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Wilmington, Delaware

[caption id="attachment_34032" align="aligncenter" width="575"]a map of Wilmington in 1874, shown from the Christiana River banks Wilmington grew rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century with an economy supported by industries like ship building, railway car manufacturing, and gunpowder refining. This 1874 map shows the city’s development centered on the confluence of the Christiana River and the Brandywine Creek. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Located thirty miles southwest of Philadelphia, Wilmington is Delaware’s largest city and the New Castle County seat. It originated as a colonial trading area and ferry crossing and later became one of the country’s most vital industrial and chemical-producing centers. With the decline of manufacturing near the close of the twentieth century, the city emerged as America’s “corporate capital.” Despite the city’s industrial might and corporate wealth, its history also reflected the spatial, economic, and racial disparities seen in cities across Greater Philadelphia and the nation. Often overshadowed by the region’s larger cities, Wilmington remained modest in size yet ambitious in scope.

Prior to Swedish and Dutch colonization in the early 1600s, the area that became Wilmington contained a vast population of Lenni Lenape Indians scattered in villages along the Delaware River. Over time, the Indians and settlers engaged in trade, exchanging furs for European-made goods. New Castle, six miles to the south, initially served as the area’s primary trading center. But in 1638, Swedish colonists erected Fort Christina on a narrow stretch of land between the Brandywine and Christina Rivers, the latter of which fed into the larger Delaware. In 1669, Governor Francis Lovelace (1621-75) chartered the Christina’s first ferry service north of present-day Newport. Twenty years later, an additional crossing opened over the Brandywine, generating commerce on the peninsula between the rivers. In 1731, with the colony then under English rule, the humble settlement gained incorporation.

[caption id="attachment_34035" align="alignright" width="220"] Thomas Penn, shown here in a 1751 portrait, became the first proprietor of Wilmington in 1731. Penn, son of Pennsylvania founder William, named the borough in honor of Spencer Compton, the First Earl of Wilmington. (Digital Collections, New York Public Library)[/caption]

Thomas Penn (1702-75), son of Pennsylvania founder William Penn (1644-1718), served as the first proprietor of the Borough of Wilmington, which he named for Spencer Compton (1673-1743), the First Earl of Wilmington and close associate of King George II (1683-1760). With easy river access to the interior and the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington attracted craftsmen, merchants, millers, and artisans, who transformed the fledgling borough into a key producer of flour and grain; the city’s so-called “Brandywine Superfine” flour reached markets throughout the colonies and ports as far away as Europe and the West Indies. In 1771, after concluding a carpentry apprenticeship, Samuel Canby (1751-1832) established the borough’s first textile mill along the Brandywine near Orange Street. Later, his son James Canby (1781-1858) assumed control of the mills and eventually helped found the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, serving as its first chief executive. Although Wilmington witnessed no significant combat during the American Revolution, the borough provided shelter for American troops during the 1777-78 British occupation of nearby Philadelphia. Regiments from Maryland and Delaware remained in Wilmington to protect patriot supply lines along the Elk and Delaware Rivers.

Brandywine Village

Industrialization expanded in the Wilmington area during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Brandywine Village, a flour milling center, opened in 1753. Founded by prominent Quakers William Shipley (1693-1768), his wife Elizabeth Levis-Shipley (1690-1777), and their partner Thomas Canby Jr. (1702-1764), the complex contained twelve mills and more than sixty homes. In 1783, engineer Oliver Evans (1755-1819) introduced his automatic flour mill to the complex, a system that later revolutionized the industry. Working from his Newport, Delaware, and Philadelphia shops, Evans also experimented with steam and refrigeration technologies. With industry came growth; by the early 1800s, Wilmington’s population reached five thousand residents and its papermaking, grain, and flour processing operations were complemented by new technologies and industries. In 1802, French chemist E.I. du Pont (1771-1834) established a gunpowder mill along the Brandywine upstream from the city. Over the next century, his namesake company remained headquartered in Wilmington and grew into the world’s largest explosives manufacturer. Other prominent local families during the period included the Talleys, active in the timber business; the Bringhursts, who prospered in shipping and banking; and the Bancrofts, whose patriarch Joseph Bancroft (1803-1874) opened a textile mill along the Brandywine in 1831.

[caption id="attachment_34034" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white illustration of the Lobdell Car Wheel Company's facories as they appeared in the late nineteenth century. The factories has numerous smoke stacks with billowing smoke arising from several connected buildings. Railway cars travel through covered sheds in the foreground. Vignettes above show earlier factories owned by the company. Wilmington’s Lobdell Car Wheel Company led the nation in train wheel production by the mid-nineteenth century. Established in 1830 as a general foundry, the factory on the Christina River, seen in this illustration, grew to employ thousands and boasted the capacity to cast hundreds of train wheels per day. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Delaware legislature rechartered the borough as the city of Wilmington in 1832, and with the completion of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad five years later, the city’s riverfront advantages merged with the Northeast’s burgeoning rail network. Shipbuilding, carriage making, and iron founding flourished during the 1840s, generating demand for raw materials and skilled workers. Yet railroad cars and their related components generated much of the city’s nineteenth-century economic activity. Prior to the Civil War, companies including Harlan and Hollingsworth, Pusey and Jones, and Jackson and Sharp opened factories along the Christina, placing Wilmington at the forefront of U.S railcar production. The Lobdell Car Wheel Company led the nation in train wheel production while Jackson and Sharp exported cars and later electric trolleys to Europe, Latin America, and Asia. As Wilmington’s industrial base increased, so too did its population of foreign workers, many of whom arrived from Ireland and Germany during the 1840s and 1850s.

The population of New Castle County had included numerous enslaved Africans, primarily in its rural southern areas, since the 1700s, but by the early 1800s members of Wilmington’s free black community achieved considerable home and property ownership and established a number of schools and churches. In 1827, the Wilmington Union Colonization Society petitioned the state assembly for a resolution to manumit slaves, provided they return to Africa, a measure deeply at odds with the city’s free blacks, who argued colonization ran counter to the nation’s founding principles. Wilmington also harbored considerable abolitionist sentiment and with its location less than ten miles from the Pennsylvania border served as the northeastern terminus for the Underground Railroad. Hardware purveyor Thomas Garrett (1789-1871) assisted Harriet Tubman (?-1913) on eight of her missions. Garrett’s covert activities eventually landed him in federal court, where in 1848, he was fined $5,400 for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. Other notable Wilmington abolitionists included shoemaker Abraham Doras Shadd (1801-82) and his daughter Mary Ann Shadd (1823-93), who used their homes to aid escaped slaves, as well as Samuel Burris (1808-68), who coordinated escape routes north into Philadelphia and out of Kent and Sussex Counties to the south. Although a slave state in 1860, with its citizens polarized by Northern and Southern sympathies, Delaware remained in the Union following the outbreak of the Civil War. During the conflict, Wilmington’s industries provided the Union Army with much-needed clothing, blankets, riverboats, rail cars, and artillery.

A Key Industrial Contributor

[caption id="attachment_34036" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the wilmington train station showing a three story clock tower, covered railway on the second story, and entrances on the ground floor. The Pennsylvania Railroad selected Wilmington as the site of a regional headquarters due to its location between Philadelphia and Washington, DC. In 1908, the company commissioned architect Frank Furness to design a new station on French Street, shown in this photograph from the 1970s. It still served as the city’s commuter rail station in 2019. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Despite competition from larger cities in the Northeast and Midwest, Wilmington’s productive capacity and population rose after 1865, making the city a key element in greater Philadelphia’s industrial network. Its yards and factories churned out carriages and rail cars, and by 1870, produced more iron ships than the rest of the nation’s facilities combined, earning the city the nickname “the American Clyde.” With such activity, the city’s population, which stood at 21,258 people at the onset of the Civil War, grew steadily, reaching nearly 77,000 by 1900. Newly arrived immigrants from Italy, Hungary, and Poland settled in neighborhoods on the edges of downtown or in low-lying, flood-prone areas along the Christina. Most lived in two- or three-story brick row houses, similar to those in Philadelphia and Camden, and found work in textiles or constructing the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad. However, fierce competition for jobs prompted the Wilmington City Council in the 1880s to temporarily prohibit Italian or Hungarian immigrants from employment on public works projects.

In the late nineteenth century, Wilmington confronted side effects from decades of industrial activity. The Brandywine River, the city’s main source of municipal water, became heavily polluted. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever occurred regularly in the 1870s and 1880s, prompting city officials to build reservoirs, a modern sewer system in 1890, and in 1909, Wilmington’s first water purification plant. In recognizing the ills of the industrial city, Wilmington’s elite removed to the suburbs, constructing mansions in areas such as Kentmere, Westover Hills, and Montchanin. Yet many prominent citizens such as U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Bayard (1828-98), William Poole Bancroft (1835-1928), Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), businessman John Jacob Raskob (1879-1950), and U.S. Sen. T. Coleman du Pont (1863-1930) donated influence, land, funding, or ingenuity to beautify Wilmington’s public spaces and improve its infrastructure. Bancroft, known as the godfather of Wilmington’s park system, at Bayard’s urging in 1889 bequeathed to the city acreage for both Rockford Park and Brandywine River Park; the former’s observation tower, built in 1901, became one of Wilmington’s most beloved landmarks. Pierre S. du Pont personally financed road improvements of Kennett Pike (State Route 52), and enlisted Raskob to redesign Rodney Square, the city’s main public square. In 1905, the Pennsylvania Railroad elevated its street-level tracks through Wilmington and retained architect Frank Furness (1839-1912) to design a new station.

[caption id="attachment_34027" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of the dupont building in Wilmington with a crowd of people standing in front. A banner in the foreground reads "St. Patricks Day" The Dupont Building, completed in 1923, occupies an entire block of downtown Wilmington. The multi-use tower houses the offices of Chemours Company—a DuPont derivative company— as well as the Hotel DuPont and the Playhouse on Rodney Square. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The Du Pont family also left an indelible architectural legacy in the city, opening the twelve-story Du Pont Building on Rodney Square in 1906 and the luxurious Hotel Du Pont in 1913. The hotel and its restaurant, the Green Room, remain two of Wilmington’s finest establishments. In 1924 the Du Pont Highway (US 13), personally financed by Pierre Du Pont, opened to vehicular traffic, allowing easier travel between the city and Delaware’s southern counties. Following the death of Wilmington-based artist Howard Pyle (1853-1911), friends, patrons, and former students honored his legacy by establishing the Wilmington Society for Fine Arts. The society later received the art collection of William’s brother Samuel Bancroft Jr. (1840-1915), who also donated eleven acres in Kentmere for the site of the Delaware Art Museum, which opened to the public in 1938. Decades later, artist Helen Farr Sloan (1911-2005) donated to the museum hundreds of paintings and prints executed by her husband John French Sloan (1871-1951), a member of the Philadelphia-founded Ashcan School; over time, her contributions amounted to the largest collection of his works held by a museum.

A Boost From World War I

In the 1910s, Pierre S. du Pont foresaw conflict in Europe, and in 1915 his company began supplying the Allies with armaments. By World War I’s conclusion, Du Pont had provided 40 percent of Allied explosives and seen its labor force increase dramatically, from 5,300 in 1914 to 48,000 four years later. The company’s regional footprint grew as well, as its facility in Carney’s Point, New Jersey, expanded and handled the bulk of wartime production. Hundreds of soldiers from Wilmington fought in the Battle of Argonne while thousands more at home participated in roadbuilding and maintenance work. The city’s shipyards supplied hundreds of submarine-chaser yachts and patrol craft. After the war, Du Pont reduced its munitions production and, aided by confiscated German research and patents, greatly expanded its production of chemicals, dyes, and cinematic film. Over time, this growth led Wilmingtonians to call Du Pont simply “the company.” Aiding the city’s postwar boom, in 1920 the Lobdell Car Wheel Company sold 101 acres of land to the city for the construction of modern port facilities. Two years later, the Port of Wilmington opened for commerce, exporting lumber, cork, burlap, lead, iron ore, fertilizer, and petroleum. As the 1920s drew to a close, Wilmington’s 110,000 residents enjoyed the prosperity seen elsewhere around the country, evident in its movie theaters, clothing stores, hotels and restaurants, sporting venues, and growing use of automobiles.

[caption id="attachment_34033" align="alignright" width="246"]A black and white photograph of Rockford tower, a tall cylindrical stone tower with a pyramidal roof. The upper floors are lined with arched windows. There is a sundial embedded in the stone below the windows. The tower stands in a park surrounded on two sides by trees, with a walking path leading towards it. Quaker industrialist William Bancroft, concerned with the disappearing green space in the city, bequeathed a large plot of land to the city which became Rockford Park. The park’s stone tower, shown in this photograph, became one of the city’s most beloved landmarks after its completion in 1901. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

During the Great Depression, Wilmington benefited from several New Deal projects overseen by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA). These included new public schools; road, sidewalk, and bridge improvements; upgraded dikes along the Christina River; and new buildings for the Wilmington Waterworks and the United States Postal Service. Located on Rodney Square, the Classical Revival-style post office opened in 1937 and contained murals designed by Albert Pels (1910-98) and Herman Zimmerman. As the nation plunged into World War II, Wilmington’s citizens and industries rushed to meet Allied demands. Thousands enlisted for military service. The New Castle County Airport shifted solely to military use. Iron founding, textile, and shipbuilding activity all increased dramatically as did the chemical and munitions output of the Du Pont, Hercules, and Atlas companies. Additionally, Du Pont engineers, working in Wilmington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington, played key roles in the Manhattan Project, the secret program to develop the atomic bomb.

Wilmington prospered after World War II. Du Pont increased its workforce by ten thousand in the early 1950s and over the next three decades pioneered advances in plastics, nylon, rayon, Kevlar, Tyvek, and several other chemicals and products that helped fuel the nation’s postwar consumption; the company even advertised its famous “nylon suites” at the Hotel du Pont. With thousands of new jobs in the area, housing developments appeared in suburbs such as Sherwood Park, Pike Creek, Duncan Woods, Talleyville, and Forest Hills Park. While railcar production declined sharply, automobile production emerged as the state’s largest industry, second only to Du Pont. Shifting to peacetime operations, General Motors opened its Wilmington plant in 1947 on Boxwood Road while Chrysler opened a plant in Newark in 1952. In 1957, construction commenced on Interstate 95, which passed directly through downtown Wilmington between Jackson and Adams Streets. The highway, which many neighborhood residents opposed, was completed in 1968 and over time, ferried commuters away from downtown businesses. To relieve traffic congestion, the Interstate 495 bypass, along the city’s eastern edge, opened in 1977. With suburbanization came new recreational opportunities such as the Concord Mall (1965), the Delcastle Sports Complex (1970), and the Christiana Mall (1978).

Rioting of 1968

Despite Wilmington’s prosperity, race relations remained fraught in the postwar decades. While local institutions such as Salesianum High School, the YMCA, and the Hotel Du Pont began integrating in the early 1950s, the fight to desegregate the city’s public schools did not end until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Wilmington’s schools complied with the decision later that year. In July 1967, civil disturbances in the city’s black neighborhoods prompted Mayor John E. Babiarz (1915-2004) to establish an evening curfew and temporary bans on liquor sales. Following the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68), three thousand National Guard troops arrived to quell ten days of widespread rioting and looting of downtown stores. Though Babiarz requested the troops be withdrawn after twenty-four days, Governor Charles L. Terry, Jr. (1900-70), a southern-style Democrat who won office on a platform of law and order, refused on the grounds of maintaining security and protecting property. The troops remained for nine months, leading to Terry’s reelection loss in November and marking the longest military occupation of an American city since the Civil War.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of Wilmington’s industrial interests contracted or relocated out of state. Its population dwindled. But the city entered a new phase. Du Pont, Hercules, and BASF continued to grow. Hercules, which spun off from Du Pont decades earlier, completed a 680,000-square-foot headquarters at the edge of the Midtown-Brandywine neighborhood—the state’s largest office building erected during the 1980s. Although Du Pont continued as the city’s largest employer, in September 2017 the storied company completed a $130 billion merger with Dow Chemical; by mid-2019, the newly formed conglomerate planned to break into three independent, publicly traded units. Beyond chemicals, Wilmington continued to diversify. In 1981, with the passage of the Financial Center Development Act, the state’s banking and tax laws were liberalized to attract outside investment. Banking giants such as Chase Manhattan, Bank of America, ING, MBNA, and Barclays opened offices as did pharmaceutical and telecommunications companies. By the 1990s, the city gained a somewhat dubious reputation as a base for “shell companies” suspected of avoiding government regulations and laundering foreign sources of income. These developments earned Wilmington yet another nickname, “corporate capital.”

Even with the influx of corporate investment, Wilmington faced other challenges in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the environmental cleanup of dozens of industrial sites, the disappearance of automobile manufacturing, and persistent inequality between the city and its suburbs. Decades of manufacturing led to a high concentration of Superfund and brownfield locations, with New Castle County alone containing more than several U.S. states. Many of the most contaminated, such as the Tybout’s Corner landfill, saw remediation completed by the early 2000s. One of the most successful brownfield projects, Justison Landing, was completed in 2005; once home to tanneries and shipyards, the thirty-three-acre site transformed into apartments, offices, restaurants, and a stadium for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a minor league baseball affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. In 2009, the last active car factory in the eastern U.S, Wilmington’s Boxwood Road GM plant, closed. As of 2019, with the plant demolished, plans included a new e-commerce facility on the site.

Demographic Shifts

Demographics in Wilmington shifted after 1990. The proportion of white residents fell from 40 to 28 percent by 2010, a period of steady gains in the African American population (which reached 58 percent) and Latino residents (12 percent). After the 2010 census, projections estimated Wilmington’s population growing by 0.4 per cent, far below the gains of Philadelphia. Although surrounded by affluent areas on its northern and western edges, in 2018 Wilmington had one of the nation’s highest murder rates and nearly half of its residents under age eighteen lived below the federal poverty line.

Throughout its nearly 350-year existence, Wilmington has mirrored the aspirations, tensions, and historical changes of the United States as a whole. Although never achieving the prominence of nearby Philadelphia or Baltimore to its south, the city at times exerted enormous influence for one of its comparatively smaller size. And despite the many challenges that Wilmington faced in the early twenty-first century, it still strived to be, as welcome signs at the city limits proclaimed, “a place to be somebody.”

Stephen Nepa teaches history at Temple University, Pennsylvania State University-Abington, Rowan University, and Moore College of Art and Design. He is a contributing author to numerous books and journals, and regularly appears in the Emmy Award-winning documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. He received his B.A and M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple. A native of Wilmington, he lives in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Contributionship

As North America’s longest continuously operating fire insurance company, The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire (The Contributionship) affected the physical and economic development of Philadelphia and the region while simultaneously establishing modern insurance underwriting standards. Through its insurance operations, The Contributionship promoted fire safety, lent money for home mortgages, and invested capital in business ventures.

[caption id="attachment_34128" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and whit photograph of a scroll of paper held on two wooden reels with cranks. The scroll has a list of signatures on it. The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss of Fire drafted by-laws based on those of the Amicable Contributors—a London-based insurance company—in 1752. Called the Deed of Settlement, the original document, shown in this 1926 photo, established a broad plan for operations. (Archive.org)[/caption]

Before The Contributionship, attempts to establish a property insurer either failed or stalled. The first effort to form an insurance company collapsed after a calamitous fire in Charleston in 1740 overwhelmed South Carolina’s Friendly Society for the Mutual Insuring of Houses against Fire only five years after its inception. A decade after this catastrophe, the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) in 1736 as an all-volunteer fire brigade, contemplated the next attempt at insurance coverage. The fire brigade’s members realized, however, that its small membership could not accumulate sufficient capital to fund the plan properly.

Despite abandoning its initial insurance plan in 1751, the Union Fire Company’s experiment introduced the idea of fire insurance to a wider network of prominent Philadelphians. During the early months of 1752, seventy-five of Philadelphia’s leading citizens subscribed to The Contributionship’s Deed of Settlement, or rules of operation, based on a similar framework for a London insurer, the Amicable Contributors. Following an advertisement in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, subscribers met at the Court House, then located at High (Market) and Second Streets, on April 13, 1752, to elect The Contributionship’s board of directors and first treasurer. Following this mutual commitment, The Contributionship formally incorporated in 1769 under existing Pennsylvania law.

Influence on Construction and Landscaping

The Contributionship intended to reduce fire hazards through its conservative rules of operation and, consequently, influenced Philadelphia’s future construction and landscaping. The company limited its business range to within a ten-mile radius of Philadelphia, but only upon an acceptable written survey of the risk. Additionally, The Contributionship charged higher premiums for homes with commercial storefronts, such as chemists and malthouses. After 1769, the company’s refusal to insure wooden properties affected building practices by encouraging brick structures. By 1781, The Contributionship ceased insuring properties with shade trees due to their potential as fuel for fire and the inability of fire equipment to reach higher than one story. This decision fanned a disagreement between the company and subscribers who wished to keep trees on their properties. Faced with the denial of insurance coverage, those subscribers organized a rival insurance company willing to accept their trees and named it the Mutual Assurance Company, commonly referred to as the Green Tree, in 1784.

As The Contributionship accumulated deposits from its subscribers for insurance coverage, the company considered how to employ these funds without risking the capital necessary for a fire loss. Within a year of commencing business, the company’s board of directors began lending its subscribers’ deposits for mortgages at a 6 percent rate and received permission in 1809 from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to invest in stock companies, such as the Bank of North America. By the early nineteenth century, The Contributionship’s assets grew modestly thanks to its conservative underwriting philosophy and the city’s enhanced ability to fight fires with a more reliable water supply and better equipment. With significantly increased assets by 1835, The Contributionship expanded its investments to include ventures such as the Schuylkill Navigation Company  and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Beyond financial investments, The Contributionship played an active civic role in the Philadelphia region. As early as 1754, it erected stone mile markers from Philadelphia to New Castle, Delaware, and to New York for use by travelers and surveyors. Naturally, The Contributionship also sought to reduce fire hazards by donating funds for chimney sweeping and new fire equipment for fire brigades in Philadelphia.

In 1836, Finally, a Headquarters

[caption id="attachment_33790" align="alignright" width="211"]a black and white photograph of a three story brick building with a columned portico over the entrance. The Contributionship commissioned renowned architect Thomas Ustick Walter to design this Greek Revival building for its headquarters, completed in 1836. The neighborhood around it soon housed several similar organizations and became known as “Insurance Row.” (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Due to its fitful growth and a limited number of full-time employees, The Contributionship did not need rented office space initially, operating instead primarily from the homes of its treasurers until the early 1800s. With growing assets, the company considered purchasing a building for its headquarters as early as 1816. Yet, The Contributionship moved slowly with this effort until 1835, when new leadership sought to modernize the company’s operations, including the establishment of a suitable headquarters. The company’s directors commissioned the esteemed Architect of the United States Capitol, Thomas U. Walter (1804-87), to design a permanent home worthy of the company’s ascendant status. Construction of Walter’s Greek Revival style building at 212 S. Fourth Street finished in 1836. The Contributionship strategically selected this property because of its proximity to businesses helpful to the conduct of insurance, such as banks and brokerage houses. Other insurance companies, including the Green Tree, noted the convenience of this area and also located around Walnut Street between Second and Sixth Streets, which eventually became known as “Insurance Row.” Named a National Historic Landmark in 1979, The Contributionship’s headquarters afforded its treasurers and their families living quarters until 1894.

From its new headquarters, The Contributionship flourished throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Although the company rescinded its ten-mile geographic range in 1836, the company operated solely in Pennsylvania. Despite large claims from fires in 1839 and 1850, the company was able to maintain steady coverage to its members thanks to its conservative underwriting practices. During the Civil War, The Contributionship wholeheartedly sided with the Union’s cause and, again, demonstrated its commitment to civic engagement by purchasing war loans from the Federal Government and the State of Pennsylvania and donating to the Volunteer Refreshment Saloon to boost the troops’ morale. Recognizing the danger of inadequate deposits, The Contributionship continued to resist paying dividends until 1894 when it bowed to pressure from protesting subscribers and paid dividends for the first time since 1763.

Catastrophic fires in the cities of Baltimore and San Francisco in 1904 and 1906, respectively, convinced The Contributionship’s leadership to reduce the number of insured buildings in concentrated neighborhoods and to build its financial reserves through an increase in rates. Despite the rate hike, the fear of such fires encouraged more Philadelphians to seek coverage and The Contributionship’s business increased notably. Although refusing to write car insurance, the company recognized the popularity of automobiles, and, in 1909, agreed to extend fire coverage to the growing number of garages housing them. The company remained solvent through the stock crash of 1929 despite the need to foreclose on some of its real estate holdings. In the late 1940s, the company began covering hazards beyond fire for the first time, and in the 1970s and 1980s the company expanded into all lines of insurance. It also invested in non-insurance services, such as residential security, affiliated with its core home-protection business. The Contributionship expanded into the New Jersey market by the late 1990s, spreading 50 percent of the company’s risk profile into that market by 2002.

Fire Marks, a Sign of Protection

[caption id="attachment_34127" align="alignright" width="250"]a color photograph of the Contributionship's fire mark, wooden shield with a bronze From its founding through the late nineteenth century, The Contributionship affixed these plaques to the exteriors of buildings they insured. The Contributionship’s emblem of four clasped hands, shown in this photograph, represented mutual support. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

An enduring symbol of The Contributionship has been its fire mark, which the company issued to all policyholders starting in 1752. The practice of affixing a fire mark to a home’s façade to identify what fire company or insurer protected the home originated in London in the seventeenth century and continued in the American colonies. The Contributionship’s fire mark, commonly called the Hand-in-Hand, consisted of four gilded hands, each clasping a wrist of another hand to create a square of hands, on a black shield. The symbolism of the clasped hands, also known as the fireman’s carry, represented mutual support and linked The Contributionship to its origins with the Union Fire Company and the Amicable Contributors. The Contributionship ceased issuing fire marks with the advent of Philadelphia’s municipal fire department in 1871, which answered fire calls regardless of the home’s owner or insurer. Nevertheless, The Contributionship’s fire marks, and those of other insurance companies, remained visible on homes in Philadelphia and assumed a decorative role.

Over more than 250 years of continuous operation, The Contributionship modernized and adapted to respond to its subscribers’ demands as well as changes in the marketplace. Risk-related premiums and well-timed rate adjustments, both up and down, maintained the company’s solvency against competition and through wars and economic downturns, assuring its place in Philadelphia’s history.

Timothy J. Potero is a practicing attorney and M.A. candidate in Rutgers-Camden’s public history program.

Danielle Lehr Schagrin

Danielle Lehr Schagrin is the former Education Program Coordinator at Pennsbury Manor, the reconstruction of William Penn’s country estate. She completed an internship with the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and holds an M.A. in History with a concentration in public history from Lehigh University.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum)

The Penn Museum—officially the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—originated in 1887 through the combined efforts of university scholars, administrators, and Philadelphia philanthropists. Created as part of a broader movement to expand, modernize, and professionalize the university, throughout its history the museum also performed a public role of bringing ancient and far away cultures to Philadelphia for both academic research and spectacular display. Although always an independent entity, the museum also served the mission of the affiliated university through its roles in scholarly innovation, collegiate education, and outreach to the public. In the twenty-first century, as museums and the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology became more critical about the ways they represented nonwhite and non-Western cultures, the Penn Museum reconsidered the form and content of its dual academic and public roles.

[caption id="attachment_33773" align="alignright" width="232"]A black and white portrait of William Platt Pepper University of Pennsylvania Provost William Platt Pepper, shown in this 1902 portrait, funded an expedition to the ancient city of Nippur conducted between 1889 and 1900. The artifacts recovered on this journey were displayed in the university library and formed the basis of the Penn Museum. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The idea for the museum originated in 1887, when John Punnett Peters (1852-1921), a professor of Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, persuaded University Provost William Pepper (1843-98) to fund an expedition to the Sumerian city of Nippur in modern-day Iraq. In agreeing to do so, Pepper stipulated that anything Peters collected would be held at the university in a new museum. The museum, the expedition, and the scholarship that resulted combined anthropology—the study of man, his origins, and the evolution of human culture—with archaeology, a field rooted in the search for evidence to verify Greek mythology, the Bible, and other founding myths of Western, Christian civilization.

The museum created to house the fruits of the Sumerian expedition and other collections had its first home in the Furness Library on the university’s new West Philadelphia campus from 1890 until 1899. It then moved to its permanent home in a stylishly eclectic building designed by a team led by Wilson Eyre (1858-1944). Although the university held the collections and faculty members often led expeditions, funding for the museum and its collecting efforts came primarily from independent groups like the Babylonian Exploration Fund, the Egypt Exploration Society, and the University Archaeological Association. These organizations were usually headed by prominent, wealthy Philadelphia philanthropists who continued to be a key source of income throughout the museum’s history.

Museum’s Dual Purposes

The institution’s original name, the Free Museum of Art and Science, reflected its interdisciplinarity and dual purposes. For researchers, the museum housed and displayed artifacts of human culture as scientific resources. At the time, anthropology and archaeology were not the interpretive, liberal arts fields that they later became, but were disciplines dedicated to systematic classification and scientific observation. However, while scholars and researchers used the collections for science, public displays also enriched the museum experience for visitors and allowed those who felt welcome to demonstrate their elite aesthetic taste. As was typical of endeavors in anthropology and archaeology, the museum sought to demonstrate both similarities and differences among diverse communities. Many cultures were collected under one roof, but their arrangement reinforced ideological hierarchies by presenting an inevitable march of human progress and creating contrasts between supposedly primitive crafts and civilized tastes. In Philadelphia, this was reflected in curatorial and architectural choices that saw ethnological artifacts collected from indigenous people arranged on the lowest floor and archaeological collections of Greek, Roman, and Babylonian civilizations on the floors above. It tied a literal, physical march from bottom to top to an intellectual and ideological one.

In 1913, the museum officially changed its name to the University Museum, a step in a gradual evolution of the institution’s relationship to the University of Pennsylvania and a sign of the shifting composition of the Board of Managers. The university always housed the collections, making them available to staff and students for teaching and research, but the museum operated independently. Curators and leaders of expeditions sometimes, but not always, had appointments as faculty members, and likewise the Department of Anthropology sometimes, but not always, operated out of the museum. Although officially separate, administrative control over museum matters like hiring and firing shifted to the university in the early twentieth century—coinciding with the name change. Financial contributions from the university began in the 1930s, and by the 1980s Penn exclusively appointed the museum’s Board of Overseers. While administrative and financial control shifted, the hybrid public-academic nature of the museum remained constant throughout its history..

[caption id="attachment_33772" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the main entrance of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The photograph is taken through the iron gates and shows a formal garden with hedge rows and a reflecting pond with a stone bench in the foreground. Cherry trees in bloom flanking the front door. The rapidly expanding museum collections necessitated the construction of a dedicated display space in the late 1890s. The new building, designed by a team led by architect Wilson Eyre, opened in 1899 and boasted gardens, artifact laboratories, and lecture spaces in addition to galleries. (Photograph by E. Mencher for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the first half of the twentieth century, as the museum and the fields of anthropology, ethnology, and archaeology grew, so did the museum. Ethnographic expeditions, excavations of ancient artifacts, and acquisitions through purchase grew the collections and programs of research and display. While the research had academic value, these exotic objects also came from areas of the world that were colonized by Western empires—and thus were embedded in problematic politics recognized only later by most American curators and scholars. Those politics periodically came to the fore, especially during the breakup of empires in the mid-twentieth century. In Latin America, where the museum conducted work throughout the twentieth century, local interest in heritage, tourist dollars, and the struggle for post-colonial power drove governments to control archaeological research more tightly over time. This impacted the intellectual trajectories of anthropology and archaeology, and it led expeditions like those of the University Museum to become somewhat more collaborative.

The Louis Shotridge Era

In the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most important curators at the museum—although never a professor at the university—was Louis Shotridge (1882-1935), a Tlingit Indian from the Pacific Northwest. Conducting salvage ethnographies, Shotridge collected and documented languages and traditions at risk of being destroyed by settler colonialism and government policies that criminalized indigenous culture and decimated native populations. On the one hand, Shotridge assured that some part of indigenous culture—in some cases his own culture—would survive. On the other hand, he knew the institution where he worked took sacred objects and sterilized them, that it interpreted indigenous people as primitive savages, and that it expected nonwhite scholars like himself to assimilate themselves and their scholarship into the authoritative voice of academic institutions.

After World War II, old tensions between white, Western scholars and post-colonial or third-world nations arose, but they were sometimes addressed in new ways. Research continued to be largely generated and validated by elite European and American institutions with systems of knowledge and hierarchical classification that changed little from the nineteenth century, but museums also became more dedicated to leaving artifacts in their places of origin so they might be interpreted and appreciated by the communities from which they came as well as being used in scholarship.

[caption id="attachment_33777" align="alignright" width="190"]A black and white photograph of Froelich G. Rainey standing in front of a colossal ancient bust of Ramses the second of Egypt. The statue wears a crown adorned with a rearing cobra. Anthropologist Froelich Gladstone Rainey served as director of the Penn Museum from 1947 to 1976. During his tenure the museum enacted the Pennsylvania Declaration, which condemned the purchase of artifacts without a pedigree and called for the return of looted items. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

At the same time, the black market for antiquities, fostered by the poverty of so-called third world nations and by the exploding value of artifacts in commercial markets, also challenged museums in the post-World War II era. In 1970, the University Museum under director Froelich Rainey (1907-92) influenced acquisitions policies throughout the museum field by issuing the Pennsylvania Declaration, which pledged to end the purchase of artifacts without “a pedigree—that is information about the different owners of the objects, place of origin, legality of export, and other data useful in each individual case." The statement called attention to the complex question of ownership: Was the object obtained “legally” or was there proof that it had been looted? Ultimately, in addition to restricting new acquisitions, the museum returned objects to countries including Italy, Turkey, and Peru. In 2008, the museum created the Penn Cultural Heritage Center to address related issues.

Repatriating Collected Objects

The U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) enacted in 1990 provided the most effective and widely enforced mechanism to address the concerns of indigenous people in the United States with regard to cultural heritage. For the University Museum, between 1990 and 2016, this federal law led to twenty-five tribes successfully filing claims to have human remains and other religious objects returned to them from the museum’s collections.

The University Museum—which by 1996 was rebranded as the Penn Museum to make its institutional affiliation clearer—also confronted the complex issues of who should tell the stories of objects on display. Historically, Western museums presented narratives of hierarchical evolution and inevitable progress that either demonstrated continuities between ancient and modern societies or juxtaposed “primitive” and “civilized” cultures in ways that justified colonialism and racism. By the twenty-first century, however, museums like Penn’s sought to generate more understanding and appreciation of diversity and inclusion even though white, Western academic standards of science and objectivity tended to remain the arbiters of knowledge and worth.

[caption id="attachment_33780" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a man holding a mask, which a young boy is painting. Another young boy stands nearby and watches. As attitudes towards other cultures shifted, the museum moved to incorporate Native American voices into its educational program. This 1972 photograph shows Jimmy Johnny, a representative from the Salish Tribe of British Columbia, teaching two boys how to paint a traditional Salish mask. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In 2014, a reimagining of the Penn Museum’s North American gallery caught up with trends toward sharing authority for exhibit development with indigenous people. “Native American Voices” challenged old, racist narratives by representing native people as alive and thriving while also acknowledging how American and European colonialism decimated these communities and their cultures. For this exhibit, museum curators consulted with indigenous leaders, which resulted in a richer, more multivocal, and inclusive exhibit. Nevertheless, the museum clearly retained authority.

Other exhibit strategies focused on bringing more diverse voices and more relevant themes into the museum’s interpretation of its archaeological collections. Reinstalled Middle East galleries opened in 2018 with a focus on urbanization, and plans called for future renovations, restorations, and reinstallations of the Africa and Mesoamerica galleries, the Harrison Auditorium, and the Egyptian wing. A Global Guides program, initiated in 2018, incorporated the varied perspectives of contemporary Philadelphians who were immigrants and refugees from the areas of ancient cities excavated by the museum. Plans for renovation of the museum’s 1899 building, scheduled to continue through 2021, sought to create an increasingly visitor-centered institution with improvements including climate control, better way-finding, and more elevators.

In the twenty-first century, the Penn Museum faced the challenge of how to use old collections, many of which were collected in exploitative, colonial contexts, to tell new stories that incorporated communities and perspectives that the museum historically marginalized. Although hindered by its own history and the colonial history of its disciplines, new strategies were making this museum more engaged, and visitorship, especially for special events that showcased diverse cultural traditions, reflected that. William Pepper’s idea to create a museum that served both the university and the people of Philadelphia was being realized in new ways for a new era. Indeed, the institution whose mission was to explore “the human story: who we are and where we come from” was gradually and powerfully beginning to reassess who we are, who gets to speak for us, and where we get to do so.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, lecturer, and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in Media and Cultural Studies from Northwestern University and now works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science and elsewhere.

Camden County, New Jersey

Formed in 1844 from parts of what had been Gloucester County since 1686, Camden County maintained throughout its history a prominent role in the greater Philadelphia region, sustaining its close association with the city of Philadelphia and serving a central role in the social and economic life of South Jersey. Always a diversified area, the county’s more rural areas to the east of Philadelphia suburbanized in the mid-twentieth century even as the county seat and historic county keystone, Camden City, fell in influence and power. By the early twenty-first century, despite considerable effort to reverse the trend, the county reflected every element of the modern balkanized metropolitan area: an impoverished urban core, fraying older suburban areas fringing Camden, and more-affluent outer suburbs.

Early settlement in the area that became Camden County stemmed from European competition to exploit the material resources of the region then designated as West Jersey. Although Swedes and the Dutch settled there first, the desire to be competitive spurred West Jersey’s British trustees, including William Penn (1644-1718), to sign a Concessions and Agreements document in 1677 granting assurances of religious freedom, equitable taxation, and representative government. Aimed at Quakers seeking refuge from persecution, the document induced the settlement of a contingent of migrants from Ireland, in an area known as the Irish Tenth, whose boundaries were contiguous with modern Camden County. Initially coexisting peacefully with native inhabitants, the Lenni Lenape, the European settlers over time displaced native inhabitants as trade and settlement grew in close association with the city of Philadelphia after its establishment in 1682.

[caption id="attachment_33786" align="alignright" width="250"]a colored map of Camden County in 1857 with major rail lines, turnpikes, cities, and townships marked. Camden County separated from Gloucester County in 1844 as the result of a contentious vote. The population of the county grew rapidly in this period and new municipalities formed as communities grew around desirable features like rivers (for milling) or railway stations. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

A ferry operating as early as 1688 provided the earliest means of communication and transportation between the two colonies on the Delaware River. Operated in its early years by members of the Cooper family, the area of modest settlement on the New Jersey side was known for nearly a century as Cooper’s Ferry. Under Jacob Cooper’s direction, an area of some one hundred acres built up with the intent of making the area Philadelphia’s most prominent suburb. Cooper named his project Camden Town, after Charles Pratt, First Earl of Camden, a British judge known for his defense of the American cause. The effort faltered but did not collapse during the American Revolution, when British troops occupying Philadelphia foraged the area for food and supplies.

Settlement took a big step forward when ambitious entrepreneurs based in Gloucester City laid out city streets in 1820, leading to the incorporation of Camden City in 1828. Early manufacturing plants along the Delaware River boosted the city’s standing and put it in competition with the Gloucester County seat at Woodbury for influence in the region. After rural interests succeeded in carving a new Atlantic County out of the eastern portions of Gloucester County in 1837, Camden enthusiasts pressed their own case for a new county. Divisions hardened, however, as political partisans fought for state as well as local control, and the creation of the new Camden County, finally, in 1844, was bitterly contested. A new courthouse designed by the noted Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan (1815-84) in 1853 signified the city’s stature, but it was Camden’s emergence as the heart of improved transportation networks, not politics, that explained its rise from a mere hamlet at the time of the Revolution to a city of 9,479, more than a third of the county’s population, at mid-century.

Transportation Networks

A number of entrepreneurs sought to build up rivals to Camden through development expected to follow from the establishment of turnpikes and railways. A number of these enterprises failed, including the Moorestown and Camden Turnpike, chartered in 1849 with the intent of boosting suburban development on the northeastern bank of Cooper’s Creek. More successful was the advent, in 1834, of the Camden and Amboy Railroad with connections to New York City, not just from southern New Jersey but also from Southeast Pennsylvania, for those traveling by ferry to Camden and then north. A second railroad, the Camden and Atlantic, organized in 1836, further enhanced the city as a transportation center, as area residents made their way to the Jersey Shore.

[caption id="attachment_33721" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield, a white Colonial-era three-story tavern with black window shutters. A wooden horse trough stands on the street in front. a hanging sign in the foreground reads "The Indian King". The Indian King Tavern, built in 1750, served as a business and political center for the growing village of Haddonfield. The New Jersey State Assembly endorsed the Declaration of Independence and the Great Seal of New Jersey in the tavern in 1777. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

As transportation corridors extended out from Camden at the core, trade picked up in older communities. Originally settled by Quakers seeking religious freedom in 1682, Gloustertown. rose from a tiny fishing village to become the center of local political and military organization in the years immediately before the American Revolution. Early manufacturing activity there was promising, but lack of a rail connections to Camden, until 1873, retarded growth, despite the area’s incorporation as Gloucester City in 1868. With that rail connection in place, the city grew by nearly 50 percent in the ensuing decade to 5,347 people. The area north of Camden also flourished with gristmills and sawmills established along the Pennsauken Creek in an area designated as Delaware Township. In 1854 a group of investors, seeking to capitalize on a proposed rail line passing through a cluster of country estates owned by Philadelphia dry goods merchants and known locally as Merchantville, laid out additional lots intended to spur growth. With the arrival of the Camden and Amboy in 1869 they realized returns on their investments, and in 1874 the tiny hamlet—at seven-tenths of a square mile—officially formed as Merchantville Borough, separating itself from Stockton Township, which had itself formed out of the north portion of Delaware Township in 1859. In 1892 another portion of Stockton, which had fostered its own industries, withdrew to form Pennsauken Township. Finally, in 1899 the city of Camden annexed the remaining part of what had once been Stockton Township.

Camden County grew steadily throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, rising fourfold from a population of 25,422 in 1850 to 107,643 in 1900. Even as rail connections prompted town growth along the Delaware River, railroads boosted suburban development to the east. The Camden and Atlantic line’s decision to locate a stop and telegraph station on Collins Farm Road in 1871 prompted local residents six years later to incorporate as Collingswood. Spurred by investments, including the creation of the 61-acre Knight Park, by Philadelphia import-export merchant and sugar refiner Edward Collings Knight (1813-92) and other Collings family members, the area realized its aspirations to form a desirable residential enclave. Describing itself as supporting “the clean, pure life essential to social advancement,” Collingswood was one of the first communities in New Jersey to elect to go dry under 1873 legislation that provided the local option to do so. Just to the east, Haddonfield, whose incorporation stretched back to 1701 and whose early history included the New Jersey legislature’s adoption of the state seal at the Indian King Tavern in 1777, also grew as a result of the arrival of the rail connection between Camden and Atlantic City that materialized in 1853. After investors with connections both to turnpikes and rail lines formed the Haddonfield Improvement Company to market building lots in the area, Haddonfield grew sufficiently to break away from Haddon Township to form its own borough, in 1875. Farther along the Camden and Atlantic City line, rail officials opened a station at Long-A-Coming, derived from the name used by Native Americans who used the Lonaconing Trail to describe the route that connected the Jersey Shore to the Delaware River. As the area grew, it assumed the new name of Berlin, not because it drew settlers from Germany, although Germans were among the railroad’s directors, but as a community specifically created for Philadelphia Germans seeking to escape nativist attacks farther along the line to Atlantic City, in Egg Harbor City.

[caption id="attachment_33722" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of the unfinished Ben Franklin bridge taken from the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River. The cables and pillars are completed but there are large gaps in the road bed.  In the foreground are several marinas and piers on the river. In the background is the skyline of the city of Camden. The Delaware River Bridge, renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 1955, connects Camden County to Philadelphia. Prior to its completion in 1926, Camden County residents relied on ferries to cross the Delaware River. This photo shows the bridge under construction in 1925. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The opening of the Delaware River (subsequently named Benjamin Franklin) Bridge in 1926 scrambled established transportation patterns for the region, forcing the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads to consolidate their once highly competitive rail connections between Camden and the Jersey Shore and spurring greater reliance on automobiles for travel. A grand boulevard connecting to the bridge, designed in the City Beautiful style and named in 1929 to honor Rear Admiral Henry Braid Wilson (1861-1954), a Camden native who served in the Spanish-American and First World Wars, was intended to bind Camden City to surrounding towns, even prompting the idea of consolidating city and suburbs. Such hopes were quickly dashed by established nearby towns protective of their independence, and outward movement of settlement as well as traffic remained modest through the Depression and war years. Indeed, it was largely the undeveloped character of Delaware Township, which hugged the extension of the Admiral Wilson, the Marlton Pike (Route 70), that drew investments for regional destinations. The Garden State Race Track, opened during World War II on previously foreclosed land, prompted a number of additional glitzy entertainment venues, including the Cherry Hill Inn on farmland purchased by the banker and racetrack owner Eugene Mori (1898-1975) and the luxurious Rickshaw Inn opposite the racetrack's main entry gate on Route 70, a local landmark marked by its plate-gold roof and Asian decor.

Employment Expands to the Suburbs

Until the mid-1950s, much of Delaware Township remained farmland, with the exception of a grouping of fine brick homes with generously proportioned lots and streets named for elite suburbs on Philadelphia's legendary Main Line in the town’s Colwick section. That changed in the mid-1950s, as developers carved out new neighborhoods laced with tract housing in much of the 24-square-mile township. The location of a new RCA electronics plant on a ridge known as Cherry Hill, on land sold by Mori as he sought tax relief, brought newcomers to the area, many of them engineers from New York, even as it marked a shift of resources out of Camden. Even more important, again at Eugene Mori’s instigation, the first enclosed regional mall on the East Coast opened on October 11, 1961. Designed by shopping center pioneer Victor Gruen (1903-80) and developed by James Rouse (1914-96), the Cherry Hill Mall was not responsible for the choice of the new name given the township the same year, but it helped establish Cherry Hill as a central destination for all county residents. By 1965, Cherry Hill’s assessed property value, up from $9.5 million in 1950 to $156.2 million, exceeded that of Camden, making it the richest community in the county and all of South Jersey.

Employment opportunities outside Camden also grew in Pennsauken, which boasted the region’s busiest airport during the 1930s, until larger planes required longer runways and air travel shifted to Philadelphia. Both before and after World War II, Pennsauken attracted companies like Kieckhefer Container, which established its business at what had once been a yacht club on the Delaware River, employing some six hundred workers throughout the 1930s, and Randall Manufacturing, the makers of plumbers’ enamelware, hired another five hundred. Nearby, Cities Service established refining facilities covering most of Petty’s Island. After the war, Pennsauken attracted a host of midsize companies to a newly established industrial park on the Delaware waterfront. Between 1958 and 1970 manufacturing jobs in Camden County outside the city increased from 6,184 to 21,316, a number on a par with Camden itself. Even as the city lost close to half its manufacturing base in the 1960s, suburban manufacturing employment increased at a rate of 85 percent.

Population Growth

Blessed with an array of housing options and employment opportunities, the suburbs boomed in the mid-1960s and afterwards. With a population of 255,727 in 1940, Camden County climbed to 392,035 twenty years later. It added another 64,000 people over the next decade, when growth slowed considerably. As Irish, Italian, and other white ethnic families made the transition from factory work to white-collar occupations in Philadelphia and Camden, they moved to new homes aimed at a burgeoning suburban middle class. In a conscious effort to protect the newly acquired benefits of suburban life, these towns introduced building restrictions, through practices that came to be called exclusionary zoning. In Delaware Township, Mayor Christian Weber and his colleagues altered the township’s zoning code to require larger lots, as Weber asserted, “there will be no row houses, twin houses or prefabricated homes in the township.” Similarly, Collingswood placed controls on garden apartments with the clear intention of keeping out renters who might prove a tax burden to the township. 

[caption id="attachment_33723" align="alignright" width="300"]an overhead simplified line drawing of the Yorkship Village neighborhood of Camden. Houses, streets, parks, and rivers are illustrated. World War I brought an influx of workers to the New York Shipbuilding Company in Camden. To accommodate them, the government-owned Emergency Fleet Corporation funded the construction of Yorkship Village, a planned community of 1,400 homes based on the garden city model. (The Architectural Forum via Google Books)[/caption]

Due to its close proximity to shipbuilding facilities on both sides of the Delaware River, Camden County became home to several distinctive planned communities during World Wars I and II. Seeking to alleviate a severe shortage of housing options for ship workers employed at Camden’s New York Ship facility, the U.S. Shipping Board’s Emergency Fleet Corporation designated 225 acres of farmland at the eastern edge of Camden to accommodate 1,400 new housing units. Laid out according to “Garden City” principles established by Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) in England in the early twentieth century, the new community allocated generous amounts of open space, including a central town square lined with shops, to support modest homes sited close to public ways with the intent of enhancing sociability among workers. Known originally as Yorkship Village, the area was annexed into Camden after World War I and subsequently became known as Fairview.

Several decades later, as another war approached, area planners utilized a new version of a planned community for war workers by laying out Audubon Park. Composed of some five hundred prefabricated units and supported by Camden #1, the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, Audubon Park operated according to a pioneer “mutual plan” under which residents bought shares in the mutual benefit company that owned the land. Designed by the prominent Philadelphia-based architect Oscar Stonorov (1905-70), who had been codesigner of Yorkship Village, Audubon Park combined elements of city density with easy access to the amenities of suburban life. Such could also be said of the second mutual home development in Camden County, Bellmawr Park, some five hundred units carved out of an estate dating back to the seventeenth century. Both projects were meant to house war workers with construction costs being provided by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration


[caption id="attachment_33720" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the Peter Mott House, a small white two-story house dating to the early nineteenth century. A white picket fence surrounds the grounds. A blue banner hangs on the fence marking the site as the home of the Lawnside historical society. Lawnside, a free black community, became a hub of the Underground Railroad in the years prior to the Civil War. African American preacher Peter Mott and his wife Elizabeth sheltered escaping slaves in their Lawnside home, which later became an Underground Railroad museum. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Historically, African Americans had lived throughout the county: in pockets of Camden, in an area of Cherry Hill known as Batesville separated from other settlements by a country road, in Haddonfield just off of the Haddonfield-Berlin Road, in Chesilhurst, and most visibly in the historically black town of Lawnside (originally known as Free Haven, then Snowhill when it was closely associated with Underground Railroad activity). Laid out initially in 1840 by Haddonfield Quaker and abolitionist Ralph Smith, the area offered small lots to free blacks at low cost. Incorporated in 1926, Lawnside became widely known as a rich source of black entertainment for the region as well as a thriving community of upwardly mobile residents.

Elsewhere, zoning restrictions, often combined with overt hostility, blocked Camden’s African American population, which reached a majority in the decade following civil disturbances that erupted in the city in 1971, from accessing homes in the suburbs. Housing choices in the 1970s and beyond thus became racially skewed in spite of the national fair housing legislation adopted in 1968. Spurred by discrimination in housing in Mount Laurel, just across the Camden County line in Burlington County, lawyers for plaintiffs seeking a zoning change to allow multiple-unit construction achieved a state supreme court ruling that every community should make available its “fair share” of affordable housing. While the ruling anticipated opening the suburbs to a broader class of residents, executing it proved difficult. Forty years after the first Mount Laurel ruling, Camden still had four times its share of affordable housing, while nearby communities Cherry Hill, Pennsauken, and Haddonfield fell well short of fulfilling their obligations.

Over time, suburban development shifted even farther east and away from Camden, a pattern evidenced especially in Voorhees, which came to be perceived as more exclusive than the once-premier destination of Cherry Hill. A town of just some 6,000 in 1970, Voorhees boomed following the opening in 1970 of the Echelon Mall, doubling its population the next decade and reaching a population of 28,000 by 2000, after which growth slowed considerably. Some former Camden residents who had settled along bus lines in nearby Pennsauken or the western portion of Cherry Hill in the 1960s chose to move farther out. As one sign of such decisions, the Beth El synagogue, which traced its origins as Camden’s first conservative congregation to 1920, moved first to Cherry Hill in 1967 and subsequently to Voorhees in 2009.

To the far east, Winslow Township, the largest jurisdiction in the county at fifty-eight square miles remained largely farm country for its eleven thousand residents as late as 1970. Nestled at the edge of the Pine Barrens, where environmental restrictions circumscribed growth, the township exploded in the 1980s as developers cleared land for larger, ex-urban homes that had come into demand. The area added another ten thousand residents each in the 1970s and 1980s, achieving a population of just under forty thousand in 2010. Connected both to the shore communities by the Atlantic City Expressway and other population centers to the north through Routes 30 and 73, Winslow offered a rare combination of easy access to employment as well as premier recreational and entertainment facilities.

Social Disparities

[caption id="attachment_33676" align="alignright" width="300"]a colored map of Camden County depicting the average median household income in the county's towns and cities While some areas of Camden County declined in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, others flourished. This map shows the lingering disparity of income between areas like Camden, which suffered deindustrialization and high crime rates, and Cherry Hill, which attracted businesses and wealthier residents. (Map by Michael Siegel for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Outward movement from Camden continued in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as black and Hispanic families followed the pattern of earlier outmigration, to the west sides of Cherry Hill and Collingswood and especially to Pennsauken. As the minority population grew there, and with it the number of children eligible for free school lunches, local residents seeking to incorporate newcomers while still hoping to moderate the pace of racial turnover persuaded town officials to establish a Stable Integration Review Board. Formed in the mid-1990s with the purpose of encouraging white residents to buy homes and stay put, the initiative drew support of both black and white residents. The effort, which lasted more than a decade, had limited effect, as by 2015 the white population had fallen from 55 percent in 2000 to under 20 percent. Meanwhile, the African American population increased to 33 percent and Hispanic to 49 percent.

As Camden County made the transition into the twenty-first century, it witnessed a number of initiatives aimed at achieving more balanced growth. When New Jersey took the extraordinary step of assuming day-to-day control of the city of Camden for seven years starting in 2002, it required the formation of a regional impact council aimed at stemming the spread out of Camden of problems such as crime and blight, while offering hope that the difficult issues of affordable housing might be taken up on a regional basis. Local officials only reluctantly formed a council composed of the mayors of nearby jurisdictions two years after it was mandated, and they failed to pursue its stated goals with any rigor. As a result, efforts to diversify the housing stock of communities outside Camden proceeded largely as a result of the threat if not actual exercise of court actions. More hopefully, Collingswood invested in multiunit developments near the PATCO Speedline into Philadelphia, thereby fulfilling the smart growth goals behind such transit planning. An effort to convert the deserted race track in Cherry Hill into a compact town center linking homes and apartments to shopping along Garden City ideals proved less successful, as resulting development created largely big box retail well beyond walking distance of residential construction.

As of 2010 Camden County’s relatively diverse population had reached 513,657: 65 percent white, 20 percent African American, 14 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian. The city of Camden remained the county’s largest entity, at 77,344, with Cherry Hill not far behind at 71, 045. Eighty-eight percent of county residents had completed high school, while more than 30 percent held a bachelor’s degree or higher.

[caption id="attachment_33785" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a line of men jogging on pavement in front of the Camden Police Academy. All of the men wear identical sweat suits except the instructor Recruits to the Camden Police Academy train with instructor Ed Borman in this photograph from 1972. In 2012, the county Board of Chosen Freeholders dissolved the Camden City Police Department and installed county police officers to patrol the city. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In its modern form, Camden County proved reliably Democratic, as evidenced by complete control of its chief county agency, the Board of Chosen Freeholders. A holdover from the colonial era, the Freeholders advanced some modern concepts, taking over the function of policing Camden in 2012 and advancing an ambitious building program through the Camden County Improvement Authority, including hospital and university construction projects and highway improvements. Figures associated with county politics, most notably South Jersey’s most prominent political broker, George Norcross (b. 1956), and his brother Donald (b. 1958), a state senator and subsequently Camden County’s congressional representative, parlayed a generous state incentives program to relocate businesses from different parts of the county into Camden. Facilitated by Republican governor Chris Christie (b. 1962), the reinvestment program did not immediately alter the high level of poverty in Camden, but it nonetheless altered Camden’s image as well as its skyline as a city rising. With affordable housing still largely concentrated in Camden, no one predicted a reversal of population outmigration from the city any time soon, leaving Camden County still racially and socially divided.

Howard Gillette Jr. is Professor Emeritus of History at Rutgers University-Camden and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Timothy J Potero

Timothy J. Potero is a practicing attorney and M.A. candidate in Rutgers-Camden’s Public History Program.

I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia

The expression “I’d rather be in Philadelphia” is derived from a fictional epitaph that locally-born entertainer W.C. Fields (1880-1946) proposed for himself in Vanity Fair magazine in 1925: “Here lies W.C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” By implying that Philadelphia would be slightly preferable to the grave, the joke tapped a vein of critical commentary about the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Variations of the witticism persisted in popular culture, but it did not ultimately find a place on the entertainer’s tomb.

[caption id="attachment_33544" align="alignright" width="234"]A black and white photograph of W. C. Fields, dressed in a full-length fur coat and bowler cap, shaking hands with Philip Goodman, who wears a long coat and cap and smokes a pipe. They stand on the deck of a ship. Philadelphia-born actor W. C. Fields, shown left in the 1920s with theater producer Philip Goodman, originated the phrase “I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” in a 1925 Vanity Fair article. The actor suggested the sardonic expression as an epitaph for himself. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Fields often lampooned Philadelphia, the boyhood hometown that he left to follow a career in show business. With the given name William Claude Dunkenfield (or Claude William, according to some sources), Fields was born in Darby, Delaware County, and grew up in a succession of rented row houses in West and North Philadelphia. After only a few years of school, he picked up odd jobs available to boys of his era: assisting in a cigar shop, hawking newspapers, delivering ice, shucking oysters, racking balls in billiard halls, peddling produce, and carrying cash between departments in the Strawbridge and Clothier store on Market Street. Frequently at odds with his father, he left home for at least a few months of his youth—a period he later embellished into tall tales of life on the streets as a vagabond.

Fields found his calling as an entertainer in Philadelphia’s theater district, which at the time thrived on North Eighth Street between Race and Vine. Captivated by the vaudeville shows of the 1890s, he taught himself to juggle and developed an act as “tramp juggler,” a silent hobo character who could adeptly toss cigar boxes, which became a hallmark of his act. After getting his start in venues like Natatorium Hall at Broad Street and Columbia Avenue, Plymouth Park near Norristown, and Fortescue’s Pier in Atlantic City, he attracted the notice of promoters of touring burlesque and vaudeville shows. With them, he performed nationally and internationally, gaining the skill and acclaim that led him to Broadway and the famed Ziegfeld Follies. The stage name he adopted, “W.C. Fields,” became his legal name in 1908. 

By the 1920s, when Vanity Fair published his imagined epitaph, Fields was transitioning from pantomime juggler to character actor, comedian, and storyteller, not only on stage but in the emerging mediums of radio and the movies. Barbs about Philadelphia became a common part of the act. “I once spent a year in Philadelphia,” he said. “I think it was on a Sunday.” Or, “Anyone found smiling after the curfew rang was liable to be arrested.” In a later feature film, My Little Chickadee (1940), a character played by Fields described his last wish: “I’d like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do.” His humor struck a chord among audiences accustomed to thinking of Philadelphia as sedate, old-fashioned, and corrupt—a perception that had been nurtured by such commentators as Charles Dickens (1812-70), who described the city as “rather dull and out of spirits”; Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936), who identified Philadelphia as “the most corrupt and the most contented” of cities; and Henry James (1843-1916), who referred to its “bourgeois blankness.”

[caption id="attachment_33546" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a billboard reading 'Philadelphia isn't as bad as philadelphians say it is." The billboard stands next to a highway. 1960s era vehicles pass by on the highway. Philadelphia’s tourist and marketing campaigns attempted to overcome the image of Philadelphia that Fields created in his work. This billboard stood on the Schuylkill Expressway near Conshohocken in the 1970s, serving as a humorous rebuttal to the city’s popular portrayal by local residents. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In later years, place-marketing and tourism promotion campaigns worked vigorously to counteract the image of Philadelphia embedded in Fields’ comedy. Still, variations of “I would rather be living in Philadelphia” persisted. While hospitalized in Washington after the 1981 assassination attempt on his life, President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) scribbled on a note, “All in all, I’d rather in be in Philadelphia.” Similar phrases cropped up in dialogue in the movie Die Hard (1988) and the television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993). “I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” served as a title for a 1983 compilation rock album, a 1993 mystery novel by Gillian Roberts, and a 2007 episode of the television series Gilmore Girls. On the internet in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the expression appeared frequently as a touchstone for bloggers and as the title for a Twitter feed.

The comedy of W.C. Fields, while not flattering to Philadelphia, contributed to the city’s place in American popular culture even after the entertainer left the city behind. After his death, the marker on his vault at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, bore the simple inscription: “W.C. Fields, 1880-1946.”

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Railroad Suburbs

As railroads reached outlying villages and the countryside around Philadelphia during the nineteenth century, railroad companies and other enterprising real estate developers created fashionable residential enclaves, new suburban towns, and vast semirural estates. These developments enabled prosperous Philadelphians to live apart from the city while still enjoying its amenities and maintaining their positions in the urban industries, businesses, and professions that produced their wealth. In the new railroad suburbs, local shopkeepers and service workers also helped sustain semirural living for the upper and middle classes. Although automobiles later changed commuting habits, the railroads and the suburbs that developed around their stations established a geography and social order that in many ways persisted into the twenty-first century.

[caption id="attachment_33022" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of the Ebenezer Maxwell House, a gothic revival mansion with stone facade, central turret, and mansard roof. An iron fence surrounds the property. Residents of the recently developed railroad suburbs built their homes in fashionable architectural styles to showcase their wealth. Merchant Ebenezer Maxwell built this Gothic Revival home, which still stands on West Tulpehocken Street, in 1859. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The region’s first railroad suburbs developed along the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad (the PGN), which introduced commuter trains running northwest from the city in 1832. Using steam locomotives, the PGN operated frequent passenger service along essentially the same routes later served by SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill East and Norristown regional rail lines. The commuter trains made Germantown, founded in 1683, a suburb connected with Philadelphia long before its consolidation into the city in 1854. By the late 1850s, in addition to its stock of colonial-era homes Germantown had a cluster of suburban villas in the neighborhood of West Walnut Lane and Greene and West Tulpehocken Streets. Farther northwest, a few commuters from Chestnut Hill connected to the PGN by stagecoach or carriage during the 1830s and 1840s, but after 1854 they could ride the new Chestnut Hill Railroad to Germantown. The construction of a new Episcopal Church, St. Paul’s (built 1856-61), signaled Chestnut Hill’s increasing status as a suburb for the elite.

As railroad commuting expanded during the later decades of the nineteenth century, it produced social and geographic segregation as upper and middle class families sought distance from the intensifying industrialization and high rates of immigration in Philadelphia and other American cities. The cost of rail fares initially put daily commuting by train out of reach for all but the wealthiest riders, while local streetcars and (later) buses remained the affordable options for others. Because rail fares varied by distance, inner suburbs like Germantown had more middle-class commuters than more distant, semirural idylls of the elite. Steam trains did not appeal to many middle-class commuters to Philadelphia because the locations of terminals on the periphery of the business district required an additional long walk or streetcar ride to get to work. Streetcars running into the central city from closer, newly developing areas of North and West Philadelphia offered more-direct access, as did the Delaware River ferries that connected with railroads serving South Jersey. This did not change until late in the nineteenth century, when the two major rail systems serving the city relocated their main facilities to Center City (the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station, built 1879-82, and the Reading Terminal, built 1891-93).

Similar Patterns Elsewhere

The development of railroad suburbs in the Philadelphia region resembled patterns of metropolitan expansion occurring around the same time along railroad lines radiating from other major cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago. During the 1850s, other Philadelphia-area railroads joined the PGN in offering commuter train services. The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad started publishing housing guides for its line through Delaware County, and the West Chester and Philadelphia touted its route for commuters between its namesake communities. In southern New Jersey, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad, which began service in 1854, led to residential growth in Haddonfield, and a group of Philadelphia merchants acquired land and developed Merchantville after the arrival of the Camden and Burlington Railroad in 1867-68. From these South Jersey suburbs, commuters traveled by rail to Camden and then crossed by ferry to the commercial center of Philadelphia east of Sixth Street.

[caption id="attachment_33031" align="alignright" width="246"]a black and white portrait of Anthony J. Drexel. Banker Anthony J. Drexel, shown here in the late nineteenth century, planned the suburb of Wayne, Pennsylvania, in collaboration with George W. Childs, his co-owner at the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Downtown Wayne centers on an 1884 Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line station, served in the twenty-first century by the SEPTA Paoli/Thorndale line. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

By the 1870s and 1880s, a period of transition for the railroads, some lines had few commuter trains but on others the service became quite intensive. For example, in 1876, the Chestnut Hill Branch of the Philadelphia & Reading (successor to the PGN) offered thirty daily round trips between Center City and Germantown and encouraged daily commuting by offering special low-fare trains. During the 1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad created havens for the elite along its Main Line, which extended west of Philadelphia through parts of Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, and spurred similar suburban development in Chestnut Hill. Developers of new suburbs also sought to appeal to the middle class, and the railroads offered incentives (such as free or discounted tickets) to encourage middle-class families to build houses along their lines. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s activity along its Main Line inspired the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad to develop a similar but more affordable planned suburb for the middle class, Ridley Park, simultaneously with the opening of a new line in 1870 through southeast Delaware County between Philadelphia and Chester. In response to the availability of rail service, Sharon Hill and Norwood also developed along the line. A new line of the Pennsylvania Railroad running from Philadelphia to Norristown and Reading, beginning in 1884, enticed real estate developers to buy up farmland to create the middle-class suburb of Cynwyd (formerly known as Academyville). Along the Main Line, during the 1880s the co-owners of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, George W. Childs (1829-94) and banker A.J. Drexel (1826-1893), developed the planned suburban community of Wayne. In South Jersey, beginning in 1885 local landholders near the Camden and Atlantic Railroad line sold building lots to create the new suburb of Collingswood. Around the same time, local entrepreneurs began to convert farmland into the new suburb of Haddon Heights and persuaded the Reading Railroad, owner of the Philadelphia and Atlantic City Railway, to establish a station to serve the community.

In the new railroad suburbs, buyers found large single-family and semidetached homes with expansive porches and yards, a distinctly different environment from Philadelphia’s row houses. Making these railroad suburbs attractive to these residents required not only countryside ambiance but also more infrastructure of the type available in the city, such as water systems and paved streets. The Pennsylvania Railroad acknowledged this in a 1916 brochure when it touted “the charm of this suburban life, with its pure air, pure water and healthful surroundings, combined with the educational advantages provided, churches, stores and excellent transit facilities to and from the city, is manifest.” Despite developers’ appeals to the middle and upper classes, however, the railroad suburbs were never solely the domain of the region’s wealthiest residents. Most evolved around or within existing communities with their own people and histories, and even the most luxurious suburban estates required a network of support from local businesses and service workers who lived close to the railroad stations in row houses or other modest homes. Starting in the 1890s, electrified streetcar lines also brought more class diversity to some of the same suburbs that had originated along the rail lines, including Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia and Merchantville and Collingswood in New Jersey. Transit fares held steady while working-class incomes rose, making more distant places affordable to a wider range of residents.

The Main Line Corridor

[caption id="attachment_33015" align="alignright" width="225"]A color photo of the Bryn Mawr Hotel, a stone and red brick hotel building in the Queen Anne Style with a prominent rotunda. The Bryn Mawr Hotel, constructed in 1872 and rebuilt in 1890, echoed the atmosphere of the elite seaside resort town of Cape May, New Jersey. Developers used community centerpieces like the hotel and new Welsh names to entice prospective buyers to villages along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s role in developing Philadelphia’s western suburbs originated from its purchase of farmland during the 1860s and 1870s in order to straighten the route of its Main Line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. With its expanded holdings within commuting distance of Philadelphia, the railroad developed a corridor of privilege from existing villages and the surrounding countryside. To increase the area’s appeal, the company gave Welsh and Scottish place names to towns that did not already have them: Athensville became Ardmore, for example, and Humphreysville became Bryn Mawr. To give prospective buyers an opportunity to become acquainted with the area, the railroad took its cue from the resort ambiance of Cape May, New Jersey, and built the Bryn Mawr Hotel (opened in 1872, rebuilt in 1890 and later home to the Baldwin School). Railroad executives led the way by building estate homes. Alexander Cassatt (1839-1906), later the Pennsylvania Railroad’s president, had a city residence on Rittenhouse Square, but in 1872 he began building Cheswold, a mansion set on fifty-four acres in Haverford. Leaders of Philadelphia business and industry followed, including department store partner Isaac Clothier (1837-1921), who built a castle called Ballytore in Wynnewood in 1885. Collectively, the communities and estates that developed around Pennsylvania Railroad stations from Overbrook west to Paoli became “the Main Line,” a name that became synonymous with upper-class living despite the continuing presence of other local residents as well as the businesses and domestic workers necessary to support a gracious lifestyle. Many of the massive estates later became home to religious orders, schools, or other institutions.

In Northwest Philadelphia, completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Chestnut Hill Branch in the early 1880s set off a new wave of suburban development west of Germantown Avenue. Henry Houston (1820-95), a member of the railroad’s board of directors with extensive land holdings in Northwest Philadelphia and adjacent Montgomery County, proposed the new rail line and then followed the pattern of the Main Line by beckoning elite residents to Chestnut Hill with amenities such as the Wissahickon Inn (1883, later the Chestnut Hill Academy), the Philadelphia Cricket Club (1883), and another Protestant Episcopal Church, St. Martin-in-the-Fields (1888). In his Wissahickon Heights development (later renamed St. Martin’s), he made homes available by lease. Houston’s son-in-law George Woodward (1863-1952) continued the family tradition and Chestnut Hill’s suburban evolution in the early twentieth century with picturesque developments such as French Village (1913), Linden Court (1915), and English Village (1925). Between Chestnut Hill and Germantown, in Mount Airy, the Drexel Company built the planned suburb of Pelham between 1895 and 1910.

[caption id="attachment_33033" align="alignright" width="300"]A color postcard of the Philadelphia Cricket Club's grounds and clubhouse. Construction of the Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1883 helped cement Chestnut Hill’s image as an exclusive retreat for the wealthy. By this time, both the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads operated competing lines from Center City to the area. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the golden age of railroad suburbs, from the 1880s through the 1910s, more than one thousand daily trains served hundreds of stations in and around Philadelphia. The combination of railroad and streetcar suburbs brought population growth to Philadelphia’s suburbs. The population of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, doubled between 1870 and 1920 while Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Camden County, New Jersey, quadrupled during the same period. Most early growth took place within about an eight-mile radius of the city, because of both travel time and the distance-based railroad fares. Bedroom communities within this range included Bala, Cynwyd, Darby, Jenkintown, Lansdowne, and Narberth in Pennsylvania; and Audubon, Bellmawr, Collingswood, Haddon Heights, Haddonfield, Magnolia, Runnemede, Westmount, and Westville in New Jersey.

Autos Begin to Erode Rail Demand

By the 1920s, automobiles and buses came into the suburban transportation mix and railroad suburbs, although still located on train lines, no longer depended on the rails to link them to the city and neighboring communities. In New Jersey, the 1926 opening of the Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) also hastened the shift from rail to automobile commuting. As passengers left the trains, the railroads eliminated or cut back service on many lines, although the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads invested in electric trains and often increased services between 1915 and 1933. After World War II, as automobile ownership and suburban bus service increased, and by the 1960s, the once-dominant railroads wanted to discontinue their money-losing commuter trains. In Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia and then the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) intervened in the 1950s and 1960s, and by 1983, SEPTA had taken over the remaining trains. For the New Jersey suburbs, the Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) between Philadelphia and Lindenwold took the place of earlier rail systems in 1969. New Jersey Transit’s River Line began operating between Camden and Trenton in 2004. In the automobile age, some railroad suburbs retained their appeal as fashionable enclaves while others transitioned into neighborhoods of large houses divided into cheap apartments.

In the early-twenty-first century, although most people living in Philadelphia’s railroad suburbs did not use the trains to go to work, the old commuter lines still affected the social geography of the region because the road system largely followed those lines. With the exception of a handful of edge cities like King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, much of Philadelphia’s suburban development followed the old railroad lines. In 2017, SEPTA and PATCO trains still carried more than 156,000 daily riders, including not only suburban dwellers but also working-class and lower-middle-class reverse commuters traveling to jobs in the suburbs. Along the tracks, railroad stations and homes built by the enterprising developers of the nineteenth century survived as visible reminders of the origins of the railroad suburbs.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. John Hepp is Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global Cultures at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He teaches urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the middle classes in the period 1800 to 1940.

Historic Preservation

Through more than three centuries of building and rebuilding settlements, towns, and cities, the region centered on Philadelphia and spanning southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and northern Delaware became a living museum of American architectural history. The fate of structures ranging from log cabins and colonial mansions to courthouses, warehouses, and the famed Independence Hall often depended on changing economic circumstances in communities or happenstances of care or neglect by property owners. However, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries an organized preservation movement emerged locally and across the nation. By the twenty-first century, layers of local, state, and federal law supported historic preservation, but controversy could flare when plans for new development came into conflict with desires to protect buildings regarded as significant representations of the past.

[caption id="attachment_33252" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of Independence Hall Independence Hall escaped demolition in 1816 when the city purchased it from the state, which planned to sell the land as building lots. The campaign to save and restore the building, originally the Pennsylvania State House, was the earliest recorded historic preservation effort in the United States. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

As early as 1748, the Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm (1716-79) noted during his travels that Philadelphians were preserving an aging house—identified only as “the Swanson house”—as a reminder of the city’s earlier settlers. But in the colonial and early national eras, in a region with a growing population and high demand for residential and commercial structures, sentiment seldom saved old buildings from being replaced with new ones. Memories of streetscapes and landscapes were more likely to be preserved through works of art, such as the prints of William Russell Birch (1755-1834) published in the 1790s or the illustrations in Annals of Philadelphia, by New Jersey native John Fanning Watson (1779-1860), published in various editions beginning in 1830. In Delaware, a street survey by architect Robert Mills (1781-1855), Survey of New Castle, documented that town’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings in 1805. Colonial-era structures that survived into the nineteenth century did so as a byproduct of durability or continuing use, which preserved architectural legacies such as the pattern-brick houses of southern New Jersey. Northwest of the original limits of Philadelphia, mansions remained standing as a result of the city’s purchase of country estates in the early nineteenth century to create Fairmount Park. Farther out, mansions in Germantown passed down in families for generations. Throughout the region, the most substantial homes built of stone or brick had the highest rates of survival.

The slow emergence of interest in historic preservation can be charted by the treatment of Independence Hall, originally the Pennsylvania State House (built beginning in 1732). Pennsylvanians demonstrated a lack of interest in preservation when, in 1781, they demolished the building’s original wood steeple after it became unstable. In 1813, the state also demolished the original arched piazzas and wing buildings that flanked the central structure and replaced them with rows of fireproof office buildings. Around the same time, descendants of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) also allowed his Franklin Court home and property to be demolished and redeveloped into building lots.

Preserving the Old State House

Regard for the old State House as a physical reminder of the past changed with the passage of time, especially as the American Revolution began to fade from lived experience into historical memory. In 1816, long after the Pennsylvania capital moved west to Lancaster and then to Harrisburg, Philadelphians mobilized to purchase the old State House and its square as city property rather than see the state carry out plans to sell them off for building lots. City officials had practical as well as historical motives, given the building’s use as a polling place for local elections and the value of a healthful open square in the increasingly congested city. Still, their action marked the first documented act of historic preservation in the United States. In 1828, when the Philadelphia City Councils authorized reconstructing the State House steeple to house a new clock and bell, they insisted that the architect William Strickland (1788-1854) revise his designs to replicate the original as closely as possible. Nearby, in the 1850s the Carpenters’ Company also preserved its headquarters, Carpenters’ Hall (built 1770), the meeting place of the First Continental Congress.

[caption id="attachment_33057" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the Indian King Tavern, a white two-story building with a three-story attachment. The second floor has a row of windows with black shutters. A wooden horse trough is on the sidewalk in front. New Jersey’s State Assembly officially adopted the Declaration of Independence at the Indian King Tavern in 1777. In 1903, the tavern became the state’s first government-owned historic site. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Historic preservation during the nineteenth century focused primarily on high-style buildings, especially residences associated with prominent individuals. In Philadelphia and the surrounding region, where George Washington (1732-99) slept, worked, and led armies into battle, some of these efforts drew inspiration from the 1850s campaign to save Mount Vernon, Washington’s Virginia home—a project generally regarded as the birth of the historic preservation movement in the United States. The Colonial Revival, an embrace of colonial-era aesthetics that emerged around the time of the 1876 Centennial, also inspired preservation campaigns. In the subsequent decades, in an era of when increasing immigration and industrialization seemed to undermine older social and economic orders, historical societies, patriotic organizations, and state governments took steps to safeguard sites of early American history. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state appointed a Valley Forge Park Commission in 1893, and in New Jersey, the state made the Indian King Tavern (built c. 1750) in Haddonfield its first government-owned historic site in 1903. The first preservation organization in Delaware, the Friends of Old Drawyers, formed in 1895 to save the Presbyterian church by that name (built c. 1773) in New Castle County.

[caption id="attachment_33027" align="alignright" width="201"]a black and white portrait of Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, seated in a white lace dress. A rolled up poster or magazine is tucked under her arm. Women spearheaded many preservation projects in the twentieth century as a way to participate in the public and civic realms. Suffragist Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, pictured in The Women Citizen in 1919, saved the Old Delaware State House from demolition in 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Often, leaders of preservation projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could trace their own ancestry to the era of colonial settlement or the American Revolution. And like the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in Virginia, women often led local efforts to preserve or restore historic homes. During the second half of the nineteenth century, women organized to save the Valley Forge home that served as Washington’s headquarters during the 1777-78 encampment of the Continental Army. Ancestral societies such as the Colonial Dames of America prevented demolition and preserved historic houses such as Stenton (built 1720s), the Germantown country home of colonial leader James Logan (1674-1751). The Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1890s took the lead in renovating the second floor of Independence Hall to reestablish a colonial ambience, and in Delaware Mabel Lloyd Ridgely (1872-1962) saved her state’s old State House (built 1787-91) from demolition in 1912. Later, in the twentieth century, the Colonial Dames of New Jersey took charge of the preserving and conserving Peachfield, a Burlington County estate dating to 1674, and the 1759 “Old Schoolhouse” in Mount Holly.

Period Rooms in Museums

While some colonial houses converted into museums, the interiors of others became museum pieces as appreciation for colonial-era aesthetics led art museum curators to install period rooms stripped from actual colonial-era houses. Thus, in 1918 the interior of a room from the Philadelphia home of Mayor Samuel Powel (1738-93, home built 1765) came to be preserved in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Interiors from other parts of the country, especially from the South, came to Delaware for the collections of Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), who created the Winterthur Museum showcase of American decorative arts. The museum became a point of pilgrimage for preservationists, and du Pont and his sister Louise du Point Crowninshield (1877-1958) became early leaders in organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, founded in 1949. In the same era at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), the architecture and preservation authority who served as director for nearly three decades, oversaw the installation of period rooms as well as restorations of mansions in Fairmount Park.

Historic preservation gained momentum among professional architects and citizen activists during the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. New Castle, Delaware, became a destination for architects seeking to learn from the surviving colonial-era buildings of the town founded by the Dutch in 1651, where William Penn (1644-1718) first landed in America in 1682. Preservation in the riverfront town gained momentum during the 1920s and 1930s as individuals and groups purchased and restored structures including the building known as the “Dutch House” (c. 1690-1710), the Amstel House (c. 1738), and the George Read House (1797-1803).

[caption id="attachment_33025" align="alignright" width="255"]A black and white photograph of Frances Wister standing before a plaque celebrating the founders and architects of the Academy of Music. A wreath of evergreen leaves Frances Wister devoted most of her life to the preservation of Philadelphia’s historic landmarks and homes, including those belonging to her own extended family. This photo shows Wister in 1924 after a successful battle to save the Academy of Music. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Preservation activity also responded to industrial and commercial growth, which produced a new generation of buildings overshadowing and sometimes threatening structures of earlier times. Organizations formed for the specific purpose of historic preservation, especially in the oldest sections of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, founded under the leadership of Frances Wister (1874-1956) in 1931, saved the colonial-era Powel House at 244 S. Third Street from demolition. The society later extended its protection to the Hill-Physick House (built 1786) nearby on Fourth Street; Grumblethorpe (built 1744), the Wister family home in Germantown; and Waynesborough (built 1724), the birthplace of Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne (1745-96), in Chester County. Inspired by the Landmarks Society, residents of Elfreth’s Alley took steps to preserve their little colonial-era street near the Delaware River between Arch and Race Streets, which unlike other nearby structures had been spared during construction of the Delaware River Bridge (opened in 1926, later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge). Another group, An Organization for the Conservation of Historic Sites in Old Philadelphia, evolved from a committee of the Sons of the Revolution under the leadership of Judge Edwin O. Lewis (1879-1974). In 1942, Lewis and other prominent Philadelphians founded the Independence Hall Association, which successfully lobbied the state and federal governments to create expanded parks around Independence Hall (ironically spurring widespread demolition of nineteenth-century structures during the 1950s to showcase buildings associated with the nation’s founding). The authorization of Independence National Historical Park in 1948 brought a new cadre of National Park Service professionals to town, among them the nationally known preservation architect Charles E. Peterson (1906-2004), who took an active role in revitalizing the Center City neighborhood that became known as Society Hill.

Post-World War II Preservation

[caption id="attachment_33054" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a line of three- or four-story row homes on the 600 block of Spruce Street, Philadelphia. Thousands of historic homes in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia escaped the wrecking ball in the 1950s and ’60s when urban renewal efforts were causing widespread demolitions nearby. The homes on the 600 block of Spruce Street remain largely unchanged from this 1957 photograph. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

New fuel for the historic preservation movement arrived after World War II as urban renewal and the construction of interstate highways led to widespread demolition of aging urban neighborhoods in the Philadelphia region and elsewhere. In reaction, interest in preservation expanded beyond colonial-era buildings associated with famous people to encompass a wider range of time periods and building types. Philadelphia became one of the first cities in the nation to establish a Historical Commission, created by ordinance in 1955 and given the power to certify properties as historic, thereby adding protections against alterations or demolition. In Society Hill, Philadelphia departed from urban renewal through wholesale demolition and pioneered an approach of selectively preserving and restoring colonial-era buildings. The neighborhood, which had deteriorated into slum conditions by the middle of the twentieth century, transformed into a showcase, although gentrified by homeowners who were younger, wealthier, and more likely to be white than earlier occupants. In Germantown, a citizens group called Colonial Germantown Inc. (formed in 1956) adopted a similar strategy of combining historic preservation with development.

Elsewhere in Philadelphia and in other cities in the region, widespread demolition remained the rule. Proposals for new highways spurred movements to preserve communities that risked being displaced. Residents of the South Street corridor in Philadelphia successfully mobilized against a planned Crosstown Expressway during the 1960s, but Chinatown lost its battle against the Vine Street Expressway in the 1970s. The construction of I-95 during the 1960s and 1970s separated most of Philadelphia from its historic waterfront and wiped out late nineteenth-century neighborhoods in Wilmington, Delaware, where most traces of eighteenth-century life had already been erased by urban renewal. The Delaware Historical Society saved some of Wilmington’s early buildings by moving them, forming the Willingtown Square collection of eighteenth-century buildings in 1976.

In the face of continuing threats to historic resources, federal law during the 1960s and 1970s opened a new era in preservation, with significant impact in Philadelphia and the surrounding region. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 established a National Register of Historic Places, which necessitated state-level review of nominations. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware all established historic preservation offices to review proposals for the Register and offer technical assistance. In addition to individual buildings, historic districts and sites likely to hold archaeological resources could be nominated for the National Register. Properties at least fifty years old could be listed, setting a new threshold for defining sites as “historic” to encompass not only the distant past but also parts of the twentieth century. The law’s Section 106 also called for assessing impacts on historic resources prior to federally funded projects, a requirement that spurred creation of local consulting firms employing preservation architects, historians, and archaeologists. Their work produced new knowledge and documentation for sites such as the First African Baptist Church Burial Ground at Eighth and Vine Streets in Philadelphia, excavated during the 1980s and 1990s in connection with projects adjacent to the Vine Street Expressway.

Tax Incentives for Preservation

Further impact in the region followed the Tax Reform Act of 1976, which created the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program. Federal tax credits proved to be enticing to developers and transformational in local neighborhoods like Old City in Philadelphia, where developers rehabilitated and adapted former factories, warehouses, and office buildings. The new purposes for these structures, many from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ranged from affordable housing for seniors to high-end apartment buildings that developers later converted to condominiums. Following the federal government’s lead, Pennsylvania and Delaware enacted state-level tax credits for preservation.

With designations for the National Register of Historic Places largely honorary, legal protections for historic buildings required additional support and regulation at the state and local level. In the region around Philadelphia, New Jersey went farthest in creating an infrastructure for historic preservation, establishing the New Jersey Historic Trust (1967), a Historic Sites Council (1967), and a New Jersey Register of Historic Places (1970). In 1971, Haddonfield became the first municipality in the state to adopt a historic preservation ordinance, and many others followed after 1986, when an amendment to the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law included provisions encouraging local historic preservation ordinances. Despite preservation successes in many communities, however, destruction of notable New Jersey buildings occurred in the service of redevelopment and with support of state government agencies. For example, the state overruled a 2007 decision by the Historic Sites Council to prevent demolition of the 1927 Sears Roebuck building in Camden, setting the stage for a five-year court battle by local activists that ultimately failed. Demolition followed, clearing the site to become a corporate campus for Campbell’s Soup and Subaru International. In 2017, the New Jersey Department of Transportation bulldozed the Hugg-Harrison-Glover House (built 1764) in Bellmawr in the midst of a vigorous preservation campaign by the Camden County Historical Society.

[caption id="attachment_33253" align="alignright" width="297"]A black and white photograph of the facade of the Boyd Theater, a 1920s-era Art Deco style movie palace. The facade is of carved white granite and an ornate entryway frames a central ticket booth. A large vertical sign on the front reads "BOYD" and a marquee advertises "Theodore Dreisers Novel Jennie Gerhart" and "Sylvia Sidney in Jennie Gerhart". A banner beneath the marquee reads "Its Cool Inside!" The recent popularity of historic preservation projects and a long battle waged by preservationists could not save the Boyd Theater’s 1928 Art Deco interior from destruction. In 2014, the Philadelphia Historical Commission approved demolition on the basis of the financial hardship of the owner. (Phillyhistory.org)[/caption]

In Pennsylvania, relatively few municipalities established local governance over historic preservation through two available programs, the state-level Act 167 for certifying local historic districts and the zoning provisions of the Municipalities Planning Code. Momentum for historic preservation depended heavily on activism by nongovernmental organizations such as the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation (founded 1979) and Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (founded 1982), which merged in 1996 to form the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. Even in Philadelphia, with an established Historical Commission, failures to establish local certification for structures on the National Register left historic properties at risk, as illustrated in 2016-18 by plans to add a high-rise apartment building towering over nineteenth-century Jewelers Row. In 2014, Philadelphia preservationists also lost a hard-fought battle to preserve the Boyd Theater (built 1928), an Art Deco movie palace at Nineteenth and Chestnut Streets that the Historical Commission allowed to be demolished on the basis of financial hardship of the owner. By 2017, the apparent weaknesses in Philadelphia’s historic preservation policies prompted Mayor Jim Kenney (b. 1958) to appoint a task force to recommend improvements.

By the twenty-first century, advocates for historic preservation emphasized not only aesthetics and historic values but also economic benefits, such as the role of preservation in supporting the heritage tourism industry. Preservation advocates stressed both the cost savings and the environmental benefits of rehabilitating structures over scrapping them to build anew. The pressures of development remained among the chief challenges to historic preservation, not only in cities but also in rapidly changing rural areas. Meanwhile, climate change raised new concerns as rising sea levels began to impact shore areas of New Jersey and Delaware, floods occurred more often in historic riverside communities in Pennsylvania, and high-intensity storms increased in frequency. In all three states, preservation agencies struggled to rebound from funding and staff cuts imposed during the economic recession that began in 2008. Across the region, preservation activists developed action plans for the long term, and fought battles where necessary, to assure a future for the material remains of the past.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Center City

Forming a core of civic, commercial, and residential life since Philadelphia’s seventeenth-century founding, Center City has been a continually evolving experiment in urban living and management. The roughly rectangular area of about 2.3 square miles between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, from Vine Street to South Street, occupies the territory of the original 1682 city plan for Philadelphia. Once a forested expanse with hills, ponds, and streams, the land between the rivers transformed over time into a populated grid where residential and commercial interests jostled, shifted, and spread from east to west to fill in the footprint of “the city proper.” Rivers, roads, and later railroads, public transit, and highways linked the city with the wider region, making the urban core a hub for people, culture, and commerce—but also making it possible for residents and businesses to move to outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. In the twentieth century, new generations of city planners mobilized to combat the effects of suburbanization and revitalize Center City as a place where residents and visitors could live, work, and play.

[caption id="attachment_33037" align="alignright" width="300"]A simple line map of the Center City grid plan with land allotments, roads, and public squares marked This map, drawn by surveyor Thomas Holme and published in London in 1683, is the original plan for Philadelphia. William Penn hoped that development would occur along both the Schuylkill and Delaware River waterfronts and High (Market) Street, leaving plenty of open space. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Surveyor Thomas Holme (1624-95) and founder William Penn (1644-1718) conceived the idea for a gridded city punctuated by garden squares in the 1680s. They drew inspiration from baroque town planning, post-Great London fire (1666) concerns for city health, desires to compensate initial investors in Pennsylvania with land, and personal preferences of Penn and early interest groups such as the Free Society of Traders. The plan drawn by Holme intended settlement to occur on both the Schuylkill and Delaware waterfronts and along the main streets of High (later Market) and Broad. After the first printing of the plan in 1683, the river-to-river grid appeared prominently on maps of Pennsylvania, but creating a city in the image of Penn and Holme’s plan required nearly two centuries of clearing trees, leveling land, extending streets, and building upon the grid.

[caption id="attachment_33093" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph depicting a modern-day Elfreth's Alley. Center City's little streets, like Elfreth's Alley in this 2013 photograph, developed as Philadelphians subdivided the spacious lots imagined by the original city plan. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by Jamie Castagnoli)[/caption]

Early settlement focused on the Delaware waterfront, which became the main site of commercial and residential building and growth during the colonial era. While property at the city plan’s western edge, on the Schuylkill, remained relatively open with scattered farms and industrial workshops, the Delaware riverfront grew with wharves, warehouses, churches, taverns, and houses. Settlement hugged the Delaware shore in a semi-crescent shape, most densely along High Street and thinning to the north and south. More and more residents clustered into the area by subdividing lots. Residences of the most prosperous Philadelphians faced the main streets while smaller houses on back alleys and courts filled with laborers and the poor. Instead of civic buildings on a center square, as Penn and Holme had planned, by the 1720s a town hall and Quaker meetinghouse anchored the city at Second and High Streets. Construction of the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in the 1730s pulled the city westward to around Fifth Street, but as late as the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) received advice to rent quarters east of Seventh Street because “so few houses” stood farther west.

Port of Commerce and Entry

The port on the Delaware, ferries from New Jersey, and roads radiating outward into Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland enabled people and goods to move in and out of the compact city. Throughout the colonial era English, Irish, Scots-Irish, Welsh, German, and free and enslaved people of African heritage came through the port of Philadelphia to build and settle the city and surrounding region, which had been occupied earlier by Native American camps and Swedish settlements. From nearby hinterlands and across the Delaware River from New Jersey, agricultural products came to the High Street market and shipped out to other colonies and the world. The presence of the market, which extended to the west as the city grew, gave High Street of the original city plan a new name: Market Street (informally at first, made official in 1858).

[caption id="attachment_33039" align="alignright" width="300"]An illustration of a large crowd of men in front of Independence Hall on election day in 1815. American flags fly prominently from several buildings. This scene by John Lewis Krimmel shows an election day crowd in 1815, with a steeple-less State House (Independence Hall) in the background and Congress Hall, seat of the United States Congress from 1790 to 1800, in the foreground. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The settled area of the city extended to Seventh Street by 1790, and by 1800 the forest had been cleared from river to river. In the decades following the American Revolution, as property values closest to commercial High Street increased, the settled area of Philadelphia became more segregated by economic status. The laboring class and the poor migrated in greater concentrations to low-rent districts at the southern and northern fringe, including a notoriously bawdy area known as “Helltown” north of Arch Street between Third Street and the Delaware River. Beginning in the 1790s and continuing into the early nineteenth century, a significant free African American neighborhood grew at Sixth and Lombard Streets, around Mother Bethel AME Church. African Americans also clustered in the area north of Arch Street and west of Fourth. A German neighborhood formed on the city’s northern border, and French immigrants who arrived during the French and Haitian revolutions opened businesses in the vicinity of Second and Walnut.

[caption id="attachment_33017" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white engraving of a crowd of revelers at Center Square, now Penn Square, Philadelphia in 1819. Different tents on the grounds feature musicians, games, and groups of women. Two uniformed soldiers stand arm in arm together in the front center. There are American flags and a portrait of George Washington displayed. A round pump house stands in the background surrounded by a marching band. Previous to City Hall, the land at Center (or Centre) Square most notably acted as home to a pump house designed by the architect Benjamin Latrobe that stood from 1801 to 1829, supplying water to the city via a gravity-fed system from the Schuylkill. This 1819 sketch by John Lewis Krimmel uses the square and its pump house as the setting for a raucous Fourth of July celebration. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century made choices that imposed order and shaped the look and feel of the city proper for centuries to come. In 1795, city officials banned wood-frame buildings from inside the city limits, which assured that the fine rows of new homes built in the early decades of the nineteenth century would be made of red brick, often with marble-front raised basements and steps. The city government also looked back to the original city plan to guide improvements of the neglected public squares. Between 1801 and 1829 the center square, which Penn and Holme had intended for public buildings, became home to a neoclassical pump house that architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) designed to supply water to the city via a gravity-fed system from the Schuylkill. In 1825 the City Councils gave the squares new names that imprinted history in the landscape: Washington (for the southeast square), Franklin (northeast), Rittenhouse (southwest), Logan (northwest), and Penn (in the center). Washington and Franklin squares transformed during the 1820s and 1830s from neglected plots and sometime burial grounds into landscaped parks. Rittenhouse and Logan squares similarly improved during the 1840s and 1850s, as the population spread west. Rittenhouse Square became an especially prime address as lands west of Broad Street began to fill with row houses, new houses of worship, schools, and businesses during the 1850s and 1860s.

Expansion on the Waterfront and Inland

While residents and businesses planted new structures across the width of the grid, earlier settled blocks churned with changing purposes and redevelopment. The Merchants Exchange completed in 1834 at Third and Walnut Streets signaled the continuing importance of maritime commerce, as did the 1830s rebuilding of a warehouse district on Front Street north of Market Street and the creation of the waterfront Delaware Avenue, funded by a bequest of merchant Stephen Girard (1750-1831). However, businesses also moved inland from the waterfront and formed specialized clusters for banking, insurance, and publishing. In the oldest sections of the city proper, many colonial-era homes survived but deteriorated into subdivided multiple-family dwellings or industrial workshops. Homes associated with the nation’s founders gave way to commercial buildings on High Street, and factories replaced brick houses on Arch and Cherry Streets. Philadelphians built over cemeteries and turned streams into underground sewers.

[caption id="attachment_33038" align="alignright" width="300"]A map of the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia as it appeared in 1857, rendered in color. Dense residential housing is visible primarily between the Delaware River and Broad Street, while the area from Broad street to the Schuylkill River is dominated by industrial buildings and open space. This map, drawn in 1857 from the west bank of the Schuylkill River, shows how Center City began to expand in the nineteenth century. Industry started to take root on the Schuylkill waterfront, but population and commercial districts were still largely concentrated east of Broad Street. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The relationship of the city proper with outlying areas changed fundamentally from the 1830s through the 1850s, first with the expansion of public transportation networks and then with the Consolidation Act of 1854. Railroads, omnibuses, and horse-drawn streetcars allowed increasing numbers of Philadelphians to move beyond the boundaries of the original “walking city.” The Consolidation Act extended the city’s boundaries to encompass all of Philadelphia County, but in doing so it reduced the old city proper into a nameless section of a larger whole. “Old city proper” lingered as a name for the central city, remaining in use as late as the 1920s. However, by the late nineteenth and early centuries “center city” (or “centre city”) appeared frequently in newspaper advertisements for real estate and employment, suggesting a widespread understanding of the phrase as a designation for Philadelphia’s downtown. During the 1920s and 1930s, Center City (sometimes capitalized and sometimes not) became more common as a place name in advertising, in the names of buildings, and in city government communication. Thereafter, embraced by city planners as well as organizations such as the Center City Residents Association (formed in 1947), Center City dominated as the name for the old city proper.

Following consolidation, Philadelphians made another pivotal decision for the future shape and functions of the central city when they selected Penn (or Center) Square, the site Penn and Holme had intended for public buildings, as the location for a new City Hall. The site at Broad and Market Streets, determined by referendum in 1870 after years of debate, followed the westward trend of the city away from the traditional home of municipal government on Independence Square. By the time voters chose Penn Square over Washington Square, substantial development had occurred on Broad Street, including construction of the Academy of Music (opened in 1857) and fine hotels on South Broad and development of business and industry to the north. Anticipation of the new City Hall, which took form between 1871 and 1901, spurred additional nearby development. The Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading Railroad opened massive new stations on Market Street flanking Penn Square (Broad Street Station, built 1880-82 and expanded 1892-94 at Fifteenth Street, and the Reading Terminal, built 1891-93 at Twelfth Street). Adding to Broad Street’s status as a cultural corridor, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts moved to its new building designed by Frank Furness (1839-1912) in 1876. The same year, as Philadelphia celebrated the nation’s centennial, John Wanamaker (1838-1922) opened his “Grand Depot” store in the former Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Depot at Thirteenth and Market Street, heralding an era when large department stores drew crowds of shoppers from the city and surrounding areas to an increasingly bustling and diverse downtown.

Immigrant Settlement in Older Areas

[caption id="attachment_33020" align="alignright" width="235"]A color photograph of the Friendship Gate, a colorful traditional Chinese gateway ornamented with golden dragons. Chinese language characters are painted in red on a white background. They translate to read the words "Philadelphia Chinatown". The Friendship Gate at Tenth and Arch Streets has been a major landmark of the Chinatown district of Center City since its construction in the 1980s. Urban renewal plans have targeted Chinatown for redevelopment multiple times, leading residents to form strong opposition groups. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Older blocks continued to lose their cachet but served as points of entry for immigrants and other new arrivals to Philadelphia. Beginning in the 1870s, a Chinatown began to form in the 900 block of Race Street as Chinese merchants and laundrymen migrated to Philadelphia from the West Coast. With few options, the Chinese created their community in the midst of a vice district known as the Tenderloin, north of Race Street between Sixth and Thirteenth Streets. In the remnants of the colonial city near the Delaware River, refugees from pogroms in Russia created a Jewish Quarter beginning in the 1880s. African Americans migrating from the South to escape repressive Jim Crow conditions extended the historically black neighborhood around Mother Bethel AME Church westward toward Broad Street and beyond.

In the northwest quadrant of Center City, meanwhile, the new City Hall helped to fuel imagination of a grand new boulevard extending northwest to link the center of the city with Fairmount Park. Plans formed slowly but came to fruition with the opening of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1918. The civic improvement gave Philadelphia an expansive new avenue in the style of Paris and spurred development of a new cultural district around Logan Square (which became a traffic circle). In the process, the city demolished 1,300 residential and industrial properties but spared the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, which had faced Logan Square since 1846.

Although the urban core remained in part residential, by the early the twentieth century commerce and culture firmly dominated the landscape and the skyline. The central city reached new heights not only with the 548-foot tower of City Hall but also with the advent of skyscrapers, starting with the Land Title Building at Broad and Chestnut Streets (fifteen stories built 1897-98; twenty-two story addition built 1902). The combination of railroad stations, cultural institutions, department stores, and other businesses anchored Center City as a hub for commercial and cultural life, including conventions that filled Broad Street hotels. At the same time, a greater variety of residents gained the option of commuting from outlying areas on electrified streetcars (introduced in the 1890s), the Market-Frankford Subway-Elevated Line (built 1903-8, extended to Frankford in 1922), and the Broad Street Subway (1928-32). Motor vehicles added flexibility of travel and the option of driving to New Jersey over Philadelphia’s first bridge over the Delaware River, the Delaware River Bridge (opened in 1926 and renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 1955).

Restructuring in the Twentieth Century

[caption id="attachment_33026" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of three men in suits. The two men on the left are presenting a plaque to Edmund Bacon, who stands to the right of them. Urban renewal efforts in the mid-twentieth century targeted areas of Center City deemed “blighted.” Edmund “Ed” Bacon spearheaded many of these campaigns as the president of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970. He is shown (right) receiving an award from the Center City Business Men’s Association in 1962. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

As the region became more suburban from the late nineteenth into the twentieth century, Center City felt the impact. By the 1950s and 1960s, urban reformers focused their attention on areas of poverty and “blight” along the Delaware waterfront and in nearby neighborhoods. Pointing to areas that had “changed over the years from aesthetic assets to eyesores,” the Philadelphia Planning Commission led by Edmund Bacon (1910-2005), the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (established 1945), and the Olde Philadelphia Development Corporation (1956) spearheaded massive restructuring plans for Center City that involved redeveloping areas perceived as slums and adding infrastructure. Catering to car culture, highways created new boundaries and connections for Center City. Construction of I-95 along the Delaware waterfront in the 1960s linked Philadelphia to the Northeast Corridor but largely cut off the city from its formerly bustling harbor. On the other side of town, the Schuylkill Expressway reached completion in 1958. Planners also sought to improve movement of automobile traffic across the city with new expressways along the northern and southern boundaries of the old city proper. They succeeded in implementing the Vine Street Expressway, over strong opposition from residents of Chinatown, but could not overcome neighborhood resistance to a planned Crosstown Expressway along South Street.

In Center City, redevelopment sought to compete with the appeal of suburbia with a new mix of residential, recreational, and commercial space, including high-rise apartment buildings and the suburban-style Gallery shopping mall on Market Street. West of City Hall, the Penn Center complex of office buildings rose in the corridor where an aging viaduct known as the “Chinese Wall” had carried trains into the old Broad Street Station. Around Independence Hall, historical parks managed by the state and federal governments replaced blocks of commercial buildings. South of Independence Hall, by removing and resettling predominantly ethnic and poor residents, then preserving and restoring the best of their colonial-era homes, urban renewal transformed the old Jewish Quarter into upscale Society Hill. In addition to the urban pioneers who bought and rehabilitated the houses of Society Hill, residents added new vitality to other Center City neighborhoods, for example creating a “Gayborhood” in the vicinity of Thirteenth and Locust Street and an arts community in the abandoned factory lofts east of Third Street and north of Market.

The High-Rise Boom

[caption id="attachment_33019" align="alignright" width="233"]A color photograph of Philadelphia city Hall from South broad Street looking north. The building has a prominent tower with an illuminated clock face, topped with a dome and a statue of William Penn. Philadelphia’s City Hall was constructed between 1871 and 1901 on Center (Penn) Square. A “gentleman’s agreement” prevented construction of any building taller than the 37-foot bronze statue of William Penn on the central tower. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The continuing revitalization of Center City as a mix of residential and commercial historic ambiance and new development built upon these twentieth-century projects. Beginning in 1976, federal tax credits for historic preservation spurred creation of a new supply of luxury apartments through adaptive reuse of old hotels, factories, and office buildings. A boom in skyscraper construction west of Broad Street occurred after 1987, when One Liberty Place broke a longstanding but unofficial practice of respecting the William Penn statue atop City Hall as the highest point in the city. Other skyscrapers followed, with Comcast surpassing all others for height with its fifty-seven-story headquarters built in 2008 and again with its sixty-story Technology and Innovation Center built between 2014 and 2018. East of Market Street, after retailing suffered the failures and consolidations of department stores, the onetime showcase urban shopping mall, the Gallery, itself became the site of redevelopment into a retail-entertainment complex to be called Fashion District Philadelphia.

In an era of industrial decline, Center City anchored a tourism industry that became increasingly important to the region’s economy. Promoters showcased the birthplace of a nation with museums and historic sites like Independence National Historical Park as well as yearly attractions such as the Mummers Parade, an abundance of public art, and a thriving dining and entertainment scene. To compete for conventions as well as recreational travelers, the Pennsylvania Convention Center opened in 1993, taking up the whole of four city blocks between Arch and Race Streets from Eleventh Street to Thirteenth (then more than doubling in square footage with an extension to Broad Street in the 2010s). Redevelopment in service to tourism also occurred in Independence National Historical Park, which gained a block-long visitor center, an expanded exhibit hall for the Liberty Bell, and the National Constitution Center, and nearby a Museum of the American Revolution.

Stewards of Philadelphia’s Center City, like those in other American cities, grappled with the challenge of preserving the past while ensuring a secure future for the city and its residents. Beginning in 1991, the Center City District—a business improvement district—supplemented city services to improve quality of life with initiatives ranging from street cleaning to development of Dilworth Park adjacent to City Hall and Sister Cities Park on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. By the early decades of the twenty-first century, new attention turned toward reintegrating the Delaware River waterfront into the urban grid, and the Schuylkill River Trail opened on the western edge of the original city plan. By 2017, an estimated 190,000 of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents lived in Center City and adjacent blocks north to Girard Avenue and south to Tasker Street, including a high concentration of young professionals and increasing numbers of older residents relocating from the suburbs. In a city of many neighborhoods, Center City remained a heart of political and cultural activity and a visible expression of Philadelphia’s growth and change—not only a geographic location, but a signpost of urban vitality.

Catharine Dann Roeber is associate professor of decorative arts and material culture at the University of Delaware and the author of the PhD dissertation Building and Planting: Material Culture, Memory, and the Making of William Penn’s Pennsylvania, completed at the College of William and Mary in 2011. Charlene Mires is professor of history at Rutgers-Camden and editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.


Avenue of the Arts


Fitler Square


Logan Square

Old City

Rittenhouse Square

Society Hill

South Street

Washington Square

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