOLLUS Commandry of Pennsylvania posing outside General George Meade’s headquarters at Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The creation of a Civil War museum in Philadelphia originated with the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), a fraternal association for veteran officers of the Civil War founded in 1865 at the Union League in Philadelphia. The group formed in the wake of the assassination of Lincoln amid fear of a continuation of the Civil War, but when that fear subsided, commemoration became central to the association’s mission. The chartering of the War Library and Museum in 1888 reflected new efforts at remembrance that occurred in part because veterans were aging, but also because in the wake of Reconstruction, the Civil War seemed resolved and so it began to fade from current events into history.

Members of MOLLUS, including John Page Nicholson (1842-1922), who had taken control and revived the organization a decade earlier, chartered the War Library and Museum to collect, preserve, and maintain books and artifacts—“implements, relics, and muniments of war”—pertaining to the “War of the Rebellion.” The library and museum reflected a larger interest in documenting the memories of aging US Army and Navy veterans so as to capture history before it was lost. The urge to collect artifacts from veterans and to write and publish their recollections was also part of a contest over who would get to write the history of the Civil War.

Donations From Veterans

Collections grew throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, primarily from the donations of veterans and MOLLUS members, but the early history of the War Library and Museum revolved mostly around finding a home for itself. The State of Pennsylvania offered $50,000 for construction of a building if MOLLUS could raise $100,000 more. Throughout the 1890s, the group wrote appeals, pursued various locations, and drew up designs for a grand structure that would house offices, banquet halls, and the library and museum. The veterans envisioned a repository of history and material objects, but also a space where they could socialize and reminisce.

At different times, MOLLUS pursued homes in council chambers at Independence Hall, in properties near City Hall, and in a building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, but none of these proved feasible. In 1907, the organization rented rooms in the Flanders Building at Fifteenth and Walnut Streets, and in 1922 it made a permanent home in a townhouse at 1805 Pine Street. The selection of a more modest home was a disappointment, but it enabled building funds to sustain the institution as an endowment for much of the twentieth century.

At the Flanders Building, for the first time, exhibits showcased the collections publicly. The displays included the Tiffany sword and scabbard that General Ulysses S. Grant received after the battle at Vicksburg, a uniform worn by General George Meade (1815-72) at Gettysburg, and casts of Lincoln’s face and hands made by sculptor Leonard Wells Volk (1828-95) just before the war broke out. Visitors could also see the cane Lincoln carried into Ford’s Theater, a tree trunk hit by a cannon ball at Gettysburg, a recruitment drum played outside enlistment headquarters in Philadelphia in 1861, and the paisley smoking jacket worn by Jefferson Davis when he was captured by Union soldiers in 1865.

[caption id="attachment_35174" align="alignright" width="185"]Photograph of the Civil War cavalry officer General Lewis Merrill. General Lewis Merrill, shown in this photograph published between 1880 and 1920, was a cavalry officer during the American Civil War and later served on the Board of Governors for the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Ephemeral items and other personal relics donated by Union veterans contrasted strikingly with other Civil War commemorations in Philadelphia at the time, including the equestrian statues of Meade and General John Reynolds (1820-63) and the Smith Memorial Arch in Fairmount Park. While Nicholson and MOLLUS wanted the library and museum to be similarly monumental, the museum’s collection was a mixture of official military history documented by the uniforms and firearms of commanding officers and a more subtle memory of the Civil War driven by everyday artifacts donated by individuals (albeit mostly officers) that revealed alternative, more personal histories. General Lewis Merrill (1834-96), a member of the museum’s Board of Governors, explained that an institution like theirs “will be a more lasting monument than any one that is built of stone or metal, and will be more influential in telling the truth of history and doing justice to its defender.”

From Private to Public

Debates arose in the 1920s over whether the collection needed to be better interpreted now that veterans (who could recall their own experiences) were dying and MOLLUS membership was passing to descendants, but a catalog to guide visits never emerged. In the members-only museum, the artifacts were largely left to speak for themselves and the library and archives, while available for use, were only partially cataloged or cared for.

MOLLUS remained involved with the museum until the 1970s, when the organization and the museum separated so that each could dedicate more resources to its narrower mission. In 1976, coinciding with the Bicentennial, the museum opened to the public on a day-to-day basis, and in the 1980s special exhibits began to interpret more diverse histories—including those of women or African Americans or even the rebel states—in  addition to the other long-standing displays of the collections.

By the early 2000s, a dwindling endowment and declining visitation threatened the sustainability of the museum. Legal proceedings against former curator Russell Pritchard Jr. (b. 1940) and his son for fraud and theft from a variety of Civil War institutions, including the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, provided further evidence of the museum’s longtime mismanagement. One proposed solution to address the state of the museum would have loaned part of the collection to a planned Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. The backlash in Philadelphia against that idea resulted in a proposal to create a Center for Civil War Studies based at the Union League that would have included partners like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, and the Philadelphia Historical and Museum Commission. The desire, beyond creating an exceptional network of research collections, was to make Philadelphia a destination not just for Revolutionary War tourism, but also for tourism around nineteenth-century history and the Civil War. Plans for such a consortium never came to fruition, nor did another plan for the museum to occupy Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. Continuing the disappointments, in 2002 the State of Pennsylvania pledged $15 million toward a new facility but retracted the funds in 2009 during the recession.

A Dual Emphasis Emerges

[caption id="attachment_35176" align="alignright" width="196"]Portrait depicting the preserved head of Old Baldy. The Grand Army of the Republic Museum loaned the preserved head of General George Meade’s horse, known as Old Baldy, to the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia in 1979. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

While the quest for a new home signaled a desire for a more professional, authoritative institution, appreciation also remained for the small, quirky museum on Pine Street that displayed, among other things, the preserved head of Old Baldy, General Meade’s horse. However, rather than develop either of these identities, in 2003 the institution reemerged as the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum with a new dual emphasis that reflected trends toward more inclusive histories of the Civil War era. With a limited collection of African American materials, the museum turned to living history with actors portraying historical figures including Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913) and Absalom Jones (1746-1818). New outreach resulted in a 2006 program called “Faith and Freedom,” co-produced with black churches. One program featured an actor portraying Jones giving his “Thanksgiving Sermon” at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas

In 2004, a grant from the William Penn Foundation enabled the first complete inventory of the collection, which revealed objects previously unknown to the museum or the nation. In addition to the already celebrated items from well-known figures, the inventory uncovered items like a pocket watch belonging to Brevet Capt. John O. Foering (1843-1933) that was dented by a bullet; a jar of peaches from an orchard on the battlefield of Winchester, Virginia; the tombstone of John Butcher (1845-99), a veteran of the United States Colored Troops; and an 1872 first edition of The Underground Railroad by William Still (1821-1902).

However, none of these developments could save the museum, which closed in 2008. An effort to work with the National Park Service to renovate the Second Bank in Old City to yield a usable space also failed, and ultimately in 2016 the artifact collections transferred to the Gettysburg Foundation—the private, nonprofit partner of Gettysburg National Military Park—with the promise that the National Constitution Center would still display some of the artifacts in Philadelphia. The museum retained the two-dimensional materials, including paintings, lithographs, and books that went on loan to the Union League and remained available to researchers there. Other artifacts—including the head of Old Baldy, which had been on loan from the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Frankford—returned to the GAR Museum, which sustained Civil War memory in Philadelphia, although on a smaller scale.

In 2019, the National Constitution Center opened the exhibit “Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality,” which used Civil War Museum artifacts in an expansive history that explored the context, causes, and consequences of the Civil War. Extending to histories of injustice and violence, the exhibit encompassed causes like slavery and racism and consequences like the Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution and their simultaneous importance and impotence in the face of Jim Crow segregation. At the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum, meanwhile, artifacts from the Philadelphia museum illustrated the story of the Civil War from the perspectives of both the United States and the states that seceded. While the objects added authenticity in service of each institution’s interpretive goals, the new installations also demonstrated the contrast between the polished Civil War tourism of the twenty-first century and the earlier museum’s role as a nineteenth-century reliquary and evocative home for family legacies.

Ultimately, the Civil War Museum faced several hurdles that it could not overcome. By the late twentieth century, Philadelphia museums—especially small, lesser-known museums—were suffering financially. The Civil War Museum’s location was also challenging because Philadelphia never successfully cultivated a Civil War identity or Civil War tourism despite deep connections to that history. However, if, as a fundraising appeal from 1891 argued, the museum was meant to commemorate those “who gave their lives to the war which restored the Union and maintained the Constitution,” then the collections found a fitting final resting place at the National Constitution Center in an exhibit about the simultaneous successes and failures of that document and a more critical memory of the Civil War for a new generation.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, lecturer, and historian in Philadelphia. She works in the museum of the Wagner Free Institute of Science and teaches at Temple University in addition to freelance writing and research. She received her Ph.D. in Media and Cultural Studies from Northwestern University.

Theresa Altieri Taplin

Theresa Altieri Taplin earned an M.A. in history from Villanova University. She is a Certified Archivist and museum professional in Philadelphia.

City Councils (Philadelphia)

Since Philadelphia’s founding, a council or—for over a century—councils have been central to the work of municipal government. But the way councils have been chosen, the roles they have performed, and the composition of the people who have served on them have changed markedly since the start of the eighteenth century. From the unrepresentative “closed corporation” of the colonial era, through to the diverse, democratically elected body of the early twenty-first century, councils help to illustrate wider changes in Philadelphia’s past. Their history also offers insights into long-running battles to define the balance between legislative and executive power in local administration.

[caption id="attachment_34930" align="alignright" width="217"]Photograph of William Penn's 1701 City Charter for Philadelphia. William Penn issued his City Charter for Philadelphia in 1701, broadening the municipal government’s power and creating a city council that blended legislative, executive, and judicial functions. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s colonial council resembled the “closed corporations” of English towns. By the seventeenth century, such places hardly lived up to the ideal of the self-governing city. Some form of council probably met before William Penn (1644-1718) issued his City Charter in 1701, but that document created a body on the English model, with aldermen and councilmen appointed for life. A mayor and recorder joined them on Philadelphia’s city council, which had the power to police its own members and add to its ranks but was subject to no electoral oversight. With the mayor sitting alongside the councilmen, and aldermen serving as justices of the peace, the council mingled legislative, executive, and judicial functions in one corporate body. Public pressure on city government had to be exerted through the likes of petitioning or crowd action rather than via the ballot.

While the colonial city council performed a wide range of responsibilities, it operated in an ad hoc manner. The mayor convened meetings “from time to time,” and though council members delegated executive and legislative business to subcommittees, they had no permanent standing. As Philadelphia grew, though, the importance of its council grew with it, and in the decades before independence the closed corporation regulated city life. It passed ordinances, launched public works, and oversaw markets and wharves.

The American Revolution swept away the colonial city council, and the post-revolutionary City Charter of 1789 brought major changes. The old closed corporation gave way to a municipal government more open to citizens’ influence. Voters now elected councilmen and aldermen, though the latter retained their judicial role. These representatives, chosen at large rather than by ward, initially sat together in one body, which chose the mayor from one of their own. In 1796, however, an act of the Pennsylvania legislature deprived aldermen of their seat in Council and divided the remaining councilmen into two branches. Common councilmen were elected for one-year terms, while the smaller body of Select councilmen served for two years. This bicameral system of councils persisted until just after World War I

Seeking More-Open Government

Influenced by the constitutional upheavals of the revolutionary years, citizens sought to separate the powers of city government and open its institutions to the people, albeit with mixed success. While the 1796 reform introduced a clear division between legislative and judicial branches of the municipal authorities, councilmen continued to choose the mayor until 1839, when—in the spirit of the Jacksonian era—the state legislature opened the office to the ballots of white male voters. At the same time, however, many of the mayor’s appointive powers transferred to the two branches of council. Thus a measure that seemingly separated executive and legislative powers ended up strengthening the grip of Councils in both. Well before 1839 Councils had created standing committees, chaired by Common or Select councilmen, to oversee the likes of the city’s wharves and waterworks. The development of new or expanded municipal services like gas in the 1830s gave councils considerable control over patronage and provided a platform for politicians to build the “rings” that bedeviled late nineteenth-century reform movements. For many political reformers, indeed, stripping Councils of their executive powers would become a longstanding—if frequently frustrated—ambition.   

So too would elevating (as genteel reformers liked to cast it) the social character of councilmen. In the Early Republic, eminent citizens saw service on City Councils as part of their civic duty, which also meant they could steer Philadelphia’s government in a direction that suited them. William M. Meredith (1799-1873), a future U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, served as president of Select Council from 1834 to 1839. As late as the 1840s, the merchant prince Thomas Pym Cope (1768-1854) sat on Select Council. But as the city grew, and Whig, Democratic, and Nativist parties mobilized around election time, Councils’ elite hue began to fade. The story of genteel retreat from Philadelphia’s municipal politics in the Jacksonian era can be overstated, but citizens at the time certainly saw political specialists emerging at the helm.

[caption id="attachment_34931" align="alignright" width="225"]Photograph of William S. Stokley, a prominent Philadelphia politician between the 1860s and 1880s. William S. Stokley became a fixture in Philadelphia politics between the 1860s and 1880s, serving as the president of the Common and Select Councils. Depicted in this 1905 lithograph, he served as the 72nd mayor of Philadelphia. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The next major change in the structure of city government, the Consolidation Act of 1854, sought to reduce Councils’ executive role and augment the social standing of its representatives. Consolidation extended the previously two-square-mile city to encompass the entire county, swallowing up in the process a host of densely populated suburban districts run by elected boards of commissioners. Advocates of consolidation hoped the new city government would vest stronger powers in the mayor and reduce Councils to a purely legislative role. They also anticipated that the vast extent of the enlarged metropolis would attract men of experience to the bicameral councils, which were to be elected from the new city’s twenty-four wards. In practice, neither aim worked as intended. Businessmen did win office, but often used their position to ransack the city treasury (like the builder and contractor John Rice, 1812-80), or had close ties to major corporations (like the Democrat and Pennsylvania Railroad solicitor Theodore Cuyler, 1819-76). Ward representation, meanwhile, gave politicians from ethnic and working-class neighborhoods a strong base. For example, William McMullen (1824-1901), a white supremacist Irish-American Democrat from the old district of Moyamensing, became a longstanding member of Common Council in the new Fourth Ward just below South Street. And though the Consolidation Act gave the mayor control over the police, Councils still had the authority to establish city departments and elect their heads. The managers responsible for many of the city’s executive functions therefore held their positions at the whim of councilmen rather than the mayor. This allowed ambitious councilmen like William S. Stokley (1823-1902) to build a patronage base via oversight of municipal departments.

The Bullitt Bill

The Bullitt Bill, passed by the State Legislature in 1885 and named for its architect John C. Bullitt (1824-1902), marked another attempt to rein in Councils’ executive role. Reformers welcomed a measure that seemed to restore the mayor’s appointive powers, which had been held by the legislative branch of the city government since 1839. But in giving Select Council a veto on mayoral appointments, the Bullitt Bill ensured that councilmen would retain considerable influence in everyday administration. While the measure reduced the number of departments from twenty-five to nine, it did little to arrest the growth in the number of councilmen, who numbered 146 by 1919. Philadelphia’s councils developed a reputation for being venal and unwieldy.

In the Progressive Era, with efficiency the watchword, reformers set out to remake Councils once more. Reversing the precedent set in 1796, a 1919 amendment to the Bullitt Bill replaced the bicameral system with a single body, reduced the number of members to twenty-one, and replaced ward representation with a division based on the city’s eight State Senate districts. The new districts corrected the underrepresentation of growing suburbs like Germantown and West Philadelphia while the shift to four-year terms and $5,000 official salaries reflected the sense that oversight of municipal business required professional attention. To increase transparency, the mayor was required to send a budget to Council, which would then hold hearings in public on the proposals.

Once again, though, the reform failed to deliver on its promise. Members could still wield influence over executive functions. Despite a new Civil Service Commission, Council appointed its members and thus had leverage over personnel decisions. And the mayor also needed approval from Council when appointing heads of city agencies. Meanwhile, despite the city’s shift towards voting Democrat in national elections in the 1930s and a growing vote for Democratic candidates in local races, the eight Council districts tended to elect entirely Republican members. The absence of a substantial opposition bloc in Council was compounded by the tendency of Republican councilors to fight first and foremost for the interests of their districts rather than representing the metropolis as a whole. Despite these problems, proposals for another overhaul of city government stalled in the 1930s and 1940s.   

[caption id="attachment_34926" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the 97th mayor of Philadelphia, John F. Street, alongside President George W. Bush during a 2001 Independence Day Celebration. John F. Street, the 97th mayor of Philadelphia, standing next to President George W. Bush during Independence Day celebrations on July 4, 2001. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The Home Rule Charter of 1951 aimed to complete the unfinished business of creating a strong mayoralty and reducing Council’s responsibilities. In part, the new charter continued reformers’ longstanding efforts to limit councilors’ capacity to interfere with executive functions. The measure deprived Council of its oversight of the civil service system, its veto over most mayoral appointments, and its capacity to interfere with procurement and construction; the mayor too could veto municipal measures. As one contemporary defender of the new system put it, reformers sought the “centralization of executive authority.” Yet councilors retained some means to check mayoral power. By controlling the finances of city government and through their ability to subpoena witnesses they could keep an eye on the actions of the administrative branch. To enact their agendas, then, mayors had to work closely with Council. Landmark policies like the 2001 Neighborhood Transformation Initiative of John F. Street (b. 1943, mayor, 2000-8) and the 2016 Sugary Drinks Tax of Jim Kenney (b. 1958, mayor, beginning 2016) all required the mayor securing majority support in the Council chamber.

Tweaking the Balance of Power

Home Rule’s architects looked to recalibrate the balance of power in other respects too. The minority party was guaranteed at least two of the seven at large seats in the new Council. As a system of limited voting meant citizens could only pick their favored five candidates for those seven seats, moreover, that minority party also had the option of concentrating their vote share through running a shorter list of nominees. The other ten seats were elected by district. Through this arrangement, it was hoped, the interests of the city would not be drowned out by the claims of each neighborhood. 

Despite the strengthening of the mayoralty, the new Council retained the power to regulate land use, which gave it considerable influence over urban development. By custom, the Council delegated decisions over land use and sale of the city’s considerable real estate to the member from the district affected. To its defenders, this practice of “councilmanic prerogative” protected local interests. A councilor, for instance, could block a development in his or her district until community concerns about parking or facilities had been met. To its critics, though, the prerogative slowed the pace of rebuilding and encouraged corrupt bargains between councilors and developers. 

[caption id="attachment_34927" align="alignright" width="300"]Modern day location of Raymond Pace Alexander's law office, which is currently a Target. Raymond Pace Alexander operated a successful African American legal practice within Philadelphia and advocated for civil rights within the city. This 2017 photograph shows the site of his law office, which currently operates as a Target. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

With the Home Rule Charter enacted in an era of rapid social change in Philadelphia, the new Council soon looked different from its predecessors. After a century of Republican control, Democrats now dominated, as the coalition of white industrial workers and a growing black population wielded influence at the polls. The civil rights attorney Raymond Pace Alexander (1897-1974), whose parents had been enslaved in their youth in Virginia, became Philadelphia’s first black councilor in 1951. That same year, Constance H. Dallas (1902-83) an independent-minded Democrat whose husband was descended from the former mayor and vice president George Mifflin Dallas (1792-1864), served as the first woman in Council. For a century between the 1854 Consolidation Act and the 1951 Home Rule Charter, the city’s councils had offered a path to power for white ethnic politicians. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the strong African American presence on Council underscored the changing demographics of the city and the strength of black political mobilization. By 2019, however, a mixture of gentrification and frustration with incumbents sometimes left veteran legislators vulnerable in Democratic primaries. Jannie Blackwell (b. 1945), who had represented West Philadelphia’s Third District since 1992, lost in 2019 to Jamie Gauthier (b. 1978), another African American candidate who drew considerable support from young, affluent voters in the precincts around University City.  

As in earlier eras, a stint on the post-1951 City Council could serve as a springboard for higher political ambitions. Earlier mayors like William S. Stokley (president of Common Council, 1865-67; president of Select Council, 1868-70) had moved from presidencies of Common or Select Council into the mayor’s office. Late twentieth-century successors like James F. Tate (1910-1983, president of Council, 1955-64) and John F. Street (president of Council, 1992-98) did likewise. Thus, while the 1951 charter placed limits on Council’s power, it gave members themselves a platform, which they could use to build a metropolitan-wide reputation. If a century of reform between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s reduced Council’s executive role, by the early twenty-first century it remained a key player in city politics.

Andrew Heath, who lived in Philadelphia between 2001 and 2008, is a lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. He is the author of In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in an Age of Urban Consolidation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

Aeronautics and Aerospace Industry

From the aeronauts of the early republic to the jets, missiles, and rockets of the Cold War era, the growth and development of the aeronautical and aerospace industry in the Philadelphia region has exemplified a gradual shift from amateur pursuits to a more formalized industry and infrastructure. Across several centuries, the city and surrounding suburbs emerged as a hub of experimentation and innovation driven by the interests of prominent Philadelphians, by a favorable geographic locale, and by increasing interaction between industry and government, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century.

[caption id="attachment_34923" align="alignright" width="198"]Photograph of the first public demonstration of a hot air balloon flight by the Montgolfier brothers in Annonay, France. This 1909 watercolor postcard depicts the first public demonstration of a hot air balloon by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier in Annonay, France on June 4, 1783. (Science History Institute)[/caption]

Beginning in the eighteenth century, early explorations in flight primarily followed two distinct avenues: hot-air balloons developed by brothers Joseph-Michel (1740-1810) and Jacques-Étienne (1745-99) Montgolfier in Paris and hydrogen-inflated balloons tested by the Montgolfiers’ contemporary and fellow Frenchman Jacques Alexander Caesar Charles (1746-1823). Serving as ambassador to France from 1778 to 1785, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) witnessed and reported on such experiments to associates and friends in Philadelphia, stoking American interest in aeronautical flight.

As Philadelphia, then serving as the national capital, emerged as a focal point for ballooning in the new republic, early aeronautical endeavors in the city had mixed success. On May 10, 1784, Dr. John Foulke (1757-96) successfully recorded the first balloon flight in America, a small, unmanned paper test balloon released from the courtyard of the Dutch minister’s residence. Following Foulke’s demonstration, Maryland innkeeper and lawyer Peter Carnes’ (1749-94) ascension in a tethered hot-air balloon at the city prison yard on July 17, 1784, failed spectacularly when a gust of wind knocked Carnes from the balloon before it caught fire and fell to earth. A decade later, the exploits of European balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809) renewed Philadelphians’ interest in aeronautics; on January 9, 1793, citizens paid $2 to $5 per ticket to witness Blanchard’s ascent from the Walnut Street Prison yard at Sixth and Walnut Streets, a spectacle sponsored and attended by President George Washington (1732-99).

Ballooning Set the Stage

[caption id="attachment_34921" align="alignright" width="144"]Photograph of Arthur T. Atherholt, President of the Aero Club of Pennsylvania. The Aero Club of Pennsylvania sponsored exhibition flights and air meets at the Point Breeze racetrack and Philadelphia Navy Yard. This photograph depicts Arthur T. Atherholt, the first president of the Aero Club, during an international race in 1907. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

While public enthusiasm for ballooning waxed and waned throughout the nineteenth century, early aeronautics nonetheless fostered a public receptiveness to flying that increased as inventors turned their attentions to the problem of heavier-than-air flight. At the dawn of the twentieth century, interest in fixed-wing aircraft and other flying machines drew together a mix of scientists, engineers, part-time researchers, and enthusiasts to form a growing aeronautical community in the Philadelphia region. Notable among these individuals was George A. Spratt (1870-1934), a medical student from Coatesville, Chester County, Pennsylvania, who channeled his scientific training into the study of aerodynamics and participated in the Wright brothers’ gliding experiments at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in the summer of 1901. Following the Wright brothers’ success in 1903, airplanes, like balloons a century earlier, gripped the public imagination and developed initially as a form of entertainment. Between 1908 and 1915, the Point Breeze racetrack and the Philadelphia Naval Yard at League Island became popular destinations for exhibition flights and air meets sponsored by the Aero Club of Pennsylvania, which formed in December 1909 from the merger of the Aero Club of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Aviation Society. In addition to exhibition flights, races between airplanes were also a popular attraction; locally, department store chain Gimbel Bros. (Gimbels) sponsored a 1911 contest from New York to Philadelphia that concluded at Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park.

While the Aero Club of Pennsylvania, as well as aero clubs at local colleges and universities including the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford, and Swarthmore, brought a degree of organization to amateur aviation, American involvement in World War I served as a catalyst for the emergence of a true aeronautical industry in Philadelphia and the nation. As the War Department increasingly recognized the airplane’s potential for scouting, observation, and tactical support of ground troops, ambitious goals of producing 22,625 airplanes and 4,500 aircraft engines led to the construction of government-owned and operated facilities like the Naval Air Station Lakehurst (New Jersey) and the Naval Aircraft Factory at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Established in 1917, the Naval Aircraft Factory quickly became a critical hub for the manufacture of flying boats, seaplanes, motors, and other accessories; by war’s end, the facility boasted over one million square feet of floor space and employed more than 3,600 workers. The region’s contributions to the war effort also included the manufacture of component parts by Philadelphia-based firms like G.E.M. Manufacturing, which specialized in aerial cameras, and the J.G. Brill Company, which produced rough cylinder motor liners at its trolley and rail car plant at Sixty-Second Street and Woodland Avenue, as well as the training of aviators and support personnel at the Essington Aviation Station located on the former site of the Lazaretto quarantine station.

Military Influence Persists

[caption id="attachment_34922" align="alignright" width="257"]Charles A Lindbergh standing next to his monoplane, the Spirit of Saint Louis. Charles Augustus Lindbergh standing before his custom-built monoplane the Spirit of St. Louis on May 31, 1927. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Following the war, the symbiotic relationship between government and the nascent aviation industry remained critical, as military needs continued to influence industrial production and priorities, particularly in Philadelphia. Most significantly, the Naval Aircraft Factory scaled back its workforce to approximately twelve hundred workers and, throughout the 1920s, shifted focus from the production of aircraft to research and development of experimental designs. Initially, private industry followed suit and increasingly focused on the engineering and testing of materials and component parts until federal legislation expanding airmail service contracts for private carriers spurred demand for new and more efficient aircraft. Among others, aviation enthusiast Harold F. Pitcairn (1897-1960) capitalized on the 1925 Kelly Air Mail Act to establish a manufacturing facility for light utility aircraft at his Bryn Athyn airfield under the auspices of Pitcairn Aviation, the passenger service and flying school based in Willow Grove. Renewed demand for military and civil aircraft similarly spurred companies like the Huff-Daland Aero Corporation of Ogdensburg, New York, to establish a new headquarters and production plant along the Delaware River in Bristol, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Notably, the arrival of Huff-Daland in 1926 coincided with the opening of Philadelphia’s first municipal airport, a 111-acre facility located in the Eastwick section of the city, while public interest in the 1927 transatlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh (1902-74) and his subsequent tour, which included stops in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, likewise spurred a boom in commercial airport construction, including the William Penn Airport on Roosevelt Boulevard and the Philadelphia Aircraft Company’s airfield on Easton Pike near Doylestown.

Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Philadelphia’s strategic location along primary east-west and north-south arteries significantly spurred the development and growth of aeronautical infrastructure and industry in the city and surrounding region. Nonetheless, aircraft manufacturing and airfield construction contracted sharply during the Great Depression, as companies once again redirected their focus from aircraft manufacturing to component parts. Amidst this shift, the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia distinguished itself for its innovative use of stainless-steel and a pioneering shot-welding fabrication process used to produce aircraft materials that were stronger and more resistant to corrosion. Similarly, the production of engines, rotary wings, and propellers by companies like Fleetwings Inc. of Bristol and Jacobs Aircraft Engine Company of Pottstown helped to sustain the local aviation industry until demand for new aircraft rebounded in the lead-up to World War II. As the nation mobilized for war, the Naval Aircraft Factory once again stepped up production to meet rising demand and expanded into a wealth of experimental, highly classified projects on pilotless aircraft and guided weapons systems that underscored an ever-growing emphasis on research and development. This shift solidified further in 1943, when the Naval Aircraft Factory was renamed the Naval Air Material Center and the facility’s primary duties divided into two units: the Naval Aircraft Modification Unit, which focused on the conversion of service aircraft and special weapons work, and the Naval Air Experimental Station, which conducted laboratory and materials testing. Technological research and innovation similarly dominated wartime work at the Philadelphia-based Steam Division of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which engineered and produced the first operational American turbojet for the U.S. Navy in March 1943. 

Cold War and Beyond

[caption id="attachment_34925" align="alignright" width="245"]Photograph of airship fabric display at the Naval Air Material Center. Chemist Eleanor Vadala and Dr. Earl Hayes from the United States Defense Department examine an airship fabric display produced by the Naval Air Material Center in this 1959 photograph. (Science History Institute)[/caption]

Across the state of Pennsylvania, employment in the aircraft, engines, and parts industries peaked at approximately 45,000 workers in July 1944; from there, employment and production statistics steadily declined into the postwar period, as industries struggled with the effects of demobilization and a market over-saturated with readily available used aircraft. In response, the Naval Air Material Center doubled-down on the research and development of specialty parts and materials, including advanced catapult systems, rocket-powered ejection seats, and improved arresting gear. Similarly, in 1947, the navy’s aircraft plant in Johnsville (Warminster), Bucks County, was converted into the Naval Air Development Station and embarked upon research in aviation electronics, medicine, and unmanned aircraft. Over the next decade, the two facilities evolved further, increasingly focusing on missile and spacecraft technologies and effectively positioning themselves at the forefront of Philadelphia’s burgeoning aerospace industry.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a number of private corporations across the region  joined in these endeavors, including the Boeing Vertol facility in Ridley Park, which specialized in helicopter and rotary wing aircraft; the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) facility in Camden, New Jersey, which developed guided missile and checkout equipment; and General Electric’s Missile and Space Vehicle Department based in Philadelphia, which in 1957 received the company’s first Air Force contract to develop a reentry vehicle for intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In April 1960, General Electric broke ground on a new Space Technology Center in Valley Forge, which became the hub for the company’s Space Division and its work on a range of missile and satellite projects for the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Despite the growth of private industry in the postwar period, the aerospace industry in Philadelphia arguably reached its apex in Johnsville, which in 1959 became headquarters of the Naval Air Research and Development Activities Command. In this capacity, the facility oversaw the Naval Air Engineering Center’s work on pressure suits used by Project Mercury astronauts, as well as jet and rocket engine research and centrifuge testing to measure the effects of G-force on humans. Several Gemini and Apollo program personnel and astronauts, including John Glenn (1921-2016) and Neil Armstrong (1930-2012), trained at the facility, as well as a number of X-15 space plane pilots.

True to the aerospace industry’s increasing dependence on government contracts and projects, cuts in military spending and the consolidation of facilities toward the end of the Cold War hastened the industry’s decline in the Philadelphia region in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1986, General Electric acquired the RCA Corporation and subsequently sold its entire aerospace division, including the Camden facility, to the Maryland-based Martin Marietta Corporation (later renamed Lockheed Martin) in April 1993. Similarly, the Naval Air Research and Development Activities Command in Johnsville closed in 1996 and many of its buildings were subsequently demolished in 2001, a symbolic end to the long history of the aeronautical and aerospace industry in the Philadelphia region.

Hillary S. Kativa is the Chief Curator of Audiovisual and Digital Collections at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. In addition to an MLIS from Rutgers University, she holds an M.A. in history from Villanova University and received her B.A. in history and English from Dickinson College. Her research interests include American political history and presidential campaigns, public history, and material culture.

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