Sensibility and Stuff: Collecting Photographs in a Purgatory of Zeros and Ones


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In front of the Savoy Theatre, Market Street, west of 12th Street, photograph by Wenzel J. Hess, December 7, 1935.

PhillyHistory.org allows registered visitors to tag and “collect” photographs and maps. In this essay, I consider the somewhat surreal notion of browsing online images and building a collection of “favorites.”

Meandering alone in the stacks of an old library or in the aisles of an archive is a daunting experience. Few other places on earth offer anything like this kind of weighty solitude. Repositories seem silent, but they hold voices. Like cemeteries, they’re about the past, but they’re not somber. Repositories offer opportunities to simulate in our imaginations unknown places and unimagined horizons. They’re hermetic, comfortable and exude confidence; after all, repositories have all the right answers. We just need to approach them with the right questions. But we’re in no great hurry to ask any questions, not yet, anyway. We’re still meandering, browsing, and searching for treasure we know exists.

This isn’t treasure we can get our hands on, and we’re not actually in the stacks. We’re in front of a computer monitor and the treasure we’re looking for is visual. We’re searching, week after week, month after month, examining thousands of images at PhillyHistory.org.

What are we looking for, exactly? We’re not looking for a picture of any particular place or time. What we want are pictures that speak with clarity and strength. They’ll be Philadelphia scenes, though not necessarily ones that were ever built. They’re likely to be black and white, but could have unexpected color. We’re bound to discover impressive photographers we’ve never heard of before, like the elusive Quinn or Wenzel J. Hess (above and here). We’re looking for a discovery that’s a shade off what we already know, something that’s satisfyingly different. And we’re doing this by immersing ourselves in the stuff of images as it comes to us in streams of pixels.

Is there really that much of a difference perusing historic images in servers versus stacks? Is there any real difference filing copies of images in manila folders versus tagging them as “favorites”? Can we actually possess an image that you can’t even touch? Could searching online be getting us closer to the past, or is it only a sly trick diverting us away from reality?

We grew up experiencing photographs as objects. We take their heft, texture and patina for granted. Before the online option, we had to deal with photographs and images in their conflated form. Now, photographs must be images but images do not necessarily need to be photographs. Separated from their “hosts,” images are no longer objects; they’ve forfeited their “thing-ness” to reside in a purgatory of zeros and ones, a place photographs never knew. Images travel the speed of light on chips, circuits and cables and even over the air. We can’t hold them, but we can want them, know and treasure them. Looking at these photographs is not about stuff; it’s about sensibility.

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Ground Zero for Philadelphia Beer


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The survival of the Bergdoll Brewery at 29th near Parrish in Brewerytown
is interesting, but what remains from Philly beer’s earliest years?

Philadelphia’s been a beer town for a long time, long enough to have a destination equal to the story. We’re thirsty here for beer history, but there’s no must-see site. When we say “See the Bell; Crack a Beer” you know where the bell is. But where would you crack the beer, marinate in its present and contemplate its past?

Philadelphians are stuck for a beer site to venerate. Penn brewed way up the Delaware at the estate he called Pennsbury, but that’s too far. Robert Smith brewed at 20 South 5th Street, but that’s the same block as the Liberty Bell, and that’s too close. (Anyway, the Smith place is gone and the land is now part of Independence National Historical Park, where beer is generally frowned upon.) There’s a historical marker for “America’s First Lager” at Brown and North American Streets, but only so much brewing and aging could be done in the tightly-packed neighborhood of Northern Liberties. Brewerytown carries the right name but only a very few buildings remain from its 20 defunct breweries. There’s the former Bergdoll Brewery at 29th and Parrish (illustrated left and here). Bergdoll’s massive grain elevator stood nearby at 29th and Pennsylvania Avenue. But the grain elevator is no more and the brewery was converted into residences decades ago. (Read the story of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, the family ne’er-do-well, in a blog post at PhillyHistory.org). Anyway, Brewerytown came late in the Philadelphia beer game. There’s no founding fizz in that history.

What do we have that really shows off Philadelphia’s venerable brewing history? What place can we call the Holy Grail of Philadelphia Beer? There’s got to be a site that tells the story of the formative years of fermentation and gets to the heart of Philly beer history.

There is. If we follow the trail of Charles Engel and Charles Wolf, the two men who started brewing that Northern Liberties lager, we find ourselves smack in the middle of a wooded area in Fairmount Park, not far from Kelly Drive at Fountain Green. Engel & Wolf were busily brewing at Fountain Green by 1849 and expanded their operation twice in the 1850s, carving five vaults from more than 50,000 cubic feet of rock to age their barrels at a constant 50 degrees. They printed a lavish colored lithograph advertisement and, we suspect, had a calligrapher embellish a copy with the resonant words in Fraktur script: “Die erste Lagerbier-Brauerei in Amerika” – “The First Lager Beer Brewery in America.”

The first, but hardly the last. In 1870, the City of Philadelphia enlarged Fairmount Park and forced Engel & Wolf to move again. Not to be undone by this, the company, now Bergner & Engel Brewing Company built themselves a newer and even larger facility at Thompson and 32nd Streets. Meanwhile, the city demolished the brewery at Fountain Green, presumably filling in the aging caverns with debris from the site.

Sure, the Engel & Wolf brewery site is isolated and overgrown. That’s what remarkable about it. A site untouched for 140 years is a gift. Meanwhile, the Engel & Wolf brewery sits, waiting for archeologists, for interpreters, for us. It’s Philadelphia’s long-lost beer destination waiting to happen.

Engel and Wolf's Brewery and Vaults at Fountain Green. “The First Lager Beer Brewery in America.” Rendering by Kirk Finkel based on a lithograph by Augustus Kollner, ca. 1855.

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After All These Years: Political, Erotical and Mystical Claes Oldenburg


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At first, the idea of a 51-foot paintbrush in front of an art school/museum seemed unoriginal, little more than a logo for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Had Claes Oldenburg, after more than thirty five years and in his fourth major work in Philadelphia, sold out?

We expected Oldenburg to be more the outsider here, more outrageous. We wanted the old Oldenburg, the one whose work spilled out originality, as he recently described to The Wall Street Journal. That sculptor once proposed replacing the Washington Monument with a giant pair of upended scissors. That artist imagined a giant toilet float for the Thames in London and a working windshield wiper threatening the Chicago waterfront.

Philadelphia's might-have-been screw monument. Illustration by Kirk Finkel based on Wikipedia Creative Commons photograph by Spikebrennan and "Cemetery in the Shape of a Colossal Screw," in “Oldenburg Draws Seven New Wonders of the World,” Horizon (Spring 1972).

Oldenburg, we always heard, originally proposed a screw monument for 15th and Market Streets, something he only imagined for São Paulo, Brazil. Could Rizzo-era Philadelphia, a city barely willing to accept a clothespin, allow a 45 foot-tall screw across from City Hall tower? Not on your life.

Someday, we may learn the full story about Philly’s first Oldenburg proposal, but we do know he had in the wings a less offensive idea: a clothespin. And in 1976 Philadelphia dedicated the first of Philadelphia’s major Oldenburg works: Clothespin, Split Button, Giant Three-Way Plug and now Paint Torch. These span Oldenburg’s entire, at times envelope-pushing, career.

In the early 1960s, in his New York studio, Oldenburg pushed the envelope plenty. His Pop Art manifesto staked out new artistic territory: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Would Oldenburg be willing and able to push the envelope on the streets of Philadelphia? What we seem to have across from City Hall and at the museum is something less than the “political-erotical-mystical” art we were promised.

But looks can be deceiving. As it turns out, Paint Torch floats above its site and gently commands Broad Street with scale, color and texture. It deploys a Pixar-tight caricature quality reminiscent of a helium parade balloon. Its form renders precious—in the best sense of the word—details of the Academy’s Furness façade, as well as those of City Hall a block to the south. By comparison, Clothespin is upright, uptight even. Clothespin’s rough, Cor-Ten steel surface does no favors for its promise of play, although the stainless steel spring does invite our imaginations. (Are they the arms of two figures in an embrace? Do they say “76”? Or is it merely a spring?)

In 2011, as in ’76, we find Oldenburg likes to play with our reading of these details. Looking at the top of Paint Torch, we see the brush pushing against something. There’s no canvas above Broad Street—only the outside world. What is this giant brushstroke? It looks like a tongue sticking out.

Could this be a lesson for art students to move beyond their teachers, as Oldenburg did? Could it be that Oldenburg, in the fullness of time, is getting back at Philadelphia? Or is it just an innocent dab of paint?

We are glad to see that Oldenburg has made something here that is, after all, “political-erotical-mystical.” The sculptor didn’t sell out. What he did, it seems, is to perfect the subtle, sometimes necessary art of tweaking one’s host.

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Finding Philadelphia’s “Wow Factor”


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Philly history is telling us something: We lost our sense of humor at the bottom of Broad Street.

Consider the new spine of lights proposed for a stretch of Broad, the 2 ½ miles from Spring Garden to Norris. These 29, 55-foot tall stalks of light are meant to restore North Broad Street’s long-absent “wow factor,” according to the folks at the Avenue of the Arts. But history suggests otherwise.

Want to find Philadelphia’s “wow factor?” Go back to Broad Street and Oregon Avenue in 1926. That was the real deal: a monumental, iconic claim of Philadelphia as the nation’s “Cradle of Liberty.” Sesquicentennial designers installed a giant sculpture right in the center of Broad Street on what’s now Marconi Plaza. Never before or since has the city seen something so bold, so apt—so much fun. Visible for miles, the giant Sesqui bell seemed to be in a kind of conversation with the 38-foot-tall statue of William Penn on City Hall. “Make no mistake,” these two sculptures seemed to be saying, “you’re in Philadelphia, and there’s a message to share. We’re saying it here and we’re making it come alive—with light.”

Long before the invention of the electric bulb, light had been the city’s best metaphor. Philadelphia was created around the central Quaker belief in an “inner light,” that divine spark in everyone so essential to the idea of equality and community. Later came the notion of the light of Liberty, something worthy of a new and independent nation.


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The Sesquicentennial Bell lit up the night, June 1, 1926.

How to make these metaphors come alive on the street? Cue the electric light. For more than a century, Broad Street, the founding city’s longest, widest public avenue, has been a light laboratory, a stage for meaningful illumination. At the end of the Spanish American War in 1898 lights adorned the temporary arch at Broad and Walnut. Lights draped from City Hall celebrated Philadelphia’s 225th birthday in 1908. Powerful spotlights permanently illuminated City Hall’s tower in 1916. And as recently as 2005, wild light play continued at City Hall. But nothing topped Broad Streets convergence of form, meaning and light more than when the gargantuan, sheet metal blow-up of the Liberty Bell was switched on in 1926, for the nation’s 150th birthday.

We don’t know what creative genius proposed this 80-foot sculpture covered with 26,000, 15-watt light bulbs. (We do know D. W. Atwater of the Westinghouse Lamp Company designed the illumination.) Switched on May 31, 1926, the Sesqui Bell predated Pop Art by a long shot: Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg weren’t even born until the late 1920s. Warhol painted his Campbell’s soup cans 36 years later; Oldenburg installed his giant Clothespin 50 years later. “I am for art that is flipped on and off with a switch;” wrote Oldenburg in his Pop Art manifesto, considered avant garde in 1961: “I am for the blinking arts, lighting up the night.”

We’re convinced: Philadelphians in the 1920s were way ahead of the curve. They knew how, where and with what to light up Broad Street. They were in touch with Philadelphia’s “wow factor.”

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Philadelphia as Athens of America: More than Skin Deep


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The Merchants Exchange Building by William Strickland at Walnut and Dock Streets, ca. 1859.

Philadelphia’s façade of choice used to be one bedecked with columns—and the more the better. Greek and Roman orders ruled from the late 18th century clear through much of the 19th century. Whether you had a bank, a church, a town hall, a school or an asylum, classical features conveyed the “right” message as visitors passed your portal. Want to convey a sense of wealth? Go Greek. Need to speak the language of civic importance or educational authority? Say it with a stack of stone cylinders. Folks were even willing to forgive their pre-Christian origins as they prayed behind pagan porticoes.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe gets the credit for giving Quaker Philadelphia permission to lose the red brick and cloak everything in white marble. And he practiced what he preached in 1811 when he orated that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World.” Latrobe’s own Philadelphia commissions: the Pump House in Center Square and the Bank of Pennsylvania were (literally and figuratively) classics.

None of Latrobe’s major works survive in Philadelphia, although you can see his marble magic in other places. Latrobe went on to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Richmond before succumbing to Yellow Fever while on the job in New Orleans. (There’s an excellent hour-long documentary about Latrobe at PBS online.)

Where Latrobe left off his students and their students picked up and carried on. There’s William Strickland’s Merchant’s Exchange (illustrated here) and his Second Bank. There’s Thomas U. Walter’s Founder’s Hall at Girard College and many others, including the Mercantile Library, U.S. Naval Home, U.S. Mint, Jefferson Medical College, and the First Independent Presbyterian Church.

Philadelphia as the Athens of America was always more than skin deep. The very idea that Philadelphia would inherit Greek arts and ideals goes back to the very beginning, when Penn named his city in Greek. That Philadelphia would become the New World’s center for democracy, arts and learning might have been pushed aside for a few busy decades, but it wasn’t ever entirely forgotten.

In the early 1730s, founders of the Library Company of Philadelphia had written of Philadelphia as “the future of Athens in America.” A few years before that, Philadelphia poet George Webb, who David S. Shields calls “the first major prophet of the America of Athenaeums, civic temples, and ‘new Romans’,” wrote a poem that concludes with a few relevant lines:

Stretch’d on the Bank of Delaware’s rapid Stream
Stands Philadelphia, not unknown to Fame:
Here the tall Vessels safe at Anchor ride,
And Europe’s Wealth flows in with every Tide:

Who (if the wishing Muse inspir’d does sing)
Shall Liberal Arts to such Perfection bring,
Europe shall mourn her ancient Fame declin’d,
And Philadelphia be the Athens of Mankind.

Webb had plenty of company believing in this big idea for small Philadelphia. No, Latrobe didn’t invent the idea of Philadelphia as the rightful heir to ancient greatness. He only reminded Philadelphians what they had long known—and urged them to put the Greek out where everyone might actually see it.

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A Challenge for Philadelphia: What Should Our 9/11 Memorial Look Like?


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Public memory fails us at Second Street, Walnut to Chestnut Streets.
Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess, August 13, 1936.

America has another 9/11. September 11, 1777 also resonated with pain and sadness and was long remembered as a failure of freedom at the heart of the American cause. On that day, 234 years ago, a would-be nation embracing a vision of democracy and forgot what the fight was all about.

But this story is remembered nowhere on the streets of Philadelphia. There’s no monument, no sculpture, no mural, no words in bronze to help us know and remember. This original, American 9/11 is now all but forgotten. It’s as if that day never happened.

Lucky for history, lucky for us, libraries and archives hold documents that tell the tale. The papers of Henry Drinker at Haverford College and the Brown Family at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and others that augment them are preserved and accessible. And thanks to Google books, a 300-page account of the event originally published in the 19th-century is also available. From these documents, as well as a more recent article, we can know and share what took place in Philadelphia on September 11, 1777.

What happened? Quaker Philadelphia became wartime Philadelphia. With the British on land and sea advancing to occupy the city, loyalty and trust were no longer measured in shades of gray. By late August, Congress ordered those who were “notoriously disaffected…be apprehended disarmed and secured.” There was no ambiguity when it came to Philadelphia’s Tories. But what about the Quakers, who would neither participate nor contribute to the revolutionary effort?

Wartime leaders tended to agree with John Adams, who believed Philadelphia Quakers “love Money and Land better than Liberty of Religion.” Then reports of treasonous Quaker documents appeared – never mind that they were fabricated. Congress immediately recommended the arrest of Quakers who “evidenced a disposition inimical to the cause of America.” In early September, American forces began to “seize and secure” some of the city’s most upstanding citizens, nearly all of whom were Quakers. Without charges, and with nothing more than a list of targets and orders from Congress, armed guards broke into civilian homes and rounded up 41 men. When elderly John Pemberton refused to go “they removed him bodily from the house and took him forcibly into custody.” He and others pleaded “affection for America” to no avail. All the prisoners were taken to the Masonic Lodge on Lodge Alley just west of Second Street, north of Walnut Street.

There would be no charges, no hearings, no appeals. The prisoners, their families and others protested these actions as a “stretch of arbitrary power,” “illegal,” “unjust,” and “contrary to the Rights of Mankind.” All complaints fell on deaf ears. A guard threatened to shoot a visitor attempting to talk to a prisoner through a window. Day by day, tensions grew in the streets around Lodge Alley.

A few men suffering illnesses were released. Others were let go after signing an oath swearing allegiance to the Revolution. The rest remained locked up.

On September 11, the twenty remaining men were loaded onto wagons in the midst of a crowd one witness called a “deeply emotional.” Passions rose. Someone threatened a guard, promising to “thrust his hands down his throat and pull out his heart if he dared abuse a Prisoner.” Another witness wept as the loaded wagons sat for hours, attempting to wait out the crowd. When the citizen-prisoners finally trundled away in the early evening, African-American acquaintances of John Pemberton managed to grasp his outreached hand. By then, Philadelphians lined the way in silent protest.

These citizen-prisoners, victims of this original 9/11, were held for more than six months, out of sight but hardly out of mind in Winchester, Virginia. Two, Thomas Gilpin and John Hunt, died there. After many protests and appeals the rest were returned and released in April 1778. No charges were ever filed.

Today, the Masonic Lodge is long gone. So is Lodge Alley. This episode is out of mind. Over time, the place has lost touch with its own memory.

Should the site of Philadelphia’s 9/11, the site of “one of the gravest violations of individual rights…during the War of Independence” NOT be marked? Of course it should.

The real question is, what should Philadelphia’s 9/11 memorial look like; what should it tell us? And how long will it take us to restore this largely forgotten episode to public memory?

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Time For Rocky To Step Aside?


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The Rocky Statue at its original location, July 29, 1982. Five years ago, the statue was
installed at its current location near the base of the Art Museum’s steps.

Rocky’s been in place for five years now, and it’s been 35 years since the film character gave Philadelphia a boost and Sylvester Stallone a brand worth $1.2 billion. But eventually, possibly sooner than later, Rocky will have to step aside as a Philadelphia story that has outlived its time.

Born during a recession in a place with an evaporating manufacturing economy, Rocky’s day job as bill collector speaks to the lack of opportunity in a city of homes and a paucity of jobs. In the 1970s, Philadelphians still believed they still had a shot at bringing the factories back. It took several decades more for the leadership (by then Ed Rendell in the 1990s) to openly admit industry as Philadelphia knew it was gone and a constellation of emerging economies (Eds, Meds, Tourism & Tech) would have to replace it.

Philadelphians have come to their senses and moved on, except, it seems, when it comes to Rocky.

Like Archie Bunker’s Queens, Rocky’s Philadelphia is now mostly gone, though not entirely. The spirit of the ’70s occasionally finds traction. In 2006, the same year as Rocky returned to the Parkway, Joey Vento posted a sign at his steak joint on 9th Street: “This is America, when ordering ‘Speak English?’” Vento spoke his mind, as Tom Ferrick put it in a recent Metropolis column: “And what was in that mind? A heavy dose of macho. One primal scream. Several tablespoons of jingoism. A half-cup of xenophobia. A dash of hate.”

When Joey Vento died last month, so did a little bit more of that Philadelphia, Rocky’s Philadelphia. Vento clumsily said what Stallone’s Rocky artfully implied. “Outsiders” were changing the hue and cry of the workplace, schools and streets. Vento, Ferrick points out, targeted Philadelphia’s Mexican immigrants. Rocky’s enemies were African Americans: first Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, then James “Clubber” Lang, played by Mr. T. Of course, Rocky’s racism was neatly tempered by Hollywood, but it was significant in Rocky’s persona as well as the brand’s success.

The Rocky story is one of personal victory, rather than any kind of civic victory. In the 1970s, Rocky couldn’t begin to turn around a city still steeped in mid-century noir, but he could, bouncing at the top of the Art Museum’s steps at dawn in grey sweats, realize personal success.

Today, Philadelphia offers more. Yet, thousands of folks visit the Rocky statue every year, admire themselves with arms raised in souvenir images again, again and again. There’s a connection here with a 20th-century Philadelphia story that has survived into the 21st, but how meaningful is it now? Isn’t this statue, whether it’s considered a movie prop, a franchise logo, or even art, just an artifact of 20th-century American popular culture, along the lines of Archie Bunker’s chair? Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History see that artifact behind glass.

Someday, the Rocky statue will be framed by a similar narrative. When that day comes, Philadelphia will have something to offer about what the city is, not what it was. But first, we’ll have to get past the idea that Stallone has done more for Philadelphia’s image than anyone since Ben Franklin, as Commerce Director Dick Doran put it in the 1980s. We’ll still be moved a little (or a lot) by the Rocky story, and the artifact will always be with us. Only, in the future, we’ll think of it as on the shelf, rather than on the pedestal, along with many other compelling stories out of Philadelphia’s past.

The question is, when Rocky steps aside, or is forced aside – and this should happen sooner than later – what will take his place? That we have yet to figure out. But the time is coming for Rocky to become history – and in Philadelphia there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Philadelphia Department of Records Wins 2011 Award of Merit!

We’re excited to announce that the Philadelphia Department of Records has been awarded a 2011 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) for the work on PhillyHistory.org!

Now in its 66th year, the Leadership in History Awards from AASLH are awarded annually for projects that demonstrate excellence in the collection, preservation, and interpretation of state and local history. The awards will be presented at a banquet held on September 16 as part of the 2011 AASLH Annual Meeting in Richmond, Virginia.

We are delighted to receive this award and appreciative of the recognition from AASLH. The photographs and maps on PhillyHistory.org enable users to discover more about the history of Philadelphia and its many neighborhoods and communities. We hope that it provides people with an opportunity to remember and explore our city’s past in a fun and innovative way.

Thank you to all the PhillyHistory.org users for supporting the project, and thank you to the American Association for State and Local History for the wonderful award!

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Words, Not Pictures, Tell Philadelphia’s Earthquake History


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“View of the ruins caused by the great fire northeast corner of Sixth and Market st. which began on the night
of Weds. April 30, 1856 – From the northwest.”

In case you were wondering (and many in the wake of the recent earthquake that shook the East Coast are) PhillyHistory.org holds no images of earthquake damage. Sure, the city has a long history of shocks and tremors, but earthquakes around here have been little more than curious.

If it’s pictures of devastation you are after, you’ll have to change your search term from “earthquake” to “fire.” Now, there’s a search term with teeth.

Just a few weeks after the city installed a fire-alarm telegraph system in 1856, a fire broke out at the Jessup & Moore rag and paper warehouse. It spread to destroy 44 buildings near Sixth and Market Streets. The conflagration killed two firefighters and threatened Independence Hall, the tower of which can be seen through the smoke in this photograph by James E. McClees.

Philadelphia fires have an iconography all their own; earthquakes do not. But earthquakes passing through Philadelphia did produce a steady trail of tweet-length comments that predate the many online observations and comments of August 23, 2011.

“Clocks ran down and china shaken from shelves,” marks the first time Philadelphians noticed the earth shake on October 17th 1727. (We have Joseph Jackson to thank for his “Earthquake Shocks in Philadelphia” entry in Volume II of his Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, published in 1931).

A local printer recorded a “smart shock” after “a soughing noise was heard” December 1, 1737. A few Philadelphians even claimed the shock threw them to the ground. Aiming to capitalize on this new market of interested readers; Franklin attempted to explain the phenomenon in the subsequent issue of his Pennsylvania Gazette.

Philadelphia’s only earthquake described as “ominous” struck on October 30, 1763, just as the ship carrying John Penn, grandson of William, landed at the Market Street Wharf. As it turned out, the “very loud roaring noise” accompanying a “trembling of the ground” was only that.

The shocks kept coming and so did the descriptors. On December 8, 1811 folks felt “a sensible undulation” and in the November 1840 earthquake was “accompanied by a great and unusual swell on the Delaware River.”

“Buildings shook perceptibly, sashes rattled and bells rang” from tremors on August 10, 1884. Two years later, on August 31, an earthquake produced “undulations in houses” and more bell ringing. An early morning earthquake on September 1, 1895 shook buildings, broke crockery, damaged walls of houses under construction, but not much survives that’s Twitterworthy.

Although Philadelphia seemed to be spared for much of the 20th century, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) “History of Earthquakes in Pennsylvania” tells of December 27, 1961, when residents in neighborhoods of the Northeast experienced rattling dishes and “loud rumbling sounds.” On December 10, 1968 toll booths on the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges in Philadelphia “trembled.”

The moral of this story, of course, is that some stories can be told with pictures; others can’t. We work with what history leaves us. And when we’re lucky, we encounter descriptive gems as “soughing.” For that vintage word alone (soughing, by the way, means murmuring or, in this case, moaning) we are grateful.

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Continuing the Civil War at the Centennial Exhibition


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“The American Soldier” at the Centennial Exhibition, Centennial Photographic Company, 1876.

Our understanding of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876 suffers from an ironic condition. The first American world’s fair was so thoroughly documented that the sheer amount of material keeps better understanding at bay. To come to terms with the significance of the event considered one of Philadelphia’s shining moments, researchers too often drown themselves in information. There’s just that much of it. Consider what’s online here at the Free Library of Philadelphia and here at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Offline, these and other institutions preserve even more. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania there’s 30 vintage volumes and as many boxes listed in this 17-page finding aid (see the .pdf). Last year, PhillyHistory.org added the Free Library’s collection of 1,600 images, mostly all by the Centennial Photographic Company. These document the Centennial’s hundreds of buildings and thousands of exhibits.

With such multitudes of stuff, forays into this rich corner of the past tend to leave us out of balance, thrilled by discovery but still wanting discourse. And who could blame us from enjoying the simple sledding through the archival avalanche?

But there’s more here than stuff. So how do we get at the deeper meaning? Let’s parse the narrative of 1876, looking at less to see more. After all, here’s a defining event in the life of the city and one that remade the idea of the nation after a devastating Civil War. Only a decade before, the nation and the American people were rent asunder; the war killed or wounded nearly one in thirty citizens. Since surrender at Appomattox, there hadn’t been an event of national healing. Philadelphia and the celebration of the nation’s birth in 1876 finally offered a chance. Here and now, 10 million visitors would gather to see the new, post-Civil War America.

So we have to ask: why was a colossal, granite figure of a Union soldier posted at the entrance of the Main Building? To the company that produced the monument (and others like it) this 21-foot tall, 30-ton statue titled “The American Soldier,” “The Volunteer Soldier” or sometimes “The Private Soldier Monument” was about patriotism, but it was more about business. James G. Baterson and his New England Granite Company were developing a lucrative niche in the Civil War monument market. Inside the Art Building, now known as Memorial Hall, Commissioners had forbidden references to the Civil War. In reality, that taboo had been violated several times in the American displays, especially with Peter F. Rothermel’s huge depiction of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. But here, outdoors, stood a Union soldier for all to see. He stood at rest, but still he was armed.

After the Centennial, Baterson shipped the American Soldier Monument to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where it stands at the center of the Antietam National Cemetery. It marks the bloodiest single-day battle in American history: 4,000 dead and 19,000 wounded. Physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. visited Antietam in the raw days after the battle to search for his wounded son, who had left Harvard to fight. “The slain of high condition, ‘embalmed’ and iron cased, were sliding off the railways to their far homes,” wrote Holmes, “the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth.”

Holmes the younger, though shot through the neck, survived to return to Harvard and later served as a justice on the U. S. Supreme Court. But thousands of other families lost sons and couldn’t afford to either find or return their bodies. They had only one option: burial at Antietam. And there, on September 17, 1880–the 18th anniversary of the battle—families that could travel gathered to dedicate the “Private Soldier Monument.” But every last one of those families that showed up was from the North. Confederate causalities were banned from burial at Antietam National Cemetery.

In the sorrowful days and weeks after the battle, the Union first took care of its own, identifying and burying. Meanwhile, as Alexander Gardner’s photographs at the Library of Congress so graphically illustrate, the Sharpsburg landscape remained strewn with Confederate bodies. After quick and dirty burials where they fell, these bodies were later dug up and carted a dozen miles away to a Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, where nearly every soldier was laid to rest without name or monument.

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