The Culture of Conformity in Gritty Philadelphia

2100 Block of Delancey Place, 1964 (PhillyHistory.org)

Francis Biddle was one of the few who escaped. While other Philadelphia patricians stayed at or very near home, Biddle migrated to Washington, D.C, where he quickly “achieved a reputation of talking little, thinking fast and acting faster.” As the U. S. Attorney General during the World War II, Biddle acted way too fast when he supervised the relocation and internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans, an act he later regretted.

In Fear of Freedom, published in 1951, Biddle “argued against guilt by association, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, censorship of textbooks and banishment of nonconforming teachers, loyalty oaths for educators, the Federal loyalty program and the vilification of those who stood up to so-called subversive inquiries.”

“Fear is an infection that spreads quickly,” Geoffrey Stone quotes Biddle in Perilous Times, “intolerance is dangerously contagious.”  Biddle knew how political leaders get the public to “confuse panic with patriotism.”

“Any broad based effort to sort out security risks by inquiring into loyalty will inevitably turn into ‘a crusade to enforce conformity’” wrote Biddle, who first learned conformity in Philadelphia, where it came in many strands and hues.

Biddle noted as much in his 1927 novel, The Llanfear Pattern, where characters encountered rowhouse conformity high-society conformity.

West Philadelphia was “dull with the monotony of endless rows of small two-story ‘homes,’ with meaningless porches, miles of flat roofs and chimney pots. Even the University had no charm, no quality, a group of big buildings huddled in the midst of the little houses, without plan or point or any of the soft mellowness which one would have supposed time would have brought to mould the crude lines and bring a softer tone to the gray-green stone surfaces…”

And then there was the conformity of the elites (and their resigned contentment) on the 2100 block of Delancey Place, where newlyweds Carl Llanfear’s and his new European wife, Francesca, would settle in.

That block “lay sleepily on the edge of the residential district, thrust an irregular slatternly arm to the river, straggling down to the tracks along the east bank. DeLancey Place had a charming, uneven character. To the east it dropped the “little,” and became more solid and fashionable, fell back into, stables in the next square, bloomed again, dwindled, skipped the centre of the city, and reappeared as Clinton Street…”

2100 Block of Delancey Place, 1964 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Francesca, warned by her mother-in-law, was prepared to find the house dirty. But such dirt! It drifted through every crack, roughening surfaces, eating into corners, blowing in particles of soft coal dust from the Baltimore and Ohio tracks along the Schuylkill River, from the coal barges, from the abattoirs and steel mills along the banks; rising in eddying whirls of dried horse manure and dust, which the municipal revolving broom occasionally swept from the centre of the street to the gutter and sidewalk. The more you scrubbed, the faster it seemed to gather. And in moments of discouragement she saw herself forever fighting it, holding it back, as the dykes held the water in Holland, to keep it from engulfing her.

“It became to her the symbol of something careless and slip-shod about the city. She hated that loose, disordered way of living. She had seen too much of it abroad. No tidiness, no exact and certain order; shabby, that was it, shabby and weak. Probably down at-the-heel Southern influence. You couldn’t detect a Southern drawl, but there was a Southern looseness and surrender about the city. No backbone. She would have to be careful. Those things were insidious. At least her home should be neat and regular, well-organized. …

“She liked the house. It was narrow and deep, dropping a story in the back, irregular and broken, three or four steps up here and down there, sudden unexpected landings. It was not a convenient house, no electric light; oil lamps and gas jets, a front basement kitchen and creaking dumb waiter, an aged and decaying brick hot air furnace, a feeble water-pressure which on the third floor occasionally produced a trickle. But it was her first house . . .

“She liked getting it ready, to superintend the cleaning and the airing, to see that the rugs were properly beaten. In the midst of her work she would sit down on the huge sofa in the little sitting-room on the second floor which overlooked the brick yard, with its latched gate and single shabby poplar, and try to picture how her things would look. She hadn’t much but it was all good.

At least until the summertime swelter.

“The cool spell broke in July and Francesca had her first taste of real Philadelphia heat. It was like the blanket of a fog, heavy, humid. It seemed to radiate from the ground and fold about the trees so that their branches hardly stirred, drooping in the airless stupor of the days. She was used to the dry Italian heat, but there was escape from that, and the houses remained cool and ·comfortable. This humidity penetrated everything, and the big dim rooms, shuttered all day, were only a little more tolerable than the heat outside. She would wake from a night of tossing discomfort—usually she slept soundly enough—to a feeling of oppression, as if a weight had settled on her chest, so that she could hardly breathe.”

The only approved place to escape—other than the family home in Chestnut Hill? The Llanfear family summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Again, more conformity. And more contentment.

(Sources: Francis Biddle, The Llanfear Pattern (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1927); Alden Whitman, “Francis Biddle Is Dead at 82; Roosevelt’s Attorney General,” The New York Times, October 5, 1968; Geoffrey R. Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.)

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