Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Anne E. Krulikowski

Grocery Stores and Supermarkets

Local grocery stores, along with churches, elementary schools, and often saloons, have defined and anchored urban and suburban neighborhoods. General grocery stores first appeared in Philadelphia and the surrounding area in the early nineteenth century and increased in number after the Civil War as populations exploded in industrial cities like Camden and Philadelphia and their adjacent suburbs.  By the end of the century, independent groceries faced increasing competition from stores operated by chains and grocers associations. Although supermarket chains never completely replaced small neighborhood grocery stores, they became typical in post-World War II suburbs.  Some urban areas, meanwhile, lost their supermarkets as population declined and poverty rose. Some “food deserts” remained by the early twenty-first century, but a transformed grocery and supermarket model began to deliver nutritious food options to more Philadelphia-area residents.

In colonial times, outdoor street markets near waterfront docks provided fresh meat, fish, and produce. Such public markets, later located near railroad lines, supplied food to many town and city dwellers (and, eventually, retail grocers) into the twentieth century. In Philadelphia, a few retail stores specialized in food items, but they generally sold expensive, imported “fancy goods” such as coffee, tea, wine, sugar, and chocolate. Gradually, some of these shops began offering everyday foods as well. Butchers, bakers, dairy stores, dry goods stores (which also carried some nonperishable food items), and apothecaries (which sometimes sold spices) also sold food items.

The early nineteenth century marked a transition to general groceries that carried a range of dry food items and sometimes a limited selection of longer-lasting perishables, such as potatoes and apples. In Philadelphia, hundreds of general groceries opened in both older and developing residential neighborhoods as the city expanded. DeSilver’s Philadelphia Directory and Stranger’s Guide for 1835 & 1836 listed 485 Philadelphia grocers. Some grocers operated in semi-detached and detached dwellings, depending on the neighborhood, but in Philadelphia and Camden, cities characterized by row-house blocks, most were located in row houses.

[caption id="attachment_32809" align="alignright" width="300"] Like many other grocers in the nineteenth century, Thompson Black's Grocery Store at Broad and Chestnut Streets (1841–75, pictured in 1841) did business in a row home—a staple of Philadelphia architecture. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The stereotypical “corner store” offered clear retail benefits: two sidewalk facades provided extra space for displaying goods, increasing the relatively limited interior stock and display space and creating the possibility for two large plate glass display windows. However, even in this early era fewer than half of Philadelphia’s grocers, about 45 percent, had corner locations. They vied with many types of retail stores—saloons, pharmacies, dry goods, bakeries, hardware stores, and  tobacconists/newsagents—all desiring visible locations.  There simply were not enough corners to go around.  

Challenges of Perishables

Before refrigeration, the small grocery was an especially risky business. Grocers had to estimate the quantities of foods they could sell, which could require years of experience to accurately predict the needs of a store’s particular group of customers. Many perishable goods had to be sold the same day the grocer purchased them.  Overstocking, particularly of quickly perishable items, led to failure for many stores.

As the number of grocers increased, national trade publications, such as American Grocer (first published in 1869) and later Progressive Grocer (established in 1922) provided advice augmented by local and regional publications.  For grocers in Philadelphia, Camden, and adjacent counties, Grocers’ Price Current (1873-86), Cash Grocer (1874-94), and Grocer (1875-90) offered price and transportation information for the region. By the end of the century, the national rail network and the appearance of nationally manufactured packaged food items reduced the need for local publications. National publications kept grocers apprised of weather conditions affecting growing seasons and reported on rail strikes or other factors that affected the quality, supply, or price of food items, which the grocer might need to explain to disappointed or even angry customers.  By carrying items from an expanded marketplace, the local grocer connected each family in the neighborhood to a global food economy.   

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Philadelphia transformed into the “workshop of the world” and outlying wards urbanized, the system of food distribution became increasingly complicated; at the end of the system, the neighborhood grocery made it all work.  By 1920, Philadelphia had an estimated sixty-five hundred independent retail grocers and two thousand additional chain and association stores, not including delicatessens, variety stores, caterers, small shops and restaurants that sold a few groceries as a sideline, or food halls at department stores that sold primarily “fancy goods.” The number of grocery stores increased steadily through the building boom of the 1920s.

[caption id="attachment_32798" align="alignright" width="287"] Samuel and Pauline Seltzer posed for this 1930 photograph in front of their delicatessen on Second Street. Prior to the advent of supermarkets, small grocers often carried homemade, culturally diverse offerings as well as pre-packaged goods. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The advent of chains and grocers’ associations beginning in the 1890s increased competition in this relatively risky business, but many independent small grocers absorbed and implemented new methods. Like chain grocers, they began carrying manufactured, packaged foods, which they displayed on shelves, in glassed counters, and in complicated arrangements like pyramids.  The independent grocers also continued to offer goods and services that made them indispensable to many customers. Many grocers took pride in offering homemade ethnic foods, such as German lunch meats, or homemade honey or home-smoked hams. Neighborhood grocery stores also offered an extension of family domestic space as women and children ran in and out every day, even several times a day, before most families acquired electric refrigerators. 

By the early years of the twentieth century, independent grocers had to show they were keeping up with modern methods as a defense against criticisms by some Progressive reformers. Journalist Ida Tarbell (1857-1944), for instance, suggested that in addition to being tempted to overweigh goods, independent grocers might sell unpackaged goods that could be contaminated or adulterated. For this reason, professional trade publications suggested displaying packaged and branded foods in large storefront windows, which also allowed passersby a full view of the interior of the store.

Chains and Supermarkets

The first grocery store chains in Philadelphia, established by several Scots-Irish and British immigrants, emerged in the 1890s.  By 1910 they accounted for about 490 stores, including the Acme Tea Company with two hundred stores and Robinson and Crawford, first established in South Philadelphia, with about one hundred. Originally very similar to independent groceries in size and daily operation, stores within a chain system benefited from central management of inventory.

Chains practiced economies of scale unavailable to independent grocers.  By standardizing inventories of member stores, they could purchase large quantities at discount from wholesalers and pass on lower prices to customers. A Wharton School economist, Clyde Lyndon King (1879-1937), suggested, though, that chains actually lowered their prices to points only just below those of independent grocers. The largest chains skipped the wholesalers and dealt directly with food manufacturers and sometimes even with farmers.

[caption id="attachment_32794" align="alignright" width="300"] To combat the increasing number of grocery chains that offered consumers discount-priced goods, small grocers and wholesalers united to form cooperatives like the Unity-Frankford grocery store shown here in 1950. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

To compete with these chains (and the growing number of independents), by the 1890s some retail grocers joined together to form wholesale associations. Reformers noted these retail cooperatives were especially successful in Philadelphia. The Retail Grocers’ Association (Girard Grocery Company) included about seven hundred Triangle Stores, so-called because their newspaper advertisements featured a triangular emblem.  The other significant grocery association in Philadelphia was the Unity-Frankford Association (Frankford Grocery Company). By 1920, about twenty-two hundred grocers had joined one or the other. Smaller groups of grocers had less success.  A group of thirty Polish grocers started the Richmond Grocery Company, but they did not have adequate working capital to purchase the large quantities necessary to pass on competitive lower prices to customers. Their association folded after just a few years. 

Grocers, as well as customers, struggled with the increasing price of food.  Like reformers, grocers identified the various middlemen in the food distribution process as a cause of rising food prices.  As retailers joined together in wholesale cooperatives, wholesalers fought back by creating retail cooperatives.  Food prices fluctuated wildly and became an issue in the 1912 election. The years 1916-17 saw a steep rise in prices of many goods, including the daily staples of flour and potatoes; women in several districts of the city, primarily in South Philadelphia, attacked pushcart vendors and grocers.  A mayoral commission appointed to investigate found that prices varied widely from grocer to grocer and that independent grocers invariably charged more than chain stores.

Chain-Store Efficiencies

Progressive reformers approved of the large-scale efficiency of the chain stores and attacked the independent retail grocer as the main culprit in high food prices.  In Philadelphia, important avenues devoted to small retail stores (Frankford Avenue, Germantown Avenue, Ridge Avenue, Woodland Avenue) frequently had two or three grocery stores to a block.  In many areas of the city, two of four corners at an intersection were occupied by grocery stores. By World War I, the city had one retail grocery for every fifty-nine families or 295 people.  Experts estimated this allowed the average grocer an income of $640 or less after expenses. Reformers believed cooperative associations should regulate the grocery trade by imposing stricter credit requirements on grocers, reducing both competition and failure. 

Even the chains had difficulty competing effectively. During and after World War I, they began merging with each other.  When the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the first grocery store chain in the nation, entered Philadelphia from New York and New Jersey, local mergers followed.  Five Philadelphia chains, including the Acme Tea Company, combined to create the American Stores Company, parent of ACME Markets. By 1920, six hundred grocers in the city and another six hundred in the surrounding counties had become part of American Stores. ACME experimented in New Jersey with two self-serve supermarkets, but both ACME and A&P were reluctant to abandon the familiar and overall successful model of the neighborhood grocery.

[caption id="attachment_32804" align="alignright" width="300"] This Holiday Thriftway on Frankford Avenue was originally the Penn Fruit Store (1927–78), which was founded in response to the creation of large grocery chains like ACME. Thriftway took over the location after Penn Fruit closed in the late 1970s. (Philadelphia Historical Commission, Nomination for Historic Building)[/caption]

From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, automobile and refrigerator ownership, the latter of which increased tenfold, changed the way Americans shopped for food. The Great Depression of the 1930s made customers even more sensitive to food prices and that decade saw a wave of supermarket expansion and innovation.  Three local businessmen founded the Penn Fruit Produce Store (1927-78) as a green grocery (only produce), but they quickly transformed their stores into a full general groceries in response to competition from ACME and A&P. By the late 1930s, Penn Fruit operated six self-serve supermarkets in Philadelphia. At its height in the 1950s, Penn Fruit ranked as one of the most successful supermarket chains in the United States.   

The Depression also provided the impetus for grocery and supermarket modernization. New Deal Main Street Programs encouraged even small businesses to remodel in a Moderne style characterized by glass and chrome, and newly constructed supermarkets most fully exploited the new visual taste. Most iconically, Penn Fruit became known for its modern streamlined curving arched storefront, even more so in 1955 when the company hired commercial architect Victor Gruen (1903-80) to create a prototype store design for the Black Horse Shopping Center in Audubon, New Jersey.  By the 1950s, developers looked to supermarkets as anchor stores for new suburban shopping centers reached by automobile. In 1953, Penn Fruit opened the first store in Shop-a-Rama in Levittown, Bucks County.  Food Fair, which originated Harrisburg in the 1920s, soon followed. Compared to these large, well-lit, glass and chrome structures in colorful new shopping centers surrounding by parking lots, traditional corner groceries in cities and the small shopping districts of inner suburbs like Swarthmore and Drexel Hill, Delaware County, often seemed out of date, unhygienic, and simply inconvenient.

Suburban Migration

In the mid- to late-twentieth century, supermarkets were identified with suburbia.  Giant, which began as a small meat market in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, expanded to several cities, but after World War II the company followed families moving to the suburbs. Genuardi's, which began as a green grocery in Norristown in the 1920s and evolved into a supermarket by the 1950s, expanded in the suburban counties west and north of Philadelphia but never opened a store in the city.

By 1970, supermarkets, which had revolutionized food distribution by carrying all kinds of foods under one roof and had largely stabilized food prices, accounted for about 70 percent of national food sales. Still, competition emerged. Offering an alternative to congested parking lots and long check-out lines, new “convenience” stores with easily accessible, roadside locations stocked basic items such as milk, snacks, and ready-made foods, tobacco products, newspapers, and sundries. In the 1990s, many began installing automatic-teller machines. Convenience stores generally charged higher prices than grocery stores and supermarkets, but they offered longer hours, sometimes twenty-four hours a day, and relatively quick service.

As with supermarkets, local and regional convenience stores competed with national chains.  A decline in popularity of home-delivered milk led two of the region’s dairy producers into the convenience store business: Heritage’s Dairy Stores, familiar in Camden and other southern New Jersey counties, opened its first convenience store in Westville, New Jersey, in 1957.  In Pennsylvania, the first Wawa Food Market opened in Folsom, Delaware County, in 1964.  Wawa expanded into New Jersey in 1968 and just one year later into Delaware.  In the early twenty-first century, Wawa also opened Center City Philadelphia stores geared toward urban pedestrians. Wawa and Heritage’s competed with the national 7-Eleven chain, founded in Texas in the 1920s, which became more famous for its Slurpee and large-sized sugared drinks than for milk and daily basics.

Large discount stores, such as Walmart and Target, also competed with supermarkets. With grocery departments as just one of their many offerings, these stores successfully offered one-stop shopping. Price clubs, like BJs and COSTCO, offered even more inexpensive food items for those who could pay annual memberships and buy in larger than usual quantities.

Food Deserts and Obesity

By the 1990s, the Philadelphia region had a full complement of supermarkets, including Giant, Shop Rite, IGA, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods (joined in the twenty-first century by Aldi, which sold discount organic produce). Quality and prices varied significantly between supermarkets and between neighborhoods, as new food categories—organic, non-GMO, and gluten-free—came into demand, for health or political reasons.  As “foodies” sought tasteful and unusual ingredients, supermarkets competed with farmers’ markets for customers who sought to “buy local.”

At the same time, in the 1990s several studies indicated that Philadelphia residents exhibited increasing levels of obesity, diabetes, and other diseases closely related to poor nutrition.  This once again made small, independent grocery stores the target of critics. Most neighborhood grocery stores still carried mainly packaged processed foods, with limited produce, meat, and seafood selection. Some urban areas (sections of Germantown, for instance, and the city of Camden) had deteriorated into “food deserts,” defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as areas lacking relatively easy access to the ingredients for a healthy diet, such as affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat milk, and other fresh food products.

To combat the high incidence of diet-related diseases in low-income neighborhoods, in 1992 Duane Perry (b. 1955), then-executive director of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants' Association, founded the Food Trust to encourage public-sector support of a nutritious food supply and a return of supermarkets to lower-income neighborhoods. Because more Philadelphians had convenient access to small neighborhood groceries, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health launched the Get Healthy Philadelphia initiative and offered neighborhood grocers financial incentive to carry at least two healthy food items in at least two food categories. In Camden, the situation was less promising as plans for a second full-service supermarket, a new ShopRite, fell through in 2016. Earlier, the city lacked a full-service supermarket for one year until a PriceRite opened in 2014, the first new supermarket to enter the city since the late 1960s.

Due to increasing publicity, dedicated activists, and widespread health concerns, supermarkets and neighborhood grocery stores brought an improved selection of healthy foods to many of Philadelphia’s residents by the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Despite new forms of competition, the corner grocery—the original convenience store—survived, and the distinctive offerings of Mexican, Asian, Italian, Nigerian, and other ethnic grocery stores in the city’s neighborhoods continued to attract a loyal following.

Anne Krulikowski holds a Ph.D. in American History with a concentration in material culture/historic preservation from the University of Delaware. She teaches at West Chester University and has published articles on working-class neighborhoods, oral history, vernacular architecture, and grocery stores.

West Chester, Pennsylvania

Boosted by its strategic location some twenty-five miles from Philadelphia, West Chester, Pennsylvania, grew and prospered for most of its history as the county seat of Chester County. Pressured by mid-twentieth-century suburbanization, the borough lost its commercial and residential dominance and even its role as county seat somewhat diminished as the growth of the surrounding county required more employees and offices than the borough could reasonably accommodate. In the early twenty-first century, the borough established itself as a destination for restaurants, entertainment, and specialty shopping that attracted residents and visitors alike.

[caption id="attachment_27426" align="alignright" width="300"] West Chester promotes itself as an entertainment and cultural heritage destination, a strategy that proves its appeal with crowds that swarm downtown for a chili festival. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Borough of West Chester originated from a crossroads in West Goshen Township, Chester County, the county originally adjacent to Philadelphia to the west. The modern town developed on land that was part of several contiguous land grants from William Penn (1644-1718). About 1710, Goshen Road to the small settlement at Goshen in East Goshen Township and then to Philadelphia was the first road laid out. An east-west road (Gay Street, eventually West Chester Pike) through these tracts to Philadelphia was laid out in 1735. Ten years later, a north-south road (High Street) to Wilmington, Delaware, also opened. A log tavern built near the crossroads was named Turk’s Head Inn and marked by a large sign of a turbaned Turkish man, so local farmers described where they lived as “Near the sign of the Turk’s Head.” A log schoolhouse built at the intersection of these two roads served as a hospital for casualties from the Battle of the Brandywine, which took place a few miles to the south in 1777. 

The definitive event that propelled this crossroads toward town status was the Pennsylvania legislature’s decision in 1786 to move the county seat of Chester County from Chester, in the southeastern part of the county, to the more centrally located Turk’s Head, to accommodate larger numbers of residents in the northern and western portions of the county. After opposition from Chester, in 1789 the legislature split off the eastern part of the county to form Delaware County and Turk’s Head became West Chester, county seat of a smaller Chester County. Ten years later, the state legislature accorded it borough status, freeing residents from township control and enabling officials to collect taxes and provide services, such as constables, to residents. Its role as county seat determined the character of the early town:  law offices, taverns and hotels, livery stables, banks, small shops, and dwellings quickly clustered near the county courthouse (completed in 1786) and nearby prison.

Athens on High Street

The county seat experienced steady growth in the decades prior to the Civil War. The population jumped from 374 residents in 1790 to 4,757 in 1860. Early residents were British, mainly English, with a small group of Irish Roman Catholics present. A Roman Catholic Church was the first built in the borough, where it was located to serve a large area of the county. Many Protestant denominations eventually followed, but the Society of Friends built the second church in 1812, and Quakers were long prominent among residents and community leaders. The 1820s through the 1840s were perhaps the most significant decades in the borough’s history, with its greatest population growth and a building boom that shaped the physical layout and appearance of the town. Spanning out from the courthouse at the center, the borough developed in four quadrants defined by the meeting of the two main roads (Gay and High Streets), a pattern that continued into the twenty-first century.

[caption id="attachment_26781" align="alignright" width="165"] William Everhart was one of West Chester's most influential citizens and instrumental in the expansion and prosperity of the city. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Improved transit quickened development by connecting the borough with surrounding counties. In the mid-1790s, the state opened a road extending from Gay Street west to Strasburg in Lancaster County. The creation of several more state roads through the vicinity, one extending from New Hope in Bucks County to Cecil County, Maryland, prompted entrepreneur William Everhart (1785-1868) to develop an area just south of the court house. New roads and the growth of the surrounding population encouraged other investors to purchase and subdivide centrally located farms in the borough, which consisted of 1.8 square miles.

Wagon roads often proved problematic, but the advent of the West Chester Railroad in 1832 promised more efficient ties to Philadelphia via nearby Malvern. Sensing new opportunities, Everhart erected the first purpose-built office building, the Everhart Building (ca. 1833) on Market Street across from the courthouse. Connections to a larger world benefited county farmers and diversified the borough’s economy to include artisan crafts such as pottery, clock- and watchmaking, and a few small early steam-driven industries, such as an iron foundry and a brewery. Nurseries also became a significant part of the industrial economy of West Chester as they organized production and marketing to buy, sell, and trade species throughout the world. The most successful—Morris Nursery (1849), Kift Nursery (1852), and Hoopes Brothers and Thomas (1856)—were founded by midcentury, although they experienced their peak years later. In the 1890s, Hoopes Brothers employed three hundred county workers and sold about 900,000 seedlings annually. The business lasted until 1948.

By the Civil War, black residents accounted for about 10 percent of the population. African Americans had been present from the borough’s earliest days, including a few slaves. In the early nineteenth century, some experienced economic success. The 1838 tax list, for instance, included sixteen black artisans and small businessmen as taxpayers, including a blacksmith, barber, shoemaker, oysterman, and huckster among several other occupations. A few black residents lived scattered around the borough, but by the 1850s most lived in the southeast quadrant, near brick- and lumberyards, the West Chester Gas facility (1852-1960s), and by the Civil War a second rail line, in a neighborhood known as the East End. While small row- and semi-detached houses set close to the street characterized portions of all quadrants, in the East End they were largely unrelieved by larger dwellings and spacious yards, reflecting the lower economic status of most East End residents.

Courthouse as Anchor

[caption id="attachment_26778" align="alignright" width="300"] Designed by Thomas U. Walter, Philadelphia architect and designer of the U.S. Capitol dome, the West Chester City Courthouse was completed in 1847. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Even as the town diversified, the courthouse remained the vital center of the county seat. Steady county settlement boosted courthouse business and supported a growing number of law offices, banks, taverns, livery stables, dwellings, and churches for visitors and residents. In 1846 Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter (1804-87), who had previously designed the Bank of Chester County (1836) in the Greek Revival style, was commissioned to design a new and larger courthouse in the same style as county affairs outgrew the 1786 courthouse. These centrally located buildings and others in popular architectural styles marked the transition of the simple market town to a more cosmopolitan society.

The county seat offered opportunities to able and ambitious lawyers, businessmen, and physicians who also served as representatives to the state legislature and the United States Congress and as judges on district courts in Philadelphia. These men and their families moved back and forth between West Chester, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Washington, D.C., so that this small urban center was as up-to-date as larger cities and a model for other towns in the county, as its fashionable churches and public buildings by architects such as Walter and William Strickland(1788-1854) visually demonstrated. 

After county and borough administration, education was the most enduring economic activity. The cosmopolitan and well-educated lawyers, judges, doctors, and Quaker farmers desired superior education for their sons and daughters. The many private academies and boarding schools for young men and ladies drew students from Philadelphia and farther afield. The West Chester Academy (est. 1813) was the antecedent of West Chester University, while the Institution for Young Gentlemen run by Antoine Bolmar (1797-1861) attracted many students from the South and from the West Indies, particularly Cuba.

Civic leaders also founded an array of scientific and cultural institutions. In 1848, a new Horticultural Hall became the cultural center of the county during an era in which lectures by famous people constituted entertainment: Horace Greeley (1811-72), Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) were some of the luminaries of the day on the speakers’ circuit who lectured there. Four years later, this building became the site of the First Women’s Rights Convention in Pennsylvania and the second in the nation after the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The combination of schools, cultural institutions, and Greek Revival architecture earned West Chester its nicknames as the “Athens of Pennsylvania” and “Athens on High Street.” The well-educated population supported three newspapers, one of which, the Chester County Times, housed in the Everhart Building, published the first biography of Abraham Lincoln, helping him win the presidency in 1860.

A Suburb of Philadelphia

Following the Civil War, West Chester grew steadily for another lengthy period through World War II, although the Depression presented challenges to the town’s general prosperity. Even during the national recession of the 1870s, the decision of the state legislature to transform the West Chester Academy into a state Normal School provided a significant catalyst for growth.

Increasing responsibilities of county administration led to construction of a courthouse annex in 1891. The following year, the founding of the Chester County Hospital, originally sited within the borough but in the 1920s relocated a few hundred yards outside the boundary, increased the importance of the county seat to area residents. Further notable additions to the architectural landscape, including the borough’s first and only skyscraper for the next one hundred years and the six-story Farmers and Mechanics Trust Building (1906), showcased West Chester’s prosperity.

By the time West Chester celebrated its centennial in 1899, its residents no longer thought of it as an isolated inland town but as the most important suburb of Philadelphia, according to the Centennial Souvenir. Just the year before, the trolley line along West Chester Pike that traveled between Sixty-Third Street in Philadelphia and Newtown Square was extended to West Chester. Additionally, just prior to the Civil War, a second rail line had connected the borough to Philadelphia through Media, Delaware County, and also with Baltimore and the South, readying the borough for more industrial development. After the Civil War, the sections of the two eastern quadrants closest to the rail lines became the most industrialized in town, as the massive Hoopes Brothers and Darlington Wheel Works (1866-1973) joined established manufacturing concerns. The most important company for a time was the Sharples Separator Works, established in 1881 by P. M. Sharples (1857-1944). This company’s most profitable product was a centrifugal cream separator sold internationally, inspired by the prevalence of dairy farming in the county. At its height, the works employed six hundred borough and county residents, but it went out of business in the 1930s Depression.

[caption id="attachment_26777" align="alignright" width="255"] Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and became one of its most famous natives as a prominent activist during the civil rights era of the 1960s. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, banks clustered around the courthouse remained important for visitors to the county seat and county farmers who sold their produce in two market houses in the borough. Hotels, taverns, and restaurants remained necessary in a county seat, and some well-known establishments were owned by black residents. One of these was the Spence Restaurant on Gay Street, known for the area’s best oyster stew and patronized by white businessmen. On the other hand, the Magnolia House Hotel, owned from 1866 to 1897 by the son of a southern slave, was located in the largely segregated East End and catered exclusively to black customers, including Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-95). In the early twentieth century, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (1912-87) grew up partly in the East End, though the relatively wealthy grandparents who raised him lived at several different locations within the borough, including the white Catholic section. He attended the segregated Gay Street School and West Chester Junior High, although biographers state that because of many interracial activities, Rustin did not realize as a boy that the schools were segregated. As a student at an integrated high school with few black students, Rustin was arrested for trying to sit in the white section of the Warner Movie Theater.

World War II propelled a second major industry related to county agriculture. West Chester-born chemist G. Raymond Rettew (1903-73) worked on improving the county’s mushroom production and in the process successfully developed a way to mass-produce penicillin. By 1943, Chester County Mushroom Laboratories in West Chester produced most of the world’s supply. The expanding mushroom industry further diversified the population by attracting Hispanic residents to the county and to the borough. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals took over production during the World War II and produced penicillin in the borough during the post-war antibiotics boom. Wyeth operated a West Chester plant until the early twenty-first century.

Decline and Renewal

With the end of World War II  West Chester seemed poised for another era of steady growth. Instead, the changing landscape of retail and the fast-paced suburbanization of the surrounding rural county contributed to the loss of businesses and, in the 1970s, a loss of some 10 percent of the population in the borough. Within the borough, as in many larger cities, successful revitalization efforts focused on downtown.

In the 1950s, West Chester remained the retail center of Chester County, with three department stores and fifteen smaller clothing and shoe stores. These stores lost business, however, after King of Prussia Plaza, about twenty miles northeast of West Chester, opened in the early 1960s. The borough’s history as a crossroads destination was reversed when a new four-lane highway (Route 202) built from Wilmington, Delaware, to King of Prussia bypassed the borough and made the journey from West Chester to King of Prussia a twenty-minute drive. The last remaining department store in town, Mosteller’s, declined through the 1970s and closed in 1981.

West Chester’s population reached its peak in 1970, even as the population of the surrounding county exploded as farmland rapidly converted to suburban tracts, a process accelerated by the transformation of West Chester Pike (Route 3) into a four-lane highway in the 1950s. The accompanying expansion of county government led to tension over whether the small county seat could accommodate additional offices and parking spaces. In the 1960s, a new wing was added to the courthouse, and a few years later the Dague Building was constructed to house the county library and other offices. For a while branch libraries proved sufficient to serve the county, but in 1980 the main county library  moved from West Chester to the site of the new Exton Square Mall (opened in 1973), where it was more easily accessible by automobile.

The increasing importance of the automobile at the expense of public transportation hurt the borough. West Chester was connected by frequent bus service to the Sixty-Ninth Street Terminal in Upper Darby via West Chester Pike. However, in 1986, rail service from the county seat to Media and from there to Philadelphia was discontinued, partly because county officials preferred to expand service at the Exton Station on SEPTA’s Paoli-Thorndale line where there was room for parking. By the end of the twentieth century, Exton, eight miles north of West Chester, rather than the county seat, in large measure became the retail, entertainment, and transportation hub of southeastern Chester County. 

The disposition of government services also affected the borough.  In 1993, the location of a new Chester County Government Services Center outside the borough in Westtown removed five hundred county workers from the downtown district.  Within a short time a number of small businesses in West Chester closed. The movement of services out of West Chester finally reversed in 2008, when the Chester County Justice Center replaced the Dague Building, bringing  some county workers back to the borough. Further proposals for such controversially large-scale buildings (including downtown apartment buildings and hotels) and additional high-rise parking, however, generated concerns that such investments would compromise the quality of life in the borough.

[caption id="attachment_26823" align="alignright" width="300"] One of a series of institutions that evolved into West Chester University, the West Chester State Normal School opened in 1871 with the intention of training high school teachers. The serpentine stone of Main Hall, depicted here, came from the Joseph H. Brinton Quarry south of the borough. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Over time West Chester also became a university town, benefiting businesses but creating unwanted development pressures at the same time. By 2016, the university enrolled almost seventeen thousand students drawn mainly from Chester and surrounding counties, many of whom lived in the borough during the school year. As customers and employees of many downtown restaurants, bars, and boutiques they helped boost the town’s commercial viability. On the other hand, traffic congestion, lack of adequate parking facilities, unruly late night behavior, and the university’s desire to further expand its enrollment and physical facilities caused concern for many borough leaders and residents. A 2002 borough planning study found that the “extremely” high percentage of housing units devoted to rental housing created a destabilizing effect on neighborhoods, a trend that began in the 1980s and continued in the early twenty-first century.

Many sections of the borough contained spacious dwellings, yards, and green spaces, but residential neighborhoods varied greatly and some areas remained segregated. The East End remained home to most African American residents (about 12 percent of the population), although that quadrant was no longer heavily industrial and student rental housing was pressing eastward from the university campus. The western side of the northwest quadrant was home to most of the borough’s Hispanic residents (about 13 percent of the population). In 2000, many families living in those areas accounted for a large part of the 20 percent of residents living below the poverty line.

The revitalized downtown, though, presented a different story. Together, the borough and the Business Improvement District, a partnership of downtown commercial interests formed in 2000, promoted West Chester as an entertainment and cultural heritage destination. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, small boutiques, a farmers’ market, restaurants, and music festivals  increased foot traffic and generated nightlife, and by  2016 the borough population had slightly surpassed its 1970 peak. Proposals for several more luxury hotels, high-rise apartment buildings, and a live performance theater demonstrated that, despite ongoing tension between development and preservation, West Chester had resuscitated its reputation as a cosmopolitan place to visit and live.

Anne Krulikowski holds a Ph.D. in American History with a concentration in material culture/preservation from the University of Delaware. She teaches American history and public history at West Chester University.

Country Clubs

[caption id="attachment_21435" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A black and white photograph of the Philadelphia Cricket Club's three-story clubhouse, with grounds in the foregrounds featuring members playing a game of cricket. A large banner is strung up to the right of the clubhouse and a crowd can be seen in the distance between the clubhouse and a steep-roofed house at the left edge of the frame. The Philadelphia Cricket Club, the oldest country club in the United States (est. 1854), was one of the four founding members of the Golf Association of Philadelphia (est. 1897). (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Country clubs originated in the 1890s as elite, family-oriented havens usually emphasizing golf, but they have never been just about golf or even sports. Clubs fostered sportsmanship, appropriate deportment, and social development while also providing opportunities for exercise. A “golden age” of country clubs lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the number of clubs grew again in the prosperous decades after World War II and with the continuing suburban boom of the late twentieth century. As clubs proliferated and served a greater variety of members, they reflected the changing culture and economic importance of leisure activities in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The “country club movement,” as social commentators termed it, began in the 1890s as “golf mania” swept the country. During the economic depression that occurred in the 1890s, many privileged men turned to golf as a less expensive alternative to yachting, polo, and hunting. With suburbanization and an increasing emphasis on leisure, sporting activities also gained popularity among the middle class. Some contemporary writers viewed the desire of women to play sports as the most significant factor in the proliferation of country clubs, which, unlike earlier men’s clubs, were family-oriented.  

[caption id="attachment_21440" align="alignright" width="300"]A colored overhead illustration of the Belmont Cricket Club grounds, including the clubhouse, players playing cricket in the field and tennis courts at the back of the grounds behind a line of trees. The Belmont Cricket Club, one of the big four Philadelphia Cricket Clubs, was located at Chester Avenue and Fifty-Second Streets in Southwest Philadelphia. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Forerunners of the modern country club included men’s city clubs, union leagues, urban athletic clubs, and resort casinos (clubhouses). In Philadelphia, the big four cricket clubs were the first four country clubs. At one time Philadelphia had as many as one hundred cricket clubs, evidence of the appeal of the sport to all social classes, but members of the Philadelphia (established 1854), Germantown (est. 1864), Merion (est. 1865), and Belmont (1874-1914) cricket clubs enjoyed large clubhouses and spacious lawns. Dining rooms and verandas provided spaces for socializing and for family members to watch matches. The cricket clubs incorporated other sports activities, such as croquet, bowling, and tennis, all played by women as well as men. Members at three of these clubs were also attracted to golf. In 1895, the Philadelphia Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill opened a nine-hole golf course. Golf enthusiasts at the Merion Cricket Club began playing golf the following year and the Aronimink Golf Club (est. 1900), later relocated to Newtown Square, Delaware County, grew out of the Belmont Cricket Club in southwest Philadelphia. 

Early Clubs With Golf

[caption id="attachment_21438" align="alignright" width="185"]A black and white photograph of Philadelphia-born and raised, “Bart” King was renowned as America’s greatest “gentlemen cricketer,” earning the city of Philadelphia and Belmont Cricket Club international sports fame. (CC Morris Cricket Library and US Cricket Museum)[/caption]

Even before members of cricket clubs became golf enthusiasts, several other country clubs included golf. In 1890, socially prominent Philadelphians including John C. Bullitt (1824-1902) and E. T. Stotesbury (1849-1938) founded the first non-cricket-centered country club in the region, the Philadelphia Country Club (est. 1890) on City Avenue. They stressed that members should be able to enjoy “recreation and pleasure without encountering any person or anything which will in the least degree be inconsistent with good behavior or good manners.” Most of the founders were heads of families who desired a conveniently located family club where they, their wives, and children could enjoy respite from the city. Liveried coachmen met trains from Center City to bring members to the club.

Following the pattern of most early clubs, which leased or purchased country estates or farms and adapted existing residences for new uses, the Philadelphia Country Club purchased “Steinberg,” the former country estate of the Duhring family, located within city limits adjacent to Fairmount Park. Initially a club for riding, driving, and polo, two years after its founding the Philadelphia Country Club added a nine-hole golf course, with two holes on land leased from Fairmount Park. The popularity of golf soon meant the course was insufficient and in 1924 the club purchased property on Spring Mill Road in Gladwyne, which could “be reached by automobile in 30 or 35 minutes from City Hall,” the club announced.

After the founding of the Philadelphia Country Club, the vicinity near City Avenue became the location of several more clubs, including the Bala Golf Club (est. 1893) on Belmont Avenue within the city and the Overbrook Golf Club (est. 1900) just outside the city on property that later became the site of Lankenau Hospital. Scores of new country clubs opened throughout the Philadelphia region in the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. The Harper’s Official Golf Guide of 1901 listed about forty clubs in the Philadelphia area. Many affiliated with the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP), which in 1897 became the first regional golf association in the country. Over time, member clubs extended from Lancaster to Scranton in Pennsylvania, from Princeton to Cape May in New Jersey, and to New Castle County, Delaware. By 2015, the GAP had 151 member clubs in the region, which also hosted additional nonmember country clubs. Just four weeks after the founding of the GAP, the Women’s Golf Association of Philadelphia became another first of its kind, testifying to the enthusiasm of many women for sporting activities.

[caption id="attachment_21441" align="aligncenter" width="575"]An image from the New York Times published in July 1915 of a women's doubles tennis match taken from behind the court, picturing the clubhouse and its columns to the left, along with a group of spectators under an awning. The Philadelphia Cricket Club hosted national tennis championships, beginning in 1887, that garnered nationwide attention for Philadelphia as a U.S. center for sports. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Clubs Outside the City

Although many early country clubs were established within the city of Philadelphia, most eventually moved farther from Center City because landowners would not renew leases, adjacent land could not be obtained for extending golf courses, new roads crossed through the courses, or facilities became overcrowded by expanding membership. Relocating outside the city also reflected suburban migration during the twentieth century. For instance, by the time the Philadelphia Country Club sold its Bala property in the 1950s and enhanced its Gladwyne facilities, the majority of members no longer lived in Philadelphia but in surrounding Main Line suburbs.

Country clubs quickly became popular in counties surrounding Philadelphia as more people took up golf, tennis, and swimming and desired more places to socialize. Often, locals introduced to golf while traveling abroad—particularly to France, Britain, and Bermuda—returned to the United States to establish clubs. Eleanor Reed Butler (1871-1945) saw golf played in France and returned home to Media to help organize the Springhaven Country Club (est. 1896), the first club in Delaware County. Women frequently played golf and helped organize clubs, but Springhaven was unique because a woman, Ida Dixon (1854-1916), contributed to the design of the course.

Philadelphians also established clubs in New Jersey. The Burlington County town of Riverton, founded in the 1850s by a group of Philadelphia merchants as a summer retreat, by the end of the century had a growing number of year-round residents who desired to play golf. The Riverton Country Club (est. 1900) became the first in New Jersey to join the Golf Association of Philadelphia. Philadelphians looking for a course offering a better climate for  winter golf but tired of taking the train to play at the Country Club of Atlantic City when snow was on the ground in Philadelphia founded the Pine Valley Golf Club (est. 1913) in Camden County, hoping that weather conditions would provide more opportunity for winter play. Some of Philadelphia’s sporting aristocracy, including Connie Mack (1862-1956), became early members. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, the club maintained an elite, all-male membership and a course ranked by some authorities as the best in the world.

Blue Laws vs. Sunday Golf

[caption id="attachment_21442" align="alignright" width="280"]A black and white photograph of the interior of the Philadelphia Country Club dining room with windows along the left wall, two chandeliers and neatly-set tables arranged around the room.  The typical facilities and spaces included in most country clubs are reminders that country clubs have been about socializing as well as about sports. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Social customs and laws sometimes restricted club activities in early years. Blue laws in many states forbade sports on Sundays. In New Jersey, as in other states, though, such restrictions became unpopular and not all communities enforced these laws locally. When members of the Haddon Country Club (est. 1896) in Haddonfield became frustrated with strict local enforcement of blue laws there, a group founded the Tavistock Country Club (est. 1920) in what became the new Borough of Tavistock, which did not intend to enforce a ban on Sunday golf and sports. The Haddon Club folded two years later.

Even before 1920s prohibition of alcohol, some clubs, such as the Riverton Country Club, banned drinking for religious reasons and many others did so to preserve the family atmosphere that made these clubs different from men’s clubs or even many single-sport clubs, such as cricket, polo, or hunt clubs. Membership categories even in the earliest years included both individual and family categories, and some clubs offered junior as well as social-only memberships. Where women could join as members, they typically paid lower entrance or annual fees (and their playing times often were limited to times when working men would not be using the facilities). In return for required fees, country clubs offered variety of sporting facilities; in early years croquet, bowling, archery, billiards, trapshooting, and even basketball and baseball were typical sports played at country clubs. Most added swimming pools, tennis courts, and squash courts for members.

As the social membership categories suggests, country clubs also provided spaces for socializing and entertainment. Theaters, ballrooms, dining rooms, men’s grille rooms, ladies’ parlors and tea rooms, a variety of sitting rooms, porches, and verandas offered ample opportunity for members to socialize and display their mastery of the club’s standards of etiquette.

Varieties of Clubs

Not all golfers liked the “country club atmosphere” of families, swimming pools, and tennis courts. Some organized golf-only clubs, such as the Sunnybrook Golf Club formed in 1914 by six members who left the Philadelphia Cricket Club. Conversely, not all country clubs offered golf. The Philadelphia Aviation Country Club in Blue Bell was founded after the 1927 trans-Atlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh (1902-74), when the idea for a chain of such country clubs across the country briefly engaged aviation enthusiasts. By 2015, only the Philadelphia club survived.

Some country clubs became the focal points of residential communities. In Montgomery County, when the Huntingdon Valley Country Club (est. 1897) moved to Upper Moreland and Abington Townships in the 1920s, the club also intended to subdivide some of the property into lots of two to five acres for members and other “desirable people.” Radley Run in Chester County, built in the 1960s, is a typical mid-century country club community. Residential communities centered on a country club continued to be popular in the early twenty-first century. One newer tract, French Creek Village in Elverson, Chester County, described itself as “the ultimate golf club community.”

While some country clubs remained havens for the elite, a handful crossed class lines to offer leisure activities to blue-collar as well as white-collar workers. The Philadelphia Electric Company baseball field in Upper Darby, Delaware County, became the McCall Field Country Club (est. 1919) when golf became more popular. The DuPont Country Club (est. 1920) in Wilmington, another successor to an earlier employee recreational facility, became a preeminent example of a country club designed to “promote social intercourse” between management and workers. In 1945, the Insurance Company of America reopened the Roxborough Country Club (est. 1925) as the Eagle Lodge Country Club. The Chester Valley Golf Club in Malvern grew out of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s employee country club (est. 1930). This club, along with another company club, the Hercules Country Club (est. 1937) in Wilmington, were the only two in the region founded during the Depression. Men’s fraternal organizations and religious groups also established country clubs that enhanced their collegiality and provided facilities for those excluded from other clubs. A group of Shriners organized the LuLu Temple Country Club (est. 1909), and Catholics dominated Torresdale-Frankford.

Exclusion and Change

[caption id="attachment_21436" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the Torresdale-Frankford Country Club clubhouse from a 45 degree angle, viewed from the golf greens.  Several trees and shrubbery trim the two-story buildings perimeter.  Often associated with the suburbs, many early country clubs were founded within Philadelphia. By the 1990s, only Torresdale-Frankford (est. 1896) and the Bala Golf Club (est. 1893) had eighteen holes within the city limits. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Country clubs also formed in response to exclusion. Successful Jewish families, including the Gimbel and Lit families, who migrated to Oak Lane, Elkins Park, and Jenkintown in the early twentieth century established the Philmont Country Club in 1906. In the 1920s, the American Hebrew magazine listed fifty-eight country clubs in the United States owned and operated by Jewish memberships, although most of these excluded the new immigrant generation of Russian Jews. The world of sports, leisure, and social activities of most country and golf clubs remained closed to many. Country clubs reflected the racial and gender attitudes and practices of their early years, but many gradually became more inclusive.

African Americans, who long struggled to gain entrance to country clubs, played golf at public courses. Caddying at country clubs provided an avenue for learning the sport, and some clubs had a specified weekly time for caddies to play the course. This was the case with John Shippen Jr. (1879-1968), an African American/Native American, who served as the Aronimink Golf Club pro for a time in the 1890s. For his first U.S. Open in 1896, the year that the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the standard of “separate but equal” for public accommodations, Shippen had to sign up as Native American in order to play. 

The 1920s, a decade of explosive growth in the number of country clubs, saw some advances for African Americans. By 1930, middle-class black golfers had established fourteen golf clubs in the country, including the Fairview Golf Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s first black golf club. In the early 1990s, the Professional Golf Association (PGA), which had barred African Americans from membership until 1961, announced that none of its tournaments would be held at country clubs that denied membership on the basis of race, religion or gender. The Aronimink Golf Club could not hold the 1993 PGA Championship because it still had an all-white membership. Since then, formerly all-white clubs such as Aronimink, Merion, and the Philadelphia Cricket Club, among others, recruited more diverse memberships.

Although women were founders and members at many clubs from the beginning, in the early twenty-first century they frequently remained barred from voting, sitting on boards of directors, holding equity interest in clubs, or eating in “men’s grille rooms.” Some clubs continued to ban female membership: In 2015, Pine Valley in New Jersey allowed women to play only at restricted times if accompanied by a male member. The practice of banning golf carts at some clubs also created barriers to access for disabled and elderly players. In other ways, however, some country clubs became forerunners in providing access to physically challenged players, for example by opening courses for outings and tournaments for blind players.   

The increasing number of country and golf clubs over the twentieth century paralleled the growing importance of sport, fitness, and leisure in American life, as well as an embrace of suburban rather than urban living. Clubs provided a range of part-time and full-time employment and contributed to the region’s tourist economy by hosting tournaments. By the early decades of the twenty-first century, many more people who desired to belong to such institutions gained entrance. Because of the practice of vetting members and charging entrance and annual fees, however, early claims that country clubs represented an expanding democracy were perhaps overstated.

Anne E. Krulikowski is an Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University.

Artifact: Street Sign

Drag across the screen to turn the object.  Zoom to view details.  Read more below.
[pano file="Streetsign-VR-cm/FINAL.html" width="570" height="640"]
Street sign, c. 1950. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

By the early twenty-first century, Philadelphia had more than 3,600 distinct named streets, alleys, lanes, places, boulevards, expressways, roads, courts, mews, and avenues. The city Streets Department maintained 2,180 miles of city streets, 35 miles of roads in Fairmount Park, and 360 miles of state highways, which created about 24,000 traffic intersections in the city.

In this maze of streets, how do we know where we are?  How do we find our way to where we want to go?  Street name signs, one of the many types of signs found on urban streets, point the way and provide direction and order in our lives.

[caption id="attachment_22757" align="alignright" width="350"]Photograph of intersection with street sign. A 1951 photograph of the southeast corner of Forty-Eighth Street and Paschall Avenue includes a street sign--possibly the sign featured at the top of this page. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

This cast iron sign from the intersection of Paschall Avenue and South Forty-Eighth Street in Philadelphia’s Ward 40 is an example of one such guide. This artifact was mounted on the top of a sign pole standing on the southeast corner of the intersection, oriented so that each nameplate was parallel to the street it named. Rotating the sign on this page shows that one side of each nameplate became more corroded from prevailing weather conditions. These nameplates were designed for easy visibility: the street names (odonyms) are spelled out in capital letters. The sign is spare in offering information, providing only the names of the two streets crossing each other at this intersection. Even compass directions are omitted: the sign does not indicate that this portion of Forty-Eighth Street is officially designated as South Forty-Eighth Street.

This physical artifact symbolically connects the intersection, originally in Kingsessing Township west of the Schuylkill River in the County of Philadelphia, to the original Philadelphia city grid laid out by Thomas Holme (1624-95) at the request of William Penn (1644-1718). When the surveyor superimposed a network of streets at right angles over the rural landscape of scattered farms, he was not documenting an existing landscape but envisioning orderly and comprehensible future urban development. Penn named the east-west streets after native trees and flora and numbered the north-south streets. The two exceptions were Broad and High Streets, the main north-south and east-west streets running through the center square.

In conjunction with maps and early travel guides, often called “stranger’s guides,” signs provided urban navigation assistance. The first street name signs were often carved into the masonry of buildings that stood at intersections. Later, wooden boards with street names were affixed to building walls. Rarely seen today in American cities, street names incised into masonry building walls or signs affixed to walls are still common in European cities. The author of A Handbook for the Stranger in Philadelphia of 1849 noted that “At the corners of the principal streets, will be noticed their names painted on a board, with the prefix of No. or So., as the case may be.” This comment also emphasized the challenges of navigating a city where often less-prominent streets or newer blocks had no signs at all.

[caption id="attachment_5688" align="alignright" width="240"]A map of the city of Philadelphia, with colored sections separating sections of the city. The Consolidation Act of 1854 brought the future location of the street sign within the city limits. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

After the 1854 Act of Consolidation enlarged the city, civil engineer A. E. Rogerson published the fourteen-page Alphabetical List of the Streets in the City of Philadelphia (1859), listing streets and giving locations by identifying their easternmost point. He also provided a second table of street name changes. Sign changes, though, often lagged behind name changes, so signs could be undependable guides. For this reason, the author of the 1849 stranger’s guide had suggested that visitors might have to figure out on a map where they were and where they wanted to go, then count the blocks as they walked. Numbered streets were of course easier to track than streets otherwise named, where pedestrians could easily lose count and thus their sense of place. 

In the enlarged industrial city of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this inconsistent and incomplete system of street name signs caused even greater confusion. In her 1926 textbook on land planning, Harlean James (1877-1969) observed that street name signs in American cities were variously placed on walls of buildings, on lamp posts, on special posts of their own, or were often carved into curb stones, where people rarely noticed them. This latter type of sign was dangerous for pedestrians, who needed to look up rather than down, and useless for drivers.

By the 1920s, the automobile’s dominance of urban transportation demanded standardized road signs. In 1905, fewer than 500 automobiles were registered in Philadelphia; by 1918, there were 100,000. Urban planners paid greater attention to the design and placement of street name signs, emphasizing that signs should be easily visible to both pedestrians and drivers. In Philadelphia and other American cities, this prompted the change to street sign poles. For greatest visibility, overhead signs were eventually placed at the busiest intersections.

This street sign also represents a deeper history. Brought within the city’s boundaries by the Act of Consolidation, Forty-Eighth Street denotes the distance from the Delaware River – forty-eight blocks. Paschall Avenue traces its name to Paschallville, a village in lower Kingsessing Township established in 1810 by Dr. Henry Paschall, a physician and descendant of Thomas Paschal, who purchased 500 acres from William Penn. After the Act of Consolidation, the area developed gradually near the new Philadelphia and Darby passenger railroad line along Woodland Avenue, although the Gibson family, large Kingsessing landholders, held on to the farmland surrounding the future intersection.  

Atlases documented quickening development of roads and residences in the 1880s. By 1892, an intersection existed at Forty-Eighth and Paschall and was surrounded on three corners by densely crowded blocks of rowhouses, built to house the employees of newly arriving companies to the vicinity, such as the Brill Street Car Co., Fels Naptha Soap, and then General Electric. The triangular northeast block, truncated by the diagonally running Grey’s Ferry Avenue, filled in by World War I.

The rectangular sign above dates from around the 1950s. About 1970, the city adopted a green six-sided sign, often affixed to street light poles, with space that allowed additional—but still legible--information. Signs indicated the block hundreds of the blocks flanking the intersection and, in some cases beginning in the 1990s, the identity of culturally or historically significant neighborhoods. Signs for Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, approved by Mayor John Street (b. 1943) in 2007, carried riders (a descriptive level of information below the street name designation) in a rainbow of colors. Street signs in Chinatown included riders with Chinese characters.

[caption id="attachment_22759" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of street sign with rainbow colors. At Camac and Latimer Streets in Center City, a street sign carries the rainbow colors designating the Gayborhood. (Photograph by M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Visibility remained a concern. Beginning in 2012, new Philadelphia street signs featured Clearview font with a combination of upper- and lower-case lettering. The recyclable vinyl signs, made by city employees in the Sign Shop at G and Ramona Streets in Juniata Park (opened in 1958), had an average life expectancy of only seven to ten years.

In 2015, at the intersection of Pascall Avenue and South Forty-Eighth Street, green vinyl signs mounted on a utility pole on the southwest corner provided direction for drivers and pedestrians. But the intersection itself was altered.  In the late twentieth century, the block of Forty-Eighth Street north of Paschall Avenue extending to Gray’s Ferry Avenue disappeared. The road could be detected, but after surrounding dwellings were demolished, it had partly vanished, as unused roads tend to do. On the southeast corner, the old iron pole and base of the circa 1950 sign were left rusting in front of several empty lots, forlorn indicators of deterioration.  

Text by Anne E. Krulikowski, an Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University.

 

Southwest Philadelphia

[caption id="attachment_11521" align="alignleft" width="575"]painting of the cannonball house In 1715, Swedish settler Peter Cock chose to build his farmhouse in the swampy, mostly uninhabited land that later became Southwest Philadelphia. After a Revolutionary War bombardment, it became known as the "Cannonball House." This painting is by Thomas H. Wilkinson, who visited Philadelphia in the late nineteenth century. (Private Collection, Philadelphia)[/caption]

Southwest Philadelphia, which along with adjacent Tinicum Township, Delaware County, is the location of the Philadelphia International Airport, greets many visitors to the city. Yet, Southwest Philadelphia, often described as “far” Southwest, is quite possibly the least-known area of the city, even to Philadelphians. Kingsessing, as this vicinity was originally named, was the first section of Philadelphia settled by Europeans and in the twentieth century came to national attention as the Eastwick Urban Renewal Project. Since the early twentieth century, when this seemingly remote location in the city became useful for an airport and other industrial activities, the possible contributions of Southwest Philadelphia to the metropolitan economy have often overshadowed the needs of neighborhood residents.

Southwest Philadelphia is the southern portion of the city lying west of the Schuylkill River. The northern boundary is roughly marked by Baltimore Avenue, Fiftieth and Forty-Ninth Streets; on the west by Cobbs and Darby Creeks, which separate Philadelphia and Delaware Counties; on the south by the Philadelphia International Airport, and on the east by the Schuylkill River. Southwest Philadelphia encompasses the city’s Fifty-First and Fortieth Wards and includes the neighborhoods of Kingsessing, Elmwood, Paschall, and Eastwick; below Seventy-Fourth Street, Eastwick is known to residents as “the Meadows.” Large nonresidential tracts are occupied by the Heinz wildlife preserve, the Philadelphia International Airport, industrial parks, the Southwest Sewage Treatment Plant, and, adjacent to the Schuylkill River, tank farms and oil refineries.

This landscape includes the lowest-lying land within the city, some of it below sea level. The southernmost portion was at one time crisscrossed by a network of creeks.  Mud, Hog, Carpenter’s, Minquas (Mingo), Province (later State), and Boon’s Islands were some of the largest of the Schuylkill River delta islands indicated on early maps. These well-watered meadowlands produced luxuriant grass and weeds for grazing livestock and fertile soil for plowing without the arduous task of removing trees, explaining their attraction for early European farmers.

Europeans Arrivals

Kingsessing, from a Delaware Indian word most frequently translated as “a place where there is a bog meadow,” became the center of Swedish occupation in 1643 when Governor Johann Printz (1592-1663) moved the Swedish headquarters to big Tinicum Island. The Swedes built two forts in lower Kingsessing to control the final leg of the Great Minquas Trail (Island Avenue), used by the Susquahannock (Minquas) beaver traders traveling  from the Susquehanna Valley to the Schuylkill River. The Dutch and then the English claimed this vicinity—and the valuable beaver trade. William Penn created the township of Kingsessing, corresponding approximately with the later Fortieth and Fifty-First Wards.

Upper Kingsessing provided a convenient link between Philadelphia and points south, while lower Kingsessing seemed more remote. In 1696, the King’s Highway (later Darby Road) was laid out from Gray’s Ferry (the Lower Ferry), becoming the main artery from Philadelphia to Baltimore and the southern colonies. During the Revolution, an extension through William Hamilton’s estate, the Woodlands, linked the road (renamed Woodland Avenue) with the Market Street Ferry. Penrose’s Ferry from lower Kingsessing to South Philadelphia was not established until 1742, when a pest house (quarantine hospital) was constructed on Fisher’s Island (renamed Province, then State Island) to isolate contagious diseases. This ferry was finally replaced with a bridge in 1853; the fourth bridge, constructed in 1949, was renamed the George C. Platt Bridge.

[caption id="attachment_11518" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of Fort Mifflin's commandat's house Commandant's House, Fort Mifflin. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

During the War for Independence, Mud Island, adjacent to Province Island, became the site of a significant battle in the Philadelphia Campaign. In November 1777,  the British wrested control of the island’s Fort Mifflin from American defenders. The victory helped the British to secure the Delaware River, allowing supply ships to reach Philadelphia.

The imperial struggles punctuating the early history of Kingsessing gave way to a peaceful agricultural landscape of farms and country estates for the next century. Limited industrial development occurred in isolated pockets adjacent to throughways and the larger creeks. Cobbs Creek provided water power for the Passmore Textile Mill on Woodland Avenue. Paschalville, laid out in 1810, was inhabited by the mainly British immigrant mill workers. At mid-century, the entire township contained only about 1,800 residents. Just after the Civil War, the Angora Woolen Mill and a small village were established just below Baltimore Pike.

Slow-Growing Kingsessing

The 1854 Act of Consolidation incorporated Kingsessing Township as the Twenty-Seventh Ward of Philadelphia but made little difference: Kingsessing, as it was still called, remained the slowest-developing section of the city for several more decades.  Even the Philadelphia Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad linking Philadelphia to Baltimore through Kingsessing prior to consolidation did little to foster growth. The rural landscape made accessible by the railroad did encourage sporting activities, though.  In the 1860s, the Suffolk Park Race Track and Hotel, with races reported in the New York Times, was established adjacent to Bell Road Station, the sole station in southern Kingsessing. In the next decade, the Belmont Cricket Club was located in the northern part of the ward. The Pennsylvania Railroad had closed the Bell Road Station by the time investors began subdividing tracts below Seventy-Second Street in the 1880s.

Perhaps Kingsessing is most important in American history for its famous garden nurseries and seed farms, which also benefited from the combination of a rural landscape and a railroad. Street names such as Botanic, Bartram, Dick’s, Lyon’s, and Buist commemorate this important local economy. In the eighteenth century, John Bartram (1699-1777) created what became the oldest surviving botanic garden in the United States. Railroad industrialist Andrew McCalla Eastwick (1811-1879) purchased the house and garden as a private park for his own country house, designed by Samuel Sloan.  

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Helendale Nurseries established by John Dick (1814-1903) included thirty greenhouses with more than 100,000 square feet of glass. The most famous Kingsessing nurseryman, Robert Buist (1805-1880), created one of the first great nurseries in the United States at Rosedale. Buist was the center of a trans-Atlantic horticultural exchange and is also credited with introducing the poinsettia to the United States from Mexico. One of his books, The Rose Manual (1844), was the first American gardening book devoted to roses.   

This horticultural economy was made possible by the growing numbers of wealthy Americans who established country estates, as well as the rural cemetery and urban park movements. Mt. Moriah, located in Kingsessing and Yeadon, Delaware County, became the third of Philadelphia’s great cemeteries, along with Laurel Hill and the Woodlands.

Industries Move to Southwest

[caption id="attachment_11519" align="alignright" width="300"]aerial photograph of Hog Island, 1915 This aerial photograph of Hog Island in 1915 provides a sweeping view of the equipment required to maintain the Southwest Philadelphia shipyard. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Southwest Philadelphia saw sustained residential and industrial development from the 1880s through the 1920s. Consequently, Ward 40 was made a separate ward before the turn of the century. In the 1890s, several important industries moved to Southwest.  Joseph Fels built the Fels Naptha (laundry soap) factory on the site of the old Passmore mill. The J. G. Brill Company in Kingsessing and Baldwin Locomotive, which relocated from Spring Garden to adjacent Delaware County, both employed thousands of local residents.

Immigrant and native-born workers followed the opportunity for industrial employment. Irish, German, Lithuanian, Polish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants built detached and semidetached dwellings, often purchasing extra lots for large gardens.  Once families located in the area, they tended to stay for generations. Below Seventy-Fouth Street, some truck and pig farms survived into the mid-twentieth century. The northern area just below Baltimore Pike developed in the first two decades of the twentieth century as home to native-born and northern European immigrants who worked in West Philadelphia or commuted to Center City. This more densely developed residential area was eventually separated from Ward 40 as the city’s Fifty-First Ward.  As neighborhoods developed, trolley-served Woodland Avenue became an important retail district.

More dramatic changes were wrought by World War I, when the federal government authorized the American International Shipping Corporation to build Hog Island, the world’s largest shipyard. The site virtually became a town, with barracks to house almost 15,000 male workers. New railroad and trolley tracks transported an additional 20,000 workers and materials to and from the shipyard. The war initiated a significant demographic change: White and black southern families found wartime an opportunity to move out of the South. In 1920, black residents accounted for about 25 percent of the population of about 10,000 (excluding Hog Island dormitories) living below Seventy-Fourth Street at a time when black residents accounted for about 27 percent of the total population of Philadelphia.

Greater Eastwick Improvement Association

The shipyard, closed in 1921, brought Southwest Philadelphia to the attention of City Hall in the competition for funding of transportation and municipal services. Real estate developer David E. Triester named the Fortieth Ward Eastwick and created the Greater Eastwick Improvement Association (GEIA) to obtain more comprehensive municipal services. Seeing the lesson of Hog Island, GEIA leaders, supported by the Southwest Globe Times, tied their future to the city when they successfully lobbied for a Southwest airport rather than a Northeast or Camden facility. Charles Lindbergh dedicated the new Southwest airport in 1927, but the muddy landscape proved challenging; for more than a decade the airport was moved to Camden.  In the 1930s, Mayor S. Davis Wilson negotiated with the federal government for the Hog Island Shipyard site to bring the airport back to Southwest.  Works Progress Administration workers filled in the area and built runways as part of Philadelphia’s share in the New Deal.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the GEIA less successfully and more controversially publicized the need for modern sewage systems and additional diking along the surviving network of creeks after several hurricanes seriously flooded homes and businesses. Some  residents contended the association’s publicity created negative views of the area and discouraged investment in modern sewage facilities. Despite this, more residential development occurred in the 1920s than in the three previous decades. The 1920s building boom was so extensive that by the early 1930s sociologist William Weaver predicted the Tinicum Marsh would disappear. By that time, though, Philadelphia residents evicted from houses and apartments in other areas of the city erected shacks in the still largely undeveloped lower marshy areas.

After World War II, the Fortieth Ward once again gained public attention, some of which resulted in improved infrastructure—but not for longtime residents.  In 1954, Philadelphia’s Mother of the Year, Jennie Harley Cook, was a homemaker from the Meadows (below Seventy-Fourth Street). Just a few years later, though, Harley and her family along with thousands of other Southwest families received eviction notices when Eastwick was condemned as a slum. Lack of modern sewage services and Depression-era shanties were featured in official city publications and city newspapers. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission had envisioned a “New Eastwick” to support the developing post-industrial service economy. In 1950, the Eastwick Urban Renewal Project began when much of Ward 40, about 3,000 acres, was declared “blighted.” Plans to reduce residential and farm use included creating space for an East Coast highway (I-95, which crosses the Schuylkill  over the two-tiered Girard Point Bridge) and a hub of transportation and light industry centered on an enlarged international airport. The long-projected Southwest Sewage Treatment Plant was finally constructed as, despite residents’ protests, neighborhood demolition began in 1960.

Ongoing Challenges 

Following the demolition, light industrial parks, shopping centers, and some replacement housing were built, but large tracts remained vacant. In 2002, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission certified a forty-block area of Kingsessing as “blighted.” Squatting and gap-tooth syndrome (empty lots between dwellings) had become common, and environmental problems continued to plague many residents, especially in the lower area. Despite the 1997 opening of SEPTA’s Eastwick Station and the relocation of Philadelphia’s main post office to Eastwick, in 2006 the entire Eastwick Urban Renewal Area was recertified as a blighted district. 

In the decades at the turn of the twenty-first century, Southwest Philadelphia faced serious challenges to neighborhood stability, leaving high crime and vacancy rates in an area formerly characterized by high levels of home ownership and middle class apartment houses. Most Southwest neighborhoods experienced an overall decline in population after 1990, but they developed greater diversity—and racial tension—with an influx of new immigrant groups, primarily West African with some new Vietnamese and Hispanic residents.          

The Elmwood neighborhood experienced some of the most serious racial tensions in the city in recent decades. This area was predominantly home to Polish and Irish American families centered on Roman Catholic parishes, but the disintegration of the manufacturing economy left many unemployed. In 1985, when two houses were sold to an African American family and an interracial couple, some white neighbors reacted violently, destroying property with axes and arson. Mayor Wilson Goode declared a state of emergency. Between 1990 and 2000 the white population of Elmwood decreased by almost 70 percent, while the African American population increased. Vietnamese and West African immigrants added to the racial picture. In 2008, John Bartram High School was placed in lockdown when a fight between African American and African students turned into a school riot.

Eastwick Stability

Eastwick, with a longer history of diversity, has not seen the dramatic population shifts of other neighborhoods, although by 2014 African American residents accounted for 76 percent of the residents. Eastwick residents have higher average education levels and homeownership rates than many other neighborhoods in Southwest, perhaps providing more economic and social stability for residents. 

Eastwick residents, however, contend with worsening environmental justice issues compounded by episodic flooding, the consequences of incomplete redevelopment, and controversial plans for the future development of vacant areas. Environmental problems, always a challenge in this low-lying vicinity, have worsened with changing land use. Tinicum Marsh, once reduced to about 200 acres, was preserved by a 1972 Act of Congress because it contained the last remaining freshwater tidal marsh in the state.  Renamed the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, it encompasses 1,000 acres. But periodic flooding has increased since much of the vicinity was rezoned for industrial use. Large vacant tracts have attracted illegal dumping of hazardous substances that seep into the ground.  Cleanup of former industrial sites has not always been conscientious. In the 1990s, environmental problems caused by nearby oil refineries led to a partly successful lawsuit for improvements to protect local residents. The airport expanded and became the cornerstone for planning development. Thus, the struggles of Southwest Philadelphians to achieve livable family neighborhoods continued in the early twenty-first century.

Anne E. Krulikowski holds a Ph.D. in American history with a concentration in material culture/preservation from the University of Delaware.  She teaches at West Chester University.

Octavia Hill Association

The Octavia Hill Association of Philadelphia was founded in 1896 to provide clean dwellings at reasonable rents to some of the city’s poorest residents, who were often exploited by profit-hungry landlords. Still active as a real estate management company, the Octavia Hill Association has a history of responding to changing economic conditions and housing needs.

Despite Philadelphia’s reputation as a “city of homes,” by the late nineteenth century many back alleys and courtyards were overcrowded with two- and three-story dwellings, with inadequate sanitation. Such poor conditions, particularly in the Southwark vicinity of South Philadelphia, drew the attention of Progressive-era reformers who wanted to assist African American and immigrant residents.  Hannah Fox (1858-1933) and Helen C. Jenks, both members of the newly organized Civic Club of prominent women interested in the arts and social service, founded the Octavia Hill Association after attending a talk on slum conditions in the city’s fourth and fifth wards.  These women, inspired by English reformer Octavia Hill (1838-1912), hoped to attract more than the usual charitable donations by promising investors a five-percent profit.  Funds were used to purchase and renovate dwellings to be rented to families at a reasonable cost.

The two most important leaders of the Association during its first several decades were Fox and her friend and cousin Helen Parrish (1859-1942).  Both women were connected to the white, upper class, and Quaker Parrish-Wharton family, which had a long tradition of social service. Fox and Parrish personally encountered the overcrowded and distressing conditions in South Philadelphia in the 1880s when they worked with Susan Parrish Wharton (1852-1928), founder of the St. Mary Street Library Association (1884).  Susan, another of Helen’s cousins, was the daughter of Susanna Wharton, a social activist and friend of Octavia Hill.  Fox and Parrish continued to support the St. Mary Street library but became convinced of the need for an organization devoted solely to improving housing conditions. 

[caption id="attachment_3637" align="alignright" width="300"]Workman Place, South Front Street Still a thriving neighborhood owned by the Octavia Hill Association, Workman Place on South Front Street is a surviving material artifact of Progressive era housing reform. (Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress)[/caption]

Following the model established by Octavia Hill, in 1888 Fox purchased two houses on St. Mary’s Street (now Rodman Street) and with Parrish refurbished and rented them to African American families. That same year, Parrish visited Hill in London for six months to observe her methods.  Two decades earlier, with the encouragement of social critic John Ruskin, Hill had purchased several London houses to rent at fair prices to poor families. She established the pattern of housing reform known as “five percent philanthropy” (sometimes described as “four percent philanthropy”), combining philanthropy with limited profit to investors.  Hill’s goal was to promote better housing conditions by purchasing and renovating clusters of dwellings that would create a sense of community and provide an example to surrounding neighborhoods.  In line with an emerging reform tradition, Hill believed in the power of the physical environment to shape human values and attitudes.

“Friendly Rent Collectors”

In addition to decent housing and reasonable rents, Hill also hoped to eliminate the problems caused by absentee landlords.  To establish personal relationships with the association’s clients, she introduced female “friendly rent collectors,” who visited families each month to instill thrift and responsibility.  Hill, though, saw little to be gained by middle-class women actually living amidst poverty as settlement-house workers did.  She believed that such constant immersion in the lives of the poor would make workers less objective in their assistance and less influential as exemplars of middle class values.

The Philadelphia reformers who named their association for Octavia Hill shared her belief in the power of environment and example; like her, they also rejected public subsidies (as non-educative) and, at first, multi-family housing.  In 1911, Parrish argued that the single-family home in the form of the small row house was the “better method of housing, the only method that ultimately will offer a solution of the great housing problem.” To both purchase and renovate was expensive, so the Association also renovated and managed properties for other owners.

Tenants were expected to contribute both rent and their own effort to maintain the renovated dwelling. The Philadelphians were not as rigid as Hill about tenants meeting rent payments, but some workers attempted to intervene in their tenants’ behaviors.  Settlement workers rented accommodations from the Association and often served as “friendly rent collectors,” minimizing distinctions Hill had thought important.

The Association’s first properties were located in Wards 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7. Wards 2, 3, and 4, located along the Delaware River just below South Street, were until the 1970s known as Southwark.  Ward 5, also along the Delaware, was adjacent to Southwark on the north side of South Street, and Ward 7, just west of Ward 5, extended to the Schuylkill River. Ward 7, with a population that was about thirty percent African American by the 1890s, was made famous by W. E. B. Du Bois in his study The Philadelphia Negro (1899).

Dense and Congested

Increasing numbers of immigrants resulted in Southwark and adjacent Wards 5 and 7 containing about one-tenth of the city’s population in what was one-eightieth of the city’s area.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the Third Ward, predominantly inhabited by Italian immigrants, was the most congested in the city, averaging 209 persons per acre.  The growing housing problem and the high costs of purchase and renovation prompted Association members to reconsider the use of multi-family dwellings and undertake the management of Casa Ravello, owned by reformer Dr. George Woodward, a long-time Association board member. This four-story tenement, located on Seventh Street between Catherine and Fulton Streets, housed thirty-three Italian families.

The Octavia Hill Association soon expanded its activities to other areas of the city, including Germantown, Kensington, and Manayunk.  In 1915, a new division, the Philadelphia Model Homes Company, built a group of one- and two-family courtyard townhouses in Port Richmond.  By 1929, the Association owned or managed a total of 450 housing units.

From its founding, the Association worked closely with settlement houses, the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Housing Commission (later Association, then the Housing Association of the Delaware Valley), to pursue a common goal of improving living conditions in the city.  Penn’s School of Social Work evolved out of the activities of reformer Mary Richmond (1861-1928), whose philosophy about friendly visiting greatly influenced Helen Parrish.  Richmond’s view that friendly visiting provided reciprocal benefits to both middle-class friendly visitors and tenant families was the subject of her book The Good Neighbor in the Modern City, also published in a special Philadelphia edition.  

Although mainly focused on day-to-day property management, the Association also commissioned Emily Wayland Dinwiddie (1879-1949) to study housing conditions in three South Philadelphia wards.  Detailed information from this 1903 survey allowed Association members to move beyond friendly visiting and piecemeal reform to fight for effective housing legislation. One success was the Tenement Inspection Law of 1907.

The scope of the Association’s activities changed in the twentieth century as new legislation and agencies enforced stricter building codes, municipal services improved, Philadelphia established a Housing Commission, and the federal government became involved in public housing projects.  The immigrant population also declined following passage of federal immigration restrictions in the 1920s.  These factors, combined with problems meeting stockholder dividends, motivated a change in activities: after World War II, the Octavia Hill Association incorporated as a real estate management company that now manages both luxury and affordable housing in many areas of the city.  In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the Octavia Hill Association built housing in North Philadelphia and Point Breeze, some for ownership rather than for rental.

Anne E. Krulikowski holds a Ph.D. in American history with a concentration in material culture/preservation from the University of Delaware.  She teaches at West Chester University and the University of Delaware.

Share This Page: