Trundling Tanks and Flying Jeeps on the Parkway

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is officially being reimagined for its second century. The idea behind this 18-month planning process led by Design Workshop, an international landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm? Propose world-class, people-centric changes that would “dramatically improve” the Parkway’s “appeal, use, traffic safety, functionality, and beauty.”

An extensive survey, offered in ten languages, solicited information and opinions about uses and expectations focusing on the mile-long stretch between Logan Square and the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Everything is on the table, it seems: public space, public art, public transportation, signage, marathons, music festivals, water fountains, rest rooms, shade trees, traffic flow, and, of course, parking.

What does not seem to be on the table, at least in 2022, is anything like the display of military might displayed in the past. In April 1918, before demolition for the Parkway was complete, the first British tank demonstrated its destructive capabilities on the streets of Philadelphia. “At this time the parkway . . . was being cleared of buildings, and to show the wonderful work of the tank it was run over ditches, hills and rubble, and ended up with battering down a 2-foot brick wall of the house that was being demolished.”

British Tank on the Parkway. April 1918. Philadelphia in the World War, 1914-1919 (Philadelphia. War History Committee, 1922)

Skip ahead about a half-century and we’re looking at Cold War displays of America’s evolving military prowess. In 1960, Mayor Richardson Dilworth proclaimed “engineer week” and urged those in the trenches to embrace to the time’s greatest challenge. “This is the decade of space exploration and new frontiers in transportation, electronics, chemistry, automation and nucleonics,” reported the Inquirer, which pointed to “special exhibits of engineering achievements” on view at Reyburn Plaza, across from City Hall. This included a tank or two, General Electric’s new space nose cone, a Navy missile, and the Piaseceki “Flying Jeep.”

Aerial Jeep, Display at Reyburn Plaza in Conjunction with Engineer’s Week. February 25, 1960 (

There was particular pride in the latter, which had origins in nearby Essington, Pennsylvania. The U.S. Army Transportation Research Command had started experimenting with flying jeeps in 1956. With Chrysler and Curtiss-Wright, Piasecki won contracts for working prototypes. The Piasecki AirGeep was first flown, unsuccessfully, in October 1958. It “proved grossly underpowered, barely able to fly over a fence, and it was sent back to the shop.” An upgraded AirGeep flew in June 1959, and, over the next several years, was further improved for the Army and, with floats and the name of “SeaGeep,” for the Navy.

Aerial Jeep, Display at Reyburn Plaza in Conjunction with Engineer’s Week. February 25, 1960 (

Actually, the public’s romance with the Flying Jeep had started in the 1940s when Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation of Southern California promoted its version of vertical flight, a vehicle that could “take off and land almost ‘on a dime.’” The Vultee Flying Jeep could “serve as the ‘eyes upstairs’ for artillery units… for laying signal corps wire over jungle and impassable terrain…and for photo reconnaissance work.” It was also deployed as a “flying ambulance to evacuate casualties from small jungle clearings and inaccessible battle zones.” The company boasted that “many a wounded American boy is alive and well because this tiny Consolidated Vultee plane speeded him to the base hospital in minutes, instead of the hours it would have taken stretcher bearers to make the arduous trip.”

[Missile] Display at Reyburn Plaza in Conjunction with Engineer’s Week. February 25, 1960 (

There were even plans for civilian uses. “Your postwar Flying Jeep may not look exactly like this, the company suggested. “But you can be certain it will be safe, easy to fly, and an economical family plane. Well suited, too, for vacations, inter-city travel, for aero clubs and ‘Fly-it-Yourself” stations … for farmers sowing and dusting crops…for forest patrol and fire spotting . . . for policing and traffic control . . . an idea all-purpose plane.”

Tank. Display at Reyburn Plaza in Conjunction with Engineer’s Week. February 25, 1960 (

Richard Tregaskis, the war correspondent known for his book and the movie “Guadalcanal Diary,” wrote another “war thriller” titled “The Flying Jeeps.” Columbia Pictures bought it in 1950, although the project never took off. Still, the idea of low-altitude, personal flying had grabbed the public imagination and was not about to let go.

Aerial Jeep, ca. 1960

The Army’s imagination, on the other hand, was less robust. Experimental flights and redesigns continued until the Army deemed the Flying Jeep “unsuitable for the modern battlefield, and concentrated on the development of conventional helicopters.”

[Sources:  Philadelphia in the World War, 1914-1919, by Philadelphia. War History Committee (Philadelphia: 1922); “35 Groups Mark Engineer Week,” The Philadelphia Inquirer February 22, 1960; “Hollywood,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 25, 1950; [Advertisement] The Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation; The Philadelphia Inquirer February 1, 1945; Piasecki VZ-8 Airgeep, YouTube.]


Kensington Then and Now

On Memorial Day, 1900, Robert McNeil opened his brand-new pharmaceutical and hospital supply store at Front and York Streets with a flag raising. This was the growing company’s second location. The first, outgrown since its 1882 dedication, was located close by at Howard and York Streets.

McNeil Drugs, Front Street and York Street, March 17, 1916. D. Alonzo Biggard (
McNeil Drugs, Front Street and York Street, March 17, 1916. (Detail) D. Alonzo Biggard (

McNeil’s pharmaceutical emporium would soon be filling 18,000 prescriptions annually, developing “a sickroom supply department, a truss and bandage fitting room and research and manufacturing laboratories.” The company provided physicians with needed supplies throughout Philadelphia and beyond.

McNeil Salesroom, Front and York Streets, from The Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol. 21,

And over the generations, McNeil Laboratories would develop and manufacture a number of new pharmaceuticals. In 1953, they introduced Algoson, a preparation containing acetaminophen and sodium butabarbital. Two years later, after FDA approval, they introduced Tylenol Elixir for children, containing only acetaminophen. Discovered in the 19th century, Tylenol became an over-the-counter medicine in 1960.

By then, the company that made Tylenol a household word was acquired by Johnson & Johnson. McNeil Laboratories had relocated from Kensington to larger quarters at 17th and Cambria Streets in North Philadelphia. They would move again, to a 110-acre tract in Fort Washington, far beyond Philadelphia’s city limits.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning manufacturing neighborhood of 19th- century Kensington, once populated with smoke-belching factories and miles of brick rowhouses, was eroded by decades of deindustrialization and disinvestment. It gradually bore no resemblance to the community where businesses like McNeil had once set up shop. Rather, it became a place, as The New York Times put it, where “the streetlights were broken or dim, and the alleyways were dark. Most of the blocks were lined with two-story rowhouses, abandoned factories and vacant lots.” The beleaguered area’s alarming association with illicit opioid use, overdoses and drug trafficking repeatedly made national news and prompted repeated outcries from the community and city officials.

Commercial Kensington became “a congested mess of Chinese takeouts, pawn shops, check-cashing joints” not unlike the one at Front and York Streets, pictured below, where the McNeil pharmacy once thrived.

Front and York Streets, Google Street view.

[Sources: Jennifer Percy, “Trapped by the ‘Walmart of Heroin,’” The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 10, 2018; April 20, 2022; “A Successful Store in Philadelphia,” The Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol. 21, pp. 370-371 (E.G. Swift, 1907); History of TYLENOL. McNeil Consumer Healthcare Company].


Edwin Forrest Durang’s “Secret Sauce”

Entrance to Delaware Bridge – From Roof of Whitman’s Building, showing the 300 Block of Race Street. April 14, 1954 (

The National Guard’s Hall, completed in 1857, served as an armory for military drills but its 60-by-130-foot interior spaces made it an all-purpose venue of choice. Had it been completed a year earlier, its cavernous interior would almost certainly have been the site of the first Republican National Convention, a role that fell to the Musical Fund Hall near 8th and Locust Streets. According to the Historic American Building Survey, National Guard’s Hall would come to serve as a United States army hospital, a “destination point of military parades, the scene of much patriotic speechmaking, and the welcome and dismissal point for troops either on furlough or at the end of enlistment.” Its second-floor “grand saloon” which seated 1,800, regularly served as a venue for “lectures, fairs, concerts, balls” and gatherings of all sort.

The popular “Beck’s Band gave the first of their series of annual balls there largely attended . . . by a number of our most estimable citizens and their families.” reported The Inquirer in November 1860. The following Spring it housed the “Fourth Friendship Ball for the benefit of the St. Vincent’s Orphans Asylum.” Tickets were a dollar. By November 1862 the hall was transformed into a temporary Army hospital for Civil War casualties, 159 beds per floor according to Albert Liscom, a soldier from New England whose injured knee prevented him from marching into battle.

The National Guard’s Hall, 518-20 Race Street, April 14, 1954. Detail. (

Edwin Forrest Durang, whose name suggests a theatrical rather than an architectural orientation, was responsible for the design. And scale, not style, was its primary asset—an accomplishment made possible by the use of 10 trussed girders, each 7-feet deep, spanning a sixty-foot width. That technology, combined with the premature death of John E. Carver, Durang’s employer, as well as the architect’s religious affiliation, positioned him to be the go-to designer for Catholic Philadelphia at a time of massive immigration and an increasing capacity to commission new buildings. By the end of the century, Philadelphia had 72 parishes and Durang would have established a monopoly as their go-to architect.

As architectural historian Michael Lewis tells us in Philadelphia Builds: “Durang made his debut as a Catholic architect with a pair of oversize parish churches,” St. Ann (1866-1869) in Port Richmond and Saint Charles Borromeo (1868-71) in South Philadelphia. “Each was a stone leviathan,” writes Lewis, and these churches “established the model that Durang would follow without significant modification for the next 45 years.” With “a spirited frontispiece, plain but solid walls to the sides, and a roomy auditorium of a space within,” these churches were “decorated more or less richly as the parishioners could afford.”

St. Ann’s Church, 2328 E. Lehigh Ave., Port Richmond, Philadelphia. Lithograph, ca. 1895 (Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. Graphics Collection.)
St. Charles Borromeo Church, 20th and Christian Streets, 1970. (

Durang’s churches tended to “vary wildly in style.” But “in one crucial aspect they are the same,” Lewis points out: “their façades have nothing whatsoever to do with the space behind. Like a piece of stage scenery, the extravagance ended at the front wall and did not go around the sides, which presented nothing more than an austere march of round-headed windows.” In essence, “there was little difference between a Durang auditorium and a church.”

Durang produced twenty of Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic Churches and renovated or rebuilt at least ten others. They included, among others, The Church of the Gesú and St. Veronica’s in North Philadelphia, St. Francis Xavier in Fairmount, Our Mother of Sorrows and St. Agatha’s in West Philadelphia, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kensington, St. Mary Magdalene di Pazzi and St. Gabriel’s in South Philadelphia. Most survive to this day, standing among Philadelphia’s more than 830 extant historic sacred places.

Demolition of National Guard’s Hall, 518-20 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA. 1959. (Historic American Building Survey)

What didn’t survive? The National Guard’s Hall. Its demolition in 1959 helped clear the way for the northernmost block of Independence Mall, where the National Constitution Center now stands. If we no longer have the building, we do have photographs of its demolition revealing the truss, Durang’s “secret sauce” for creating a half-century of Philadelphia’s mammoth sacred and less-than-sacred spaces.

[Sources: Michael Lewis, Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2021); Gregory William Oliveri, Building a Baroque Catholicism: the Philadelphia churches of Edwin Forrest Durang (University of Delaware MA Thesis, 1999); Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places Their past, present, and future. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, October 2017) (PDF).]


Gladys Bentley and the “Noble Experiment” at 1523 Locust Street

Gladys Bentley escaped her family’s North Philadelphia rowhouse at the age of 16 and, for more than a decade, didn’t look back.

She joined the Harlem Renaissance, which in 1923 was kicking into high gear. A jazz performer, Bentley became “one of the boldest performers of her era.” Her reworked popular songs with homespun risqué lyrics packed, among other venues, the notorious Clam House, a speakeasy on 133rd Street. “Bentley sang her bawdy, bossy songs in a thunderous voice, dipping down into a froglike growl or curling upward into a wail” wrote The New York Times in a belated obituary. Appearing in a trademark white top hat and tuxedo, Bentley became Harlem’s most famous lesbian and “one of “the best-known black entertainers” in America.

Advertisement in The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 1937

In 1934, Bentley headlined at New York’s new Ubangi Club, attracting, according to The Philadelphia Tribune, her “Gay White Way clientele that goes all the way to make up New York after dark.” Her act featured “a chorus of boys whose entertaining is of that different style and appeal.”

Langston Hughes would write of Bentley’s “amazing exhibition of musical energy—a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard—a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”

Bentley’s return to North Philadelphia in September 1935, at the Memphis Club on Warnock Street below Girard Avenue, was less than a mile from her childhood home. “Miss B is a show in herself,” wrote the Inquirer, “holding the audience from the moment she appears on the floor.”

In the summer of 1937, Bentley would perform in Center City at the Piccadilly Room, 1523 Locust Street. Billboard called her billing intriguing, a “noble experiment,” where, in one building, artists of both races performed. The “policy of separate white and Negro niteries under one roof will be tried by 1523 Locust,” reported Variety. One manager ran “colored shows” headlined by Gladys Bentley “presenting the gayest harlemania” in the intimate Piccadilly Room, upstairs front.” Elsewhere in the same building at the same time, Bubbles Shelby was featured as the white headliner.

Locust Street at Sydenham Street, Looking West. July 9, 1940. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (

Bentley quickly drew top billing. She “gives out the risk–gay ditties in that intimate manner that leaves no mistaken meaning. To rousing returns, she offers Just Give It To Tim, Gladys Isn’t Gratis Anymore and a Wally Simpson-inspired He Did It For Love. And for the more intimate circles sings Goody Goody. New to the villagers here, she’s dynamite.”

Home of the 1523 Club and the Piccadilly Room, 1523 Locust Street, Looking West. July 9, 1940. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (

But the experiment didn’t last. Ann Lewis completed her six-week run at the Piccadilly Room, returned to Harlem, and told a reporter that “racial prejudice is breaking up the management’s attempt to feature…a white and colored revue just opposite each other.” Bentley and others quit the show “when the feeling between the two races became near the breaking point.”

In fact, “the double bill of entertainment” was figured to be “an experiment doomed to failure.”

Philadelphia, “though very much in the North, has always surfaced a definite racial feeling between white and colored” wrote reporter Billy Rowe. “Not many months ago before the passing of the civil rights bill in the state of Pennsylvania, Negroes suffered Jim-Crow tactics used below the Mason-Dixon line in theaters and other Nordic owned enterprises.” After the passing of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Bill of 1935, the “age-old practice” continued and “as a direct outcome of such fights for equality a new hatred was born in the city of brotherly love.”

Bentley would soon leave New York again, this time for Los Angeles, “to become a leading entertainer there and in the Bay Area,” appearing onstage at Mona’s 440 Club, “the first lesbian bar in San Francisco.” In short order, Mona’s would become Bentley’s West Coast home away from home.

[Sources: “Gladys Bentley Stars at Ubangi Club” in The Philadelphia Tribune, August 23, 1934; “Bentley, Memphis Club,” The Inquirer, September 15, 1935; “Putting White and Negro Niteries Under 1 Roof,” Variety, May 12, 1937; “Night Clubs Star Stage Celebrities in Revue Programs,” The Inquirer, May 12, 1937; “Piccadilly Room, 1523 Club, Philadelphia, The Billboard, June 12, 1937; Billy Rowe, “Black and Tan Revue Can’t Hit: Philly’s Piccadilly Room Tries New Experiment,” The Pittsburgh Courier, July 3, 1937; Giovanni Russonello, “Gladys Bentley (1907-1960): A gender-bending blues performer who became 1920s Harlem royalty.The New York Times.]


The Egyptian Revival – South Philly Style

In the decades after Napoleon invaded Egypt (as read in the previous post) any number of 19th-century architects adopted the Egyptian style. Philadelphians William Strickland, John Haviland, Robert Mills, Stephen Decatur Button, and Thomas U. Walter all lavished features from the Nile on increasingly eclectic façades in the 1820s, 30s and 40s.

Moyamensing Prison, Debtor’s Wing, Photograph by G. Mark Wilson, ca. 1923 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Sometimes we make attributions as to who was responsible for what, but in the case of the debtors wing at South Philadelphia’s Moyamensing prison, we know for absolute certain that it was Thomas U. Walter’s. There’s archival evidence. But there’s more. The architect’s name was literally carved in stone—on the building.

Torn Down Pillars, 1400 South 10th Street, October 5, 1971 (

See the image above. No…really look at it. You can detect barely legible lettering on what was the protected, inward-facing, side of a brownstone Egyptian-revival column. Obtaining a TIFF file from we were able to zoom in and read “T. U. WALTER, ARCHT.”—the architect’s signature, as it were.

Detail of Torn Down Pillars, 1400 South 10th Street, October 5, 1971 ( (

Ruins can speak! They share cryptic stories.

Has this tasty bit of ancient-modern archeology survived?

1400 South 10th Street – Torn Down Pillars, October 5, 1971 (

We read on one blog a rumor that the Smithsonian might be the steward of what’s left of the columns, but so far that does not seem to be the case. We did learn that the winged orb from over the entrance (below) does survive at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, thanks to the late Penny Hartshorne Batcheler.

Dumpster diving at its best? Or a pioneering preservationist just doing some much-needed forensics?

Whichever, we say many thanks to Penny!


Exercising the Egyptian Option in Northern Liberties

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt with 400 ships, 54,000 men and one artist. Dominique-Vivant Denon “made good use of his time, sketching furiously when the troops paused for brief moments.”

Denon brought back to Paris images far more detailed than the pyramids and broken sculptures Westerners had been familiar with. The 23-volume Description de l’Égypte, published from 1809 to 1828, included no fewer than 837 engravings capturing “Egyptian culture from every possible vantage point.” For the first time, Europeans and Americans could get to know the temples and ruins from Thebes, Esna, Edfu, Philae and more.

Odd Fellow’s Hall, Northwest Corner of 3rd and Brown Streets, March 3, 1959 (

These exotic images led to appreciation and emulation in Philadelphia. For the first time, architects could add an Egyptian option to their expanding array of eclectic motifs that included the classical, the Gothic and the Oriental.

What was so appealing to Americans about the Egyptian? Some liked the allusion that their fertile valleys might be compared to the Nile. (The Mississippi was occasionally referred to as the American Nile.) The Schuylkill floodplain near Valley Forge became known as the “Egypt District.” Americans appropriated ancient names: Cairo, Memphis, Thebes, and Karnak – suggesting that their cities might also flourish for millennia.

Americans adopted Egyptian motifs for one cemetery gateway and another. In perpetuity, they would entomb their dead in marble crypts the designs of which were replicated from published sources.

The first American building in the Egyptian style was William Strickland’s Mikveh Israel synagogue on Cherry Street from 1825. Over the next several decades, more Egyptian-inflected buildings would rise in Philadelphia, including a prison, an insurance company, a waterworks, and an Odd Fellow’s Hall (pictured above).

Egyptian Hall, Masonic Temple, 1 North Broad Street (

What kept the Egyptian influence from even wider adoption? Possibly the rising anti-slavery movement. After all, wasn’t memorializing ancient Egypt akin to celebrating the institution of slavery? Or maybe Christian America just couldn’t promote Egypt’s pagan past? Whatever–once it took hold, architects, designers and the public couldn’t resist an occasional sampling of the Egyptian option.


Origin Story: Philly’s First Public Christmas

Philadelphia’s First Community Christmas Tree, frontispiece in The First Year Book of The Child Federation ( 1913-1914)

“To the waifs of fortune,” one news story began, to the “men, women and children whose lives have been passed in bleak wandering as outcasts of society, there will be afforded a taste of Christmas joy.”

The donors backing Philadelphia’s Child Federation, the newly-founded philanthropic organization whose usual mission was the reduction of infant mortality, augmented their first year’s giving with a grand gesture of public beneficence: installing a giant, 63-foot Christmas tree on Independence Square.

Twenty thousand citizens packed the square on December 24, 1913 and “turned their faces toward” the city’s “first Christmas tree that ever was set up for all the people of the city.” Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg “flashed on 4,200 red, white and blue lights” before Lucretia, his wife, illuminated the large “electric star” at its pinnacle.

The gathered crowd then enjoyed a concert by the 45-piece First Regiment Band, ancient Christmas chorales performed by the famous Moravian trombonists from Bethlehem, and the 700 voices of the United Singers of Philadelphia featuring “Holy Night,” “Peaceful Night,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

Independence Square, Christmas Tree, December 1913 (

At the center of it all was a mammoth Norway spruce found at the Parry farm near Rancocas, New Jersey, after a five-state search. Nine days earlier, the tree had been shuttled down the Delaware River from Bridgeboro to the Vine Street pier. If all had gone according to plan, the tree would have been greeted by officials, a band and 2,000 schoolchildren.

But dusk came and went without the tree. The band waited patiently; the schoolchildren not so much–they were corralled for hours on the dock by mounted police tasked with keeping the “youngsters from falling into the Delaware.”

“There was really considerable comedy, instead of Christmas spirit, reported the Inquirer.

Eventually, the “long-lost tug and its tow were sighted off Port Richmond” but the band and the school children had gone home. Even the mounted police “gave it up . . . and galloped away.”

Arriving alone in chilly darkness, the tree was “unceremoniously dumped along the waterfront at Vine Street” to “the sibilant maledictions of a crew of riggers.” The reception committee had diminished to a handful of “disappointed officials, night custom inspectors, a detail of policeman, six wharf rats, four teamsters, several Jerseyites waiting for a ferry, and 87 newspapermen.”

Navigating the tree the last mile through the streets was delayed as riggers realized there was no way to avoid the overhead trolley wires. It took “a long conference, several protracted telephonic conversations” before a decision to postpone work until after midnight “when the trolley company could raise overhead wires.”

The tree arrived at Independence Square just before dawn.

Upright and decorated, it was an immediate popular attraction. An estimated 350,000 visited before the tree was taken down, stripped of its branches and recycled as a flag pole at the Kingsessing Recreation playground, 50th Street and Chester Avenue.

The idea of a public display of Christmas, built around a monumental tree in a prominent civic space, had gotten off the ground. It would continue to grow as a civic, if not always philanthropic, competition.

[Sources: [The First Year Book of The Child Federation Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1913-14 (1914); from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Big Christmas Tree in the Square Planned,” October 1, 1913; “Giant Xmas Tree Found for Independence Square,” November 23, 1913; “Gay Reception For Tree Fails,” December 16, 1913; “Gigantic Spruce Hauled Through Streets,” December 16, 1913; “Big Tree Put Up,” December 21, 1913; “Bethlehem Star In Great Spruce Shines on 20,000,” December 25, 1913.]


Ordering “Plated Flannel” for the Civil Service

According to the first annual report of the City’s Civil Service Commission, Philadelphia received more than 4,500 applications more than 170 different types of positions in 1906. Twenty seven job-seekers applied to be bricklayers, 84  hoped to be hired as  carpenters, 692  as clerks, 68 as elevator operators, 37 as engineers, 50 as firemen, 2 as guards at the House of Correction, 156 as guides at City Hall. Twenty three hoped to become drain inspectors, 10 as masonry inspectors, 11 as meat inspectors, 116 as street cleaning inspectors, 54 as janitors, 27 as “janitresses,” 90 as machinists, 364 as patrolmen, 131 as mounted patrolmen, 11 as photographers, 18 as plumbers, 23 as plumbers helpers, 112 as stenographers, 12 as telegraph operators, 48 as telephone operators, 9 as tinsmiths, 14 as waitresses, and 180 as watchmen. That same year the Commission held civil service examinations for 3,801 candidates. More than 2,200 were “placed on eligible lists.”

Civil Service Commission Exam, August 31, 1933. Photograph by Maurice D. Abuhove (

By the 1920s, Philadelphia’s employment rolls made it the single largest employer with as many as 30,000 in 663 positions as diverse as, Walter Licht tells us, ambulance chauffeur, clock attendant, herdsman, traffic statistician, and writ server.”

“By the 1950s this process had ballooned” still further, according to Licht. In 1953 alone the city processed 48,775 applications, arranged for 34,215 civil service tests, notified the 10,479 who passed of their eligibility, and appointed 4,543 to actual jobs.  

Civil Service Exam for Iron Workers, July 8, 1930. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess (

In many cases, especially for office jobs, the civil service exams were in a written format, but when it came to the trades like stenography, welding or ironwork, among others, the Commission devised and administered practical exams.

In October 1905, Frank M. Riter, the head of the Commission, personally tested eight applicants hoping to be hired as waitresses at the Philadelphia Hospital (presumably the Philadelphia General Hospital). According to The Inquirer, Riter displayed his own “startling knowledge of the science of waiting” as he posed questions.

Civil Service Exam for Stenographers, December 4, 1912 (

“What is the meaning of ‘draw one,’ ‘brown the wheat,’ ‘off the ice,’ ‘one in the dark,’ ‘wheat bread devil’ and ‘plate the flannel?”

“What is the proper way to shoot a plate of biscuits?”

“How many oysters should be in a small stew? How many in a large stew?”

“If a customer orders four sinkers, at three for five cents, a cup of coffee, without milk and a plate of ‘ham and,’ what should be the amount of his check?”

In 2021, we have no idea. But we do know sinkers were doughnuts and “ham and” was, and in some quarters still is, slang for ham and eggs. The rest, especially plated flannel, remains a mystery.

Not for long, one hopes.

[Sources:  Walter Licht, Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992)]; “First Annual Report of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia, January 2, 1907” in Annual Message of the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia with the Annual Reports of Directors of Departments, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1907): Riter, the Versatile, Plays Head Waiter, The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 18, 1905.]


“The man with the pull” got the job

Thirteen thousand Philadelphians worked for the city at the start of the 20th century, about the same time Lincoln Steffens dubbed Philadelphia “the most corrupt and the most contented” city in America.

How did payroll and patronage play out on the street?

City Hall – Civil Service Bulletin Board, November 10, 1905 (

According to historian Walter Licht, an estimated 10,000 city jobs were “distributed to loyal party workers,” who, “in return for employment…pledged portions of their salaries to the political machine, a long-standing practice that had not been ended with reform legislation.” In fact, Licht continued, “investigations revealed that 94 percent of all employees in the city actually paid between 3 and 12 percent of their annual incomes to the coffers of the Republican Party organization for a total take of $349,000.”

Philadelphia was addicted to this corrupt, pay-to play (or pay-to-work) system. Sure, the city “had gone through the motions following the lead of the United States government in establishing a competitive examination system for appointments to federal jobs,” but legislation creating a civil service board for Philadelphia in 1885 “hardly curbed spoilsmanship.” In the City of Brotherly Love “the mayor and his department chiefs were able to bend the system to their needs.”

And everyone knew it. As Theodore Roosevelt put it 1893 (he was an advocate of Civil Service reform): “I should rather have no law than the law you have in Philadelphia. “

In 1905, the “reform forces succeeded once again in securing legislation at the state level” creating “a new civil service commission for Philadelphia, a seemingly more independent agency.” Mayor John Weaver apparently embraced the reform, vacating and replacing leadership and appointing Frank M. Riter to run the new commission. The mayor “annulled” earlier eligible lists” providing Riter with a clean slate and a fully-funded office poised for reorganization and reform. As for his part, Riter was determined to secure “public confidence” having committed his commission to “full publicity and absolute fairness.”

By October, 1905, after Riter’s rash of new civil service examinations had been advertised, implemented and scored, he installed in City Hall courtyard “a large bulletin board…for displaying the results of examinations.” Everyone could read the results whether the positions were guards at the House of Correction, plumbers in the Electrical Bureau, or patrolmen.

Yet the corruption continued. Only a few weeks before the installation of Riter’s bulletin board, the Inquirer revealed that Sheldon Potter, the Director of the Department of Public Safety, “disregarded Civil Service rule” and made appointments only days before receiving the list of eligible candidates from Riter.

Civil Service Examination – Police Sergeant in City Hall – October 17, 1916 (

The Inquirer also implicated the mayor with circumventing the rules. “Weaver Insincere In Civil Service,” read a headline, “appointments show men with high averages ignored for political favorites.” Civil War veterans had been “especially discriminated against by administration policy.”

“In no respect is the insincerity of so-called ‘reform’ shown up more glaringly than upon the bulletin board of the civil service bureau on the seventh floor of City Hall, the Inquirer pointed out. There can be seen posted long lists of eligibles for various kinds of city positions. … It is here that the utter failure of the administration to live up to its professions of a square deal for every applicant is conspicuously set forth. … A half dozen veterans of the Civil War, standing high on the list have been deliberately passed over and political favorites of the Mayor and his friends, far down on the list, have been given preference. Not only have the veterans been ignored, but other applicants with high averages have been left out and men far below them in the averages of the civil service tests have been given the appointments. … The man with the pull got the job regardless of his special fitness for it, and the man with the high average or near the top of the list has been ignored.”

Civil Service Commission – Recreation Instructor’s Examination, August 1, 1934 (

Still, Riter continued as if corruption had been effectively curtailed. His commission continued to offer examinations and to advertise the results. From March through December 1906, Riter’s office tested and scored 4,551 applicants for more than 170 positions—everything from clerks to bricklayers, carpenters to elevator operators, engineers to firemen, patrolmen to drain inspectors, stenographers to telegraph operators, tinsmiths to waitresses.

Who got the jobs? . . . Well, that was not his to say.

[Sources: Walter Licht, Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992)];  “Potter Disregarded Civil Service Rules,”October 7, 1905; “Weaver Insincere In Civil Service,” October 12, 1905; – Riter, the Versatile, Plays Head Waiter,” October 18, 1905; Secretary Riter’s Bulletin Board, October 25, 1905; The First Annual Report of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia, Jan 2, 1907. All in The Philadelphia Inquirer; “First Annual Report of the Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia, January 2, 1907” in Annual Message of the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia with the Annual Reports of Directors of Departments, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1907).]


Slaking thirsts at the Semiquincentennial

Philadelphia’s two world fairs—the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and the Sesquicentennial fifty years later in 1926, introduced all kinds of stuff that folks didn’t know they’d need, want, or would come to stress over.

In 1876, the newfangled included the telephone, the typewriter, ketchup, and kudzu, introduced to control erosion. Visitors climbed to the torch of an unfinished Statue of Liberty through her forearm. They stared wide-eyed at the ominous Krupp cannon from Germany.

Representing “progress” at the Sesquicentennial was the Dixie Cup, its disposability marketed as good public health practice. Other innovations included a teller’s window made of “Safetee Bullet Proof Glass” for the Franklin Trust Company. Home improvements featured rolls of Blabon’s checkered linoleum for the modern “electric kitchen” where up-to-date consumers swapped vintage, wooden ice boxes for sleek, white Frigidaires. Homes, furnished by J. B. Van Sciver, would be tidier with the help of a Eureka Vacuum Cleaner , if not a Hoover.

Tufts soda fountain at the Centennial Exhibition, 1876, (Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Collection.)

All of that ogling during a hotter-than-usual Centennial summer generated a great thirst. No problem. Philly pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires offered up samples of his newly concocted root beer. James Walker Tufts from Pinehurst, North Carolina took the refreshment supply chain a step farther, purchasing purveying rights for his “Artic Soda,” sold from one or another monumental, marble-countered fountain.

Valley Forge Beer Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (

Thirsty Sesqui guests had their choice of concessions. Hires retuned, serving from a giant, tipped-over barrel. One could get a caffeine fix at the George Washington Coffee Concession. Valley Forge Beer purveyed their (most likely non-alcoholic) brew. Even lighter fare was sipped at the Clicquot Club Ginger Ales stand. At Emerson Drug Company’s booths one could find Ginger Mint Juleps, or, if need be, a Bromo Seltzer.

All of which gets us thinking, not only about the past, but about the future. What will we be slaking or toasting with five years hence, in 2026, at the…what are we calling it…the Semiquincentennial?

Clicquot Club Ginger Ale Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (
Ginger Mint Juleps from the Emerson Drug Company Concession Booth, Sesquicentennial, 1926 (
Hires Root Beer Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (
Emerson Drug Company Concession Booth at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (