History of Philadelphia

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When the American colonies were founded in the 1600s, there were generally two main guiding principles behind them: for the New England colonies, freedom to practice religions not popular in England; for the southern colonies, agricultural development extending the holdings of British landowners. There were two exceptions: New York was always a place for trade, originally established by Dutch companies. The other exception was Pennsylvania, and the town of Philadelphia.

Founded on Quaker principles of tolerance and harmonious living, Philadelphia had the religious foundations of its New England neighbors, but unlike the stricter sects to the north the Quakers welcomed other beliefs and races. Like its southern neighbors, Pennsylvania started with an agricultural economy, but it never relied on slavery as much as southern plantations did, and had a large community of free blacks. Philadelphia was the best place to be for the first hundred years of this country.

Since then, the desire to tolerate everyone has sometimes been interpreted as the need to keep things quiet so no one is bothered, but as the new century begins, the original vision of tolerance and harmony has been remembered, translated into a multicultural, active town with rich neighborhoods, close suburbs, green parks, and a lively downtown.

The colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn (1644-1718) in 1681. (Pennsylvania is Latin for 'Penn's woods.') Having come from a London that had recently burned and was just discovering the new idea of sanitary plumbing, Penn wanted Philadelphia to be 'a greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and allways be wholsome.'

From the beginning, Philadelphia was to be different from other colonial towns. Instead of sprawling, streets were laid out on a grid system, with five public squares (now called Washington, Rittenhouse, Franklin and Logan Circle--City Hall was built on the fifth square). To demonstrate his belief in living in peaceful harmony, the town was built with no fortifications. Indians were welcome. Penn signed a treaty with the Lenni Lenape in 1682, at what is now Penn Treaty Park. Even the name of the town demonstrated peace; while most other colonial towns were named for founders or expedition sponsors, Philadelphia is latin for 'City of Brotherly Love.'

Of course, when you invite everyone in, there's the likelihood some will disagree with you. By 1690, scarcely nine years after the first Quaker Meeting House went up, arguments over the direction of the city had turned into formal ideologies. Philadelphians have been arguing ever since.

Penn had originally envisioned his colony as a pure, 'wholsome' farming community, but the port quickly became one of the most important trading spots in America, rivaled only by New York. The rising merchant class wasn't terribly interested in the simple Quaker lifestyle. Pubs, theatres, circuses, dances and races entered the scene.

There were slaves on some of the farms, but slave auctions were banned early. A community of ex-slaves grew, centered around the Mother Bethel Church, the cornerstone of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) movement. By 1790, there were 300 slaves in Pennsylvania, and 7,579 free blacks. By 1860, there were 22,185 free blacks, making Philadelphia an important stop on the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped slaves escape from southern slave states.

The tolerant attitude attracted many immigrants. British Quakers were followed by German immigrants as early as the 1690s. In the 1800s Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants came in waves, drawn by employment on massive projects like the new turnpike system, the canals and the railroad. Coal mining upstate created more jobs, and the coal provided steam power for the factories of the Industrial Revolution that made Philadelphia a major manufacturing center.

In 1723, an immigrant from Boston made a name for himself and put Philadelphia on the map. Benjamin Franklin was a young printer's apprentice, fresh from his brother's shop, trying to set himself up in business. He started at the one regular newspaper and would occasionally contribute satirical pieces under a series of pseudonyms. These pieces quickly became the most popular part of the Gazette, and when Franklin revealed himself to be the author he was instantly famous. He started his own publishing house, eventually buying the Gazette, and put out two newspapers (with columns by him), several books (including his autobiography), and an annual farm guide, Poor Richard's Almanac (yes, him again). In his spare time, he invented the Franklin stove, the glass harmonium and bifocals. He helped Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. He was a founding member of the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital, the first public library, a fire insurance company, the Post Office, and the Constitutional Congress. His book 'Experiments and Observations in Electricity,' 1751, was considered in its time the most important scientific work in the world.

Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States. In fact, this is where the Congress met before the nation officially began on July 4th, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed. The United States Constitution was written and ratified here in 1789, and, later the same year, George Washington was sworn in as the first president here.

Delegates to Congress were astounded at the wealth and beauty they saw here. Some of the finest examples of the Chippendale furniture style were seen in the homes, and splendid examples of colonial silver smithing and textiles. Because of the active seaport, food and fabrics from the Indies and China were readily available, even with the problem of getting past the British warships.

By the 19th Century, the excitement was over. In 1800, the nation's capital moved to Washington, DC. New York began to overshadow Philadelphia as a financial and cultural center, a situation that exists to this day. New immigrants and escaped slaves increased racial tensions here, mocking the name City of Brotherly Love. Yet the new canals and railroads made this an important center for manufacturing, shipbuilding and international trade, even if the living standards were moving away away from the original 'greene Country Towne.' For better and worse, this was the third largest American city of the 19th Century.

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 focused attention on Philadelphia once again, bringing 100,000 people to see the wonders of industrialism. Many mass-produced goods were manufactured in the Philadelphia area. Campbell soup, Stetson hats, Baldwin locomotives, if it was made in a factory, there was a good chance it was made here. In medicine, Philadelphia has always been one of the most famed cities for its hospitals, medical schools and research facilities. This reputation began in the 18th century and continues into the 21st.

But like most industrial cities, growth in population and new factories strained the old institutions of government. Corruption at city hall was common everywhere at the time, but Philadelphia managed to be corrupt even in the building of its city hall. Construction began in 1874. When it was finished in 1894, it cost $25 million US, which was $15 million over budget, most of it going into a small number of pockets. In typical government fashion, the committee could not choose from three designs. So, the story goes, they built all three. It's one of the largest city halls in the world. It was around this time that Philadelphia gained its long-lived reputation for complacency.

But the need for reform led to the rise in reform. Beginning in 1900, public-spirited citizens came forward. There was renewed interest in improving living conditions. It happened slowly at first, but there were signs of progress: new projects, like the Ben Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Art Museum; a new charter for the city; and better health and transportation.

There were also new vaudeville and burlesque houses. The Philadelphia Athletics, the local baseball team, won the American League pennant six times between 1902 and 1914, and the World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1914. The Philadelphia Orchestra, under conductor Leopold Stokowski, began its reign as one of the most recognized symphony orchestras in the country. The naval shipyard built the most important American military vessels in two world wars.

By the end of World War II, Philadelphia had shed its reputation for corruption and complacence. Returning war veterans were in no mood to protect democracy overseas and then give it up to a party boss back home. Still the third largest city in the country, new building projects began to clean away the blight years of neglect had created in what was once the greene Towne. By the time of the Bicentennial, in 1976, Philadelphia had achieved what older citizens had thought impossible. New Yorkers were coming for a visit and deciding to look for a house.

Now at the beginning of a new century, the city has shed its reputation as a convenient stop between New York and Washington and become once again a destination in its own right. Though the heavy industries have moved out, the economy is robust, with a mix of agriculture, small business, banking, and service industries. The medical research facilities here are becoming known as the 'Silicon Valley' of genetic research. One frequently overlooked aspect of the city is the entertainment contribution, touching everything from Dick Clark's original American Bandstand to production of some of the top grossing films in theaters.

The city is filled with reminders of the colonial period. Fairmount Park, home of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, is dotted with colonial homes that were moved there as museums. Elfreth's Alley, off Second and Arch Streets, is the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in the country, preserved by residents who must pledge to preserve the original design. Old Swede's Church is a perfect example of the 'public' architecture typical at the country's founding.

The early Quaker influence is still felt in the generally un-ostentatious design of the town. Even the most astounding mansions--and there are quite a few--look, from the outside, like modest brownstone townhouses. The fashion was to make them long and narrow, with a thin, modest face to the street. In some cases, what appears to be a series of townhouses (or rowhouses, as they're called)is in fact one large house, compiled of what had been several smaller homes. Philadelphians can enjoy some of the best restaurants in the country, but few dress up for the occasion; comfort is the style. Yet Philadelphians are not complacent: At sporting events, it's not uncommon to hear loud boos if something isn't going well. It even happens at the orchestra, though rarely. It's also not uncommon for complete strangers to say hello to you on the street, or go out of their way to help you find one of those great restaurants.

This is possibly the best time to be visiting since 1776, when Congressional delegates were impressed with the quality and comfort of this city.

A Brief Chronology
1681 Philadelphia founded by William Penn, an English Quaker.
1701 Penn leaves for the last time.
1751 Liberty Bell cast to celebrate the 50th year of the 1701 charter. It is inscribed with the words "Proclaim Liberty thro' all the land to all the Inhabitants thereof" (Leviticus 25:10). It cracked on its first ringing and had to be recast twice.
1774 First Continental Congress, September.
1775 Revolutionary War begins.
1776 Declaration of Independence, July 4th. Liberty Bell rings again, cracks again. This time the crack stays. December 26th: General Washington's sneak attack on the Hessian troops in nearby Trenton, New Jersey, turns the tide of the war.
1783 War ends.
1789 U.S. Constitution passes at Independence Hall. George Washington elected the first President.
1800 U.S. Capital moves from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.
1812 State Capital moves from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.
1858 "Horse cars" introduced for public transportation. Rides cost an exhorbitant five cents.
1874 Cornerstone of City Hall laid. City Hall finished in 1894, at $25 million US, only $15 million US over budget.
1875 Centennial Exposition, Fairmount Park.
1925 Ben Franklin Parkway opens.
1928 Philadelphia Art Museum opens at the end of the Parkway.
1939 Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story" is published, becomes a hit, and is filmed with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as Philadelphia millionaires.
1946 ENIAC, the first modern electronic computer, is built at the University of Pennsylvania.
1952 "American Bandstand" goes on the air from a studio at 52nd and Market Streets. America learns how rock and roll dancing is done.
1976 Bicentennial renovations lead to a building boom.
1990-1999 Mayor Ed Rendell celebrates Philadelphia's restaurants.
2000 Mayor John Street declares initiative to help Philadelphians lose weight.