On Market Street, between 5th and 6th Streets and next to the Independence Visitor Center, there are plaques on the sidewalk dedicated to the families, artisans, and businesses who had shops on that very block during the 18th century. However, a mere ten minutes walk from that location, visitors are not only able to get similar historical information, but they’re also able to view the still-standing colonial houses which have been on the same alley since as early as 1728.
Elfreth’s Alley maintains the claim of being the oldest residential street in the United States. It dates back to 1702 when two blacksmiths surrendered portions of their land in order to create an alleyway that led to the river. The current Elfreth’s Alley houses were built between 1728 and 1836. Luckily, census records are able to provide insight into the changing lives of Philadelphia citizens for over 300 years. Through those centuries, the houses have usually held more than one family at once. The residences included dressmakers, silversmiths, ship builders, and more. For instance, in the 19th century Josiah Elfreth, whose grandfather was the alley’s namesake, lived at 137 Elfreth’s Alley for a period of time with his wife and children. Also, in the 18th century, German Adam Clampfer owned both 130 and 132 while he kept a tavern and store on 134 Elfreth’s Alley. According to records previously found on the association’s website, the Clampfer family owned the 132 Elfreth’s Alley property for over a century. With such a complex and long history, it is easy to see why preservation of such a street is important to the City of Philadelphia.
It is not a surprise then, that preservation efforts for Elfreth’s Alley began in 1934. That was the year that the Elfreth’s Alley Association was founded. At that time, the City of Philadelphia had rebranded Elfreth’s Alley as the 100 block of Cherry Street and it was set to be destroyed. Not only did the organization save the street, but they were also able to turn the 100 block of Cherry Street back into Elfreth’s Alley. It is a credit to the Elfreth’s Alley Association that tourists from all over the country and the world are able to explore the cobblestone street and its history.
However, preserving the street and its buildings are not the only important jobs taken up by the modern, non-profit Elfreth’s Alley Association. They also promote conservation efforts in an attempt to research more about the history of alley’s residents. In 2012 and 2013, archaeological teams headed by Deirdre Kelleher from Temple University were able to dig into the rich history of the street, finding artifacts from both the professional and personal lives on the Elfreth’s Alley residents.
This year, the Elfreth’s Alley Association will receive a PA Historical Marker for their hard work in preservation, research, and education. It will read: “Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia County – Impeccably preserved vernacular neighborhood in the heart of Philadelphia – one of the nation’s oldest and a National Historic Landmark. There have been extensive studies of these homes, their owners, and the area’s transformation over its nearly 300 years of existence, shedding light on a very diverse working class community.”