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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]

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Culture War at 19th & Chestnut Streets

W hat’s all this about the City of Brotherly Love? Philadelphia was a flat-out racist city a century ago.

Raymond Pace Alexander, the first Black graduate of Penn’s Wharton School in 1920 returned home with a law degree from Harvard three years later. He would later recall: “Excepting only the restaurants in the John Wanamaker store and the Broad Street, Station, a Negro in 1923 could not be served in the restaurant or café of any first-class hotels in Philadelphia, nor could he obtain food in any of the central city restaurants. … [The] only place he could obtain food in central Philadelphia was in the Automats, which were colorblind … restaurants away from the central section and those in the suburban area were even worse. Their method of refusal sometimes took the form of violence.”

Likewise, the city’s many movie theaters, ostensibly palaces for the people, were offenders. Theater managers deployed an array of tactics to keep Blacks from entering. When Marian Dawley and a few friends went to the movies at 59th and Market Streets, they were told “all tickets for colored people have been sold.” When the new Aldine at 19th and Chestnut opened in 1921, its manager, with a pocketful of outdated tickets and stubs, regularly switched them to turn away Black customers.

The brand new Aldine Theater. December 8, 1921. Southeast corner of 19th and Chestnut Streets (PhillyHistory.org)

How would the city’s Black community deal with this? Two options were acceptance and building theaters for Black audiences. The Dunbar Theatre, which opened in 1920 at Broad and Lombard, would be “owned and controlled by citizens of color.”  A third alternative? Use the law to challenge, if not change, Philadelphia’s racist ways.

By 1924, Alexander was ready to face the challenge. He had already garnered experience—and some success—in civil rights litigation. During the summer of 1921, between his first and second years of law school, Alexander brought his very first civil rights suit against New York’s Madison Square Garden for denying him use of their swimming pool. At Harvard, where residence in dormitories was made compulsory for first year students, Alexander took on their contradictory rule prohibiting occupancy by Black students. His essay “Voices From Harvard’s Own Negroes” argued for change, drew praise from professor Felix Frankfurter (a future Supreme Court Justice) and contributed to the reversal of Harvard’s exclusion policy.

Back home in Philadelphia, the newly-minted lawyer took what he learned in the dormitory victory to shape civil rights work that would last for decades, according to Kenneth Mack. Pennsylvania’s 1887 Equal Rights law “lacked “teeth,” Alexander would later admit, but provided enough traction “to file suits against discrimination.”

Where would Alexander launch his campaign? By repeatedly refusing tickets purchased by Black citizens and denying them passage through the damask-brocaded, marble-encrusted, crystal-laden lobby of the Aldine, Center City Philadelphia’s “most brilliantly lit” movie house, manager Charles Starkosh provided Alexander with exactly what was needed. And with the screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s “mighty dramatic spectacle,” The Ten Commandments, the case had the potential to be both iconic and ironic.

“The Aldine’s choice to exclude Black theatergoers sparked perhaps the most sustained set of conflicts over public accommodations in the city” during the 1920s, writes Mack. After an initial loss in court, Alexander came forward with additional plaintiffs and the court “condemned the Aldine’s actions, prompting a settlement.” Theater management “issued a public apology and promised to end its discriminatory policy.”

Aldine Theater marquee and signage for The Singing Fool, starring Al Jolson, October 2, 1928. Southeast corner of 19th and Chestnut Street (PhillyHistory.org)

Alexander’s civil rights cases and his boycotts, combined with the Black vote, would help guide the passage of a new Pennsylvania Equal Rights Law in 1935, which, according to Alexander, would have “some nasty, sharp–edged teeth.”

1900 Chestnut Street, law offices of Raymond Pace Alexander, built for Alexander in 1935 by Frank E. Hahn. (University Archives – Penn Archives Digital Collection)

Still, Philadelphia’s prevailing culture remained steeped in systemic racism. In October 1928, three years after Alexander’s victory, the Aldine screened The Singing Fool featuring Al Jolson, the “shameful poster boy” of blackface (as he would be called). For the film’s entire run, giant portraits of Jolson—in blackface—loomed over the intersection of 19th and Chestnut.

Jolson’s ephemeral image, of course, would soon be taken down. And by 1935, the same year as Pennsylvania’s new Equal Rights Law, Alexander’s practice had become successful enough to acquire land and commission a brand new, three-story building “in the heart of the almost exclusively white Center City of Philadelphia.” The location: right across 19th Street from the Aldine. There, with his wife/partner, lawyer/economist Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and others in the firm, Alexander would do much more to advance the cause of civil rights.

Raymond Pace Alexander had made sure to have the last word in the battle for the soul of 19th and Chestnut Streets. This time it would be set in stone.

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[Sources: David A. Canton, Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013); Ted Gioia, “A Megastar Long Buried Under a Layer Of Blackface.” The New York Times, October 22, 2000; Kenneth W. Mack, “Rethinking Civil Rights Lawyering and Politics in the Era Before Brown,” The Yale Law Journal; New Haven Vol. 115, no. 2, (Nov 2005); Bradley Maule, “Paced For Growth At 1900 Chestnut,” Hidden City, May 8, 2014; Colin A. Palmer, editor. “Raymond Pace Alexander,” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History,. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006); “All Seats For Colored People Are Sold Out,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 8, 1919; Philadelphia to Soon Have a New Colored Play House, Philadelphia Tribune, November 8, 1919; “Theatre Employee Accused of “Switching” Tickets to Colored Patrons,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 29, 1924;Aldine Theatre Case Settled in Manager’s Favor, Philadelphia Tribune, March 2, 1925; Aldine Theatre Opens, Inquirer, November 12, 1921; “The Singing Fool” Begins at Aldine,” Inquirer, October 2, 1928.]

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Decision Time: The Centennial Columbus

Christopher Columbus Statue at the Centennial Exhibition, 1876. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

No one had a clue as to what Christopher Columbus actually looked like.

No matter, American artists from Benjamin West onward invented images of Columbus in a host of biographically inspired settings that played both into and off of the truth. Washington Irving’s best-selling biography first issued in 1828 would go through 39 American and 51 international printings popularizing, fictionalizing, mythologizing all the way.

Americans, Thomas Schlereth explains, “configured and contested Columbus differently as a national symbol” in an expanding nation determined to revise, augment, justify and glorify its founding narrative. Columbus served a purpose, appearing again and again, in everything and seemingly everywhere from “painting and philately, monuments and sculpture [to] civic iconography… national coinage, pageants and plays.”

Nineteenth-century America, you might say, discovered Columbus. And in a very real way, writes Schlereth, this century-long, re-creation of Columbus enabled and informed a “larger, many-sided quest for an American national character.”

Where the earliest American monument to the idea of Columbus came in the form of a 40-foot tall obelisk dedicated in Baltimore in 1792, 19th-century Americans would come to expect representations of the person Columbus in the form of statues and busts populating “city parks, civic spaces, and government buildings.”

In 1844, Congress dedicated the “first piece of statuary that was ever purchased by the government,” according to William Eleroy Curtis. Luigi Persico’s Discovery of America presented Columbus “clad in a totally inaccurate suit of European armor” carrying in his right hand an orb (“America”) beside “a semi nude Native American female, the Indian princess of colonial America, [who] crouches awkwardly by his side, ready to flee.”

The Discovery of America, also known as The Discovery Group, 1844. Marble sculpture by Luigi Persico originally at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia)

While some accepted the Persico’s sculpture “as an appropriate symbolization of their nation’s manifest destiny and racial supremacy,” as Vivien Green Fryd tells us, others debated the sculpture’s merits, its meaning and its message. Here was another example of “the nation’s perennial search for self-identity.” This time, and in many to follow, it came in a fictional form, figure and face of the so-called “Discoverer.”

By the 400th anniversary of 1492, Schlereth points out, American cities, including Philadelphia, would have 28 monuments to Columbus—more than any other country. Columbus appeared “atop pedestals, fountains, triumphal arches, socles, and freestanding columns.” And for the most part, these depicted Columbus as “independent, destined, and triumphant; he invariably appears as a young, clear-thinking conqueror, the prescient visionary of the first voyage, not the beleaguered mariner of the last expeditions.”

Columbus was no longer abstract; no longer an idea. He was, as Claudia Bushman points out discussing the Persico group at the Capitol in Washington, embodied in a Caucasian male representing racial domination, a statement in stone that, among other things, “underscored and supported the government’s Indian removal policy.” And in the context of the other sculpture flanking the same staircase at the Capitol, Horatio Greenough’s sculpture of a violent encounter between a hatchet-wielding Native American warrior and a Caucasian pioneer family (The Rescue—popularly known as Daniel Boone Protecting His Family), the pair of statues became the target of ongoing controversy.

Both sculptures, according to Bushman,“proved offensive to Americans” and in 1939 a joint congressional resolution proposed “that The Rescue be ‘ground into dust, and scattered to the four winds, that no more remembrance may be perpetuated of our barbaric past, and that it may not be a constant reminder to our American Indian citizens…’.”

The resolution failed to pass. But in 1958, “when the capitol building was to be extended, the government removed all the sculptural works in the vicinity. Most of the art works were later returned to their placed, but the two offending works…disappeared forever.” Word has it they reside in a Smithsonian storage facility somewhere in Maryland. And, since a crane accident in 1976, The Rescue is reduced to a “pile of fragments.”

As for The Discovery Group, its figures stare into the empty space of a warehouse that presumably looks something like the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Will Philadelphia’s Columbus have a similar fate? Should it?

[Sources: Bushman, Claudia L. America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero (Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1992); William Eleroy Curtis, “The Columbus Monuments,” The Chautauquan, Vol 16, Oct 1892-March 1893; Vivien Green Fryd, “Two Sculptures for the Capitol: Horatio Greenough’s ‘Rescue’ and Luigi Persico’s ‘Discovery of America,’” The American Art Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1987); Thomas J. Schlereth, “Columbia, Columbus, and Columbianism,” The Journal of American History, Dec. 1992, Vol. 79, No. 3.]

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Legendary Lifting at Cramp’s

Cramp’s Derrick at Chestnut Street Pier, May 24, 1898 (PhillyHistory.org)

“The cornerstone of Philadelphia’s Iron Age,” wrote Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies in a remarkable chapter on the city’s industrialization, consisted of three companies: the Pennsylvania Railroad, Baldwin Locomotive Works and Cramp Shipbuilding Company.

Today we focus on the last, a company formed in the 1840s that employed 5,600 by the mid-1890s at its 31-acre shipyard in Port Richmond. According to The Scientific American, Cramp had “some 282 vessels” to its credit by the end of 1894 and would, by the time of its final closing after World War II, have 500.

Passenger steamers were Cramp’s bread and butter. They built 112 from the Albatross in 1849 to the Evangeline in 1927.  The latter was known for its service on the Clyde line’s Miami-Havana service. Another, the Great Northern, set speed records from Honolulu to San Francisco and for a round trip crossing of the Atlantic: 14 days, 4 hours, 30 minutes.

Cramp’s fast ships attracted clients from around the world to Port Richmond. The Zabiaka, built in 1880 as part of an order for the Imperial Russian Navy, would be clocked as “the fastest cruiser in the world.”

Vessels for another client,  the United States Navy, included 65 destroyers from the Smith in 1909 to the Paul Jones in 1920; 31 cruisers from the Chattanooga in 1864 to the Youngstown in the 1940s; 23 submarines from Thrasher in 1912 to Wolfish in the 1940s and 22 battleships – from the Indiana and the Massachusetts in 1893 to the Wyoming in 1911.

Two dozen cargo steamers, could—and often did—serve civilian or military purposes. In 1907, Cramp launched the 375’ Massachusetts for the New England Navigation Company. Through a series of owners and name changes, this ship became the Ogala with the U.S. Navy’s the Mine Division. The Ogala happened to be stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was sunk and subsequently put back into service.

In 1874, Cramp launched ten, 240-foot-long colliers—coal carriers—including six for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company (appropriately named Reading, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Williamsport, Allentown and Pottsville). Over time, Cramp produced 58 barges, 27 tugboats, seven tankers, a handful of ice boats and, of course, ferryboats.

Steam Crane Atlas placing a 70-ton boiler in the hold of Armor Cruiser New York. “The work of raising the boiler, carrying it a distance of 80 feet and lowering it into position was accomplished in the remarkably short time of twenty-six minutes.” Scientific American, December 29, 1894. (GoogleBooks)

Cramp also made a tool that helped modernize scaled-up shipbuilding. This “monster floating derrick,” the “largest piece of machinery of its kind in the world” staked its claim to “some really remarkable performances” handling with dispatch the heaviest boilers and canon, up to 125 tons. The four boilers of the battleship Indiana, each weighing 72 tons, were choreographed from wharf to vessel in half a day. The 80-ton boiler for the Navy’s cruiser Minneapolis was moved into position, more than 100 feet, in 26 minutes.

The “lifting and traversing gear” of this floating 116-foot tall derrick, its “boom, mast, braces, collars, helmet, and all its lifting and traversing gear… [were] formed of the toughest steel possible.” Its iron pontoon measured 73-by 62-feet by 13-feet deep. The diameter of this derrick’s distinctive cone: 40 feet at the base. This derrick could lift “with ease the heaviest boiler constructed”—as much as 125 tons.

What to name a giant of such strength and speed? Cramp turned to ancient mythology and chose the name of the god responsible for nothing less than holding up the celestial heavens. Their machine at the heart of Philadelphia’s Iron Age would be known as Atlas.

[Sources: Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies, “The Iron Age, 1876-1905,” in Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982)]; Farr, Gail E., and Brett F. Bostwick with the assistance of Merville Willis.  Shipbuilding at Cramp & Sons: A History and Guide to Collections of the William Cramp & Sons Ship and engine Building Company (1830-1927) and the Cramp Shipbuilding Company ((1941-46) of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1991. (pdf); Jeffery M. Dorwart, Shipbuilding and Shipyards, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia; The Cramp Ship Yards, Scientific American, (New York) December 29, 1894, 62, no. 26; Millington Miller. “Cramp’s Shipyard and the New United States Navy”, Frank Lesley’s Popular Monthly,  vol. 38, July to December 1894; “Building War-ships at Cramps,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 1894; “Warships Nearly Finished,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug 3, 1900; Waldon Fawcett, “Mechanical Appliances in Modem Shipbuilding,” Technical World, vol. 2, no. 1 September 1894; Waldon Fawcett, “Floating Cranes Steel and Iron,” American Manufacturer and Iron World, vol. 69, No. 18, October 31,  1901.]

William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company. August 15, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)



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The Rise and Fall of Southwark

“When you enter the plaza,” reported the Inquirer in 1981, “Southwark surprises you with the makings of a nice community. The towers look into a community center, open squares and trees, and from these extend little streets of rowhouses with hedges and yards. It is a campus-like setting full of potential…”

That was the idea, anyway.

South 4th Street, Christian to Washington, 1964 (PhillyHistory.org)

Inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, architects including Louis I. Kahn and Oscar Stonorov designed three dozen high-rise housing projects for thousands of Philadelphia’s low-income families. Edmund Bacon at the city planning commission led the charge. Bacon, John F. Bauman put it, “viewed public housing as part of the process of excising away Philadelphia’s obsolescent industrial past and ushering in a modern and more physically attractive future for a ‘Better Philadelphia.’”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, according to Alexander van Hoffman, urban high-rise projects “rising out of vast expanses of grass and greenery” came to “dominate the image of American public housing.” The “movement for tall modernism…gained support from city officials and developers who saw sleek skyscrapers as a way of modernizing the aging urban landscapes of postwar America.”

A few designers worried they might be creating a new generation of “supertenements.” No matter. According to van Hoffman, officials “in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago, embraced high-rise design with an almost insane tenaciousness.” By 1960, Philadelphia had 22 low-income towers with another dozen, including three at Southwark Plaza, by Stonorov & Haws, on the drawing boards. By the late 1970s, 5,000 Philadelphia families occupied 36 high-rise projects, a social experiment that would soon become recognized as a profound city planning failure.

Built in 1963 for about $12 million (the equivalent of more than $100 million in today’s dollars) Southwark’s three 26-story towers, along with adjacent low-rise neighbors, housed more than 2,700 residents in 886 units. Cheek-by-jowl and steeped in poverty, everyone there lived with crime, drugs, unrepaired plumbing and perennially dysfunctional elevators. “It’s like living in hell, only worse,” one resident told a Bulletin reporter in 1977. “In hell, at least you are dead.”

Aerial View from Southwark Building, May 11, 1965 (PhillyHistory.org)

Southwark quickly became known as a “model of the misguided public housing policies of the day: Build cheap, then pack ’em in,” wrote the Inquirer’s Frank Lewis. This project was nothing short of “notorious for its failure in terms of people’s lives,” urban designer Jon Lang later wrote. “One of the city’s worst public housing sites,” confirmed John Kromer in Fixing Broken Cities.

The police “dreaded” Southwark. Responding to complaints, “they used the ‘three-car’ approach—three police vehicles dispatched to handle one complaint. One set of officers was needed to guard the cars. Bricks flew from the high-rises, pelting cops and their vehicles.”

If Southwark stood out at all,” wrote Buzz Bissinger in A Prayer for the City, “if there was anything that distinguished the complex, it was in the color of those…towers—a clammy, sickly yellow the human skin gets from chronic fever and stale air.”

“One didn’t have to be a social scientist or an expert in public housing to understand a place like Southwark… Any adult…or any child, for that matter—could look at those towers in their ugly incongruous setting … and know that they had been doomed to failure from the very beginning, casting a potentially fatal effect not only on those who were sentenced to live there but also those who lived anywhere close to them.”

“There were poor people in the city who desperately needed housing,” wrote Bissinger, “but not like this.”

“Around the same time,” reported the Inquirer, “everyone had seemed to come to the same conclusion … high-rises and low incomes just don’t mix.

The successful explosives felling of [Southwark Residential Towers] two, 331’ tall, 26-story, reinforced concrete apartment structures, 8:30 AM on Sunday, January 23, 2000. (Controlled Demolition, Inc.)
And so, early one frigid millennial morning [January 23, 2000], scores of police officers “cordoned off an area bordered by Sixth, Moyamensing, Queen and Wharton.” Traffic on I-95 was temporarily halted. Eighty-five pounds of explosives had been strategically affixed to 650 concrete uprights in each of two towers.

“At 8:31 a.m. as light snow fell and police, officials and hundreds of residents watched, the two 26-story towers at Washington and Fourth Streets were imploded into giant piles of rubble. Loud bangs rang out, and for an instant, the towers stood intact. Then another bang sounded and the buildings crumbled straight down.” Finally, “a giant ball of light-brown dust rose and spread” over a good part of South Philadelphia.

Southwark was hardly the only low-income, high rise to meet its fate with a bang and a cloud of dust. For two decades, starting in the mid-1990s, no fewer than 23 low-income high rises came down. And implosion was the method of choice. The 8-tower Raymond Rosen Apartments in 1995 was followed a year later by the Schuylkill Falls Apartments. The Martin Luther King Plaza came down in 1999, one year before Southwark, two years before Cambridge Plaza and three years before the Mill Creek Apartments.

Philadelphia, it seemed, had come to its senses as to what constitutes humane, low-income housing. And Philadelphians found themselves engaged in a newfound, post-modern spectator sport.

[Sources: From The Philadelphia Inquirer: Bob Frump, “Why ‘Projects” is a Dirty Word in Housing, April 16, 1978; Andrew Wallace, “Southwark: Trash,” April 16, 1978; Mark Randall, “At Southwark Plaza…” Our Town, Today Magazine, November 1, 1981; Laura Bunch, Vacant Towers Coming Down Amid Hope of Better Housing,” December 2, 1996; Thom Guarnieri, “Towers’ Rubble Clears the Way for a Fresh Start,” January 24, 2000; Larry Eichel, “Rising from Ruins,” December 4, 2005. From The Philadelphia Daily News:  Leon Taylor, “Project’s Towers go from Dream to Dust, April 18, 1995; Christine Bahls, MLK Towers Tumble Down, October 18, 1999. A Citizen’s Guide to Housing and Urban Renewal in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Housing Association, 1960); John F. Bauman, Public Housing, Race, and Urban Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920–1974 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); John F. Bauman, “Row Housing as Public Housing: The Philadelphia Story, 1957–2013,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol.138, no. 4 (2014): Buzz Bissinger, A Prayer for the City (Vintage, 1998); Ryan Briggs, “Bidding Farewell To Queen Lane, Looking Ahead For PHA,” Hidden City, September 12, 2014; Jon Lang, Urban Design: The American Experience (John Wiley & Sons, 1994); Frank Lewis, “The Philadelphia Experiment,” Philadelphia City Paper,  April 17–24, 1997; John L. Puckett, Public Housing’s Backstory, Part of Diverse Stories: Public Housing in West Philadelphia, (West Philadelphia Collaborative History); Alexander van Hoffman, “High Ambitions: The Past and the Future of American Low-Income Housing Policy,” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 8, no. 3, 1996.]