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Philly and the Railroads of PA – A View From 1875

The Pennsylvaniana Collection in the Digital Library is the perfect place to go if you want a detailed look at the life and layout of 19th Century Philadelphia – in particular a very interesting old book entitled “Philadelphia and its Environs, and the Railroad Scenery of Pennsylvania.” This engaging little volume, published in 1875 by J. B. Lippincott and Co., catered richly to my penchant for poring over street maps, and taught me much about Philly’s geographical development over its multi-century history; and beyond the reports of long-gone former features of familiar locations within the original city bounds, throughout the districts consolidated in 1854, and even into the western and northern suburbs, the adventure stretches deep into the Pennsylvania countryside, illustrating the Keystone State’s unique place in the history of American railroads.

It’s fairly common knowledge that the famous Dock Street, site of William Penn’s original landing, was a winding creek before unsanitary conditions led the city to level and pave it over, but in this book I learned about several other lesser-known bygone landmarks that imparted names to prominent Center City streets: the creek running east to the Delaware which began at a spring at what is now the corner of 6th and Spring Garden; and the eastern terminus of Arch Street, which sunk into a ravine west of Front Street and was crossed at that junction by an arch. (Front Street, which once outlined a river bluff mandated for preservation by William Penn as a public promenade, of course now overlooks Interstate 95.) And did you know that Race Street used to be called Sassafras, and that South Street used to be Cedar?

fountain at Franklin Square

fountain at Franklin Square

Intended as a guide for tourists paying a visit to Philadelphia, the book leads the reader to a host of historical landmarks, buildings, and natural features, many of which – Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House, for example – are still kept alive in memory today as current attractions; but the perspective of 1875 also brings to life many sleeping giants within present-day Philly. Fairmount Park in particular must have been very beautiful, judging by the detailed descriptions of the parks and monuments at sites like Lemon Hill, and the woodcut illustrations of views from various bluffs above the Schuylkill. This was the eve of the Centennial Exposition, and especially noteworthy is the mention of ongoing construction of the permanent hall, the building that was “saved” in 2008 by the Please Touch Museum. Overall this virtual tour is very thorough; reading this section of the book one gets the sensation of systematically traversing the streets of Philadelphia and experiencing them as they must have appeared in 1875, buildings, parks, railroads and all.

on the grade

A Pleasure Tour on PA Railroads

Also very thorough, vivid, and exciting is the tour given in the second half of the book – an imaginary journey through the entirety of Pennsylvania’s unique and wonderful railways. This author takes you on a memorable ride through the dips and turns of the Delaware Water Gap and the Lehigh Valley, up and down the ingenious locomotive-free switchbacks of the “gravity railroad” at Mauch Chunk, and west into the coal country developed by Stephen Girard (namesake of Girard Avenue), where the grades were some of the steepest in the world, and where horseshoe curves existed such that “engineers going over the road with long coal-trains, on dark nights, have been signaled to stop by a red light on the track ahead, which, on investigation, proved to be the customary signal-lamp on the end of their own trains.” These descriptions held a special interest for me, as I had recently heard mention of these very same areas by Engineering professor Dr. Ronald Chadderton in the course of his lecture in Falvey Library on the 1889 Johnstown flood. And of course, roads closer to the source (Philly) are described in detail which illustrates how much of our surroundings in Southeast PA – the “Main Line”, and the riverside route down the Delaware toward Ridley Park and Chester – were already venerated fixtures of the region even as far back as 135 years ago.

Porcelain Teeth

Porcelain Teeth

And last but never least, a popular publication of the 19th century is always a great place to browse antique advertisements. In this volume, look for Samuel S. White’s Porcelain Teeth, Marcy’s Sciopticon (a primitive projector of some kind), W. J. Wilcox’s Lard Refinery, and Atmore’s Mince Meat (source of the cow on the Pennsylvaniana Collection’s banner image). Point your browser to http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Pennsylvaniana/Pennsylvaniana-00001.xml, and go back to 1875 for a fascinating trip around Philadelphia and Its Environs.


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William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War Uniform: a treasure returns

An important part of the Sherman Thackara Collection has been returned to Falvey Memorial Library from a long term loan to the Civil War Museum. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s U.S. Civil War frock coat had been reunited with the papers, photographs, and other items donated by the Sherman Thackara family, making this a unified collection once again. This specific coat was worn during the period when Sherman was a major general. Sherman was promoted to this rank officially on August 12, 1864, but it was likely he wore the uniform much earlier from 1862 when he was promoted to Major General of Volunteers just after Shiloh, so this coat was likely worn during the fateful Georgia Campaign and the subsequent Union army “March to the Sea”. One can almost smell the whiff of burning Atlanta!

Frock Coat

The physical coat is on prominent display on the 2nd floor of Falvey Memorial Library in the climate controlled and secure Special Collections Rare Book Room which houses other treasures of the University. A digital surrogate can be viewed online as part of the Digital Library’s Sherman Thackara Collection which documents Sherman’s family especially his favorite daughter Elly Sherman Thackara and her husband Alexander Thackara.

As can been seen in this photograph of the coat, the army’s regulations stipulated an organization of buttons to designate the rank of general officers. The buttons on a major general’s frock coat, like Sherman’s, were grouped in three sets of three; those on a brigadier general’s coat were arranged in four sets of two. This helps us date the garment to a specific date range.

Here is a detailed photograph of the buttons from the Sherman coat, which were specific to the General Staff, and worn on Union general’s coats:

General Staff buttons

Two period photographs from the Library of Congress’s Civil War Photograph Collection showing Sherman wearing his Major General’s coat follow:

Sherman on Horseback

Sherman leaning on cannon


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Philly’s Storied Past Celebrated at 1912 Pageant

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!


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

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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.

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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.

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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:
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Philadelphia Firemen on Tour

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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.

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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.

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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.


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Last Modified: January 30, 2009