William Penn (1644-1718), the founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania, had high hopes for Philadelphia. He wanted the city to become the economic and moral hub and showpiece of the nearly 50,000 square miles that he had been granted as Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods). Penn outlined his radical notion when he advertised the city for settlement in 1681: he intended to construct a physical, economic, political, and religious environment in which divine virtue would tame the human tendency for sin and corruption. His mission would leave an indelible imprint on the politics, economics, culture, and land-use of the Delaware River valley region and Philadelphia, the Quaker City.
As a member of the Religious Society of Friends of the Truth (Quakers), a British Christian splinter group, Penn shared in the belief that Christ’s arrival was occurring in his time. In response, it behooved people to live up to Christ’s presence. Though there is no evidence that Penn used the term “The Quaker City” for Philadelphia, he drew inspiration from Quaker founder George Fox, his mentor, as he imagined a communal environment where people would live in a way that “taketh away the need for all wars.”
Penn’s religious faith led him to his conviction that a prudently-designed and carefully-monitored physical environment, governed by a rational and nurturing political and economic leadership, would promote a salubrious community life. To that end, he sent a city planner to lay out the city’s grid and to negotiate with the region’s prior inhabitants before new settlers arrived. In addition Penn’s carefully-crafted Frame of Government for Pennsylvania allowed for a greater religious liberty than had been known in the Old World. Penn’s plan also called for responsible citizen participation in government, and—importantly—a prohibition against a military system.
Having lived through the Great Fire in London in 1666, Penn envisioned that Philadelphia—a “Green Countrie Towne” that would “always be wholesome and never be burnt”–would be the centerpiece of Pennsylvania. Prayerfully, contemplated his project: “And Thou Philadelphia the virgin settlement of this province named before thou wert born, what care, what service, what travail have there been to bring thee forth …. O that thou mayest be kept from the evil that would overwhelm thee…” With careful attention to street layout, architecture, and urban design that emphasized community gathering places and “greene” parks, Penn hoped to engender an atmosphere that would encourage high morality and community responsibility.
The Road to Philadelphia
Penn did not envision his green country town as only an isolated, idyllic outpost for Quakers. Aiming to attract non-Quaker as well as Quaker land-speculators, and others whom he described as “low in the world” (economically, religiously, or politically oppressed), Penn sent representatives to publicize his project widely across northern Europe. Promising economic prosperity and religious freedom, as well as governmental fairness, he broadcast his ambitious plans that Philadelphia would become a “Great Towne,” a leader in the burgeoning Atlantic commercial world. Through careful management of land sales and values, Penn also aimed to have Philadelphia remain the hub of a regional economy.
Penn’s description of the foundations of his Quaker governance worked so well that within a few decades of its founding, non-Quaker residents outnumbered the Quakers in Philadelphia. Despite their minority status, however, the power, influence, legacy, and legend of Quakers’ ideals and values remained an enduring theme in Philadelphia’s development. Though many Philadelphia Quakers withdrew from government service rather than participate in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), they found other ways to advocate for their particular brand of integrity and community responsibility, including active civic engagement (especially in philanthropy and education); innovative entrepreneurship; attention to integrity, philanthropy, and fiscal responsibility (Quakers call it “stewardship”); and religious and social fairness. By the 1760s, the Quaker reputation for integrity was so widespread that Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)–who worked tirelessly and imaginatively to improve urban life, with projects as diverse as news publishing, mail delivery, improved street lighting, volunteer fire companies, and the Franklin stove—allowed people to think he was a Quaker, even though he was not.
The economy of Philadelphia grew vigorously. Shippers and traders from across the Atlantic world made deals with farmers and entrepreneurs from the city’s back country, who hauled their wares to Philadelphia’s ports along the well-planned roads. Indeed, by 1750, Philadelphia’s Quaker-dominated commercial energies had made it the second most important city in the British empire, and by the 1790s, Quaker entrepreneurship had fostered the nation’s first government-backed toll road from Lancaster to Philadelphia. Within a few years, Quakers Josiah White (1781-1850) and Erskine Hazard (1789-1865) made plans to augment this infrastructure with a network of canals. Thus, Quaker entrepreneurship helped to situate Pennsylvania with an economic preeminence that it yielded to New York only in the 1820s–and only grudgingly.
Urban Vision Writ Large
No one knows who originated the quip that “Quakers came to America to do good, and did very well.” But the combination of opportunity and frugality did, for a number of Quakers, bring great wealth. In response, worried that wealth would bring the temptations of moral flabbiness, Quaker leaders encouraged each other to donate the “excess” to worthy community concerns. Thus, beginning in the eighteenth century, Quaker public-good enterprises became ubiquitous. Philadelphia Quaker entrepreneurs were early participants in establishing a lending library (1731); a university (1740); the nation’s first professional medical facility (1751) an anti-slavery network (1770s); canals (1820s); museums and historical societies (1820s); national railroad systems (1830s); investment-banking houses (1830s); and the nation’s first zoo (begun in 1859, and completed fifteen years later). Other nineteenth-century Philadelphia-Quaker initiatives included the nation’s first hospital aimed at offering “tender, sympathetic attention” to the mentally ill (1813); a visionary urban prison system focused on reform, rather than punishment (1829); and a medical college for women (1850s). Beginning with the first Quaker school in the 1680s, the number of Quaker educational institutions mushroomed: as of 2014, more than three dozen Quaker-run schools were operating in the Philadelphia area. Quakers’ “fairness” initiatives also included schools for African Americans (dating from the 1750s) and a number of multi-racial, multi-class cooperative housing ventures (1940s-1960s).
In these and other projects, Quaker investors, architects, and engineers played pivotal roles, often working behind the scenes to consciously echo Penn’s dreams of a responsible citizenry. Eighteenth-century master builder Samuel Rhoads (1711-84) exemplified this posture, serving as a designer of the colony’s state house, as a founding member of the nation’s first lending library and first insurance company, and as a director of Philadelphia’s almshouse and hospital. In 1800, Quaker leadership helped shape the development of America’s second municipal water works, located on the Schuylkill River. In the 1840s, to protect the quality of the water supply, Quakers spearheaded the city’s acquisition of a number of Quaker estates along the banks of the river. This project, which grew into the massive Fairmount Park, also resulted in the establishment of America’s first zoo in 1874.
Throughout the nineteenth-century, the city’s urban design and infrastructure projects were often dominated by Quaker architects and planners, many of whom felt bound by their forebears’ forward-looking vision. Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938), for example, apprenticed with an architectural firm owned by Quakers D.W. and W.D. Hewitt. This firm carried on Quakers’ racial-justice heritage by hiring Julian Abele (1881-1950), Philadelphia’s first African American architect. Quaker Edmund Bacon (1910-2005), who served as director of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970, also took inspiration from his heritage as a descendant of one of William Penn’s first purchasers. Lecturing frequently on the importance of attractive public spaces, Bacon remained focused on the goal of keeping the city’s economy and infrastructure vibrant, as well as welcoming to a broad mix of inhabitants. Philadelphia’s iconic “Love Park”—which Bacon envisioned while still a young student in architecture school—followed on the tradition of a “greene countrie towne.”
Bacon also embraced the long tradition of Philadelphia as a “Great Towne.” He was fond of displaying the 1794 “Map of Philadelphia and Environs” (by A.P. Folie), with its roadways radiating out from the city, but labeled “the road to Philadelphia,” which testified to the city’s intention to remain a regional hub. So, too, said Bacon, did the construction of the mid-twentieth-century Schuylkill Expressway, which gave suburban dwellers relatively easy access to the city.
The Enduring “Quaker City”
The origins of the nickname of “The Quaker City” are murky, but a surprising amount of Penn’s vision has stood the test of time. Of course, the “Quaker” legacy could not inoculate Philadelphia against the typical urban stresses—political corruption, budget struggles, inter-group tensions, employer/employee conflicts, infrastructure challenges, and crime. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, when novelist George Lippard chose the title The Quaker City for his tale of urban corruption and debauchery– highlighting the disjunction between Quaker vision and urban reality–most readers understood the irony of the fact that the novel included only one Quaker character: indeed a man of integrity, but a man who makes only a brief appearance, as he is exiting Philadelphia.
Nevertheless, in modern times, many of the city’s institutions, businesses, and citizens continued to be stamped by both the positive and negative imagery attributed to the stereotypical “Quaker,” even when the term “Quaker” has little or no relationship to the Religious Society of Friends. As early as 1859, when entrepreneur the “Quaker State” oil company was established by a non-Quaker to harvest and distribute Pennsylvania’s petroleum products, the advertisers and customers understood the appeal of Quakers’ reputation for honesty and integrity. Nearly two decades later, the image of William Penn found its way to the Quaker Oats box, appropriated by an Ohio cereal-maker who had read about Quakers. Philadelphia became home to the University of Pennsylvania’s football team “the Quakers,” and to the William Penn Foundation, a well-endowed organization providing grants to enrich “cultural expression, strengthen children’s futures, and deepen connections to nature and community.” Established in the 1940s, and long known as the Haas Foundation, the William Penn Foundation renamed itself in 1974, explaining the change as reflecting its desire to commemorate Penn’s “pursuit of an exemplary society and understanding of human possibilities.”
Still, the Philadelphia region has been the site of many Quaker “firsts,” including Haverford College (1833)—the world’s first Quaker college—and dozens of Quaker schools and other institutions for social “improvement.” The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), perhaps the best-known Quaker organization, was born in Philadelphia during World War I and its central office has remained in the city. Widely known for its non-partisan relief projects in war-torn regions of the world, and for its partnership with Amish, Mennonite, and United Brethren denominations in designing alternative, nonviolent service instead of military service (conscientious objection), the AFSC accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Religious Society of Friends in 1947. When two representatives from “the Quaker City” traveled to Stockholm to accept the award, many Philadelphians took pride in the city’s Quaker heritage.
But there is plenty of negativity in the “Quaker” imagery, too. Philadelphians have struggled to live down a reputation for being boring and resistant to change, as well as insular and self-righteous—characteristics that are often attributed to the socially- and economically-conservative Quaker ethos. For example, conservative alcohol-control laws constrain many Philadelphia-area municipalities, and amidst the modern proliferation of skyscrapers, Philadelphia city planners long clung to the notion that no part of Philadelphia’s skyline should rise higher than the statue of “Billy Penn” that stands atop City Hall.
In the twenty-first century, fewer than 15,000 Quakers live in the Philadelphia area, yet the notion of the “Quaker City” survives. Can the mystique and tradition of “the Quaker City” survive the skyline that finally, in the 1990s, eclipsed Billy Penn’s hat?
Emma Lapsansky-Werner is a Quaker, a Professor of History at Haverford College, and a happy resident of the Philadelphia area for more than a half-century. She began researching and writing about the city in the 1960s, and has since has lectured and published on many aspects of Philadelphia’s history.
Topics: Quaker Influences
Few regions in the United States can claim an abolitionist heritage as rich as Philadelphia. By the time Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79) launched The Liberator in 1831, the Philadelphia area’s confrontation with human bondage was nearly 150 years old. Still, Philadelphia abolitionism is often treated as a distant cousin of the epic nineteenth-century ⇒ Read More
From the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, almshouses offered food, shelter, clothing, and medical care to the poorest and most vulnerable, often in exchange for hard labor and forfeiture of freedom. Those who entered the Philadelphia region’s almshouses, willingly or unwillingly, rarely accepted this exchange and often protested their treatment or blatantly ⇒ Read More
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and coiner of the phrase “speak truth to power,” was founded in Philadelphia by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Spring 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6. Over the following century, AFSC embodied ⇒ Read More
Well before the Declaration of Independence, in 1743 Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) and his friend the Quaker botanist John Bartram (1699-1777) established the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia as a declaration of scientific independence from Great Britain’s scientific domination. The APS developed from a group of local intellectuals keen on expanding human knowledge to serve informally ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia area is a recognized “hearth” of early American arboretums. Starting almost exclusively within a tight-knit community of Quaker botanists with a reverence for nature, early Philadelphia arboretums left a legacy of emphasis on native plants. Over time, the region’s arboretums also encompassed English naturalistic designs showcasing North American species and increasingly global perspectives, ⇒ Read More
Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793, published in 1799 by Philadelphia native Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), became one of the most influential works of American and Philadelphia Gothic literature. The novel recalls the yellow fever epidemic (August–October 1793), which transformed Philadelphia into a place of chaos. Such late-summer epidemics were common across North ⇒ Read More
Forming a core of civic, commercial, and residential life since Philadelphia’s seventeenth-century founding, Center City has been a continually evolving experiment in urban living and management. The roughly rectangular area of about 2.3 square miles between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, from Vine Street to South Street, occupies the territory of the original 1682 city ⇒ Read More
During the 1850s, Northern abolitionism developed, Southern defense of slavery hardened, and debates over the expansion of slavery gripped the nation. When pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions met at Christiana, Pennsylvania, a mere 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the events that followed and the subsequent trial in Philadelphia became flashpoints that deepened the sectional ⇒ Read More
When naming a newborn, you feel the weight of the decision, the fond hope that the right name might provide a push along a hoped-for path. Even as names seek to nudge destiny, sometimes they merely set up irony: Faith, the fiery atheist; Victor, the embittered failure. We can’t know all the thoughts that coursed ⇒ Read More
Classical music stands apart from vernacular (or “folk” music) and from “popular” music (in the form of simplified commercial entertainment) in its complexity of structure and high level of performance requirements. Philadelphia established a major position in American classical composition and performance in the early nineteenth century, and maintained that position through its premier professional ⇒ Read More
Upon receiving his grant for Pennsylvania in March 1681, William Penn (1644-1718) immediately set about attracting investors and settlers. To pay expenses and realize a profit from his enterprise, Penn had to sell land. The “First Purchasers” who responded to his promotional tracts provided essential economic support for Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Penn sought to attract ⇒ Read More
The Free Society of Traders, a joint-stock company founded by a small group of English Quakers in 1681, was organized with the intention of directing and dominating the economic life of colonial Pennsylvania. But, from the beginning, controversy about the Society’s existence revealed fundamental political divisions within William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” and opposition led to ⇒ Read More
Friends Neighborhood Guild, a Quaker-founded settlement house and neighborhood center in North Philadelphia, for more than a century has helped residents confront urban issues by offering services, participating in neighborhood redevelopment, and acting as a broker for interactions across ethnic and class lines. Established in 1879 as Friends Mission No. 1 at Beach Street and ⇒ Read More
More than three centuries of private and public efforts have given the Philadelphia area the highest concentration of public gardens in the United States. Although William Penn (1644-1718) originally envisioned five squares dotting his metropolis, the energies of private citizens initially cultivated the plants, gardens, and landscapes of Philadelphia. From these beginnings, public gardens became ⇒ Read More
How often have you heard people proudly call Philadelphia a “greene country towne,” quoting William Penn’s evocative description of the city he founded? Along with “city of brotherly love” – another catchy Penn coinage – the phrase ranks as the granddaddy of all municipal brands, pre-dating “Big Apple” and “Big Easy” by almost three centuries. ⇒ Read More
With the exception of Greater Boston, the Philadelphia region has more independent colleges and universities than any other metropolitan area of the United States. These numbers stem in large part from the variety of religious communities in the region, all of whom wanted to enjoy the prestige of having an institution of higher learning. Originally, ⇒ Read More
What might you do if you found yourself with almost 50,000 square miles of seemingly virgin land in a place you have never seen, far from home? In 1681, when William Penn – entrepreneur, scholar, religious mystic, Enlightenment intellectual – acquired Pennsylvania, he had a ready answer. Primed with forward-looking ideas about equality and shared ⇒ Read More
European settlement of the region on both sides of the Delaware River dates to the early seventeenth century. The population grew rapidly after 1682, when Pennsylvania’s policy of religious tolerance and its reputation as the “best poor man’s country” attracted people from all walks of life. By the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia was ⇒ Read More
From its earliest days as an English colony, Pennsylvania needed lawyers to run the government, settle disputes, and keep the peace. As Philadelphia became a large city and important commercial, insurance, banking, and shipping center on the eve of the American Revolution, its lawyers were crucial to every civic endeavor, including the making of a ⇒ Read More
During the American Revolution, Loyalists, or “Tories” as Patriots called them, included prominent Pennsylvania political and religious leaders as well as many less affluent individuals from the state’s Quaker and German pacifist communities. A large number of “neutrals” also struggled with increasing difficulty to remain uninvolved in the conflict. Religion, ethnicity, economic status, and local ⇒ Read More
Since the earliest European settlement in the seventeenth century, but especially from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, large houses constructed by elites in the Philadelphia region provided agreeable places to live that demonstrated social status. As architectural fashion and geographic distribution changed, mansions served as conspicuous symbols for elite Philadelphians and were a salient ⇒ Read More
Market Street, one of Philadelphia’s primary east-west thoroughfares, originated in the 1682 city plan devised by William Penn (1644-1718) and Thomas Holme (1624-95) as High Street, one hundred feet wide and located at the longitudinal center of the city. Penn’s knowledge of plague and a devastating conflagration in 1660s London prompted the width of the ⇒ Read More
Media, Pennsylvania, was built on farmland in the 1850s as the new county seat of Delaware County. The county, which was carved from Chester County in 1789, lies in the southeastern corner of the state along the Delaware River between Philadelphia and the state of Delaware. Located only 12 miles from Philadelphia, Media is an ⇒ Read More
Although an unemployed Philadelphia salesman, Charles Darrow (1889-1967), was long credited as the creator of the world’s most popular board game, the origins of Monopoly stretch several decades before Parker Brothers purchased the rights from Darrow in 1935 and beyond the iconic streets of Atlantic City featured in the game. The proper history of Monopoly ⇒ Read More
In March of 1681, King Charles II of England (1630-85) granted William Penn (1644-1718), gentleman and Quaker, the charter for a proprietary colony on the North American continent. Although both English colonial policy and the organization of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, were works in progress between the years 1682 and 1701, in ⇒ Read More
Founded in 1787 as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the Pennsylvania Prison Society quickly became a leading advocate for the humane and salutary treatment of the incarcerated. From the restructuring of the Walnut Street Jail in the eighteenth century, to the construction and oversight of the Eastern State Penitentiary in ⇒ Read More
In the late 1700s, on the heels of the American Revolution, Philadelphia emerged as a national and international leader in prison reform and the transformation of criminal justice practices. More than any other community in early America, Philadelphia invested heavily in the intellectual and physical reconstruction of penal philosophies, and the region’s jails and prisons ⇒ Read More
The private or independent schools in the Greater Philadelphia area came about mainly to satisfy a need felt by wealthy, white families to educate their children in a cultural and intellectual environment that would prepare them for the responsibilities befitting their gender, race, and class status. Most have existed for at least a century. Although ⇒ Read More
George Lippard (1822-54) published The Quaker City; Or, the Monks of Monk Hall in 1844-45 in serial installments, which were then collated as a novel. A gothic tale, set in Philadelphia and inspired by a linked pair of real-life urban crimes, the novel juxtaposes a plot centered on greed, amorality, and debauchery against the then-popular ⇒ Read More
Much as New England was shaped by its Puritan heritage, the history of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley intertwined heavily with the Religious Society of Friends. Philadelphia gained one of its nicknames, “The Quaker City,” from its founding and settlement by the Friends, colloquially known as Quakers, a historically Christian religious sect that emerged during ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia and the surrounding area played a significant role in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), also known as the French and Indian War and the Great War for Empire. Beginning in North America and spreading to Europe, India, and the West Indies, the war was a struggle for colonial dominance between France and Great Britain ⇒ Read More
From the arrival of Europeans in the seventeenth century through the era of the early republic, treaties were an important tool in diplomacy between native nations and colonial Pennsylvania and later the nascent federal government. Treaties followed indigenous modes of diplomacy, into which colonists introduced, and imposed, the signing of treaty documents. However, treaty councils ⇒ Read More
The Treaty of Shackamaxon, otherwise known as William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians or “Great Treaty,” is Pennsylvania’s most longstanding historical tradition, a counterpart to the foundation stories of Virginia (John Smith and Pocahontas) and New England (the first Thanksgiving). According to the tradition, soon after William Penn (1644-1718) arrived in Pennsylvania in late October ⇒ Read More
With a deep abolitionist history and large and vibrant free black population, Philadelphia and the surrounding region played a prominent role in the famed Underground Railroad. The loosely connected organization of white and black people helped hide and guide enslaved people as they sought freedom in the North and Canada. According to one of the ⇒ Read More
Between 1674 and 1702, New Jersey was divided in half: The proprietary West New Jersey colony faced the Delaware River while East New Jersey looked toward the Hudson. Although this political division lasted less than three decades, it represented long-standing geographical orientations of the Lenape and Munsee native inhabitants and European colonists. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) ⇒ Read More
While the Philadelphia region often led the way on progressive reforms, by the twentieth century, woman suffrage was not among them. The region boasted a number of early woman suffrage advocates, and women in New Jersey had the right to vote during the early years of the republic, but by the late nineteenth century, Pennsylvania ⇒ Read More
The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, founded in 1850 as the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, was the first medical school in the world for women authorized to award them the M.D. It was established in Philadelphia by a group of progressive Quakers and a businessman who believed that women had a right to education ⇒ Read More