You are exploring: VU > Library > Blogs > Blue Electrode: Sparking between Silicon and Paper

Philly’s Storied Past Celebrated at 1912 Pageant

  • Posted by: Stephen Spatz
  • Posted Date: October 16, 2009
  • Filed Under: Pennsylvaniana

Ye who would learn the glory of your past
And form a forecast of the things to be
Give heed to this, a city’s trumpet blast
And see her pictured life in pageantry

And so the citizens of Philadelphia did in October of 1912, when an ornate historical pageant was staged for the general public on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in what is now Fairmount Park. coverThis elaborate presentation, staged by Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer on the model of the pageants that were then very popular throughout England and the continent, involved scores of players and dramatized the major events of centuries of our region’s history, from the first glimpse of the Delaware Bay by Henry Hudson to the 1854 consolidation of the old city proper with the 28 surrounding districts into the metropolis we know today. For an entertaining and thorough view back at this amazing event, look no further than the Pennsylvaniana collection of Villanova University’s Digital Library, where a digitized version of the Official Pictorial and Descriptive Souvenir Book of the Historical Pageant, October Seventh To Twelfth, 1912, is mounted in its entirety and available for public viewing.

The impressive historical scope of this fascinating event was faithfully detailed for the spectator in the extensive Historical Notes which accompany each scene of the script, which itself appears unabridged. quaker bluesHaving just spent the summer slogging through H. W. Brands’ sprawling Franklin biography The First American, I delighted in revisiting the famous scenes of colonial times, fleshed out by the notes and then dramatized in grand and often humorous fashion: the opulent Governor Johan Printz of New Sweden, living in splendor at Tinicum as his short-lived “empire” crumbled; the futile rivalry between the Dutch and Swedish as English dominance set in, where a Swedish explorer describes the Schuylkill River as “…This fine stream that empties itself into the great river like a flagon of wine down the throat of a Dutchman”; William Penn frolicking with the Lenapes at Dock Street; General Lafayette’s emotional 1824 homecoming; and the bizarrely baroque finale, in which heralding trumpeters beckon to the four corners as sprites symbolizing the 28 districts period(Manayunk and Germantown from the northwest, Kingsessing and West Philadelphia from the southwest, Tacony, Northern Liberties, and Bridesburg from the northeast, Passyunk from the southeast, etc.) appear, nobly gathering in supplication around a central matronly goddess figure—Philadelphia herself. Interspersed throughout the script are color plates of costumes designed for the production: British Redcoats, French Gentlemen, and Marie Antoinette, among others.

In addition to the script, notes, and ample supplemental historical essays which make up the bulk of the text, there is a wealth of incidental materials that paint a rich portrait of early 20th century Philadelphia society. Dozens of photos of dignitaries, planning committee members, benefactors, and other participants provide an intimate glance at period dress, hairstyles, and mustaches. Even more extensive is the advertising section, which covers over 100 pages at the back of the volume. Flip through page after page, and see what industries flourished in the Philadelphia of a century ago. From bankers and insurance companies to furriers and jewelers, from horseshoes and borax soap makers to coal suppliers and gas engine manufacturers, these were the merchants who saw fit to advertise at the biggest civic event of the year. horseshoesParticularly interesting are the many photos and drawings of the factory buildings used by these companies; considering the huge number of abandoned buildings in present-day Philadelphia, the ads in this book could provide valuable guidance for students of Philadelphia architectural history.

The Official Pictorial and Descriptive Souvenir Book of the Historical Pageant is unique for the view into pre-WWI Philadelphia that its printed historical content affords us. But even beyond this, a certain feature makes this particular copy one of a kind: penciled marginalia from the original owner. On page 11, roll was taken on the list of members of the Women’s Committee, and on page 51, the cast of the scene of Washington at Gray’s Ferry was heavily annotated by someone who evidently knew many of the cast members. These markings lift this volume off the bookshelf and place it in the hands of a spectator in the crowd at the actual event, 97 years ago this month!


Gentleman Jim, Sailor Brown, the Ithica Giant, and the Brooklyn Strong Boy



The reigning champion of the world of boxing in 1894 was Gentleman Jim Corbett. Or was he? Corbett was one of the first to treat the sport of boxing as a science and did much to create the modern sport, moving the contest from bare knuckled brawlers of prior days to more “gentle” gloved boxers of the 20th century.


The Pugilistic Publishing Company of Philadelphia was one of the promoters of this movement toward a more educated sport. In 1894, they published a glamorous large photograph laden volume: Portrait gallery of pugilists of America and their contemporaries from James J. Corbett to Tom Hyer. This title features sketches and photographs of famous current fighters, not just from America but from around the world. These oft mustachioed men performed with a theatrical air, even applying makeup before a match, and are somewhat reminiscent of the modern World Wide Wrestling scene. With ear grabbing sobriquets like: “The Marine”, Professor Clark, “The Cleveland Trumpeter”, Sailor Brown, “The Ithica Giant”, “The Brooklyn Strong Boy”, “The Prussian”, “The Nonpareil “, and “The Thunderbolt”, these were the sports celebrities of the Gilded Age. Contained within this title also are a number of plates detailing and describing the best of the modern boxing and footwork techniques.




Like other historical cultural objects this book is a product of the times that created it. At that point in time, race divided and segregated athletes. This book does include boxers of different races and nationalities, but the irrational prejudices that still pervaded the sport can be seen manifested in the ways that awards and boxing titles were awarded and contests scheduled. While Jim Corbett is titled the “World Champion”, George Godfrey is given the title “First Colored Heavy-Weight Champion of America”. Indeed, the white boxer John L. Sullivan refused to fight Godfrey for the championship because of his race. So who was really the best boxer of the bare knuckle era? The defining competition never took place so we can only speculate.

Photo of Godfrey:


Philadelphia Firemen on Tour


In November 1858, the firemen of Hibernia fire engine company no. 1 of Philadelphia went on tour of New York, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlestown and Newark with their state of the art equipment and a desire to bring the knowledge of this state of the art technology to their fellow fire fighters along the East Coast. Upon their return they created a commemorative volume filled with a history of the company, illustrations of the current members, and recounting the experiences and equipment of the trip; this has now been digitized as part of the Pennsylvaniana Collection.


The history of the Hibernia fire engine company is interesting. Incorporated in February, 1752, and reputed to be the oldest organized fire company in America, the Hibernia fire engine company no. 1 served as the premier fire fighters of Philadelphia vowing:

“upon hearing of a fire break out repair to the same with our buckets, bags & Baskets & there employ our utmost endeavors to preserve the Goods & Effects of such of us as shall be in danger; and if — more than one of our Goods, Houses and Effects be in danger at the same time, we will divide ourselves as near as may be, to be equally helpful, and such of us as may be spared may assist others in like danger; and to prevent as much as in us lies suspicious persons from coming into or carrying any of the Goods out of such of our houses as may be in danger, two of our Number shall constantly attend at the doors, until all the Goods & Effects that can be saved, are pack’d up and convey ‘d into some place, where one or more of us shall attend until they are delivered to or secur’d for the owner. — And upon our first hearing of Fire, we will immediately cause two or more Lights to be placed in our windows, and such of our Company whose Houses may he in Danger shall place Candles in every Room to prevent Confusion & that their Friends may be able to give the more speedy & effectual assistance. — And further as this Association is intended for General benefit, we do mutually agree, that in case a fire should hereafter break out in any other of the Inhabitants’ Houses and when none of our own Houses, Goods and Effects are in Danger, we will immediately Repair thither with our Buckets, Bags & Baskets, and give our utmost assistance to such of our Fellow Citizens as shall stand in need thereof.”

Notable among the early members of the Hibernia fire engine company No. 1 was John Barry, listed, according to the commemorative volume, on the membership rolls for 1785. Barry was the celebrated Irish naval officer and the first Commodore in the American navy who lived in Philadelphia after the Revolutionary War until his death in September 1803.


Few print copies of the commemorative volume have survived the vagaries of time but now this rare peek at the daily lives of Americans from 1859 is available to all. One of the first titles scanned and made available in the Digital Library, added September 8, 2006, this title has also just been scanned (August 2008), by the Internet Archive.

The future progression of technology and the advancement of new and superior file formats makes it difficult to be certain that any particular copy of a file will be migrated to the new, usable, and likely superior contemporary format. As few print copies of this work have survived to 2009, making multiple digital copies of works helps ensure the enjoyment of future generations of readers and researchers.

« Previous Page


Last Modified: January 30, 2009