PhillyVoice called the other day with a burning PhillyHistory question: “When did Rittenhouse Square get its ritzy rep?” And always willing to help out, I explained how the place managed to become and remain “Philadelphia’s most fashionable neighborhood.” Brandon Baker’s fine column (read it here) focuses on the city’s who’s who: the wasp-y aristocratic types, their friends and allies who populated the square and nearby streets with mansions during the second half of the 19th century.
Now there really are two ways to pick apart that question. One is to respond the way I did, something that’s been done repeatedly, in book after book, naming names and ogling great fortunes, grand mansions and lavish weddings. Who can resist the temptation of drawing juicy quotes from Nathaniel Burt’s The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy? And there’s more. We could have turned to Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class where Digby Baltzell analysed the “Victorian gentry” and their “handsome mansions” surrounding the Square.
That’s one way to tell the tale. And while it’s not wrong, it is one sided. Balance, imagined as an afterthought (the French call it L’esprit de l’escalier) was sorely missing. And it would have been supplied by Dennis Clark’s essay on Rittenhouse the nearby companion neighborhood once called “Ramcat,” just to the southwest of the Square.
“It is difficult for Americans today to imagine the grandeur of the elite life-style of a Rittenhouse Square at the end of the nineteenth century,” wrote Clark. “The class culture of such neighborhoods created what amounted to a fairyland of elegance and display protected by Victorian codes of civility and discrimination. These enclaves of privilege combined with architectural eclecticism with passionate embellishment, lavish furnishings, and an adoration of English upper-class family etiquette. Flamboyant architects like Frank Furness and Theophilus Chandler designed edifices for an almost hysterical display of wealth—here a mansion for the sugar baron James Scott, there a Renaissance palace for Mrs. Sarah Drexel Fell. The structures on the square became wildly adorned shrines to aggressive vanity and the obsessive flaunting of riches.”
“But,” Clark continues, “an aristocratic way of life requires much more than money and manners if it is to remain in ascendancy. It demands presumptions of superiority, the exercise of assured authority, and the collaboration of a servant class to do the thousands of jobs necessary to guarantee an elaborate system of personal comforts and princely appointments. … The working people who served were often from such impoverished backgrounds that they had no choice but to serve, and some may even have been beguiled into servility by the mere thought of association with the elegance which they labored to support.”
“In the 1880s, Rittenhouse Square was the scene of an interdependent relationship between rich and poor.” And so Clark fills in the back story: “The servants required to prepare and serve the meals, shop, clean the household, do the laundry, and care for all the details of the privileged establishments on Rittenhouse Square were drawn for the most part from the South Philadelphia Irish community. After 1850, ‘Irish’ in Philadelphia became virtually synonymous with servant. According to the United States census of 1870, there were 24,108 domestic servants in the city of whom 10,044 were born in Ireland. Among the remainder a large portion were of Irish parentage.”
“The great households of Rittenhouse Square were caught in a social dilemma. It was impossible to pursue the extravagant life-style of mannered elegance and luxury without servants, but those most readily available were from a group alien in outlook, habits and background. Nevertheless, wealth had to make the best of it and be served by such poor as there were. … For the Irish a similar ambiguity characterized their connection with Rittenhouse Square. It was demeaning for them to be forced to serve families whose wealth was founded upon notoriously exploitative mills, factories, and railroads. … Many a railroad pick-and-shovel man looked with deeply mixed feelings upon his daughters’ employment in the great houses of men whose railroads had meant for him a lifetime of miserable toil.”
There you have it. Upstairs and downstairs.
Clark’s chapter appeared in the aptly titled book: The Divided Metropolis. Yes, history is always so much better when it reflects reality—complicated, conflicted and contested as it inevitably is.