Author Archives: Ken Finkel

Chant of the Coal Heavers: “From Six to Six”

Being a Schuylkill coal-heaver wasn’t much of a life. Bosses hired fresh arrivals from Ireland to unload canal boats at the coal yards. By the hundred, crews manned wheelbarrows on the riverbank for a dollar a day, dawn to dark, six days a week. As many as 14 backbreaking hours during the summer months. One […]
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Gritty King Coal

In the 1820s, Philadelphia investors “awoke as if from a dream” to the “immensity of the riches concealed in the mountains and ravines of their native State.” As “news of fortunes accumulated by piercing the bowels of the earth, and bringing forth [coal] from the caverns of mountains,” wrote Edwin Freedley, the anthracite trade, which “appeared […]
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The Silent Film Era Was Anything But

In 1913, “seventy vaudeville and motion picture theatres were under construction” wrote Irvin Glazer. And “virtually all of them were open by the fall,” providing Philadelphia with about 350 venues theatres that excluded downtown “legitimate theatres.” Each and every one screened silent films. Viewing options were everywhere. In addition to the Victoria at 913 Market […]
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Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō Had Arrived

“With Secret Service men and city detectives following in a motor car and mounted policemen galloping ahead and behind, the Japanese commander was whirled around the west side of City Hall and South on Broad street. Those who caught a fleeting look at his immobile face gave him a noisy welcome. From the windows of […]
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A Story of Stewardship

The 1904 St. Louis’ Louisiana Purchase Exposition was a gigantic affair: nearly twice the size of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and quadruple Philadelphia’s Centennial in 1876.  For Japan, the increasing scale of America’s world’s fairs turned out to be just about the perfect platform to demonstrate its expanded ambitions for the world stage. The […]
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The Philadelphia Rowhouse: American Dream Revisited

The American Dream? Data collected last year, and presented in the chart below from The Washington Post’s WongBlog, identifies a decisive answer: the single, detached house. It’s the way Americans live in half of the nation’s 40 largest cities—with two prominent exceptions. The majority of New Yorkers live in buildings with 20 or more units. […]
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Philadelphia Architects on Fire(houses)

As the city heated up, pushing outward in all directions, so did its fire department. As we’ve seen in more than one post, architect John Windrim stepped in and supplied an array of new and eclectic designs for the expanded municipal footprint, making up for lost time. As director of Public Works Windrim had a natural […]
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John Windrim and the Eclectic Engine House Boom

The newspaper headline confirmed what everyone already suspected. Philadelphia’s “Boom in Building” of 1889 had more structures going up than during any other year in the entire history of the city. On the streets, that translated into the city pushing noisily in every possible direction. On the books, that meant 70 new factories, 65 additional […]
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Firehouses Acting Out: An Exuberant, Stylistic Storm in the 1890s

“The most intriguing element” on the façade of Engine #29 on 4th Street near Girard,” Inga Saffron wonders, is “the vaguely Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs embedded between the handsome truck doors and the German-style pattern in the ribbon of flowery tiles just below the cornice. Why those motifs?” Yes, we agree: What the hex? Might this […]
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Taming the Fight in Philadelphia Firefighting

Philadelphia endured six riots in the 1840s. The city’s streets were seething and dangerous. But they also could be glorious. “Grand beyond description,” is how the Inquirer described the May Day display put on by the city’s sixty-six volunteer fire companies in 1849. “The gorgeous banners of every hue and shade, the beautifully decorated engines and hose […]
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