Author Archives: Ken Finkel

African-American History Hijacked: the Rise and Fall of Phillis Wheatley on Lombard Street

Slavers kidnapped a frail, 7-year-old girl in West Africa. They forced her aboard The Phillis, transported her to Boston, and sold her to John Wheatley, a tailor, and his wife, Susanna. Phillis Wheatley (named for the ship) quickly mastered English, became versed in the Bible and learned Greek and Latin. A creative genius, her first poem […]
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Figuring Out a Photograph: the First St. Francis Xavier and its Long-Gone Neighborhood at Fairmount

The date, 1874, seems reasonable enough. So does the photograph’s title “Fairmount Bridge – East Approach.” But the buildings don’t seem to match the given address: “N. 25th St and Fairmount Ave.” And so we turn to the online version of G. M. Hopkins 1875  Atlas at The Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network to figure it […]
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Once Upon a Day: Philadelphia’s American Museum of Photography

As workers cleaned debris from the old Victorian brownstone at 338 South 15th Street, a framed set of photographs caught the eye of Marc Mostovoy, the building’s new owner. Mostovoy, a conductor of classical music with no knowledge of vintage photography, kept the curiosity from being tossed into the dumpster. That was 1970. Sixteen years later, […]
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A Vintage New Year’s Resolution: The Natatorium & Physical Institute for Scientific Instruction in the Improvement of the Physical Powers

“How common is the spectacle . . . youth falling into decay before manhood is reached, of middle age weighed down by accumulated ills and infirmities, while slowly, and more slowly move the hesitating wheels of life.” The pitch from a promotional pamphlet To Philadelphians on Behalf of the Natatorium & Physical Institute. The year: […]
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The Extraordinary Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay is gone. He left this earth two days ago. Those who knew him, who witnessed his performances, who read his books are the poorer, suspended in disbelief. This time there’s no resolution. There’s no final illusion like the one that captivated audiences when “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” hit Broadway. There’s nothing […]
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Steps on the Waterfront – A Vestige of Penn’s Promise

Barreling northward through William Penn’s original city grid, I-95 barely skirts a massive abutment for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Pulling slightly to the west before it reaches Callowhill Street, the highway spares a short block between Front and Water Streets. Somewhat forgotten, this survivor speaks of a dynamic that once defined the city’s waterfront. And […]
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The Hoagie is Venerable (but not as historic as we’ve been led to believe)

There’s been a lot of big talk and conflicting claims over the years, as to who invented the hoagie, and when. Was it conjured up for workers going to the shipyards at Hog Island in World War I? Was it first introduced by South Philadelphia sandwich purveyors Antoinette Iannelli, Al DePalma or the Scarsi Brothers? […]
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A Fresh Take on the Hoagie Origin Story

“Far across the low-lying meadows the great fringe of derricks rises against the sky,” wrote Christopher Morley in his love note to Hog Island. “Past the crumpled ramparts of old Fort Mifflin, motors and trolley cars now go flashing down to the huge new shipyard.” Morley stood in awe of “the marvelous stretch of fifty […]
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The Collector Collected: William Wagner and his Free Institute of Science

People aren’t caught like insects, poked through with pins and mounted behind glass, although photographer W. Curtis Taylor did something akin to that at America’s centennial celebration in 1876. With his camera (instead of a net) Taylor collected 87 “noteworthy citizens”and titled the collection Representative Men of Philadelphia. Among the assembled all-white cohort were lawyers, judges, engineers, […]
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They Were Wrong Demolishing Scottish Rite

Philadlephians gathered at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, also known as Town Hall, for all kinds of events between the 1940s (when the Christian evangelist Hyman Jedidiah Appleman launched his crusade) and the 1970s (when Dr. Timothy Leary presented “An Evening of Standup Philosophy”). Most were musical. Just about everyone stopped by, from Miles Davis to Peter […]
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