Inconspicuous Consumption and Philadelphia Aristocracy‘s Last Preserve

Racquet Club, 215 South 16th Street. February 20, 1908. (

“’Everybody’” belongs to the Philadelphia Racquet Club, proclaimed Nathaniel Burt more than half a century ago.  And by “’everybody’” Burt meant the subjects of his classic Perennial Philadelphians, the subtitle of which is our obvious tip off: “Anatomy of an American Aristocracy.

One might have expectations that their clubhouse, designed by Horace Trumbauer, the go-to architect for over-the-top client expectations (a recent monograph is titled American Splendor) would be something of an opulent, urban sports palace. After all, Trumbauer created crenelated “Grey Towers” for the sugar magnate William Welsh Harrison, the 110-room “Lynnewood Hall” for streetcar baron P. A. B.  Widener and the lavish”Whitemarsh Hall” for investment banker Edward T. Stotesbury. But when it came to making a statement at this 16th Street sporting and eating refuge for old-money Philadelphia, Trumbauer chose the muted Georgian revival, which blended right in with old, original red-brick, white stoop Philadelphia.

Nothing on the façade telegraphed the fact that the clubhouse foreshadowed modernity (it was one of the city’s first reinforced concrete structures) or that its above grade swimming pool was among the world’s first. Nor did the building reveal that inside, members competed in “the sport of medieval French kings” on a “literal indoor reproduction of the original palace courtyard.” There was nothing else like it in the city, and only a few like it in the country, this court tennis court, “with all sorts of antique penthouses, windows at odd intervals.”

Court tennis only vaguely resembled the much more popular (and derivative) lawn tennis. By comparison, this court is “immense: 93 feet long by 31 feet wide… 15 feet longer and 4 feet wider than the standard lawn-tennis singles court.” The “crimson-trimmed net was two feet lower in the middle than at the ends.” Dimensions vary. England’s Hampton Court “is some 24 inches longer and 19 inches wider than the two courts at the New York Racquet Club.” (That’s right—New York has two.) In Britain, the “walls are rougher, which means that the ball will bounce off them at a steeper angle.”  The slope of the penthouses running along three of the walls can be different, although the window-like openings at odd intervals appear the same.

Racquet Club, 215 South 16th Street. February 20, 1908 (

One way players score in this complicated game, is to hit the heavy, hand-sewn, lopsided ball into these holes at speeds approaching 150 miles per hour. Yes, the esoteric rules and hard-acquired skills take years to master.

The history and lore of the game is actually far more interesting  Word has it that the young Henry VIII brought the game to Hampton Court in 1530. “His second wife Anne Boleyn was said to be watching a game when she was arrested and the king was playing tennis when news was brought to him of her execution.”

“Shakespeare mentioned the game in six of his plays. … Chaucer, Erasmus, Edmund Spenser, Rabelais, Pepys, Gower, Chapman, Rousseau, Ben Jonson, John Locke, Montaigne, and Galsworthy are among the men of letters who made mention of tennis.”

“Proper tennis” had been played by royals and wannabes for about three-quarters of a millennium before it arrived on American shores. Whether it first landed in Boston in 1876 or New York in 1890 or Chicago in 1893 is a matter of prideful debate. But one thing, pointed out by Burt, seemed clear: the game was imported “during the Gilded Age as a piece of extremely conspicuous consumption.”

And for the longest time, and perhaps still today, the Philadelphia version of the game is a “preserve of the aristocracy”—albeit inconspicuously as possible.

[Sources: Nathaniel Burt The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999; originally published in 1963); Sandra L. Tatman, Horace Trumbauer (Philadelphia Architects and Buildings; The Athenaeum of Philadelphia); Allison Danzig, The Royal & Ancient Game of Tennis: A Short History; Robert W. Stock, “The Courtliest Tennis Game of Them All, The New York Times, March 6, 1983; James Zug, Introduction to Court Tennis, A Guide to Tennis.]


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Apothecary Roses of Germantown

Wyck, 6026 Germantown Avenue, September 20, 1957.

The Wyck mansion, located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, is not just one of the oldest structures in the city, but is also home to the oldest surviving rose garden in the nation.

The first section of the dwelling dates to 1690, when Germantown was a satellite of the new city of Phialdelphia. For the next three centuries, it was occupied by the descendants of the Milan-Wistar-Haines families, German Quakers who had settled in Pennsylvania to escape persecution and to find better opportunities in William Penn’s religiously tolerant colony.  As the family prospered over the years, the house grew in size and comfort. In the 1820s, architect William Strickland, designer of the neoclassical Second Bank of the United States and the Merchant’s Exchange, extensively renovated it into the spacious dwelling it is today. Yet true to its owners’ Quaker values, Wyck remained solidly plain, inside and out.  Members of the Society of Friends prized quality, but scorned extravagance. For families like the Haines of Wyck, prosperity was an important spiritual test of their values, and not an excuse to be idle or indulgent.

“Celesiana” Damask Rose, also konwn as the “Germantown Rose” because of its wide cultivation in Germantown during the 18th century. Painting by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Wikipedia Commons.

As William Penn said: “There is but little need to spend time with foolish diversions for time flies away so swiftly by itself; and, when once gone, is never to be recalled.”

Like the house itself, the rose garden at Wyck is a superb blend of neoclassical aesthetics and Quaker utility. The garden’s layout is a simple square, bisected into quadrants by two walkways. It lacks fussy formal elements such as box hedges and elaborate plantings. In the early 19th century, roses had medicinal as well as aesthetic value, a practice hat went back to the Middle Ages.  In monastic apothecary gardens, medicinal plants were grown to cure all sorts of ailments.  Physicians believed that illnesses were caused by imbalances in the body’s four elements, or “humours.”

  • blood (air)
  • phlegm (water)
  • yellow bile (fire)
  • black bile (earth)

It was the physician’s job to bring balance back to these four humours, and the job of the apothecary (a predecessor to the modern-day pharmacist) to dispense the right combination of herbs and plants. Herbs cultivated for their supposed medicinal value included sage (‘fresh and green to cleanse the body of venom and pestilence’), hyssop (a hot purgative also used to heal bruises), chamomile (a sedative and poison antidote), dill (a cure for indigestion), and cumin (soothing ointment for skin and eyes).  Although most of these remedies were based in superstition, some proved to be based in science, most notably foxglove, which is still used to make medication for congestive heart failure.

The Wyck rose garden, restored in the 1970s after decades of neglect, contains many varieties thought to have been lost. These include historic varieties renowned for the beauty and fragrance of their flowers, but unlike modern “hybrid tea” bushes most the roses at Wyck only bloom once a year. Among the formerly “lost roses” catalogued by rosarian Leonie Bell in 1972 are “Elegant Gallica” and the “Lafayette,” the latter supposedly named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette to commemorate his 1825 visit to Wyck.

“Celebration of the Roses,” May 26, 2018. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Rose garden arbor at Wyck. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The most “practical” rose at Wyck is Rosa Gallica Officinalis, also known as the “Apothecary’s Rose.” The Haines family almost certainty used its blooms to brew teas, as well as make remedies for stomach ailments, sore throats, rashes, and eye problems. Another rose cultivated at Wyck, Celesiana (known in the 18th century as the “Germantown Rose”), whose bright pink petals were mixed into pipe tobacco.

Today, Wyck’s master gardener Martha Keen and her staff continue to cultivate these rare local varieties, selling cuttings to the public every spring. Wyck, along with Bartram’s Garden, the Philadelphia Flower Show, and Chanticleer, all contribute to the Quaker City’s unofficial status as “America’s Garden Capital.”

Note: the author is proud to have Wyck specimens of Celesiana, Elegant Gallica, and Lafayette in his West Philadelphia garden. 


“Quaker Quote Archive,”Ben Lomond Quaker Center,, accessed June 1, 2018.

“The Wyck Rose Garden,”, accessed June 1, 2018.

The Rose Garden at Wyck (Philadelphia: Wyck Historic House and Garden, 2018), p.3.

Mark Whitelaw, “The Apothecary’s Rose: Medicinal Values,” Rose Magazine,, accessed June 1, 2018.

“What to Grow in a Medieval Herb Garden,” English Heritage, May 6, 2016., accessed June 1, 2018.


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The Sawed-Off Shotgun: From Trench Sweeper to Police Power

Shotgun Squad, September 1922 (

Sergeant Fred Lloyd became an instant American wartime legend in September 1918, when he singlehandedly cleared an entire German-occupied village by walking the streets “pumping and firing” an army-issue, 12-gauge, Winchester Model 97 shotgun.

Stateside, the shotgun had been the firearm of choice for game hunting. On the battlefields of World War I, it earned the nickname “trench sweeper.” Germans considered the weapon so lethal they filed a diplomatic protest, charging it caused “unnecessary suffering,” that its use violated the Hague Convention.

After the war, American police put the shotgun to work on city streets, claiming it outperformed the submachine gun.

Philadelphia police had already adopted the motorcycle as a crime fighting tool. In 1915, the department argued that a “Flying Squadron” of 200 officers on motorcycles “would be equivalent to 1,000 footmen …more effective than men on horseback” and less costly. When they added shotgun-wielding sharpshooters in sidecars to the mix, urban policing would take an aggressive turn.

“A new era in the development of the Philadelphia Police forces is scheduled to begin today,” reported Richard J. Beamish in the Inquirer of December 23, 1920. “Philadelphia’s Christmas presents for motor bandits are ready: 150 armed motorcycles, most of them with sidecars, a stack of sawed-off shotguns, each pumping six shells of buck shot in rapid succession. A battalion of intensively trained motorcycle and automobile drivers whose daring and sharpshooting will make them deadly foes to bandits.” A handpicked, photogenic “squad of ‘bandit hunters’” would overcome getaway cars going as fast as 80 miles per hour. With their “sawed-offs,” police were “guaranteed to blow the tire from a motor car or end the career of a fugitive robber.”

For sheer effectiveness, but also for the optics of power, shotguns became the go-to weapon. In 1954, Police Commissioner Gibbons’ “shotgun squad” aimed “a stepped-up war on violent crimes, especially those committed by ‘hop-heads,’” referring to drug users. Every squad car in the detective division had at least two men with sawed-off shot guns, not stowed away, but on full display.

“Shotgun Squads Patrol the Streets” read the headline.

It was only a matter of time before the shotgun became a symbol of police power in a racially divided city.

According to the The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, the police department, then 95 percent white, “fielded ‘shotgun squads’ of officers patrolling in cars with sawed-off shotguns leaning out the windows in a show of force” in African-American neighborhoods. On repeated occasions, in the 1950s, Police Commissioner Thomas J. Gibbons “ordered mass arrests of hundreds of young black men.”

“Of the thirty-two people shot and killed by police between 1950 and 1960, twenty-eight—87.5 percent—were black, even though blacks made up 22 percent of the city population.”

As a symbol of power, the shotgun would be brought by police and brought up by protestors. During the 1964 campaign for the integration of Girard College marchers “announced their readiness to physically resist police violence,” wrote Matthew J. Countryman in Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. “To the tune of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ the protesters sang ‘We Shall Overrun.’ One favorite chant promised violent revenge on the police: ‘Jingle Bells / shotgun shells / Freedom all the way / Oh, what fun it is / To blow a bluecoat man away.’ Another began ‘Cecil’s got a shotgun,’” referring to leader of the protests, civil rights activist and later City Councilman, Cecil B. Moore.

Two years later, police Commissioner Frank Rizzo “organized four squads of shotgun-toting cops to raid offices and an apartment associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) heavily armed police backed by 1000 uniformed officers raided four buildings.”

Rizzo’s men would arrive in bulletproof vests carrying sawed-off shotguns.

(Sources: Tom Laemlein, “The Trouble with Trench Guns,” The American Rifleman, January 23, 2018;  Glenn H. Utter Guns and Contemporary Society: The Past, Present, and Future of Firearms and Firearm Policy (ABC-CLIO, December 1, 2015); “’Flying Squadron’” is Potter’s Plan,” The Inquirer, March 5, 1915;  “New Police Plan Before Council’s Committee Today,” by Richard J. Beamish, The Inquirer, December 1, 1920; “Bureau of Police Ready for Bandits,” The Inquirer, December 23, 1920; “Philadelphia’s ‘Bandit Chasers’ and their ‘sawed-offs,’” The Inquirer, August 8, 1922; “City’s War on Crime Calls for Frontal Attack,” The Inquirer, September 20, 1954; “Gibbons Places Top Police on 24-Hour Crime Vigil – Shotgun Squads Patrol the Streets,” The Inquirer, November 21, 1954; Matthew J. Countryman, Up South:  Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Jake Blumbgart, “The Brutal Legacy of Frank Rizzo, the Most Notorious Cop in Philadelphia History,”, October 22, 2015.)


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Curbstone Markets and the Farm-To-Table Movement

In his “Midnight Soliloquy in the Market House of Philadelphia,” Philip Freneau observed:

The market house, like the grave, is a place of perfect equality. None think of themselves too mighty to be seen here, nor are there any so mean as to be excluded. Here you may see (at the proper hour) the whig and the tory – the Churchman and the Quaker – the Methodist and the Presbyterian—the moderate man and the violent—the timorous and the brave—the modest and the impudent—the chaste and the lewd, the philosopher and the simpleton – the blooming lass of fifteen, and the withered matron of sixty—the man worth two pence, and he of a hundred thousand pounds—the huxter with a paper of pins, and the merchant who deals in the produce of both the Indies—the silly politician who has schemed and written himself blind for the service of his country, and the author who wears a fine coat, and is paid to profusion for writing nothing at all!

Curbstone Market, 16th and Federal Streets in 1914 (

That was 1782. More than a century and a quarter later, expressions of democratic market life continued to thrive in Philadelphia.

“The curbstone market was a busy scene this morning. Well-gowned women rubbed elbows with the poor housewife in shawl and wrapper, and many of the former learned a few points from the poor woman’s method of buying. While there are no marble counters and spotlessly clad attendants, the curb merchants are dressed for work in hand, and are courteous, too, for they want the same customers to come back again and bring their neighbors.”

Apparently, the customer and the neighbors were returning in Philadelphia, and everywhere else. The curbstone market had evolved into the most universal, democratic food distribution institution.

“Many cities in America and Europe have set aside streets for open air or curbstone markets,” wrote Clyde Lyndon King in 1913. “Vienna has 40 such open markets; Antwerp, 19. The rental for wagon space, as a rule is nominal…whether in Atchison, Kansas, San Antonio, Texas, [or in] Buffalo, New York.” In Cleveland, Ohio, “two and a half miles of streets…are lined by 1300 farmers and 400 hucksters. Both Baltimore and Montreal attract 1500 wagons each market day by their curbstone markets.”

“The pushcart, the vender’s wagon and the open air farmers’ markets offer the cheapest possible store at adaptable locations, and thus should give avenues for food distribution at minimum costs. While there can be no doubt that the covered market will be the better in the long run, yet the open air curbstone market offers a good temporary method of attracting farmers and of giving consumers an opportunity to buy directly.”

The promise of “’producer to consumer’ has always had an alluring sound, wrote an editor of the Inquirer in 1918, “but somehow it has never been effected in a practical and workable manner.”

“Multiply the Curb Markets,” read another editorial. “We have long talked of the advantages of the from ‘farms to table’ idea, and now is the time to prove that it is something more than a beautiful theory.”

Curbstone Market, 4th and Fitzwater, 1914 (PhillyHistory)

All the more appealing when the cost of food supplies at the market halls grew to 50 percent of a workingperson’s paycheck. As food costs rose, editors of the Evening Ledger assigned a reporter to conduct a comparison between “the style and convenience” of shopping in the market halls and the convenience of the curbstone market.

Consider the head of cabbage, urged the report. It may be “bought for five cents, if a woman picks it up from a basket and carries it home.” But the price “is greatly increased … if it is sent home in the dealer’s fancy automobile and delivered in a fancy wooden box by a uniformed messenger.” In order “to economize and get down to simplicity in buying,” the shopper “cannot find a better place than the curbstone market. … Here can be found everything in the produce line, devoid of frills, at low prices.”

During the First World War the situation became even more dire for “the salaried man whose pay envelope is no larger, but whose expenses have been soaring skyward for several years. The curbstone market should be a blessing to such persons and the [curbstone market] experiment will be watched with unusual interest.”

“Curbstone Market Solves Cost of Living Problem” read the headline featuring the reporter’s comparison of prices with those at the Reading Terminal market. The reporter found 17 foods where the shopper “could save $1.20 by patronizing the curbstone market instead of the Terminal Market. Deducting 10 cents for carfare for those who live beyond walking distance from the curbstone market the saving would be $1.10 on each trip…” Assuming three marketing trips per week, the savings would be $3.30 every week, significant savings for families dependent on factory worker wages of $11 per week.

From “Curbstone Market Solves Cost of Living Problem,” Evening Ledger, October 9, 1914 (The Library of Congress)

During the First World War the situation became even more dire for “the salaried man whose pay envelope is no larger, but whose expenses have been soaring skyward for several years. The curbstone market should be a blessing to such persons and the [curbstone market] experiment will be watched with unusual interest.”

[Sources: Clyde Lyndon King, Municipal Markets, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 50, Reducing the Cost of Food Distribution (Nov., 1913), pp. 102-117; Candice L. Harrison, The Contest of Exchange: Space, Power, and Politics in Philadelphia’s Public Markets, 1770-1859 (Dissertation in History, Emory University, 2008) PDF; “Curbstone Market Solves Cost of Living Problem,” The Evening Ledger [Philadelphia] October 9, 1914; “Support the Curbstone Markets” Inquirer, August 23, 1918; “Multiply the Curb Markets, Inquirer, September 4, 1918; “More Curb Markets May be Founded,” Inquirer, May 16, 1919.]

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The Autocrat and the Engineer (Part II)

The Joseph Harrison Jr. house at 227. S.18th Street, modeled on the Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg. Photograph dated 1866.

As the capital of Imperial Russia, St. Petersburg was a city of many palaces.  Some belonged to the Romanov family, such as Peterhof, the Winter Palace, the Pavlovsk Palace, the Anichkov Palace, and Tsarskoe Selo.  Others belonged to wealthy Russian nobles, such as the Yusapov, Beloselskiy, and Stroganov clans. Many had been constructed in the 18th century, as part of Czar Nicholas I’s ancestor Peter the Great’s initiative to Westernize Russia and have its upper classes adopt the manners of the French and Italian aristocracies. By the mid-19th century, these pastel pink and green confections were filled with malachite tables, gilded candelabras, and Old Master paintings.  During big parties, their windows glowed with candlelight, magnified many-fold by crystal chandeliers and mirrors.

The fount of their owners’ wealth were vast tracts of farmland and the unpaid labor of thousands of serfs.

Writer Ivan Goncharov satirized what he saw as a self-indulgent and indolent aristocracy in his 1859 novel Oblomov, in which the title character barely has the energy to rise from his bed.  Why should he have motivation when money passively streamed in from his country estate?

The Stroganov Palace in St. Petersburg, built in the 1760s. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

“When you don’t know what you’re living for, you don’t care how you live from one day to the next,” Ilya Ilych Oblomov says in the novel. “You’re happy the day has passed and the night has come, and in your sleep you bury the tedious question of what you lived for that day and what you’re going to live for tomorrow.”

Oblomov ultimately dies of his own laziness.

To Philadelphian Joseph Harrison, the cosmopolitan opulence of St. Petersburg was a stunning contrast to the sober propriety of his native Philadelphia.  Yet he remained immune to the malady of “Oblomovitis.” He worked hard (and no doubt played hard) during his many years in Russia. He successfully designed a series of new locomotives for the St. Petersburg to Moscow railroad, as well as new freight and passenger cars. He also constructed a locomotive repair facility on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. His crowning achievement was the replacement of an old pontoon rail bridge over the Neva River with the cast-iron Bridge of the Annunciation.   According to Harrison’s biography in Cassier’s Magazine, Czar Nicholas I was amazed at the Philadelphian’s creativity and self-discipline, and as a result the monarch bestowed “numerous 
other tokens of the friendship 
and esteem” on the American engineer, the most prominent of which was the Order of St. Ann, awarded to those who had performed exceptional feats of civil and military service.  Its motto was “Amantibus Justitiam, Pietatem, Fidem” (“To those who love justice, piety, and fidelity”).

Bridge of the Annunciation, St. Petersburg. Designed by Joseph Harrison, Stanisław Kierbedź, and Alexander Brullov. Source: Wikipedia Commons.


The Greek Hall of Pavlovsk Palace. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Thanks to Czar Nicholas I’s patronage, Joseph Harrison came back to Philadelphia a very rich man.  In 1855, during one of his periodic visits home, Harrison commissioned architect Samuel Sloan to build a new city house for his family, on a 75 feet by 198 feet lot fronting the-then mostly undeveloped Rittenhouse Square.

Sloan had made a name for himself as a designer of picturesque suburban villas and urban townhouses in the Italianate style. Harrison instructed his architect to build an adaptation of the Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg, an 18th century czarist residence he and his wife Sarah had admired during their time abroad.  Built by Catherine the Great for his son Grand Duke Paul (Czar Nicholas I’s father), Pavlovsk was a jewel of neo-classical design.

Samuel Sloan set to work at his drafting table.  His Harrison mansion was a symmetrical structure, composed of a three-bay wide center block, flanked by a pair of two story wings.  It had not one, but two arched front doorways.  No doubt influenced by the sight of all the Old Master paintings cluttering the walls of the Winter Palace, he filled his own home’s cavernous rooms with fashionable art, most notably twenty works from Charles Wilson Peale’s famous museum.  His most notable acquisition was Benjamin West’s “Christ Rejected.” The rear windows of the house looked out on a large, enclosed garden.  There was no pretense of Quaker austerity. This edifice was meant to dazzle and impress, inside and out.

When Joseph and Sarah Harrison took up residence in their home at 227 S.18th Street in 1857, they were the proud owners of one the largest and most flamboyant homes in the city of Philadelphia. Other members of Philadelphia’s ultra-wealthy, most notably members of the Drexel family, built similarly grand houses around the square in the years to come.  Flush with cash from his Russian adventures and locomotive patents, Harrison took up intellectual, civic, and cultural pursuits with gusto. He served on the boards of the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, making a substantial donation toward PAFA’s new Frank Furness-designed home on North Broad Street.  He died in 1874.

The giant house stood until the 1920s, when it was demolished to make way for the Pennsylvania Athletic Club.

Monument to Nicholas I in St. Isaac’s Square, St. Petersburg. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Czar Nicholas I ruled until his death in 1855.  His son Alexander II took a much more liberal course than his reactionary father, freeing Russia’s serfs in 1862, one year before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. The Romanov dynasty came to a violent end in 1918, when Bolshevik revolutionaries gunned down Czar Nicholas I’s great-grandson Nicholas II and his entire family in Siberia.  The old Romanov trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” had been replaced by Vladimir Lenin’s Communist rallying cry of “Peace, Land, and Bread.”



“Joseph Harrison Jr. A Biographical Sketch,” Cassier’s Magazine, An Engineering Monthly, Volume XXXVII, November 1909-April 1910,, accessed April 17, 2018.

Karen Chernick, “The Lost Mansions of Rittenhouse Square,” Curbed Philadelphia, January 17, 2018,, accessed April 26, 2018.

Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov: A Novel(New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011)., accessed April 26, 2018.

Kevin Klever, Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia, From 1847(Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2015)., accessed April 26, 2018.

Joseph Harrison Jr. Papers, MS.024, Hoang Tran, ed., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, January 2016., accessed April 17, 2018.

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A Corner Store Museum in Philadelphia? Why Not!

The corner store.

Ahem. Let me start again.

The amazing, agile, ubiquitous corner store! We’re been thinking about them for a couple of posts now: It’s 1901: Time to go Grocery Shopping in North Philadelphia and Grocery Chains and the Origins of Philadelphia’s Food Deserts. Regular readers know that, once upon a time, there were thousands of them in Philadelphia: grocery stores, butcher shops, barber shops, pharmacies, variety stores, luncheonettes, book stores, record shops and more. The corner store was the glue that held the city’s neighborhoods together.

In her thesis “Philadelphia Corner Stores: Their History, Use, and Preservation” Lynn Miriam Alpert pointed out how this vernacular urban genre stands “in stark contrast to the concentrations of commercial structures in shopping districts,” and yet is still part and parcel of the city’s rowhouse neighborhoods. Alpert relays that the corner store played an essential role in the employment of women. (In San Francisco at the start of the 20th century, “ninety percent of female grocers lived at the same address as their stores, allowing them to remain at home while also earning a living.”) And we learn that despite the fact that “Philadelphia’s historic row house neighborhoods have undergone intense changes since their creation,” corner stores still play “an active role in the vibrance and vitality” of their communities. They served as economic drivers.

Indeed. The Bodega Association of the United States confirms that in 2002 alone, the small grocery stores in New York City “generated annual sales of over $7 billion and provided over 65,000 jobs with an annual payroll estimated at $750 million.” And when undocumented workers are factored in, “the actual number of jobs and the aggregate payroll may be closer to twice the official figures.”

When we consider the story of immigration in urban America, the corner store was and remains an essential and compelling feature in the community. According to Fernando Mateo, the neighborhood store faced the onslaught of competition brought on by the supermarket, survived, and to this day serves as a gathering spot, a place “where people get together and go over their daily news, and…become part of their communities.”

The story of the modest corner store in Philadelphia is part and parcel of a robust, inclusive narrative. Yet, with all of our collective interest in place, in food, in identity and in the life and character of our communities, there is no corner store museum.

Maybe it’s time to change that.

I mean, what better way would there be to connect community and memory?

1). Southwest Corner or Gratz and York Streets, Ed Bonnem Prime Meats, May 4, 1905

2). Southwest Corner 7th and Porter Streets, April 6, 1960

3.) Northwest Corner, 17th Street and Washington Avenue, February 7, 1917

4.) Southwest Corner, 25th and Kimball Streets, May 3, 1916

5.) Northeast Corner, Cumberland and Marshall Streets, La Vencedora Groceries, November 9, 1960

6.)  Trenton and Susquehanna Avenues, May 11, 1900

7.) Kimball Street and Grays Ferry Avenue, July 30, 1924

8.) 47th Street and Woodland Avenue, Luncheonette, March 28, 1951

9.) 43rd and Pine Streets. The Great Atlantic Pacific Tea Company, August 21, 1924

10.) Southeast Corner of Spruce and Camac Streets, Camac Food Market, March 2, 1959

11.) Northwest Corner, 8th and Moore Streets. Milano’s Groceries, November 25, 1949

12.) Southeast Corner of Thompson and Lefevre Streets, July 14, 1930

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The Autocrat and the Engineer (Part I)

The Joseph Harrison Jr. residence at 221 S.18th Street. c.1900.

In view of the interest and importance at the present time of everything which relates to the development of railroading, it is well to remember what has been done in America to lay the foundations of the locomotive industry, and, therefore, we feel that it is desirable to recall the extent to which the design of the modern locomotive is indebted to the work of Joseph Harrison, Jr., although it is now more than thirty years since he passed away. 

Cassier’s Magazine, November-April 1910

The son of a Philadelphia grocer, Joseph Harrison Jr. (1810-1874) received his early training the old fashioned way: learning-by-doing.  After cutting his teeth as an apprentice machinist, at age 25 Harrison got a job with the locomotive builder Andrew McCalla Eastwick.  While in Eastwick’s employ, Harrison came up with the solution to a problem that had long befuddled early locomotive designers. The first locomotives, such as George Stephens’ “Rocket” of 1829, were propelled by only a single pair of driving wheels.  If engineers could add additional pairs of wheels, the locomotive’s pulling capacity, especially on steep grades, would be greatly increased. But no one seemed to be able to come up with a way to evenly distribute the energy from the steam pistons to more than two driving wheels.

In 1838, Harrison patented his so-called “equalizing lever,” which, according to Cassier’s Magazine, ensured “the equal division of the load upon the two axles.”

Eastwick and Harrison’s “Hercules” engine of 1837-38. Catskill Archive.

Footage of a replica of George Stephenson’s “The Rocket” locomotive of 1829. Note the diagonal pistons that power the single pair of drive wheels. 

This invention made Harrison, and his now-partner Andrew McCalla Eastwick, very much in demand as locomotive designers.  Thanks to Harrison’s equalizing lever, locomotives could now have 4 leading wheels and 4 driving wheels (4-4-0), a configuration known as the “American type.”  By the end of the 19th century, locomotives with  as many as ten driving wheels (known as “decapods”) wold be pulling heavily-loaded freight and passenger cars over the Allegheny Mountains and into the burgeoning interior of the United States. A large percentage of the freight carried by the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads was coal, which powered the factories and heated the homes of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other eastern cities.

Joseph Harrison Jr. Photograph from Cassier’s Magazine.

In 1843, the thirty-three year old Joseph Harrison received a summons from the richest and most powerful man on earth: Czar Nicholas I of Russia (r.1825-1855).  The czar’s mission for Harrison: to design locomotives suited to carry freight and passengers between St. Petersburg and Moscow, a distance of four hundred miles.

Czar Nicholas could not have had a more different upbringing than Harrison’s hardscrabble one. He had been raised in the splendor of the Winter Palace, surrounded by tutors and servants. Nicholas had been taught from a very young age that the Romanov family’s “Divine Right” to rule came directly from God.  Because he was the third son of the erratic Czar Paul I, few thought that Nicholas a chance of becoming the ruler of the largest kingdom on earth. 8.6 million square miles, to be exact.  As a result, he was trained as a military engineer and army officer.  Yet when his eldest brother Alexander I died childless in 1825 and another brother, Constantine, refused the throne shortly after that, Nicholas had no choice but to accept the crown.  After his mother Catherine the Great’s death in 1796, Czar Paul I forbade women from inheriting the throne. Many in Russia, especially reform-minded members of the gentry, feared Nicholas as a reactionary autocrat who sought to undo the liberal reforms of his predecessors.

Czar Nicholas I of Russia. Portrait by Horace Vernet. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Almost immediately after Nicholas became Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, a cadre of military officers refused to swear allegiance to the new monarch.  On December 26, 1825, About 3,000 of them assembled in Senate Square, St. Petersburg.  Their plea to the czar: the creation of a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Great Britain’s, complete with an elected, representative body that curbed the absolute power of the czar.

Nicholas I was incensed by this challenge to his authority. He ordered his loyal soldiers to open fire on the demonstrators.  The leaders of the so-called Decembrists were captured and executed. Others were exiled to Siberia.  During the next thirty years, Nicholas attempted to squash all liberal thought from his realm by promulgating a new educational curriculum based on the trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.”  According to his educational minister Sergey Uvarov:

“It is our common obligation to ensure that the education of the people be conducted, according to Supreme intention of our August Monarch, in the joint spirit of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. I am convinced that every professor and teacher, being permeated by one and the same feeling of devotion to the throne and fatherland, will use all his resources to become a worthy tool for the government and to earn its complete confidence.”

In addition to stepping up censorship and the powers of the secret police, the czar embarked on a series of military adventures that alienated Russia’s allies, most notably Great Britain. He also had the 1,500 room Winter Palace rebuilt following its total destruction by fire in 1837. The czar demanded his official residence be restored to its former grandeur within a year. One observer of the project noted: “During the great frosts 6000 workmen were continually employed; of these a considerable number died daily, but the victims were instantly replaced by other champions brought forward to perish.”

“Fire in the Winter Palace” by Boris Green. Built in the 1760s by the Empress Elizabeth, the Winter Palace was the official residence of the Russian czars, and boasted 1,500 rooms.  Nicholas I ordered the mammoth structure rebuilt within a year.  Wikipedia Commons.

Prospects for Russia’s millions of serfs–laboring peasants who were bought, sold and mortgaged by wealthy landowners–were bleak, as well.

Harrison may have heard about Czar Nicholas’s repressive governing tactics, but when presented with such a lucrative business opportunity as the Moscow to St. Petersburg railroad, he could not say no.  In 1843, Harrison and his young family set sail for Russia.  Shortly before doing so, he and Andrew Eastwick sold their firm’s “equalizing lever” patent to Matthias Baldwin, founder of Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Company, for a tremendous sum of money.

In Russia, Harrison not only showed the czar how to run a railroad, but also would also dream up his own palace back in Philadelphia, one that would have fit right along side the shimmering pastel confections lining the canals of St. Petersburg.


“Joseph Harrison Jr. A Biographical Sketch,” Cassier’s Magazine, An Engineering Monthly, Volume XXXVII, November 1909-April 1910,, accessed April 17, 2018.

Joseph Harrison Jr. Papers, MS.024, Hoang Tran, ed., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, January 2016., accessed April 17, 2018.

Richard Mowbray Hayward, Russia Enters the Railway Age, 1842-1855 (Boulder, CO: East European Monographs), 1998, pp.42-47. 

Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians(Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University), 2001, p. 146.


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Grocery Chains and the Origins of Philadelphia’s Food Deserts

4119 Bairds Court – 4123 Frankford ave. Atlantic and Pacific Grocery Store March 16, 1930. (

In the 1920s, the average working-class family spent about one-third of its budget on groceries. “Most households spent more to put dinner on the table than for their rent or their mortgage.”

And where “food was hugely expensive, relative to wages” neighborhood grocery stores delivered “only moderate amounts of nutrition” according to Marc Levinson. “Only token stocks of fresh fruits and vegetables” were offered. “Fresh fish and poultry were rarities.”

“The poorest third of American households consumed a sorely inadequate daily intake of vitamins and minerals, because there was little of either in the food that their neighborhood shops had for sale.”

And yet grocery stores were everywhere—on nearly every corner.

Last time we learned that by 1911, Philadelphia had more than 5,700 grocery stores, or one for every fifty-four families. By 1929, a national survey documented exactly how widespread the corner grocery actually was. There were 585,980 of them across the United States, “one for every fifty-one American families.”

Behind their wooden counters and “shelves of food …tended by store managers in dark vests, male store clerks in white aprons, and female clerks wearing long skirts and white blouses” was a world where the corporate managers determined what Americans would have to eat and from whom they purchased it. More and more, this tended to be from one or another of the expanding grocery chain stores.

Not that an independent grocer couldn’t make it. “Careful, intelligent grocers with fair credit can and do make good profits if conditions are at all favorable,” economist E. M. Patterson assured readers in 1911. Butter and eggs comprised “about 36 percent of the grocer’s total sales and provided only 10 per cent profit. Flour yielded 16 percent “but ham, bacon and lard less than 5 per cent.” Thing was, the majority of sales provided “gross profit of only about 9 percent” when 15 to 20 percent was needed to stay afloat.

Northwest Corner – 8th and Moore Streets. Milano’s Groceries, November 25, 1949 (

Still, an independent grocer, no matter how dedicated or talented, couldn’t manage their way out of a discount situation created by the chains.  As A & P’s John A. Hartford would later put it: “We would rather sell 200 pounds of butter at 1 cent profit than 100 pounds at 2 cents profit.” It might be “good for consumers, it was bad for the hundreds of thousands of retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers who needed high food prices in order to make a living.”

According to Levinson, independent grocers “were being trampled in the price and premium wars” led by the big chains.

At the start of the 20th century, the Great Atlantic & Pacific (later A & P) “opened an average of one store every two weeks and developed a network of more than 5,000 wagon routes for “commissioned salespeople driving Great Atlantic & Pacific horse carts” throughout much of the United States.

This market dominance paved the way for the rise of the supermarket after World War II. “While consumer spending on food rose by half between 1945 and 1948, A&P’s sales doubled and its profits trebled. In 1945, chains accounted for 31 percent of grocery sales. Just two years later, their share was 37 percent.”

“The number of supermarkets nationwide, around two thousand in 1941, hit fifty-six hundred in 1948” and the supermarket controlled “one-quarter of all grocery sales.”

The supermarket “was a national phenomenon.” But more to the detriment of places like Philadelphia, “it was a suburban phenomenon.” The city’s aging neighborhoods, with their failed and failing corner grocery stores, were transformed into food deserts.

[Sources: Marc Levinson, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); E. M. Patterson, “The Cost of Distributing Groceries,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 50, (Nov., 1913), pp. 74-82.]

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Creating Community at the Powelton Co-op – Part 2

3508 Hamilton Street. The 3500 block of Hamilton was the nucleus of a community made up of former members of the Powelton Co-op. November 9, 1959.

Part I of “Creating Community at the Powelton C0-op”

A few years ago, Gwendolyn Bye, daughter of Friendship Co-op founders Jerry and Lois Bye, was thumbing through some old photos from her 1950s West Philadelphia childhood. When she came across a class picture from the Charles Drew Elementary School, which once stood on the 3700 block of Warren Street, she realized something remarkable.

“I saw this wonderful picture of my very first grade class with Mrs. Ruby,”  she said. “‘Oh, my God,’ I say to myself. ‘My class is all black, and I’m the only white kid.’ And I didn’t even know it at the time!”

Sixty years ago, her Quaker activist parents decided to send their four children to the local public school near their home on the 3500 block of Hamilton Street. “We could’ve gone to a Quaker school,” she remembered. “But my parents wanted us to go to the local public school. And it was almost like what was going on in the South in the ’50s and ’60s was– unfortunately, they were all-white schools. My parents did the opposite. They wanted their children to go into an all-black school and integrate it.”

Gwen spent her first years at “The Court,” the first home of the Powelton Co-op, where she grew up with the community’s other small children. Many were mixed race: Japanese-African American, Jewish and Protestant, white and African-American. Here, in Powelton Village, in the relaxed surroundings of the co-op, they didn’t feel judged. They didn’t care what the neighbors said. They were simply a group of little kids who played together.

Gwen’s upbringing in Powelton gave her a perspective on race that few Americans in the 1950s had. “Racism is taught by parents,” she said. “If you just let a child experience other human beings, they’re not going to look at them based on their skin color. They’re going to look at them for who they are, other people that they play with, other people that they enjoy or like.”

She also lacked something: fear. “I didn’t have fear growing up,” she said. “I didn’t fear anybody. I didn’t fear you because you were black. I didn’t fear you because you were Jewish. I didn’t fear you because you were white. I guess I would fear people because they had guns. That I feared. I feared police.”

It was only when she entered middle school that she began hearing other kids call each other derogatory names, even at the relatively integrated Powel School on the 3500 block of Powelton Avenue. “One child would say black cracker. Another child would say white cracker. And I’d ask, ‘What is a black cracker, and what’s a white cracker?”

Her father Jerry Bye and his fellow realtor George Funderburg encouraged other like-minded newcomers to move to Powelton Village, bucked the the “blockbusting” so endemic in the real estate profession. In 1951, for example, he rented an apartment to the Lees, an African-American couple from Trenton, New Jersey.  He and other residents made sure the Lees felt welcome. “It was a nice neighborhood, an integrated neighborhood, and it was very progressive,” remembered Bob Lee, whose wife was a social worker doing fieldwork at a community healthcare center  “We all got along very well.”

By the early 1950s, the Powelton Co-op’s residents could no longer fit into a single large house. In addition to the number of single members, there were a growing number of families with young  children. Yet the core families didn’t want to abandon their special corner of West Philadelphia. They adapted by purchasing homes of their own, centered on the 3500 block of Hamilton Street. Real estate was still cheap, and many of the Co-op’s were affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, an easy walk away.  They also made plans to create a distinctive neighborhood social infrastructure: a babysitting co-op, cultural events, and their own civic assocation.



Interview with Gwendolyn Bye, October 5, 2017.

Interview with Bob Lee, November 16, 2017.


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It’s 1901: Time to go Grocery Shopping in North Philadelphia

Butler's Grocery Store, Northeast Corner - 12th and Diamond Streets, September 4, 1901 (

Butler’s Grocery Store, Northeast Corner – 12th and Diamond Streets, September 4, 1901 (

It’s the turn of the 20th century and I live in a tidy three-story rowhouse on Clarion Street, near Diamond Street. North Philadelphia is such a great place to live. What’s not accessible easily on foot is available by streetcar: schools (including Temple College at Berks Street and the Wagner Free Institute of Science at 17th and Montgomery). There’s a tremendous variety of houses of worship, parks, cemeteries…you name it—North Philadelphia seems to have it.

Especially convenient are food shopping options. Right next to the Grand Opera House at Broad and Montgomery is the well-stocked Broad Street Market. That’s only a half a mile walk. A bit farther away is the Globe Market on Montgomery between 10th and Warnock. And if you don’t mind the longer (2.6 mile) round trip, you can’t beat the offerings at the giant Girard Farmers Market down at Girard Avenue between 9th and Hutchinson, by Reading Railroad’s tracks.

The thing is, though, Clarion Street is nestled between 13th Street and Park Avenue, less than a block away from a new grocery store, one in Thomas P. Hunter’s Acme Tea Company chain. There are 104 others pretty much like it on neighborhood corners throughout the city. But this one: this is my corner grocery store.

And would you believe it? Only a block farther the east, at 12th and Diamond, there’s another grocery store, one of the competing chain owned and operated by William Butler. By the time the city photographer got to it in September 1901, Butler’s had opened 73 stores. By 1903 he’d have 101; a few years after that he’d have 117 well-stocked stores all around the city.

It’s part of a massive food-distribution system if you can believe E. M. Patterson from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce. Why is there so much demand for groceries from the corner store?  Patterson explains: “The housewife lacks a large store room and so must buy in small quantities rather than in bulk. A limited supply of cash makes impossible large purchases from a distant point. … Unexpected guests and other emergencies create demands that must be promptly met. A lack of foresight in buying makes a local supply a convenience if not an actual necessity. These reasons and others seem to insure a steady, continued demand for the retail grocer.”

Butler’s Grocery Store, Northeast Corner – 12th and Diamond Streets, September 4, 1901. Detail. (

And so, by 1911, Philadelphia would come to have, according to Patterson, an astounding “5,266 retail grocery stores in addition to 257 delicatessen stores that sell some groceries and 2,004 butchers and retail meat dealers, of whom probably 10 per cent or 200 also sold groceries.” The total: 5,723 in a city of more than a million and a half. That’s “one store for every 270 people or one for every 54 families.”

No wonder there seems to be a grocery store on nearly every corner. There just about is.

Take a look at Butler’s bargains, as advertised in the Inquirer from last March: ¼ lb. “very best cooked corned beef” for 3 cents (the price would soon rise to 5 cents); a “large glass of prepared mustard for 4 cents (a penny less than it was last week); 12 “nice crisp pickles” for 2 cents; a pound of the “very best full cream cheese” for a dime. Also for a dime: a bottle of Manzanilla Olives . You like sweet biscuits? Butler’s “fresh Nic-Nacs,” sell for 2 cents a quart. The “best evaporated peaches and apples are 7 cents per pound. And if you try their Crescent Gilt Edge Butter for 18 cents a pound, and are not fully satisfied, Butler’s will happily refund your money.

Butler’s Grocery Store, Northeast Corner – 12th and Diamond Streets, September 4, 1901. Detail. (

Let me tell you about their flour! “Butler’s Best Flour is the best and most reliable brand of flour on earth,” they say.  They claim it “makes more, whiter and better bread than any four milled.” If you walk in their door with the advertisement printed in the Inquirer, they’ll sell you a 7 pound bag for 14 cents or a 24 ½ lb. bag for 46 cents—your choice.

Not convinced yet? Purchase a pound of Golden Santos Coffee for 25 cents and you’ll get a free “imported china decorated cup and saucer.” (That’ll keep me coming back until I have a full set.)

But wait! Even closer to home, only half a block from Clarion Street, Acme Tea is selling their “Head Coffee Roaster’s Pet Coffee,” at the bargain price of 20 cents per pound, or 3 pounds for 50 cents. “You are not experimenting when you buy a pound of this coffee,” they assure prospective customers, “we did the experimenting …we know exactly what kind of a flavor suits the majority of coffee drinkers and it’s right here in this blend.”

It seemed like a life and death struggle between the Butler and Hunter chains. They competed hard. They had to if they wanted to stay in business.

And as a well-fed resident of North Philadelphia, I definitely want them to.

[Sources: Marc Levinson, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); E. M. Patterson, “The Cost of Distributing Groceries,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 50, (Nov., 1913), pp. 74-82; Inquirer advertisements for Wm. Butler: March 30, 1900; April 7, 1900; April 23, 1900; June 18, 1903 and advertisements for Acme Tea Company June 18, 1902.

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