When Mechanization Took Command

Street Cleaning Machine – Elgin Motor Sweeper, October 31, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

Street Cleaning Machine – Elgin Motor Sweeper, October 31, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

Great 20th-century cities demanded forward looking solutions. When Philadelphia announced its intentions to join the City Beautiful Movement, grandiose cleanups would call for something more than the pith-­helmeted army of “White Wings.” Marching, uniformed  broomsmen were more reminiscent of 19th- century colonial conquests than 20th-century urban efficiency.

The new solution would be a machine, and the more newfangled the better. Sprinkling and sweeping devices were horse drawn and required abundant supporting labor on foot. Squeegee machines were moving in the right direction. They slicked down miles of asphalt, but anything pulled by a horse was still old-school, manure producing, and self-defeating. What could maintain the explosion of new highways and byways and blend in with booming vehicular traffic? It would need to be something self-contained, something that looked and played the part.

In 1911, the first internal combustion powered sweeper seemed to have it all. But it was limited by a too-small collecting capacity. And its steel-rimmed wheels were out of step with rubber tire technology.  This sweeper did accomplish twice the work “at half the cost of the horse-hauled machine sweeper” but its engine moved it along at a snail’s pace and its inability to maneuver led to increased traffic congestion.

John M. Murphy, an Illinois farmer turned windmill maker turned Elgin, Illinois City Father crafted the solution with a new and improved “street sweeping machine.” Murphy’s machine was agile; it kept up with automobile traffic. It didn’t damage the pavement; it didn’t raise dust and left no debris behind. The Elgin Motor Sweeper received U. S. Patent number 1,239,293 on September 4, 1917. And a month later, an unidentified city official called for the city’s new acquisition to be brought up to the northeast corner of Philadelphia City Hall where he posed with it.

No question: the Elgin Motor Sweeper would cost-justify itself in Philadelphia, just as it had in beta testing on the roads of Boise, Idaho. There, the sweeper worked two, eight-hour shifts and cleaned 275,000 square yards of pavement per day—twice as much as the horse-drawn method. The operating cost? Nine cents per 1,000 square yards compared with a whopping 31 ½ cents using the old technique, according to the company history. “News of the fantastic new sweeper spread to Pocatello, Idaho—to Portland, Oregon” and, of course, to Philadelphia. “Fifteen Elgins were produced and put to use in 1915, twenty-three in 1916, forty-two the following year”—1917—when Philadelphia’s was proudly photographed.

The days of the “White Wing” army were over. Machines with names like “Gutter Snipe” would clean city streets in the 20th century. Mechanization, made elegant by innovation and compelling by fiscal responsibility, had taken command.

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West Philadelphia Italianate

4037 Pine Street 1964 ashx

A large Italianate summer villa at 4037 Pine Street, dating from around 1860. The detailing was inspired by Italianate Renaissance palazzos, only executed in wood and stucco rather than stone.

According to The Architectural Review of 1870, an Italianate home was a friendly structure, an anti-castle of sorts: “The Italian style is well adapted to many parts of our country, and is known by the absence of acute gables, buttresses, embattlements, and clustered columns. Instead of these are found: the hip-roof; in place of the gable or pediment; the pilaster, instead of the buttress; the balustrade instead of the battlement; the semicircular arch instead of the square head.”

The Italianate style proliferated throughout West Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill, and other Philadelphia streetcar suburban communities in the 1850s. It was romantic and whimsical, yet at the same time practical for family use, especially in the hot summer months. An Italianate villa was little more than a big box, with walls of stone or stucco-covered brick, and topped with projecting eaves and often a wood-and-glass cupola perched atop of the hipped roof. Twin houses often had a tower at the middle of the facade.

The cover to the January 1857 edition of Godey's Lady's Book. Architects like Sloan and Downing used such publications to distribute their architectural plans.

The cover to the January 1857 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Architects like Sloan and Downing used such publications to disseminate their architectural plans.

Samuel Sloan, a Philadelphia architect and protégé of influential designer Andrew Jackson Downing, had a hand in many developments on the eve of the Civil War. Like Downing, Sloan had an entrepreneurial, even self-promotional streak. He supplemented his architecture practice by writing articles and creating designs for publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book. His influence can be seen on Baring Street in Powelton Village and on Woodland Terrace near the intersection of Baltimore Avenue and 40th Street. For Sloan, homeownership was a Republican virtue, one that strengthened not just the city, but the nation as a whole:

The man who has a home feels a love for it, a thankfulness for its possession and a proportionate determination to uphold and defend it against all invading influences. Such a man is, of necessity . . . a good citizen; for he has a stake in society.

The detached or semi-detached suburban home — as opposed to the urban townhouse (for the rich) and the rowhouse (for the middle and working classes) — not only gave its owners a sense of privacy, but also the architects a chance to experiment with stylistic variety. Rowhouses, no matter how big, had uniform facades, with only a dash of Greek Revival or Roman-inspired trim around the front door or windows. During the 1850s and early 1860s, the American suburban home came into its own as a distinct type, neither townhouse nor country retreat nor farmhouse. Thanks to the horse-drawn streetcar, an office worker could live several miles away from his place of business in the city center. Any hints of commerce were banished as soon as he crossed the threshhold. There were also supposed health benefits — anyone who could afford it could move away from the disease and congestion of Center City, especially during the summer months.

4012-4014 Pine Street.ashx

Italianate twins at 4012-4014 Pine Street, built c.1860. The bracketed cornices and flat roofs are signatures of this style.

And what better style to evoke a bucolic getaway than an Italianate villa, inspired by the ancient stone castles of sunny Tuscany? Some Italianate homes grew to mansion proportions, such as the Allison home at 42nd and Walnut (now home to the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College) and the now-vanished Anthony J. Drexel compound at 38th and Locust. But most were built on speculation for middle-class Philadelphians seeking an upgrade from a cramped rowhouse: lawyers, doctors, and small business owners. Much of the ornamentation was hackwork by historical standards, but faithfulness to Italian Renaissance models was less important than charm. By the 1850s, the classically inspired Federal style had given way to a “picturesque” romanticism. Homes were supposed to fit into their natural settings rather than be imposed upon them.

223 S. 42nd Street, 1964 ashx

223 S.42nd Street, a freestanding Italianate mansion constructed around 1860 on what was then the western edge of West Philadelphia and fronting the large estate of banker Clarence H. Clark. Clark and his neighbor Anthony J. Drexel developed the surrounding area with large homes in the 1870s and 1880s. The Greek-inspired front porch is probably a later addition. 

3800 Baring Street 12.14.1962.ashx

The south side of the 3700 block of Baring Street, 1962. Like the Woodland Park houses, which were developed by the Hamilton family estate, these Italianate twins date from the Civil War area. Their porches are supported by simple Tuscan-style columns rather than elaborate cast-iron filigreed pillars. During the early twentieth century, the first house on the right (3726 Baring) was occupied by the Wolfington family, manufacturers of bus and automobile bodies. 

The Civil War changed drastically changed the Philadelphia streetscape. Samuel Sloan’s architecture practice collapsed. His most ambitious project, Longwood mansion in Natchez, Mississippi, was halted in mid-construction. Gone were the simple, the sincere, and the picturesque. Philadelphia’s prosperous citizens, many of whom had grown rich from supplying the Union Army, demanded more ornate, impoosing residential architecture, with stricter reliance on European models, and adorned with more glitter and gold than mere stucco and wood could offer.

A tour of the “Loch Aerie” mansion in Chester County, PA, built in 1865 by Philadelphia architect Addison Hutton for businessman William E. Lockwood.

[1] The Architecture Review, 1870, as quoted in Willard S. Detweiler, Jr., Chestnut Hill: An Architectural History (Philadelphia: Chestnut Hill Historical Society, 1969), p. 26.

[2]Alexander von Hoffman, “Home Values Are Down, and Not Just at the Bank, The Washington Post, July 20, 2008.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/18/AR2008071802559.html

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Rogue Abattoirs and the Plight of Philly’s Meat Men

Interior of Slaughterhouse (Abattoir) at 5319 Westminster Avenue, Dr. Schreiber, Meat Inspector. January 16, 1909 (PhillyHistory.org)

Interior of Slaughterhouse (Abattoir), 5319 Westminster Avenue, Dr. Schreiber, Meat Inspector. January 16, 1909 (PhillyHistory.org)

“If we do not want to eat the stuff ourselves,” declared veterinarian Charles Allen Cary in 1887, “we had better bury or burn it.” Experts of the American Veterinary Association called for more inspections of dairies and slaughterhouses to reduce the amount of tubercular meat and milk reaching consumers.

At the turn of the 20th century, tuberculosis still remained a leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 10 percent of the cases resulted from exposure to infected cattle or cattle products. More distressing was the fact that cattle caused 25 percent of the childhood cases of tuberculosis. More distressing still was the fact that these rates were even higher in cities.

It seemed a losing battle to Franklin K. Lowry, Philadelphia’s official “Meat Detective.” In 1904, Lowry’s office reported nearly 6,400 visits to slaughterhouses and about 700 to the city’s stores and markets. His team inspected more than 205,000 cattle and calves. Nearly all of the infected animals they found and destroyed showed signs of tuberculosis.

Lowry augmented his team with a graduate of Penn Veterinary School, Dr. Albert Fricke Schreiber. Chief Meat Inspector Schreiber ramped up the search for violators and condemned more meat, sending it to M. L. Shoemaker’s Fertilizing Plant at the foot of Venango Street. Even so, with few arrests and even fewer convictions, Philadelphia’s cattle drivers and meat packers conducted business as usual—and new cases of tuberculosis went unabated.

Schreiber and his inspectors visited nearly 44,000 butchers, slaughterhouses (also known as abattoirs), storage houses and markets in 1909. He reported dropping in “quite unexpectedly, late at night, on two small downtown abattoirs” and finding “a tubercular beef carcass, from which the affected tissues had been carefully, if not deftly, trimmed out” and “being dressed for market.” A good day’s work for the meat inspectors, but an unusually successful one. With a “small and inadequate force,” Schreiber had little chance of keeping up with the violations among the city’s 150 or so small abattoirs spread far and wide, about half of which had been cited for unsanitary conditions. Nearly 375,000 pounds of meat was condemned and destroyed in 1909 alone. But it resulted in only a single fine; a single guilty plea. Business as usual.

5319 Westminster Avenue, Slaughter House for Dr. Shrieben Meat Inspector.  1-16-1909 (PhillyHistory.org)

Exterior, Slaughterhouse (Abattoir), 5319 Westminster Avenue for Dr. Shreiber, Meat Inspector. January 16, 1909. (PhillyHistory.org)

For Philadelphia to have “something remotely related to intelligent supervision,” Schreiber promoted New York’s solution: confining its abattoirs to a single section of the city. He pleaded that his force of six inspectors (only two of whom were veterinarians) be expanded to twelve, including four veterinarians, a team “approximating the scope of the problem with which we have had to deal.” Then, and only then, could Schreiber hope to seriously address the tuberculosis problem, not to mention citing many other infractions, including “the handing of meat outside in the open air, uncovered and exposed to street dust, refuse and insects.”

In 1910, attrition caused by low pay reduced Schreiber’s team to three, “a force obviously and absurdly inadequate” if the city was “to prevent the killing of tuberculous cattle, measled hogs and immature calves,” and provide anything like “systematic surveillance” of the city’s stores and markets.

The case for more staff had merit on several fronts. In 1910, Philadelphia’s population stood at just over 1.5 million (about the same it is 100 years later) and the city was still growing and diversifying. The meat inspectors needed to not only catch up, they needed to keep up with new challenges.

When the city’s meat inspection unit did expand to eight (not the requested twelve) in 1911, Schreiber still felt overwhelmed. Now, in addition to the ongoing problem of killer cattle, he wanted his inspectors hoped to turn their attention to the city’s “’pest’ sections,” to address “’persistent offenders,’” that “class of dealers, who keep dirty shops in congested localities overrun with street stands, barrow venders, and other features of like character peculiar to the sections of the city inhabited by people of foreign birth.” These newcomers, “vendors of the curbstone and push cart variety…bring in partially decomposed rabbits, heated and unwholesome poultry, and other products.” Schreiber found them “pitifully poor, woefully ignorant of the plainest rudiments of sanitation, and not infrequently belligerently obstinate in their opposition to hygienic regulations.” He found their shops “badly kept, lacking in equipment, …without order or intelligent direction, and sometimes [a] jumble two or more lines of trade obviously not compatible under one roof.”

How could Philadelphia officials address the issue of tuberculosis and also mitigate the new and growing health problems caused by “long rows of curbstone and sidewalk vendors, extending several blocks on some of our streets” with vendors who “litter the roadways, gutters and sidewalks with refuse; and allow street dirt to be “blown over and upon exposed meats, poultry and fish”? In a city evolving daily with a new, growing immigrant population and a persistent, unsolved problem of tuberculosis in cattle, the small number of city meat men had no choice but to take it as they saw it—one day at a time.

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Cleaning Up In Philadelphia

Broad and Arch Streets - Looking South - During Clean Up Week Parade, April 20, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

“White Wings” at Broad and Arch Streets – Looking South – During Clean Up Week Parade, April 20, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

What with coal ash, horse droppings and the refuse of day-to-day life, cleaning the early 20th-century city proved no small task. But for South Philadelphia pig farmer turned politician Edwin H. Vare, cleaning up in Philadelphia proved to be quite a lucrative operation, both literally and figuratively.

Back then, the city didn’t clean its streets—private contractors did. And year to year, the competition to win and hold contracts for the city’s six districts grew fierce—and political. Before long, the powerful Vare Brothers obtained contracts for every last city street. And they’d hold onto at least several of these handsome contracts until the City Charter of 1919 turned the massive undertaking back over to the city.

In the early decades of the 20th century, cleaning the city also included annual demonstrations of influence, displays of military-style choreography and campaign advertising. As early as 1900, the newly-minted army of 150 uniformed street sweepers, “White Wings,” as they became known, passed in review of before city officials. “Each man wore a uniform of white; his helmet, jumper and overalls were immaculate, and each was armed with a formidable brush, or about 24 inches callibre,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. Commanding each company were leaders in “neat gray uniforms” issuing orders in Italian, or Hungarian or whatever the native language of that particular squad. By 1912, these white duck uniforms and pith helmets became standard issue. By 1913, parades became an annual event.

"White Wing" with Broom,  Shovel and Wheelbarrow, 1912. (PhillyHistory.org)

“White Wing” with Broom, Shovel and Wheelbarrow, 1912. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Every citizen is requested to join in the crusade against dirt and filth,” proclaimed Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg in April 1914. He asked everyone to do their part “in cleaning out rubbish and waste material from rooms, closets, hallways, garrets, roofs, cellars fire escapes, yards, all dark corners and out of the way places.” And to reinforce the city’s commitment, the mayor designated April 20th to 25th as “Clean-Up-Week” launched by a parade on Broad Street. At the head of the two-mile long march, peppered with eight brass bands, rolled a single, ash wagon bearing a giant sign. Then came a car packed with contractors, then superintendents on foot, then the “White Wings”—uniformed, helmeted blockmen and gangmen wheeling bag carriers or wielding brooms. They were followed by sprinklers, squeegee machines (as we saw previously),  flushers, machine brooms, dirt wagons, ash wagons and rubbish wagons. In all, 2,000 street cleaners and 750 pieces of equipment paraded by.

Advertisement for Clean Up Week, 1914 (Google Books)

Advertisement for Clean Up Week, 1914 (Google Books)

But the procession was only the half of it. The Director of the Department of Public Works sent out 3,400 personal letters to every manufacturer of brushes, brooms, buckets, vacuum cleaners and advertisers of same. He wrote to evey last civic group and major business. All mail from the city bore gummed stickers in yellow and blue with the words, “Remember Clean-Up Week, April 20-25, 1914.”  Police handed out 260,000 four-page printed bulletins. School children were issued blue and yellow buttons. More than 20,000 display placards appeared in the windows of department stores and retail merchants. Every one of the 700,000 Philadelphians settling in to view films at any one of the city’s 205 “moving picture houses” would see slides directing their attention to “Clean-Up-Week.” And inside the city’s 3,200 streetcars were posted neatly designed placards featuring the figure of William Penn wielding a broom from atop City Hall.

As to the metaphor of the broom signifying sweeping political reform? Apparently, that hadn’t yet caught on.

[Sources for this post, all from The Philadelphia Inquirer, include: “‘White Wings’ Pass in Review Before City Officials,” January 3, 1900; “Spick and Span City is Aim of Clean-Up Week,” April 12, 1914; “White Wings Will Herald Clean-Up Week’s Approach—Men and Equipment to be Shown in Parade Today,” April 18, 1914; and “White Wings in March Clean-Up Weeks’s Prelude – 2000 Street Cleaners, Spick and Span, Seen in Parade,” April 19, 1914.]

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The Wreck of the “Governor Ames”

A three masted lumber schooner docked at Race Street and Delaware Avenue, January 17, 1900.

A three masted lumber schooner docked at Race Street and Delaware Avenue, January 17, 1900. 

On December 9, 1909, the lumber schooner Governor Ames set sail from Brunswick, Georgia on a routine coasting voyage to New York. Onboard were 14 souls, including Captain King and his wife. Lashed onto her upper deck was a cargo of freshly cut railroad ties, most likely headed for the New York Central Railroad’s supply yard.

Captain King was in command of a unique vessel. When launched in 1888, the Governor Ames (named after Massachusetts governor Oliver Ames)  was the only five masted schooner in the world, and one of the largest cargo vessels afloat, grossing 1,600 tons and stretching 252 feet in length. She was also an expensive ship, costing $75,000. Her owners, the Atlantic Shipping Company of Somerset, Massachusetts, had built the Ames for short cargo runs up and down the Eastern Seaboard, as well as longer runs to South America. She was also swift, with a reputation of being “speedy and a good sea boat.”

Yet the Governor Ames got off to a bad start on her maiden voyage from Boston to Baltimore. In December 1888, she was dismasted off Cape Cod and ran aground on Georges Bank. As the wrecked ship groaned and wallowed in the Atlantic, the wet and shivering crew prayed for help before the Ames broke up. “Here we remained clearing up and waiting for assistance,” recounted J.F. Davis, the brother of the Ames’s captain. “Up to Sunday we saw but few vessels, and they passed at a distance. Sunday, the fishing schooner Ethel Maude of Gloucester ran up to us, and we made a bargain for a passage for myself and the two extra carpenters to Gloucester. The extent of the damage at the time I left the vessel was about $10,000 due to loss of spars.”

Miraculously, no lives were lost, and the maimed Ames did not break up. Help arrived, and she was re-floated and repaired by February of the following year. She departed New Haven, Connecticut for Buenos Aires, Argentina carrying 2,000,000 board feet of lumber, expected to sell for $15.50 per square foot. Three months later, she departed Portland, Maine, carrying a similar sized cargo of spruce, valued at nearly $30,000 and according to The New York Times, “the largest cargo, perhaps with one exception, ever taken by an American vessel.” Ill-luck continued to dog the Ames. She ran aground again in 1899, this time in the warm waters off Key West while en route from Philadelphia to Galveston. To refloat her, the crew had to throw 200 tons of coal overboard.  This time, she suffered minimal damage.

Governor Oliver Ames of Massachusetts (1831-1895), namesake of the schooner "Governor Ames." Source: Wikipedia.com

Governor Oliver Ames of Massachusetts (1831-1895), namesake of the schooner Governor Ames. Source: Wikipedia.com

After the Key West grounding, the curse on the Ames lifted. When Captain King guided his vessel up the stormy Atlantic Coast in December 1909, the Ames and been accident-free for almost a decade. She had even survived a few brutal trips around stormy Cape Horn, hauling New England lumber to Australia. Although the air was frigid and the iron seas menacing, this run to New York would be a routine trip by comparison to battling Cape Horn westerlies. The Governor Ames was a twenty year old veteran.


The sailing ship did not die out with the coming of the deep water steamer in the mid-19th century.  Well into the 1900s, soaring masts were a common sight along the Delaware River. Big, steam-powered craft did wipe out the clipper ships and North Atlantic packets on the ocean routes, but the versatile schooner remained popular for hauling  basic, low-cost bulk cargoes such as coal, timber, gravel, railroad ties, and ice, especially to and from smaller ports that did not have railroad access.

The name of this three-masted schooner depicted at Race Street and Delaware Avenue hast been lost to history.  There was little concept of tall ship “romance” when this photograph was taken. People took these ships for granted. It was only after the schooners vanished — supplanted first by the railroad and the Mack truck — did people lament their disappearance. As singer-songwriter Stan Rogers said about the Nova Scotian schooner Bluenose, she “knew hard work in her time. Hard work in every line.”

1930s footage of the Nova Scotia schooner “Bluenose” racing against her Gloucester, Massachusetts rival “Gertrude L. Thibault.” Set to the music of Stan Rogers.

A schooner has two or more masts, all of which are rigged with “fore-and-aft” sails.  The triangular sails allowed captains to sail their ships close to the wind, something that square riggers could not do.  They could also tack easily, making them maneuverable in coastal waters and remote ports. Most importantly, their lack of yards  – with exception of topsail schooners, which had one or two square sails on their foremasts — meant that the crew did not have to climb aloft to make or trim sail except in an emergency.  On a schooner, a crew almost always remained on deck to hoist and lower sail. By the late 19th century, steam-powered donkey engines on deck assisted the crews with the heavy-lifting on bigger schooners.

For the shipowner, the smaller crew drastically cut reduced a vessel’s operating cost.  For example: the big, square-rigged California clipper ships of the 1850s — the most famous of which was the Flying Cloud —  needed about 60 crew members to operate efficiently.  A comparably sized five masted schooner such as the Governor Ames of 1888, built for the lumber trade, required only 12 men to sail. Not having to buy and store coal for fuel also saved money, and freed up space for cargo.

For two centuries, the schooner was the served as the humble workhorse of the American mercantile marine, a common sight in big harbors and small ports all along the Eastern Seaboard.   They were relatively cheap to build out of abundant native timber, especially in Maine. According to naval historian Howard Chappelle, “in spite of the fact that ships and square riggers have monopolized certain important trades, such as the packet and East Indian, and though they handled large and valued cargoes individually, the total tonnage and value of such cargoes were small compared to that carried by the schooners engaged in the coasting and foreign trades.”


On December 25, 1909, as Philadelphians gathered in warm, pine-festooned churches to celebrate Christmas, a battered, badly-shaken Joseph Speering arrived in Philadelphia on the steamship Shawmut. He was the sole survivor of the Governor Ames, which had sunk off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras in a gale twelve days earlier. He told the press that everyone else onboard had either been drowned or crushed to death by collapsing masts, including the captain’s wife, who the crew had lashed to the rigging in an attempt to protect her from the boiling seas crashing over the schooner’s bulwarks. As the Ames’s wooden keel bounced up and down against the rocky shoals, Speering jumped overboard and clung to a floating hatch cover. He then watched the Governor Ames break up and sink.

All alone, Speering clung to the hatch cover for over twelve hours before the crew of the passing Shawmut lowered a lifeboat and plucked him from the frigid seas.

Launch of the five masted schooner "Governor Ames" in Waldeboro, Maine. Source: Wikipedia.com

Launch of the five masted schooner Governor Ames in Waldeboro. Source: Wikipedia.com

The Governor Ames under sail. She was wrecked  Source: Wikipedia.com.

The Governor Ames under sail.  Source: Wikipedia.com.


“A Big Lumber Schooner,” The New York Times, February 15, 1889.


“The Five Masted Schooner Missing,” The Philadelphia North American, March 3, 1895.


“A Large Cargo of Lumber,” The New York Times, April 30, 1889.


“An Unlucky Voyage: The New Schooner Governor Ames Badly Wrecked,” The New York Times, December 18, 1888.

Howard Irving Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York, NY: Bonanza Books, 1935), p. 219.

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South Street Squeegee

Squeegee Machine - Broad and South Streets, June 11, 1914.  (PhillyHistory.org)

Squeegee Machine – Broad and South Streets, June 11, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

In the 20th century, people came to love their cars, so long as they could drive them on smooth, flat, clean asphalt. In rush hour traffic, cobblestones quickly lost their charm; Belgian blocks got old fast.

Asphalt, also known as bituminous paving was as flat could be, providing those who laid it kept it clean and in good condition. And in Philadelphia, where the total area of streets was more than 17 million square yards and growing, that took some real effort. On a daily basis, a century ago, Philadelphians cleaned 8.1 million square yards of it.

According to Elements of Highway Engineering, the city’s “broken stone roads are cleaned by brushing coarse dirt into the gutters once a week, once in two weeks, or once a month, dependent upon traffic and location. Pavements are cleaned every day, every other day, every third day, or once a week dependent upon traffic, location, and other local conditions. Smooth bituminous pavements, brick pavements in good condition, and wood block pavements are cleaned by patrolmen with brooms and rotary squeegees.”

The Kindling Machinery Company of Milwaukee had the corner on the horse-drawn squeegee, a chariot-like vehicle holding 500 gallons of water that, with its roller set an oblique angle, cut a seven-foot wide swath of squeaky urban clean. As William H. Connell, Chief, Bureau of Highways and Street Cleaning in Philadelphia explained in 1914: “The operation consists of batteries of two and three squeegee machines preceded by sprinklers” about 200 yards ahead, in order, confirmed the American Highway Engineers’ Handbook, to permit the water “to saturate and loosen up the dirt on the pavement without giving it time to evaporate. … The idea of sprinkling is to soften the surface and enable the squeegee to cleanse the streets of all slime as well as the coarser materials. The squeegees are followed by two men, whom immediately sweep up the windrows of dirt into piles, and a sufficient number of carts follow to remove the dirt from the streets.”

At the dawn of the internal combustion age, especially on streets being cleaned for automobile traffic, there was something anachronistic and even quaint about the horse-drawn squeegee machine. It also came down to dollars and cents. By 1922, the original model was pitted against the new, motor-powered squeegee. The winner, hands down, was the latter, which, on a daily basis, cleaned 80,000 square yards compared with 35,000 square yards squeegeed by the horse-drawn version. The motorized model cost far less to operate. And it wasn’t pulled by horses, which were part of the problem in the first place.

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Nicholas Biddle, Philadelphia Hellenophile

The Second Bank of the United States, 420 Chestnut Street, 1859.

The Second Bank of the United States, 420 Chestnut Street. A photograph from 1859.

Before he locked horns with President Andrew Jackson over the fate of the “many headed monster” (a.k.a. The Second Bank of the United States), banker Nicholas Biddle fancied himself something of a poet and aesthete.  Born to wealth and blessed with brilliance, Biddle graduated from Princeton University — at the head of his class — at the tender age of 15. This was only after the University of Pennsylvania refused to grant the Philadelphia wunderkind a bachelors degree a few years before.

The young Nicholas Biddle.

The young Nicholas Biddle.  Source: Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitalization Project.

Like John Quincy Adams, Biddle (1785-1844) was well-traveled from an early age.  In 1804, he accompanied the American minister John Armstrong to France as his personal secretary, and sat in the pews of Notre-Dame as Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France.  In England, the dashing and probably cocky Nicholas had the gumption to verbally spar with University of Cambridge dons about the differences between ancient and modern Greek. Biddle’s sojourns were hardly unique. By the early 1800s, scores of Americans had visited Europe either as diplomats or merrymakers on the “Grand Tour.” Another Philadelphian, the late Dr. Benjamin Franklin, was still revered in France, where his bespectacled visage still adorned countless Parisian homes. John Quincy Adams had been as far afield as St. Petersburg, where he served as America’s first minister to Russia.

But Nicholas Biddle was only the second American to visit Greece, the birthplace of modern democracy. In May 1806, the young Philadelphian sailed from the Italian port of Trieste and landed in Zante, Greece. For three months, he roamed through the land which had been “the first brilliant object that met my infancy.”   Like many well-educated men of his time, Biddle supported Greece’s struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire.  Another aristocratic man of letters, Lord Byron, died fighting with the Greek army twenty years after Biddle’s visit. Composer Ludwig van Beethoven wrote incidental music for August von Kotzebue’s 1811 play The Ruins of Athens for a performance in Budapest. Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s engravings of classical ruins were wildly popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and inspired the Americans architects such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe.

"Lord Byron in Albanian Dress," an 1813 painting by Thomas Phillips.

“Lord Byron in Albanian Dress,” an 1813 painting by Thomas Phillips. Source: Wikipedia.

Biddle, himself possessed of Byronic good looks, was conscious of the influence that Greek philosophers had on American political theorists.  ”Where are her orators?” he wrote of the Greeks. “Gone forth to enlighten distant nation without a solitary ray for their country. Whilst foreign erudition has lighted its lamp at the flame of their genius, their works are unknown to posterity.”

As Biddle gazed at the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens, he came to believe that this architectural language was best suited to the ideals of new American Republic, which strangely like Greece was heavily based on chattel slavery. To Biddle, the best Greek buildings had an understated majesty. This was a result of their purity of form, use of the “Golden Ratio” of 1 to 1.618, and richness of materials over mere ornamentation.

The Doric Order as used on the Parthenon. The vertically grooved sections of the lintel are called triglyphs, while the blank portion are called metopes. The metopes usually were the backdrop for sculpture.   Source: Wikipedia.

The Doric Order as used on the Parthenon. The vertically grooved sections of the lintel are called triglyphs, while the blank portion are called metopes. The metopes usually were the backdrop for sculpture. Source: Wikipedia.

The Parthenon, commissioned by Pericles and designed by the architect Iktinos in the 5th century B.C., was built using the most “masculine” of the Greek orders: Doric.  In the Doric order, columns were massive and fluted, and topped by smooth flared capitals. The architrave – the stone lintel supported by the columns – was likewise spare, decorated with grooved triglyphs and metopes that mimicked earlier wooden post-and-lintel construction.  Because of its austerity, the Doric was the least popular order in neoclassical Western architecture, particularly in the churches and palaces that Biddle saw in France and Rome.  The other two orders, Ionic and Corinthian, were more elaborate and romantic in their aesthetic.  In the new American capital of Washington, D.C., architect William Thornton used the Corinthian order on the Capitol Building, while James Hoban used Ionic for his “presidential palace,” more popularly known as  the White House. But to Biddle, the Doric’s restraint appealed to his purest classical sensibilities, in which less was indeed more. And Doric was not tainted with associations with Imperial Rome and the European absolutist monarchies that followed it.

Piranesi's drawing of the Ionic order as used on the Roman temple of Portunus. Source: Wikipedia.

Piranesi’s drawing of the Ionic order as used on the Roman temple of Portunus. The Ionic order is used on the White House. Source: Wikipedia.

The Corinthian order, as used on the Pantheon in Rome. Source: Wikipedia.

The Corinthian order, as used on the Pantheon in Rome. The Corinthian order is used on the U.S. Capitol. Source: Wikipedia.

Biddle might have revered the ancient Greeks, but he was disgusted by the state of Athenian affairs in 1806.  He, like many Westerners, blamed Greece’s sorry state on the Turks.  The Parthenon was a victim of this long occupation.  In 1687, after having stood nearly intact for centuries, the Parthenon, which the Turks were using as an arsenal, was hit by a shell from Venetian guns.  Biddle gazed on the crumbling ruins with despair. “Are these few wretches, scarcely superior to the beasts whom they drive heedlessly over the ruins, are these men Athenians?” he wrote. “Where is their freedom?  Alas! This is the keenest stab of all. Bowed down by a foul oppression, the spirit of Athens has bent under slavery. The deliberations of her assemblies were once their laws; they now obey the orders of a distant master, and on the citadel itself, the protectress & the asylum of Grecian freedom, now sits a little Turkish despot to terrify & to command.”

Overture and chorus from “The Ruins of Athens” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The ruined Parthenon in the 1830s, with a mosque built in the center.

The ruined Parthenon in the 1830s, with a mosque built in the center. Source: Wikipedia.

The “little Turkish despot” Biddle referred to was most likely not a man, but the small mosque that the Turks had built in the middle of the ruined Parthenon.

When Biddle returned to Philadelphia, he must have looked with dismay at the architecture of his own sober Quaker City.  Most of its buildings were of plain red brick with white wood trim, various versions of the British-influenced Georgian or the somewhat newer Roman-influenced Federal style. Over the coming years, as Biddle rapidly ascended local and national power structures, Biddle made it his mission to transform the City of Brotherly Love (φιλεω “to love” and αδελφος  ”brother”)  into the Athens of America.  He founded and edited Port-Folio, the nation’s first literary magazine. Soon after he married the heiress Jane Craig, Biddle remodeled his country residence “Andalusia” on the Delaware River and his city home on the 700 block of Spruce Street in the Greek style.  When appointed as the head of the Second Bank of the United States, Biddle commissioned the architect William Strickland to build an adaptation of the Parthenon as its new home. Completed in 1824, it was made entirely of Pennsylvania blue marble.

The Nicholas Biddle house at 715 Spruce Street, on the left, in February 1959. It has since been restored to its full glory.

The Nicholas Biddle house at 715 Spruce Street, on the left, in February 1959.


Nicholas Biddle House at 715 Spruce Street in 1972, post restoration.

Nicholas Biddle’s mortal struggle with President Andrew Jackson is well-known, as is his hubristic fall from grace.  Yet the beautiful Greek-influenced buildings he commissioned in and around Philadelphia still grace his native city, which was once known as the Athens of America.


William Harris, “The Golden Mean,” Humanities and Liberal Arts, Middlebury College.  http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/Humanities/TheGoldenMean.html#refpoint4

R.A. McNeal, ed. Nicholas Biddle in Greece: The Journals and Letters (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p.50, 219.

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Philadelphia’s Own House of Hits

Ed Rendell with Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff

Ed Rendell with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff

You may have heard that the Philadelphia International Records building at 309 South Broad St, which since 1970 had been owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, was recently demolished to make room for a condo and hotel development that new owners Dranoff Properties plan to open at 301-309 South Broad St.  The loss of this building is devastating from a preservationist point of view, while almost inevitable given that it never recovered from a 2010 arson fire. Not only does it have a plethora of history as a building that Gamble and Huff had owned since 1973, but before that, it was the headquarters of the equally legendary Cameo-Parkway label in the 1950s and 1960s. Each of these eras represent two distinct periods in which the sounds coming out of Philadelphia, and that building specifically, were not only some of the most popular but some of the most moving and important recordings of each respective time period.

The history of the building is impressive, to say the least. Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” a paradigm-shifting song that was a massive hit in 1961, was recorded there during the initial era. And during that time period, other Philadelphia artists like Charlie Gracie, Bobby Rydell, the Dovells, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp and The Tymes also recorded there.

The second era saw hits like Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” The O’Jays’ “Love Train” and the original versions of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (both by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, featuring Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals). Overall, Gamble and Huff (on many occasions assisted by the producer and songwriter Thom Bell) have over 50 Gold and Platinum records and over 50 Top 10 hits.

After the hits dried up by the late ’80s, it became a major tourist attraction that has always been the site of film documentaries, television specials, receptions and events such as one honoring Motown founder Berry Gordy. While we can debate if a museum to honor Philadelphia’s rich musical legacy (such as ones that exist in Memphis, Detroit and in other cities’ legendary recording studios) is necessary and while it’s also understandable why the building was sold, it’s almost certain that 309 South Broad Street would have been a great site for it. Now, unfortunately, we will never know.


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Saving (and Stretching) Devil’s Pocket

Devil's Pocket - Behind Naval Home. January 28, 1919. (PhillyHistory.org)

Devil’s Pocket – Behind Naval Home. January 28, 1919. (PhillyHistory.org)

“I have seen a pope, I have seen Julius Erving at the top of his game. I have seen a city administration burn down a neighborhood. I watched Randall Cobb slowly realize he would never become a heavyweight champion, of the world. One night I almost saw myself die.”

Pete Dexter was saying his long, gritty goodbye to Philadelphia.

The night Dexter nearly saw himself die was in 1981, after he wrote a Daily News column about a botched drug deal that resulted in murder. The deceased’s brother, according to Dexter, “bartended in Devil’s Pocket, which has got to be the worst neighborhood in the city—maybe anywhere.” And he was angry. But Dexter “thought he could talk to him and work it out, so I went down there” with Randall “Tex” Cobb. Both Dexter and Cobb nearly saw themselves die that night.

“It has been our good fortune that Pete Dexter did not die at the hands of those heroes with ballbats and tire irons,” wrote Pete Hamill. “He has gone on to write some of the most original, and disturbing, novels in American literature.”

“In an age when words and storytelling were what counted, not bloviated ranting and raving, claimed Buzz Bissinger, Dexter covered “more ground in 900 words than most writers could cover in 9,000.”

“I know the city,” wrote Bissinger, “and nobody has ever captured it the way Dexter has, shining his light on these punks and drunks and cops and hollowed-out men and women just hoping to grab on for one more day. Wherever there is loneliness in the city — and with the withering of its manufacturing and working-class roots, there’s no shortage of loneliness — Dexter seems to find it.”

What Dexter also found was the sense to appropriate Devils Pocket for the setting of his near-death experience. Doc’s, the bar where Dexter and Cobb had their clocks cleaned, was at 24th and Lombard, a place more accurately called Grays Ferry, or Schuylkill, or possibly even (forgive me) the Graduate Hospital Area and a good half-mile away from Devil’s Pocket, which, at Catherine and Taney Streets, is hard by the southwestern wall of the Naval Home.


“The Devil’s Pocket in Philadelphia, January 7, 1911.” (Google Books)

But none of those other neighborhood names fit Dexter’s story as brilliantly as did Devil’s Pocket.

We can forgive the artistic license. After all, if not for Dexter’s storytelling, Devil’s Pocket might have faded into the same gentrified oblivion where other Philadelphia neighborhood names of character have gone. (Who hears of Texas, Smoky Hollow, Beggarstown and Rose of Bath?)

Devils Pocket has resonance; it always did. It worked in 1911 with William Paul Dillingham, who focused on Philadelphia’s poor Irish in his study Immigrants in Cities. Dillingham noted the small triangular court called Asylum Place, “popularly known as ‘The Devil’s Pocket.’” He wrote of its ten two-story brick houses “poorly built and in bad repair” overcrowded with a mix of newly arrived and first generation Irish. Residents of Devils Pocket got their jobs at nearby mills, their water from shared hydrants in small back yards where the “dry” toilets were. Just as nearby Gibbons Court, drainage at the Devil’s Pocket ran along the pavement.

Devil’s Pocket had been known as one of those places many Philadelphians heard about, talked about, and avoided. An 1898 bicycle tour (“Trips Awheel,” The Inquirer, February 6, 1898) recommended bypassing this “nest of unnameable lawlessness. The bicyclist/journalist wouldn’t venture west of Grays Ferry Avenue; he heard the stories and gave Devil’s Pocket “a wide berth even in broad daylight.”

But there’d be no wide berth for Pete Dexter. Even if he had to fudge the coordinates of Devil’s Pocket to help make the most of his Philadelphia story.

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A Permanent Slice of Piazza on South Street?

Grays Ferry Avenue at South Street Looking Southwest, May 22, 1936. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

Grays Ferry Avenue at South Street [and 23rd Street] Looking Southwest, May 22, 1936. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

South Street’s civic temperature – and Philadelphia’s by degree – can be measured by checking in at the triangular intersection at South Street, 23rd Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. This pizza-shaped- piazza continues to change with the times, proving, once again, that what goes around comes around.

About a century ago, Christopher Morley (who resided nearby on too-quiet Pine Street) enviously noted the “uproarious and naïve humours” a few blocks away. “On South Street,” Morley wrote, “the veins of life run close to the surface.” By the 1970s, things had settled down, though not necessarily in a good way. “The street lay like a snake sleeping; dull-dusty, gray-black in the dingy darkness,” wrote David Bradley. “At the three-way intersection of Twenty-Third Street, Grays Ferry Avenue, and South Street a fountain, erected once-upon-a year by a ladies guild in remembrance of some dear departed altruist, stood cracked and dry, full of dead leaves and cigarette butts and bent beer cans, forgotten by the city and the ladies’ guide a minor memorial to how They Won’t Take Care of Nice Things.”

Ah, but given time they will care. If given half a chance.

In 2014, we’ve witnessed a waking up, a coming around to this very “nice thing” along the western end of South Street. Not exactly “uproarious,” and hardly “naïve,” the movement began three years ago with a celebration of the diagonal in a city made up of right angles. And it’s more than saving one of the city’s rare, vintage horse troughs. The Grays Ferry Triangle effort has been a grass-roots project since 2011, one bolstered by arguments that spaces are better, often far better, when reclaimed by and for community. To demonstrate and consolidate support, there’s been an annual Plazapalooza, a spate of social media and a poll showing 98% of near-neighbor support for promoting pedestrianism and banning the can on at least one tiny but potent stretch of Philly byway.

Last Spring, a six month trial street closure started and “an underused South of South space” got a “pedestrian-friendly makeover.” Will this experiment in participatory urban design come to an end? Will South Street once again revert to a place that “Won’t Take Care of Nice Things”? Or has Philadelphia made yet one more turn toward becoming a post-petroleum city, a city whose veins not only “run close to the surface” but pulse with something more organic than gasoline?

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