Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Nineteenth Century after 1854

Model of a horizontal steam engine.Model of a horizontal steam engine, c. 1880, represents Philadelphia’s manufacturing prowess in the late nineteenth century. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, gift of A. Atwater Kent, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

The nation celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876 in Philadelphia with the Centennial Exhibition, the first full-scale world’s fair held in the United States. As the exhibits in Fairmount Park demonstrated, the cause for celebration was not primarily history but industrial progress. In the decades after the Civil War, large-scale industrialization and new waves of immigration produced massive growth in Philadelphia, Camden, and other cities in the region. The region’s major industries included textiles, locomotive manufacturing, shipbuilding, iron and steel production, and sugar refining. With the discovery of petroleum in western Pennsylvania, Philadelphia became an oil storage and refining center.

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Away from the noise, pollution, and congestion of industry, new suburban neighborhoods developed along the routes of streetcars and commuter rail lines. Streetcars, introduced in 1858, allowed middle class families to move to streetcar suburbs in West and lower North Philadelphia and in Camden County. Electrification in 1892 further extended the range for commuting. Skilled workers also commuted by ferry from new housing developments in Camden, such as Cramer Hill, to Philadelphia industries. Meanwhile, commuter railroads opened up suburban enclaves for the wealthy west of Philadelphia along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, in Chestnut Hill, and in Camden County, New Jersey, communities such as Merchantville and Collingswood. The railroads and streetcars also provided suburban dwellers with access to thriving central business districts anchored by rail stations, department stores, and concert halls.

As many of the wealthy and middle class left older neighborhoods, new generations of immigrants populated alleys and courts crowded with the region’s oldest housing stock. By the 1890s, slum conditions attracted the attention of reformers who followed British examples to create settlement houses and public bath houses to address the needs of the urban poor.

Topics: Nineteenth Century after 1854

Gallery: Nineteenth Century after 1854

Timeline: Nineteenth Century after 1854

Map: Nineteenth Century after 1854

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