Cleaning Up In Philadelphia

Broad and Arch Streets - Looking South - During Clean Up Week Parade, April 20, 1914. (
“White Wings” at Broad and Arch Streets – Looking South – During Clean Up Week Parade, April 20, 1914. (

What with coal ash, horse droppings and the refuse of day-to-day life, cleaning the early 20th-century city proved no small task. But for South Philadelphia pig farmer turned politician Edwin H. Vare, cleaning up in Philadelphia proved to be quite a lucrative operation, both literally and figuratively.

Back then, the city didn’t clean its streets—private contractors did. And year to year, the competition to win and hold contracts for the city’s six districts grew fierce—and political. Before long, the powerful Vare Brothers obtained contracts for every last city street. And they’d hold onto at least several of these handsome contracts until the City Charter of 1919 turned the massive undertaking back over to the city.

In the early decades of the 20th century, cleaning the city also included annual demonstrations of influence, displays of military-style choreography and campaign advertising. As early as 1900, the newly-minted army of 150 uniformed street sweepers, “White Wings,” as they became known, passed in review of before city officials. “Each man wore a uniform of white; his helmet, jumper and overalls were immaculate, and each was armed with a formidable brush, or about 24 inches callibre,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. Commanding each company were leaders in “neat gray uniforms” issuing orders in Italian, or Hungarian or whatever the native language of that particular squad. By 1912, these white duck uniforms and pith helmets became standard issue. By 1913, parades became an annual event.

"White Wing" with Broom,  Shovel and Wheelbarrow, 1912. (
“White Wing” with Broom, Shovel and Wheelbarrow, 1912. (

“Every citizen is requested to join in the crusade against dirt and filth,” proclaimed Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg in April 1914. He asked everyone to do their part “in cleaning out rubbish and waste material from rooms, closets, hallways, garrets, roofs, cellars fire escapes, yards, all dark corners and out of the way places.” And to reinforce the city’s commitment, the mayor designated April 20th to 25th as “Clean-Up-Week” launched by a parade on Broad Street. At the head of the two-mile long march, peppered with eight brass bands, rolled a single, ash wagon bearing a giant sign. Then came a car packed with contractors, then superintendents on foot, then the “White Wings”—uniformed, helmeted blockmen and gangmen wheeling bag carriers or wielding brooms. They were followed by sprinklers, squeegee machines (as we saw previously),  flushers, machine brooms, dirt wagons, ash wagons and rubbish wagons. In all, 2,000 street cleaners and 750 pieces of equipment paraded by.

Advertisement for Clean Up Week, 1914 (Google Books)
Advertisement for Clean Up Week, 1914 (Google Books)

But the procession was only the half of it. The Director of the Department of Public Works sent out 3,400 personal letters to every manufacturer of brushes, brooms, buckets, vacuum cleaners and advertisers of same. He wrote to evey last civic group and major business. All mail from the city bore gummed stickers in yellow and blue with the words, “Remember Clean-Up Week, April 20-25, 1914.”  Police handed out 260,000 four-page printed bulletins. School children were issued blue and yellow buttons. More than 20,000 display placards appeared in the windows of department stores and retail merchants. Every one of the 700,000 Philadelphians settling in to view films at any one of the city’s 205 “moving picture houses” would see slides directing their attention to “Clean-Up-Week.” And inside the city’s 3,200 streetcars were posted neatly designed placards featuring the figure of William Penn wielding a broom from atop City Hall.

As to the metaphor of the broom signifying sweeping political reform? Apparently, that hadn’t yet caught on.

[Sources for this post, all from The Philadelphia Inquirer, include: “‘White Wings’ Pass in Review Before City Officials,” January 3, 1900; “Spick and Span City is Aim of Clean-Up Week,” April 12, 1914; “White Wings Will Herald Clean-Up Week’s Approach—Men and Equipment to be Shown in Parade Today,” April 18, 1914; and “White Wings in March Clean-Up Weeks’s Prelude – 2000 Street Cleaners, Spick and Span, Seen in Parade,” April 19, 1914.]