While plumbing the breadth of the city’s clubs and their very different cultures, Nathaniel Burt acknowledged the Mummers (“one of Philadelphia’s oldest and proudest traditions, but not at all Old Philadelphian”) before landing squarely at the threshold of the city’s most venerable and “crusty coagulate mass of traditions.”
Where would this be headquartered? At Broad and Sansom and the Union League, perhaps? Not quite. “In Old Philadelphia circles,” Burt informs us in his classic book Perennial Philadelphians: Anatomy of an American Aristocracy, “it is understood that though the Union League is very honorable and important, it is not really socially flawless. A great many Old Philadelphians belong to it; for some it is their only club. It is grandly affluent and crusty, full of a rich Civil War fug, long portraits, gilt ceilings, marble floors, paneled banquet halls, thick carpets and curtains; but there is an undoubted tinge of boodle and smoke filled room about it. One seems to sense the absence of spittoons. It is a distinctly political club; once only those who had voted straight Republican could be members, and a good many figures, important politically but not very proper morally or socially, have in the past lounged in the corridors and dozed in the wide chairs. The aroma of Philadelphia’s old ‘corrupt and contented’ is very pervasive.”
Venerable and crusty? Definitely. But not “socially flawless,” and hardly “beyond reproach.”
For the elite destination at the pinnacle of Philadelphia club life, Burt directs us to 13th and Walnut Streets, where, in its architecturally inconspicuous way, the Philadelphia Club has silently stood for the better part of two centuries. Here, “at the edge of the Gayborhood,” as the Philadelphia Magazine points out, is “the oldest and most guarded of the city’s old-guard clubs.” The scale of its plain, red brick building “is so great and its condition so pristine,” noted architectural historian Richard J. Webster, “that many casual observers mistake it for a twentieth-century example of the Georgian Revival.”
Casual observers would be wrong.
“The Philadelphia Club can’t claim to be the oldest such club in the world,” Burt explains, “but it can and does claim to be the oldest in America.” The feel is “definitely stately, not to say austere, with high ceilings, white woodwork, dark portraits and discreet soft-footed servitors.” The interior “reflects a kind of ‘Philadelphia taste’ that takes many generations to lay down,” observes Roger Moss, “an effect that is well beyond simulation by the most skilled decorator.” Domestic leanings make sense when we consider that the building was originally intended as a city mansion for Thomas Butler, “kin of the Pierce Butler who married and divorced the actress Fanny Kemble” the grandmother of Owen Wister. In 1934, Wister served as club president and composed its centennial history.
Yet, in spite of its homey origins, the club has never been accused of being warm or inviting. “It is a very handsome affair, and full of handsome members,” says Burt, “but it rather lacks the Gemütlichkeit associated with most Philadelphia enterprises.”
“Blue bloods hang out to play an archaic domino game called sniff,” a home-grown variant of dominoes. The rules of this game are known only to members and explained in an otherwise unattainable pamphlet by member Benjamin Chew, entitled Chew on Sniff.
Admission to the Philadelphia Club has been equally unattainable.
“Metaphorically, at least,” Burt informs us, “bits of broken hearts litter of the pavement in front of the chaste fanlit door on Walnut Street, memorial to those who tried to get in and couldn’t. More than any other single institution except the Dancing Assembly the Philadelphia Club has stood and still stands is the Gibraltar of social order, defending the purity of Philadelphia bloodlines against the nouveau riches, and keeping up the tone of things.”
In the 1930s, Wister reminded his readers (all of whom were members, since the history was privately printed) that the club had very specific “requisites for admission.” These included “courtesy, self-restraint, a nice regard to the rules of etiquette, a command of speech, an elegance of dress, a familiarity with the habits of the leisure class, a respect for appearance, for the outside of things, a desire to make the passing moment pleasurable.” Subjective enough to deny entry to many a New Philadelphian and, as dictated by the “crusty coagulate” of traditions, all women.
Wister barely blinked as he imagined the club’s second century: “We carry on the tradition, patriotic, social, and civilized, of an honorable and happy past; and . . . we look forward to carrying our tradition on into a happy future.”
[Sources: Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Originally published in 1963); Richard J. Webster, Philadelphia Preserved: Catalog of the Historic American Buildings Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976); Benjamin Wallace, “Members Only,” The Philadelphia Magazine (May 18, 2005); Roger W. Moss and Tom Crane, Historic Landmarks of Philadelphia (Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Owen Wister, The Philadelphia Club, 1834-1934 (Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Club, 1934)].