Soft Pretzels: A Philadelphia "Culinary" Tradition

Just like other major cities and tourist hot spots, Philadelphia has its own unique set of delectable edibles. New York is known for bagels, Chicago for its buttery crusted deep dish pizza, and Savannah for its heavenly pralines. Philadelphia has made its way into similar culinary fame, not only for cheese steaks and water ice (characteristically known as “wudder ice” by the locals), but also for the delicious, chewy, salty, “get-em just about everywhere in Philly,” soft twisted pretzels. Philly’s soft-pretzels are breakfast for many a commuter on the run, dependable snacks for the late-night munchy crowd, and at around fifty cents a pop if you buy them individually, the big salty twists topped with yellow mustard (or not) even stand in as “hearty” lunch or dinner for the hungry college student strapped for cash. Soft pretzels are so desirable in this city that some report Philadelphia consumes up to twelve times the national average in pretzels each year.

So, how exactly did the pretzel come to take its place as one of the city’s top tidbits? According to legend, pretzels got their start as far back as 610 AD when Italian monks used the pretiolas, or “little rewards” to encourage children to be diligent in their prayer studies. While the pretiolas soon became popular in Austria and Germany where they were known as “bretzels,” it was not until some ten-plus centuries later that they made their way to the United States in the hands of those immigrants eventually identified as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

While accounts vary, one source claims the first American pretzel was baked in 1861, about 75 miles west of Philadelphia in Lititz, Pennsylvania. As the story goes, sometime around 1850, bread baker Ambrose Roth obtained the recipe from a hobo as a thank-you for a hot meal and some hospitality. Roth then passed the recipe on to his apprentice, Julius Sturgis who subsequently established the country’s first commercial pretzel bakery. Because of the tight trading ties between Philadelphia and the areas in and around Pennsylvania Dutch Country, it was only natural that pretzels would trickle into the city’s cuisine. Once cart vendors picked up on the potential of the salty treat, pretzels became a run away favorite of Philadelphians who, by the way, prefer them soft, chewy, and often topped off with a simple yellow mustard.

Today, most of Philadelphia’s soft pretzels are made, not in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, but right here in the city. Some of the better-known factories are the Federal Pretzel Baking Company at 638 Federal Street, the Philadelphia Soft Pretzel Factory at various locations around the city, and the Center City Pretzel at 816 Washington Avenue. Vendors sell the popular treat at the local fresh markets, out of plain brown paper bags in the streets during rush hour, and – most visibly – out of the once-shiny metal lunch carts that line the city streets. With pretzel merchants on every corner, one thing is certain: In Philadelphia, you never have to go far for a tasty treat.



I Remember Arch Street


Picture, if you will, walking down a street in Center City Philadelphia; and lining both sides, as far as you can see, are nothing but stores packed full of electronics goodies. A mere fantasy you say? Not really. Because such was Arch Street in the late Nineteen Fifties and early Sixties, as I remember it.

“Radio Row”, as it was called, started around 12th Street with Herbach & Rademan, or H&R as it was fondly known. The company still exists today on Erie Ave (actually Moorestown NJ, now), and features as it did then, an enormous variety of gadgets and scientific devices for the hobbyist and industry.

Across the street from H&R was the Radio Electronics Institute. This was a technical school which taught Radio and TV technology.

Down at 11th and Arch was The Philadelphia Outlet Store. In this Emporium featured, what seemed to be hundreds of little bins, each stacked high with some kind of unusual tool or gizmo, all at unbelievably low prices.

From 10th to 6th and Arch, store after store tantalized the electronics buff, offering a vast variety of goods and services. To mention just a few establishments, there was: Soundtronics, Almo Radio, Lectronics Distributors, Captain Joe’s, Radio Electric Service, Foremost Electronics, Barrett Brothers, Consolidated Radio.


There were also a number of electronics surplus stores, whose names escape me. These stores, bursting with equipment, placed much of their wares out on the sidewalk for everyone to examine.

An ARMY-NAVY store like Captain Joe’s was not a place to buy designer jeans as “I. Goldberg” is today. They actually sold Army and Navy surplus equipment from the Second World War, and the Korean Conflict. A large amount of useful electronics, as well as parachutes and uniforms were available for purchase.

The “Big Daddy” of all the stores in the area had to be Radio Electric. This was a giant place which stocked just about everything. I remember many times walking in, with my Popular Electronics Magazine under my arm and running down a list of parts I needed for my latest project. With a great deal of patience, the counter man would run around getting me my one resistor, two capacitors, and a 12AX7 (a vacuum tube).

Today it is all gone.


There Used to Be a Ballpark Here


It is hard to envision the corner of Broad and Lehigh in North Philadelphia as the site of the first ‘modern’ baseball stadium in America. Yet, before there was Citizens Bank Park, or the Vet, or Connie Mack Stadium, which was originally know as Shibe Park, National League Park was the destination of choice for Philadelphia’s baseball fanatics.

The park was erected in 1887. After a fire destroyed most of the stadium in 1894, team ownership rebuilt the stadium using steel, brick and concrete. The choice of building materials was intended to prevent future fires, but they also allowed architects to push the boundaries of stadium construction. Then, as today, sports stadiums were places where cities could show progress and modernity. The rebuilt park cost more than $80,000, seated 18,000 people and became the first to include an upper deck supported by cantilevers. The cantilevers made headlines because they removed the need for the unsightly support columns that obstructed the views of fans sitting in the stadium’s lower level. Small field dimensions also distinguished the stadium and garnered it the nicknames “The Cigar Box” and “The Band Box”. In right field a 40 foot wall stretched skyward and helped turn sure home runs into singles or doubles. The wall eventually climbed to 60 feet and became prime advertising space. A hump in center field covering a partially submerged railroad tunnel led many to give the stadium another nickname, “The Hump”. After William F. Baker purchased the Phillies, the stadium acquired its most endearing moniker, “The Baker Bowl”.


Unfortunately for Phillies fans, the new ownership did not help the perennially poor performance of the team. In the 51 years that the team called the Baker Bowl home (1887-1938) it won only one pennant (1915) and consistently finished at or near the bottom of the league standings. Even the presence of future baseball hall-of-famers Chuck Klein and Grover Cleveland Alexander could not raise the team above mediocrity. Putting a poor product on the field resulted in poor attendance and diminished profits. To compensate, ownership began using the stadium for purposes other than baseball. A cycling ring was installed in an attempt to capitalize on the cycling craze of the early twentieth century. During the 1910s and 1920s local police and fireman’s organizations rented the ballpark for large events. They held rodeos and parades there. The accompanying photos depict a few of the Philadelphia Police Department’s annual reviews, which featured marching bands and military-style processions.

Despite the performance of the hometown team, the Baker Bowl left Philadelphians with many lasting memories. In 1915 Woodrow Wilson sat in the stands of the park, becoming the first president to attend a World Series game. In 1935 Babe Ruth made his last professional appearance there when he withdrew from a game at the stadium. And, Negro League World Series games were played at the park from 1924-1926. Even the fledgling Philadelphia Eagles franchise played there for time during the 1930s.


The Phillies left the Baker Bowl for nearby Shibe Park in the middle of the 1938 season. Years of low attendance and flagging profits had taken their toll on the park and left it in disrepair. Between 1938 and 1950 the stadium, for the most part, remained vacant. Long gone were the days when reporters from across the nation marveled at stadium’s grand design elements and fans jammed the grandstands. During the 1940s a fire gutted much of the park and ensured that it would never be renovated. In 1950, a wrecking bowl tore down the last remnants of the Baker Bowl. Today, a historical sign is the only marker that a ballpark once stood at Broad and Vine.



The Snow Piled Six Feet High


This year, local meteorologists are predicting a very snowy winter for Philadelphia. With such a forecast looming in the future, snow is probably the last thing that residents of this city want to think about. It is likely that Philadelphians did not want to think about the prospect of snow in 1914 either, especially as spring was nearing.

However, March 2 and into the early morning of March 3, 1914, the snow was practically all people were talking about. On that night, a storm blew in from the Atlantic Coast, causing great troubles in New York and Camden. It did not spare Philadelphia from the problems of frozen precipitation either.

In New York, winds of up to 72 miles per hour were reported to accompany the storm as it made its way through the region. By the end, it dropped only 7 inches of snow in the Philadelphia area, however combined with the wind and the snow remaining from a snowstorm the previous week, drifts of 6 to 10 feet in some areas occurred. These conditions shut down the city, cutting off communications with neighboring areas as well as the influx of food from nearby farms. The blizzard was particularly destructive across the river in Camden, where it was reported that:

‘fierce winds from the northwest whipped through the street, tearing off roofs, blowing down chimneys, sending signs clattering away into the darkness, and punishing pedestrians with cutting, stinging, particles of ice-laden snow. Electric lights were torn from their fastenings in all sections of the city. Poles gave way under the best of the winds and collapsed, falling into the street or upon the roofs and sides of houses. Twisted masses of live wires emitted sparks which set the poles blazing and the snake-like shattering imperiled the people struggling through the blinding storm.’ (“Winds Tear Off Roofs”, p. 1).

The snow also caused problems for travelers. Several trains stalled on the way to Philadelphia from New York, not being able to plow through the snow drifts. The Philadelphia Inquirer told stories of people who had become stranded on the trains overnight, some not making it to Broad Street Station until 20 hours after they were expected. Travelers told of being hungry, cold, and tired while imprisoned on the train by snow and ice. One traveler in particular spoke of sending out an expedition to ask for food at a nearby farmhouse he and fellow train riders spotted through the windows of their car. He was quoted in the Inquirer:

‘We fought our way to it [the farmhouse], at times through drifts above our waist. I obtained the name of the kindly lady who opened the door for us, when we had finally swept her deeply-covered porch free.She had little enough in the house, but what she had she gave freely. She supplied us with bread, butter, bacon and a great steaming pot of tea. We carried these things back to the train, and mighty welcome they were. Many of the day coach passengers had not had a thing to eat since noon of the day before and they were half starved.’ (“Passengers Tell Stories of Snow-Bound Trains,” p.2)

Philadelphia spent the next few days digging out from the storm. A 600 man team worked to clear the streets in the central business district by the morning of March 3. Life in the city was beginning to get back to normal at that point, with many of the trolley lines clear and running on schedule and churches and schools reopening.


  • “600 Men and 300 Teams Clearing City Streets.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 3 March 1914. 3.
  • “Deserting City Storm Travels Off Into Ocean.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 3 March 1914. 1.
  • “New York Isolated by New and Severe Blizzard.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 2 March 1914. 1.
  • “Passengers Tell Stories of Snow-Bound Trains.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 3 March 1914. 2.
  • “Traffic Tied Up Under Seven Inches of Snow-Houses Unroofed by Forty-three-Mile Gale-Worst Storm Since 1909.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 3 March 1914. 1.
  • “Trains Arrive After 24-Hour Fight With Snow.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 3 March 1914. 1.
  • “Winds Tear Off Roofs, Sections in Darkness, Trains Tied Up.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 2 March 1914. 1.


Nearly Everybody Read the Bulletin


“Nearly Everybody Reads the Bulletin.” Or, so claimed one of Philadelphia’s oldest and most revered newspapers, The Evening Bulletin. Factory workers and businessmen streamed down the streets of Center City during the hustle-bustle madness of Philadelphia’s evening rush hour. Hurrying to catch the next train or trolley, they often found the time to stop at a sidewalk newsstand and pick up the latest edition of the “The Bulletin.” Indeed, by the 1960s, the paper stood as America’s largest evening daily with a circulation over 750,000.

The Bulletin occupies a special place in the history of Philadelphia newspapers. Founded by Alexander Cummings in 1847 under the moniker Cummings’ Evening Telegraphic Bulletin, the newspaper gained notoriety for its balanced and thorough coverage of the Civil War. After an extended downturn, the Bulletin again hit its stride during the industrial period. Under the guidance of new owner William L. McLean, the Bulletin became popular with the city’s working-class residents and by 1915 the paper ranked first in circulation among Philadelphia’s 13 dailies. The Bulletin was the evening news source for thousands of workers. Through its coverage of World Wars and World Series, stock market booms and stock market crashes, the Bulletin linked Philadelphians to the world beyond the city’s borders.

Despite its popularity during the 1960s, the Bulletin encountered numerous obstacles in its drive to remain an integral part of Philadelphia’s news community. Television began siphoning customers away from newspapers in large quantities during this period. And, though all newspapers felt the crunch from the new medium, evening dailies like the Bulletin took the brunt of the blow. The televised local and national evening news programs removed the need to pick up a paper on the way home. And, as workers left the city in droves for the greener pastures of the suburbs, fewer commuters took public transportation. Rather than read the paper as they had on the train ride home, automobile commuters instead tuned their radios to one of Philadelphia’s numerous radio stations to fill up on local and national events.

The consolidation of media outlets was another hurdle for the Bulletin to overcome. The Bulletin remained a family-run paper in the 1960s and 1970s. This bucked both local and national trends. Most of Philadelphia’s independently owned newspapers had folded or been bought out and incorporated into larger corporate bodies. Despite the odds, the McLean family held out, a fact that no doubt further endeared the paper to Philadelphians. In the end, however, the challenge proved too great. In the face of increased competition from the revamped and corporately backed Philadelphia Inquirer, the Bulletin folded on January 29, 1982.

Yet, the demise of the Bulletin was not to be permanent. On Monday, November 22, 2004, The Evening Bulletin reappeared on newsstands throughout Philadelphia. A local entrepreneur bought the rights to the name from the MacLean family and gave the defunct paper a second life. Spurned on by the renewed interest in locally owned and independent news sources, The Evening Bulletin is once again bringing the news to those commuting in and out of Philadelphia.



An Unusual Display


Although one would never think of displaying such material today, in the past scalps and scalp locks such as those above would have been considered appropriate artifacts for museum exhibits. Until the passing of laws in the 1990’s, scalps were displayed in many museums. This was true, even in Philadelphia. The scalp and scalp locks in this 1921 photo were displayed in Independence Hall (then owned and operated as a museum by the City of Philadelphia) early in the 20th Century.

The scalp and scalp locks were included in a large list of items (like the hatchet and so-called “scalping knife” in this photograph), or Native American “relics” as they were called, borrowed from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by the City of Philadelphia in 1916 to be displayed in an Independence Hall museum exhibit. The intent of this exhibit was to simply tell a story of the history of the United States, and these particular artifacts were some of the many curators believed would help to do so. As the curator of Independence Hall wrote in 1922 when the Historical Society inquired about the use of the items it had loaned out, the reason the items were requested in the first place was because the City’s curator believed that at Independence Hall the artifacts “could be enjoyed by the public as well as playing an important part in telling the story of the historical periods this group of buildings [i.e. those on Independence Square] covered.”1

Scalping was indeed a part of that story. As uncomfortable as it is to think about now, this practice has been well documented in American history. It was the ancient war practice for some peoples of removing a part of an enemy’s scalp with the hair attached, and was only supposed to be performed on the dead.2 Performed in some cases as a sign of victory and in others as a measure of the number of dead, the practice was, unfortunately, often associated with Native Americans. However, Anglo-Europeans were as guilty as the indigenous peoples of this continent when it came to practicing scalping. Some would even argue that Anglo-European settlers encouraged the practice in addition to participating in it by offering bounties for scalps taken from their Native American enemies.3

The scalp and scalp locks displayed in Independence Hall early in the 20th century were labeled as either “human” or “Indian” at different points in the past (indicating that the source of this material was, ironically, unknown). Although the identities of the scalp and scalp locks are unclear, it is very clear that these items are no longer in the possession of either Independence Hall or the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (to whom the items were returned in 1960).*4 The present whereabouts of this material is unknown. Had either of these institutions, or any institution for that matter, still had this material after 1990, it would have most likely fallen under the control of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). This act protects Native American cultural items and burial sites. Included among “cultural items” are human remains, excluding things such as hair that was naturally shed or was freely given. When these items were determined to fall under the protection of NAGPRA, they would have been returned to the appropriate tribes.5

Independence Hall has been under the stewardship of the National Park Service since 1950. National Park Service policy forbids the display of human remains, and as such, no artifacts such as the scalp and scalp locks in this historic photo would ever be displayed at a facility owned or managed by the National Park Service.

* We would like to emphasize again that this is a historic photo, dating back almost 90 years. Neither the Historical Society of Pennsylvania nor Independence Hall is in possession of the materials pictured.


  • 1[17 March 1922 Letter from Curator, Independence Hall to Edward S. Sayers, Esq., Series 9: Museum-Loans, 1889-1974/75], The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies Institutional Records, 1824-2005. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  • 2 James Truslow Adams. The Founding of New England (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921), 15.
  • 3 The Readers Companion to American History ed. Eric Foner and John Arthur Garraty (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991).
  • 4 Karie Diethorn, “1921 Scalp Exhibit-Independence Hall,” 17 August 2006, personal email (21 August 2006).
  • 5 San Francisco State University Department of Anthropology,The ABCs of NAGPRA,2005, (accessed 5 September 2006)


Does This Look Like a Stadium Yet?


The Stadium Complex in South Philadelphia is a mecca for area sports fans. How about a baseball game? Check. Football? Yep. Basketball? It’s covered. And eating contests? Oh, my . . . .

Philadelphia Municipal Stadium, renamed John F. Kennedy Stadium in 1964, stood here for over 65 years. It hosted a variety of sporting events and received notoriety as a venue for Army-Navy football games. Big touring bands often stopped by. The Beatles and Barbra Streisand both performed here in 1966. Live Aid occupied the venue in 1985, proving that nothing rocks like a good cause.

Designed by the Simon & Simon architect firm, workers still had their work cut out for them when this picture was taken. They labored hard to complete it in time for the 1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition. Over 10 million people participated in the event where they saw, among other things, an 80-foot replica of the Liberty Bell strung with 26,000 light bulbs.

That same year heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey faced challenger Gene Tunney in the first of their two fights. A record 120,557 people reportedly attended the event. Boxing proved especially appealing to an urban-industrial society in which the idea of rugged individualism appeared under attack. The sport allowed spectators to live vicariously–if only briefly–through two fighters duking it out in a display of manliness that would have made Theodore Roosevelt weep. Tunney established an early edge over Dempsey, landing a couple of hard punches. “Thereafter[,]” the challenger later recalled, “it was a methodical matter of outboxing him, foiling his rushes, piling up points, clipping him with repeated, damaging blows, [and] correct sparring.” Tunney’s diligence and careful training paid off; he won by decision after ten rounds.

In succeeding years, the city allowed the stadium to fall into disrepair. Mayor Wilson Goode condemned it in July 1989, shortly after a Grateful Dead concert (there is no apparent correlation between the two events). Demolition commenced three years later. The Wachovia Center, opened in 1996, now occupies the site.


  • “John F. Kennedy Stadium.” 28 June 2006. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. (accessed 7 July 2006).
  • Tunney, Gene. “My Fights with Jack Dempsey” in Emra, Bruce, ed. Sports in Literature: Experiencing Literature and Writing Through Poems, Stories, and Nonfiction. Lincolnwood, Illinois: National Textbook Company, 1991. Online at (accessed 7 July 2006).


See and Hear the World’s Greatest Entertainer!


In 1921, the Stanley Company opened the 1303-capacity Aldine Theatre at the southeast corner of 19th and Chestnut Streets. The theater played movies for some seventy years, with a few gaps during the 1950s-1970s. Over the years, it was rechristened the Viking Theatre, then the Cinema 19 Theatre, and finally, Sam’s Place Twin, after Sam Shapiro’s Sameric Company purchased the movie house and divided it into two smaller screening rooms in 1980. The building today houses a pharmacy.

This October 1928 photograph shows the lavish displays for director Lloyd Bacon’s The Singing Fool. The film marked singing sensation Al Jolson’s follow-up to the 1927 smash-hit The Jazz Singer. Like the earlier film, The Singing Fool was a “talkie.” It contributed to the popularity of musicals and the standardization of sound in motion pictures. One can imagine the excitement with which Philadelphians and other Americans greeted the new technology. Although Top 40 music charts did not exist in 1927, it is estimated that the film’s song “Sonny Boy” achieved the equivalent of number-one status.

During The Singing Fool’s finale, Jolson performed “Sonny Boy” in blackface. White working-class entertainers popularized this convention during the mid-1800s. They applied burnt cork to their faces in order to portray dimwitted “darky” or “coon” characters. Blackface remained popular during the vaudeville era. We rightfully find such overtly racist imagery repellent, but, at the time, many white theatergoers accepted and enjoyed these performances, as evidenced by the prominent displays of a “blacked up” Jolson on the theatre posters. Blackface’s popularity highlights the complicated nature of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century race relations. One recent historian argues that white society’s feelings toward blacks and their culture combined resentment, sympathy, and cooptation, or both “love and theft.” In the post-vaudeville era, more enlightened racial sensibilities emerged, leading to a decline in public tolerance for blackface. The practice serves as a painful reminder of America’s struggles with bigotry.



Signs, Signs. . .


Some people (the Five Man Electrical Band included) may call them eyesores, but billboards reveal much about the changing urban landscape during the modern era.

By the early twentieth century, advertisers, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, had progressed beyond pasting handbills onto walls. Drivers passing the intersection of Broad Street and Girard Avenue in 1917 saw a wealth of consumables foisted upon them. Razor blades, food, and wine ads foreshadowed the increasing importance of consumption in sustaining the American economy.

But we also see that billboards often included more patriotic messages. An ad for Liberty Bonds reminded Philadelphians to assist the war effort and to remember the boys fighting the Great War “over there” on the Allied side.

More Information:

  • Gudis, Catherine. Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape. New York: Routledge, 2004.


Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: Newsboy Turned Schoolboy

Here is another window into education reform during the Progressive Era. Still holding a stack of newspapers tucked under his arm, this Philadelphia newspaper boy looks as though he was just pulled from his job on the street and put in front of the camera at school. Indeed, this photograph is labeled “Compulsory Education-Newsboy.” Taken in December 1906, such a scenario could very well have occurred.

Most states had enacted compulsory education laws by 1918. It appears, however, that in 1906, just as today, there were problems enforcing these rules. There are many explanations why legislator passed these laws, ranging from trying to better assimilate immigrants into U.S. culture to making it harder for factory owners to use child labor to run their businesses.

For a timeline of public education in the United States and other information regarding public education, see the Good Schools Pennsylvania website.