Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

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Poetry and Poets

Philadelphia boasts a rich history of poetry—poetry that describes intimate life experiences as well as an evolving history of immigration and colonization, urban growth and decline. Indeed, from the colonial era to the twenty-first century, poetry often stood at the center of civic life, fully engaged with the public sphere. The poetry of Philadelphia, reflecting in many ways the country’s larger currents, documents in detail the fate of the city and its shifting cultural politics.

[caption id="attachment_34382" align="alignright" width="268"]Daniel Pastorius depicted in a bas relief sculpture Francis Daniel Pastorius, pictured here in bas relief, has been called Pennsylvania's first poet. A Quaker and founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania, he wrote works in German, Latin, and English. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Shortly after William Penn (1644-1718) founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682, Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-c. 1720), often referred to as Pennsylvania’s first poet, arrived in Philadelphia in 1683. The founder of Germantown, Pastorius, whose poetry mostly survived only in manuscript, wrote of his emigration to Philadelphia and settlement on land bought from Penn in a poem titled “A Token of Love and Gratitude” that looked back on his years “In this then uncouth land, & howling Wilderness.” In another of his poems, he again recalled the city’s humble origins, remembering in heroic couplets a time “When the Metropolis (which Brother-Love they call,) / Three houses, & no more, could number up in all.”

Other poems from these early years actively sought to promote the city and its native resources. William Bradford (1590-1657), the first printer of the middle colonies, published a boosterish pamphlet poem by Richard Frame (“A Short Description of Pennsylvania”) in 1692 and another by John Holmes (“A True Relation of the Flourishing State of Pennsylvania”) in 1696. Before moving to New York in 1693, Bradford played a crucial role in founding the literary culture of Philadelphia. In 1685 he published one of the first American almanacs—America’s Messenger—with verse as a staple ingredient. When Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) started Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732-58), it was chock full of witty, proverbial poetry. Franklin even wrote some of it himself.

This poetry of self-improvement stood beside a poetry of praise in colonial Philadelphia. “A Memorial to William Penn” (1729), a declaration of cultural independence written by George Webb a little more than a decade after Penn’s death, appeared in the form of stanza headers for the months of the year in The Genuine Leeds Almanack for the Year of Christian Account 1730, published by Franklin’s rival Titan Leeds (1699-1738). Webb’s poem paid tribute to the city’s founder and the city’s civilized success, forecasting that “Europe shall mourn her ancient Fame declin’d / And Philadelphia be the Athens of Mankind”; in much the same way, so did Thomas Makin’s A Discription of Pennsylvania” (1728) and Jacob Duché’s (1737-98) “Pennsylvania: A Poem” (1756).

When not singing the praises of the city or its citizens, poetry of the period commemorated those who had died. The printer-poet Samuel Keimer (1689-1742), who employed Franklin, wrote an elegy for another successful printer-poet, Aquila Rose (1695-1723), who worked in Bradford’s printing office and died at the age of 28. His 1723 broadside Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose was Franklin’s first known printing job, and Franklin described the circumstances of its publication in his Autobiography, where he commends Rose as “a very tolerable poet.” (Rose’s posthumous Poems on Several Occasions—published in 1740 and known as the first American poetry anthology—includes elegies by and about him.)

The merchant and scrivener Joseph Breintnall (c. 1695-1746), an original member of the Junto, Franklin’s club for mutual improvement, also paid tribute to Rose before his untimely death; in “An Encomium to Aquila Rose, On His Art in Praising,” he wrote of Rose’s importance in elevating Philadelphia, claiming that “Strangers far remote will come” to Philadelphia, “And visit us as ancient Greece or Rome.” In another poem, “A plain Description of one single Street in this City” (1729), written as part of Franklin’s Busy-Body essay series, Breintnall described a walk on Market Street from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill, effectively mapping the geographical coordinates of the expanding commercial city.

Another member of Franklin’s Junto, George Webb, to whom Franklin taught the art of printing, wrote "Batchelor’s Hall: A Poem," published by Franklin in 1731. Batchelor’s Hall, near Allen and Shackamaxon Streets in Kensington, was a learned society similar the Junto, but it had a reputation for licentiousness. In the poem, Webb, a member of the society, celebrated it (“the proud dome on Delaware’s stream”) and defended it against such charges, insisting that it was designed to allow men to be sociable and to train their minds on “nobler thoughts” in “the sweets of country air.” Philadelphia astronomer, mathematician, surveyor, and poet Jacob Taylor’s (?-1746) praise poem “To George Webb” hailed Webb as a powerful intellectual force, and contended, along with Webb, that the Muses had fled the Old World for Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_34445" align="alignright" width="223"]Portrait of Thomas Paine Thomas Paine, pictured in this 1851 lithograph holding his most famous works, Common Sense and Rights of Man, also wrote poetry envisioning democratic ideals worldwide. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In 1775, fire reduced Batchelor’s Hall to rubble. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote about the loss in a poem titled “Impromptu on Bachelor’s Hall, at Philadelphia, being destroyed by Lightning, 1775.” Webb’s earlier defense of the activities in the building did not stop Paine from asserting that it was a place where “Venus disclosed every fun she could think of, / And Bacchus made nectar for mortals to drink of,” and he interpreted the destruction of the building as divine punishment.

Other poets of the day also wrote about the evolving social sphere in the city and its environs. Notably, Henry Brooke (1678-1736) became the unofficial laureate of a group of gentry youth (his so-called “bottle-friends” as he termed them in a poem “writ at Newcastel in company”) who gathered often at Story’s Tavern at Front and Market Streets.

Another collective of poets and playwrights, the Swains of the Schuylkill, gathered at Philadelphia College (later the University of Pennsylvania) and were led by provost William Smith (1727-1803), who edited the American Magazine. This group included Francis Hopkinson (1737-91), Thomas Godfrey (1736-63), Nathaniel Evans (1742-67), and Jacob Duché (1737-98), who couched much of their poetry in the pastoral tradition; they met regularly on the banks of the Schuylkill at the “Baptisterion” (the Oak Grove at the end of Spruce Street).

[caption id="attachment_34443" align="alignright" width="261"]Portrait of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson Poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, portrayed here in an eighteenth-century engraving, often worked under the pseudonym “Laura.” She is known for her poem “Il Penseroso” or “The Deserted Wife,” as well as for her connections with other Philadelphia female poets. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The Swains participated in the salons of poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (1737-1801), who wrote under the pseudonym Laura, at Graeme Park, seventeen miles north of Philadelphia in Horsham, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Fergusson described Philadelphia as “the Athens of North America” and wrote on enlightenment themes; she cultivated a social network of female poets, including Susanna Wright (1697-1784), Annis Boudinot Stockton (born in Darby, Pennsylvania, 1736-1801), and Hannah Griffitts (1727-1817), who shared their poetry with each other in manuscript. Fergusson’s niece, Anna Young Smith (1756-1780), also a Philadelphia poet, wrote frequently on gender and politics as well as on the more conventional subjects of courtship, sensibility, and grief.

The Revolutionary War and the Early National Period

In addition to his proverbial almanac verse, in the years prior to the War for Independence Franklin wrote propagandistic political poetry. In “On the Freedom of the Press,” included in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1757, he reminded that “The Press from her fecundous Womb / Brought forth the Arts of Greece and Rome.” Paine’s rousing song “Liberty Tree,” published in Pennsylvania Magazine in July 1775 under the pseudonym “Atlanticus,” also sounded the note of freedom: “From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms, / Thro’ the land let the sound of it flee, / Let the far and the near,—all unite with a cheer, / In defence of our Liberty tree.”

The Quaker poet Hannah Griffitts, whose nom de plume was “Fidelia,” also wrote political poetry (as did Fergusson), emphasizing the role women could and must play in the defense of freedom. In “The Female Patriots” (1768) she called on “the Daughters of Liberty” to “nobly arise, / And though we’ve no voice, but a negative here,” vigorously oppose the Stamp Act of 1765 and Townshend Duties of 1767 and boycott British goods: “rather than Freedom, we’ll part with out Tea.” One of the Swains, Francis Hopkinson, penned “The Battle of the Kegs,” a propaganda ballad describing an attack in the harbor of Philadelphia upon a British fleet during the war. His son Joseph Hopkinson (1770-1842) composed “Hail Columbia” (1798), which became one of the nation’s favorite patriotic songs.

In addition to this politically inspired poetry, Philadelphia was flush with verse that described and often lampooned the character of its citizens, as growing wealth led to a perceived putting on of airs and attendant foolishness. "The Manners of the Times: A Satire in Two Parts" (1762), by “Philadelphiensis,” and the anonymous "The Philadelphiad" (1784), both in heroic couplets, satirized such stereotyped figures as the “Country Clown,” the “Quaker,” the “Emigrant,” and “Miss Kitty Cut-a-Dash; Or the Arch-street Flirt.” The Country Clown, for one, cautions: “Keep from the city and secure thy fame”; lurking in the city, he contends, are temptations steadfastly to be avoided.

Another poet of the Revolution, Philip Freneau (1752-1832), lived and worked in Philadelphia off and on, including during the 1790s, when he edited a partisan newspaper while the city served as the nation’s capital. He penned “On The Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin” to commemorate Franklin’s passing in 1790, holding him up as an exemplar in all ways:

When monarchs tumble to the ground,
Successors easily are found:
But, matchless FRANKLIN! what a few
Can hope to rival such as YOU,
Who seized from kings their sceptered pride,
And turned the lightning darts aside.

In 1793, when yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia, killing a quarter of its residents, Freneau’s poem “Pestilence: Written During the Prevalence of a Yellow Fever” (1793) mourned the casualties of the epidemic:

Hot, dry winds forever blowing,
Dead men to the grave-yards going:
Constant hearses,
Funeral verses;
Oh! what plagues--there is no knowing!

The poem went on to decry “O, what a pity, / Such a City, / Was in such a place erected!” as the outbreak of yellow fever brought home the dangers of high-density city living.

The Nineteenth Century

The continuing expansion of Philadelphia and increases in its citizens’ wealth, and with it the breeding of waste, pretension, and extravagance, remained a target of verse satirists into the nineteenth century. In “Philadelphia: A Satire” (1821), John Cadwalader McCall (1793-1846) poked fun at the newest generation of city dwellers. In contrast to the esteemed origins of the city (“Thee, city of sonorous name, I sing, / The western Athens, and fair Fashion’s spring”), it now teemed with corrupt lawyers and dandies, “With fashions, scandal, and with folly fraught.”

[caption id="attachment_34479" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of house where Poe lived While living at 530 N. Seventh Street, in the house shown here in a c. 1920 photograph, Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Raven” and “The Black Cat” and published his contest-winning piece “The Golden Bug” and short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), who lived in Philadelphia from 1838 to 1844, tapped into the underworld of the industrial city—imagined as a zone of danger and terror—and, along with short stories, published several gothic poems during this period, including “Ligeia”(1839), about the death of a young woman, and “The Haunted Palace” (1843). He also conceived of “The Raven,” published in January 1845, in Philadelphia.

Poetry documented racial tensions during this period as well. In May 1838 an anti-abolitionist mob burned down Pennsylvania Hall, a large building on Sixth Street in Philadelphia constructed to serve as a headquarters for the antislavery movement, the same weekend it opened. Well-known abolitionist poet and Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) delivered the dedicatory poem, reminding the audience of the glory of the occasion, that although “loftier Halls, ’neath brighter skies than these,” once stood in Athens, “Yet in the porches of Athena’s halls, / And in the shadow of her stately walls, / Lurked the sad bondsman, and his tears of woe.” After the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, Whittier responded in his poem “The Relic,” written in 1839 when he received a cane made from a fragment of the building’s woodwork:

[caption id="attachment_34447" align="alignright" width="239"]Portrait of John Greenleaf Whittier John Greenleaf Whittier, pictured here c. 1840-1860, edited the Pennsylvania Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper published in Philadelphia. Deeply moved by the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, Whittier wrote “The Relic” (1839) in response to the fire. (Boston Public Library)[/caption]

The fire-scorched stones themselves are crying,
And from their ashes white and cold
Its timbers are replying!
A voice which slavery cannot kill
Speaks from the crumbling arches still!

Although abolitionism was controversial in Philadelphia, the city produced much poetry supporting the cause. In 1831, a group of African American women formed the Female Literary Association, a self-improvement society where writing, including poems, addressing contemporary social and political issues were read without author attribution at weekly meetings and later published anonymously in such outlets as the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79).

John Collins (1814-1902) wrote a long poem about a fugitive-slave mother that was published for the 1855 Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Fair in Philadelphia. The Anti-Slavery Alphabet had been produced for the same fair in 1846: “A is an Abolitionist— / A man who wants to free / The wretched slave—and give to all / An equal liberty.” Famed African American poet Frances E.W. Harper (1825-1911) lived in Philadelphia throughout much of the 1850s and aided William Still on the Underground Railroad. She settled again in Philadelphia in 1870. One of her best-known poems, “The Slave Mother,” written in Philadelphia in 1854, made a strong sentimental case against slavery by depicting in ballad stanzas the heartbreak of a mother whose son is ripped from her and sold to another master.

When the Civil War broke out, Philadelphia had its share of poets documenting that convulsive event and beating the drum for the Union cause. Perhaps the two leading poets in the city were Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-72) and George Henry Boker (1823-90). Read, born in Chester County, joined the Union army and penned one of the most popular poems of the war, the martial ballad “Sheridan’s Ride.” Boker, a leading spirit behind the city’s Union League Club, published Poems of the War in 1864. A good friend of Boker, Bayard Taylor (1825-78), born in the village of Kennett Square in Chester County, also composed Civil War verse, and to commemorate the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Monument at Gettysburg in 1869 produced “Gettysburg Ode,” a setting of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to rhyme.

Poetry also marked the nation’s centennial in 1876, when Taylor was chosen over Walt Whitman (1819-92) to write and perform the poem for the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia. A crowd gathered in Independence Square to hear him recite his poem, “Centennial Ode”:

[caption id="attachment_34453" align="alignright" width="238"]Photograph of Walt Whitman The American poet Walt Whitman, known for his free verse style of poetry and his renowned and controversial collection of poems knowns as Leaves of Grass, spent many years in Camden. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Transmute into good the gold of Gain,
Compel to beauty thy ruder powers,
Till the bounty of coming hours
Shall plant, on thy fields apart,
With the oak of Toil, the rose of Art!

Walt Whitman had arrived in Camden, New Jersey, in 1873 from Washington, D.C., and, while in Camden produced several editions of his monumental, ever-evolving book Leaves of Grass in addition to several other timely books of poetry and prose, as his reputation as one of the greatest American poets began to be cemented. In his 1876 book Two Rivulets (the second volume of his Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass), published in Camden, Whitman included his Centennial Exhibition poem, “Song of the Exposition,” wherein he bids the Muse to “migrate from Greece and Ionia” to Philadelphia.

Upon his death in 1892, poets feted Whitman in verse much as Penn and Franklin had been before him. As native Philadelphian Francis Howard Williams (1844-1922) remarked in his commemorative sonnet “Walt Whitman” (March 26, 1892), “Darkness and death? Nay, Pioneer, for thee, / The day of deeper vision has begun; / There is no darkness for the central sun / Nor any death for immortality.”

The Twentieth Century to the Twenty-First Century

By the twentieth century, the poetic capital of the East Coast in many ways moved to New York City, at least in part due to the shift of the publishing industry. However, Philadelphia continued to host poets who weighed in on important matters of the day.

One of Whitman’s ardent disciples, socialist poet Horace Traubel (1858-1919), lived in Camden and worked as a publisher on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. His journal The Conservator sought to keep Whitman’s legacy alive and included Traubel’s socialist free verse in the Whitmanian tradition. Traubel also wrote poetry staunchly opposing American involvement in World War I. Another poet well-known at the time, Germantown resident Florence Earle Coates (1850-1927), took the opposite view, describing the selfless sacrifices made by soldiers and citizens for the cause of freedom and liberty in a pamphlet of poetry called Pro Patria (1917). In 1915, Florence was unanimously elected Poet Laureate of Pennsylvania by the state’s Federation of Women’s Clubs.

In addition, some of the most important avant-garde poets of the period lived in and around Philadelphia, if only for a short while—notably, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) (1886-1961), Ezra Pound (1885-1972), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), all of whom were friends, and Marianne Moore (1887-1972).

African American poets also gained prominence as migration from the South added to the black population of northern cities, including Philadelphia, which had the second-largest African American population in the country by 1924. Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954), a native of Philadelphia, moved on to Harlem and became instrumental in leading the New Negro Movement, which lay at the core of the Harlem Renaissance. Another Philadelphia native, Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961), worked on Black Opals (1927-28), a Philadelphia literary journal and club for young black writers, as did the poets Idabelle Yeiser (1897-?) and Mae Virginia Cowdery (1909-53).

[caption id="attachment_34449" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Sonia Sanchez Alabama-born poet Sonia Sanchez, pictured here in 1972, made Philadelphia her home and went on to become chairperson of the English Department at Temple University and Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate in 2011. (New York Public Library)[/caption]

The same spirit, but in more brazen language, characterized the poetry of Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934), a native of Alabama who moved to New York with her family during the 1940s and then taught in San Francisco before settling in Philadelphia in 1976. She became chairperson of the Department of English at Temple University the following year and served as Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate in 2012-13. In “Elegy: For MOVE and Philadelphia” (1987), she mourned the casualties of the 1985 city bombing of MOVE, a black liberation group, in West Philadelphia.

Sanchez wrote poems about bleak cityscapes, and her words sometimes were written onto them. The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, working with Sanchez in collaboration with Philadelphia’s third Poet Laureate, Yolanda Wisher (b. 1976), in 2012 launched a project titled Peace is a Haiku Song, to engage the Philadelphia community in exploring haiku as a vehicle for peace and urban transformation. Her haiku, included in a mural on the side of a building at 1425 Christian Street, reads:

The sprawling sound
of peace sails on the wind
A white butterfly

Her 1969 poem “Ballad” was scrawled across the façade of an abandoned house at Broadway and Ferry Avenues in Camden.

The power of poetry to comment on and entangle itself in the fabric of the urban experience also infused the work of Camden resident Nick Virgilio (1928-89), who produced radically remodeled urban haiku, often vividly set in the deindustrialized landscape of Camden:

moonlit city lot
strewn with sticks and broken bricks:
stray kitten licks wound.

[caption id="attachment_34451" align="alignright" width="286"]Photograph of Daniel Hoffman Daniel Hoffman, one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished poets of the twentieth century, held the title of 22nd Consultant of Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1973-74, later referred to as the Poet Laureate. In one of his most acclaimed works, Brotherly Love, Hoffman wrote a collection of 61 poems based on his interest in the life of William Penn. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Other poets examined Philadelphia’s past and its legacies. One of its most famous recent poets, the 1973-74 Poet Laureate of the United States Daniel Hoffman (1923-2013), wrote a book-length historical poem about William Penn titled Brotherly Love (1981), a finalist for the National Book Award in 1982. In its sixty-one poems, all in different styles, Hoffman relied on a range of primary sources to probe William Penn’s identity, putting into context his attempt to found a New Jerusalem in the wilderness. As a recurring theme, the book explored ways of knowing the past. Another poet associated with the University of Pennsylvania, C.K. Williams (1936-2015), in “The United States” (2007) spins an allegory about globalization and the decay of the American dream, as he attends to the “rusting, decomposing hulk” of the SS United States “moored across Columbus Boulevard from Ikea, / rearing weirdly over the old municipal pier / on the mostly derelict docks in Philadelphia.” In the poem, Whitman even makes a cameo appearance.

The work of African American poet Major Jackson (b. 1968), a native of North Philadelphia, also centered on this theme by exploring the politics of identity, specifically what it means to be a young poet of color in the city in the twenty-first century. His first book, Leaving Saturn (2002), winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, was firmly rooted in Philadelphia: “I pledged / my life right then … / to anointing streets I love with all my mind’s wit.” In “Urban Renewal” he extends Hoffman’s critique by invoking “Penn’s GREEN COUNTRIE TOWN” only to show how that pastoral ideal has faded from view, leaving a “cracked republic.”

Issues of industrialization and racism, of the consequences of urban renewal and decline, also shaped David Livewell’s Shackamaxon (2012). Set in North Philadelphia, the book received the T.S. Eliot Prize. With similar concerns, that same year Lamont Steptoe (b. 1949) published Meditations in Congo Square (2012), focused on Washington Square, where African Americans were buried in unmarked graves in the eighteenth century, showing how the city is still haunted by its history.Other contemporary poets who have imagined the city and its pain and promise include Frank Sherlock (b. 1969), former Poet Laureate of Philadelphia (2014-15), and co-writer CAConrad (b. 1966), who penned the book-length poem The City Real and Imagined (2010) based on their walks through Philadelphia; Ryan Eckes (b. 1979), whose Old News (2011) looked into Philadelphia’s past through the lens of old news articles from The Evening Bulletin and The Philadelphia Inquirer; Jena Osman, whose Public Figures is a poem-essay that tracks the gaze of a number of statues in Philadelphia; and Yolanda Wisher, who in Monk Eats an Afro (2014) summoned “the hot breath of West Philly.”

In the early twenty-first century Philadelphia supported a vibrant spoken word scene as well as an epicenter of avant-garde poetry writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In its many forms, the poetry of Philadelphia has taken account of the social and political life of the city and its cultural memory, testifying to the importance of poetry to public life. Reading it, we get a keen sense of the evolution of the city and its place in a changing nation.

Tyler Hoffman (Ph.D., English, University of Virginia) is Professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden. He is the author of Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (2001), Teaching with The Norton Anthology of Poetry: A Guide for Instructors, 5th and 6th editions (2005; 2018), American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop (2011); co-editor of “This Mighty Convulsion”: Whitman and Melville Write the Civil War (2019); and numerous articles on modern American poetry and culture.


Once on par with other industries that gave Greater Philadelphia its reputation as the “Workshop of the World,” ceramic production played a key role in the region’s economic and artistic significance. Innovative makers and entrepreneurs produced a spectrum of utilitarian pottery and refined luxury goods, making visible the shifting patterns of consumption, taste, and technology use. While the height of ceramics production coincided with industrialization in the nineteenth century, the medium’s ubiquity in daily life continued to support Philadelphia-area pottery-making on a smaller scale into the twenty-first century.

Prior to European colonization, abundant local clay deposits supported a continuous indigenous pottery tradition in the region for around three thousand years. The native Lenni Lenape People and their ancestors made, used, and traded earthenware ceramics across a broad territory, throughout the Woodland Period and after (roughly 500 BCE-1500 CE). Early prehistoric vessels were decorated by pressing a cord into the wet clay, while later pots often feature incised geometric patterns around the rim or shoulder. Hand-built and fired without kilns, some Lenape vessels for daily and ceremonial use reached impressive sizes.

Early European settlers in the region drew on the same clay deposits to produce a wide range of useful wares for use in homes, taverns, or dairies. Ceramics with industrial or architectural purposes, including building components like bricks, roof tiles, drain pipes, and chimney liners were also produced from an early date. The porous, low-fire earthenware that formed most of these functional products required glazing to be waterproof. Intensive labor characterized each step of the production process: cutting clay from the ground, preparing and refining it, and shaping, decorating, and firing finished vessels and other objects. Workshops tended to be organized through the longstanding tradition of apprenticeship, although colonial craft was far less formal or regulated than its European precedents, and many potters supplemented their incomes with additional lines of business.

[caption id="attachment_34326" align="alignright" width="300"]Close up picture of a plate with plants painted on it, and writing along the rim. This lead-glazed earthenware dish, made in Rockhill Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is attributed to Jacob Stout and John Lacy. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

One of the most distinctive styles of early ceramics in the Philadelphia area arrived with the influx of German-speaking settlers to the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Pennsylvania Germans (or Pennsylvania Dutch, as the community is often known, based on a corruption of “Deutsch”) produced great quantities of red-bodied earthenware using earthy glazes (typically containing iron oxide, manganese, copper oxide, and cobalt), colored slip (thin, liquid clay), and sgraffito (incised marks) to create a wide variety of decorative effects. The Pennsylvania German tradition in ceramics and other crafts continued into later centuries, even as the mid-eighteenth-century discovery of higher-grade stoneware clays in northern New Jersey and an increase in luxury production throughout the colonies shifted the economic center of gravity away from these more rustic wares.

Casting Off Imported Wares

For Anglo-Europeans, establishing pottery production on a commercial scale aided in casting off reliance on imported wares, thus contributing to economic and political independence from Britain. Philadelphia-area manufactories benefited from the knowledge and skill of émigrés from Staffordshire, the heart of Britain’s ceramics industry. The American China Manufactory, the joint venture of British-born Gousse Bonnin (c. 1741­-?) and Philadelphia native George Anthony Morris (c. 1742-73), began operations in 1770 at a site on Front Street and the newly built China Street (later renamed Alter Street) near Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront. It became one of the earliest American enterprises to produce porcelain, a type of ceramic highly valued for its physical and visual refinement. The complexity and secrecy surrounding the making of porcelain (which had been exclusive to China for several centuries) fueled demand for the China trade, and scientific and entrepreneurial investment in porcelain production throughout eighteenth-century Europe made and broke personal and state fortunes. Enabled by nearby sources of porcelain ingredients (kaolin and feldspar) in Delaware and New Jersey, Bonnin and Morris’s wares represented not only an American attempt at economic self-determination, but also demonstrated the intellectual and artistic capacity of the colonial states. Despite these ambitions, the manufactory proved fiscally unsustainable, facing stiff competition in quality and price with English imports and struggling to sufficiently compensate its laborers. Although the American China Manufactory ceased operations in 1772, its standing as an early indicator of Philadelphia’s industrial achievements remained.

Objects of Euro-American luxury consumption often survived in museums and private collections, but ceramics were also an important part of daily life for laborers, free and enslaved Africans, and other marginalized groups in the colonial period and early Republic. Sturdy vessels made by Africans and African Americans, termed “colonoware” by archaeologists, originated primarily in southeastern colonies and the Caribbean, but important finds in Philadelphia have shown a wide geographic distribution between the late seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Alongside such vernacular pottery production, fragments of fine imported wares found at sites associated with African and African American communities and individuals in Philadelphia, including the kitchens and slave quarters of the former President's House on Market Street, have shown that more expensive forms of ceramics could also move across social and economic divides.

By the 1810 United States Census of Manufactures, Pennsylvania’s leadership in ceramics production had been firmly established: the commonwealth hosted 164 of the 194 potteries in the nation. Despite the difficulties encountered by Bonnin and Morris, Philadelphia’s situation as an intersection between land and maritime transport made it a center for this production. As America’s manufacturing sector grew, the project of reducing national dependence on European imports continued. The William Ellis Tucker China Manufactory (active 1826-38), located at Twenty-Third and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, made largely French-styled porcelain and found regular success at exhibitions hosted by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, which aimed to support domestic fine ceramics and other luxury industries. Despite its successful porcelain recipe and favorable reception of its designs, the Tucker factory faced continual financial difficulties that revealed the unstable nature of luxury industries, which relied on rapidly shifting tastes and complex manufacturing processes.

Mechanization and Expansion

Over the course of the nineteenth century, like many other industries the ceramics industry experienced mechanization and expansion. Steam-powered machinery for digging and working clay, along with larger kilns fired by coal rather than wood, enabled some manufacturers to grow from small family firms to industrial-scale producers. Railroads fostered better access to inland clay deposits and more reliable distribution of finished wares to customers. Machine-based molding techniques, adapted to mass production from their origins in small potteries, allowed higher output and better consistency. Techniques for transferring patterns and graphic decoration onto blank ceramic shapes saved time and the high cost of hand-painting, although fine handcraft traditions were still valued for high-style wares aimed at elite consumers.

These technological changes reshaped the economic, demographic, and geographic landscapes of ceramics production. In central urban areas, smaller, older potteries closed in the face of population growth, rising land values, and reduced tolerance for manufacturing inside the city’s bounds. Larger firms moved to the edges of urban centers, exploiting low-skill, low-wage labor that allowed them to undercut more traditional potteries (which required higher skill, higher wages, and higher prices for finished wares). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, New Jersey—especially Trenton—became a key center of ceramics production in the United States, mostly because of the confluence there of land and water transportation and its specialization in sanitary ware for institutional customers. Philadelphia-area firms continued to expand their holdings of clay deposits in the interior of Pennsylvania (particularly Lancaster and Cumberland Counties) and diversify their merchandise in response to a growing middle-class consumer base.

[caption id="attachment_34325" align="alignright" width="300"]Photo of a Chinese pagoda at the Centennial fair. Vases surround it. The displays of Chinese ceramics around a seven-story Chinese pagoda at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition were a novelty for American audiences. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Reflecting the public clout of the pottery business, ceramics were one of the most commented-upon categories of industrial art on view at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Displays of ceramics by numerous exhibitors from Europe, Asia, and the United States provided a global view of techniques and styles through both contemporary and historic objects. Many commentators argued that the distinct styles and high degree of workmanship evident in Chinese and Japanese ceramics could be a fresh source of inspiration for domestic producers. European firms with long-standing reputations also displayed wares reinterpreting the historic styles of classical antiquity or the Renaissance, issuing a challenge to their younger American counterparts on the bases of quality and refinement. The Centennial ceramic displays captured many of the defining impulses of nineteenth-century decorative arts—orientalism and historic revivalism, the embrace of handcraft amid increasing industrialization, and concerns about quality in mass production.

These trends also informed the wide diversity of ceramics produced in the Philadelphia region in the later nineteenth century. Examples include J. E. Jeffords & Company, which operated the Philadelphia City Pottery at Edgemont Street and Lehigh Avenue in the Richmond area beginning in the 1868, as well as Ott & Brewer in Trenton, New Jersey, both of which produced highly decorative, orientalist ceramics; Griffen, Smith & Hill Company in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, whose offerings included fashionable majolica and Renaissance-revival objects; the American Crockery Company in Trenton, producing more affordable transferware; and Charles Wingender & Brother, established in 1881 in Haddonfield, New Jersey, by German immigrants who worked to revive the Central European tradition of durable salt-glazed stoneware.

Post-Centennial Institutions

Another impact of the Centennial Exhibition was the establishment of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (later separated into the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, forerunner of the University of the Arts). Ceramics acquired from the exhibition formed a major part of the institution’s founding collection, intended to serve as didactic examples to raise the quality of local manufacturing. An early curator and eventual director of the museum, archaeologist Edwin Atlee Barber (1851-1916) was a respected authority on ceramics history, and his publications and acquisitions reinforced the medium as an area of focus for the young institution. While its primary educational mission mainly addressed industry-based makers, the museum and school also promoted china-painting as a respectable income-earning activity for genteel women. This vein of ceramics history is less well-documented or collected in archives or cultural institutions, illustrating the gendered divisions between the professional, “masculine” world of manufacturing and the domestic, amateur, “feminine” sphere of home industry—both in nineteenth-century social terms as well as in subsequent history-writing.

Reactions against mechanization and industrialization—and the social and economic upheavals that accompanied them—led to a surge of interest in small-scale craft production in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Building on the writings and practices of English design reformers, the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States focused on the individual (often rural) craftsperson as a vehicle of both social and artistic change. Ceramics were one of the most financially successful veins of Arts and Crafts activity, and firms like Trenton-based Lenox Incorporated or Flemington, New Jersey-based Fulper Pottery participated in a larger vogue for “art pottery” that suggested handcraft and connections to nature. More radical art colony projects, like Rose Valley outside Philadelphia in Delaware County, sought to construct daily life as an artistic practice, inviting potters like William P. Jervis (1851–1925) to teach craft skills and sell work to support the community.

[caption id="attachment_34328" align="alignright" width="289"]Framed mosaic of an elk. This 1903 glazed earthenware tile was designed by Henry Chapman Mercer, and made by the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

The region’s urban growth in the early twentieth century provided a robust market for architectural ceramics, especially efficiently produced tilework. One of the frontrunners in this arena was the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, established in 1898 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, by Henry Chapman Mercer, a notable archaeologist and collector whose interest in the history of Germanic pottery in colonial America led him into the ceramics field. Like many other Arts and Crafts advocates, Mercer looked to the arts of the Middle Ages to inform his designs, producing mosaics and other decoration for buildings throughout the Philadelphia area and elsewhere. Alongside the more romantic Arts and Crafts approach, industrial-scale ceramics production continued unabated, and the construction of Philadelphia’s first skyscrapers spurred architectural terra-cotta ornament to new heights. Many of the region’s buildings dating from the late 1910s into the 1930s sported Art Deco ceramic ornament in patterns and bright colors that suggested the dynamism and modernity of the machine-age city.

After the Second World War, an influx of G.I. Bill students and rising national interest in craft education supported the founding or expansion of ceramics programs at Philadelphia-area institutions including Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia College of the Arts (later the University of the Arts), and Beaver College (later Arcadia University). Faculty and graduates of these programs contributed to a turn in the broader field of craft toward more conceptual and sculptural work, moving away from the production of necessarily functional objects and allying themselves with avant-garde artistic ideas. The tensions between notions of utility and artistry and the contested borders between craft, art, and design continued to characterize the ceramics field in subsequent decades.

Ceramists as Teachers

Teaching provided ceramists a secure income as well as time and resources for their work, and many of Philadelphia’s best-known makers cultivated careers as artist-educators, often enjoying lengthy tenures. Rudolf Staffel (1911–2002) taught at the Tyler School of Art for thirty-eight years; Staffel’s student Paula Winokur (1935–2018) taught for three decades at Beaver College, while her husband Robert (b. 1933) taught at Tyler; and William Daley (b. 1925) joined the Philadelphia College of the Arts faculty in 1957 and taught there for thirty-three years. Other notable ceramists who studied or worked in the region bridged multiple geographies over the course of their careers. Robert Turner (1913–2005) studied at Swarthmore and the Pennsylvania Academy before teaching at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina; Byron Temple (1933–2002) operated a studio in Lambertville, New Jersey, while teaching in several New York City programs. Temple’s assistant James Makins (b. 1946) pursued graduate study at the prestigious Cranbrook Art Academy in Michigan before returning to teach at University of the Arts from 1990.

Non-academic cultural organizations also played an important role in the postwar visibility of ceramic art. The Clay Studio was founded in 1974 by a group of Tyler School of Art students and faculty seeking studio space. Originally housed on Orianna Street near Temple University, by 1979 it had transformed into a nonprofit offering public classes, artist residencies, and selling exhibitions for ceramists in the region, moving to Second Street in Old City the next year. Private collectors and commercial galleries also responded to the growing interest in—and market for—contemporary ceramics. Helen Drutt English (b. 1930), a founding member of the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsmen in 1967, established a respected Center City gallery that mounted exhibitions of nationally and internationally prominent ceramists during its operation from 1973 to 2002.

In the twenty-first century, ceramics remained a strong presence in the artistic and everyday life of the Philadelphia region, as retailers, galleries, and museums interpreted the creative, economic, and social importance of the medium. The juried Philadelphia Craft Show, running since 1977 as a fundraising project of the Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, remained a prominent venue for ceramists to exhibit and sell their work, and in 2018 the Clay Studio began planning a move from Old City to a much larger facility for expanded studio and educational offerings. Younger generations of makers like Winnie Owens Hart (b. 1949), Lizbeth Stewart (1948–2013), and Cristina Tufiño (b. 1982)—ceramists who trained or worked in Philadelphia while participating in global artistic conversations—drove the medium in new aesthetic and conceptual directions, exploring how ceramic artworks might critique issues of racial, gender, or economic disparities.

Since its earliest days as a center of making, the Philadelphia region has played a key role in the history of American ceramics—a medium that, at its best, represents a combination of technological knowledge and artistic excellence. Although the mass-production of pottery tapered off over the twentieth century, a strong ceramist community ensured that Philadelphia’s reputation for ceramic innovations continued beyond the region’s transition to a post-industrial economy.

Colin Fanning is a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center, where his research focuses on the history of American design education. From 2014 to 2017, he was Curatorial Fellow for European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Tyler Hoffman

Tyler Hoffman (Ph.D., English, University of Virginia) is Professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden. He is the author of Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (2001), Teaching with The Norton Anthology of Poetry: A Guide for Instructors, 5th and 6th editions (2005; 2018), American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop (2011); co-editor of “This Mighty Convulsion”: Whitman and Melville Write the Civil War (2019); and numerous articles on modern American poetry and culture.

Penn Center

Deemed one of the boldest planning projects undertaken by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission during the mid-twentieth century, Penn Center replaced the Pennsylvania Railroad’s infamous “Chinese Wall” viaduct and Broad Street Station in Center City with modern civic spaces and commercial structures. The complex, which grew to comprise thirteen buildings stretching from Market Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, embodied the planning strengths and limitations of its visionary originator, Edmund Bacon (1910-2005). The final rendering of Penn Center, far from its intended original design, nonetheless signaled the growing influence of city planning under Bacon’s stewardship during the 1950s.

Penn Center originated from business and civic reformers’ collective efforts to rehabilitate both the physical and political state of the city after years of Republican machine rule. Through the formation of the City Policy Committee starting in the late 1930s, they sought to modernize the city’s physical state and in 1942 also reconfigured the City Planning Commission, which had been established in 1929 with the consent of the Philadelphia City Council. To further extend the reach of their work, they forged the Citizens’ Council on City Planning in 1943 to advocate for and supervise the actions of the commission. As the culmination of their collective activities, the Better Philadelphia Exhibition in 1947 at Gimbel Bros. department store evoked through the vision of architects Oscar Stonorov (1905-70) and Louis Kahn (1901-74) a transformation of the heart of the city through the creation of Independence Mall, the rehabilitation of what came to be called Society Hill, and, most notably, Penn Center as the centerpiece to the city's central commercial district.

[caption id="attachment_33935" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Market Street and the Chinese Wall with trains running on it. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Filbert Street Viaduct, better known as the Chinese Wall, formed a physical and psychological barrier to the west of City Hall. Its demolition in 1953 cleared the way for Penn Center. This image is most likely from 1941. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

One of the principal obstacles to realizing the Penn Center project was the so-called “Chinese Wall,” constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad on a six-block stretch along Market Street, which physically divided and impeded the physical redevelopment of downtown Philadelphia.

Stonorov and Kahn, who had been selected by the planning commission to create a redevelopment plan for the Chinese Wall site, proposed constructing three new commercial structures and a submerged, pedestrian walkway that would mimic Rockefeller Center in New York City. Seeking to maximize its financial investment in the site, the Pennsylvania Railroad fought the plan, and it was up to Bacon, on assuming the position of planning director in 1949, to resolve the issue.

The Early Proposals

Bacon’s first instinct was to collaborate with Kahn, who envisioned eleven symmetrical structures that would span from the Chinese Wall to the Schuylkill River, with a pedestrian walkway traversing them from beneath—an expansion of his earlier design concept from the Better Philadelphia Exhibition. Bacon, however, eventually deemed Kahn’s vision impractical. He soon turned to Vincent Kling (1916-2013), an innovative, young architect known for his professional and architectural connections to the railroad, to design a model that would encompass three office structures on the eastern half of the Chinese Wall, a submerged concourse dotted with stores, and nearby access to the Suburban Station concourse. Encouraged by interest expressed by James Symes (1897-1976), the presumed heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad, Bacon used a luncheon for members of the Citizens’ Council on City Planning on February 21, 1952, to announce that the Public Utilities Commission had agreed to allow the railroad to dismantle the Chinese Wall and Broad Street Station, a seventy-one-year-old railroad depot located at Broad and Market Streets, to make way for the project. Although Symes hinted that the site’s future redevelopment had yet to be completely determined, Bacon officially designated the project Penn Center and declared that “these plans represent a conception of a way of rebuilding . . . the city core expressive of the dignity of Philadelphia as the center of a growing metropolitan region.”

Bacon and newly elected Democratic Mayor Joseph Clark (1901-90), an outspoken municipal reformer who highlighted the centrality of Penn Center to the city’s comprehensive planning agenda, soon experienced setbacks. At the insistence of its president, Martin Clement (1881-1966), the railroad sought to make a quick profit by selling the site piecemeal rather than developing it as one continuous project. In addition, a number of civic organizations objected to Bacon’s suggestion of making way for the project by dismantling City Hall, with the exception of its tower. Bacon’s Penn Center Redevelopment Area Plan, which reached from Vine Street to Market Street, released in August 1952, answered critics by arguing that while the Chinese Wall site was privately owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the city was within its purview to redevelop adjoining properties in the immediate vicinity. Although the proposal did not include City Hall, it nevertheless heeded civic fears by calling for a study to determine the merits and liabilities of refurbishing or razing it. To advance the city’s unified vision for the site among the railroad’s leadership, which entertained offers from numerous developers, the plan called for a pedestrian walkway, additional surface transit lines, and a submerged expressway at Vine Street as well as a height restriction of 340 feet on newly erected structures to ensure that City Hall remained the tallest building in the city if it was retained.

For Bacon, the planning document proved insufficient to achieve his goals. The Pennsylvania Railroad demolished the Chinese Wall in May 1953, but instead of cooperating with the planning commission it leased two blocks of property at Fifteenth and Market Streets on the site to Uris Brothers, a real estate development firm from New York City, which proposed designing and building a drab, twenty-story structure designated “Three Penn Center,” further eroding Bacon’s goal of developing the land as one continuous project. Although Bacon had repeatedly sought to compel the Pennsylvania Railroad to incorporate the aesthetic and civic dimensions of the city’s Penn Center Plan, the railroad ultimately aligned with private developers to design a project intended to yield profitable returns.

First Up: Three Penn Center

As construction on the first Penn Center structure Three Penn Center commenced in late November 1953, Mayor Clark persuaded representatives from the railroad to construct the submerged pedestrian walkway, one of the plan’s critical features. But Bacon could not persuade the developers of the site to embrace most of his ideas for Penn Center, especially the inclusion of a continually open concourse. The final product and its four surrounding offshoots, which spanned from Market Street to JFK Boulevard and consisted of glass and concrete building materials, was widely condemned by architectural critics who deemed it “pretty miserable” and “an uninspired compromise with real estate interests” by its near completion in the late 1950s.

[caption id="attachment_33936" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Richardson Dilworth sitting at his desk Richardson Dilworth, shown in this 1957 photograph, served as mayor of Philadelphia from 1956 to 1962. He installed Edmund Bacon as executive director of the City Planning Commission. Bacon went on to pioneer many city projects, including Penn Center. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Despite Bacon’s dismay with the aesthetic features of Penn Center, he did not view the project as an abject failure, for he regarded it as an integral part of the broader redevelopment of downtown Philadelphia. He partnered with Dean Holmes Perkins (1904-2004), a city planner and dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, who was installed by Mayor Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) as chairman of the City Planning Commission, to acquire and mold the properties surrounding Penn Center into visibly appealing public spaces. The most notable of these public spaces, Dilworth Plaza (later Dilworth Park), occupied part of Penn Square, one of William Penn’s five original public squares for the city and the site of City Hall. He also collaborated with Vincent Kling to design a public plaza, later known as John F. Kennedy Plaza and LOVE Park, at the eastern end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. To maintain the historical connection between the physical centrality of City Hall and William Penn’s original plan for the center of the city, he also devised an “unwritten gentleman’s agreement” compelling builders to only erect structures that would not eclipse William Penn’s statue atop City Hall, which stood at 548 feet as the highest structure in Philadelphia, an idea that had first appeared in the 1952 Penn Center Redevelopment Plan, which would be completed by the early 1960s.

Despite architectural criticism, Penn Center advanced Bacon’s broader agenda to modernize the physical appearance of downtown and signaled the emerging impact of city planning recommendations on the decision-making processes of private corporations in advocating for the needs of the city.

Matthew Smalarz teaches history at Manor College in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where he serves as Chair of Social Sciences as well as History and Social Sciences Coordinator.

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