Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia


Artifact: Compass

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Compass used to lay out boundaries for West Jersey, between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and possibly in the City of Philadelphia, c. 1680. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, transferred from Chicago History Museum, 1981, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

A close examination of the face of this compass demonstrates the great care James Ramsey of Dublin took in crafting a piece that includes 360 lines marking degrees, ordinal as well as cardinal directions, and an elaborate image denoting North.  This careful construction suggests this compass, which was made sometime before 1680, was engineered to the highest scientific standards of the seventeenth century.  In addition to spending hours to make the compass, Ramsey probably would have constructed other pieces of surveying equipment to work in conjunction with the compass, including sight vanes (which look like tiny telescopes) and a protractor.

[caption id="attachment_19712" align="alignright" width="300"]A map of Pennsylvania in 1687 showing land purchases and town and county borders Thomas Holme's 1687 map of Pennsylvania shows tracts surveyed for the first purchasers. A map of Philadelphia is inset in the top center. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

This compass was first used by John Ladd (1657-1740), a Quaker who immigrated to America in the early 1680s, to lay out boundaries for the colony of West Jersey. It was also likely used to help lay out the city of Philadelphia, although documents from that period do not definitely prove it. In 1688, six years after the founding of Philadelphia, William Penn (1644-1718) awarded land to Ladd in return for surveying work done in Philadelphia. However, there is no record that Ladd labored with Surveyor General Thomas Holme (1624-95) on the official land assessment project. Therefore, it seems more likely that this compass was used to lay out individual lots or blocks within Philadelphia than to mark boundaries of the new city. The original borders of the city, from South Street to Vine Street and between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, remained in effect until the Consolidation Act of 1854, which merged the city with the rest of Philadelphia County.  

This original footprint of Philadelphia, the area that came to be called Center City, was purposefully laid out with straight lines and especially wide avenues dividing the city into quadrants at the intersection of Market Street (initially called High Street, the traditional British term for a town’s main thoroughfare) and Broad Street. Penn, who had lived through the Great Fire of London in September 1666, designed his model city in order to minimize the risk of a conflagration spreading from one Philadelphia neighborhood to the rest. As another fire suppression measure, the original city plan designated five squares as common public spaces in the center of the city (later the site of City Hall) and  in the center of each quadrant  (creating the public spaces later named Franklin Square, Washington Square, Rittenhouse Square, and Logan Circle).

As an especially valuable piece of equipment within the colonies, this compass later passed to Ladd’s son, John Ladd Jr.  It was used again in 1740 to help lay out the temporary boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, decades before the surveying of the Mason-Dixon Line.  The compass ended up in the collections of the Chicago Historical Society, on loan from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for an exhibition, but it returned to the HSP in 1981 as a sort of anniversary present just before the three-hundredth anniversary of Philadelphia. The compass came into the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum in 1999 as part of a transfer of more than 10,000 artifacts from the Historical Society.  This compass represents both the conscious creation of early Philadelphia as a green country town and the use of then-modern technologies to re-order the environment.

Text by Levi Fox, a Ph.D. candidate at Temple University.


Artifact: Centre Square Pump House Model

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Centre Square Pump House, model by Frederick Graff, c. 1820. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, gift of Mrs. Charles Graff, 1942, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

If this model for Philadelphia’s first municipal waterworks brings to mind the Pantheon in Rome, it is no coincidence. The building clearly harkened back to classical Greek and Roman architecture with its unimposing Doric columns and prominent dome. An oculus (round window) at the top of the dome opened to the sky to emit an iconic column of steam from the pump house's engine. With its symmetry and simple orientation, the neoclassical design of the Center Square Pump House embodied Philadelphia’s classical inheritance as well as its industrial future.

[caption id="attachment_15534" align="alignright" width="300"]The Pump House on Centre Square, depicted in William Birch's Views of Philadelphia in 1800. (Library of Congress) The Pump House on Centre Square, depicted in William Birch's Views of Philadelphia in 1800. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Construction on the Centre Square Pump House began in 1799 and was completed two years later. The building’s marriage of classical aesthetics and functionality reflected eighteenth-century Philadelphians’ conception of their city. At the close of the eighteenth century, Philadelphia faced a rapidly growing population, and with it, a need for clean water sources. The yellow fever outbreaks of 1793 and 1798 highlighted this need, and so Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) was hired to design a new water works for the city. A native of England, Latrobe brought a specialized, professional outlook to architecture, disdaining the American inclination to hire the same agent to design and construct a building. Latrobe strictly separated the trades of designing and building, as was the case with the pump house. For this project, Latrobe brought on his assistant engineer, Frederick Graff (1775-1847) – who built this model – and together they designed the city's first municipal water system to be both useful and elegant.

[caption id="attachment_15536" align="alignright" width="211"]Drawing of interior mechanics of the pump house. Inside the structure, water from the Schuylkill was pumped into tanks then distributed into the city. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

The pump house sat in Centre Square, one of the five public spaces designated by William Penn (1644-1718) in the original plan for the city (and later the site of Philadelphia’s City Hall). A series of pumps moved water up from the Schuylkill to the pump house, which then distributed clean water via wooden pipes to water hydrants and paying subscribers, including four breweries and a sugar refinery.

Despite its early promise, the pump house faced a number of issues with its steam engines, which proved rather unreliable and required significant maintenance. By 1815, it became clear that a different solution would be needed. Graff, who by then had become the superintendent and head engineer of the project, encouraged the construction of the more efficient and reliable Fairmount Water Works. The city’s second municipal works opened in 1815 and stood on the Schuylkill just below the later site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After the switch to Fairmount Water Works, the city continued to use Centre Square Pump House as a distribution point for seventeen more years. The building was finally demolished in 1829. Fairmount was a more successful municipal waterworks, remaining in operation until 1909 and later becoming the site for an aquarium, a pool, a restaurant, and an interpretive center.

Though it stood for only twenty-nine years, the Centre Square Pump House embodied Philadelphia’s role as a birthplace of creative and revolutionary energy. At the close of the eighteenth century, many eyes were on the city that fostered the spirit of political freedom during the American Revolution and then served as the nation’s capital. Political leaders had long been known to borrow the trappings of classical Greece to enforce an image of longstanding power and authority. This began with fresh gusto when the Peales and other prominent portrait painters paired Philadelphia’s leaders with columns and imagery that recalled Greece’s golden age. Classical architecture and institutions such as the Philadelphia Athenaeum (founded in 1814) also contributed to the city’s moniker as the “Athens of America.”

The Centre City Pump House, though ultimately short-lived, proved that a municipal waterworks system was a valuable service to a growing city. It helped build an architectural movement in the city that tied Philadelphia to that faraway birthplace of democracy. Equally notable is that it brought Benjamin Latrobe to the area to spread his practice of separating design and construction, a system that endured in many building projects in the United States.

Text by Kelsey Ransick, museum professional in the Philadelphia area with an MA in History from the University of Delaware.

Click on the base of the model to explore the building that stands on the site of the pump house today.


Artifact: Menorah

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Menorah, c. 1920. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, gift of Howard Robboy, 2012, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

[caption id="attachment_22735" align="alignright" width="300"]In Rome on the Triumphal Arch of Titus, which was built in 82 C.E. there is a relief depicting Titus’s army with the plunder from the Temple in Jerusalem which they destroyed in 70 C.E. A menorah is prominently displayed among the spoils. (Wikimedia Commons) In Rome on the Triumphal Arch of Titus, which was built in 82 C.E., a relief depicts Titus’s army with the plunder from the temple they destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. A menorah is displayed prominently among the spoils. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Menorahs have a very ancient connection with Judaism. The instructions for making them appeared in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible known as the Torah – the foundational text of Judaism. According to the book of Exodus (or Shemot), craftsmen were to construct them with “three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side” (Exodus 37:18). Since ancient times, this classic shape and design have been a recognizable symbol of Judaism.

The menorah at the top of this page was distributed by M. Wolozin Inc. of New York, a Judaica store that operated on Eldridge Street on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Its silver-plated branches appear to have wax stains from the dripping of candles. Rather than three branches on each side, as the Torah instructs, this menorah has four. The center is topped with a Magen David (Star of David), and it is inscribed in Hebrew with the word “Zion.” If we look closely at this menorah from the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum, what does it suggest about how it might have been used? Would it have been owned by someone very wealthy or someone of more modest means?

This kind of menorah, different from the traditional Jewish menorah, is called a Hanukiah or Hanukkah Menorah. The eight branches hold the candles lit for the eight nights of Hanukkah, while the center holds the shamash, or helper candle, which lights the others. Hanukkah begins with the lighting of the shamash and one candle, and each evening a new candle is added until the final night when the Hanukiah is fully lit.  Hanukkah menorahs are made in a wide range of styles from simple yet elegant designs (like the one shown here) to very intricate and elaborate. Modern Hanukkah menorahs range from the traditional to the abstract. The classic shape and design of this Hanukiah, however, is one that even the earliest Jewish residents of the Philadelphia area would have recognized.

The first Jewish inhabitants of Philadelphia were a small group of Sephardic and German Jews who lived in the city in the 1730s. Among them were families that became prominent in local Philadelphia history, such as the Gratz family, for whom Gratz College was named. In 1782 this group dedicated the city’s first synagogue (Congregation Mikveh Israel) on Cherry Street, and Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was among the donors to its building fund.

[caption id="attachment_22738" align="alignright" width="300"]Jewish commercial districts like the pushcart market on Marshall Street in Northern Liberties,  shown here in the 1930s, emerged with the new wave of  immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Historical Society of  Pennsylvania) Jewish commercial districts like the pushcart market on Marshall Street in Northern Liberties, shown here in the 1930s, emerged with the new wave of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

For almost a century the Jewish community in the United States was predominantly German or Western European. But as the pogroms and persecutions increased in Eastern Europe in the 1880s, Jews from Poland, Russia, and other eastern European countries flooded into the major cities of the United States in a wave of immigration that lasted from 1880 to 1924. Philadelphia was no exception, and the established German/Jewish community in the city was inundated with refugees who were foreign to them in almost every way. They dressed differently, they worshiped differently, and they even spoke a different language – Yiddish.  The large numbers of Jewish immigrants forever changed Jewish life in Philadelphia and the nation.

Among those many millions seeking to escape the poverty and persecution in Eastern Europe were the owners of this menorah. In 1923 Mendel Robboy (c. 1884-1953), a native of Kiev, his wife, Anna (c. 1884-?), and their three children intended to travel on board the Constantinople from Constanta, Romania, to New York. Passenger lists indicate they never made it on board, and they instead traveled on the SS Canada destined for Providence, Rhode Island. They were one family among thousands who left their homeland in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom in the United States. They became part of that tremendous wave of immigration that forever changed American Jewry. Settling in Philadelphia, their American story began in Port Richmond, where the Robboys lived and operated a small grocery store. Port Richmond had a large Jewish population at that time, enough to support two synagogues at Tulip and Auburn Streets in the heart of an area that became known as “New Jerusalem.”

One of the many Jewish holidays the Robboy family would have celebrated was Hanukkah, with this Hanukiah. The holiday was not prescribed in Jewish scripture like Passover and Yom Kippur, but it became a celebration of Jewish resilience in the face of persecution.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Literacy (1991), commented that it is indeed “one of the happiest Jewish holidays.” It recalls the oppression of the Jews by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215 B.C.E.-164 B.C.E.), who sought to outlaw Judaism and put idols in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In 166 B.C.E. the Jews, led by the Maccabees, rebelled and purified the Temple by destroying the idols. When they sought to light the menorah, they had only one container of oil—enough for one day. According to the story, that one flask lasted for eight days, and the Hanukkah Menorah has eight candles to commemorate that miracle.

Hanukkah was not a major holiday on the Jewish calendar until the twentieth century. However, Hanukkah played an important role for new Jewish immigrants to the United States, who associated Christmas with a potential for violence, such as the attacks on Jewish businesses that occurred at Christmastime during the Warsaw pogrom of 1881. In the new world, “Hanukkah served as a counter-balance to this fear of Christmas in Jewish communities,” wrote Emma Green in her article “Hanukkah Why?” in the December 2015 issue of The Atlantic. In Philadelphia, the Jewish community was free to worship without fear. If we try, we can imagine Mendel Robboy, his wife, Anna, and their children, gathered around this Hanukiah, celebrating the miracle of oil and celebrating their new lives, their faith, and their new freedom in America.

Text by Leslie Peck, who earned a master's degree in history at Rutgers University-Camden.


Artifact: Side Chair

[caption id="attachment_2088" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Klismos form chair (1808), by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. (Philadelphia Museum of Art) (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

As shown in this chair, made in Philadelphia in 1808, the so-called Klismos form is distinguished by front and rear legs that curve inwards and directly mimics ancient Greek chairs as seen on pottery. The draped upholstery softens the severe lines.  Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed this chair, other furniture, and a house at Seventh and Chestnut Streets for William and Mary Waln.  The Greek influences helped to build Philadelphia's reputation as the "Athens of America" or "Athens of the Western World."

Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art. Side Chair Made in Philadelphia, 1808, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, American (born England), 1764-1820. Decorated by George Bridport, American (born England), 1783 -1819. Gessoed, painted and gilded tulipwood and maple, gilded metal mounts, silk upholstery 34 1/4 x 20 x 20 inches. Purchased with the gift (by exchange) of Mrs. Alex Simpson, Jr., and A. Carson Simpson, and with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Raley and various donors, 1986.

Artifact: Cheesesteak

[caption id="attachment_4011" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Photograph of a cheesesteak on a paper wrapper, with a cup of ketchup and a cup of peppers beside it.  (Photograph by J. Varney for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Thin bits of frizzled beef served on a locally-made Italian roll, usually topped with fried onions and Cheez Whiz drawn from the can with a paint stirrer, a cheesesteak is a sandwich unlike any John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), might have encountered. Cheesesteaks originated in 1930 as simply steak sandwiches, the cheese part coming later. The undisputed creators, Harry Olivieri and his brother Pat, ran a hot dog stand in South Philadelphia. One day, weary of eating their own dogs for lunch, they grilled some sliced beef with onions instead. -- Text by Dianna Marder

Artifact: IWW Membership Button

An image of a round membership Button for the Industrial Workers of the World. The button is gold along the edge and green in the center. The outer gold ring reads "Local No. 8. MTW February 1917. The center has the letters IWW mixed with three stars, and the number 1370.

For most of a decade, anyone who wanted to work on the Philadelphia waterfront had to be a member of Local 8. In order to ensure that only fully paid-up members worked, Local 8 distributed a new button monthly. When an employer hired someone not wearing the proper button, Local 8 members were known to stop work until that person paid his dues--demonstrating the Wobblies' commitment to direct action on the job.

Artifact: Chinatown Friendship Gate

[caption id="attachment_6526" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Photograph of Chinese Friendship Gate in Chinatown, Philadelphia (Photograph by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Friendship Gate, produced by artisans in Chinatown's "sister city" of Tianijn, China in 1983, was installed at the intersection of Tenth and Arch Street in 1984. The gate provides a distinctive anchor for Philadelphia's Chinatown, which has evolved since the nineteenth century to become a cultural and business center for multiple Asian immigrant groups. Chinatown's borders have been redefined and reduced by urban renewal and infrastructure projects such as the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Vine Street Expressway, Independence Mall Urban Renewal Area, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Residents of Chinatown protested each of these projects, which resulted in businesses and homes being razed and residents displaced. One successful protest in 1973 resulted in a redesign of the Vine Street Expressway, so that the construction would not destroy three additional city blocks and a church within Chinatown. Even with local protests, Chinatown has been reduced in size from twelve city blocks to seven city blocks over the twentieth century. To help preserve Chinatown, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and other community organizations have developed affordable housing and streetscape projects to help preserve an ethnic residential neighborhood and cultural center.

Artifact: Door Knob

[caption id="attachment_3782" align="aligncenter" width="342"]Photograph of door knob at the Lazaretto. (Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress)[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_6868" align="alignright" width="300"]Drawing of the Lazaretto by Frank H. Taylor in 1895. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division) Drawing of the Lazaretto by Frank H. Taylor in 1895. (Library of Congress)[/caption]The scales of justice and a key, depicted against a shield on this door knob, presented symbols of authority to those who passed through the doors of the Lazaretto south of Philadelphia. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the Lazaretto was the first stop for immigrants and merchants on incoming ships whose passengers and cargo had to be quarantined until passing a health inspection.




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Artifact: Pretzel

[caption id="attachment_3873" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Philadelphia Soft Pretzels (J. Varney for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption] [caption id="attachment_3875" align="alignright" width="300"]Pretzel Vendor, 1934 In the depths of the Great Depression, a pretzel vendor sets up shop outside Stetson Junior High School. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Philadelphia soft pretzels are distinguished from all others by their shape (a figure-8, not loopy with a thick center and thinner ends), their texture (chewy, not crunchy), and their distribution method (look for them on street corners, not supermarkets). They come lightly salted, or, on request, as "baldies."

-- Text by Dianna Marder


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