An Introduction to the Great Experiment

Elfreth's Alley. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia CVB

Follow the links in the article for a more in-depth look of the city from the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's University

This year the Organization of American Historians will meet in Philadelphia. It is a city that in many ways embodies the American spirit of experiment, imagination, and enterprise. Within easy reach of the OAH conference hotel, people will find many proofs of that in the rich variety of architecture, arts, material culture, visual and verbal documents, public spaces, and more that reveal American history and culture.

Philadelphia was a planned city as part of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” and throughout its history has remained a place of “experiment” in all manner of fields, from science and technology to social engineering. This was so in laying out the city and trying to govern it. Penn sought order in the grid-pattern he mapped out for the city, but people’s interests subverted his design from the beginning as they crowded along the water for access to goods and information. Still, even as Philadelphia physically spread out over time, thanks to such factors as improved transportation and cheap housing (the rowhouse being a Philadelphia hallmark), it retained the basic grid design. To see that design and the city’s expanse, go two blocks from the conference to City Hall, itself a statement on civic authority, and take the elevator to the viewing station in the tower.

To get to know Philadelphia as an incubator of invention and experiment, start at the Benjamin Franklin Historic Site, at Franklin Court between Market and Chestnut Streets and 3rd and 4th Streets, to see Franklin’s print shop at work, the post office, and the exhibit of many things Franklin. Franklin was the quintessential “American,” and seeing his world opens up much about the world(s) of Americans as they experimented in science, technology, natural history, and government. From Franklin’s place it is a short stroll to sample much of 18th through early 19th century Philadelphia and America. Go to Elfreth’s Alley, off 2nd Street between Arch and Race Streets, to walk the oldest continuously occupied street in America, with houses that were once occupied by artisans. The city markets from those early days are gone, but one can get a sense of life by walking about Old City and Society Hill to see probably the largest stock of 18th-century to early 19th-century housing still standing in America. Only the grander buildings remain, but visits to such places as the Bishop White House at 309 Walnut Street and the Powel House at 244 S. 3rd Street reveal not only the lifestyle of the social elite but give clues to the lives of those who served them. To appreciate the development of American decorative arts and art, in which Philadelphia has been a leader through the twentieth century, visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on the Parkway, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at 118-128 Broad Street, founded in 1805 as the nation’s first art museum and school of fine arts.

During the 18th through the early 19th century, the clearing house for American scientific inquiry was the American Philosophical Society at 5th and Chestnut Streets, which houses collections on American science, natural history, and even pseudoscience from the 18th century to today. The practice of collecting specimens as the basis for science continued at the Academy of Natural Sciences at 19th Street and the Parkway, the oldest natural history institution in the Western Hemisphere. Among the vast holdings of the Library Company of Philadelphia, at 1314 Locust Street, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin and friends as a repository for writings intended for “useful knowledge,” are collections of all manner of printed works on virtually every subject of interest, with many speaking to ways people sought to reform or remake their mental, moral, and physical worlds. Also relevant is the early 19th-century experiment in water treatment in Philadelphia, with the installation of the Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill River, on Aquarium Drive. A trip to the Franklin Institute at 20th Street and the Parkway will add to understanding about the centrality of technology and science in creating modern living and Philadelphia’s place in that. Philadelphia has long been a major source of invention and production in chemicals, and the Science History Institute at 315 Chestnut Street tracks that history. For a wide range of material culture, artwork, artifacts, scientific instruments, and more made and used in Philadelphia spanning three centuries of Philadelphia’s social, cultural, industrial, and scientific past, one should spend time at the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent, 15 South 7th Street.

The need to respond to a host of maladies afflicting urban people led to Philadelphia becoming a leader in medicine with the founding of medical schools and societies, several of which continue today. The establishment of a medical profession and training in America was evident in the creation of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia at 19 South 22nd Street, which has a major library for research in medical history and houses the remarkable Mutter Museum, which displays anatomical models, pathological specimens, medical instruments, and many wonders. Philadelphia also led the way in trying cures for social ills. This was most spectacularly evident in the grand experiment of Eastern State Penitentiary, at 22nd and Fairmount, which was an attempt by Quaker-influenced reformers to house prisoners in an isolated but symmetrically arranged physical environment, where they would contemplate and correct their evil ways to be able to return to society. The experiment failed, and the penitentiary became a prison; it is now a historic site. 

From the city’s earliest days, Philadelphians built churches, synagogues, and other sacred places to express their beliefs and shape their communities. To find examples of such diversity for the 17th through the mid-19th centuries, follow the markers tracking the religious sites in Old City and Society Hill. Philadelphia started as a Quaker city. Visit the Arch Street Meeting House on 4th and Arch to see the spare Quaker religious architecture and interior layout, which spoke volumes on Quaker faith and practice. Compare that with the imposing architecture and interior design of Christ’s Church at 2nd and Church Streets, which was at one time the tallest building in the colonies. Amble over to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at 3rd and Pine Streets, where Bishop William White gave the first reading of the new American Book of Common Prayer asserting an American independence in faith as in polity. Visit St. Joseph’s Chapel in Willings Alley between 3rd and 4th Streets to understand how Catholics hid their public presence in an anti-Catholic world, even as they had permission to worship in Pennsylvania. Then go to Old St. Mary’s on 4th Street between Locust and Spruce Streets to see the second Catholic church built in the city, with its bolder assertion and confidence of place in the new nation.

Numerous other Catholic churches bespoke the vigor and variety of Catholic immigrants, each group wanting priests of their own language. St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, at 712 Montrose Street, was founded in 1852 as the first Italian Catholic parish in the country. Other nationality parishes followed, located in concentrations of a particular Catholic ethnic groups. The persistent and sometimes violent anti-Catholicism of the 18th and 19th centuries was most evident in the bloody anti-Catholic riots of 1844, which left churches, an orphanage, and homes sacked and burned. St. Augustine’s Church on 4th Street was a special target of such violence. Catholics’ growing importance and confidence survived the attacks and was magnificently expressed in the basilica Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, at 20th Street and the Parkway. Today, Vietnamese and other Asian Catholics and Spanish speaking Catholics from Mexico, Central America, and South America worship in some of these churches originally founded to serve Irish, German, Polish, and other European Catholics and have made such churches their own in language and ministry.

The map showing the religious places in Old City and Society Hill provides a route to see examples of Protestant faith variety, too. In following the route, note how some churches were converted to new uses or even claimed by new faiths as immigrants and black migrants moved in. Philadelphia was one of the earliest centers of a vibrant free black community, and African Americans founded their own churches as a means to control their faith and build their communities. One should visit Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 6th Street between Pine and Lombard Streets to appreciate its importance as the mother church for a new African-American denomination and the font for a host of institutions to sustain both faith and community and to push for social reforms and civil rights. Jews early on laid down religious roots in Philadelphia, first with the congregation at Mikveh Israel at 44 North 4th Street and then with religious publishing houses and other synagogues. One can learn much about the experiences and contributions of Jews to Philadelphia and American life by visiting the National Museum of American Jewish History at 5th and Market Streets. Similarly, other faiths have established their presence and purpose by building places of worship and institutions such as schools and training their own clergy. Walks in the so-called river wards of the city reveal the variety of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious sites marking the city’s religious and ethnic diversity.

Philadelphia also served as the font of American independence, and buildings from the Revolutionary era are now patriotic shrines. For the Revolution, start at the recently opened Museum of the American Revolution on Chestnut Street, and then make the quick walk from there to Carpenter’s Hall, at 320 Chestnut Street, which was a staging area for anti-British protests and then the meeting place for the First Continental Congress in 1774. The Congress returned to Philadelphia in 1775. Meeting in the Pennsylvania Assembly building, later named Independence Hall, delegates to the Continental Congress raised a Continental Army, adopted the Declaration of Independence, and signed the Articles of Confederation. In 1787, delegates from twelve states met in Independence Hall, and admittedly in local taverns, and drafted the Constitution of the United States, and from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the new nation’s capital, Congress met there to get the new experiment in representative government working.

The fundamental paradoxes of Americans’ quest for liberty while sustaining slavery are represented at the President’s House at 6th and Market Streets. The Liberty Bell Pavilion there houses the Liberty Bell and includes an exhibit showing the bell’s emergence as a national symbol, claimed by abolitionists in the 19th century and by other Americans thereafter, though with varying readings of what “liberty” means. For exhibits and programs on the development and interpretations of the Constitution over time to our day, the private National Constitution Center across the mall at 5th and Arch Streets deserves a visit. The creation of a new nation required physical demonstrations of what it represented and what it intended to be. Walking in the Old City area to see the first Treasury building on 3rd Street between Chestnut and Market Streets and to visit the Second Bank of the United States building, on Chestnut Street between 3rd and 4th Streets, both with their columned facades suggesting ties to ancient Greece and Rome, attests to the new nation’s public effort to claim a republican lineage and assert a stability, in stone, necessary to gain support from the people. There is more to see in ready compass from the OAH conference, and the visitor’s bureau will point to such places for history, shopping, dining, and entertainment. Whatever you choose to see within the areas mapped out above, remember that Philadelphia was and is a variegated, diverse, and complicated place and experience. Much of its cultural, social, intellectual, religious, economic, and political history resides outside the “old city” and Center City area. 

The influx of young people and “empty nesters” to the old city and Rittenhouse Square areas close to the OAH Annual Meeting have been creating a “new” Philadelphia, but also in some ways distorting the city’s character, especially its industrial past and often troubled social history. For a wider view of Philadelphia, and more details and context on places mentioned herein, see the digital Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

We hope you will join us in Philadelphia!

Posted: December 14, 2018
Tagged: OAH Works, Conference