A Holdout from the Heyday of the American Daguerreotype

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos View of the south side of Chestnut Street between 6th and 7th Streets
showing the daguerreotype studio of McClees & Germon in 1855.

Philadelphia in the 1850s was much about giving and getting face time. You couldn’t take more than a few steps on Chestnut Street without bumping into a choice of daguerreotype studios. The photographic process arrived from Paris  late summer in  1839;  Philadelphians had grown up with the silvery science from the first. Robert Cornelius experimented, perfected, and then sold his first commercial portrait to his lens supplier, John McAllister, Jr., who was savvy enough to insist on being the first in line. Today, McAllister’s face lives on at the Library of Congress.

What made daguerreotypes so appealing? They literally reflected reality using a blend of skill and science that looked like magic but was really an art. From the first, they stunned those who saw them and left in their wake believers convinced these affordable, luminous images would change the world.

By the 1850s, on a walk down Chestnut Street you’d encounter a dozen Daguerreans, whose bold signs, brimming sample cases, and wide-open glass windows invited in both sunlight and paying visitors. From 1846 to 1856, as Prints and Photographs curator at the Library of Company of Philadelphia Sarah Weatherwax points out in a map made for the online exhibition Catching A Shadow: Daguerreotypes in Philadelphia, 1839-1860 the number of Philadelphia studios grew from a mere 20 to an amazing 150.

You’d find the studios of McClees & Germon (illustrated here before the fire of 1855 and above after reconstruction). You’d see a stunning daguerreotype panorama of the Fairmount Waterworks at T.P. and D.C Collins’ (it’s found at the Franklin Institute today). You’d take in the images of Montgomery P. Simons, Samuel Van Loan, Frederick DeBourg Richards and Marcus Aurelius Root, whose daguerreotype of Anthony Pritchard recently broke records when it sold at auction for more than $350,000.

Root liked to brag he captured “the shadow of the soul” on silvered plates, skillfully coaxing the sun to do to its work for him. Popularity led Root to double his annual production in the late 1840s; he produced his share of the 3,000,000 daguerreotypes made in America in the middle of the 19th century. When cheap paper prints from negatives rendered the daguerreotype process obsolete on the eve of the Civil War, Root chose obsolescence, too. He couldn’t stomach the “new and improved” photography and missed the day when you’d walk along Chestnut Street, Market Street or Second Street, smell the iodine wafting from the studios and pass customers proudly holding their palm-sized, glassed-fronted, image-bearing cases.

But as many daguerreotype studios as there once were, there’s not a single one left today. Or is there? With all of the one-time activity, you’d think there’d be some surviving evidence on the streets of the city that made the daguerreotype an American institution. So much of Philadelphia is a collection of proud and mundane remnants from the past. Is it too much to ask that one of these remnants be a holdout from the day of the Daguerreotype?

Maybe we need to search just a little bit harder.


The Cartoon Nearly Nobody Got

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Newsstand – Northwest Corner of Broad and Snyder Streets. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess,
November 29, 1949.

In the middle of the 20th century, The Bulletin seemed to be everywhere. Blue newsstands with gold lettering had grown familiar at intersections throughout the city: in South Philadelphia (illustrated), North Philadelphia, East Falls, West Oak Lane, Wynnefield and here and there throughout Center City. In Philadelphia, nearly everybody could read The Bulletin, and many did.

In 1947, when the paper turned 100, circulation stood at the highest its owners had seen before or after. Peter Binzen described the party thrown at the Convention Center. Management ordered a six-foot-tall cake for the paper’s 1,700 employees and read congratulations (sort of) from President Harry Truman (“I have never known it to hit below the belt”) and TIME Magazine (“The Bulletin may be unspectacular, but it is a good newspaper.”)

Backhanded compliments mattered little to The Bulletin’s approximately three-quarters of a million daily readers. For generations, “interior life was what counted in Philadelphia,” wrote John Lukacs. The city had not outlived the “corrupt and contented” tagline given by Lincoln Steffens in 1904; it had embraced it. For every registered Democrat there were two registered Republicans, with politics Lukacs labeled “a kind of Business-Biblical Americanism of the Old Protectionist Dispensation.”

But things were changing. Soon after 1950, Philadelphia forfeited its rank as the third largest American city to Los Angeles (of all places!). The city hovered at the brink of a political and civic reform that would tear down all kinds of walls, not least of which was the so-called Chinese Wall that cut the western half of Center City in two.

Riding high, The Bulletin sought to secure its position with advertising that played on the soul of what would become known as “the private city.” This campaign turned into one of the longest-lived in advertising. For 28-years, Americans awaited the next illustration by Richard Decker over the slogan that quickly became famous: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.” Decker, the son of Chestnut Street stationers, had a prolific career as a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Ben Yagoda describes him as “a virtuoso of the panoramic full-page gag” with a brand of humor that “sprang from the one key element that was unexpected or out of joint.” Each of these Bulletin ads worked from the same premise: while a scene of some drama unfolds, everyone in the crowd, except one excited, skinny, balding fellow, is complacently reading their copy of newspaper.

Newsstand at "the Chinese Wall, " Northeast corner of 17th and Market Streets. Photograph by Francis Balionis, July 25, 1952.

Each would be a cartoon, except for the fact that it was really an advertisement. That their humor came at the expense of nearly every Philadelphian gave a few cultural critics reason to take offense. According to Nathaniel Burt, the ads speak to “the Philadelphia lack of curiosity, the inability and unwillingness to observe the unknown, no matter how spectacular.” They project “Philadelphia’s enormous self-satisfaction, the delight in the status quo; above all, the intense groupiness, the cheerful conformity …  their complete exclusion of the oddball, the intense, the enthusiastic and the alarmed—no matter how proper his concern.” Burt concluded the message conveyed that “Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin, nearly everybody, that is, except the peculiar.”

Philip Stevick considered Decker’s ads “uncompromisingly derogatory,” especially  in light of the fact that Philadelphia had long been the butt of national jokes as “a sleepy town.” When “faced with the unexpected, or the dramatic, or the exciting, or indeed the life threatening, Philadelphians, the ads seem to say, cannot be roused from their daily papers. . . . Experience itself is simply not interesting.”

Burt’s observations date to the 1960s, when the Philadelphia of W.C. Fields still lived large in the national imagination. And even in the 1990s, when Stevick considered the campaign, Philadelphia had not yet shaken its historic self-depreciation. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the city no longer has The Bulletin, or even a robust newspaper with healthy circulation, but Philadelphia is comfortable in its own skin.

Sometimes it’s the artist, rather than the historian, who is the first to hold a light up to the truth. Philadelphia-born and raised singer, dancer Joan McCracken found fame in the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! and then in this politically incorrect period piece Pass That Peace Pipe from the film Good News. Instead of taking umbrage with the campaign, McCracken, herself the daughter of a Philadelphia newspaperman, found inspiration in a Decker ad for The Bulletin set in a theater—and used it for an original dance sequence. McCracken got Decker’s joke, and played into it. She chose herself for the role of the “oddball” in “Paper!” On stage in New York, she was the only Philadelphian, and the only dancer in touch with reality.


The Apotheosis and Caffeination of George Washington

Purchase Photo Creamware Jug with the Apotheosis of George Washington, photographed
May 17, 1918.

Death, not birth, was the source of George Washington’s lasting fame. Whatever Washington had done right or wrong during his time on earth, when the Father of His Country passed on at Mount Vernon in December 1799 he also ascended to a special place in the American imagination. Grieving Philadelphians provided a mock funeral procession for an empty, draped casket led by a riderless horse. Even folks who didn’t know much care for the man while he was general or president joined Washington’s true and lasting following that continued in monuments all the way to the end of the new century.

No resting in peace for George Washington. Shortly after his burial at Mount Vernon, John James Barralet, an Irish-trained artist who arrived in Philadelphia during Washington’s second term in office (when the Capital resided in Philadelphia) imagined the restless scene in this commemorative engraving. It may as well have been real: the late President in his fresh burial clothes seems only a bit taken aback being met by allegorical figures of Immortality and Time. They lift Washington from his tomb while America mourns at his feet and Faith, Hope, Charity—behind an enthusiastic Bald Eagle—look on. This elevation, if not deification, came with the heady name of apotheosis, a treatment reserved only for very, very special characters since the days of ancient Greece and Rome.

Barralet’s print proved popular, so popular that British manufacturers of souvenir creamware in Liverpool and Staffordshire put aside the fact that they had been defeated by the late General and used their transfer printing process to put his image on a line of jugs for their United States market. Grieving Americans snapped them up.

The appetite for all forms of commercial and civic expressions in honor of the late President would include everything from statues to cities.  Sculptor William Rush’s full-length figure in pine from 1815 was noble enough, but only a gesture compared with what Congress commissioned on the occasion of Washington’s 100th birthday in 1832. Sculptor Horatio Greenough was asked to carve a great statue in stone for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and delivered a 30-ton “Enthroned Washington” based on Zeus at Olympia. This seated, sandal-wearing and bare-chested Washington was relinquishing his god-like powers to the American people, but so many were shocked by the half-naked President they made sure he never made it into the hallowed halls of the Capitol.

Not until 1865 did a classical and monumental depiction of Washington find its way into the Capitol dome, now a fresco apotheosis inspired by another of Hercules. This time, a fully-clothed Washington rises in glory, surrounded by thirteen maidens (one maiden per each original state) and flanked by allegories of Liberty and Fame.

Did the apotheosis, that ever-reliable, classical rebuff of death appeal to Americans deeply stung by the losses of the Civil War? Absolutely. After Lincoln’s assassination, souvenir makers came to rescue once again with a carte-de-visite image of this late President’s arrival in heaven. This time, instead of being guided by god-like allegories, Lincoln arrives into the waiting arms of George Washington’s heavenly self, who places a laurel wreath on Lincoln’s head.

Times and tastes changed, of course. After enough time residing in heaven, a Sesquicentennial reenactor stationed at Independence Hall brought Washington (and the Liberty Bell) back to life on earth. Meanwhile, visitors to the nation’s 150th anniversary exhibition in South Philadelphia stayed awake sipping “George Washington’s Delicious Instant Coffee” suggesting that there’s really no end to the ways Americans can, and will, remember.


Looking for Love at the Centennial

"Love Blinds," by Donato Barcaglia (Milan, Italy) from the Art Annex at the Centennial Exhibition. Photograph by the Centennial Photographic Co., 1876. (The Free Library of Philadelphia.)

Americans just weren’t feeling it. Emotions ran high at the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, but these were more along the lines of patriotism, pride and progress than anything like love. Ten million enthusiastic visitors toured buildings packed with the latest machinery and encountered little in the way of old-fashioned romance. Even in the art galleries at Memorial Hall, Americans shied away from feelings of the tender sort. Those who strolled in (according the catalogue) found portraits, landscapes and battles—but little love. The closest things? A statue of Hamlet’s doomed Ophelia. Or a painting (Love’s Melancholy) by Constant Mayer, a New Yorker originally from France.

When it came to love, Europeans seemed in their element and ready to approach the full, ripe experience. The French shipped over Divine Love and also Venus led by Love. Brussels sent Motherly Love and Love is Conqueror. England hung The Poet’s First Love.  The Germans presented Love Conquers Strength.

But no one at the Centennial did love like the Italians. Their unabashed display of sentiment (supported and facilitated by John Sartain, the Chief of the Bureau of Art at the Centennial, who the Italian Government later knighted for his trouble) covered thousands of square feet in gallery after gallery. In Memorial Hall, Cararra marble stood on 85 pedestals.  The neighboring Art Annex packed in an astounding 236 more. These 321 works must be “the largest collection of sculpture ever displayed at any Exhibition” wrote one art critic.

Sentiment reigned and love themes prevailed in the Italian displays. No less than nine cupids had been sent in: The Birth of Cupid, Cupid on the Lookout; Venus and Cupid, Cupid Begging; Sleeping Cupid and Cupid Flying. To popular (though not critical) acclaim, Italian artists lavished upon visitors the entire amorous range in fresh marble: Lurking Love, Angelic Love, Birth of Love, Love’s First Whispers, Innocence Playing with Vice, and A Jealous Sweetheart.  A painting in the same gallery might have served as a label for the place: The School of Love.

Visitors dallied in the Italian galleries, which Sartain located near the entrance of the Art Annex. They studied Brotherly Love, The Mirror of Love, Love’s Net, Love’s Messenger, and The Rebuke, among dozens of other examples, which slowed foot traffic. And the works of Donato Barcaglia, a young artist from Milan, brought it to a halt.  Again and again, the sculptor demonstrated his facility in “works which trifled and toyed with the difficulties of the material” according to another critic. Barcaglia’s “barocchismo” captured the feel of fabric in The First Call, playful movement in Children Blowing Bubbles and dynamic tension in Flying Time. In Love Blinds (illustrated left), Barcaglia gave marble the appearance of flesh that was so close to real, prudish Americans reminded themselves as they stared: “It is only marble.”

True enough.  As true as is the cliché Barcaglia carved in stone.


Charles Klauder’s Boy Scout Palazzo on the Parkway

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Boy Scout Building – 22nd and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
William A. Gee, Photographer, February 13, 1931.

What exactly is this little building that’s being treated like a child in a long and contentious custody battle? While would-be parents (the City of Philadelphia and the Boy Scouts of America) quibble over the question of child support, no one seems to be paying much attention to the personality the battle is about. And, as it turns out, there’s quite a little character here at 22nd and Winter Streets.

Behind the statue of the heroic (and stoic?) Boy Scout looking out at the Parkway is a gem of a building from the brink of the Great Depression. The Boy Scout Headquarters is one of many, many buildings imagined for Philadelphia’s grand civic boulevard, and among the relatively few that actually got built. (A chronology of the Parkway is found here.) It’s across from Paul Cret’s Rodin Museum, which it gently echoes, but where Cret’s taut lines suggest modern times ahead, the Boy Scout building holds onto, and indulges in, ideas about the past. According to David Brownlee, who wrote about the place in his Building the City Beautiful, here’s “a compact building of Italian Renaissance pedigree…delighting in the rich textures of Florentine architecture…”

Who was responsible for this?  That would be Charles Z. Klauder, the son of German immigrants who rose through the ranks from apprentice draughtsman, which he became at a tender Scouting age, to work with the Wilson Brothers, Cope & Stewardson and Horace Trumbauer before becoming chief draughtsman for Frank Miles Day, the firm that would eventually be his own. Klauder impressed colleagues as “a modest, almost shy man…who enjoyed the artisanship of masonry.” Shy in the studio, maybe, but Klauder wasn’t too shy to climb scaffolding when he needed to show his masons, first hand, the effect he was after.

Interior, Charles Z. Klauder’s Boy Scout Building, (The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.)

Those effects in stone are seen here in a Renaissance Italian-style palazzo, and they are as elegant as they are antiquarian. What does it remind us of? The Drexel & Company Building at 15th and Walnut Streets, which Klauder also designed. But Klauder is best known for his work at colleges and universities. Visit any campus, from Princeton to Yale to Cornell to the University of Pittsburgh, for samplings of his work and evidence of his influence. One Klauder masterpiece is Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning—a campus in a skyscraper, but all of it, no matter how soaring, was done in the Collegiate Gothic style.

“Students may come and go, classes enter and graduate,” wrote Klauder, but “venerable walls and carved chimney-pieces, picturesque gables and vaulted archways endure forever.” He worked with college administrators to help them avoid being “helpless bystanders… at the invasion…of indifferent, if not atrocious, design.” As “sources of knowledge,” Klauder believed, colleges “should be the sources of good architecture.” And in his mind, good architecture would look medieval – something like those European universities that preserved classical learning for so long.

The compact Italian palazzo at 22nd and Winter doesn’t try to be Gothic, but then again, it isn’t setting out to evoke collegiate airs, either. It is, however, committed to historicism, and that goes for the interior as well as the exterior. Klauder’s treatments inside, never seen by the public, are even more expressive than those of his exterior. The architect deployed stone, tile, iron and light to create a courtyard “in the Italian fashion…roofed in glass to serve as a reception hall,” according to Brownlee. The place is “full of charming details.”

This charm should be sufficient to get our imaginations going.  What will this building become someday, when the custody battle is over and it’s finally allowed to grow up?


Thomas W. Dyott, Snake Oil, Soda Water and the Perennially Seductive Philadelphia Bottle

View of the Glass works of T. W. Dyott at Kensington on the Delaware nr Philada., Lithograph by Kennedy & Lucas after William L. Breton, 1831. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Everyone in America, it seemed, wanted to wrap their fingers around a bottle. What poured from the bottle didn’t seem to matter all that much, so long as it made the consumers feel good about themselves.  It might be shoe polish, patent medicine or whiskey—something, anything, that was cheap to make and marketable by whatever claims it took to sell. When it came down to it, the bottle’s contents were almost secondary to a steady, affordable supply of pocket-sized, glass containers. Without bottles, manufacturers and merchants had no reason to create demand and no way to satisfy the desires of clambering consumers.

“The Times.” By H. R. Robinson after E. W. Clay, 1837. Detail. (The Library of Congress)

Thomas W. Dyott understood this dilemma, and overcame it. He called himself a doctor, which Dyott was not, but he was an operator, an entrepreneur and an ambitious visionary. As a poor, young arrival from England, Dyott polished shoes and mixed his own bootblack after hours. He sold as much as he could make and soon realized that while polish might put food on the table, cures would get him food and the table. Dyott added “M.D.” to his name and marketed and sold elixirs including “Vegetable Nervous Cordial,” “Infallible Toothache Drops,” and “Stomachic Bitters.” Before long, Dyott’s drug store at 2nd and Race Street had become the headquarters for the largest patent medicine businessman in the United States, with sales agents pounding the pavement in a dozen states.

As long as Dyott depended on others for a steady supply of bottles, his success was at their mercy. So he bought and breathed new life into the old Kensington Glass Works, located where a creek called Gunner’s Run flowed into the Delaware River. Dyott ramped up production to 8,000 pounds of glass each and every day. He undercut everyone else’s prices; he made and supplied quality bottles for his own ventures as well as those of his competition.

By the 1830s, the 400-acre Glass Works of T. W. Dyott grew into a company town for his labor force of up to 400, about half of whom were apprentices, some as young as six. Dyott demanded work, but he provided housing, healthcare, education, recreation, religion and rules. Dyottville had a farm to sustain his workforce and he guaranteed employment all year around. His factory made bottles in clear and tinted glass featuring images in relief of everything from the American flag to cornucopia, to everyone among the powerful, rich and famous: Washington, Franklin, Swedish singer Jenny Lind and, on occasion, Dyott himself.

As he grew richer, Dyott became known for excess and extravagance. And when he launched a private bank—The Manual Labor Bank–Dyott brought to bear his skill as a marketer and manipulator. He “induced a great many people, principally of the middling interest and poorer classes, to deposit their earnings” and issued paper money with presidential portraits, his own signature, and the assurance each note was “secured in trust.”

But when even the best banks collapsed during the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed, so did Dyott’s Manual Labor Bank and his grand version of the American dream. In the celebrity trial that followed, the commonwealth charged Dyott with “defrauding the community” and “fraudulent insolvency.” Sixty-eight witnesses testified against him and the 70-year-old was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary. The factory closed and Dyottville became a ghost town.

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos The old Dyott Glass Works at the Aramingo Canal in 1898.

In the 1840s, a fad for plain and flavored mineral waters spurred new and an even greater demand for bottles. Another immigrant entrepreneur, Eugene Roussel, took over Dyott’s shuttered factory. (Roussel soon diversified from perfumes to soda water, and soon distributed more than 15,000 bottles of his soda water, every day.) Meanwhile, investors widened Gunner’s Run into the Aramingo Canal to support Kensington’s burgeoning industrial landscape, which produced everything: paint, pottery, rope, stoves, wagons and ships. By the end of the 19th century, Dyott’s factory, by then acknowledged as the city’s oldest glass house, was still producing bottles.

In the 20th century, I-95 came through the Dyott site, which both obliterated its past above ground but left behind opportunities for some interesting industrial archeology. A recent dig reported no bottles, but even more important finds among the foundations that will help sketch in the larger story.

Where are the Dyott bottles today?

It turns out that they continue to have a life of their own. The Philadelphia Museum of Art holds a few, as do some collectors. Folks liked to wrap their fingers around Dyott’s bottles then, and, as it turns out, they still do. In 2010, a Dyott bottle nicknamed the ‘Firecracker Flask’ set a world record at auction, selling for more than $100,000.

After all these years, Dyott bottles still have a way of making their owners feel special.


Is Independence Hall Tower in Sync with History?

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Fourth Floor – Independence Hall Tower – Showing Bell Tower – Clock Room.
Wenzel J. Hess, photographer, May 13, 1929.

All these years, when we thought we were celebrating a shrine to 18th-century independence, we were inadvertently confirming something quite different: the 19th-century obsession with time. And it’s taken a toll on how we understand the past.

After a recent restoration, the giant clock in the bell tower at Independence Hall will tell time again. But it won’t tell us much about the 18th century. Many assume this tower and its clock date back to the tower of the 1750s, and believe that both were present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the 1770s—but they were not. The original tower at Independence Hall had no clock. Time was, literally, pushed off to the side, as seen in the illustrated engraving from 1778. The State House’s original bell tower provided a sound track for life in the 18th-century city, one measured not in terms of hours but by civic events: ascensions of royalty, meetings of legislature, protests portending revolution. One thing the 18th-century tower didn’t tell—and wasn’t intended to do—was time. Back then, the relatively mundane act of telling time was simply not valued enough to give over the most prominent, symbolic steeple in the city.

"A N.W. view of the state house in Philadelphia taken 1778," by Charles Willson Peale. (detail) The Library of Congress.

That original tower might have been important, but it was also rotten. By the time of the British surrender, the upper wooden sections had been pulled down for fear of their falling down. And for nearly fifty years, no tower rose above the rooftops at 5th and Chestnut. When William Strickland proposed a design for a “restored” steeple in 1828, his idea only vaguely resembled the lost original. According to historian Charlene Mires, a lawyer with a nearby office complained about Strickland’s initial design: “No man will be able to look at that building with its new steeple and be able to persuade himself that it represents the ancient State House.”

Strickland hadn’t set out to actually re-create the original steeple. At the level where four dignified windows once looked out, Strickland placed four glaring, back-lit faces of a giant clock to look at. In this new, rising commercial/industrial Philadelphia, Strickland’s steeple reminded the citizenry of their freedom, but conflated that message with a something new: Philadelphians, Americans, were falling under the spell of time.  And it was changing their lives.

George G. Foster, a journalist from New York, visited the steeple in the mid-century: “Clink-clank! what have we here! We go through this little door and stand in the center of the Illuminated Clock! … The wheels are as broad as mill-stones and the weights are attached to cables strong enough to fasten a steamboat to the wharf. … The pendulum, of the size of a steamer’s walking-beam, moves slowly to and fro, once in two seconds, clink clank! Morning and noon and night, Summer and Winter, up here alone in its mysterious and silent realm of wheels and springs and machinery, ever sits the brooding Spirit of the Clock.”

By the middle of the 19th century, the Spirit of Independence had begun to join with (and possibly succumb to) this “Spirit of the Clock.” According to Foster, “that which stamps itself most legibly and universally upon the [Philadelphia] character, the manners, the faces, the very costume, of its inhabitants, is the business of buying and selling, turning everything to the best possible account, and seizing hold of everything instantly by the utility handle. … The very clock on the State-House steeple appears to be calculating how much it can make by striking…”

Foster exaggerated, of course. But other Philadelphians were not in their calculations using time in the name of progress. As Philadelphia barreled forward to its destiny as a manufacturing center, time became increasingly monitored and manipulated. The city that proudly counted down its first century of independence in years, hours, and finally minutes, would soon count among its innovators the Quaker engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who made efficiency a science. In Taylor’s famous time-motion studies, he broke factory jobs into component parts, used a stopwatch to measure workers’ motions, again and again, to study, then systematically enhance, productivity and profit.

When Strickland designed the tower of Independence Hall in 1828, he had no clue how profoundly the industrial mindset would come to transform the city and the nation. Strickland couldn’t have known that “Taylorization,” as it came to be called, would define the American way of life. He might have been naïve about the significance of a giant, four-faced clock in the steeple atop what was then and is now the nation’s most revered shrine. But we, with the benefit of hindsight and history, have no excuse.

The clock in the tower at Independence Hall is about the 18th century—by proximity only. Will future restorations acknowledge that fact? Time will tell.


Good Luck With Your Thirteens, Philadelphia—Wherever You May Find Them

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos News Stands at the Southeast Corner of 13th and Market Streets. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer,
January 3, 1950.

No dice. Well, not much luck, anyway. We searched high and low for photographs dating to Friday the 13th–any Friday the 13th. It didn’t help that searching for individual days isn’t an option here at So we did it the hard way, consulting a master list of Fridays the 13th going all the way back to 1801 (here’s a link to a.pdf list). We plowed through a couple of thousand images, one by one, making for a quiet winter evening. This yielded all manner of treasures that will come into these discussions later in the year, but slim pickings of what we were hunting for. The only image we could find from Friday the 13th was “Queen Lane Pumping Station-Showing United States Flag.” Not much, but that scene came with a bonus: it dates from 1913.

Could it be that city photographers avoided the streets on Fridays the 13th? After all, from 1890 to 2000 there were more than 150 of them. Could the photographers have completed their week’s assignments by Thursdays the 12th and reserved Fridays the 13th for work in the safety of the negative file room back in City Hall? Maybe…or maybe not. We’d be interested if anyone does run across other images taken on Friday the 13th in this collection—2012 has two more such Fridays in store.

In our search, we did find thirteens-all kinds of them to share. Most noticeable in the archive are depictions of that somewhat perennially down-on-its-luck street we know as 13th. Wenzel Hess’s noir gem, illustrated above, might be considered the epitome on the 13 genre.

And talk about luckless gems, we also fell for this image from 1919 depicting a forlorn “Battery of Thirteen Water Closets” behind 2976 Emerald Street set deep within the Kensington neighborhood.

But we don’t have to visit the outmoded outhouses of Kensington to wallow in our myriad of thirteens. Philadelphia is rife with all manner of them: Here’s 1313 South Broad Street in 1915; 1313 Locust Street in 1916; 1313 Walnut Street in 1925; 1313 Jefferson Street in 1959 and the sidewalk of 1313 Filbert Street in 1960.

But it’s all random, isn’t it? Thirteen is just a harmless number, until you are on the 13th floor of Philadelphia’s 13th tallest structure, the PSFS Building, and then, all of a sudden, it becomes very personal.


Picture of the Year

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
12th and Market Streets-Northwest Corner, 1911. offers up in excess of 84,000 photographs, more than what the most hopeless visual addict would care to peruse. Even a decade’s worth is daunting. (From 1900 to 1910 you’ll find 4,287 images online.) But if you parse PhillyHistory more closely and narrow your search down to a single year (there are 333 photographs from 1911) you’ll have something that’s not only reasonable, but rewarding.

One blogger’s opinion: The Best Picture Of The Year is the illustrated photograph of 12th and Market Streets. Are there runners up? Not really. But a number of other images made their way into a list of top choices. Each in its own way gives a feel for Philadelphia a century ago.

We were delighted to come across this classic image of the doorway at 305 Delancey Street. The door as artifact speaks to the city’s perennial interest in the past; the children make it a distinctive moment in the present of 1911.

Halfway across town, near City Hall, we see some aggressive commercial signage on Juniper Street. Around the corner at 1427 Arch Street, E.R. Williams made and sold much needed “Artificial Limbs.” We found both images compelling.

Why would a city photographer record the side-by-side Philadelphia School for Nurses and the Florentine Art Plaster Company? The peaceful pair of buildings at 2217-2219 Chestnut Street would soon be disrupted by the widening of the bridge over the Schuylkill.

Nineteen eleven saw an impressive improvements to the city’s infrastructure. See the tracks and trestle at Pier #6; an impressive bridge superstructure as Passyunk Avenue crossed the Schuylkill; a monster sewer project at Mill Creek (48th Street and Haverford Avenue) and the fresh, new “Northeast Boulevard,” before it acquired the Roosevelt name.

But the image of the intersection at 12th and Market beats all. It displays every form of transportation known to Philadelphians at the time: horses, automobiles, trolley cars and the railroad, by proximity. (There’s a meager slice of the Reading Terminal Head House visible on the right, but anyone and everyone knows the building dominates the intersection like a cliff hovering over a canyon.) It’s a photographic capture of the spirit of busy Market Street, a retake of John Sloan’s 1901 painting at East Entrance, City Hall, Philadelphia which hangs today in The Columbus Museum of Art.

The idea of both images is not about buildings, or transportation, but the liveliness of the street. When Sloan’s friend and mentor Robert Henri saw the partially-finished painting he urged Sloan to: “get the figures below to give as much of that eternal business of life – going in and coming out.”

Yes, that’s it. Our anonymous photographer from 1911 captured that “eternal business of life,” something we’ll always be looking for—no matter what the year.


Silent Night, Weird Night and a Game of Landmark Laser Tag

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
Christmas at City Hall, December 7, 2005. Photograph by Dick Gouldey.

As far as Walt Whitman was concerned, light did right by Philadelphia City Hall. Encountering the building’s unfinished “magnificent proportions” one evening, Whitman wrote of “a majestic and lovely show there in the moonlight—flooded all over, façades, myriad silver-white lines and carv’d heads and mouldings, with the soft dazzle—silent, weird, beautiful…” Foreshadowing Andy Warhol’s quip about fleeting fame, Whitman added: “I know that never when finish’d will that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen minutes.”

We can only guess if Whitman would have been as impressed by the theatrical holiday lighting of City Hall’s portals in 2005. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, architectural historian George Thomas recalled Whitman and critiqued the project as “less silent and more weird.” Reporter Amy Rosenberg wondered: “Is it art deco or Victorian? Did the Mummers have something to do with it?” Could it have been “something out of Disney? … People who come to see it often don’t know what to make of it.”

City photographer Dick Gouldey captured the special effects on both east portal (illustrated) and west portal (seen here) in versions of the four, rotating lighting schemes that challenged traditional expectations. Covering all bases, the City also put up a traditional evergreen and strung it with lights. Gouldey photographed that, too.

Six years have come and gone and we’ve not heard calls for more of this brand of landmark lighting. If anything, the public memory of this $300,000 production mounted by the Center City District is fading to black. Blame a preference for traditionalism; blame the recession—we’ve never seen anything like it since. And that seems to be OK.

Not that we haven’t used theatrical lighting on historical buildings. For decades, city planner Ed Bacon had promoted the idea of developing such a project to create sets for public performances. In the 1990s, that idea morphed into Lights of Liberty which has become part of Philly’s repertoire to help tell the story of 1776.

By contrast, the City Hall portal project seemed to be light for light’s sake. Its designers borrowed from the most advanced theater lighting techniques and digital photography, but other than the technology itself, the finished work shared no story; it offered no narrative.

The public’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the 2005 project begs the question: Can a state-of-the-art “fusion of theatre, artistic programming, theatrical design and lighting,” devoid of narrative also be successful? Or does the public need more than a heady collaboration of international creatives (Artlumiere and Casa Magica) and their “extraordinary new form of expression,” even if they deliver on their promise of visibility “along the entire length of Market Street”? There’s more to success than visibility.

The very same special effects had been used “to create a destination and a sense of place” at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, an Apple Computer store in Paris, and other sites around the world. But Philadelphia’s formula for success is more demanding, more complex. Philadelphia already has a sense of place. What folks here want is fireworks and freedom, the spark and the story. Otherwise, the special effects might be impressive, but they’ll amount to little more than an expensive game of landmark laser tag.