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.


Posted in Events and People, Historic Sites, Neighborhoods | Leave a comment

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.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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.


Posted in Behind the Scenes, Neighborhoods, Snapshots of History | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Culture of Conformity in Gritty Philadelphia

2100 Block of Delancey Place, 1964 (

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 (

“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.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“As long as City Hall existed the city would never completely be free to grow up to the dreams of those who loved her.”

City Hall from Arch Street, April 1910 (

“You could be critical of your city and laugh among yourselves at its quaintness, its political corruption, its provincialism, its charming, absurd, easy-going conservatism, its heat and dirt, its faint enthusiasms dying so easily before a stouter longing for pleasure,” wrote Francis Biddle in 1927. “But you mustn’t let an outsider laugh at it. For, after all, Philadelphia was an aristocracy compared to the polyglot barbarity of the new New York; cosmopolitan against the gauche provincialism of Boston; rich in flavor where Washington was thin and spiceless.”

“Of course you didn’t say these things, only felt them,” admitted Biddle in his one and only novel, The Llanfear Pattern. “A member of a patrician Philadelphia family” whose obituary in his New York Times obituary noted a “singular noblesse oblige” that propelled him “into reform politics and ultimately into Roosevelt’s cabinet as Attorney General during World War II.”

In his story of “a large conservative tribe” all of whom yielded “to the inexorable power of the family, a pattern woven through generations of leadership in the worlds of finance, law and society” Biddle dared “to describe Philadelphia as he saw it…a brave thing for a Biddle to do,” according to one reviewer. “Many Philadelphians…will squirm, and many more will delight to see their friends and acquaintances in the pages of this book.”  In either case, Biddle was “considered a traitor to his class.”

The novel follows the young lawyer, Carl Llanfear as he “pits his ambition and enthusiasm against the powerful inertia of the clan,” in a city whose very streets, neighborhoods and public buildings resonate with all that is corrupt and content:

“On a certain March morning of 1910 Carl started early for the office. It was penetratingly cold, and the city was damp and dark beneath a dirty pile of snow, a depressing sight. Here and there a municipal snowplough cleared a way, and groups of sleepy shovellers piled snow into little horse trucks that looked like farm wagons… The city was always unprepared and slow and inadequate. They would be digging for another week, and leave vast ridges grown filthy from the soot and smut to melt through the warm weather, spreading germs, while the voters coughed and sneezed, and contracted tonsillitis and pneumonia, and some died, but all remained indifferent. And always dirty; dusty in summer and littered with papers, dreary with the dreariness of filth and neglect, without pride or beauty.”

Northeast Corner – City Hall, 1900 (

‘It was dying, he felt, decaying from river to river, the damp rot of wood like gangrene running from the Schuylkill on the west to the Delaware on the east.”

Carl Llanfear thought about the popular motto: “Philadelphia, city of homes.” He “heard it said that working man were better housed here than anywhere in the world, owned their own houses; unemployment was scarce; taxes were low; people were contented…The homes made the workingman contented. They need to be, thought Carl, to put up with the discomfort of the city, which seemed to be running down like some great industrial plant whose owners were squeezing dividends for the stockholders at the expense of upkeep.”

Maybe, just maybe, there would be a chance for change, for reform.

The day after an election when voters finally turned on  The Organization, Llanfear, a would be reformer, hoped for the start of a revolution. “Men’s consciences were awakening, the door had been opened for the possibility of great things.”

Northeast Corner – City Hall, January 27, 1919 (

“A splendid city, rising from the ashes of its past, blooming from the ignoble past of [Mayor Samuel Howell] Ashbridge, who had built City Hall, boasting of the fortune he would take out of the contracts, making good his boast. City Hall, symbol of dishonesty and ugliness, squatting over the city’s heart, its immense meaningless bulk blocking traffic where it was thickest, wasting space, shutting out sun and air from the gloomy rooms within; great corridors that every day were littered with the refuse of the crowd; ill-ventilated court-rooms, where the fetid air lay heavy over judge and jury, witnesses, and accused; imitation marble, velvet plush grown dingy with grime, meaningless decorations, carvings of slaves and Cupids where they could not be seen; fly-specked portraits of forgotten nonentities; gilded Venetian ceilings with checker-board patterns; a Philadelphia architect’s dream, perhaps, of the vanished Tuilleries, the costly richness of those old kings, who had probably grafted, too, in their day . . .”

“How could Philadelphians take pride in their city when its business was transacted in such a place? Where dirty human rats — shyster lawyers, ambulance-chasers, jury-fixers, professional bondsmen — scurried about, and the clerks and policemen, employees of the city, swore at the public that paid their salaries, and pushed them about with the insolence of servants who have learned to rob their master.”

“Carl had a feeling that as long as City Hall existed the city would never completely be free to grow up to the dreams of those who loved her.”

(Sources: Francis Biddle, The Llanfear Pattern (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1927); Advertisement for The Llanfear Pattern in The New York Times, October 6, 1927; Samuel Scoville, Jr. An American Forsyte, Forum, (LXXIX; 4) April 1928; “New Books in Brief Review,” The Independent,  Vol. (120; 4052) January 28, 1928; Alden Whitman, “Francis Biddle Is Dead at 82; Roosevelt’s Attorney General,” The New York Times, October 5, 1968.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Creating Community at the Powelton Co-op – Part 1

Powelton Co-op families doing the laundry in the basement of 3709 Baring Street. Mrs. John L. Atkins taking care of 21 month old Alan Bye, as his mother Lois Bye handles the washer and wringer. Mrs. John H. Wrenn hangs clothes on the line, while Mrs. Hsien Ti Tien irons a shirt.  Photo courtesy of Gwendolyn Bye.

There were some kids who were mixed. There was some kids who were Jewish, and there were some white kids, too. But it never dawned on me as a child. I never knew the difference. I went to an all-black school for the first three years of my life, which was a block away.

-Gwendolyn Bye, daughter of Powelton Co-op founders Jerry and Louis Bye. 

During the 1940s and early 1950s, West Philadelphia’s “Powelton Co-op” was a haven for people seeking a tolerant, racially-integrated community.  It was a mixture of Penn students, social activists, professionals, and musicians.  They stood against war, nuclear proliferation, and segregation. Most leaned politically to the left. Some identified as Communists, a bold stance just before the rise of McCarthyism. There was also a strong Quaker influence, as many residents were involved with the American Friends Service Committee.

“There were Jews. There were WASPs. There were gay people. There were African-Americans. It was a real mixed bag,” remembered Gwendolyn Bye, whose parents Jerry and Lois Bye met at the Powelton Co-op in the late 1940s. Regarding the Powelton Co-op’s Marxist leanings, Bye explained: “It was a much more innocent form of community and social questioning: the rich being corrupt, everything’s for everyone, we work together for the common good. And the underlying message was a very innocent one, but it was one that was very strongly felt by my mother and father and the people who formed the Powelton Co-op.”

The co-op’s sphere of influence would eventually encompass a group of blocks that today is known as Powelton Village: bounded by Powelton Avenue to the south, Spring Garden Street to the north, Lancaster Avenue to the west, and the Schuylkill River to the east.  There were plenty of big old houses that could be bought or rented for very little money, and the neighborhood was also within walking distance of the University of Pennsylvania.

Originally developed in the decades after the Civil War, Powelton Village had once been of Philadelphia’s premier streetcar suburbs. By the 1890s, it was home to German-American beer barons, Pennsylvania Railroad executives, and Quaker entrepreneurs who ignored the stigma of living “North of Market.”   Yet fashion moved on, as did the descendants of the original wealthy families.  As a result of New Deal housing policies,  most of West Philadelphia north of Market Street was “redlined,” meaning that banks refused to give prospective homebuyer mortgages. Worse still, insurance companies refused to issue homeowner policies. Much of this was racially motivated: as soon as a black family moved into a neighborhood, the whole area was deemed “hazardous” and marked as red on the lending institution’s map. During the 1940s and 50s, brokers routinely engaged in a practice known as “blockbusting,” informing white families in a neighborhood that African-Americans were moving into the area.   Afraid that their property values would decrease due to redlining, the white residents would then “panic sell.” The realtor would then sell the property to a black family, pocketing the commission. Entire neighborhoods would turn over within a decade or less. The idea of an integrated neighborhood was a foreign concept to both residents and policy makers.  Until the passing of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which made it a federal crime to discriminate “in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” this practice was a major driver of white flight, not just in Philadelphia, but in cities throughout the United States.

Jerry and Lois Bye, who were among the founding members of the Powelton Co-op, happened to be in real estate, but they were realtors on a mission. Devout Quakers and pacifists, they believed they could be agents for the creation of an integrated neighborhood. Among the other founders were realtor George Funderburg (an African-American) and his wife Maggie (a German-American).  In addition to the cheap housing, West Philadelphia was one of the few places where interracial couples such as the Funderburgs felt comfortable. Anti-miscegnation laws, which prohibited marriage between people of two difference races, were on the books in fourteen states. And even in states such as Pennsylvania that permitted interracial marriage, couples were often met with hostility or even violence by their neighbors.

Initially known as the “Friendship Co-op,” the group’s first home was set of buildings known as “The Court,” located at the intersection of 37th and Baring Street. As shareholders in the corporation, all members shared expenses, childcare, and the household chores. A communal meal was held every night.   At the end of the year, the co-op members would get equity according to their contributions.  After a few years at “The Court,” the Powelton Co-op moved to a large house at 35 North 34th Street, and then another one at 3709 Baring Street. There were plenty of hulking old homes for the taking. A Victorian mansion in this part of West Philadelphia could be purchased for as little as $12,000. Many had been turned into rooming or halfway houses, and were generally in poor repair.

The Powelton Co-op would be this group’s laboratory, and Powelton Village was the perfect location for it.  They betted that the neighborhood would be a much better place in the long run as an integrated one, rather than one defined by a single ethnic group.  The Funderburgs, Byes, Marshalls and other founding families intended to raise their children in a place where they would feel comfortable with people from all backgrounds.

It would be a difficult road, but in the end they would succeed in achieving their vision.

To be continued…


The northwest corner of the 3700 block of Baring Street, December 14, 1962.


Interview of David and Anne Lodge, December 26, 2017.

Interview of Gwendolyn Bye, July 17, 2013.

Interview of Gwendolyn Bye, October 5, 2016.

Interview of Gwendolyn Bye, December 26, 2018.

“The Fair Housing Act,” US Department of Housing and Urban Development,”, accessed February 16, 2018.



Posted in Behind the Scenes, Events and People, Neighborhoods | 8 Comments

Celebrations of Underdogs

The Stadiums in 1970. (PhillyHistory,org)

Having just celebrated the Eagles Super Bowl win with a procession witnessed by nearly three-quarters of a million, we have to ask: has Philadelphia ever before experienced so sweet a victory?

Then we recall October 21, 1980, when the Phillies beat the Kansas City Royals 4 to 1, winning game 6 of the World Series. How did the city react then, exactly half a century since the Philadelphia Athletics brought home the same title? How did celebrating victory feel back then in this city of underdogs?

Folklorist Henry Glassie was there. And fourteen years later, he shared his impressions with the Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens’ Manual in a piece entitled “1980 Remembered:”

“October air glistens with victory. Shocks of fodder, piles of pumpkins, the traditional assemblies of harvest home stand in the cool air, marking the end of the farmer’s long war with earth. Clear and bright, autumn at its best, is how we recall the city’s day of triumph. It had been a long season, a tense playoff, a hard series, but Greg Gross laid down the perfect bunt, Manny Trillo made the perfect throw, Tug McGraw leapt and patted, and a Whitmanesque babble of humanity overflowed the streets, crowding joyously to let us feel for one day how civic life might be. Divisions dissolved: bankers, bums, secretaries, newsboys, and housewives, we smiled and touched and traded small gifts like kids at an antiwar rally. Packed close, standing, dancing, yelling, we reached toward the trucks moving slowly along the route of the Pope’s flash. On the trucks rode the men whose intensity yielded this bounty. They were not cool. Like heroes loosed from some old epic, they gave completely, Carlton in lonely discipline, Bowa boyishly, McBride bravely, Schmidt with the body that would have won him laurels in any sport in any age. Rose had come from the west to provide the missing link; we unified in the rhythm—Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete—when he set records and watched the man on the field, made for baseball as Eakins was made for painting. But it was, at the heart, Garry Maddox, spread at the plate into an image of concentration, Maddox doubling to center, Maddox moving stealthily to the last catch, Maddox sitting above us now. He should have been wearing embroidered robes of fawn-colored silk and riding a white charger. It was only a truck, only a game, but he was our hero, the prince of a city named Brotherly Love.”

(Source: From the Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens’ Manual for 1995. Edited by Kenneth Finkel. Published by the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1994.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Philadelphia’s Winning Metaphor: Scrappletown

William Penn admitted Philadelphia was “a holy experiment” about the same time some of his early settlers were conducting a less-than-holy, culinary experiment. They invented scrapple, a folksy staple that, for all its native plainness and inherent modesty, has managed to hold its own for more than three centuries. Scrapple has always been completely real and entirely ours, an endearing strand in the city’s gastronomical genome. Who would argue that Philadelphia’s DNA isn’t partly scrapple?

Liberty Bowl at Municipal (later J.F.K.) Stadium, December 20, 1960. (PhillyHistory,org)

Top that, Boston baked bean.

Nowhere else in America had a more ancient and authentic food, the “apotheosis of the pig,” claimed newspaperman Louis N. Megargee in 1901. In his column Seen and Heard, Megargee pitted the Boston baked bean and Philadelphia scrapple and found the former wanting in both character and venerability.

Originally little more than a culinary-cul-de-sac, scrapple evolved into a self-sufficient, self-deprecating, completely genuine Philadelphia meme. Earnest 19th century recipe books enshrined scrapple in literature and lexicon, but  didn’t quite come to terms with the fact that, in the end, scrapple was more metaphor than meal.

William Bunn did.

“The Hon. William M. Bunn is best known as the brightest start in the constellation of orators, wits and raconteurs that illuminate the city of real Brotherly Love,” wrote James McCartney in the introduction to Bunn’s speeches and toasts of 1908. “In all the United States, there is no many on whose brow has been placed oftener the laurel wreath of adoring fame for after-dinner speaking.”

Here are excerpts from Bunn’s toast to scrapple delivered to a gathering at the Hotel Majestic, Broad Street and Girard Avenue:

What’s in a name? Usually, something—sometimes much; occasionally more— sentimentally, everything. Philadelphia, Brotherly Love, for instance. Something in that…Scrappletown and Slowtown— more in them.

Scrappletown— why, I read in a Philadelphia daily…that Philadelphia was consuming 12,000 pounds of scrapple weekly…

Incidentally, will you just ponder on the faith, the unwinking, unthinking blind faith of the thing! Scrappletown takes her scrapple on trust— just as she took her Schuylkill water on trust for so many years.

Scrappletown ! Takes its booze on trust: stands up to the gilded bar of a thousand dollar licensed saloon, calls for straight goods first time, never looks at the blend label on the bottle— takes  it on faith first time. Second time, couldn’t see it if did look. Third time and so on to the limit— well you all know how it is yourselves; you’ve all been there— wouldn’t amount to much if you hadn’t in real worldly experience. And—what is worldly experience? Scrapple. What is booze? Scrapple.

Ever investigate politics? Something singular about the term. A noun of plural form that takes a verb in the singular. The verb is the only thing about it that is singular, though, in Scrappletown.

Scrappletown isn’t a village anymore…

You get politics on the house-top, in the cellar; at the legal bar, and the licensed bar; at the club, office, sociable; in hall and pulpit; in Chinatown, Little Italy, Rittenhouse Square; at weddings and funerals; in stock brokering and philanthropy; you can get into politics for nothing and come out with nothing.  … You can get it raw or hashed or mulched; but in the end, both ends for that matter, it’s all—what? Scrapple!


If there’s anything in this progressive twentieth century with no mystery, no sham, no big odd nonsense about it, it should be and therefore, is society. It is a want to know, you know, society a high art, high jinks, high ball society. A horse show, dog bench, stock board society. An eloping, divorcing society—and out of doors, automobiling society. It sails the ocean blue and climbs the Matterhorn. It spells its one or more middle names in full and hyphenates its patronymics. It remembers its pedigree and forgets its prayers. It scorns those whose forefathers never distinguished themselves and envies those whose forefathers and foremothers did. It aspires to be known abroad. And it is known. … It is scorified, glorified. It is followed, courted, married and divorced— more glory. It shows itself the wide world over. It tires of monotony— goes on the stage— shows itself some more— much more. It marries some more. Not much more to be sure, but enough for glory. With the sparkle and glitter of the footlights on the stage, the rustle and glow of paper and coin in the banks there’s glory enough to be sure; but it’s all scrapple— SCRAPPLE.

Oh, but it’s all great, though. We shine for it, and pine for it; look up to it, crook down to it; adore it, implore it; chase it, embrace it. It skips everywhere, tips everywhere. It doesn’t die. It elopes to Paradise. Maybe St. Peter will need an introduction; but that’s pure speculation.

Oh it’s glorious, all glorious. But it’s all scrapple— scrapple. And isn’t it glory enough to know that this is Scrappletown; and scrapple is the real thing. No doubt but it’s a made up thing, blind, fearfully, and wonderfully made, to be sure; but Philadelphia is plucky; it makes no scrutiny into the mutiny. It takes its medicine like a little man, and asks no questions. What proves to be good for it it clings to. …It’s all mystifying, vexatious. But then it’s all scrapple.

It was in the mind of Scrappletown ‘s immortal bard when he wrote the deathless lines: This world is all a fleeting show / Since Adam ate the apple / Its smiles of Joy, its tears of woe, / Deceitful shine, deceitful flow — / There’s nothing true but — Scrapple.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Last Piggeries of Maiden Lane

“A curious thing about Philadelphia,” wrote Edith Elmer Wood in 1919, “is that pigs were permitted to be kept in the thickly settled parts of the city until quite recently. A start was made to do away with this condition, the 40,000 piggeries of a few years ago having been reduced to almost 10,000.

Then, in the Spring of 1917, Health Department officials declared that Philadelphia would be demolishing it’s last remaining piggeries.

Up until the early 20th century, urban spaces required animal agriculture. There’d be no transportation without horses. “Hogs cleaned up household slop,” Vitiello and Brinkley remind us, “chickens scratched at the waste that the pigs left behind. Sheep and goats grazed on the commons… Many urban families kept or boarded dairy cows for a supply of fresh milk. Cattle were driven from ports, and later rail stations, to markets and slaughterhouses throughout the city. Animals were everywhere, as were the nuisances that they created as they bellowed, kicked up dust, dropped manure, and knocked over passersby.”

Runaway Pig at the Jersey Market, Front and Market Streets, ca. 1850 (detail). The Library Company of Philadelphia.

For the first couple of hundred years, the idea of banning farm animals would have been absurd, impossible even. Keeping them under control was more likely, though always challenging. As early as 1705, city ordinances forbade “cattle and swine from running at large through the streets.” Once caught, the meat from these runaways would be forfeited, shared equally by captor and the almshouse.

In the mid-19th century, hogs were fattened for market adjacent to a large distillery in the northwest quadrant of what is now Center City (at 23rd and Summer Streets). Feed consisted of grain mash from the distillery. This symbiotic relationship continued for more than three decades before the increasing number of nearby residents led to a contested closure. Appeals continued until May 1845, when the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania heard the case.

“At the time of the trial, and for a few years previous, the city had been rapidly extending in that direction… Several public institutions of great importance however had…been erected in the immediate neighborhood; and it was the alleged injury inflicted on these, as well as on the dwelling houses lately erected in the vicinity, that formed the principal ground of complaint.”

Farley’s Piggery – Maiden Lane, 10-12-1916 (

Farley’s Piggery – Maiden Lane, 10-12-1916 (

“The buildings in question were capable of accommodating as many as a thousand hogs…that in the warm weather the stench was so intolerable, as to make it almost impossible to pass through the street, on which the establishment opened, without nausea; and that when the wind was from the northwest, it was perceptible for half a mile towards the heart of the city; that the water of the Schuylkill was infected by the great quantities of filth and ordure which were discharged; that the value of property adjacent was diminished from ten to fifteen per cent., and that the comfort  of the residents thereabout was materially affected by the effluvia.”

The court heard evidence for more than a week.

Piggeries had been there “from time immemorial,” claimed the defense. Moreover, they argued, the distillery “was essential to the city.”

The court agreed with the previous ruling: “Piggeries had to be removed from city limits, no matter how well established or profitable they were.” Citizens “are entitled by right to healthy air, and to a use of the public highways unimpaired by any adjacent nuisance” and “a hog pen in a city is a nuisance.” In fact, “the keeping of pigs in a community like this, whether there be one or a thousand, is indictable.”

Yet, as we read in Vitiello and Brinkley, the “debates between farmer-businessmen and city officials” continued for more than half a century longer. As the city expanded in the late 19th century, with permission from City Councils, pig farmers continued to thrive just beyond the fringes of the city’s built-up sections.

“Desperate efforts are being made by the pig owners of the First Ward [in South Philadelphia, east of Broad Street] to get from under the eye of the Health Officer and run their pens as of old,” reported the Inquirer in 1886: “the pens had been newly whitewashed and the masses of decaying garbage covered up and out of sight.” Further to the south and west, pigsties “owned by Mr. Rubel…at 31st and Maiden lane were in very bad condition. … The garbage…was left to fester, and the stench arising from the mass of filth among which the remaining animals were wallowing, exhaled an odor that could not but be highly prejudicial to public health.”

Detail of “Plan Showing Existing Conditions in South Philadelphia, December 13, 1915. (

“Pigs Have Got to Go,” editorialized the newspaper as late as 1914, by which time urban expansion guaranteed proximity to piggeries. Yet they remained legal in several areas, including along Maiden Lane. “Modern cities and hog pens cannot be made to go hand in hand,” declared editors, but they fell short of calling for a complete ban.

Not so Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg. His “war upon piggeries” would include a veto of any proposed expansion piggery district. Before long, the city conducted raids on the illegal piggeries of South Philadelphia.

In 1916, John Donohoe, who owned a massive piggery on League Island Road managed to remove his livestock only 15 minutes before a noontime raid by officials from the Bureaus of Health and Sanitation joined by a half dozen mounted police and 25 laborers with orders “to demolish Donohue’s pens.” Freshly unemployed pig farmers and farm hands greeted the raiders “with hoots and jeers.” Meanwhile, owners of the remaining, smaller piggeries read the writing on the wall and dispensed with their stock “as fast as possible.”

Before long, South Philadelphia’s muddy fens were piggery free, from the Neck to Maiden Lane.

(Sources: Edith Elmer Wood, The Housing of the Unskilled Wage Earner; America’s Next Problem (The Macmillian Co., 1919); Catherine Brinkley and Domenic Vitiello, “From Farm to Nuisance: Animal Agriculture and the Rise of Planning Regulation,” Journal of Planning History, 2014, Vol. 13(2) 113-135; “Commonwealth v. Van Sickle, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,Pennsylvania Law Journal, Volume 7 [Walker, 1848] and from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “First Ward Piggeries,” October 27, 1886; “Mayor to War upon Piggeries,” September 7, 1913; “Pigs Have Got to Go,”, March 21, 1914; “Officials Raid Piggery, but Find Swine Gone Owner Prevents Confiscation by Removing Entire Stock,”  September 29,1916.)


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
  • Categories

  • Archives