Historic Sites Public Services Snapshots of History

Irving T. Catharine, Philadelphia’s School Design Czar

The Joseph W. Catharine School, S.66th Street and Chester Avenue. October 26, 1937.

The buildings of Frank Furness and Louis Kahn are known world-wide. Yet below the architectural superstars were the work-a-day architects who made their livings designing prominent structures that still dot the city. These included department stores, theaters, police and fire stations, parish churches, and warehouse blocks.  These architects saw their business as a service, and made comfortable livings in good economic times, especially if they had a steady corporate, ecclesiastical, or public client.

Irwin Thornton Catharine (1884-1944) was one such architect.  His name might be forgotten, but during his career he was one of the city’s most prolific builders. Trained in architecture at the Drexel Institute, Catherine’s career received a strong boost in the education sphere due to (in typical Philadelphia fashion) a family connection: his father Joseph Catharine was the long-time chair of Philadelphia’s Board of Education.  Appointed to the position of Superintendent of Builing in 1923, the junior Catharine was now insulated from the economic uncertainty that plagued the architectural profession.  From 1918 to 1937, he supervised the construction of 104 new public schools within the Philadelphia city limits, oversaw additions to 26 old ones, and substantially renovated at least 50 others. Working within a limited but defined budget, Catharine’s work was both elegant and utilitarian. During the 1920s, Catharine’s studio produced buildings in a stripped-down collegiate Gothic style, blocky three or four-story structures punctuated by turrets, high arched windows, and a grand central entrance. By the 1930s, however, Catharine shifted to a more streamlined variant of the Art Deco style, popularly known as “Moderne”, at Bok High School and John Bartram High School, although he also toyed with Mediterreanean motifs at South Philadelphia’s Charles W. Bartlett Junior High School (now the Academy at Palumbo).

Charles W. Bartlett Junior High School, 11th and Catharine Streets, November 26, 1932.

In addition to soaring auditoriums, libraries, rooftop playgrounds, and gymnasiums, Catharine added a novel feature to public school buildings in the 1920s: indoor public bathrooms on each floor (replacing the outdoor latrines in many older school buildings), with marble partitions betwen the toilets.  In a 1925 newspaper interview, Catharine claims to have solved the pesky graffiti problem in school bathrooms:.”Once every [toilet] partition put up was wood; nowadays white marble is used,” he said. “And the children have been the direct cause of this. There is something in the nature of every boy which makes him want to carve his initial or whole name in a wall. If he isn’t clever enough with his pocket knife, he writes his name. White marble partitions and walls make it impossible for him to use his knife.”

Auditorium of the Joseph W. Catharine High School.

One of his last projects was a school at S.66th and Chester Avenue, named in honor of his father Joseph.

Irwin T. Catharine died in 1944.  After World War II, Philadelphia’s school designs veered away from Catharine’s brick and stone historicism and toward the the steel and concrete of the International style.


“Irvin T. Catharine,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2020,, accessed February 27, 2020.

“63-Prop, Philadelphia Public Schools Thematic Nomination,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form,” United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, October 20, 1986,, accessed February 27, 20202.

Philip Jablon, “Why All Philly Schools Look the Same,” Hidden City Philadelphia, June 29, 2012.

Public Services

Public Education in Philadelphia: Philadelphia High School for Girls

The history of the Philadelphia High School for Girls, known by most Philadelphians as simply Girls’ High, can be traced back to 1848 when the city built what was called the Girls’ Normal School at the intersection of Chester Street and Maple Street, an intersection long since paved over and now covered by a parking lot at 8th and Arch Streets. It was a strange name for a school indeed and may cause one to wonder if there was also a Girls Abnormal School, but the name was somewhat misleading. “Normal” schools were schools that educated future teachers to work in primary and secondary education. When the Girls’ Normal School was established, it was not only the first secondary public school for women in the state of Pennsylvania but also the first municipally supported teacher’s school in the United States. Opened in February 1848, there were 149 students enrolled by June, a rather large number of students for any one school to have at the time. The continuing enrollment over the next few years meant that by 1854 the Girls’ Normal School needed a bigger building. In 1854 a new building was erected on Sergeant Street, now called Spring Street, between Ninth and Tenth Streets.

In 1859, the name of the school was changed to the more familiar sounding Girls’ High School of Philadelphia. However, this name change did not last long as the name was changed again one year later to The Girls’ High and Normal School in order to better emphasize that the school trained teachers but also offered classes in purely academic subjects.

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As one of the few public educational institutions for women, enrollment continued to grow until the school once again needed a bigger building. In 1876, a new building located at 17th and Spring Garden Streets was erected. This building was designed to be a showcase of all the major comforts and conveniences of the day. The new building had forty classrooms, terraced lecture halls, and an auditorium capable of seating 1200 people, almost double the school’s student body of 640 at the time. The new building was so large that when it was completed, only Girard College and the University of Pennsylvania surpassed it in terms of land area used in Philadelphia.

In 1893, the High School and Normal School were separated into two distinct institutions with the Normal School moving to a building at 13th and Spring Garden Streets. It was also at this time that the building at 17th and Spring Garden was officially renamed the Philadelphia High School for Girls. In addition to the standard 3-4 year curricula, Girls’ High also instituted a three year curriculum that focused on business classes. This was unusual for the time as “business” was still very much a male-dominated sphere. In 1898, the school made another unusual choice when it started offering courses in Latin and science which were designed to prepare its female graduates for college and university-level education.

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By the 1930s, the school had once again outgrown its facilities and in 1933 work began on a new building at the same location at 17th and Spring Garden Streets. This building was even larger than the last, but it was only twenty-five years later that the school had once again outgrown its facilities. Girls’ High moved to its current location at Broad Street and Olney Avenue in 1958, with the old building on Spring Garden Street becoming the Julia R. Masterman School. The Spring Garden Street building was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Today, Girls’ High remains one of Philadelphia’s preeminent educational institutions. As one of the city’s magnet schools, the school attracts academically gifted young ladies from all over the city. The school’s competitive admissions process and rigorous academic curriculum are not only meant to prepare its students for further college education (98% of Girls’ High graduates go on to college or university) but also to “equip students with the academic, social, emotional, and cultural foundations for success in an ever changing society.” This is evidenced by both the Code of Honor and the school’s motto “Vincit qui se vincit” – He (or in this case, she) conquers who conquers himself. The code and the motto were both adopted by the school in the early 20th century and remain a large influence on the school’s philosophy to this day. It is without a doubt that the Philadelphia High School for Girls will continue to play a major role in public education in Philadelphia for many, many years to come.


Alumni Association of the Philadelphia High School for Girls. (11 January 2011).

Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network (1858-1860 Philadelphia Atlas). (18 January 2011).

M’Elroy, A. Philadelphia Directory1839: Containing the Names of the Inhabitants, Their Occupations, Places of Business, and Dwelling Houses; also A List of Streets, Lanes, Alleys, etc.; and The City Officers, Institutions, and Banks, and Other Useful Information. Philadelphia: Isaac Ashmead & Co., 1839.

The Philadelphia School District – Philadelphia High School for Girls. (11 January 2011).

Public Services

Founder’s Week in Philadelphia

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the city of Philadelphia hosted several large celebrations. Events such as the 1876 Centennial and the 1898 Peace Jubilee connected Philadelphia residents to the anniversary of the founding of the United States and the end of the Spanish-American war. From October 4 to 10, 1908, however, the city threw a celebration that focused on local history rather than national or global events. Known as Founder’s Week, the festivities commemorated the 225th anniversary of the founding of Philadelphia with events throughout the city.

The festivities were well-attended by residents of Philadelphia as well as visitors to the city. A New York Times article from October 5, 1908 states that trains traveling into Philadelphia were three to five cars longer than usual to accommodate the crowds. As part of the celebration, the week was divided into different thematic days, each featuring corresponding parades and other activities. October 4, 1908, designated as Religious Day and the first day of the week long celebration, included services at various churches as well as open air services in Independence, Washington, Rittenhouse, Logan, Morris, and Franklin Squares and at Memorial Hall and Strawberry Mansion in Fairmount Park. The article estimates that 15,000 people attended each of the outdoor services and 20,000 Catholics gathered in Chestnut Street to receive the papal blessing from Mgr. Falconi. Members of the National Guard of Pennsylvania were housed in armories throughout the city, and thirteen United States fighting ships were anchored in the Delaware in preparation for the military parade on October 5, also known as Military Day.

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October 6, Municipal Day, included a parade of police and firemen from around the city and Industrial Day, October 7, featured a parade that focused on Philadelphia’s industrial achievements followed by a later parade that included members of local labor organizations. On October 8, Children’s and Naval Day, activities consisted of a patriotic performance by children at Independence Hall, a review of the ships in the harbor, and a river pageant.

Historical Day on Friday, October 9, featured a large historical pageant held on Broad Street. The pageant was divided into nine divisions with multiple floats illustrating the historic events that occurred in each division. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, a local historian and one of the pageant’s organizers, felt that the event should provide a historical and civic education to Philadelphians, rather than simply serving as another form of entertainment. This lesson in civic history, however, was influenced by the views of the pageant’s organizers. Native Americans were mentioned at the beginning of the pageant and African-Americans were included in scenes illustrating the underground railroad, but the pageant did not mention the arrival of any immigrants or ethnic groups after the American Revolution.

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The lack of focus on the history of specific ethnic groups in Philadelphia is seen by some historians as evidence of city leaders’ attempts to unite different neighborhoods and groups in the city. Often, ethnic groups held celebrations commemorating events important to that group rather than joining together in municipal holidays. The Founder’s Week served as a way to bring Philadelphians together while also providing them with a civic history lesson, albeit one that focused on only certain historical events. After Historical Day, the celebration concluded with Athletic and Knights Templar Day on October 10. The final events included more parades, fireworks, an automobile race, and a regatta on the Schuylkill River.

After Founder’s Week, Philadelphia hosted a few additional large celebrations. In 1919, the city held a parade for troops returning from World War I, and in 1926, the Sesquicentennial International Exposition was held in the South Philadelphia area.


[1] Glassberg, David. “Public Ritual and Cultural Hierarchy: Philadelphia’s Civic Celebrations at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 107, No. 3 (Jul., 1983), pp. 421-448.

[2] New York Times. “Four Races for New York.” October 11, 1908.

[3] New York Times. “Philadelphia Opens Its’ Founders Week.” October 5, 1908.

[4] Joyce, John St. George. Story of Philadelphia. Rex Printing House, 1919. p. 305-306.

Public Services

Public Education in Philadelphia: Central High School

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The founding of a free public school system in the United States is the result of much discussion over several decades. In the early 1800s, Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania debated and tested different ideas for establishing a public school system that would provide an education for those who could not afford the cost of independent or private schools. Various experimental schools were started and operated with varying levels of success. Finally an act passed by the state in 1836 provided authorization for the City of Philadelphia to establish a Central High School. On October 26, 1838, Central High School in Philadelphia formally opened with a first class of sixty-three students. At the time of its dedication, Central was only the second public high school in the country and was open only to male students.

The cornerstone for the new school building was laid on September 19, 1837 at the intersection of Juniper and Market Streets. Three stories tall, the building was shaped like a T and included an astronomical observatory. The roof of the first Central High School building can be seen in what is considered the earliest surviving American photograph, made by Joseph Saxton in October 1839.

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In 1839, Alexander Dallas Bache, the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was named as president of the school and selected many of the first faculty members. Some of the initial courses included natural history, French, drawing and writing, mathematics, Greek, Latin, and mental, moral, and political science. The school grew over the next decade and celebrated two momentous events. On June 24, 1847, President James K. Polk and Vice President George M. Dallas visited the school and addressed the students, and on April 9, 1849, the state legislature granted the school the right to confer academic degrees.

By the early 1850s, changes in the neighborhood around Juniper and Market Streets and the need for additional space forced school officials to look for a new location. On June 28, 1854, a new school building on the southeast corner of Broad and Green Streets was dedicated. The building featured fifteen classrooms, an assembly hall, an observatory, and high ceilings to assist with ventilation. During this time, the school faced criticism regarding financial expenditures and the curriculum, especially the decision to teach certain foreign languages.

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The population of the school continued to grow throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. By the 1890s, classes were forced to meet in neighboring locations and plans were made for construction of a new school building. A lot was chosen on the southwest corner of Broad and Green Streets, and ground was broken on May 7, 1894. Due to several delays, classes did open in the new building until September 1900. Additional construction was finished later and a formal dedication held on November 22, 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt and several members of his cabinet traveled to Philadelphia for the dedication. The President spoke first in the school’s assembly hall to an audience made up of city officials, the faculty, and school alumni before then delivering a speech from the north balcony of the building to the students.

In 1939, the school moved again to its present location at Ogontz and Olney Avenues. In 1983, girls were admitted to Central High School after federal Judge William M. Marutani ruled that the single-sex admissions policy was unconstitutional.

When Central High School was founded in 1838, it was an innovative development in the use of free public education in Pennsylvania. By 1902 when President Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of Central High’s new building, he stated that there were over 170,000 public school students in the City of Philadelphia and that “it is, of course, a mere truism to say that the stability, the future welfare of our institutions depend upon the grade of citizenship turned out from our public schools.” In 1902, as it is today, many aspects of public schooling were fiercely debated, but the public school system had become accepted as necessary for the benefit of society.


[1] Anthe, Charles. “History.” Central High School.

[2] Edmonds, Franklin Spencer. History of the Central High School of Philadelphia. Philadlephia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1902.,M1

[3] New York Times. “President Says M’Kinley’s Policies Have Triumphed.” November 23, 1902.

Public Services

“Conservation is Everybody’s Business”

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On April 4, 2009, Mayor Michael Nutter hosted the 2nd Annual Philly Spring Cleanup. Around 10,000 volunteers worked together to collect 692,560 pounds of trash, complete projects at 12 recreation centers and 24 Fairmount Park sites, and plant 152 native trees and shrubs.

The Philly Spring Cleanup continues a tradition of local residents becoming personally involved in the maintenance and beautification of their neighborhoods and communities. In 1938, Sigrid Craig, an immigrant from Sweden, approached city officials about efforts to clean up streets around Philadelphia. Although her ideas initially were met with some hesitation, officials eventually helped her organize clean up efforts centered on individual city blocks. The city, with the help of Craig and many volunteers, developed a program where individuals were identified as Block Captains for a particular city block. The Block Captain became responsible for encouraging residents of the block to participate in maintenance and beautification efforts.

Encouraging participation at such a local, individual level proved very successful. Over the next several years, the program expanded and became known as the “Clean-Up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up” campaign. In 1953, the campaign began collaborating with a police sanitation unit and the Sanitation Division of the Philadelphia Department of Streets. This relationship between governmental departments and local residents was formalized in 1965 with the formation of the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee. The Committee maintains a relationship with an estimated 6,500 Block Captains and runs various clean up and maintenance programs throughout the year, continuing the work begun by Sigrid Craig in 1938.


[1] Durso, Fred Jr. “Spick-and-Span.” South Philly Review. January 4, 2007.

[2] Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee.

[3] Rendell, Edward. “Philadelphia Partners with 6,500 Residential Blocks to Keep Neighborhoods Clean.” The United States Conference of Mayors.

[4] “Results of the 2009 Philly Spring Cleanup.” Philly Spring Cleanup.

Neighborhoods Public Services

Immigrant Jewish Philadelphia: School Days

Going through photographs on, I was struck by the number of photos showing Philadelphia public grade schools from years ago, most now torn down although some still remain. These photographs show the construction of new schools during the period of heavy immigration into the country at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries as well as the inside of classrooms, the first day of school, schoolyards, formally posed photographs of classes and informal scenes of children playing in the schoolyards. In The Immigrant Jew in America, edited by Edmund J. James, Ph. D., LL.D., with the collaboration of Charles S. Bernheimer from Philadelphia, and published by New York, B. F. Buck & Company in 1907, I found on page 202 a record of schools located in the Russian Jewish areas of South Philadelphia and the population of Jewish children for each school given as both a number and as a percentage of the total number of students. The area covered is from Locust Street on the north, Moore Street on the south, the Delaware River on the east and 19th Street on the west—the district composing the greater portion of the Russian Jewish community of the city in 1905.

Generally, the greatest percentage of Jewish children is in the schools located immediately surrounding the 5th Street and South Street areas. Other large percentages of Jewish students are in schools north of Washington Avenue, east of 8th Street, south of Locust Street and west of 2nd Street, although there are several exceptions such as the Fletcher School near Front Street that had a Jewish population of 79 per cent. There are only a few schools west of Broad Street, and the largest percentage of Jewish students in these “western” schools was 18 per cent. The schools with the highest percentage of Jews were those in the Jewish quarter surrounding the eastern end of South Street. The listing on page 202 described the total and percentage distribution of Jewish children in 39 kindergarten and grade schools in the area in 1905. Some of the schools with the largest Jewish percentage of children are presented below in chart form. I have also included a few other schools to demonstrate that the farther you went from 5th and South Streets the fewer number of Jewish children were enrolled in these schools. For a more complete listing of the schools, see The Immigrant Jew in America.


School Location Number of Students Number of Jewish Students Percentage of Students who were Jewish
Horace Binney Spruce below 6th 935 700 75
George M. Wharton 3rd below Pine 1345 1210 90
Wm. M. Meredith   5th & Fitzwater 1011 950 95
James Campbell  8th & Fitzwater 1560 782 50
Fagen 12th & Fitzwater 585 285 49
Mt. Vernon Catharine above 3rd 1200 1070 89
Fletcher Christian above Front 958 755 79
Geo. W. Nebinger 6th & Carpenter  1158 671 58
Wharton 5th below Wash’ton 1885 1411 74
John Stockdale 13th below Wash’ton 258 17 6
Washington Carpenter above 9th 1338 30 2

From the above figures, it can be determined that the school populations were determined by the neighborhood patterns of ethnic growth during the immigrant years. If we had the above statistics for earlier and later years, it would be dramatic in demonstrating just how quickly this south Philadelphia neighborhood changed from one ethnic group to the next. The above figures demonstrate how many grade schools there were years ago and how close they were to one another. Determining school boundaries is beyond the scope of this little blog, but I am sure that there are old school records held by the School Board of the City of Philadelphia which would describe, by streets and perhaps house numbers, the boundaries for each school.


The photographs on, especially those of the Mt. Vernon School, give you a good picture of what school life was like in the year 1909, the year that many of the photos were taken of the Mt. Vernon School, the schoolyard and what appears to be the first day of school. Children still went to school barefoot and the girls were dressed in the finest that the immigrant families could afford. Perhaps you will not find a photographs of your own grandparents or great grandparents among the treasures being displayed on the web site, but you can learn something about how they were educated, where they were educated and how they grew up to become American citizens.

When the immigrants came to Philadelphia in the 1880s and 1890s, many families—especially those where an immigrant father died young—required the help of younger children to run a business and make a living. Children left school after 4th grade to help out. Why after 4th grade is not clear, but anecdotal stories note children dropping out of school after the 4th grade. In the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s, economic conditions improved. According to The Immigrant Jew, during this period there was “a steady growth in attendance in the upper grades, the high schools and the professional institutions” among the Russian Jewish immigrants. It was during this time that the colleges, especially Temple College (now University) and the University of Pennsylvania enrolled a remarkably large number of Russian Jewish students. 


Ironically, many of the students who enrolled at Penn during this time got there first real taste of knowledge at the Hebrew Literature Society, 312 Catharine Street, directly across the street from the Mt. Vernon School. Children of the immigrants clamored for more learning and a group of the leaders of the Hebrew Literature Society contacted Penn. Penn agreed to send professors to the Society’s meetings on Sundays afternoons to instruct the youngsters on subjects that were either not taught in the local high schools, like bacteriology, astronomy, etc., or that augmented and advanced studies taught at schools such as Central High School. In the year 1905, Penn furnished over a dozen professors as part of this program to help educate the children of the immigrants.

The article on the Philadelphia schools in The Immigrant Jew contains the following paragraph written in 1905: “Probably no single agency has a more far-reaching educational influence, especially in molding ideas in accordance with standards of our country and our time, than the public school. It gives to the son of the immigrant the same advantages as to the son of the native born, and in many instances the transformation to similarity with the latter is swift and complete.” Although daughters would not have all the same educational opportunities for two more generations, daughters did attend Mt. Vernon School, the other schools in the area and were openly welcomed by the Hebrew Literature Society at their Sunday afternoon sessions. 

James, Edmund J. ed. The Immigrant Jew in America. New York: B. F. Buck & Company, 1907.

Public Services

Take Care of Him and I will repay Thee: A Luxurious Philadelphia Asylum


Since the establishment of Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Pine Streets “to care for the sick-poor of the Province and for the reception and care of lunaticks,” Philadelphia was a leading center of psychiatric care. The city is, after all, the birthplace of Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush, widely regarded as the father of American psychiatry.

Rush’s belief that mental illness should “be freed from moral stigma, and be treated with medicine rather than moralizing” was reflected in his colleagues’ work at the nation’s first hospital. Founded by Dr. Thomas Bond and his close friend Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Hospital was the first in America to treat insanity as a disease and the insane as potentially curable patients. While better-off, indigent and criminal mental patients were traditionally cared for – or, rather, stored – with relatives, in poorhouses or in prisons, respectively, those admitted to Franklin’s hospital at least had the potential to receive regular, professional medical care.

Yet as the number of insane patients grew to the point that the mentally ill made up the majority of the hospital’s population by the early 19th century, conditions worsened. Insane patients regarded as more violent or dangerous were kept restrained in cells in the hospitals basement, where most of their contact was not with medical staff but a ‘cell-keeper.’ Others were housed with sane patients, provoking complaints and putting pressure on the hospital to make new arrangements.

An expansion of the hospital’s west wing allowed the insane to be segregated from the physically ill for a time. But by 1832, the hospital administration had decided that an entirely separate satellite campus ought to “be provided for our Insane patients with ample space for their proper seclusion, classification and employment.” Pennsylvania Hospital duly acquired an 111 acre farm far from the main downtown location and began construction. On December 16th, 1841, the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane opened its doors. For hours and hours that day, a carriage traveled back and forth from 8th Street to the location on 44th between Market and Haverford Streets, transporting about 100 patients to their new West Philadelphia home.


According to many accounts, it wasn’t a bad place to live. The hospital grounds took up about 41 acres – surrounded by a ten and a half foot high wall – leaving the balance of the enormous campus to be used for “asylum pleasure grounds” and a small working farm. An engraving from Report of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane for 1845 shows a sprawling 3 story complex with two massive wings extending from a dome-topped central building, as men in top hats and tails and women in long dresses wander the manicured grounds.

A typical day for an asylum patient would include at least one 20 minute walk in the morning, followed by a visit to the on-site museum, library or billiard room. There was also a “pleasure railroad” on the grounds, apparently an enormous model train patients could ride. Lunch was served at 12:30, follwed by afternoon activities until 6:00, a light evening meal, and entertainment in the hospital auditorium. Though “magic lantern shows” of illuminated slides projected onto a screen were especially popular, patients also enjoyed lectures and musical acts, including, on at least one occasion, a performance by trained singing canaries. The institution’s doctors then made evening rounds before lights-out at 10:00. Bible classes and religious services were held on Sundays and were reportedly very well-attended, possibly as patients were rewarded for their presence and good behavior with gingerbread.

There were no restraints or straitjackets; patients were merely expected to behave themselves and, when they did not, were corrected with “nonviolent but firm resistance.”

Patients committed to the hospital owed their treatment to the institution’s famous superintendent, Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. An expert in asylum design, Kirkbride was trained as a surgeon but refocused on the care of the mentally ill early on, being hired to run the brand-new Hospital for the Insane at the age of 31. Kirkbride’s impact was such that the hospital he ran, as well as many he designed, became known simply as “Kirkbride’s.”

While the gentle treatment patients received were in line with Kirkbride’s medical philosophy, their fairly lavish surroundings reflected his skills as an administrator and fund-raiser. Recognizing that wealthier patients paid in a disproportionate amount of the hospital’s revenues, Kirkbride had his institution cater to their desires. Those who could pay could have large private apartments, fine clothes and furniture and anything else their families might want to provide for them that Kirkbride’s staff agreed would not harm them. The hospital even built a private Italianate “cottage” on its grounds for one wealthy patient. Working-class patients, meanwhile, were encouraged to work. Male patients were directed to the asylum farm, while females were put to work in the kitchen. Though not unusual for its time, these internal class divisions between patients whose families could afford to pay extra for their care and those who couldn’t puts an interesting spin on the Biblical inscription on the Pennsylvania Hospital seal: “Take Care of Him and I will repay Thee.”


In any case, life at Kirkbride’s was not always calm, nor was the hospital entirely free of scandal. Shortly after it opened, the hospital proved to be infested with rodents and vermin – though Kirkbride’s expertise as an asylum-planner later became famous nationwide, he had not had the opportunity to have any part in the planning of his own hospital. Thus, an embarrassing incident in 1850 saw a recently deceased patient nibbled on before being brought to the morgue. As Kirkbride explained, “a portion of the cartilage of his nose had been destroyed, how they were unable to day, but it is supposed by a mouse or a rat.”

The superintendent was also periodically attacked in the press for knowingly committing sane people, a charge he vehemently denied. Occasionally his own patients had other ideas about their treatment as well. One escapee, a young man named Wiley Williams who had been committed by his family as a dangerous eccentric, managed to shoot Kirkbride in the head by lying in wait for him in a tree. Kirkbride survived with a scratch – the bullet was apparently deflected by his thick hat – while Williams spent the rest of his life classified as a criminal lunatic in Eastern State Penitentiary, from which he sent his former doctor long, apologetic letters.

Kirkbride died of pneumonia in 1883, after a lifetime of treating the mentally ill. His hospital lasted more than a century after his death. The city moved the campus moved a few blocks west to make room for the expanding Market Street subway line in late 1950’s, around which time the hospital changed its name to The Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. The asylum closed its doors in 1997, sending its psychiatric care operation back across the river to the 8th Street campus after over 150 years in West Philadelphia. Today, some remaining hospital buildings are used as a social services center, while the rest of the original campus has been redeveloped. A housing project and the enormous office building built by the Provident Mutual Insurance Company now occupy the space where Kirkbride’s patients once strolled, rested and – in about half of their cases – healed.


  • Board of Public Charities of Pennsylvania. To the Legislature: A Plea for the Insane in the Prisons and Poor-Houses of Pennsylvania. A.C. Bryson & Co., Steam-Power Printers, Philadelphia, 1873.
  • Bond, Earl D. Dr. Kirkbride and his Mental Hospital. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1947.
  • Kirkbride, Thomas S. On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane with Some Remarks on Insanity and its Treatment. J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia 1880.
  • Tomes, Nancy. A generous confidence: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the art of asylum-keeping, 1840-1883. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • “Dr. Benjamin Rush: patriot and father of American psychiatry.” Medical Post January 14 1997.
  • “Kirkbride’s Hospital Also Known as Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital Placed on the National Register of Historic Places July 24, 1975.”
  • “History of Pennsylvania Hospital”

Public Services

The Life of the Schuylkill: Part Two


Jaundice. Vomiting. Kidney failure. Bleeding from the mouth, eyes, nose and stomach. Death.

Many Philadelphians today would probably not have a hard time believing that the list above is a catalogue of consequences one might reasonably expect to suffer after drinking out of the river. Yet it was precisely these agonies – the agonies of yellow fever – from which Philadelphia depended on the Schuylkill for protection at the turn of the 19th century.

Convinced that the city’s filthy drinking water was behind a series of yellow fever epidemics that killed a quarter of the population of the city in the 1790’s, Philadelphia launched an ambitious program of water management that culminated in the building of the Fairmount Waterworks. The Waterworks were unquestionably a technological marvel of their time, becoming the second most visited American tourist attraction after Niagara Falls. Yet the whole project had been based on the mistaken notion – advanced by, among others, Declaration of Independence signer Dr. Benjamin Rush – that yellow fever was spread by contaminated drinking water. Piping in relatively clean water from the Schuylkill did improve the city’s health, but it did nothing to eliminate the mosquitoes that spread yellow fever. What’s more, the excellent water system intended to safeguard the health of the city would contribute to the death toll in the next great epidemic: typhoid.


In the 1890s, a century after the yellow fever epidemics – and Franklin’s bequest to the city for a public water system – Philadelphia endured some of the worst typhoid outbreaks in the country. Business had been good during the Civil War, and the factories, slaughterhouses and coal mining operations that drove eastern Pennsylvania’s economy were dumping their waste directly into the river out of which Philadelphians downstream drank. Coursing throughout Philadelphia in a distribution system that was the pride of the city, the contaminated water spread disease and death. Poor sanitation in the city itself compounded the problem, as the river was used simultaneously as a sewer and a source of drinking water.

As reported in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1883, Schuylkill water was so bad by the late 19th century that “…a physician offered $50 to anyone who would drink a quart of it ten nights in a row. Each evening, the doomed man comes on stage, the stipulated amount of water is brought out and he takes the draught to slow music before a sympathetic audience. It is the agreement that if he vomits or dies, he will lose the prize.”

A river of “uncommon purity” a century earlier, the Schuylkill became a dead river in which not even bacteria could live happily. So black with coal its surface would not reflect the sun, the river was also known to run red from the offal of the slaughterhouses, to say nothing of the rainbow of colors contributed by industrial dyes. As late as 1924, the river reminded local activists of Moses’ Ten Plagues, Philadelphia apparently having been cursed “as the land of Egypt was cursed by God at the mouth of Aaron.”

Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s reputation for especially disgusting water persisted for decades. Navy pilots stationed around the city during World War II claimed they could navigate around Philadelphia by smell, while a cartoon in Stars and Stripes demonstrated how far word had spread about the city’s water. The picture shows a group of GIs looking on as one of their fellow soldiers drinks directly from a murky jungle swamp. “That guy’s from Philadelphia,” the caption reads. “He can drink anything.”


  • The Philadelphia Water Department. The Philadelphia Water Department: An Historical Perspective,, 1987.
  • The Philadelphia Water Department, in collaboration with Hal Kirn and Associates and Rocky Collins.The River and the City: Script for a Film, 1994.
  • “View of the practicability and means of supplying the city of Philadelphia with wholesome water.” In a letter to John Miller, Esquire, from B. Henry Latrobe, engineer. December 29th. 1798. Printed by order of the Corporation of Philadelphia. (Accessed via American Antiquarian Society and NewsBank, inc. Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans Readex Digital Collections).
  • Lonkevich, Susan “Rebirth on the River” The Pennsylvania Gazette. Jan/Feb, 2000.
  • See also,
  • See also,

Public Services

The Life of the Schuylkill: Part One


The Schuylkill is not an unattractive river. Reflections of the illuminated arches of the bridges above it gleam on its dark surface at night, while the lights of Boathouse Row have given commuters on I-76 and Amtrak and Septa passengers something to enjoy as they speed past. The Fairmount Waterworks, newly restored and featuring a high-end restaurant and high-tech museum, has been attracting locals and tourists alike for almost 200 years. Many Philadelphians spend hours on and around the river, jogging, fishing, boating and relaxing.

But how many would drink straight out of it?

When William Penn drew up Philadelphia’s grid and decided where to site the city in the late 1600’s, he did so with a careful eye to water resources. Nestled at the closest point between two rivers, Philadelphia was intended to become a green city of lush parks and wide avenues – everything overbuilt, dingy, plague-infested and fire-prone London was not.

Yet as the city grew into the second largest English-speaking city in the world in the eighteenth century, the groundwater Philadelphians had been drinking from wells and streams became deadly. By the time Benjamin Franklin bequeathed 1,000 pounds to the city after his death in 1790 to “insure the health, comfort and preservation of the citizens” by managing the water supply, Philadelphia was on the verge of a series of fever epidemics. A quarter of the population of the city would die, while half of Philadelphians – the wealthier half – moved out into the safety of the surrounding countryside. The cause, according to eminent Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, was sewage leaked into the city’s underground wells and the general filthiness of the city.

Even before disaster struck, Philadelphians avoided drinking the water when they could, preferring beer, wine or spirits. Apparently this was the foundation of a local joke explaining why the Continental Congress only held meetings early in the day – by afternoon, after a thirsty morning’s work, the founding fathers were unfit for much other than reeling home to sleep it off.


Fortunately, the city had a river in reserve. Philadelphia’s growth had not gone at all according to Penn’s plan, hugging the Delaware instead of filling out the grid and leaving the Schuylkill and the land to the west relatively untouched. The city government formed a special Watering Committee to examine the possibility of building a conduit to the Schuylkill or Wissahickon Creek. According to B. H. Latrobe, the engineer tasked with finding a safe water supply and getting it to the city, the Schuylkill was remarkably fresh. Latrobe reported back that “In favor of the Schuylkill: The Principal circumstance is the uncommon purity of its water” and devised an innovative plan to pump the water out using massive steam engines.

The plan went forward – at a time when there were only three steam engines of the size required in America – and a pumping station was built on the Schuylkill at Chestnut Street, which fed water from the river to a 16,000 gallon tank in Center Square, where City Hall is today. It then naturally flowed down from this massive water tower to the rest of the city via a network of underground wooden pipes. Philadelphians were then invited to pay a fee to be connected to the water system. Subscribers – initially mostly businesses like tanneries and breweries – soon numbered in the hundreds.

Already on the cutting-edge of contemporary technology, Philadelphia”s water system then got even better. Frustrated with the expense of fueling the steam engines and the constant breakdowns – and explosions – that plagued the pumping stations, the Watering Committee converted the two-engine Fairmount Waterworks into a water-powered, self-supporting technological wonder.


The job fell to Frederick Graff, one of Latrobe’s former assistants. Graff executed one of the most successful public works projects of the era with only a few drawings – there were no similar designs that could be copied and no models or prototypes were made. The Schuylkill is a wide, deep, flood and ice-prone river, a nightmare for engineers of the time to tame, dam and harness. Graff did it, housing his machinery in graceful Greek-revival buildings as Latrobe had done with the pumping stations. A technical and aesthetic triumph, the shift to water-power slashed operating costs from $360 dollars a day to $4.00.

The Fairmount Waterworks’ fame spread to Europe, and the image of the Greek temples by the Schuylkill became one of the most reproduced prints of America in travel books. Hotels were built on the opposite bank for visitors – the public was invited to tour the Waterworks from its first day of operation on. Even Charles Dickens, unremittingly harsh in his observations of the United States in his American Notes for General Circulation, had to admit that, during his visit in 1840, Philadelphia was,”most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off everywhere. The Water-Works… are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order.”

Yet the “golden age” of Philadelphia”s water system was already nearing its close.

Many thanks to the Philadelphia Water Department for their willingness to share valuable information for this blog entry!


  • The Philadelphia Water Department. The Philadelphia Water Department: An Historical Perspective,, 1987.
  • The Philadelphia Water Department, in collaboration with Hal Kirn and Associates and Rocky Collins.The River and the City: Script for a Film, 1994.
  • “View of the practicability and means of supplying the city of Philadelphia with wholesome water.” In a letter to John Miller, Esquire, from B. Henry Latrobe, engineer. December 29th. 1798. Printed by order of the Corporation of Philadelphia. (Accessed via American Antiquarian Society and NewsBank, inc. Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans Readex Digital Collections).
  • See also,

Public Services

Fires, Fights and Benjamin Franklin: Philadelphia’s Volunteer Firemen, Part Two


By 1752, there were already eight active fire companies in Philadelphia. That same year, Franklin built on his own achievement by helping to found the Philadelphia Contributionship, the oldest fire insurance company in America. Interestingly, though Franklin modeled his creations after their English counterparts, the American system was fundamentally different. In England, fire brigades were founded and administered by insurance companies, whose properties they protected exclusively. In America, the sequence was reversed. Though Franklin´s Contributionship and the companies that sprung up soon after followed the English practice of issuing their policy holders “fire marks” to display on their homes – many of which are still visible – Philadelphia´s fire companies would respond to any fire in their area, regardless of who insured the premises or if they were insured at all. Whether they responded more zealously to fires at buildings insured by their affiliated insurance companies – which were known to reward the firemen for saving as much of the property as they could – remains an open question.

Yet the atmosphere of selflessness and civic duty was charged with rivalry from the start. No sooner had Franklin´s Union established itself as a positive, respected force in the community than his rival Andrew Bradford, whose American Mercury competed with Franklin´s Gazette and whose violent dislike of his competitor was well known, founded his own fire company, Fellowship, in 1738. Rivalries between fire companies became especially destructive as Philadelphia´s unparalleled municipal water system ushered out the bucket-fed fire engine and ushered in the age of hose. The new equipment took some getting used to – one company records an unfortunate incident where a newly bought hose rotted after being stored in a barrel of dill pickles. But as pressurized fire plugs spread and fire brigades founded corresponding hose companies, things took an unfortunate turn. .


Once attached to a fire plug, a hose company could prevent rival companies from sharing the honor of fighting the fire. Wild races to be the first to connect to the plug – and violent fights to capture or recapture them – naturally ensued. Feuds between companies, as described in the song quoted above, were brutal and sometimes deadly, involving shootouts and, ironically, false alarms and acts of arson. By the mid-19th century, it was widely held that the volunteers were “a reproach to the city.” An entire melodramatic novel, “Jerry Pratt´s Progress or Adventures in the Hose House”, chronicled how a fresh-faced young country boy lost his morals – and, in a fight between hose companies, his life – after becoming a volunteer fireman. .

Though they remained political powerhouses, reportedly milking the city budget for unnecessary equipment and salaries to a shocking extent, the social makeup of the volunteer companies changed dramatically since the days of Franklin and Washington. Once made up of the city´s elite and professional classes, the companies came to be synonymous with the bare-knuckle politicians of Philadelphia´s infamous political machines. Despite a burst of renewed confidence in the volunteer companies during the Civil War, during which many volunteers gave their lives on the battlefield, the city finally voted to disband the volunteer companies and established a professional municipal department in 1871.

“Here´s health to Benjamin Franklin
And all who revere the name:
To the members of the Franklin Hose
I do allude the same”

(“The Franklin Hose Song,” c. 1850)


  • Johnson, Harry M. &quote;The History of British and American Fire Marks.” The Journal of Risk and Insurance, Vol. 39, No. 3. (September, 1972), pp. 405-418.
  • Neilly, Andrew H. The Violent Volunteers: A History of the Volunteer Fire Department of Philadelphia, 1736-1871. University Microfilms, Inc. Ann Arbor, 1959.
  • The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. Franklin & Fires: His interest therein and his effort to Protect the Citizens of Philadelphia from Devastation., J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia 1906.
  • Wainwright, Nicholas B. A Philadelphia Story, 1752-1952: The Philadelphia Contributionship., Wm. F. Fell Co. Philadelphia, 1952.
  • Wainwright, Nicholas B. “Philadelphia’s Eighteenth-Century Fire Insurance Companies” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society.,New Ser., Vol. 43, No. 1. (1953), pp. 247-252.