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“The man with the pull” got the job

Thirteen thousand Philadelphians worked for the city at the start of the 20th century, about the same time Lincoln Steffens dubbed Philadelphia “the most corrupt and the most contented” city in America.

How did payroll and patronage play out on the street?

City Hall – Civil Service Bulletin Board, November 10, 1905 (PhillyHistory.org)

According to historian Walter Licht, an estimated 10,000 city jobs were “distributed to loyal party workers,” who, “in return for employment…pledged portions of their salaries to the political machine, a long-standing practice that had not been ended with reform legislation.” In fact, Licht continued, “investigations revealed that 94 percent of all employees in the city actually paid between 3 and 12 percent of their annual incomes to the coffers of the Republican Party organization for a total take of $349,000.”

Philadelphia was addicted to this corrupt, pay-to play (or pay-to-work) system. Sure, the city “had gone through the motions following the lead of the United States government in establishing a competitive examination system for appointments to federal jobs,” but legislation creating a civil service board for Philadelphia in 1885 “hardly curbed spoilsmanship.” In the City of Brotherly Love “the mayor and his department chiefs were able to bend the system to their needs.”

And everyone knew it. As Theodore Roosevelt put it 1893 (he was an advocate of Civil Service reform): “I should rather have no law than the law you have in Philadelphia. “

In 1905, the “reform forces succeeded once again in securing legislation at the state level” creating “a new civil service commission for Philadelphia, a seemingly more independent agency.” Mayor John Weaver apparently embraced the reform, vacating and replacing leadership and appointing Frank M. Riter to run the new commission. The mayor “annulled” earlier eligible lists” providing Riter with a clean slate and a fully-funded office poised for reorganization and reform. As for his part, Riter was determined to secure “public confidence” having committed his commission to “full publicity and absolute fairness.”

By October, 1905, after Riter’s rash of new civil service examinations had been advertised, implemented and scored, he installed in City Hall courtyard “a large bulletin board…for displaying the results of examinations.” Everyone could read the results whether the positions were guards at the House of Correction, plumbers in the Electrical Bureau, or patrolmen.

Yet the corruption continued. Only a few weeks before the installation of Riter’s bulletin board, the Inquirer revealed that Sheldon Potter, the Director of the Department of Public Safety, “disregarded Civil Service rule” and made appointments only days before receiving the list of eligible candidates from Riter.

Civil Service Examination – Police Sergeant in City Hall – October 17, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

The Inquirer also implicated the mayor with circumventing the rules. “Weaver Insincere In Civil Service,” read a headline, “appointments show men with high averages ignored for political favorites.” Civil War veterans had been “especially discriminated against by administration policy.”

“In no respect is the insincerity of so-called ‘reform’ shown up more glaringly than upon the bulletin board of the civil service bureau on the seventh floor of City Hall, the Inquirer pointed out. There can be seen posted long lists of eligibles for various kinds of city positions. … It is here that the utter failure of the administration to live up to its professions of a square deal for every applicant is conspicuously set forth. … A half dozen veterans of the Civil War, standing high on the list have been deliberately passed over and political favorites of the Mayor and his friends, far down on the list, have been given preference. Not only have the veterans been ignored, but other applicants with high averages have been left out and men far below them in the averages of the civil service tests have been given the appointments. … The man with the pull got the job regardless of his special fitness for it, and the man with the high average or near the top of the list has been ignored.”

Civil Service Commission – Recreation Instructor’s Examination, August 1, 1934 (PhillhHistory.org)

Still, Riter continued as if corruption had been effectively curtailed. His commission continued to offer examinations and to advertise the results. From March through December 1906, Riter’s office tested and scored 4,551 applicants for more than 170 positions—everything from clerks to bricklayers, carpenters to elevator operators, engineers to firemen, patrolmen to drain inspectors, stenographers to telegraph operators, tinsmiths to waitresses.

Who got the jobs? . . . Well, that was not his to say.

[Sources: Walter Licht, Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992)];  “Potter Disregarded Civil Service Rules,”October 7, 1905; “Weaver Insincere In Civil Service,” October 12, 1905; – Riter, the Versatile, Plays Head Waiter,” October 18, 1905; Secretary Riter’s Bulletin Board, October 25, 1905; The First Annual Report of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia, Jan 2, 1907. All in The Philadelphia Inquirer; “First Annual Report of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia, January 2, 1907” in Annual Message of the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia with the Annual Reports of Directors of Departments, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1907).]

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Slaking thirsts at the Semiquincentennial

Philadelphia’s two world fairs—the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and the Sesquicentennial fifty years later in 1926, introduced all kinds of stuff that folks didn’t know they’d need, want, or would come to stress over.

In 1876, the newfangled included the telephone, the typewriter, ketchup, and kudzu, introduced to control erosion. Visitors climbed to the torch of an unfinished Statue of Liberty through her forearm. They stared wide-eyed at the ominous Krupp cannon from Germany.

Representing “progress” at the Sesquicentennial was the Dixie Cup, its disposability marketed as good public health practice. Other innovations included a teller’s window made of “Safetee Bullet Proof Glass” for the Franklin Trust Company. Home improvements featured rolls of Blabon’s checkered linoleum for the modern “electric kitchen” where up-to-date consumers swapped vintage, wooden ice boxes for sleek, white Frigidaires. Homes, furnished by J. B. Van Sciver, would be tidier with the help of a Eureka Vacuum Cleaner , if not a Hoover.

Tufts soda fountain at the Centennial Exhibition, 1876, (Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Collection.)

All of that ogling during a hotter-than-usual Centennial summer generated a great thirst. No problem. Philly pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires offered up samples of his newly concocted root beer. James Walker Tufts from Pinehurst, North Carolina took the refreshment supply chain a step farther, purchasing purveying rights for his “Artic Soda,” sold from one or another monumental, marble-countered fountain.

Valley Forge Beer Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

Thirsty Sesqui guests had their choice of concessions. Hires retuned, serving from a giant, tipped-over barrel. One could get a caffeine fix at the George Washington Coffee Concession. Valley Forge Beer purveyed their (most likely non-alcoholic) brew. Even lighter fare was sipped at the Clicquot Club Ginger Ales stand. At Emerson Drug Company’s booths one could find Ginger Mint Juleps, or, if need be, a Bromo Seltzer.

All of which gets us thinking, not only about the past, but about the future. What will we be slaking or toasting with five years hence, in 2026, at the…what are we calling it…the Semiquincentennial?

Clicquot Club Ginger Ale Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)
Ginger Mint Juleps from the Emerson Drug Company Concession Booth, Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)
Hires Root Beer Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)
Emerson Drug Company Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

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Going Big and Going Home: Philadelphia’s Mass Transit Story

Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg made a promise. His administration would be non-partisan. At the inaugural in December 1911, according to historian Lloyd M. Abernethy, Blankenburg proposed to operate “on a sound business basis with experts rather than politicians at the heads of municipal departments.” The mayor “surrounded himself with able and dedicated professionals” and spent four years envisioning, modernizing and improving city services—especially mass transit.

Philadelphia had 600 miles of streetcar lines, but the passenger experience was slow and disconnected. The city’s “meagre 14.7 miles of high-speed trackage compared very unfavorably with other major cities: Boston had twice as much; Chicago, 10 times more; and New York 20 times as much.” Blankenburg recruited an experienced railroad executive, A. Merritt Taylor, to direct his new transit department. And Taylor immediately took a deep dive assessing the situation and developing a comprehensive, city-wide plan that would quadruple the city’s high-speed trackage to nearly 60 miles.

It took two years for Taylor to complete his study and present his vision for a mass transit system. In an essay entitled “Philadelphia’s Transit Problem,” Taylor pointed out that “large cities of the United States are constantly outgrowing the capacity of existing facilities for public service.” These systems “may be likened to the arterial system of the human body.” They can “become inadequate and choke the circulation which they are designed to carry.” They often “fail to expand as the body grows” falling short of meeting the city’s “increasing requirements.” That, Taylor said, would lead neighborhoods to “wither.”

Without a healthy transit system, “the body as a whole must suffer.”

“Rapid Transit Lines Recommended for Immediate Construction with Princial Surface Transfer Lines,” February 12, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

Philadelphia, Taylor pointed out, wasn’t a city of tenements and flats. Rather, it “has always been a city of individual homes spread over a comparatively large area.” Now we are “confronted with the necessity of providing rapid transit facilities to eliminate existing congestion of traffic and the excessive loss of time in traveling the increasingly great distances between available residential areas and places of employment.”

This “practical, scientific and complete study of what is needed” led to a series of “crystallized” recommendations in a report published in 1913. To sell his plan, Taylor and his allies released a battery of illustrated articles, maps and presentations—including a giant, electrified model.

Tentative Location of Future Rapid Transit Lines, Report of Transit Commissioner / Rapid Transit Development / City of Philadelphia, July 1913.

Taylor’s “program,” wholeheartedly endorsed by Mayor Blankenburg, urged the immediate construction of twenty-six miles of high-speed lines, subway and elevated, that would effectively connect with the existing “surface system” extending “the advantages of rapid transit … as equally as practicable to every front door in Philadelphia.”

“Passengers will be enabled to travel in a forward direction … between every important section of the city and every other important section of the city, conveniently, quickly and comfortably by way of the combined surface and high-speed lines, regardless of the number of transfers required in so doing.”

Rapid Transit Lines recommended for immediate construction with surface feeder lines, November 18, 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

At the groundbreaking for the Broad Street Subway, the first major element in the plan, Taylor asked the public to think of the system as “one great machine [designed to] transport passengers quickly and conveniently between all points on the combined system . . . by the joint use of the surface system and the high-speed system for one five-cent fare.”

“Any citizen could ride from any part of Philadelphia to any other part of the city, for five cents and within thirty minutes time,” echoed the mayor. “When such a condition becomes an accomplished fact, then our great body of skilled labor, 300,000 strong, can choose its residence in any part of the city, irrespective of the location of the factory or office in which they find employment.”

Detail of “Rapid Transit Lines Recommended for Immediate Construction with Principal Surface Transfer Lines,” February 12, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

The cost of the system: about $46 million, with another $12 million more for equipment. (In today’s dollars, that would be an investment of $1.5 billion). Without delays, according to the mayor, “these high-speed lines could be in active operation by 1919 or 1920, thereby giving Philadelphia one of the most comprehensive transit systems in the world.”

But as was often the case, politics trumped transformation.

After many delays, the Broad Street Subway opened in 1928. By then, the “Taylor Plan” was largely abandoned. The system’s most visionary element—possibly its proudest single feature—a subway-surface line running from City Hall, under Logan Square, up the Parkway to the Art Museum before travelling north on 29th Street to Henry Avenue and beyond to Roxborough . . . never materialized.

[Sources: A. Merritt Taylor. Report of Transit Commissioner: City of Philadelphia, July, 1912. [Philadelphia, 1913], Vol 1; “Taylor Plans $57,578,000 Transit Development for Philadelphia.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 1913; Conference of American Mayors, Philadelphia, and American Academy of Political and Social Science. “Proceedings of the Conference of American Mayors on Public Policies as to Municipal Utilities,” (Philadelphia, American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1915); “Mayor Launches Work on Subway as Crowd Cheers,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 12, 1915; A . Merritt Taylor. “Philadelphia’s Transit Problem.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 57 (1915): 28-32; Donald W. Disbrow. “Reform in Philadelphia Under Mayor Blankenburg, 1912-1916.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 27, no. 4 (1960): 379-96; Lloyd M Abernethy, “Progressivism, 1905-1919,” in Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982).]

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Did the Samuel Memorial Deliver?

Ellen Phillips Samuel had a vision she’d never get to see. After her death and that of her husband, a sizeable chunk of the family fortune would become an endowment to create a sculpture park along Kelly Drive between Boathouse Row and the Girard Avenue bridge.

“On top of this embankment,” wrote Samuel in 1907, “it is my will to have erected at distances of one hundred (100) feet apart, on high granite pedestals of uniform shape and size, statuary emblematic of the history of America, ranging in time from the earliest settlers of America to the present era, arranged in chronological order, the earliest at the south end, and going on to the present time at the north end.”

Samuel Memorial – North Terrace Looking North (to the Girard Avenue Bridge). Photographed March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

American art had never encountered such a challenge—or such an opportunity. In Europe, only the Siegesallee in Berlin, completed in 1901, might have provided something of a model. But this massive, white-marble creation was mocked as over-indulgent and vulgar, an “Avenue of the Puppets,” a collection of “shining marble horrors…enough to rob Berlin of sleep.” Not something to emulate in United States—or anywhere else, for that matter.

Samuel Memorial – Laborer, by Ahron Ben Shmuel, 1958. Photographed March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

Samuel did have a handle on the depth and range of American history. Her ancestors aided the cause of the American Revolution and were interred at the Mikveh Israel cemetery near 9th and Spruce Streets where she and her husband were involved as stewards. At family gatherings, the Samuels doubtless debated the who’s who of American history. Her husband’s nephew and namesake, Bunford Samuel, compiled 40,000 portraits of historical figures over a twenty year period. The younger Bunford’s “Index to American Portraits” cataloged no fewer than 58 portraits of Christopher Columbus, 61 of Benjamin Franklin, 16 of Alexander Hamilton and 14 of Benedict Arnold. Would any of them find a home on the proposed pedestals along the Schuylkill? Ellen Samuel was too savvy to dictate that. There would have to be significant discourse before any decisions were made. Along the way, the project might even become controversial, making it even more interesting, and perhaps all the more valuable.

To start the search process, Samuel would solicit proposals in a global crowdsourcing effort. “It is my desire that notices be inserted in the leading newspapers of the world, asking for designs.”

Samuel Memorial – Preacher by Waldemar Raemisch, 1952, installed 1958. Photographed March 31, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

How would American history be represented along this stretch of Schuylkill in America‘s most historic city? After Ellen Samuel’s passing in 1913, J. Bunford couldn’t contain his anticipation, or his mistrust, that others might not stay true to his wife’s wishes. He reminded would-be designers that “Mrs. Samuel never intended that any artificial construction, or that standing trees should be removed to carry out her idea and ruin the sylvan beauty now existing in this locality…” This would not be a project dominated by balustrades or any architectural elements. According to Samuel, only historical figures on pedestals would stand amidst the park’s foliage.

And to make absolutely certain the project would begin as it was supposed to, Samuel got ahead of things and commissioned the first figure. In keeping with the spousal will that the series begin with “the earliest settlers of America,” Samuel selected the 11th-century Icelandic explorer and colonist Thorfinn Karlsefni who, according to his own research, “came nearest to the ideal.” By demonstrating the start of the project, Samuel would be able “to see, whilst I live, how the first statue would look placed in the situation selected by my wife…”.  

At the Karlsefni dedication in 1920, the president of the Fairmount Park Art Association, Charles J. Cohen, reassured all in attendance that this first figure in the sculptural timeline would “be followed by… seventeen of similar proportions, all…emblematic of the history of America” standing 100 feet apart, as the will dictated. When complete, added Cohen, this memorial would make “a splendid adornment to our Park.”

Then, as the will directed, the project went into hibernation until after J. Bunford’s passing in 1929. After it restarted, critic Dorothy Grafly noted: “No sculptural project within recent years had posed so many problems and stirred so much discussion.” The Art Association’s Samuel Memorial Committee reviewed all options and would set the direction. One member of the committee, R. Sturgis Ingersoll, later recalled its activities and inclinations and how, ultimately, the project strayed from Samuel’s will.

Samuel Memorial – Settling of the Seaboard by Wheeler Williams, 1942. Photographed March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

“For several years,” wrote Ingersoll, “the alternatives seemed to be to erect a row of portrait statuary of the important political and spiritual shapers of our destinies, or sculptural symbols of such abstractions as Faith, Democracy, Wisdom, Patriotism and Justice.” But the committee took a broader view, concluding “that the subject matter of the statuary should be an expression of the ideas, the motivations, the spiritual forces, and the yearnings that have created America.” And with neither of the Samuels alive to say otherwise, the committee supported commissioning architect Paul Cret to create a design “consisting of three terraces with groupings of statues at both ends of each terrace.” The committee decided on sculptural sequences starting with “the early settlement of the eastern seaboard,” “the creation of a nation by the political compacts of 1776 and 1787…and the trek westward.” Figures would embody the “consolidation of democracy and liberty” and represent “the freeing of the slaves and the welcoming to our shores of countless Europeans.” The committee’s plan would bring the story up to the present focusing on “the physical development of man-made America,” and, finally “the spiritual factors that shaped our inner life.”

Samuel Memorial, The Immigrant, by Heinz Warneke, 1933. Photographed March 31, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)
Samuel Memorial – The Slave, by Helen Sardeau, 1940. Photographed March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

In January 1933, the Samuel Memorial Committee presented its program at the annual Fairmount Park Art Association’s annual meeting where it received unanimous approval. Then, “for the ensuing decades,” according to Ingersoll, that plan was “quite closely adhered to.”

In order to cast a wide net and help identify sculptors to populate Cret’s three terraces, the Art Association and the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted three international sculpture exhibitions in 1933, 1940 and 1949. (Not exactly the donor’s prescribed method, but in a similar vein, the committee believed.)  In the first of these exhibitions the public was treated to more than 360 works of art by more than 100 sculptors from around the world. The second exhibition featured more than 430 works. The third exhibition featured more than 250, enabling completion of the Samuel Memorial just after the mid-century.

Did the Memorial deliver on Samuel’s promise to present “statuary emblematic of the history of America”?

“Virtually anyone who has contemplated the Samuel Memorial, even in passing, can sense that there is something unsettling about the choice of sculpture,” wrote Penny Balkin Bach in Public Art in Philadelphia. Instead of achieving Samuel’s mission, the memorial stands as “emblematic of that period of turmoil and transition when artists and patrons were in search of new forms and meanings in an increasingly volatile world.”

[Sources: Penny Balkin Bach, Public Art in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia, Temple University Press: 1992); Dorothy Grafly, “Sculpture at Philadelphia: The Samuel Bequest,” The American Magazine of Art, September 1933, Vol. 26, No. 9 (September 1933); R. Sturgis Ingersoll, “The Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial,” in Fairmount Park Art Association, Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures in Bronze and Stone (New York: Walker Pub. Co., 1974); Joseph Bunford Samuel, A Word Sketch of Fairmount Park, [Philadelphia: Printed by J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917];  Joseph Bunford Samuel, The Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefini who visited the Western Hemisphere in 1007 (Printed for Private Distribution by J. Bunford Samuel, 1922). News accounts: “Portraits by the Ten Thousand,” The New York Times, November 14, 1896; “An American Portrait Index, The New York Times, March 29, 1902; “Berlin Drive a Great Failure,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26, 1903; “Samuel Estate’s Value is $781,431,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 1913; “Model of Park Statues Shown,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 30, 1916; “Park to Contain Statue of Viking,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 16, 1919; Fairmount Park’s Great Statuary Bequest, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 15, 1929; “Terrace Statues in Park Finished After 48 Years,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 12, 1961.]

Disclosure: The writer is on the board of directors of the Association for Public Art, formerly the Fairmount Park Art Association.

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Making “Better Mothers, Better Babies and Better Citizens”

Interior of Health Center No. 2 – Corner of 8th and Winton Streets (2128 South Eighth Street) – Children’s Clinic. May 2, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

A building meant to serve as a saloon, we learned last time, morphed into Philadelphia’s first official community health center. It opened at 12th and Carpenter Streets in 1914 and survives today, fixing cars, not babies.

The philanthropic Child Federation reconfigured the place into an experimental demonstration site meant to address the city’s high infant mortality rate. “The large room on the first floor has been divided by a partition into two rooms, the front one being utilized as a receiving office, the rear one as a secretary’s office. Two of the rooms on the second floor are used as physicians examining rooms, and the rooms on the third floor as classrooms.”

How properly to fill the nursing bottle is demonstrated by Miss Irene Leslie (left) and Mrs. Betty Chodowski, municipal nurses, at Health Center No. 2, 2128 South Eighth Street. Evening Public Ledger, May 3, 1917 (Library of Congress)

Classes in maternal and infant health would become the main events in these new health centers, but could only be effective if they grew in number. And grow they did. By 1916, two more centers opened, one at Front and Tasker Streets (it would subsequently be relocated to Eighth and Winton Streets), another at 1136 North 2nd Street and a fourth at 3101 Grays Ferry Road. By the early 1920s, six more would open in other neighborhoods across the city.

Detail – Interior of Health Center No. 2 – Corner of 8th and Winton Streets – Children’s Clinic. May 2, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

According to Wilmer Krusen, the city’s director of public health, “The Philadelphia plan is to establish health centers or sub-health departments in those sections of the city where infant mortality is greatest and the general infectious diseases are most prevalent.”

Here’s a list of Philadelphia’s first eight health centers, all up and running by 1919:

Health District No. 1 — Twelfth and Carpenter Streets.

Health District No. 2 — Eighth and Winton Streets.

Health District No. 3 — 1136 North Second Street.

Health District No. 4 — Twenty-third and Wharton Streets.

Health District No. 5 — 2624 Kensington Avenue.

Health District No. 6 — 3826 Germantown Avenue.

Health District No. 7 — 5238 Lancaster Avenue.

Health District No. 8 — Front and Tasker Streets

Within a few more years, two additional centers would open at 2016 Lombard Street and 6029 Woodland Avenue.

From “Illustrating Philadelphia’s Vigorous Campaign to Reduce Summer Baby Mortality,” Evening Ledger – Philadelphia, May 3, 1917

What took place in these facilities? “Mothers are encouraged to bring their babies to the health centers at least once a week where they can be weighed and examined,” wrote Krusen. “Such babies are not treated, but are referred to the family physician, or to a dispensary. Health lectures are frequently planned and exhibits are always open to the public. Health literature, dealing not only with the care of the baby and child but also with the infectious diseases and health matters in general, is freely distributed.”

“The mothers are taught how to nurse their babies and how to detect signs of illness. Where the milk of the baby must be modified, this is explained and performed by the nurse.”

According to Krusen: “The mother, learning that others are interested in her children soon becomes enthusiastic over their progress. They attend the clinic just like children attend school. The centers are thus educational institutions which tend to make better mothers, better babies and better citizens.”

A special pictorial section in The Evening Public Ledger of May 3, 1917 gave a good idea what took place in these health center classes. Municipal nurses Irene Leslie and Betty Chodowski could be found instructing new mothers, grandmothers, and others in attendance at Health Center No. 2 (2128 South Eighth Street) on “how properly to fill the nursing bottle,” the right and wrong way to swaddle babies (enabling circulation and some leg movement) and what to feed an 18-month-old. (The recommended diet and feeding schedule: 6AM: Glass of milk; 8AM: Orange juice, piece of stale bread, no butter; 10AM: half of a ‘one-minute egg,’ junket, piece of toast; no butter; 2PM” Glass of milk, tablespoon prune pulp with juice, two slices stale bread; no butter; and 5:30PM – Glass of milk, tablespoonful cooked cereal with milk, piece of stale bread; no butter.”)

“It is the personal contact between the public and representatives of the health department as accomplished at the health centers which goes a long way toward securing the hearty cooperation of the people in all matters dealing with the protection of the public health,” wrote Krusen. The “health centers in Philadelphia have assumed so many public health functions that they are now considered as local branches of the Health Department.”

By 1917, public health officials counted only about a dozen health centers in the entire country—and the majority were in Philadelphia. Within the next several years, however, nearly 400 American communities would have their own.

And then there was the rest of the world.

“The health center idea has been conceived by public health workers in response to a universal need,” wrote Walter H. Brown, M.D., Associate Director of the American Red Cross. “It is more than a mere coincidence that we find some form of the social device developing almost simultaneously in England, France, Belgium, Wales, Australia, Canada, Cuba—as well as in our own country. This can only mean that we are dealing with an idea of unusual value.”

[Sources: “Illustrating Philadelphia’s Vigorous Campaign to Reduce Summer Baby Mortality,” Evening Ledger – Philadelphia, May 3, 1917 – Accessed via the Library of Congress; Walter H. Brown, M.D. Associate Director, Department of Health Service, American Red Cross, “Symposium on the Health Center III. Present Status of the Health Center,” American Journal of Public Health: JPH, Volume 11, Issue 1, January 1921; 218-220; Wilmer Krusen, M D, LL.D. Director, Department of Public Health and Charities of Philadelphia, “The Health Center Plan in Philadelphia,” Health News, Monthly Bulletin NY State Dept of Health – February 1919; Wilmer Krusen, M D, LL.D. Director, Department of Public Health and Charities of Philadelphia, Progress / Dept of Public Health and Charities Monthly Bulletin – Special Issue – September  October November, [1919]; J. A. T. “Symposium on the Health Center. I. The Historical Development.” American Journal of Public Health, Vol 11, No. 3, March 1921, pp. 212-213.]

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A Surviving Monument to Maternal and Infant Health at 12th and Carpenter Streets

“Between four and five thousand babies die annually in this city before they reach their first birthday,” lamented Dr. Wilmer Krusen, the newly installed director of Philadelphia’s Department of Health and Charities in early 1916. “This high mortality is among the ignorant, and is due to ignorance,” Krusen claimed, noting that “half of these were caused by diseases which could have been prevented had the child been given proper medical care and attention.”

Health Center No. 1, 12th and Carpenter Streets, northwest corner, October 8, 1953. (PhillyHistory.org)
Detail of Health Center No. 1, 12th and Carpenter Streets, northwest corner, October 8, 1953. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Education is the best factor in the fight to reduce infant mortality” noted Krusen. “Good health instruction centres are to be placed close to the people’s homes” and focus on prevention, “instead of waiting for them to get sick and then seeking help.” In May 1916, Krusen announced the opening of three health centers in as many Philadelphia neighborhoods, all of them intended to educate—and much more. The first of these, Health Center No. 1, would be at 12th and Carpenter Streets in South Philadelphia.

Actually, a non-governmental group called The Child Federation had opened that center at 12th and Carpenter two years earlier—on June 15, 1914. The Federation rented the corner storefront built to serve as a saloon “in one of the most thickly populated districts of Philadelphia, one that contributes largely to the city’s high infant death rate.” Its goals? “To educate and guide new mothers in the feeding and care of their babies” and supervise and educate expectant mothers. This experiment, according to the Federation, would “demonstrate the value of the idea of localized intensive health work. . . not only for Philadelphia, but [also] for other cities.”

The Health Center Building, from The First Year Book of The Child Federation (Philadelphia, 1913-14). (Google Books)

“The Health Centre idea is new,” wrote Edward W. Bok, president of The Child Federation and longtime editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal , in 1914. This experimental “comprehensive program,” claimed Bok, would apply “in the community all measures of health protection that are known to science.”

Bok continued: “Before the Centre was formally opened, a preliminary survey of one city block was made with a view to determining its sanitary conditions, the number and size of the families resident in the block, classifying them as fathers, mothers, expectant mothers, school children, children between the ages of 2 and 6 years, and infants under two years of age. …  With this data before us,” he wrote, the Federation opened the facility.

“Our Problem,” frontispiece in The Third Year Book of the Child Federation, (Philadelphia, 1916) (Google Books)

“The degree of co-operation that we are receiving from the people in this district has amazed us,” added Bok. “The Centre, as we hoped would be the case, is rapidly developing into a clearing house for the entire community. We are being consulted by the young and the old, male and female, for advice and counsel in regard to all sorts of problems. When we are unable to help them, the applicants are referred to the agencies which can. These experiences are confirming our belief that the only way to satisfactorily solve the health and social problems of a city is to place agencies having the functions of a Health Centre in definitely limited districts of the city.”

 Within its first year, Bok and the Federation were able to declare success. “The Health Centre has become in every respect what it set out to be . . . a center for the entire neighborhood.”  Two nurses “made 10,142 visits to the homes of the neighborhood, while 10,377 visits have been made by mothers to the Center.” More than 750 families and 491 babies came under the Centre’s care. Prenatal care led to 103 successful births. These results were considered “nothing short of remarkable” and the Federation became “a force in the community life of Philadelphia…”

“A Health Center Examination,” from The Second Year Book of the Child Federation (Philadelphia, 1915) (Google Books)

“Nothing like it has ever been attempted,” reported the Federation. The demonstration site attracted not only city officials, but “physicians and social workers from all parts of the country” who came “to personally investigate” this successful demonstration site in South Philadelphia. “It has attracted country – wide attention,” wrote Bok, “and deservedly so.”

Was it the first of its kind? Bok proudly claimed that the health center at 12th and Carpenter was “the second in name in the United States (New York City had opened a similar facility in Manhattan’s Lower East Side). But this site would be even more comprehensive in the services it offered.

At the heart this success? Neighborhood-oriented, community-based, hands-on nursing. “The health center is a means by which the community is in actual touch with the health nurse and social worker,” wrote Bok. “The visiting nurse, assuming a friendly attitude toward the women of the neighborhood, soon finds their needs. The nurse becomes the confidential friend of the family, learns the family history, the diseases prevalent among the neighbors, the names and location of expectant mothers and sick babies.”

Eliza McKnight, the City Health Department’s supervising nurse, wrote in 1916: “mothers are encouraged to bring young babies to the center once a week, so [nurses] will often detect some slight deficiency that escapes the notice of an untrained parent.” These regular visits to the health centers augmented by the “interest shown in the baby by the doctor or nurse… creates a responsive attitude in the mother.”

“Noon Hour on the Health Center Roof,” from The Second Year Book of the Child Federation (Philadelphia, 1915) (Google Books). “The proximity of the Health Center to several large factories led to the opening of the roof of the Health Center into a noon roof-garden where the factory girls might come and find a comfortable and safe place in which to eat their lunches. 286 girls took advantage of this opportunity. Out of this noon hour privilege it is hoped to form a class through which personal hygiene will be taught to these girls.”

“The modern conception of the health center is that it is an institution from which health influences radiate,” according to McKnight. The center would be “a place where people may come to learn how to keep well, the physical expression of creative health effort… the next step in modern preventive medicine.”

As the city’s top public health official, Dr. Krusen quickly realized the value of the Child Federation’s experiment at 12th and Carpenter, but also recognized that this one site was “taxed to the limit.” In the summer of 1916, the city, in collaboration with the Child Federation, would open and staff an additional “five new health centers in congested districts” where “infant mortality is greatest and the general infectious diseases are most prevalent.” Krusen dubbed this aggressive intervention the “Philadelphia plan.”

The plan caught on far and wide. By the end of 1919, 49 communities across the United States boasted health centers and 28 more were proposed in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo as well as other cities. By the end of 1920, no less than 385 American communities had health centers all their own.

Where it all started at 12th and Carpenter Streets? Philadelphia’s Health Center No. 1 served its community for many decades before baby care gave way to car repair.

And, we are pleased to report, the original building survives to this day.

[Sources: “Appalling Increase in Infant Mortality”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 15, 1910; The First Year Book of The Child Federation Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1913-14 (1914); The Second Year Book of The Child Federation Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1915); The Third Year Book of the Child Federation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1916);  Eliza McKnight, “Health Centers,” Monthly Bulletin of the Department of Public Health and Charities of the City of Philadelphia, Volume 1, No. 43, April 1916; “Campaign Starts for Better Babies,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2, 1916; “Plan to Reduce Infant Mortality,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 1916; “Centres Will Teach Good Health Lessons,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 3, 1916; ‘Health District Planned, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 24, 1916; “Nine Visiting Nurses For City Appointed,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 1916; Michael M. Davis, Jr. “The Health Center Idea: A New Development in Public Health Work,” Public Health Nursing, Vol. 8, No. 1, Jan. 1916, pp. 22 – 39; “’Baby Week’ Starts Drive On Ignorance,” Evening Public Ledger, May 1, 1917; Wilmer Krusen, M.D. “The Health Center Plan in Philadelphia,” Health News, Monthly Bulletin, New York State Dept. of Health, Vol. 35, February 1919; “Symposium on the Health Center. I. The Historical Development,” American Journal of Public Health, 11; 1, 1921, pp. 212-213.]

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The South Philadelphia Food Riots of 1917

Food prices had been spiraling out of control.

“Our children and our husbands are not getting enough to eat,” declared Pauline Goldberg, 27, of 449 Durfor Street in South Philadelphia. “It’s up to us to do something.”

Would that “something” be akin to New York City’s food riot? That started with a march on City Hall on February 20th with women from the Lower East Side chanting “Give us bread! We are starving! Feed our children!” Then, according to Marie Ganz, protesters turned violent on the profiteering street peddlers. “Cart after cart was overturned, and the pavements were covered with trampled goods. The women used their black shopping bags as clubs, striking savagely at the men… Onions, potatoes, cabbages flew through the air… Policemen came rushing upon the scene, and they, too, were pelted with whatever was at hand. Surely a thousand women — perhaps twice as many — were in that mad struggle.”

When the women of South Philadelphia learned about the “wave of food riots” that “swept over” New York “from the lower East Side all the way to Harlem,” they were primed for their own action. But “we are not going to raid shops or to riot,” promised Goldberg. “The riots in New York, have not influenced us in the least.”

“We do not expect to have to use force,” she told a reporter. “Already we have got in touch with about 500 women who have promised to cooperate with us. The others will have to cooperate with us. We are going to make them. No, I don’t think the police will interfere with us. They are pretty tired of paying high prices themselves.”

Acme Food Store, 2136 South 7th Street (between Jackson and Winton Sts), May 12, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

Up in Kensington, Catherine Ross Munro, aka “Mother Munro,” founder of the Cohocksink Mothers’ Club, concurred as to a peaceful approach. Munro drafted a telegram to Mayor Thomas B. Smith requesting his quick return home from vacation in Florida. “The working men’s wives of Kensington met at my home last evening and made an urgent appeal for aid to save their families from starvation,” it read. Munro, too, preferred respectful diplomacy: “The housewives of the northeastern section do not believe in rioting.”

But not all of the strikers agreed when they saw the price increases posted by vendors. Overnight, the price of carp jumped from 10 to 18 cents per pound. Onions rose from 2 1/2 to 14 cents. Word of this, and the knowledge that other shoppers who chose not to join the boycott were reduced to purchasing chicken heads for 15 cents each, and pairs of chicken feet 10 to 12 cents. “Even entrails were sold from the pushcarts and, apparently, were regarded by many of the poor as their only hope against starvation.”

All of this sent “several hundred Jewish women” in South Philadelphia over the edge. According to the Evening Public Ledger on February 22nd, crowds “swooped down upon push carts and invaded shops on Seventh street, above Morris, and attempted to destroy the wares. Intermittent battles between the housewives and food merchants raged until policeman were rushed to the scene and restored order. ‘It is robbery! Robbery! Robbery!‘ screamed the women, hurling the offending fish from their barrels and attempting to spoil the food by sprinkling kerosene upon it.”

Acme Food Store, 2136 South 7th Street (between Jackson and Winton Sts.), May 12, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

“In the shop of Hyman Zebulsky, 1636 South Seventh street, the live carp were thrown against the walls and into the street. … In Louis Detofsky’s meat shop, at 1634 South Seventh Street., a more severe battle raged. Kerosene was thrown upon the floor in the melee and pint bottles of the oil, secreted about the women’s clothes, were broken. Outside the pushcarts of produce on the curb were overturned.”

“The spirit of open rebellion against food dealers” spread up and down 7th Street from Reed to Ritner; along 4th Street from Bainbridge to Snyder. Mobs of women “overturned push carts and threatened injury” and according to the Inquirer, “store owners were beaten and large quantities of food were destroyed.”

Organizers considered marching on City Hall, promised a crowd of 15,000 women.

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

“Rioting Won’t Help” advised an editorial headline in the Evening Public Ledger. But apparently it did help—getting the attention of City Hall and Harrisburg. Mayor Smith soon sanctioned a bill aimed at buying food and selling it at cost to ward off hunger. The legislature considered a “state-wide probe” as to the causes for exorbitant prices. The newspapers reported on speculators holding vast quantities of food in scores of railroad cars and warehouses. By the third week of March, the papers traced food price conspiracies” and the District Attorney promised intervention.

Progress—or so it seemed. Yet, disturbances continued a few days later when several hundred women attacked the food store owned by David Cohen at 4th and Mercy Streets, destroying its contents and assaulting the proprietor. Among those arrested: Pauline Goldberg, who, the newspaper reported, had “been arrested on the charge of rioting twice before in the last two weeks.”

“The problem of skyrocketing food prices was never really ‘solved,” explains labor historian William Frieburger, “it was simply absorbed into the far more catastrophic crisis.” President Woodrow Wilson made no reference to America’s food crisis in his second inaugural address on March 5th. Rather, he warned of the nation’s imminent entry into the “Great War” then raging in Europe. “To be indifferent to it, or independent of it, was out of the question,” declared Wilson. And in another month, the United States would enter the war, committing to sacrifices that included, but were hardly limited to, the nation’s food supplies.

Illumination of Food Sign – North Side of City Hall. October 4, 1917. (PhillyHistory,org)

[Sources: “Mob of Women Wails Protest on Food Costs,” Evening Public Ledger, February 20, 1917; “Food Riots Sweep Through New York, Ghetto to Harlem,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 21, 1917; “The New York Food Riots,“ The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1917; “Call Mayor Home In Crisis on Food,” Evening Public Ledger, February 22, 1917; “Rioting Won’t Help,“ Evening Public Ledger, February 22, 1917; “Women Destroy Food In Frantic War on Stores,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 23, 1917;  “Relief For East from Food Stress Seen as West Speeds up Heavy Trains of Supplies,” Evening Public Ledger, February 23, 1917; “Mayor for Sale of Food at Cost,” Evening Public Ledger, February 26, 1917; “Promised Relief Halts Food Riots,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 27, 1917; “Food Speculation Bared in Patton’s Report to House,” The Philadelphia Inquirer,  March 1, 1917; Says Speculators Hold Food in Cars, The Philadelphia Inquirer, , March 2, 1917; Food Riots Break Out in South Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2,1917; Mayor Tells Plan for Cut-Rate Food,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 5, 1917; Food Price Probers Trace Conspiracies” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 18, 1917; Marie Ganz, Rebels Into Anarchy—And Out Again, (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1919); “War prosperity and hunger: The New York food riots of 1917,” William Frieburger, Labor History, March 1984, Vol. 25, No. 2.]

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The South Philadelphia Sugar Refinery Riot of 1917

More than 2000 workers from the Franklin Refining Company and the William J. McCahan Sugar Refinery went out on strike in late January 1917. Their demands? Ten cents more per hour, double pay for overtime and Sundays off.

Food shortages and steeply rising food prices stretched striking families to the point of starvation. Beef and chicken were now entirely out of reach. Potatoes, cabbage, spinach and parsnips weren’t far behind. Onions recently selling at 2 1/2 cents a pound now cost fourteen cents. The “wives of strikers, who had accumulated small savings before the walkout, declared the food prices were so high that their funds had been quickly exhausted.” What would the strikers do? What could they do?

After a month of picketing, the sugar refinery district on the Delaware waterfront, Reed to Morris Streets, was about to become a battlefield.

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American Sugar Refinery, Sugar Warehouse, Northeast Corner Delaware Avenue (Christopher Columbus Boulevard) and Reed Street, December 19, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

Up in New York, the housewives of the Lower East Side, who were not in the midst of a prolonged strike, had declared a food boycott. On Monday and Tuesday February 19th and 20th they vandalized pushcarts and grocery stores and marched in protest to New York City Hall. When the women of South Philadelphia heard that New Yorkers were chanting “Give us bread!” in English and Yiddish, and marching as they cried out “We are starving! Feed our children!” they, too, were ready to consider any and all options. South Philadelphians declared solidarity with the New Yorkers, agreeing to a vendor boycott. They called it a “food strike.”

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Delaware Avenue (Christopher Columbus Boulevard) North of Reed Street, East Side, December 29, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

Many of the wives and female relatives of the refinery strikers were eager for even more of a demonstration. On Wednesday February 21, about two hundred women met a few blocks from the sugar refinery district at Lithuanian Hall, Moyamensing Avenue and Christian Street. Another one hundred gathered at Fourth and Wharton streets. As far as the police were concerned, the purpose of these and other meetings was to plan a march on City Hall, similar to the New York protest. Something happened to the women inside Lithuanian Hall that day. “One after another got up and told of the suffering in her home from lack of food.” Police later claimed they had been stirred into a “frenzy by the preachings of representatives of the Industrial Workers of the World.” Possibly so. They were also moved by the words of South Philadelphia’s homegrown activists. Baby in arms, the 32-year-old Florence Shadle of 110 Wharton Street “insisted that the strike was driving the families of the locked-out men to the verge of starvation.” She urged those gathered “to adopt militant methods to drive out the strike-breakers.”

Shortly after 5pm, about forty of the women left Lithuanian Hall singing and chanting “We want food!” With babies on their hips, or trundling them in carriages or holding their hands, they marched to Front and Reed streets. Some, according to police, came armed with pepper shakers. As they passed the Fire Engine Company #46 at Ostego and Reed streets, protesters traded insults with mounted police. The women showered the policemen and their horses with red pepper.

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North Side Reed Street – West from Delaware Avenue (Christopher Columbus Boulevard), December 19, 1913, (PhillyHistory.org)

“Singing labor songs” and “yelling for food,” marchers from both of the meetings converged on the refineries. Police reinforcements arrived, increasing their number to 250. As if on cue, just as the police tried to disperse the protesters, many more “women, men and children appeared suddenly from all sides.”

The crowd of protesters swelled to 2,000.

The “lack of food and money” had transformed the strikers and their supporters “from peaceful workers and citizens into savage fighters,” observed the Inquirer. A truck used to shuttle strike-breakers between the refineries and their homes returned, adding “fuel to the fire of riot.” The protesters were ready to battle “the bluecoats with a strength born of despair.”

“From somewhere came the report of revolver shots. Bullets whizzed by the heads of the policeman as they crouched in the patrol wagons. There came another shower of shot, followed by bricks and other missiles,” debris from a nearby demolition.

“Policeman charged the rioters with drawn revolvers, firing volley after volley into their ranks and getting in return a shower of bullets, bricks and stones.” From windows and housetops during the height of the battle, snipers fired down on the struggling mass in the street, hitting friend and foe alike with bullets and other missiles.”

“Many of the women, children, and men were badly bruised by the clubs of the police” who showed” no mercy and struck at all who came within their reach.”

The officers attempted “to round the rioters into a huge circle.” Then “they fired their revolvers straight at the mob which, in its collective fury, charged the police.”

The battle lasted nearly two hours.

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Where police found the bullet-ridden, trampled body of Martin Petkewicz after the riot. Northeast Corner of Front and Reed Streets, March 19, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

“One man was killed, four others, including two policemen, probably fatally injured, 10 more seriously hurt and scores bruised and cut last evening,” reported the Inquirer the next morning. It was “the most desperate and bloody riot which has occurred in Philadelphia for years.”

The reported fatality, Martin Petkewicz, a 30-year old from the 100 block of Tasker Street, had recently joined the Industrial Workers of the World. He was reportedly “shot through the heart and killed as he stooped over to pick up a brick.” After the fighting had subsided, police found Petkewicz’s body “at the intersection of Front and Reed streets, bruised and battered by the hundreds of feet which had trampled on it while the fight was on.” Days later, several thousand fellow strikers followed his funeral cortege as it made its way through blocks of rowhouses to Saint Casmir’s on Wharton Street.

“In a hastily organized meeting” called immediately after the riot, “several hundred women assembled in a synagogue at Sixth and Sigel streets.” Pauline Goldberg, of 449 Durfor Street, urged everyone to focus on the issue they all shared: the exorbitant price of food.

“Our children and our husbands are not getting enough to eat,” she said. “If we have potatoes and onions and a little barley, we can do without meat forever, but with potatoes at seven cents a pound where they used to be two and three cents and onions at sixteen cents when they used to be five and six cents, we cannot live.”

“Drastic measures would have to be taken to bring down the price of the two staple articles of their diet,” Goldberg urged.” It’s up to us to do something.”

But what? What would the women of South Philadelphia do?

[Sources: “Sugar Prices Soar as Strike Goes On,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13, 1917; “Vegetables Have Soared to Unprecedented Mark,” Evening Public Ledger, February 21, 1917; “Food Riots Sweep Through New York, Ghetto to Harlem,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 21, 1917; “1 Killed, 14 Hurt, When Hungry Mob Fights Policemen – Wives of Sugar Refinery Strikers Lead Attack; 4 More May Die,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1917; “Police Slay Mob Chief in Sugar Strike – Thirty Hurt When Woman with Baby Leads Refinery Men,” Evening Public Ledger, February 22, 1917; “Attacks on Police Renewed; Striker Shot During Clash,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 23, 1917; “War prosperity and hunger: The New York food riots of 1917,” William Frieburger, Labor History, March 1984, Vol. 25, No. 2.]

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Yes, Bad Things Did Happen on Election Day. . . in 1849

“One of the most dreadful and sanguinary riots” Philadelphia had ever seen—and by 1849, Philadelphia had seen more than a few—took place on an election night. The events were so dreadful and so sanguinary, gothic novelist George Lippard adopted them, without embellishment, as fiction.

“A cry at once arose that a white man was shot, and the attention of the mob was directed to the California House, at the corner of Sixth and St. Mary street. From George Lippard’s Life and Adventures of Charles Anderson Chester (Philadelphia: Yates and Smith, 1849/50). (Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Newspapers had the story first: “The California house, at the corner of St. Mary [now Rodman] and Sixth streets, had long been an object of hostility to the whites.” The riot, or ”outbreak,” as some called it, “was one of those sudden explosions of brutal passions, which could not have been foreseen.” But those who the residents of St. Mary’s Street knew better. With gangs like the Killers and the Stingers dominating the streets, they saw it coming.

“It was the whites against the blacks,” another news account tells us. “The keeper of a black tavern, the California house, was charged with having a white woman for a wife, or with living with her as though she was his wife; and to put an end to or to punish this indecency, or this profligacy, or whatever it was, the mob took the matter in hand, and proceeded, as usual, a la Lynch.”

Not far from St. Mary’s (aka Rodman Street) was a court not unlike George Lippard’s fictional Runnel’s Court in the Moyamensing district. “One of those blots upon the civilization of the Nineteenth Century,” wrote Lippard, where as many as “twenty-four families managed to exist, or rather to die by a slow torture, within…six houses…Whites and Blacks, old and young, rumsellers and their customers, were packed together… amid noxious smells, rags and filth, as thick and foul as insects in a decaying carcase.” And, Lippard added, it could get even worse. “A groggery in a court is a kind of hell within a hell.”
Rear of 714-716 South 7th Street, November 8, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org).

We switch to Lippard’s “fictional” account of the context, and the tumultuous situation:

“On that night the city and districts of Philadelphia were alive with excitement. Every street had its bonfire; crowds of voters were collected around every poll; bar-room and groggery overflowed with drunken men. The city and the districts were astir. And through the darkness of night, a murmur rose at intervals like the tramp of an immense army.

“It was election night. The good citizens were engaged in making a Sheriff who might prove an honest man and a faithful officer or who might heap up wealth, by stolen fees, and leave the county to riot and murder, while he grew rich upon the misery of the people. The good citizens were also engaged in electing Members of Assembly who might go to Harrisburg and do their duty like men, or who might go there as the especial hirelings of Bank speculators, paid to enact laws that give wealth to one class, and poverty and drunkenness to another. There was a stirring time around the State house: the entire vicinity ran over with patriotism and brandy. Vote for Moggs the People’s friend! Vote for Hoggs the sterling patriot! Don’t forget Boggs the hero of Squamdog! Appeals like these glared from the placards on the walls, and flashed from the election lanterns, carried in the hands of sturdy politicians. In fine, all over the county, the boys had their bonfires, the men their brandy and politics, the Candidates their agonies of suspense.”

Lippard continues: “There was one district, however, which added a new feature to the excitement of election night. It was that district, which partly comprised in the City Proper, and partly in Moyamensing, swarms with hovels, courts, groggeries—with dens of every grade of misery and of drunkenness—festering there, thick and rank, as insects in a tainted cheese. It cannot be denied that hard-working and honest people, reside in the Barbarian District. Nor can it be denied that it is the miserable refuge of the largest portion of the Outcast population of Philadelphia county.”

Two of the Killers. ca. 1848. Lithograph by J. Childs. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Thanks to the Killers and the Stingers, two of the city’s growing number of gangs, that “district [had] for two years been the scene of perpetual outrage. Here, huddled in rooms thick with foul air, and drunk on poison that can be purchased for a penny a glass, you may see white and black, young and old, man and woman, cramped together in crowds that fester with wretchedness, disease and crime.”

One crime that election day was a bold and brutal attack on the California House.  

“Through this district, at an early hour on the night of election, a furniture car, filled with blazing tar barrels, was dragged by a number of men and boys, who yelled like demons, as they whirled their locomotive bonfire through the streets. It was first taken through a narrow street, known as St. Mary street” and rammed into the California House, which was soon aflame.

Again, from Lippard: “Many were wounded, and many killed. It was an infernal scene. The faces of the mob reddened by the glare, the houses whirling in flames, the streets slippery with blood, and a roar like the yells of a thousand tigers let loose upon their prey, all combined, gave the appearance of a sacked and ravaged town, to the District which spreads around Sixth and St. Mary street. The rioters and spectators in the streets were not the only sufferers. Men and women sheltered within their homes, were shot by the stray missiles of the cowardly combatants.”

Where were the police? Occupied elsewhere, throughout the city. It was election night.

“Shortly before midnight,” we learn from the Inquirer, “a body of Police forced their way to the scene of action, fire, and bloodshed,” but the entire area was out of control. Chaos continued into the next morning when “six or eight military companies headed by the Sheriff and Mayor marched to the scene of action, took possession of the disturbed district, and planted cannon in the streets to prevent the encroachment of the crowd.”

Cannon in the streets of the Quaker city? Lippard knew he couldn’t improve on this reality for his fiction.

“There is not a city in the Union more shamefully mob-ridden than Philadelphia,” reported The National Era. This most “mobocratic” city cannot be redeemed from the curse of the mob, wrote Frederick Douglass, who called out the “bitterness and baseness of the hatred with which colored people are regarded in Philadelphia. “

This city is home to the “most foul and cruel mobs” waging war “against the people of color” Douglass continued. Philadelphia “is now justly regarded as one of the most disorderly and insecure cities in the Union. No man is safe—his life—his property—and all that he holds dear, are in the hands of a mob, which may come upon him at any moment—at midnight or mid-day, and deprive him of his all.

“Shame upon the guilty city! Shame upon its law-makers, and law administrators!”

But there was little shame in the city that would, over time, earn notoriety in a book by Lincoln Stephens titled The Shame of the Cities. Philadelphia’s chapter? “Corrupt and Contented.”

[Sources: “Postscript. Dreadful Riot. Houses Burned, and Several Persons Killed and Wounded.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 10, 1849; “Mob at Philadelphia,” The Columbia Democrat, October 20, 1849; “A Terrible Riot Took Place in Philadelphia,” Jeffersonian Republican, October 18, 1849; George Lippard, Matt Cohen, and Edlie L. Wong. The Killers: a Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).]

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The Rise of Big Sugar

Once upon a time, sugar was little more than “an exotic spice, [a] medicinal glaze or sweetener for elite palates.” Then slavery changed everything and sugar went global.

Cane harvested in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and eventually the Philippines and Hawaii was processed into raw sugar, poured into sacks weighing hundreds of pounds each and loaded onto ships bound for America’s urban centers, where refineries produced what came to be known as table sugar.

Pier 40 – South Wharves – Christian Street, Cargo of 8,700 tons of raw sugar on upper deck. Dept of Wharves, Docks and Ferries, Phila., March 23, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Gleaming white crystals would eventually be served in sugar bowls, complete with silver tongs and spoons as part of refined table settings. wrote April Merleaux in Sugar and Civilization. “The ensemble of material goods . . . together with rules for proper use of those items, signified that the eater was fully civilized.”

Refined sugar – superfine and super white – symbolized an elevated social rank, an idea that goes back to the 1870s, when refiners “waged a public campaign to dissuade Americans from eating raw sugar.” We learn from David Singerman’s article, “The Shady History of Big Sugar,”  that one advertisement “featured a disgusting insect that supposedly inhabited raw sugar and caused an ailment called ‘grocer’s itch’ in those who handled it.” As racial theorist Ellsworth Huntington put it, we refined sugar “not only to tickle our palates, but to please our eyes by its whiteness.”

“For middle-class people in the United States, writes Merleaux, “to eat refined white sugar was also to internalize a colonial and racial division of labor.” Protected by high tariffs, American sugar refiners enjoyed protections that “maintained the racial hierarchy encoded through the contrast between civilized and uncivilized, technology and nature, refined and raw, white and brown.”

“The government got hooked on sugar, too,” writes Singerman, “by 1880, sugar accounted for a sixth of the federal budget.” And sugar came to play a significant role in government policies. Annexation of Hawaii in 1898 helped guarantee the steady flow of raw sugar to refineries on the mainland. So did a temporary occupation of Cuba and the retention of Puerto Rico and the Philippines as U.S. territories.

Municipal Pier No. 40 – South. 8,700 tons of raw sugar on [—-] deck. Dept of Wharves, Docks and Ferries, Phila., March 23, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

At the start of the 20th century, “the American Sugar Refining Company formed as a holding company, and grew into one of the nation’s -largest industrial corporations. According to Merleaux , “sugar refiners were repeatedly the subject of antitrust investigations by the Department of Justice and muckraking journalists.” Indeed, the “Sugar Trust” became “one of the most notorious and successful monopolies of the Gilded Age.”

The City of Philadelphia did what it could to support Big Sugar, including the construction of several state-of-the art piers (including Piers 38 and 40 South) aimed at increasing commerce.  Philadelphia’s refineries were able to ramp up production to more than 5.2 million pounds of sugar per day. Philadelphia ranked as the second largest sugar producing city in the world.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that while politicians and industrialists were doling out advantages for Big Sugar, physicians and nutritionists were influencing consumers to believe that sugar consumption was, in fact, a “healthy ‘fuel-food,’ necessary to proper nutrition and crucial for people performing heavy labor.” American per capita consumption more than doubled from 32 pounds per year in 1870 to 80 pounds per year in 1910.

“Some years ago,” recalled editors at the Inquirer in 1916,  “when the nutritive value of sugar came to be fully realized, an unrestricted use of sweets was advocated in many quarters.… Many mothers were so obsessed with the idea of ‘nutritive value’ that they were inclined to place sugar on a pinnacle, naturally to their children’s delight.” But American sugar consumption had gone too far, claimed the editors, observing that “to a large extent nowadays among the poor classes” mothers are enabling sugar consumption that previously “would have made our mothers’ hair stand on end.”

Pier No. 40 – South Delaware Wharves. Cargo of 8,700 tons of raw sugar on upper deck. March 23, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

American sugar consumption remained, then as now, very high, about twice the recommended daily limit. And the reason was more than the appeal of sugar’s sweet taste.

By the 1950s and 1960s, scientists had become aware of links between sugar and obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But, according to more recent revelations after a deep dive into archival documents, researchers found that the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group set up to lobby on behalf of sugar, paid Harvard researchers to direct blame away from sugar and aim it specifically toward fat. Their article, published in the prestigious and generally venerable New England Journal of Medicine presented results that “exonerated sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.”

About the same time Big Sugar was manipulating what was known about the dangers of sugar, this writer was a middle school student in Mr. Donohoe’s history class at Leeds Junior High School in East Mount Airy. After all these years, one specific, ahistorical claim still stands out in memory.

“America is a sugar-eatin’ country,” declared Mr. Donohoe, in class, glowing with national pride.

Couldn’t argue then; can’t argue today. But all these many years later, with real history in hand, the truth has swapped patriotism with cynicism.

[Sources: “Sweets Place Recognized.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1916; April Merleaux, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness (University of North Carolina Press: 2015); Kearns, Cristin E et al. “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents.” JAMA internal medicine vol. 176,11 (2016): 1680-1685; Anahad O’Connor, “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat,” The New York Times, September, 12, 2016; David Singerman, “The Shady History of Big Sugar,” The New York Times, September 16, 2016; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, “The Sugar that Saturates the American Diet has a Barbaric History as the ‘White Gold’ that Fueled Slavery,” The New York Times, August, 14, 2019]