Public Services

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


“The alarm of fire being given
Onward we did go
Their house we broke, and their engine took
And beat their members also.”

(From “The Franklin Hose Song,” c. 1850)

Tracing their roots back to a proud roster of founding fathers and fires fought, the volunteer fire companies that preceded the establishment of the Philadelphia Fire Department combined the best and worst traits of the city they served. Community-minded, innovative and tough, Philadelphia’s amateur firemen also earned a reputation for brawling, boozing and bitter rivalry equal to anything ever reported to have happened in the parking lot after an Eagles game.

A rapidly growing city of “about 700 dwelling houses,” Philadelphia had no fire service to speak of in the early 18th century. Though bucket brigades had existed in New England since the 1690’s, it would be decades before anyone took an organized approach to colonial emergency services. Meanwhile, Philadelphians doubtless looked nervously at the eminently combustible wooden warehouses along the Delaware waterfront, the boiling pitch-cauldrons and glowing forges of nearby shipyards and the pitiful resources the city could muster to protect its citizens.

During a fire, the victim depended on civically-minded neighbors with their own buckets, ladders, rope and hooks, the latter being used both to pull valuables from burning structures and to tear down buildings in the fire’s path to keep it from spreading An English fire engine was purchased for the city around 1718 – partly funded through fines collected from a colonial smoking ban enacted against those “presuming to smoke tobacco in the Streets of Philadelphia either by day or night” – but wasn’t much of a help; clumsy water-tanks on wheels, engines had to be hauled to the site of the fire, pumped by hand and continuously refilled by bucket chains.


This slow, exhausting process yielded predictably poor results. As reported by Benjamin Franklin in his Pennsylvania Gazette, one particularly destructive blaze in 1730 started on the riverfront and moved quickly into the city, consuming thousands of pounds worth of real estate and goods despite calm winds and generally favorable firefighting conditions.

After writing a series of articles on the subject, Franklin rose to the challenge. On December 7th, 1736, he and four friends founded the Union Fire Company, which survives today as Engine 8 of the Philadelphia Fire Department. One of the oldest organized fire brigades in the United States, the Union saw its ranks quickly filled to the agreed-upon maximum of 30 members. Other companies were founded by latecomers, all, according to one company’s records, “the most eminent men in Philadelphia, embracing merchants, physicians, lawyers, clergymen and citizens of wealth and refinement.” Indeed, fire company membership was a mark of honor, a sort of proxy social register of city notables from the mayor on down. This seems to have been the case throughout the colonies; George Washington, for example, was a member of his local volunteer fire company in Alexandria, Virginia.

to be continued…


  • Johnson, Harry M. “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.

Public Services

Photography: A Mini-History


1839 was an important year in the history of record-keeping. It was in this year that the first practical form of photography, the Daguerreotype, was invented. Without this invention almost 170 years ago, would not have been possible. Most of the images on this website come from one of three photographic types: the negative, the print, and the digital photograph. The majority of these, however, come from the incredibly large collection of negatives in the city’s possession.

Not all photographic negatives, however, were created the same. Over the short history of this medium, there have many different types of both negatives and photographs, especially in the first few decades after 1839 when photography was in its infancy. The first of these forms that could be used in a practical manner, the Daguerreotype, was introduced by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre.

Although Daguerre’s was the first practical method of photography developed, there were successful earlier attempts. For example, in 1826 Nicephore Niepce invented what he called a “heliograph.” He took a photograph of his courtyard by exposing a sheet of pewter covered in light sensitive materials, using sunlight as his only light source. However, this process took over 8 hours to complete, making it much less practical to use as a method of record keeping than the much faster Daguerre method. (To read more about Niepce’s first photograph, see the Nicephore Niepce website link in the references section of this blog).

Like Niepce’s process, the daguerreotype also consisted of an image created on a sheet of metal. In this case the medium was a copper plate coated with silver iodide. Unlike Niepce’s process, however, the photograph created was a direct positive image. These photos were the predecessors of the types of images added to PhillyHistory today.

The first negative/positive process was patented the same year as the daguerreotype by William Talbot. This process, or the Calbotype process, created a paper negative which could then produce a positive image (or multiple positive images) by placing the negative in direct contact with light-sensitive paper and exposing the paper to daylight. Slightly less than 20 years later, in 1855, glass negatives were introduced to the United States. These glass negatives were preferable to paper negatives as the image produced was of a much better quality. It was only with the introduction of the glass negative that the negative/positive process of making photographs began to replace direct positive processes such as the daguerreotype.

The earliest glass plate negatives were “wet plate” negatives. They were called “wet plate” because this process required the photographer to coat a plate of glass with light sensitive materials, expose, and develop the photograph all before the coating dried. There was continued experimentation using various materials for emulsions (the emulsion is the layer of light sensitive material that is coated onto a base, for example glass, in which an image is formed when it is exposed to light). Some of the types of emulsions that were tried included albumen (a combination of sodium or ammonium chloride mixed with egg whites) and gelatin.

In the Philadelphia City Archives, the earliest forms of negative we scan for the PhillyHistory website are glass plate negatives. The above photograph, taken in 1894, is an image from one of these glass plate negatives. However, as is evidenced by the cracks visible in some of the other photographs on PhillyHistory, the glass negatives were found to be problematic, mainly because they are so incredibly fragile.

To help alleviate this problem, in 1887 George Eastman introduced cellulose nitrate film. This form of negative consisted of a nitrocellulose base and a gelatin emulsion. It was in use between 1913 and 1950. At the time, this was seen as an improvement over the glass negative, as it was much less fragile than its glass counterparts. However, today archivists have found this negative to be itself fragile as it ages. The nitrocellulose base is notoriously unstable as well as flammable, making it important to transfer the images on these to another medium (as, for example, scanning would accomplish) in order to preserve the information they contain.


Between 1937 and 1956 another film created by the Kodak company, safety film, was widely used. This film was made of cellulose diacetate and was found to be much less of a fire hazard. However, this film too has been found to be somewhat unstable. Over time, the cellulose diacetate shrinks as it deteriorates, causing wrinkles in the layer of emulsion, which does not shrink at the same rate. The photograph to the left is an example of this type of deterioration. In1947, Kodak introduced another type of safety film which is still in use today, which is made of a more stable material, cellulose triacetate.


Public Services

Photographic Firsts


Philadelphia is famous for many things, including its inventors. Perhaps most famous of these is Ben Franklin. However, another Philadelphia inventor, Joseph Saxton, was responsible for creating one of the first photographs made in America. That photograph was taken in 1839 from the United States Mint (pictured above), where Saxton worked. In it he captured Central High School and a portion of the State Arsenal.

In 1839, photography was in its infancy. The first practical form of photography, the Daguerreotype, had been introduced to the world on January 7 of that same year. Created by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the Daguerreotype photograph was made when a copper plate coated with silver iodide was exposed to light. The silver iodide darkened when exposed to the light, forming an image after the photograph was developed in mercury vapors.

Saxton made his photograph following Daguerre’s published instructions that October. He built a camera using a cigar box and a glass lens, and heated the mercury to develop the picture in an iron spoon. A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker at Juniper and Chestnut Streets stands at the location at which the photograph was taken. The daguerreotype itself is in the possession of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Daguerreotype, however was a direct positive image. The image it produced was similar to the reflection a person would see when looking into a mirror. Because photography was still in its experimental stages at the time, many other methods for producing photographic images followed the introduction of Daguerre’s process. Most notably was the invention of a negative-positive process for making photographs which was first patented by William Talbot in 1841. This invention led to other negative-positive processes which created the glass plate negatives, lantern slides, and film negatives which were used by the City of Philadelphia to make the photographs that are digitized and displayed on PhillyHistory today.


Public Services

Learning for the Real World


Late in the 19th century and early in the 20th, child labor reformers were busy trying to devise a plan for keeping the nations children out of the factories and in the schools for as long as possible. However, the things they were doing to extend the amount of time a child spent in the school system failed to keep all children in school. They wondered why, until the idea was presented that perhaps the children continually left school early because they did not understand the value an education in traditional academic disciplines (writing, math, or foreign language, for example) would have in their everyday lives after they graduated. What good did learning French do for the child who, after all, would be spending his days constructing buildings? From this idea, school administrators devised a plan. Perhaps the way to keep children in school until their teenage years was to offer vocational education, or more classes that prepared students to be successful in the work they would actually face after finishing school.


The idea of vocational, or industrial, education was introduced to Philadelphia by Murrel Dobbins, a member of the Board of Public Education. Soon after his introduction, an investigation was conducted in the city to discover what the most popular trades in the city were and to find a location for a new school. The Philadelphia Trades School then opened in 1906 in an abandoned elementary school at the corner of 12th and Locust Streets. The goal of the school was to create intelligent, skilled young men who were well prepared to enter the workforce upon their graduation.

Originally the school offered 13 trades, ranging from sign painting to sheet metal working. However, due to a lack of enrollment, only seven were offered in the day school. The trades offered to students during the day included: carpentry, architectural drawing, mechanical drawing, electrical construction, pattern making, and printing. Students spent half of their time studying these trades in the shop. The other half was spent studying academic subjects such as English and Mathematics, however these too were taught with the trades in mind. In these courses, teachers attempted to relate the skills being learned to their application in the work of the various trades. In the third year, the students participated in an internship program, working at various locations throughout the city.


Night classes were also offered by the school, and these became more popular than the daytime classes. The demand for the evening classes was so great that the city opened another school, the Northeast Manual Training School, to handle some of the overflow. Many other prospective students remained on a waiting list. In the evening school only the trades were taught. There were no classes for the academic subjects. However, the evening school did offer more trades than were taught during the day

Eventually, the Trades School was abandoned as the workforce continued to change. The courses offered by the Philadelphia Trades School were replaced by mechanical arts courses in Central High School and others.


  • Ash, William C. “The Philadelphia Trade School.” Annals of the American Academy of Political Science 33(1), Industrial Education. (January, 1909) 85-88.
  • Cohen, Sol. “The Industrial Education Movement, 1906-1917.” American Quarterly. 20(1). (Spring, 1968) 95-110.
  • Neville, Charles E. “Origin and Development of the Public High School in Philadelphia.” The School Review. 35(5) (May, 1927) 363-375.
  • Edmunds, Franklin D. A Chronological List of the Public School Buildings of the City of Philadelphia, PA. Philadelphia: Board of Public Education, 1934.

Public Services

Natural Healing


In its most recent past, the buildings of the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry, pictured here, were in a state of ruin. These ruins, combined with the less than desirable reputation the hospital had come to possess, attracted thrill seekers and urban explorers alike. It was rumored to have been the site of numerous activities ranging from satanic rituals to dance parties complete with DJs. However, all of this changed in 2004 when the site was sold to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, which intended to use the site for office buildings and housing for the elderly.

The hospital’s history was not always so ill regarded, however. It began as Byberry Farm, built in the hometown of Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), who is considered the Father of American Psychiatry. Rush was an advocate of asylums for the mentally ill. He believed that, with proper treatment, they too could be cured of their illnesses. As such, Rush would probably have approved of the farm started in Byberry to treat those with mental problems. Byberry Farm was self-sustaining, as patients did much of the work needed to tend the crops grown there. At the time, gardening was believed to be a cure for “mild cases of lunacy.”

Later, the facility was renamed the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases, although for a time this hospital outside of the city still operated as a work farm. Over time, more buildings were erected to try to solve overcrowding problems that would continually plague the institution. Expansion of the hospital continued into the 1940s. In the end, the hospital would consist of over 50 buildings. It became so large that it was described in a 1946 report to be “among mental institutions, a metropolis.”

This metropolis continued to experience problems, however. In addition to overcrowding, the hospital was faced with personnel shortages and deteriorating buildings. There were also accusations of patient abuse, claiming that residents of the institution were not given clothing and were generally not allowed the attention they required. The situation became so bad that on October 15, 1938 the hospital was taken over by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, at which time it became known as the Philadelphia State Hospital. The site was in such a deteriorated state that it cost over $8 million to rehabilitate. However, the attempts at rehabilitation of the site and expansion to solve overcrowding problems could not overcome its history of mismanagement and patient abuse. In 1990 the hospital was closed permanently, destined to sit as a ruin and site for thrill seekers until its purchase and redevelopment 14 years later.


  • Pennsylvania State Archives, Department of Public Welfare. “A Pictoral Report on Mental Institutions in Pennsylvania.” 1947, pp. 4-9. Accessed online
  • Bostick, Jim. “Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases, A Photo Series.” Gather (12 February 2006) (accessed 12 October 2006).
  • Greenberg, Andy. “Byberry’s Long Goodbye.” Philadelphia City Paper. 16 March 2006.
  • Hall, Bolton. “Gardening as a Cure for Mental Breakdowns.” The Worlds Work…: A History of Our Time. Doubleday, Page and Company, 1900.
  • “Philadelphia State Hospital (Byberry)”. Opacity (2006). (accessed 12 October 2006).
  • Wikipedia. “Benjamin Rush.” (accessed 12 October 2006).

Public Services

Keeping the Children Well


Today we take the school nurse for granted. Whenever a child scrapes his knee at recess or becomes ill and needs to go home early, the nurse is there. However, the school nurse and school medical inspections are, in America, largely a creation of the twentieth century. This photo, taken at the Alexander D. Bache School in 1912, is labeled “Medical Inspection Branch.” It dates from the late Progressive Era when the health and welfare of the poor was a matter of growing concern among social workers. For many reformers, efforts aimed toward adults failed to better the situations of poor people, and thus, they shifted their focus away from protecting the health of school children. Progressives believed that they could create a healthier society by maintaining young people’s constitutions and by teaching them proper hygiene.

Municipal officials assigned medical inspectors to schools across the country. In 1898, under the supervision of the city’s Board of Health, medical inspectors began working in Philadelphia schools. They identified and corrected various defects and contagious diseases occurring among the children. The inspectors also strove to maintain healthy conditions, thus protecting the children from illness and injury, and to maximize the efficiency of the schools. Later, the school nurse was introduced to carry out the recommendations of medical inspectors in caring for youths. In Philadelphia, after examinations by the medical inspector, children of disadvantaged families received access to free vaccinations, and other medical, dental, and vision care.


  • Cornell, Walter S. Health and Medical Inspection of School Children. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company, 1913. (Full text available online.)
  • Struthers, Lina Rogers. The School Nurse: A Survey of the Duties and Responsibilities of the Nurse in the Maintenance of Health and Physical Perfection and the Prevention of Disease among School Children. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917. (Full text available online.)