“One price and goods returnable”: Center City’s Department Stores

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Market Street (formerly High Street) was a mix of residential and commercial, as Philadelphians clung to the Delaware waterfront for sustenance. Successful businessmen such as printer Benjamin Franklin and china maker Benjamin Tucker lived “above the store” or in houses adjacent to their businesses.i With the coming of the horse-drawn and electric streetcar, however, Market Street became almost exclusively commercial, as many business owners moved to fashionable residential districts to the south and the west.

Following the Civil War, there was an explosion in manufactured consumer goods, especially clothing and household wares. By 1900, fine furniture, crockery, carpets, tailored suits, and dresses were now available to an expanding (and increasingly discerning) middle class, not just the rich. For residents of neighborhoods like Germantown and West Philadelphia, shopping was no longer just a chore: it was entertainment.

A number of Philadelphia entrepreneurs capitalized on this embarrassment of riches by consolidating consumer offerings under one roof. The most famous merchandiser of them all was John Wanamaker, who came up with a simple slogan: “One price and goods returnable.” Like his contemporary John D. Rockefeller, Wanamaker was a proponent of the “Social Gospel,” a philosophy that maintained wealth was a tool to further “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” ii A devout Presbyterian, Wanamaker believed he could uplift his patrons through art, culture, and Christian morality.

After successfully operating two smaller stores in Center City, in 1875 he purchased the Pennsylvania Railroad’s freight depot at 13th and Market Streets, on the east side of Penn Square. He then refurbished it into a sprawling store with 129 counters. He also made sure his store was on the cutting edge of technology, equipping it with telephones, elevators, electric lights, and pneumatic tubes.iii Wanamaker bet that the unfinished City Hall –being built on what once had been quiet residential square—would transform the area into a booming commercial hub.

Wanamaker’s gamble paid off. Not only did the new City Hall shift the commercial heart of the city from Old City to Penn Square, but the new Broad Street Station funneled prosperous suburbanites right onto his store’s front doorsteps. His “Grand Depot” was so lucrative that Wanamaker built an even bigger store on the same site. Designed by Daniel Burnham and unveiled in 1911, the new store was 12 stories high and resembled an Italian Renaissance palazzo on the exterior.iv The interior was a glittering jewel box, encrusted with crystal, marble, and European paintings.v A gigantic pipe organ, originally built for the St. Louis World’s Fair, entertained shoppers as they strolled through the displays.vi The 9th floor Crystal Tea Room, able to seat 1,400 guests, was one of the most beautiful dining establishments in the city. At Christmastime, a sparkling curtain of light cascaded down the walls of the main atrium, eliciting the “oohs” and “ahs” from generations of Philadelphia children.

“Pious John” Wanamaker was not modest about his own success. Read a plaque in the lobby: “Let those who follow me continue to build with the plumb of honor, the level of truth and the square of integrity, education, courtesy, and mutuality.” vii He was also sometimes credited with one of the most famous quips in advertising history: “Retailers Rule…The customer is always right.” viii

While Wanamaker’s was the store of choice for Main Line matrons, other department stores catered to Philadelphia’s middle and working class shoppers. Quaker partners Justus Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier founded their less flashy establishment in 1858. In 1930, Strawbridge and Clothier completed their big, but appropriately subdued, neo-classical store at 8th and Market Streets. Pipe organs, catchy slogans, and French salon paintings were not in the “Quaker plain” vein of Strawbridge and Clothier. Rather, the store’s trademark was the “Seal of Confidence” depicting William Penn shaking hands with a Native American. The “Corinthian Room” food court served hot dogs rather than high tea. This thrifty philosophy was appreciated by the store’s clientele. As one long-time Strawbridge patron said, “I’ve been coming here for many years. As long as the merchandise is good quality and it’s decently priced, I plan to keep on coming.” ix At Christmas, the fourth floor boasted a life-sized walk through set of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, complete with actors and Victorian sets.x

A stone’s throw away from Strawbridge and Clothier stood Gimbel Brothers, which took up the entire 800 block between Market and Chestnut Streets. Like John Wanamaker, founder Jacob Gimbel distinguished himself as a philanthropist as well as a businessman. In 1901, he was appointed president of the new Federation of Jewish Charities, which was charged to assist the thousands of Jewish immigrants fleeing czarist pogroms in Russia and Poland.xi Known to Philadelphians simply as “Gimbels,” this store brought the holidays to the streets by sponsoring the city’s annual Christmas Parade. The climax of this popular pageant was Santa climbing a fire truck ladder to the ninth floor of the Gimbel’s store.xii

Lit Brothers, like Gimbels, was also founded by German Jewish immigrants. Cheaper than most of its competitors, Lit’s slogan was “A Great Store in A Great City.” Lit Brothers flagship at 7th and Market store was created in 1907 by the consolidation of an entire block of cast iron commercial structures.xiii Unlike masonry construction, cast iron allowed designers to create open floor plans, ornate facades, and large windows. As a response to Strawbridge’s Dickens display, Lit Brothers’ main holiday attraction was a complete “Colonial Christmas Village,” part of which survives at the Please Touch Museum.xiv

Sadly, due to buy-outs and the rise of suburban malls, none of these stores are in business today. Lit Brothers has been converted into a commercial building and Strawbridge’s sits vacant. The original Gimbels was demolished in the 1970s and has been replaced by a parking lot, although its warehouse at 833 Chestnut Street survives as an office building. Macy’s now occupies the original Wanamaker’s building, and happily its new owners have taken excellent care of the historic structure, restoring its 7,000 pipe organ and exquisite interior detailing to their original glory.


[i] “Philadelphia (Tucker) China – 1825-1838” http://www.oldandsold.com/articles/article313.shtml Accessed June 5, 2010.

[ii] Jack B. Rogers, and Robert E. Blade, “The Great Ends of the Church: Two Perspectives,” Journal of Presbyterian History (1998) 76:181-186.

[iii] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. http://www.american-architecture.info/USA/USA-Northeast/NT-003.htm Accessed June 8, 2010.

[iv] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.52.

[v] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. http://www.american-architecture.info/USA/USA-Northeast/NT-003.htm Accessed June 8, 2010.

[vi] Friends of the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s, Philadelphia: Celebrating the Heritage of a National Historic Landmark, Facts and Figures about the Wanamaker Organ. http://www.wanamakerorgan.com/about.php Accessed June 8, 2010.

[vii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.173.

[viii] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. http://www.american-architecture.info/USA/USA-Northeast/NT-003.htm Accessed June 8, 2010.

[ix] Associated Press, “At Strawbridge’s, customers seeking value, not nostalgia,” Reading Eagle/Reading Times, July 26, 1996, B7. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1955&dat=19960726&id=9FQlAAAAIBAJ&sjid=56UFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4169,5034439 Accessed June 8, 2010.

[x] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. http://www.newcolonist.com/phil_xmas.html Accessed June 8, 2010.

[xi] Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies, “The Iron Age, 1876-1905,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.489.

[xii] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. http://www.newcolonist.com/phil_xmas.html Accessed June 8, 2010.

[xiii] Lit Brothers Store, 701-739 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA, HABS No. PA-1438. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=pphhdatapage&fileName=pa/pa0900/pa0971/data/hhdatapage.db&recNum=2

[xiv] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. http://www.newcolonist.com/phil_xmas.html Accessed June 8, 2010.

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The Lost World of North Broad Street

Mention North Broad Street today, and the image that comes to mind is one of desolation and decay. But in the late nineteenth century, this thoroughfare was a boulevard for the Gilded Age industrial rich. Rittenhouse Square might have been Philadelphia’s most prestigious residential address, but North Broad Street was arguably the most colorful and fanciful. There was a Frank Furness-designed temple for Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Willis Hale-designed baroque castle for Peter Widener, and the world’s largest opera house designed by William H. McElfatrick. These large structures, to borrow a phrase from architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, were “great exclamation points” on the brownstone and brick streetscape.i Most of these structures proved to be as ephemeral as they were exuberant.

Because this new neighborhood was north of the Market Street railroad viaduct, the city’s old elite, who clustered around Rittenhouse Square, deemed it declassé. Yet North Broad Street was convenient for rich industrialists for two reasons. First, many of their factories and mills were located in adjacent industrial areas; a North Broad Street residence gave its entrepreneurial owner easy access to his thriving enterprises. Second, the area’s main developer was streetcar magnate Peter Arrell Brown Widener, a brilliant, self-made former butcher who was the kingpin of Philadelphia’s nineteenth century industrial and real estate boom. Widener’s massive Germanic mansion at 1200 North Broad—at the center of his city land holdings–was as much a real estate advertisement as a monument to his own taste.

For aggressive, driven men like Widener, the “Workshop of the World” offered endless ways to make a fortune. The city was a Victorian Silicon Valley, a laboratory for entrepreneurship and technology. Widener himself diversified his holdings into shipping, manufacturing, gas lines, and real estate. By 1900, he was the richest man in Philadelphia, worth over $100 million. Many of those who bought homes near the Widener mansion were also poor boys who had struck it rich—such as the swashbuckling promoter William Warren Gibbs, a one-time business partner of Widener’s who lived at 1216 North Broad. Gibbs was said to sit on more boards of directors than any other man in America. The area was also popular with German Jews who, despite their wealth and culture, were shunned by the Philadelphia establishment. The social discrimination against Jew and gentile denizens of North Broad Street ran deep and lasted long after their descendants had decamped to the suburbs. As one social chronicler observed, it took “families such as the Wideners several generations and removals to live down the fact that they had not merely had a house but a mansion on North Broad Street. The bigger the house, the more flagrant the offense.” ii

As a response to these snubs, one-time farm boys from New Jersey and Jewish immigrants from Frankfurt formed their own clubs and institutions. North Broad Street was analogous to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which was developed at exactly the same time. For Philadelphia’s nouveaux riches, a brick Rittenhouse Square rowhouse might have been the more “proper” and “traditional” option, but a freestanding, ornate mansion on North Broad was the more “fun” and “modern” one.

One modern residential concept pioneered on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was the so-called apartment hotel. One of the first of its kind was the Dakota Apartments on New York’s Central Park West, completed in 1885 and a huge financial success. These buildings were luxury apartment buildings with the amenities and service of a grand hotel. Suites of rooms often came fully furnished and usually included servants quarters. Well-to-do families or unmarried people who did not want the burden of a townhouse found this to be a convenient arrangement. In addition, the hotel’s ample ballrooms could accommodate bigger parties than most private city homes.

Inspired by the success of the Dakota, Philadelphia developers built apartment hotels of their own. The Lorraine (at Fairmount Avenue) and the Majestic (at Girard Avenue) were two such structures that graced North Broad Street. The Lorraine, designed by Willis Hale and finished in 1894, was the more architecturally cohesive of the two. Built of yellow Pompeian brick, the Lorraine soared ten stories above the neighborhood — the first high-rise residential structure in Philadelphia. Many of the suites boasted fireplaces. The ground floor contained a columned lobby and twin lounges. Perched on the tenth floor were two barrel vaulted ballrooms, whose high arched windows provided spectacular views of the city.

Further up North Broad Street, the architects of the Majestic cleverly incorporated the old William Lukens Elkins mansion into their establishment. The original brownstone house—which boasted a pillared facade similar to the Union League’s–contained the main public rooms, while high rise towers on the south and east sides of the lot housed the guest rooms.iii

Sadly, the Majestic was pulled down (old Elkins mansion and all) in 1971, but not before its façade had been mutilated by storefronts. In 1948, Father Divine, spiritual leader of the Peace Mission, purchased the Lorraine for the bargain basement price of $485,000. After adding his name and a red neon sign to the building, he transformed it into the first racially-integrated hotel in the United States. iv Abandoned since 2003, it survives, but the Divine Lorraine is a soot-smeared, gutted ghost of its former self.

Along with hotels, private clubs were key fixtures of North Broad Street social life. Since many North Broad Street residents were excluded from older establishments, they set up their own clubs that were just as grand as their Center City counterparts. v One such establishment was the Columbia Club, a turreted Queen Anne structure built in 1889 at 1600 North Broad Street. A massive flying eagle crowned its balconied façade. The most imposing of the North Broad Street clubs was the Mercantile Club, once located at the intersection of North Broad and Jefferson Streets. The membership consisted primarily of German Jewish families such as the Gimbels and the Snellenburgs (owners of big Center City department stores), as well as prominent attorneys and professionals. The luxurious facility boasted public spaces such as a Turkish smoking room. vi Oddly enough, the Mercantile Club was reluctant to admit Jews of non-German ancestry until the 1920s. Albert Greenfield, an immigrant from the Ukraine and the largest real estate operator in the city, was nearly blackballed. vii

The exuberant Gilded Age grandeur (or swagger) of North Broad Street proved all too fleeting. Today, almost all of North Broad Street’s social and residential gems have fallen to the wrecker’s ball. A few remnants of past glory – a score of crumbling rowhouses, a rotting old hotel, and a few heavily altered mansions – remind passersby of a time when North Broad Street was the street of dreams of Philadelphia’s Gilded Age.


[i] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.53.

[ii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.529

[iii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.90-91.

[iv] Mike Newall, “Left Behind: A Rare Look inside North Broad’s Divine Lorraine, a hotel with a heavenly past on the cusp of a (commercial) resurrection,” The Philadelphia City Paper, January 13-19, 2005. http://citypaper.net/articles/2005-01-13/cover.shtml Accessed June 1, 2010.

[v] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.104.

[vi] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.98.

[vii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.571.

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The Philadelphia Aquarium at the Fairmount Water Works

While many know Philadelphia as the site of the first zoo in the United States, the story of the Philadelphia Aquarium, once among the largest in the world, is a less well-known part of the city’s history. Following the closure of the Fairmount Water Works plant in 1909, the site took on new life as home to an aquarium from 1911 to 1962. At the time, aquariums were a novel concept largely inspired by fishery exhibitions at the Chicago and St. Louis World’s Fairs in 1893 and 1904 respectively. After fifteen years of debate over the issue, the Philadelphia Aquarium was established by city ordinance and signed by Mayor John E. Reyburn on May 16, 1911. Following the ordinance, an initial sum of $1,500 was appropriated for the aquarium, which was designed to acquaint visitors with the habitats and activities of freshwater and saltwater fish, especially those native to Pennsylvania.

Under the leadership of William E. Meehan, the Philadelphia Aquarium opened its doors on Thanksgiving Day 1911 and initially featured nineteen small tanks set up in the old engine house of the Water Works. Over time, several of the site’s buildings were refitted to serve the aquarium’s purposes, including the mill houses and administrative offices, and consequently allowed the Philadelphia Aquarium to become one of the four largest aquariums in the world by 1929. In its first year of operation, the aquarium played host to over 260,000 visitors and also held a series of public lectures on marine life. Initially, much to the delight of visitors, the Water Works’ forebay housed seals and sea lions, though the practice was later discontinued when the animals became ill and the forebay was subsequently filled in to become Aquarium Drive. Additionally, the plant’s turbine and pump only supplied the aquarium’s water for a short time before city water was found to be purer and more beneficial for the fish than the water of the polluted Schuykill River.

In its early years, some of the aquarium’s creatures were also preserved for posterity and displayed at the Academy of Natural Sciences. According to the 1913 Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences, additions to the museum’s collection included a harbor seal, loggerhead turtle, and calico bass from the aquarium.

A few months after the aquarium opened, it officially became part of Fairmount Park, the municipal park system that oversees Philadelphia’s sixty-three neighborhood and regional parks. Unfortunately, under Fairmount Park, the aquarium struggled to maintain adequate funding over the course of its existence and, despite the efforts of dedicated advocates, closed in December 1962. Following the closure of the aquarium, the Fairmount Water Works briefly housed an indoor swimming pool, which also closed in 1973, and more recently has been used for banquets and public tours. In 1977, the Water Works was designated an ASME Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark and, after years of fundraising and repairs to the site, opened a new educational interpretative center in 2004. Through the interpretative center and these historic photographs on PhillyHistory.org, the Philadelphia Aquarium has regained its place as part of the storied history of the Fairmount Water Works and the city of Philadelphia.


W.E. Meehan, “Building an Aquarium for Philadelphia,” Transactions of American Fisheries Society 43 (1914): 179-181.

Jane Mork Gibson, “The Fairmount Water Works,” Bulletin, The Philadelphia Museum of Art 84 (Summer 1988): 40.

Charles Beardsley, “Input Output: Philadelphia Lights a Landmark,” Mechanical Engineering (March 2004): 68.

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Delayed Centennial Gift

One unusual attraction at the Centennial was a disembodied copper arm bearing a torch. Forty two feet high, it was a portion of a sculpture by French artist Frederic Bartholdi entitled “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Visitors could pay 50 cents to climb a ladder to the top of the torch. The kiosk at its base offered brochures and subscription information. When complete, the literature boasted, the statue would be just over 150 feet tall from foot to torch. The people of France had already offered to pay to complete the rest of the statue. All Americans had to do was to pay for the construction of a base, hopefully built on an island in New York harbor.

Bartholdi dreamed of giving America a 100th birthday present since 1865. The project’s chief promoter, jurist and poet Edouard de Laboulaye, felt that the abolition of slavery following the Civil War proved that America indeed could live up to its original promise of liberty and justice for all. He was also disappointed that earlier French experiments in democracy had failed; his nation was now under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III.i

Bartholdi and de Laboulaye were part of a long tradition of French intellectuals, most notably Alexis de Tocqueville, who were fascinated by American democracy. France, after all, had been the crucial European supporter of American independence during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette, a young French nobleman, fought alongside General George Washington and became a surrogate son. Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin, the lead negotiator of the alliance, was the toast of French society, who lionized him as the ideal American–much to John Adams’ chagrin.

Bartholdi’s workers fashioned a Greco-Roman style likeness of Liberty out of hammered copper plates. Each plate was shaped by hand and was only 3/32 of an inch thick.ii There were two obstacles to Bartholdi’s vision, however. The first was that the copper statue could not support itself; the artist needed a skilled engineer to design an internal iron “skeleton” that allowed the statue to withstand the force of the wind. He finally found one in Auguste Gustave Eiffel, who went on to fame as designer of a 1,000 foot high tower that still graces the Paris skyline.

The second problem was the construction of the statue’s base, which the French hoped the recipients would pay for. The arm was sent to the Centennial as a part of a public relations campaign. The public could purchase subscriptions ranging from a dime to $100 to help pay for the pedestal. But the public response at the Centennial was unenthusiastic. The country had been in the grips of a massive economic depression since 1873. To many Americans, a big copper woman seemed like a frivolous gift in this time of need. Moreover, it seemed incongruous compared to such exhibits celebrating American technical prowess: the Remington typewriter, Bell’s telephone, and Corliss’s engine. And no American city seemed eager to offer her a home, including Philadelphia. After the fair was over, the arm was packed up and displayed in New York’s Madison Square. However, the response from New Yorkers was also lukewarm; the arm was shipped back to France.

It took another ten years before the American people fulfilled their end of the bargain. Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant and the editor of the New York World, had led a newspaper campaign to raise funds for the pedestal.iii Not only that, but poet Emma Lazarus wrote a poem in 1883 called “The New Colossus” to tell the American people what the statue really stood for:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The statue arrived in crates in 1885, and was formally dedicated on October 28, 1886 – just over ten years after the arm first appeared at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

Postscript: In 1918, a year after America entered World War I, Lady Liberty made a brief return to the city of her American debut. A miniature of the statue (complete with pedestal) was exhibited in front of City Hall as the centerpiece of a patriotic display promoting the war effort.


[i] “Statue of Liberty National Monument: History and Culture,” National Park Service, the Department of the Interior. http://www.nps.gov/stli/historyculture/index.htm Accessed May 22, 2010.

[ii] “Statue of Liberty, National Park Service, Department of the Interior. http://www.nps.gov/archive/stli/prod02.htm Accessed May 25, 2010.

[iii] Seymour Topping, Pulitzer biography, Joseph Putlizer, 1847-1911. http://www.pulitzer.org/biography Accessed May 24, 2010.

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The Corliss Engine

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On May 10, 1876, the crowd held its breath as President Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil started the massive Corliss engine, which stood at the center of Machinery Hall. Nearly 190,000 visitors had flooded the fairgrounds on opening day, and a choir of 1,000 sang the “Centennial Hymn,” composed for the occasion by John Greenleaf Whittier.

With a hiss of steam and the clank of pistons, the Corliss engine shook to life, as did the fair it powered. The great engine, according to historian Esther M. Klein, “symbolized the nation’s growth.” i  Journalists like William Dean Howells saw it in poetic terms. “It rises loftily in the centre of the huge structure,” he wrote, “an athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it; the mighty walking beams plunge their pistons downward, the enormous flywheel revolves with a hoarded power that makes all tremble, the hundred life like details do their office with unerring intelligence.” Howells also felt that technology was America’s answer to the art and culture of Europe. “Yes, it is still in these things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks,” he concluded, “by and by the inspired marbles, the breathing canvases, the great literature; for the present America is voluble in the strong metals and their infinite uses.” ii

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The unveiling of the Corliss engine in 1876 was the equivalent to the release of the iPad in 2010. The Corliss engine was not just a demonstration piece: through a system of shafts and underground tunnels, it directly powered 800 machines throughout the Centennial Exposition. One of the marvels on display would revolutionize the world: a new invention by Alexander Graham Bell. Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil put his ear to its speaker and heard Bell reading Hamlet’s Soliloquy. “My God, it talks!” the emperor spluttered. iii

The first practical use of the steam engine had been in marine transportation. In 1809, Robert Fulton built the first commercial steamboat, which plied the Hudson River between New York and Albany. Much progress had been made in the decades leading up to the 1876 Centennial. The Corliss engine in Machinery Hall was of a type used to power large, fast coastal and river steamers. It’s variable valve timing, an idea patented by inventor George Henry Corliss in 1849, made this engine 30% more efficient than earlier steam engines. The Centennial engine towered 45 feet in the air and boasted a flywheel 30 feet in diameter. Its two cylinders, each nearly four feet in diameter, contained two rotating steam and two rotating exhaust valves. The pistons turned a crankshaft at 36 revolutions per minute, and the engine itself was rated at 1,400 horsepower. iv

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On a ship, the beam that connected the pistons to the flywheel stuck up above the superstructure, and the flywheel then spun a pair of paddlewheels. Because of the beam’s rocking motion, passengers called these “walking beam” engines. Outside of steamship use, Corliss engines freed America’s burgeoning industry from dependence on waterpower. Corliss engines powered textile looms, rolling mills, saw mills, and pumping stations. They were also remarkably durable machines, often lasting decades before wearing out.

Nearly three decades after the Centennial, steam power spawned and was eventually supplanted by a new force: electricity. Historian Henry Adams spent hours gazing at another massive Corliss engine at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This time, the Corliss engine did not directly power the fair’s machinery. It powered an electrical dynamo, which in turn powered thousands of incandescent bulbs and electrical appliances.

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Unlike the steam engine, with its visible mechanical components, electricity was invisible to the naked eye. To Adams, it appeared the dynamo was replacing the Virgin Mary as the “greatest force the Western world ever felt,” and the prospect was frightening. “The dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight,” he continued, “but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity.” v

As for the Centennial Corliss engine, it remained in service long after the exposition closed. George Pullman, president of the Chicago-based railroad car manufacturer, purchased the engine to power one of his factories. The old engine was not scrapped until 1910, after thirty four years of service. By then, the old fashioned Corliss engine, with its clunky pistons and cumbersome “walking beam,” was completely obsolete. It had been supplanted by Charles Parsons’ compact, much more efficient steam turbine, which are still used in power plants and ships to this day.


[i] Esther M. Klein, Fairmount Park: A History and Guidebook, World’s Largest Municipal Park (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Harcum Junior College Press, 1974), p.29.

[ii] About the Corliss Engine, Dr. George F. Corliss, MU EEC http://www.eng.mu.edu/corlissg/gc_engine.html Accessed May 16, 2010.

[iii] “More About Bell,” The Telephone, The American Experience, PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/telephone/peopleevents/mabell.html Accessed May 16, 2010.

[iv] About the Corliss Engine, Dr. George F. Corliss, MU EEC http://www.eng.mu.edu/corlissg/gc_engine.html Accessed May 16, 2010.

[v] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1918. http://www.bartleby.com/159/25.html

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Japan-a-mania at the Centennial

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America had been trading with Asia since the early years of the Republic. In fact, some of the nation’s first great fortunes were made in the China Trade; the merchant princes of Boston and Salem would ship American goods and Indian opium to China in exchange for tea, silk, and porcelain.

Yet Japan, that mysterious island nation, remained aloof from the Western world. Aside from the Dutch, who maintained a trading post in Nagasaki, westerners were forbidden to set foot on Japanese soil. The Japanese aristocracy was afraid that European culture, specifically Christianity, would “contaminate” their way of life and threaten their autonomy.

By the mid-nineteenth century, America (now a two-coast power) was looking for more trading partners in the Pacific. President Millard Fillmore decided to use a bit of gunboat diplomacy to shake Japan out of its slumber. In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy led a fleet of steam-powered warships to Edo harbor (modern day Tokyo). Perry presented the ruling shogun with a proposition: open up to American trade or Edo would be bombarded into oblivion.

The shogun gave in. Samurai swords were no match to American cannons.

In 1868, a group of nobles overthrew the conservative shogunate and “restored” power to the 16 year old Emperor Meiji. This group’s goal was to drag Japan into the modern age. National survival was at stake. If Japan remained stuck in the past, they argued, a Western power could easily conquer and exploit it. Britain and France, for instance, were carving up a prostrate and technologically backwards China into “spheres of influence.” Japan would not be next.

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Progress was swift. By 1876, Japan had set up a European-style parliament and was building up a modern army and navy. Railroads were connecting ancient Japanese cities. The Meiji regime decided that a grand display at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition would be the perfect vehicle to show the world how far Japan had come.

Yet it was traditional Japan, not the newly-industrialized one, which captivated the millions of visitors to the Japanese pavilion, bazaar, and gardens. The American public was starved for novelty, especially in architecture and the decorative arts, which were smothered in the rich gravy of Victorian taste.

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Amidst all this overstuffed and ornate excess, the Centennial’s Japanese exhibit was a breath of fresh air. The Atlantic Monthly said the clean lines and simple elegance of Japanese design made everything else look “commonplace and vulgar.” For the Japanese, “the commonest object of pottery of cotton-stuff for daily use has a merit of design and color which it does not owe to oddity alone.” i Even respected architect Richard Morris Hunt, a devoted Francophile, was stunned by the attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship he saw. The Japanese garden and bazaar, he wrote, provided “capital and most improving studies to the careless and slipshod joiners of the Western world.” ii

Following the Centennial Exposition, America went Japan-crazy. Upper class Bostonians, with their Trascendentalist philosophical leanings and love of nature, were particularly smitten. Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow lived in Japan from 1882 to 1889, collected 40,000 pieces of Japanese art which he donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and even converted to Buddhism. The eccentric heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner — known as “Mrs. Jack” — also fell under the Buddhist spell for a while. Her conversion was one of many things she did to flout Proper Bostonian conventions.iii Art critic Okakura Kakuzo, a mutual friend of both Bigelow and Gardner, designed the display of Japanese art at Mrs. Jack’s mansion. Kakuzo also arranged a performance of the ancient tea ceremony at her 1903 housewarming party.iv This house would eventually become the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition further stoked American fascination with Japan. One person who prowled the Japanese pavilion was a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright.v Wright, an avid collector and dealer of Japanese prints on the side, was integrating Japanese design elements into his “Prairie style” houses. When designing suburban and country houses, Wright made a point of building his structures “into” rather than “on top of” the natural landscape, a very Japanese design philosophy.

Across the Atlantic, Japanese prints sold by dealers such as Wright had a profound influence on the painters Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. In 1887, Van Gogh did a self-portrait in the Japanese style, showing himself as he wished to be: “a simple monk…worshipping the eternal Buddha.” vi

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In Philadelphia, the Japanese presence in Fairmount Park did not vanish with the closing of the exposition. After the Centennial, the Park Commission imported a Buddhist temple gate and placed it on the site of the Japanese bazaar. After this structure burned in 1955, the Fairmount Park Commission secured the “Shofuso,” an interpretation by architect Junzo Yoshimura of a seventeenth century aristocrat’s country house. This handcrafted structure, with its cypress frame and hinoki bark roof, had been presented by the America-Japan Society to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It also boasted sliding doors decorated by renowned artist Kaii Higashiyama.vii

In 1958, the Shofuso was carefully shipped to Philadelphia and reconstructed in the new tea garden. It still stands to this day, maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers. During the year, the Shofuso hosts events showcasing Japanese culture to Philadelphians. These include tea ceremonies, bonsai workshops, craft and martial arts classes, and the Sakura Sunday – Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival.

After 134 years, few visual reminders of the great Centennial Exposition remain. But miraculously, the patch of ground where the Shofuso stands continues to host the Centennial’s longest running exhibition.


[i] The Atlantic Monthly, as quoted by Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.470.

[ii] Richard Morris Hunt, as quoted by Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.470.

[iii] Cleveland Amory, The Proper Bostonians (New York, New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1947), p. 130.

[iv] Overview, Isabella Stewart Garnder Museum http://www.gardnermuseum.org/collection/overview.asp Accessed May 6, 2010.

[v] Melanie Birk, editor. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fifty Views of Japan: the 1905 Photo Album (San Francisco, California: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996), p.105.

[vi] Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (New York, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), p.7.

[vii] History, Shofuso: Japanese House and Garden http://www.shofuso.com/?page_id=11 Accessed May 5, 2010.

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After the Fair: The Development of Parkside

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After the 1876 Centennial Exposition closed, all but two of the fair’s buildings, as well as the surrounding temporary hotels on Elm Avenue, were torn down. Even the Main Exhibition Building – its 21.5 acres of floor space made it the largest building in the world — wasn’t spared from the wreckers.i Only Memorial Hall, a massive granite edifice capped by a glass-and-cast-iron dome, remained as a visible reminder of the exposition that attracted over 10 million visitors and showcased industrial Philadelphia to the world.

As part of Fairmount Park, the now-cleared fairground was protected in perpetuity as green space. The area around it remained largely undeveloped. Most of West Philadelphia was dotted with forests, shantytowns, farms, and summer villas. One big institution west of the Schuylkill was the University of Pennsylvania, which had pulled up stakes from Center City and moved to its new campus in 1873. The Philadelphia Zoo opened its doors on West Girard Avenue a year later. Would the area around the Centennial fairground return to its previous pastoral state?

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The answer was decidedly no. From 1870 to 1890, the city’s population nearly doubled from 674,000 to just over 1 million. Center City was congested and open space was at a premium. Industry befouled the air with coal smoke and other noxious fumes. For those who could afford it, a new West Philadelphia neighborhood fronting a verdant park – with its tree-shaded promenades and carriage trails — could be an attractive alternative to Rittenhouse Square or Fairmount.

The problem was access. After the demolition of the Centennial depot, the Pennsylvania Railroad did not provide a commuter service to the area as it did to the Main Line and Chestnut Hill. Finally, in 1895, following the growth of Powelton and Mantua to the south, a new trolley line connected the former Centennial fairgrounds with the rest of the city. Around the same time, Memorial Hall became the new home for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, packed with treasures from William Wilstach’s private collection.

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The area now seemed ripe for residential development. Frederick Poth and Joseph Schmidt, two enterprising German-American brewers, envisioned a modern, upper-class district of large houses and spacious apartment buildings.ii With the Zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as nearby cultural attractions, perhaps their development could be Philadelphia’s answer to New York’s Upper Fifth Avenue?

The new development would be called Parkside, which also became the new name for Elm Avenue. The exuberance of the Centennial Exposition would be reflected in its residential architecture. The developers commissioned architects such as H.E. Flower, Angus Wade, John C. Worthington, and Willis Hale to design eclectic homes for prosperous professionals and businessmen. Flemish gables, copper bay windows, tiled dormers, and terra-cotta cornices sprouted from houses built of orange Pompeian brick. Spindly, conical towers topped the Queen Anne-style Lansdowne Apartments.iii One critic described Hale and his colleagues as providing a “stylistically pragmatic architecture expressive of a self-confident individualism and optimistic commercial expansion.” Others were not so kind. “Every precaution has been taken, and with success, to insure that the building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble,” complained one critic of Hale’s work.iv

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No matter. Parkside’s big, superbly-crafted houses were a hit among newly-affluent Philadelphians, many of German origin. During Parkside’s glory days, weekend coaching enthusiasts flocked to the carriage trails. To the pedestrians, this parade presented a magnificent spectacle of rippling horseflesh, gleaming brass work, parasols and top hats. Parkside gained a place in art history when Eakins set his famous painting “The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand” on Lansdowne Drive, just north of Memorial Hall. One of Eakins’ artistic goals was to accurately depict a horse’s real gait as it had been recently discovered by photographer Eadward Muybridge.v

In 1912, workers completed the Richard Smith Civil War Memorial, a triumphal gateway flanked by two columns and adorned with bronze statues of Generals Meade, McClellan, and Hancock. Sunday strollers discovered that if they sat on benches on one side of the memorial, they could hear conversations from people on the other side. These seats became known as the “Whispering Benches.”

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However, Parkside’s splendor was fleeting. Despite the trolley connection and bridges spanning the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, Parkside still remained relatively isolated from the rest of the city. Commuting to the city’s central business district was still a headache, and many of the original residents moved either to more convenient Philadelphia neighborhoods or to the suburbs. By World War I, the area’s demographics shifted from wealthy German-American to middle-class Eastern European Jewish. For most, it was a big step up from the tiny row houses of South Philadelphia. Parkside’s first synagogue opened on the 3900 block of Girard Avenue in 1907.vi In 1929, the Philadelphia Museum of Art moved into its new home in Fairmount, depriving Parkside of a major cultural attraction. Memorial Hall was converted into a community gymnasium, then a police station. Not surprisingly, the underutilized structure suffered from deferred maintenance. The Great Depression dealt a major blow to the neighborhood, and most the big houses fronting Parkside Avenue were cut up into apartments.

Following World War II, the Great Migration coupled with “white flight” transformed Parkside into a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Landlords found the big houses difficult to maintain as multi-family residences, and either abandoned or neglected them. The old Girard Avenue commercial corridor also suffered from divestment. In recent years, efforts have been made to revitalize Parkside. The neighborhood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and community groups have renovated many of the mansions along Parkside Avenue into affordable apartments. Quicker access to the neighborhood from other parts of the city came in 2005 with the restoration of Girard Avenue trolley service. In 2009, the Please Touch Museum moved into a restored Memorial Hall. The neighborhood also boasts the Philadelphia Stars Negro Baseball League baseball diamond and monument. This May, the Philadelphia Historic Commission will designate East Parkside a local historic district, granting its structures stronger protection against demolition and alteration. Today, Parkside can once again proudly boast of being Philadelphia’s “Centennial District.”


[i] Dorothy Gondos Beer, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.462.

[ii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.117.

[iii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.121.

[iv] James Foss and Montgomery Schuyler, as quoted in Willis Hale, Architect: 1848 – 1907, http://www.brynmawr.edu/cities/archx/04-600/wgh/index.html

[v] Gordon Hendricks, “A May Morning in the Park,” The Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, vol.60, no.285 (Spring 1965), p.48.

[vi] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.117.

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Historic Images from the Free Library of Philadelphia Now Available on PhillyHistory.org!

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PhillyHistory.org is excited to announce the addition of over 1,600 historic photographs from the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Stunning images from the Historical Images of Philadelphia Collection and the Centennial Exhibition Collection are now available to search, view, and purchase on PhillyHistory.org.

Between nine and ten million people traveled to Philadelphia in 1876 to visit the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park. From a crowd of tens of thousands gathered for the exhibition opening to the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch, the amazing images in the Centennial Exhibition Collection depict the artwork, buildings, exhibits, and innovations that captivated visitors from around the world. These images can now be searched by location, providing remarkable insight into the plan of the Exhibition and the development of Fairmount Park. The Centennial images are complemented by photographs from the Historical Images of Philadelphia Collection. Depicting street scenes, homes, and events, these images show the bustling, diverse communities of Philadelphia in the late 1800s.

Together, these two collections provide an amazing visual history of the City of Philadelphia. For the first time ever, these images can now be purchased as prints or a variety of photo gifts. Visit www.phillyhistory.org and begin your trip to the past today! The addition of the Free Library of Philadelphia images to PhillyHistory.org is funded by the Advancing Knowledge: The IMLS/NEH Digital Partnership grant program.

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Washington Avenue: A Representative Example of Philadelphia’s Industrial Past, Part III

We will begin the final part of our tour down Washington Avenue starting at Broad Street and working our way eastward towards the Delaware River. One of Philadelphia’s major industries, textiles, was well represented along Washington Avenue. By 1860, Philadelphia had as many people employed in the textile industry as the textile center of New England – Lowell, Massachusetts1. The industry thrived through the early part of the 20th century, with large mills located primarily in the Kensington area of the city, but also scattered in various locations throughout the city. On Washington Avenue, textile mills included the Abraham Kirschbaum Co. located on the northeast corner of the intersection with Broad Street, which can be seen on the right side of the photograph across the street from the PW&B railroad station. A second large mill, the Caleb J. Milne factory, took up an entire city block on the north side between 10th and 11th Streets. Built in 1895 and added to in 1904, it housed spinning, weaving and finishing operations2.

Another major industry along Washington Avenue was the Curtis Publishing Co., located between 11th and 12th Streets. Founded in 1883, it is principally remembered for its popular magazine publications The Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post3.

Ancillary to Curtis Publishing was the Columbian Carbon Co., manufacturers of printer’s ink, located one block west at 1223 Washington Avenue. The industries on Washington Avenue included a number of smaller companies as well. For instance, there was McCracken and Hall, “Manufacturers of Fancy Cabinet Ware,” located at 1124 Washington Ave. This rather ornately decorated building seems to have survived at least another 40 years, although minus its mansard roof and with a new tenant – the Frank A. England Co., also a furniture maker. Interestingly, after 10th Street, Washington Avenue takes on a much more residential character with no major industries until its intersection with Delaware Avenue. Coal dealerships like American Ice and Coal still appear, but for the most part, the tracks glide past the row homes of Southwark on their way to the river.
After looking at these archival photographs, it’s interesting to reflect on what remains today. The tracks themselves are now gone, last used in the 1980s. Perhaps symbolic of the fate of manufacturing in Philadelphia, there are very few manufacturers of any sort remaining along Washington Avenue. A perusal using Google Earth shows that many of the small coal yards are now parking lots. Many of the very large buildings such as those of the Kirschbaum Co. and Caleb Milne Co. have been demolished and are vacant lots. As Philadelphia, like many other urban centers, evolves away from being a nexus of industry, it is still useful to remember and appreciate its rich industrial heritage that made it a great city.


[1] Scranton, Philip, (1992). Large Firms and Industrial Restructuring: The Philadelphia Region, 1900-1980. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 116, pp 419-465.

[2] Workshop of the World, Oliver Evans Press, Philadelphia (1990), pp. 1-11-1-12.

[3] Scranton, Philip, Walter Licht. Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1986, p. 222.

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Washington Avenue: A Representative Example of Philadelphia’s Industrial Past, Part II

We continue our tour down Washington Avenue at 17th Street heading east towards Broad Street. There are, of course, the ubiquitous coal yards along the way. These may seem strange to us today but were an essential feature in the first half of the 20th Century. Through World War II, nearly half of the railroad sidings along Washington Avenue were devoted to coal delivery. As we cross 17th Street looking north, we can see another element of Philadelphia’s industrial past, the Philadelphia rowhouse. Viewing this picture one sees an almost endless line of rowhouses, with trolley tracks running down the center of the street. Most workers lived close to the factories they worked in, but if they were not within walking distance, they took the trolley.

At the intersection with Chadwick Street stands the Southwark Plating Co. This is a reminder that while Philadelphia did have large companies that dominated the industrial landscape, such as Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia was also home to many smaller specialty firms that formed a productive network with neighboring industries.1 Just across Chadwick Street, extending to the corner of 16th and Carpenter Streets, was a series of public delivery tracks, allowing industries not directly on Washington Ave. to load and ship by rail. On the west side of 16th Street, a branch office of Berger Manufacturing turned out sheet metal products even after the company was assimilated into Republic Steel in 1930. 2

At the intersection of Washington Avenue and Broad Street, there were a number of important buildings. The northwest quadrant was the site of the original passenger station built by the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad in 1852. This was the first passenger station where locomotives were able to bring passengers directly into the city. The station boasted a 400′ long train shed that housed 8 tracks.3 During the Civil War, the station was an important departure point for Union troops headed south. It was also a stopping point for the Lincoln funeral train on its journey to Illinois.4 With the Centennial Exposition of 1876, the railroad expanded its terminal facilities, including the addition of a separate enclosed freight shed.3 Once under the control of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the station was closed for passenger service in January of 1882, coincident with the opening of the railroad’s Broad Street Station.

On the southwest side of the intersection was the Marine Quartermaster’s Depot. This massive building was later expanded and served as an important source for war materials during both World Wars. Uniforms were manufactured here, drawing on the expertise of the local Philadelphia textile industry. Its location along Washington Avenue proved expeditious for shipping materials via rail.4

In the next part of our trip down Washington Avenue, we will continue our tour east of Broad Street and look at some representatives of major industrial categories that were part of the Philadelphia landscape.


[1] Scranton, Philip, (1992). “Large Firms and Industrial Restructuring: The Philadelphia Region, 1900-1980.” Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 116, pp 419–465.

[2] http://glassian.org/Prism/Berger/index.html

[3] Roberts, Charles S. and David W. Messer (2003). Triumph VI: Philadelphia, Columbia, Harrisburg to Baltimore and Washington DC 1827-2003. Baltimore, Maryland: Barnard, Roberts & Co. p. 50.

[4] “Workshop of the World At War: The USMC Quartermaster Depot.” September 19, 2006. http://ruins.wordpress.com/2006/09/19/workshop-of-the-world-at-war-the-usmc-quartermaster-depot/

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