Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

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Saws and Saw Making

Philadelphia ranked as one of the nation’s foremost saw manufacturing centers for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Large-scale saw making began locally in the early nineteenth century, and by midcentury a number of major saw manufacturers operated in the city, including the world’s largest, Henry Disston’s Keystone Saw Works. Disston created a unique company town around his saw works and joined other industrialists in making Philadelphia one of the world’s premiere manufacturing cities. Saw making remained strong through the mid-twentieth century, after which it went into decline, part of a broader deindustrialization of the region.

[caption id="attachment_31883" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows a factory worker wearing goggles and pressing a metal saw blade against a spinning wheel to smooth out one side. Saw makers must ensure that one side of the tool is sharpened while the other remains smooth. In this 1939 photograph, a Disston & Sons worker uses a spinning wheel to smoothen a group of saw blades. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Saw making required a particularly high level of craftsmanship. Few artisans in early America possessed the technical skills needed to produce a quality saw with the right proportions of strength, flexibility, and smoothness of surface. As a result, most saws were imported. The few saw makers in the Philadelphia region in the eighteenth century included English immigrant Isaac Harrow (?–c. 1745), who advertised in 1734 that he had set up a plating and blade mill in Trenton, New Jersey, to make a wide range of tools and utensils, including saws; John Harper, who had a saw-making shop at Sixth and Cherry Streets in Philadelphia in the early 1790s and one in Trenton in 1795, but who was most notable for doing some of the earliest work for the United States Mint; and English immigrant Francis Mason (d. 1802), who first appeared in a 1799 Philadelphia directory as a saw maker on South Fifth Street and who advertised frequently in local newspapers for a few years until his death.

Philadelphia’s first successful large-scale saw manufacturer was William Rowland (1780–1857), who first appeared in a city directory as a saw maker on High (later Market) Street, near Fifth Street, in 1804. He may have previously apprenticed to Francis Mason; he appears to have occupied the same location as Mason, and in 1806 he advertised himself as “Successor of Francis Mason.” While several sources erroneously credit Rowland as America’s first saw manufacturer, more accurately, he established the nation’s first large-scale, long-running saw factory. By the 1820s Rowland had moved to Filbert Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets, where he employed twenty workers and made saws that the Franklin Institute recognized for their excellence. In 1845 Rowland began making his own steel, and by the mid-1850s he had fifty workers and was producing two hundred saws daily.

Many Small Saw-Making Shops

[caption id="attachment_31881" align="alignright" width="292"]This black and white illustration shows saw manufacturer Henry Disston. He is framed within the shape of a saw and his signature is shown directly below him. Henry Disston was one of Philadelphia’s leading saw makers throughout the mid- to late nineteenth century. By the Civil War, his Keystone Saw Works had become the largest saw manufacturer in the United States. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Rowland was one of several major saw manufacturers in Philadelphia in the mid-nineteenth century. An 1844 city directory listed twenty saw makers. Most had small shops, but within a decade a few had grown into large operations. They originally concentrated in the highly industrialized downtown area north of Market Street and east of Eighth Street, although most eventually moved to larger quarters elsewhere. Among the saw makers who opened small shops in this part of the city in the 1840s and became major manufacturers by the 1850s were Henry Disston (1819–78), who in 1840 opened a shop on Bread Street near Second and Arch Streets that later became the Keystone Saw Works; Charles Johnson (d. 1852) and William Conaway (b. 1822), who formed a partnership in 1846 that became the Union Saw & Tool Manufactory at Fourth and Cherry Streets; and Walter Cresson (1815–93), who began making saws in the late 1840s and had a shop on Commerce Street (a small street just above Market) between Fourth and Fifth Streets. In 1850 Cresson opened a saw factory on the Schuylkill River in Conshohocken, Montgomery County, while also keeping his Old City location. One of Cresson’s chief saw makers, Irish immigrant William McNiece (1844–1904), left Cresson’s employ in 1863 and with a partner established the company that became the Excelsior Saw Works at Fifth and Cherry Streets.

[caption id="attachment_31879" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photo shows a close-up of three blades from a large Disston Company saw. This 1923 photograph provides a close-up view of a 108-inch Disston circular saw, one of the largest ever made. The Disston company seal is visible above the middle blade. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Of these leading mid-nineteenth-century Philadelphia saw makers, one—Henry Disston—emerged as the most successful, building his Keystone Saw Works into a massive enterprise that became the largest saw manufacturer in the world. Born in England, Disston came to Philadelphia with his father at age thirteen. His father died three days after arriving, however, and Henry eventually apprenticed with a local saw maker. After opening his own shop in the downtown industrial area in 1840, he moved a few times before settling in 1846 at Front and Laurel Streets in Northern Liberties, where his business prospered. A gifted mechanical engineer with an unwavering commitment to quality, Disston developed several new products and techniques in saw manufacturing, including introducing the first crucible steelmaking process in the nation in 1855. Disston actively recruited skilled workers from England’s famed Sheffield metal-working district; many of his key employees were immigrants from this area.

By the Civil War, Disston’s Keystone Saw Works had become the largest saw manufacturer in the United States, employing over 150 workers in four buildings totaling twenty thousand square feet of space. He grew his business by acquiring many of the region’s other saw manufacturers, including William Conaway’s Union Saw & Tool Manufactory in 1857, Walter Cresson’s saw works in 1865, and the successor company to William Rowland’s Saw Works in 1870. By this time, Disston had outgrown his Northern Liberties location. To accommodate his expanding operation, he purchased a large tract of land along the Delaware River in Tacony and began moving the company there in 1872.

Disston’s Huge Complex

The Disston saw works in Tacony grew to be an enormous, sprawling complex. To provide a safe, family-centered environment for his employees, Henry and his wife, Mary (1822–95), created the Disston Estate, a 158-acre tract in Tacony west of the industrial area that they designated as a residential community. The company also made a wide range of other tools, mostly notably files, which it produced in the millions annually. Within the Estate, separated from the industrial section by railroad tracks, the Disstons provided affordable housing for company workers, offering quality homes for sale or rent at reasonable prices. They also placed deed restrictions on land sold within the Estate to prohibit the sale of alcohol and the operation of factories, slaughterhouses, or other activities that would compromise the residential character of the neighborhood. (The prohibition on the sale of alcohol within the Disston Estate was upheld after a legal battle in the 1990s and remained in effect in the early twenty-first century.) Of an estimated 2,500 company towns established in the nineteenth-century United States, the only other paternalistic town of this nature within an urban area was George Pullman’s (1831–97) community in Chicago. The National Park Service designated both the Pullman District and the Disston Estate as National Historic Districts, the latter in 2016.

[caption id="attachment_31882" align="alignright" width="285"]This black and white photo shows a factory worker bending a metal saw blade to ensure its sturdiness before shipment. In this 1939 photograph, a Disston & Sons factory worker performs final sturdiness tests on a group of saws before they are shipped to buyers. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

By 1909 the Disston company occupied fifty-seven buildings on fifty acres. Its four thousand workers produced nine million saws annually, from traditional handsaws used by carpenters and do-it-yourselfers to huge circular and band saws employed by the lumber industry and in industrial settings. The company also made a wide range of other tools, mostly notably files, which it produced in the millions annually.

While Disston sold its products worldwide and dominated the industry, a few smaller companies in the greater Philadelphia area made saws in the early twentieth century.  The American Saw Company in Trenton, New Jersey, manufactured saws and other tools and employed fifty workers in 1901. The Alston Saw & Steel Company in Folcroft, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, specialized in making hack saws in the 1910s.

Henry Disston died in 1878 and did not live to see the vision for his company or community come to full fruition. His widow managed the Estate, while his sons and grandsons ran the company, which they incorporated as Henry Disston & Sons in 1886. It remained a profitable family-run firm until the mid-twentieth century, when, like many of Philadelphia’s heavy industries, it began to experience serious business challenges. In 1955 family members sold the firm to H. K. Porter, Inc., a holding company that largely broke up the enterprise, closing or relocating various departments and significantly reducing its scale of operations. After several subsequent ownership changes, the company continued operating, at a greatly reduced scale, at the Tacony plant into the early twenty-first century. Known as Disston Precision, in the late 2010s it employed a few dozen workers who made precision saw blades, custom metal plates, and other specialty items, using both century-old machines still in place at the plant and modern computer-driven equipment. Disston remained the only major manufacturer from Philadelphia’s late nineteenth and early twentieth-century industrial heyday still in operation in the city.

Jack McCarthy is an archivist and historian who specializes in three areas of Philadelphia history: music, business and industry, and Northeast Philadelphia. He regularly writes, lectures, and gives tours on these subjects. His book In the Cradle of Industry and Liberty: A History of Manufacturing in Philadelphia was published in 2016 and he curated the 2017–18 exhibit Risk & Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia for the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. He serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mann Music Center and directs a project for Jazz Bridge entitled Documenting & Interpreting the Philly Jazz Legacy, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Community Colleges

Two-year, public colleges—commonly known as community colleges—first appeared in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Situated at the intersection of secondary and higher education, they were local institutions that offered both general studies and vocational training. Referred to as junior colleges before the 1950s, they owed their inspiration to Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), whose idea for a “Publick Academy” in Philadelphia derived from his belief that education should be both academic and utilitarian. Franklin’s academy soon became the University of Pennsylvania, but its figurative descendant, the community college, did not become a fixture in the Greater Philadelphia area until the second half of the twentieth century.

Founded in 1901, Joliet Junior College in Illinois was the first two-year, public college serving a local community. It had more than eighty public and private counterparts across the country within two decades, most often in states with strong systems of public higher education. None were in the Greater Philadelphia area. The number skyrocketed over the next twenty years, however, reaching 456 by 1940 with combined enrollment approaching 150,000 students. About 18 percent of the nation’s undergraduates at that time studied in two-year institutions, almost two-thirds of them in public junior colleges. Despite such impressive growth, however, the two-year college struggled to carve out a distinctive place for itself in the American educational system. Was it an extension of high school, an introduction to college, or something else?  Should its students expect to pass directly into the workplace upon graduation or continue their formal education?  

In the 1930s most two-year colleges in the United States had no home of their own; public school districts provided them instructional and administrative space. In 1932 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recommended that the two-year college be recognized as the capstone of public education. But because the high school was well on its way to becoming a mass institution by then, some educators and policy makers thought that two-year, public institutions of post-secondary education deserved to have their own place in the American educational system. A special commission established by President Harry Truman (1884-1972) in 1946 endorsed this idea. Proposing that they be called community rather than junior colleges, the commission argued that they could help fight the Cold War by bringing higher education to a wide audience at the local level. But what should such institutions teach? Some favored general education for all, but most adopted a diversified curriculum for academic and social sorting and tracking.

1960s: The Rise of Community Colleges

[caption id="attachment_31861" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows a large brick building with several windows. A large patch of grass separates the building from its parking lot. Bucks County Community College, founded in 1964, opened in 1965. Founders Hall, shown here in a 2012 photograph, houses the college’s STEM programs. (Shuvaev, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

There were almost no community colleges in Delaware, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey prior to 1960. A federal agency, the Emergency Relief Administration, funded six junior colleges in the Garden State in the 1930s, but just two remained after the agency terminated. Only a catastrophe like the Great Depression had justified any federal aid at all because most Americans thought education was a state and local obligation. A generation later these three states had many community colleges, including eight in the Greater Philadelphia area. Higher education was expanding thanks to the GI Bill, the Baby Boom, and the democratization of secondary education. The Community College of Philadelphia and Bucks County Community College opened in 1965; Montgomery County Community College in 1966; Camden County College, Gloucester County College, Delaware County Community College, and the Delaware Institute of Technology (soon renamed Delaware Technical Community College) in 1967; and Burlington County College in 1969.

State government helped these schools get established, but its ongoing role differed in each state. Enacted by the New Jersey legislature in 1962, the County College Act authorized the creation of public community colleges and set up procedures for launching them. It also committed the state to funding them, at least in part. Pennsylvania took a similar step one year later. The Pennsylvania Community College Act permitted local authorities to establish two-year colleges and called for developing master plans to coordinate their design and development. Adopted by the Delaware General Assembly in 1966, House Bill 529 authorized a statewide technical community college offering career, remedial, general, and transfer education. Congress undoubtedly gave all three states added incentive by adopting legislation in 1963 to fund construction of college facilities and, two years later, scholarships and loans to college students. Doing so did not preempt state control of higher education. Consequently, the management schemes worked out for community colleges in these three states reflected their different political cultures.

[caption id="attachment_31865" align="alignright" width="215"]This black and white photograph shows Pierre Samuel du Pont reading a paper. He wears a dark suit and glasses. Pierre Samuel du Pont, shown here in a 1916 portrait, donated more than $5 million to modernize Delaware’s public school buildings. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Small in population and in area, Delaware had a history by the 1960s of centralized educational decision-making. More than forty years before reformers had convinced the legislature to adopt a new public school code that greatly reduced the power of local authorities. The philanthropist Pierre Samuel du Pont (1870-1954) reinforced such thinking by giving more than $5 million to modernize the state’s public school buildings. The legislature’s decision to have one community college for the entire state followed from this history. The college might facilitate attendance and even tailor some programs to local audiences by having multiple campuses. Between 1967 and 1974 it opened four in Georgetown (1967), Dover (1972), Stanton (1973), and Wilmington (1974). But each campus was part of the same centrally managed institution.

Pennsylvania Rivalries and Local Control

In Pennsylvania regional rivalries and a strong tradition of local control delayed the adoption of a master plan for higher education until 1967. By then, the Commonwealth had  fourteen community colleges, including four in the five-county Philadelphia area. Each had its own board of directors, and each reported to a local sponsor: a city (Community College of Philadelphia), a county (Montgomery County CC and Bucks County CC), or local school districts (Delaware County CC). Charged with implementing the Pennsylvania Community College Act, the newly created Council of Higher Education wanted to open more two-year colleges in the state, especially in areas it deemed underserved by public higher education. But there was some hesitation in Harrisburg because by 1960 Pennsylvania State University had fourteen two-year branch campuses, offering both terminal and transfer programs. It added five more between 1965 and 1967, one of which was in Delaware County. Other Pennsylvania universities such as Temple, Clarion, and the University of Pittsburgh had similar operations or aspirations. When Montgomery County CC offered to buy Temple’s suburban campus in Ambler, Temple said no, even though it had just sold the Stanley Elkins Tyler estate in Newtown to Bucks County CC. Already the site of the university’s horticulture program, the Ambler Campus was to be Temple’s portal in the suburbs after the university’s becoming state-related in 1965 put it on track for major expansion.

New Jersey’s approach to the oversight of community colleges vacillated between local control and centralized management. Adopted in 1967, the New Jersey Higher Education Act created a centralized administrative structure for overseeing and coordinating a state system of higher education. A new State Board of Higher Education and a Department of Higher Education now took responsibility for county college development; by 1982 they had helped raise the number of such schools from four to nineteen. But each school had its own board of trustees, most of whose members were appointed at the county level. Trenton never provided adequate funding, forcing these colleges to rely primarily on local property taxes and student tuition. They took more responsibility for themselves when the New Jersey Higher Education Restructuring Act (1994) abolished the State Board of Higher Education in a Republican move to reduce government regulation. Authorized by the state legislature in 1989, the New Jersey Council of County Colleges became the means by which these schools submitted a collective budget request to the state. In 2003 Governor James E. McGreevy (b. 1957) created by executive order the New Jersey Community College Compact, a partnership between the state and its county colleges. The compact’s primary goal was to strengthen training for workforce development, but it also sought to improve the protocols governing the transfer of county college students to four-year colleges and universities in New Jersey. 

The community colleges in Greater Philadelphia grew rapidly at first. Enrollment at the Community College of Philadelphia reached 4,365 students in 1967, just its second year of operation. At Delaware County CC it popped by over 400 percent between 1967 and 1969. Bucks County CC went from 731 students in its first year to 5,607 in its seventh.  In South Jersey the numbers were equally impressive.

[caption id="attachment_31864" align="aligncenter" width="414"]A chart showing the steady growth of community college enrollment in southern New Jersey between 1968 and 1973. This enrollment chart demonstrates attendance patterns in the years following each college’s opening. (Chart by Luke Hoheisel for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Decades of Growth

Powered by an open-door admissions policy, the region’s community colleges continued to grow for the rest of the century. The Community College of Philadelphia became enormous, educating between 35,000 and 45,000 students annually. In its golden anniversary year (2007), Camden County College reported its enrollment to be more than thirty thousand, not counting remedial students. Enrollment also surged at the rest, bringing thousands of nontraditional students to campuses where they mingled with six to nine thousand degree and certificate candidates (matriculants). In 2016 the Community College Review reported that Montgomery County CC had 12,805 matriculants. According to the same source, the number of such students at the Community College of Philadelphia had reached 19,119, but Camden County College’s number had fallen from 14,471 to 12,051 since 2007. Full-timers now amounted to more than half the matriculants at only two of the eight schools in the region (Gloucester and Camden), reflecting a trend in undergraduate education that saw the time-to-degree ratio increase as more students, including many working adults, pursued higher education.

[caption id="attachment_31862" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows an aerial view of Camden County College's buildings and sports fields. The parking lots are nearly filled with cars and the surrounding trees showcase autumn colors. Camden County College opened in 1967. This 2013 aerial photograph shows the college’s main campus in Blackwood, New Jersey. (ProfGennari, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The campus facilities of the community colleges in Greater Philadelphia changed dramatically over the years, helping each of these schools develop their own brand and image. The Community College of Philadelphia conducted its first classes in a repurposed department store near City Hall. In 1973 it began migrating to its next location at Seventeenth and Spring Garden streets, an impressive neo-classical building that once had been the Philadelphia Mint, a move not completed for a decade. The community colleges in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties began their work in public schools but soon moved to their own facilities. Over time, every community college in the region erected buildings, often on large properties, and opened branch campuses. Purchased in 1967 from the Mother of Savior Seminary, Camden County College’s original campus in Blackwood came with 320 acres. In Camden city, it did not have a building of its own for twenty-two years. Partnering with Cherry Hill Township and the William G. Rohrer Foundation, it added a multipurpose campus on Route 70 and Springdale Road in 2000. Serving Delaware and Chester Counties, Delaware County CC eventually had six locations including one in Chester County Hospital.

The curriculum was never static at any of the region’s community colleges. As transfer institutions, they offered general education courses that could count toward bachelor’s degrees earned elsewhere. As adult institutions, they taught both credit and noncredit classes for academic advancement, professional development, or personal enrichment. As vocational institutions, they provided technical training that could lead to immediate employment. Their vocational programs responded to modifications in the local economy. Medical coding, information technology, hotel management, and culinary arts became popular choices as Greater Philadelphia left behind its industrial past for a future built on health care, communications, hospitality, education, and public administration. These applied curricula attracted many students, but even more popular were those for students aiming to transfer to four-year colleges or universities, including those not yet ready for college-level work. In 1973 the Office of Institutional Research at Bucks County CC did a comprehensive study of its recent graduates. It learned that the majority were still students one year after graduation and so was a plurality of all its graduates. Most had remained in the region, matriculating at Penn State, Temple, Trenton State (renamed the College of New Jersey in 1996), and West Chester. This pattern became more pronounced as the region’s four-year colleges and universities increased their tuition year after year. Looking for a cheaper alternative, many families decided to send their children to the local community college for their first two years. This helps to explain why the Office of Institutional Research at the Community College of Philadelphia found in 2013 that about 60 percent of its recent graduates had gone on to a baccalaureate program within five years.

Credit Transfer Not So Seamless

In theory, transferring from a community college to a four-year institution was seamless. Applicants for advanced standing at a four-year college or university expected to carry all their community college credits with them. But receiving schools did not always award full credit, leaving some transfer students with a deficit. Inter-institutional agreements to facilitate transfer were not new in the 1980s, especially in states with large, public higher education systems. Such agreements became increasingly important in the Philadelphia region, especially as undergraduate enrollments started to decline in the 1970s. To keep transfer students from going out of state, four-year colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania adopted what came to be known as “articulation” agreements, often after lengthy negotiations with local and state authorities. In 1973 New Jersey adopted what it called the Full-Faith-and-Credit policy that promised a smooth transition between its county and state colleges. Graduates of approved transfer programs at county colleges were guaranteed admission to a state college with 68 credits, but in practice fewer than half had all their county college credits accepted. A state Higher Education Plan adopted in 1981 urged Rutgers, the state university, to implement the policy, but only its Camden and Newark campuses complied. The campus in New Brunswick demurred. By contrast, Temple signed separate articulation agreements with Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware County CCs in 1998. In 2006 Pennsylvania required its fourteen state universities to admit graduates of the state’s community colleges and award them at least some transfer credit.

[caption id="attachment_31866" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows the quad area of Rutgers University - Camden. Several students walk on the sidewalk or sit on the grass. Rutgers University-Camden is a transfer destination for many students from community colleges in Southern New Jersey. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Transfer students almost always remained in the region. Rutgers-Camden was by the far the most popular transfer destination for students from the community colleges in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties. Between 1984 and 1986, only ten chose to enroll at Rutgers in New Brunswick. Temple University was the most popular destination for students from the Community College of Philadelphia. For example, more than one third of all the students transferring to Temple between 1988 and 1998 came from there, 7,662 out of 22,248. Both Temple and the Community College of Philadelphia closely monitored their transfer students’ five-year graduation rate, which went from 42.6 percent in 1988 to 49.3 percent six years later.  But students from the Community College of Philadelphia never achieved a higher graduation rate than the university’s general population of transfer students.

In 2001 the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems concluded that Pennsylvania still had not developed “an effective system for providing community college services” across the state. It urged the existing schools to strengthen their capacities in workforce development and educational access. In response, some community colleges streamlined the transfer process by adopting dual admissions agreements. Over the next decade Montgomery County CC and Bucks County CC partnered with four state universities in Pennsylvania: Montgomery County CC with Cheyney (2005), Kutztown (2007), and West Chester (2009) and both Montgomery and Bucks County CCs with East Stroudsburg (2016). Montgomery County CC even reached such an agreement with Dickinson College, a selective, private institution more than one hundred miles from its main campus. In South Jersey both Gloucester and Burlington County College partnered with nearby Rowan University, leading both county colleges to change their name. Gloucester became Rowan College at Gloucester County in 2014 and Burlington became Rowan College at Burlington County the following year.  By then the latter had guaranteed admissions agreements with more than thirty public and private colleges and universities. 

Race and Economics

[caption id="attachment_31863" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows a group of students in graduation gowns lined up on a Philadelphia street. In this 1977 photograph, students from the Community College of Philadelphia march in their commencement ceremony. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

From their inception the community colleges in Greater Philadelphia enrolled far more white than black students. The Community College of Philadelphia was the lone exception. By the turn of the millennium, after all, the city’s population was 44 percent African American.  Philadelphia also had many champions of black education. Led by Maurice B. Fagan (1910-92), the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission was one of the most important. Along with the NAACP, it urged city and state officials to establish a community college that would open the door to higher education for the city’s African Americans. From the beginning the Community College of Philadelphia attracted many black students. In 1967 they comprised 23 percent of its student body. Fifty years later they were 40 percent. 

Economic circumstances were also an important variable in the student demographics of the community colleges in the region. Their comparatively low tuition and work-friendly programs appealed to those with busy schedules and limited incomes. Such students often could not attend full time; the demands on their personal time and the opportunity costs of such attendance were too great. Many had spotty academic records. While these schools never enrolled only students from the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum, such students increasingly predominated. Their alumni’s average annual earnings corroborate this generalization. In 2016 it did not exceed $40,000 for any of them. The suburban schools approached that number ($39,300 at Bucks and $39,200 at Montgomery), but the rest fell well below it, some by several thousand dollars ($32,800 at Delaware Technical Community College and $34,900 at the CC of Philadelphia).

When the community colleges in Greater Philadelphia appeared in the 1960s, there was no consensus about whether they were needed.  It was not at all clear where they fit into the region’s educational system. Such uncertainty came from a lack of consensus about their status and mission. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the region’s community colleges had become an integral part of its educational system. They compensated for the limitations and failures of public education by providing trade training and remedial education. They broadened access to higher education by being a low-cost, local alternative for beginning college students. They contributed to economic growth and local pride by building modern facilities and operating multiples campuses. The complexity of this mission defied totally successful implementation, but it justified their repute as an educational staple in the region.   

William W. Cutler III is Emeritus Professor of History at Temple University and the associate editor for education for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Street Numbering

[caption id="attachment_31809" align="aligncenter" width="546"]This page from the 1861 Philadelphia city directory shows a grid of street names and numbers. A text box in the upper right corner explains how this grid system helped city residents determine their location. This page from the 1861 Philadelphia city directory demonstrates the Decimal System of house numbering. (Internet Archive)[/caption]

Philadelphians, having pioneered the gridiron street layout in North America, also led the way in street numbering. The grid had been in place for more than a century by the time citizens began to experiment with ways to number the buildings that lined their streets in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But by the Civil War, the “decimal system” of numbering addresses that persisted into the twenty-first century had been put in place.

Systematic attempts to give each building in a city a unique address began in Europe in the eighteenth century. London’s municipal authorities ordered the numbering of buildings in 1768; France followed suit three years later to abet the billeting of soldiers. Such reforms reflected both the growing power of government and the Enlightenment penchant for classification. When Philadelphia’s first city directories appeared in 1785, however, one directory listed the intersection at which heads of household resided (for example, “3rd above Chestnut”) rather than giving a specific number. Some entries were even vaguer: anyone looking for Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), for instance, would have found him at “Market Street.”

[caption id="attachment_31806" align="alignright" width="252"]This black and white portrait shows Clement Biddle. After overseeing the first United States census, Clement Biddle devised a new street numbering system for the 1791 Philadelphia city directory. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

City directories and census-taking provided an impetus to street numbering. The editor of the other 1785 directory numbered houses sequentially on one side of a street then continued the sequence back down it (a “clockwise” method commonly employed in Europe). Six years later, Colonel Clement Biddle (1740-1814) compiled a city directory that adopted a different approach. Biddle assigned odd numbers to the north and east of a street and even numbers to the south and west, with numbers on both sides of the block moving in the same direction. He had overseen the first census of the United States that same year, and just as the federal government’s head count helped Americans understand their new republic, the street numbering system aided them in navigating their biggest city. As Biddle put it in explaining the new system, the “stranger” could now find “any house whose street and number is known.”

Keeping Up in an Expanding City

Although Biddle’s system served the needs of a late eighteenth-century port (and was soon copied in Paris), it struggled to adapt to Philadelphia’s nineteenth-century growth. As builders tore down old dwellings and skipped over vacant lots, addresses became harder to assign in any coherent manner. New properties, which needed individual markers for tax assessment, tended to be numbered in the order in which they had been built rather than on their actual location. A lack of coordination between the two-square-mile city proper and the rapidly expanding independent districts beyond its borders contributed to the chaos. By 1850 the consequences were amusing and confusing. Houses with the same numerical address sometimes stood hundreds of yards apart. Fractional addresses—1/4, 1/3, 1/2—were not uncommon. One Callowhill Street block reputedly ran inwards from either end with the same numbers. “[I]t is a serious undertaking to hunt any dwelling,” complained one newspaper a few years before the Civil War. Biddle’s odd and even numbering no longer seemed adequate.

[caption id="attachment_31808" align="alignright" width="226"]This black and white photograph shows Morton McMichael in a seated position. He holds spectacles in one hand and a rolled up newspaper in the other. Morton McMichael, a newspaper publisher and politician, chaired the Executive Consolidation Committee that united Philadelphia’s outlying districts with the city proper in 1854. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the middle decades of the nineteenth-century Philadelphians searched for a better way. A proposal to number houses by block had been brought to the attention of City Councils in 1830, but no action was taken. Calls for reform resumed during the real estate boom of the early 1850s. The city government doubted it had the legal authority to compel property owners to renumber their dwellings and councilmen wondered whether a change in the city proper would actually add to the confusion if adjacent districts did not follow suit. Morton McMichael’s (1807-79) North American newspaper, which led the drive for a new system, responded that an address was not the private property of a dwelling’s owner. Numbers, it insisted, are “an indispensable part of our communitary system,” and “must be properly regulated and enforced.” The union of the city and districts in the Consolidation Act of 1854, which McMichael helped to push through, paved the way for a metropolitan-wide change. Weeks before the new charter won legislative assent in Harrisburg the north-south streets running in from the Schuylkill, which had been numbered in ascending order from the river to Broad, were given the names they have borne since: Schuylkill Eighth Street becoming Fifteenth, and so on. This brought them into sequence with the main streets that ran parallel to them east of Broad, which from Philadelphia’s founding had, with the exception of Front (the equivalent of First) and Broad (the equivalent of Fourteenth), been numbered from the Delaware waterfront westwards.

[caption id="attachment_31807" align="alignright" width="241"]This color map shows the borders of Philadelphia after the 1854 Consolidation Act. The neighborhood limits for various areas, such as Germantown and Manayunk, are indicated by color. This 1854 map shows Philadelphia’s major streets and districts as they appeared after the Consolidation Act of the same year. The Act paved the way for major metropolitan changes, including the 1856 introduction of the Decimal System for house numbering. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

That reform paved the way for a more radical change in 1856 when the inventor and councilman John Mascher (c. 1824-1862) introduced what would become known as the “Decimal” or “Philadelphia System.” The system involved numbering blocks from east to west based upon the numerical street they intersected at their eastern ends. Houses on each block would then be given addresses from one to a hundred on Biddle’s odd/even principle. Whereas before, 220 Chestnut might have been anywhere along the street, from 1857, a visitor to the city could quickly locate it between Second and Third Streets. A similar method numbered addresses on north-south blocks, though a New York-style suggestion to rename the east-west street by number did not succeed, meaning Walnut dodged the fate of becoming South Second Avenue. Mascher’s design was copied in other gridiron cities and helped to make Philadelphia an easy metropolis to pinpoint a location long before Google Maps. Yet it was not universally welcomed at the time. Many businesses continued to use their old numbers alongside the new ones while one owner threatened to sue anyone who profited from his old address; others no doubt feared the system would be used to better tax and conscript residents.

The Suburban Challenge

Beyond the limits of the consolidated city, where the gridiron plan often gave way to meandering suburban streets, numbering proved harder to systematize. In the Main Line suburbs, for instance, a 1910 ordinance made major arteries the “zero axes” from which properties were numbered every twenty-five feet, with (in line with the Philadelphia practice) the numbers jumping by a hundred each block. Progressive era reformers, however, conceded that the “work of numbering” was “exceedingly difficult,” given the winding roads, and recommended where possible continuing Mascher’s plan using Lancaster Avenue and City Line Avenue as the twin axes. The township’s Health and Drainage Department, which had jurisdiction over street numbers, did not act on the suggestion. But whether gridded or not, streets across the region came under the sway of municipal regulation when it came to numbering households.

Philadelphia’s street numbering system seems at first glance a rational solution to the challenges of rapid growth. But reform was slow to come by and ultimately depended on the expansion of the municipal government’s administrative capacity and territorial reach. It is no coincidence that two of the most influential figures in developing numbering systems—Biddle and McMichael—were both pioneering state-builders. Nor is it a surprise that city directories, which were important allies of the business community, played a key role in developing street numbering; a metropolis built on commerce, industry, and real estate operations needed to be navigable, after all. The crucial decades in the development of street numbers in Philadelphia— the 1780s to 1860s—were years in which urbanization, capitalism, and government power remade American cities. Addresses that became taken for granted were a product of those forces.

Andrew Heath is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, and is the author of In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

Philadelphia Folk Festival

[caption id="attachment_31757" align="aligncenter" width="542"]This color photograph shows a large crowd viewing a show at the Folk Festival main stage. Steve Earle, playing guitar, joins several other musicians onstage. Steve Earle and his band perform on the Festival Main Stage in 2012. (Montgomery County Planning Commission, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Seeking to contribute to the folk revival that reached its peak in the United States during the mid-1960s, folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein (1927-95) and radio DJ Gene Shay (b. 1935) organized the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1962. During a hiatus of the similar Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, Goldstein and Shay sought to demonstrate the dimensions of folk music and bring new musicians to the Philadelphia area. The Philadelphia Folk Festival featured popular and obscure musicians but also included lectures, workshops, displays, and other events designed to develop understanding of folk music’s legacy. 

The Philadelphia Folksong Society, a nonprofit organization specializing in arts education, sponsored the festival from its inception and supported Goldstein and Shay’s vision. For the first four years, proceeds from the festival supported a folklore library, concerts at Philadelphia’s community centers, and fellowships for University of Pennsylvania students studying folklore. In the early years of the festival, folk music had a devoted Philadelphia fan base. Venues such as the 2nd Fret and the Main Point, the region’s premier folk club, included folk music in their regular lineups. Beginning as a grassroots event, the festival evolved into a four-day experience and the longest continuously-run outdoor music festival in North America. Annually the festival features performances, workshops, square dancing and hootenannies, artisan displays, crafts areas, and camping.

[caption id="attachment_31777" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows four men sitting in a circle surrounded by campground tents. Three play acoustic guitars and one plays a banjo. In this 2012 photograph, four festival attendees gather at the main campground for an impromptu jam session. (Montgomery County Planning Commission, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

From 1962 to 1965, the Philadelphia Folk Festival took place in Paoli, Pennsylvania, at the homestead of C. Colket Wilson Jr. (1891-1978) known as Wilson Farm. The inaugural concert included performances by Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in addition to the Greenbriar Boys, blind gospel singer the Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972), and fiddler Obray Ramsey (1913-97). An estimated 2,500 or more people attended. In subsequent years the festival grew to an audience counted at ten thousand by 1963 and fifteen thousand in 1964. Over the years, musicians have performed both contemporary and traditional genres including Appalachian, Cajun, roots revival, murder ballads, songs originally derived from the oral tradition, and the blues. The festival also has featured folk music infused with varying genres including world music, Celtic, American country, Creole-influenced zydeco, and the Ashkenazi Jewish folk music known as klezmer. Popular music artists also appeared. Festivals included blues performer Taj Mahal (b. 1942), Bonnie Raitt (b. 1949), and independent musical groups such as Iron and Wine or the Decemberists, who were influenced by folk music. 

The Move to Old Poole Farm

As the festival grew, Wilson Farm could no longer accommodate the event’s needs for parking and camping grounds. Neighbors and other individuals alleged there were incidents of improper behavior, public drinking, road congestion, camping on private property, and excessive debris and trash. Despite acknowledging the cultural significance of the event, the Tredyffrin Township Zoning Board of Adjustment withdrew the festival’s permanent zoning variance in January 1965. Specifically, a performance lasting until 2 a.m. on a Sunday had violated the township’s carnival ordinance.

Although the Folksong Society challenged the Tredyffrin Township decision on the basis that a permanent variance could not be revoked, the festival also found a new and longer-lasting location. By 1965 the Philadelphia Folk Festival moved to Old Poole Farm in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. Situated about thirty-five miles outside of Philadelphia, the working farm has converted its grounds annually to accommodate the festival and its and attendees.  

The folk music revival waned by the 1970s, but the Philadelphia festival did not lose its momentum or cultural significance. Organizers maintained the event’s relevance by continuing to evolve its musical and cultural components. For example, to make folk music accessible to a younger audience, the festival has included children’s programming such as the Great Groove Band, a participatory program for school-age children highlighting fiddle and folk music. In 2010 the festival partnered with the Chicago-based Giving Tree Band to develop green initiatives and make the event more environmentally sustainable.

[caption id="attachment_31758" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows Dulcimer Grove, a wooded area of the Folk Festival. Several columns of colored umbrellas hand from trees and decorate the area. Festival organizers designate Dulcimer Grove, a small wooded area between the campgrounds and main concert area, specifically for children and families. This photograph depicts some of the grove’s themed decorations. (Montgomery County Planning Commission, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

In the early decades of the twenty-first century, the Philadelphia Folk Festival attracted  about thirty-five thousand event-goers annually, and 6,500 of those participants chose to camp nearby as part of their experience. The campgrounds developed into sections resembling neighborhoods with specializations such as designated quiet areas or tent or RV/vehicle camping sections. The Dulcimer Grove became the family and kids’ area. Camping became such an integral component of the festival that organizers added a “Campers Only” concert on the Thursday preceding the main event.

While generating interest in folk music, the Philadelphia Folk Festival struck a cultural balance by maintaining a strong connection to the roots stemming from Appalachian oral traditions while also incorporating new folk and cultural perspectives. The Philadelphia Folk Festival has positioned the Philadelphia area as a center for sustaining the traditions of American folk music.

Elisabeth Woronzoff earned her Ph.D. in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University. Her research focuses on American history and culture, gender studies, and music. She wrote her master’s thesis on the Smiths and published a chapter in the book Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identities. She currently develops curriculum for personalized learning projects and writes book and music reviews for the online magazine PopMatters.

Silver Linings Playbook

The 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell (b. 1958) and based on the novel by Collingswood, New Jersey, native Matthew Quick (b. 1973), experienced overnight success when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and earned the highly sought-after Audience Award. Filmed in and around Philadelphia, the movie showcases the region’s distinct character and culture.

[caption id="attachment_31765" align="alignright" width="230"]This color photograph shows Jennifer Lawrence answering a question at a media event. Jennifer Lawrence portrays Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook. Lawrence earned the 2013 Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the film. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Starring Bradley Cooper (b. 1975), the film follows Pat Solitano Jr. as he returns to the Philadelphia suburb of Delaware County to move in with his parents, who are characterized by their dedication to the Philadelphia Eagles professional football team. Pat has to cope with his new life after being released from a mental institution, where he was treated for bipolar disorder. Focused on attending therapy sessions and jogging around his family’s suburban neighborhood to win back his ex-wife’s affections, Pat is surprised when he makes a new friend: a young woman named Tiffany Maxwell, played by Jennifer Lawrence (b. 1990). United by their painful pasts, this unlikely couple finds companionship in and around the City of Brotherly Love.

The film’s plot, characters, and Greater Philadelphia setting are derived from Quick’s 2008 novel of the same name. Although the book takes place in the author’s hometown of Collingswood, the filmmakers decided to set many scenes in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania suburbs. While several elements differ between the book and film versions, the heart of the story and its regional inspiration shine through in its adaptation.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Cooper fit the role of Irish-Italian Eagles fanatic Pat Solitano perfectly. “I’m from Philly,” Cooper said in an interview published in 2012 by the website Deadline Hollywood. “I’m obsessed with the Eagles, I’m Italian Irish, my parents grew up in households very similar to [Pat’s family].”

Learning the Local Lingo

[caption id="attachment_31764" align="alignright" width="200"]This color photograph shows Bradley Cooper answering a question at a media event. Bradley Cooper portrays avid Eagles fan Pat Solitano in Silver Linings Playbook. Cooper was born and raised in Philadelphia and connected to his character’s Irish-Italian heritage. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Although Cooper was unfamiliar with his character’s bipolarism and scoured a multitude of documentaries during the weeks prior to filming, his expertise about Philadelphia proved helpful to several members of the cast. For example, Jacki Weaver (b. 1947), the Australian actress who played Pat Jr.’s mother, Dolores Solitano, often listened to the Philadelphia accent of Cooper’s real mother when she came to the set. Cooper’s uncle also visited during filming and offered advice on Philly dialect to Robert De Niro (b. 1943), who played Pat Solitano Sr. Thus, both Cooper and his family helped bring authenticity to the film through their knowledge and love for the city of Philadelphia.

Filming in the Philadelphia area over a thirty-three-day period during fall 2011, Russell sought to capture the essence of a white, middle-class suburban Philadelphia family in a short span of time. To do so, many of Silver Linings’ scenes were shot in close proximity in Delaware County, including in Lansdowne and Ridley Park Boroughs and Upper Darby Township. The center of the film is unquestionably the Solitano household, which is set in a black and white stone home. Many of the jogging scenes in which Cooper memorably wears a trash bag to burn more calories were filmed in the neighborhoods of Delaware County. Another memorable scene takes place at the Llanerch Diner, 95 E. Township Line Road, Upper Darby, where Pat and Tiffany have their first “date,” which Pat asserts is not actually a date.

[caption id="attachment_31763" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows the lobby of the Benjamin Franklin House. Film crew members prepare equipment and sit near the lobby's fountain. In Silver Linings Playbook, Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin House serves as the site of a climactic dance competition. It is shown here during the 2011 film shoot. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Although much of the film was shot in the suburbs of Philadelphia, some of the final scenes take place closer to the heart of the city. Toward the end of the film, Pat and his friends are shown pre-gaming on Wells Fargo Center Lot D just outside Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. Later, the climax of the film takes place in Center City in the ballroom of the Benjamin Franklin House, where Pat and Tiffany’s dance competition decides the fate of Pat Sr.’s dream of opening a restaurant. In the final scene of the film, viewers see Pat and Tiffany kiss on Jewelers Row, near Eighth and Samson Streets.

Silver Linings Playbook garnered acclaim from viewers and critics. During the 2013 awards season, Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress honors from the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, and the Academy Awards. Silver Linings also garnered several MTV Movie and Independent Spirit awards, as well as additional Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild nominations. David O. Russell won the Best Director award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the film won Movie of the Year from the American Film Institute. With the help of the region’s distinctive culture and character, Silver Linings Playbook became a bright star showcasing the place many Philadelphians simply call home.

Margaret Poling is a Teaching Assistant and M.A. candidate studying English at Rutgers University-Camden.

Margaret Poling

Margaret Poling is a Teaching Assistant and M.A. candidate studying English at Rutgers University-Camden.

Elisabeth Woronzoff

Elisabeth Woronzoff earned her Ph.D. in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University. Her research focuses on American history and culture, gender studies, and music. She wrote her master’s thesis on the Smiths, and Morrissey published a chapter in the book Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identities. She currently develops curriculum for personalized learning projects and writes book and music reviews for the online magazine PopMatters.

Underground Railroad

With a deep abolitionist history and large and vibrant free black population, Philadelphia and the surrounding region played a prominent role in the famed Underground Railroad. The loosely connected organization of white and black people helped hide and guide enslaved people as they sought freedom in the North and Canada.

According to one of the earliest accounts, written by Robert Smedley in 1883, slaveholders began to use the term “Underground Railroad” in the late 1780s to describe clandestine efforts in the Columbia, Pennsylvania, area to help fugitives escape slavery. Columbia grew out of the small settlement of Wright’s Ferry, which was founded by Quakers and other white people who opposed slavery. Soon after its founding, the town gained a reputation for protecting fugitives and allowing free black settlement.

[caption id="attachment_31644" align="alignright" width="300"] Built in 1708, the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad in conjunction with Abolition Hall on the opposite side of Germantown Pike. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Before long a system of escape routes led fugitives north from the Chesapeake toward Havre de Grace, Maryland, and across the Susquehanna River to Lancaster and Chester Counties. Several routes developed in south central and southeastern Pennsylvania and in southwestern New Jersey, regions with strong Quaker abolitionist networks and vibrant free black communities that helped fugitives make their way farther north. Those traveling through New Jersey followed a route that later became the path of the New Jersey Turnpike. The southeastern Pennsylvania route shared the common intended destination of Phoenixville, where fugitives hoped to reach the home of Elijah Pennypacker (1804-88), who helped them on to Philadelphia, Norristown, Quakertown, Reading, and other stations. This network of assistance gained the name “Underground Railroad” around 1804, and historian Larry Gara has estimated that as many as one thousand enslaved people a year joined the slow but steady traffic by the mid to late 1840s.

Tense Borders

[caption id="attachment_31606" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a two-story stone home with a chimney; the first story is white washed. The Christiana "riot" took place at the home of William Parker, a free black man who helped organize a mutual protection society for the area's black population. When Edward Gorsuch and his posse arrived at Parker's home, they were met by at least fifty men who intended to protect the escaped slaves. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

This activity led to tense interstate relations between border South states like Maryland and border North states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Well before the Civil War, conflicts that historian Stanley Harrold has labeled a “border war” over slavery took place in communities of southeastern Pennsylvania and southwestern New Jersey. Abolitionists put up armed resistance to slaveholders’ efforts to recapture slaves, in many cases rescuing the accused from courthouses and jailhouses. Two famous incidents, one at Swedesboro, New Jersey, in 1836 and one at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1847, led to considerable violence as fugitives and their allies fought hard to thwart the efforts of slave catchers. The rescuers in New Jersey succeeded in saving a black family from a professional slave catcher from Philadelphia, but the group in Carlisle had mixed results and the situation ended in convictions for eleven rescuers. Perhaps the most famous of these rescue “riots” occurred in 1851 in Christiana, Pennsylvania, when a Maryland slaveholder was killed by black men as they defended themselves against recapture. Despite the rising violence along the North/South border, escapes continued throughout the 1850s.

Historian Nilgun Okur has estimated that by the beginning of the Civil War nearly nine thousand fugitives made their way to Philadelphia, some passing through on the way to other destinations and others choosing to stay. In Philadelphia new arrivals found further assistance from the Vigilance Committee, led by prominent black abolitionists like Robert Purvis (1810-98) in its early years and later by William Still (1821-1902). The group aided fugitives who reached Philadelphia by providing food, shelter, and clothing, sometimes in the form of disguises as they moved from one station to another.

[caption id="attachment_31604" align="alignright" width="240"]This black and white portrait-style photograph shows William Still. William Still (1821-1902), born in New Jersey, was a leading figure in the Vigilance Committee. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

A New Jersey native, Still began working for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1847, gradually advancing from custodian to clerk, then chair of the Vigilance Committee. His wife, Letitia (George) Still (1821-1906), played an important role by offering the Still home and by using her seamstress skills to sew the clothing and to raise money to help fund the operation. The Stills hosted a number of famous fugitives, including Jane Johnson (c.1814-72) and her sons, whom Still and fellow abolitionist Passmore Williamson (1822-95) dramatically rescued in 1855. In addition, Still received a number of now-famous fugitives in the Anti-Slavery Society office at 105 N. Fifth Street, including Henry “Box” Brown (c. 1816-97), who had himself shipped there from the South, and Still’s own brother Peter (1801-68).

Much of what historians know about these encounters comes from Still’s meticulous records and his resultant book, The Underground Railroad, published in 1872. According to his journal, preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, he helped 485 fugitives in the city between 1852 and 1857. Still’s work and records clearly illustrate the importance of the free black community to the operation and success of the Underground Railroad.

Philadelphia’s Aid Network

Still was building on a long tradition of free black volunteers aiding fugitives. When he moved to Philadelphia he joined the largest and wealthiest northern free black community, one with a host of churches, organizations, and mutual aid societies, including Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. These institutions helped foster a strong leadership class among black Americans who had helped make Philadelphia an epicenter of American abolition even before the American Revolution. Though Philadelphia and the surrounding region were plagued by the same racism and animosity toward blacks that permeated American society, the region was also home to a supportive community of Quakers and other whites sympathizers. They founded organizations such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to fight against bondage and give aid to free black people. This interracial cooperation was essential to the success of the Underground Railroad.

[caption id="attachment_31605" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white lithograph of four black men being ambushed by a crowd of white men. In the 1850s, Pennsylvanians were sometimes brought to court for helping and concealing fugitives from slavery, and accused fugitives faced hearings that could lead to a return to bondage. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The conductors were violating Fugitive Slave Laws passed by the federal government in 1793 and 1850. The 1850 law in particular made it difficult to help fugitives because it required federal authorities to hunt runaway slaves and bystanders to participate in their capture when called upon. As a result, those who aided fugitives faced severe criminal penalties of six months in jail and fines of $1,000 as well as the possibility of civil suits from slave owners.

The story of the Underground Railroad provides an important example of interracial unity in the fight for social justice that began in the colonial era and continues today. White and black abolitionists worked together to help enslaved Americans gain their freedom, pushing the nation to reach for the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. Everyday citizens who served as guides and conductors along the railroad had come to realize that the U.S.’s racial caste system harmed all Americans, and they employed nonviolent direct action to fight against the injustice. Their example animated later efforts such as the modern civil rights movement and remains relevant in the twenty-first century.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and is associate professor of history and associate provost at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Mabel Rosenheck

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in media and cultural studies from Northwestern University and works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, Temple University, and elsewhere. 

Philadelphia (Film)

As a form of cinematic activism, Philadelphia (1993) attempted to reform the public understanding of AIDS in a time when ignorance and fear of the disease fueled prejudice and hate. The film is not merely set in the city of its title, but in a large part, the people of Philadelphia performed it. Extras who stood in the background of its street-side scenes, observers of the court proceedings, and people in the hospital receiving treatment were Philadelphians fighting the AIDS epidemic themselves.

[caption id="attachment_31551" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows film director Jonathan Demme and Greater Philadelphia Film Office director Sharon Pinkenson at a 2008 Phillies event. Demme holds a red hat marked "World Series Champions." Sharon Pinkenson (right), director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, invited director Jonathan Demme to consider the city as the location for his film. They are shown together here at an event celebrating the Phillies' victory in the 2008 World Series. (Photograph ©2008 by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the early 1980s, Philadelphia, along with New York and Los Angeles, saw the first diagnoses of illnesses later understood to be the AIDS virus. Because of this historical relevance, Sharon Pinkenson (b. 1948) of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office suggested to Jonathan Demme (1944-2017), the film’s director, that he set his production in Philadelphia as a tribute to the people affected by the disease. Originally, Demme was in search of another major city for his film. However, after spending time in Philadelphia and realizing it to be a symbol of independence, exuding at times a culture of tolerance and brotherhood, Demme found it an ideal location to host a story about discrimination and prejudice.

In the film, Tom Hanks (b. 1956) plays the role of Andy Beckett, who contracts AIDS while simultaneously ascending the ranks of a prestigious Philadelphia law firm. Andy is a passionate, knowledgeable, and dedicated lawyer, who in the beginning of the film wins an argument before a judge over the environmental toxicity of building materials used by a company that his firm represents. Despite his initial success, Andy is dismissed from the firm after his colleagues discover that he is infected with AIDS. The plot develops around Andy’s wrongful termination and his exposure of the firm’s true motives for firing him. Andy eventually gains the sympathy of an African American lawyer, Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington (b. 1954), who decides to represent Andy after identifying with the prejudice he faces as a victim of AIDS. 

[caption id="attachment_31552" align="alignright" width="181"]This color photograph shows actor Tom Hanks. He is wearing a blue collared shirt and a black jacket with a label that reads "US." In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks portrays Andy Beckett, a lawyer who contracts AIDS and sues his law firm for wrongful termination. Hanks is shown here in a 2005 photograph. (Photograph by Michael E. Dukes, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

A number of legal and social initiatives at the time of the filming and release of Philadelphia similarly advocated for those affected by the illness. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, prohibited termination of an employee solely because of an illness, including AIDS, or other circumstance brought upon them involuntarily. The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit law firm founded in 1988, specialized in assisting AIDS victims by taking on cases such as workplace discrimination, harassment, and estate settlements. These initiatives sought to challenge employers who asserted probable cause when dismissing a queer or infected individual from a job. As in Andy’s case in the film, victims argued that the illness did not inhibit them from performing their work duties and therefore should not be a basis for firing or otherwise quarantining them from society.

While vested in social issues confronting Philadelphia and beyond, the film also documents a panorama of locations across the city in the early 1990s. Its opening scene and many interludes feature views of the skyline, including buildings such as One Liberty Place and City Hall. In one instance, the film shows the charred remains of One Meridian Plaza, the high-rise on Fifteenth Street across from City Hall that was condemned after a 1991 fire that took the lives of three firefighters. On Market Street, the Mellon Bank Building played the role of headquarters of Beckett’s prestigious law firm, and a building at Nineteenth and Chestnut Streets served as the law office of Joe Miller, the lawyer who represents Andy in his wrongful dismissal suit. The climax of the film takes place in and around City Hall, which served as the site of the court case that is the pivotal moment in Andy’s story.

[caption id="attachment_31549" align="alignright" width="204"]This color photograph shows City Hall circa 2005. Three of Philadelphia's tallest skyscrapers can be seen in the background, illuminated by a sunset. Several scenes in Philadelphia , including the climactic court case, take place in and around City Hall. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Philadelphia earned two Academy Awards, one for Hanks as best actor and the other for best original song, “The Streets of Philadelphia,” by Bruce Springsteen. While garnering critical praise and popularity, the film received mixed responses from the gay community. Some questioned Demme’s knowledge of gay sexuality in his representation of the relationship between Andy and Miquel, played by Antonio Banderas (b. 1960). Others, however, praised the production for its advocacy of an issue towards which the rest of society was dismally silent. Philadelphia prevailed at a time when AIDS was both widespread and grossly misunderstood, and by penetrating the social ignorance towards the disease the film taught people to empathize with affected individuals instead of shun them for their malady.

Damiano Consilvio is a Ph.D. student at the University of Rhode Island and studies the ways in which digital technologies can enhance the practice of textual editing. His book project, Ethan Frome: A Digital Scholarly Edition, is forthcoming.

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