The Buildings of the Centennial Exhibition

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About a decade ago, I was working hard on a book titled “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in an American Town.” I came close to signing a book contract, but I got distracted by other things and let things slip. Maybe one day I will finish it. I know that my students who participated in the Greenwich Tea Burning Project will be happy when its done.

One of the chapter of this manuscript deals with the 1874 centennial celebration of the tea burning. As part of my research I read a lot of secondary material on the United States Centennial of 1876. I use a lot of that research when I teach my Pennsylvania History course at Messiah University. I also wrote a bit about the Philadelphia Centennial in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

I thought about all that reading when I saw a recent post at the blog of the American Antiquarian Society titled “Centennial America: Celebrating the Fourth with the Great Buildings of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.” I amazed at how these kinds of celebrations transformed urban spaces.

Here is a taste:

This year, we wanted to go big! And it’s difficult to imagine a celebration bigger than the one honoring the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. (1876 also marks the unofficial cut-off year for our collections, although many of you already know that we have items that go well beyond that!) America is a diverse place, and every town and city has its own rich history celebrating this holiday. As readers might guess, in 1876, Philadelphia was the site of one of the biggest celebrations in the country.

Since this post falls between the start of summer and the Fourth of July holiday weekend, we also wanted to start off our summer the right way, too!  While it’s too early to know what this season holds for us all, summers often bring in fairs, carnivals, and other community events. Is there an event bigger than the World’s Fair?

The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 was the first official World’s Fair to be held in the United States. Held in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, from May 10 to November 10, nearly 10 million visitors visited the Exposition! The opening ceremony was attended by President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia along with 186,272 people–110,000 entered with free passes.

Read the entire piece here.

What Can We Learn from the 1793 Yellow Fever In Philadelphia

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Between August 1 and November 9, 1793, at least 5000 Philadelphians died of yellow fever. (The city had a population of 50,000).

I want to call your attention two short pieces on this front.

Lindsay Chervinsky‘s piece at the blog of Harvard University Press it titled “National Epidemics, Then and Now“:  Here is a taste:

How then do 1793 and 2020 compare? Both then and now, political parties appear divided over the causes and solutions to the epidemics. The biggest difference between the two cases is the perspective on executive power. Today, disease prevention and public health are managed by executive agencies that report to the president. The heads of the departments sit on the National Security Council to ensure that global pandemics don’t threaten the nation’s security. The founders couldn’t have envisioned the current pandemic we face, but they understood that certain crises called for federal action. While they weren’t prepared to call for that action in 1793, we can today.

Read the entire piece here.  Our interview with Chervinsky in Episode 68 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is coming soon.

Simon Finger‘s piece at The Panorama is titled “Patients and Patience: The Long Career of Yellow Fever.”  Here is a taste:

The lesson of a city saved by shared sacrifice and civic responsibility is an inspiring one for 2020, when so much hangs upon popular cooperation with calls for social distancing, home sheltering, and public masking. But while Carey’s story ends happily in 1793, that outbreak was only the beginning of a longer ordeal, and one that carried different lessons for the present. Yellow fever returned to North America every summer until 1805, claiming more than 12,000 lives in the process.

Read the entire piece here.

What Can We Learn from Philadelphia’s 1918 Liberty Loan Parade?

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Check out Meagan Flynn’s piece at The Washington Post:

On the afternoon of Sept. 28, 1918, about 200,000 people crammed onto the sidewalks in Philadelphia to watch a two-mile parade snake through downtown in the midst of World War I. Billed as the city’s largest parade ever, it featured military planes and aggressive war-bond salesmen working the crowds, in scenes that graced the front pages of the evening papers.

But readers who flipped toward the back of the Evening Bulletin might have stumbled on an unsettling headline: In the last 24 hours, 118 people in Philadelphia had come down with a mysterious, deadly influenza, which was quickly spreading from military camps to civilians amid a worldwide pandemic.

“If the people are careless, thousands of cases may develop and the epidemic may get beyond control,” the city’s health commissioner, Wilmer Krusen, said in the 1918 article, according to the Philly Voice.

He was the same person who, just a day earlier, allowed to go forward what is now known as the deadliest parade in American history. In doing so, he ignored the advice of medical professionals who urged him to cancel the parade or risk an epidemic.

Within three days, every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was filled. There were thousands of influenza patients.

A century later, as the novel coronavirus grips the nation with anxiety and disrupts everyday life, Philadelphia’s 1918 Liberty Loan parade “is a perfect historic example of how the misplaced priorities can become so dangerous,” historian Kenneth C. Davis told The Washington Post on Wednesday. This week, major cities including Philadelphia, New York and Chicago decided to cancel their St. Patrick’s Day parades amid fears of accelerating the spread of coronavirus.

Read the rest here.

The *Philadelphia Inquirer* Responds to the Financial Struggles of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

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I spent a lot of time in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in the 1990s when I was writing my doctoral dissertation.  I have also lectured there a few times.  So needless to say I was saddened to learn that this venerable institution was having financial troubles.

Yesterday the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer called on the city to strengthen the HSP.

Here is a taste of the editorial:

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania realized $2.2 million last November by selling 1,102 commemorative medals from a collection bequeathed to it in 1897. The financial struggles of this nonprofit institution in Center City are worrisome but all too familiar. In 2018, the Philadelphia History Museum abruptly shut down. While it will be rebooted through a partnership with Drexel University, neither the Historical Society’s proposed affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania nor with Drexel has borne fruit.

HSP calls itself “Philadelphia’s Library of American History” with good reason: It is home to a printer’s proof of the Declaration of Independence, a first draft of the Constitution, a journal of the Underground Railroad, and millions of other handwritten, printed, and engraved materials.

Selling commemorative medals said by society officials to be of marginal scholarly and public interest was at best a stopgap measure. Last year, the Historical Society, founded in 1824, laid off one-third of the employees on a staff described as already bare-bones.

This suggests a broader, deeper, community-driven effort is needed to strengthen this institution. The society is part of an ecosystem of institutions, including the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, that support the city’s status as a global center for historical research. They are stewards of a legacy that belongs to us all.

Read the rest here.

“A republic, if you can keep it”: The Elizabeth Powel side of the story

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Some of you may recall court evangelical Eric Metaxas’s book A Republic, If you Can Keep It.  The book is riddled with historical problems and I reviewed it in a series of blog posts.  You can read it here.

Lately, both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch have also invoked Ben Franklin’s famous phrase.

But as historian Zara Anishanslin notes, most people who use the phrase “A republic, if you can keep it” forget that Ben Franklin uttered these words to a Philadelphia woman named Elizabeth Willing Powel.

Here is a taste of her piece at The Washington Post:

Last month, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, she used a familiar anecdote to back her arguments. As Pelosi told it, “On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of the government our founders had crafted. They asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Our responsibility is to keep it.”

Franklin’s “a republic, if you can keep it” line is as memorable as it is catchy. It is a story that appeals across partisan lines. The same month Pelosi referenced it, Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch released a book titled “A Republic, If You Can Keep It.” It’s a recognizable national origin story with broad appeal; Pelosi was savvy to use it.

But she got the story wrong. So did Gorsuch. 

Read the entire piece here.

2019 Princeton Seminar: Day 4

PRinceton Seminar 2019 at Welcome Park

Our annual picture in Welcome Park

Day 4 of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History summer seminar on colonial America is in the books.  We spent the entire day in colonial Philadelphia with George Boudreau, author of Independence: A Guide to Historical Philadelphia.

George took us on a very informative tour of the site of William Penn’s house, Front Street (the site of the 17th and 18th-century wharfs), the site of the London Coffee Shop (where slave trading took place), the site where George Whitefield preached to tens of thousands of people (as described by Ben Franklin in his Autobiography), Franklin Square and the underground museum, the William White House, Carpenter’s Hall, and the site of Anthony Benezet’s school for women and free blacks.  The teachers also toured the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) and some of them joined me for quick stops at the Free Quaker Meeting House, Franklin’s grave, Arch Street Meeting House, Betsy Ross House, and Christ Church).

Here are some pics:

Princeton Seminar 2019 Bus

Princeton Seminar 2019-- George and Sign

When you are in Philadelphia with George Boudreau you fix historical markers that are pointing the wrong way

Princeton Seminar 2019--George, Me, and Nate

The Philadelphia team

Princeton Seminar 2019--George and Super

George introduced us to Cynthia MacLeod, Superintendent of Independence National Historical Park.  What a treat!

Episode 51: Temples of the Marketplace

PodcastWhen people think of the melding of faith and business, companies like Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A usually come to mind. However, like all things, the history of this type of partnership has a deeper history. Host John Fea reaches into early America to discuss the complicated integration of faith and business among Philadelphia’s Quakers. They are joined by historian Nicole Kirk (@Prof_in_Chicago), author of Wanamaker’s Temple: The Business of Religion in an Iconic Department Store.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Pennsylvania History: The Final Exam!

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The 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall, a meeting place for abolitionists

For the past decade I have been teaching a course on Pennsylvania History at Messiah College. The class meets several requirements.  Some history majors take it for a 300-level American history elective.  Other history majors take it as part of their concentration in public history.  Non-history majors take the course to fulfill their general education pluralism requirement.

I have to make this course work for all of these students.  For the public history students, we do a lot of work on the relationship between “history,” “heritage,” and “memory.”  We also feature some training in oral history. Each student is required to do an oral history project in which they interview and interpret someone who can shed light on a particular moment in Pennsylvania history.  As a pluralism course, Pennsylvania History must address questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and social class in some meaningful way.

This year, I split the class into four units:

After several tries, I think I have finally found a pedagogical formula that works.   The students take their two-hour final exam on Friday.  Here are the questions they are preparing:

In preparation for the exam, please prepare an answer to one of the following questions:

QUESTION #1

In each of our four units this semester, we spend considerable time talking about the idea of race and race relations in Pennsylvania History. How do issues related to race play out in the following periods and places in state history:

  • Early 19th-century Philadelphia
  • The Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s and 1760s.
  • The way the Civil War has been interpreted at Gettysburg
  • The City Beautiful movement in Harrisburg
QUESTION #2
We often use the past to advance particular agendas in the present. Consider this
statement in the following contexts:
  • The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia (1876)
  • The Paxton Boys Riots
  • Gettysburg as a “sacred” site
  • The portrayal of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward by reformers affiliated with the City Beautiful movement.

Good luck! Or as I like to say to my Calvinist students: “May God providential give you the grade you deserve on this exam.”

Yellow Fever Hits Philadelphia, 1793

High Street

Here is a taste of historian Billy Smith‘s article in the Spring 2019 issue of Pennsylvania Legacies on the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic

“They are dying on our right hand and on our Left; we have it opposite us, in fact, all around us, great are the number that are called to the grave…To see the hearse go by is now so common that we hardly take notice of it;…we live in the midst of death.” While Isaac Heston penned these words to his brother on September 19, 1793, yellow fever claimed the lives of about 70 Philadelphians each day. “When I see the Metropolis of the United States depopulated,” the 22-year-old moaned, “it is too distressing and affecting a scene for a person young in Life to bear.” A mosquito carrying the virus bit Heston about the time he wrote the letter; he died 10 days later.

It all started in late July 1793 in a brothel near a pier in the northern part of the city. Two mariners, mostly likely from the ship Hankey or one of the other vessels that had arrived a few days earlier from the West Indies, had rented a room at the “disorderly house.” A violent fever quickly killed one of the sailors. An English boarder in the house shivered with an elevated temperature, vomited a black substance, and died a few days later. Mrs. Parkinson, an Irish lodger (or prostitute), suffered with sunken eyes, jaundiced skin, and blood trickling from her nose and mouth for a week before she expired. Both brothel owners died, as did the second mariner and several next-door neighbors. 

All these fatalities in such a brief time attracted the attention of Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most distinguished physician in the new nation. After visiting a few of the sick people in the neighborhood, he announced in late August that yellow fever now stalked the city’s streets. During the next three months, the disease killed more than 5,000 people—one out of every 10 Philadelphia residents. Not until the late 19th century did physicians understand that infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were the source of all this human misery. 

Read the rest at the blog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The State of Philadelphia’s Early American Baptist Bones

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Back in October 2017 I wrote a post about the skeletons found on the site of the First Baptist Church burial ground.  In the last couple of years this story has been a staple of my tour of colonial-era Philadelphia. A luxury residential building now sits on the old Baptist graveyard, but the examination of the bones found by the workers continues.

Here is a taste of Laurel Geggel’s piece at LiveScience:

Thousands of people were buried at the First Baptist Church’s burial ground from about 1702 until 1860, when the cemetery was allegedly relocated. However, when the church moved its cemetery because it was turning into a local garbage dump, the Philadelphia Board of Health gave it only three months that year — from Jan. 1 to April 1 — to move the graves.

This was a tremendous undertaking, and although some of the graves were relocated, the majority were not, Moran said. The fact that the church left behind so many bodies wasn’t publicized, and it wasn’t until 2017 that the extent of the burials was realized, she said.

In all, the remains of at least 3,000 people were still buried there, according to historical records. Moran and her colleagues have since found about 500 of them where the luxury condominium now sits, at 218 Arch Street.

After visiting the site with Anna Dhody, a forensic anthropologist at the Mütter Museum of Philadelphia, Moran was given a box holding 113 bones, mostly long bones from people’s arms and legs. Dhody and Moran offered to help excavate or oversee the project, but they were politely brushed aside, Moran said.

But six weeks later, in February 2017, the developer, PMC Property Group, had a change of heart. Construction workers continued to find bones, and they didn’t know what to do with them. “We came back to the site, and we found very obvious voids in the soil that had wood sticking out of them,” Moran said. “It was obvious that this was a coffin that had been disturbed by the heavy machinery. And someone’s legs were sticking out.”

So, Moran, Dhody and Ani Hatza, a forensic anthropologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, struck a deal with the developer. The scientists would supervise the backhoe work, and if they saw any bones, the backhoe would stop so the scientists could excavate the spot. “It was pretty rough and ready,” Moran said. “They didn’t let us do a meticulous job or anything.”

Read the entire piece here.

“Avenue of Our Founders” and “Avenue of Freedom”

Franklin Court

Two new street names in Philadelphia.  Here is a taste of a piece at Philly.com:

Two dozen people gathered outside the Independence Visitor Center for a ceremony christening Market Street between Front Street and Eighth Street as “Avenue of Our Founders,” in honor of the country’s founding fathers. At the same time Sixth between Race Street and Lombard Streets was renamed “Avenue of Freedom” to mark key sites of black American history.

Read the entire piece here.

Talking to 5th Graders, 8th Graders, and Adults About a Historic Philadelphia Church

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Messiah College colonial America students at Christ Church, Philadelphia

I spent the last two Saturdays touring colonial Philadelphia with the students in my Colonial America course at Messiah College.

One of my favorite places to visit on these tours is Christ Church–the flagship Anglican Church in 18th-century Philly.   And one of my favorite historians of Christ Church is Neil Ronk, Senior Guide and Historian at the church.  Neil is not only an intense and inspiring speaker, but he speaks as if there is really something at stake in the preservation and interpretation of the past.

Here is Neil at work (watch the first 6 minutes):

My Colonial America Course Hits Philadelphia

On Saturday I took some of the students in my Colonial America course at Messiah College on a field trip to colonial Philadelphia.  (I am taking the rest of the class this coming Saturday).

Here are some pics:

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Starting the day off at Welcome Park.  A great place to get students oriented to the colonial city.

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Group picture outside of Christ Church

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After we learned about Christ Church from a docent, I tried to say something intelligent about the Georgian architecture and its connection to Philadelphia’s 18th-century provincial identity

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Not a very “colonial” stop, but how could I not take the students to see the First Bank of the United States?  (And the Museum of the American Revolution across the street!)

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Carpenter’s Hall!

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And kudos to Joy Fea, our photographer on the trip!

Princeton Seminar: Day 4

Princeton 2018 Thu 2Today the 2018 Princeton Seminar hit the road.  We spent the day in Philadelphia with George Boudreau, author of Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia.  George is fixture of the Philadelphia public history world and probably knows more about colonial Philadelphia than anyone else alive.  The teachers got a real treat today!

 

 

Princeton 2018 Thu 1

George got us started in Welcome Park with an overview of the founding of Pennsylvania

Princeton 2018 Thu 3

Princeton 2018 Thu 4

Introducing the teachers to George Boudreau

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With my partner-in-crime Nate McAlister, a true gentleman!

Princeton 2018 Thu 6

Hey Nate–what happened in this room?

 

The Octavius Catto Memorial

CattoI first learned about Octavius Catto about ten years ago when we took our daughters to Philadelphia for a short vacation.  During our visit we took full advantage of the city’s “Once Upon a Nation” storytelling benches.  Professional storytellers at each bench–there are fifteen scattered around the Independence Hall area–tell stories about famous Philadelphians.  I don’t know if the program has changed over the years, but when my kids were young they could get a free carousel ride and an ice cream cone in Franklin Square if they visited all fifteen benches.

I vividly remember one of the “Once Upon a Nation” story tellers (I think it was outside the National Constitution Center) telling my girls the story of Catto’s civil rights activism in Civil War-era Philadelphia

I was thus pleased to see that Philadelphia will be erecting a statue near City Hall to commemorate Catto’s contribution to the city’s history.

Over at Philly.Com, writer Jonathan Lai reports on a recent program for teachers on Catto’s life and his contribution to Philadelphia’s African American history.

Here is a taste:

Catto was murdered in 1871, at just 32 years old. He sought to protect fellow African Americans who were trying to exercise their right to vote, which had just been ratified by the states the year before. But his name had been largely missing from the modern discussion of civil rights, organizers have said.

As he has been brought back into popular consciousness — a sculpture is set to be placed next month on the southern apron of City Hall — the School District of Philadelphia, the Catto Memorial Fund, and the National Archives partnered for Thursday’s event, the first in a yearlong series aimed at helping teachers include Catto in their curricula, the educational counterpart to the physical memorial.

The statue is the first of a named African American on public ground in the city. The work, titled Quest for Parity, will feature the 12-foot-tall bronze statue, a stainless-steel ballot box, and five granite pillars symbolizing streetcars.

“The Catto story is the national story. It is part of the story of our Constitution. It is the story of how ordinary citizens work, some every day, to make the Constitution live,” said V. Chapman Smith, an organizer of Thursday’s event who works at the National Archives and who is on the board of the Catto Memorial Fund.

Read the entire article here.

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 4

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Yesterday the 2017 Princeton Seminar spent the day in Philadelphia.  Our host for the day was the legendary George Boudreau, the man who I consider to be the greatest Philadelphia history tour guide of all time!!

George gave us a phenomenal introduction to the colonial city.   We made several stops along the way:

  • Welcome Park:  George oriented us to the layout of William Penn’s city.
  • Christ Church:  The teachers got their photos taken in George Washington’s pew and we paused at the gravestone of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson where George told us about her life and taught us about the vulnerability of women in colonial America.
  • Betsy Ross House:  George told us about George Washington’s visit to “Mr. Griscom’s upholstery shop.”
  • Arch Street Quaker Meetinghouse:  George told some gruesome tales of Philadelphia Quakers building this meetinghouse atop the meeting’s graveyard.
  • Benjamin Franklin’s Court:  The teachers spent some time in the museum, George signed copies of his book, and George and Ben Franklin sang us a song.
  • First National Bank: This was not part of our “colonial” tour, but all the teachers are obsessed with “Hamilton” so we had to make a quick visit here.
  • Carpenter’s Hall
  • The site of Anthony Benezet’s school for women and African Americans,
  • The American Philosophical Society:  George rattled off several dozen collections held by the society.

We ended the day at the Pennsylvania State House.  In the early 19th-century people started calling this place “Independence Hall.”

We are back in the lecture hall today.

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I introduce the teachers to George Boudreau

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George tells us what we can expect in Christ Church

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Sometimes we let the teachers break out of the 17th and 18th centuries

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We met Ben

The Daring Women of Philadelphia

Daring Women

I am in Philadelphia today.  This morning I was interviewed for a documentary film on women, religion, and anti-slavery in the early American Republic (1789-1848) titled “The Daring Women of Philadelphia.”  The Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmakers at History Making Productions are producing the film.

I don’t pretend to be a historian of women in the early republic.   There will be many other historians in the film who will speak authoritatively on this topic.  I was asked to participate for the purpose of providing general background information about the Second Great Awakening, benevolent societies, and the religious impetus behind moral reforms movements in the early 1800s.  I have no idea if anything I said was useful or will make the cut, but it was fun talking about Charles Finney’s visit to Philadelphia, the Orthodox-Hicksite Quaker schism, Lucretia Mott, “moral suasion,” and the American Bible Society (of course).

Stay tuned.

Image of the Day

We discussed this in my Pennsylvania History class today.  This kind of nativism was very strong in Philadelphia in the 1840s and 1850s.  We did our best to stay in the 19th century.

Know Nothing