PhillyHistory.org offers up in excess of 84,000 photographs, more than what the most hopeless visual addict would care to peruse. Even a decade’s worth is daunting. (From 1900 to 1910 you’ll find 4,287 images online.) But if you parse PhillyHistory more closely and narrow your search down to a single year (there are 333 photographs from 1911) you’ll have something that’s not only reasonable, but rewarding.
One blogger’s opinion: The Best Picture Of The Year is the illustrated photograph of 12th and Market Streets. Are there runners up? Not really. But a number of other images made their way into a list of top choices. Each in its own way gives a feel for Philadelphia a century ago.
We were delighted to come across this classic image of the doorway at 305 Delancey Street. The door as artifact speaks to the city’s perennial interest in the past; the children make it a distinctive moment in the present of 1911.
Halfway across town, near City Hall, we see some aggressive commercial signage on Juniper Street. Around the corner at 1427 Arch Street, E.R. Williams made and sold much needed “Artificial Limbs.” We found both images compelling.
Why would a city photographer record the side-by-side Philadelphia School for Nurses and the Florentine Art Plaster Company? The peaceful pair of buildings at 2217-2219 Chestnut Street would soon be disrupted by the widening of the bridge over the Schuylkill.
Nineteen eleven saw an impressive improvements to the city’s infrastructure. See the tracks and trestle at Pier #6; an impressive bridge superstructure as Passyunk Avenue crossed the Schuylkill; a monster sewer project at Mill Creek (48th Street and Haverford Avenue) and the fresh, new “Northeast Boulevard,” before it acquired the Roosevelt name.
But the image of the intersection at 12th and Market beats all. It displays every form of transportation known to Philadelphians at the time: horses, automobiles, trolley cars and the railroad, by proximity. (There’s a meager slice of the Reading Terminal Head House visible on the right, but anyone and everyone knows the building dominates the intersection like a cliff hovering over a canyon.) It’s a photographic capture of the spirit of busy Market Street, a retake of John Sloan’s 1901 painting at East Entrance, City Hall, Philadelphia which hangs today in The Columbus Museum of Art.
The idea of both images is not about buildings, or transportation, but the liveliness of the street. When Sloan’s friend and mentor Robert Henri saw the partially-finished painting he urged Sloan to: “get the figures below to give as much of that eternal business of life – going in and coming out.”
Yes, that’s it. Our anonymous photographer from 1911 captured that “eternal business of life,” something we’ll always be looking for—no matter what the year.