Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Road Trip - Philadelphia's Elfreth's Alley

Elfreth's Alley dates back to the first decades of the 18th century.

Twenty years after William Penn founded Pennsylvania & established Philadelphia as its capital, the town had grown into a thriving, prosperous mercantile center on the banks of the Delaware River.

Philadelphians had abandoned Penn’s plan for a "greene countrie towne" creating a cityscape similar to what they remembered in England.

Wharves stretched out into the river, welcoming ships from around the world.

Shops, taverns, & homes crowded the area along the river.

On Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphians made & sold items essential to life in the New World.

Two of these colonial craftsmen, blacksmiths John Gilbert & Arthur Wells, owned the land where Elfreth’s Alley now sits.

In 1702, each man gave up a portion of his land to create an alleyway along their property line that connected their smithies near the river with Second Street, one block away.

During the 18th & early 19th centuries, numerous artisans & craftsmen resided on Elfreth’s Alley, often living & working in the same building.

Among the alley's residents were tradesmen & their families, including shipwrights, silver & pewter smiths, glassblowers, & furniture makers.

In the 1770s, one-third of the households were headed by women. In the 1790s, Sarah Milton, a mantua maker living there, died of yellow fever.

The Georgian & Federal-style houses & cobblestone pavement of the alley were common in Philadelphia during this time.

From an early date, Elfreth’s Alley had a diverse population.

English colonists, who worshipped at nearby Christ Church, lived next door to Moses Mordecai, a Jewish merchant who was a leader of Mikveh Israel Synagogue.

Cophie Douglass, a former slave, began his life as a free man in post-revolutionary Philadelphia while living on Elfreth’s Alley.

During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the Alley became a neighborhood of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, & other parts of Europe who sought new opportunities in America.

By the early 20th century, the Alley had become a run-down, impoverished area facing numerous demolition threats.

In 1934, a group of men & women organized to save several colonial houses from demolition by absentee landlords.

The rescuers called themselves the Elfreth's Alley Association.

Since 1702, Elfreth's Alley has been home to more than 3,000 people.

Today 32 houses, built between 1728 & 1836, line the alley.

They form one of the last intact early American streetscapes of everyday homes in the nation.

Elfreth's Alley is a National Historic Landmark District, one of the first districts that celebrates the lives of everyday Americans.

The alley is an endearing tourist attraction & a rare surviving example of 18th-century working-class housing stock.

The site stands in sharp contrast to the more frequently preserved grand mansion houses of Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood.

This history, plus great photos of each & every house including its individual provenance, may be seen at the website of the Elfreth's Alley Association.

Road Trip - Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Town

Mennonite William Rittenhouse (1644-1708) immigrated to Pennsylvania from Holland & settled on the north bank of Monoshone Creek around 1690, opening one of the first paper mills in British North America there with his son, Nicholas. A second mill, homestead, & bake house quickly followed, and for 8 generations the family lived & worked all along the Monoshone & Wissahickon Creeks. The Rittenhouses went into partnership with William Bradford, Philadelphia's early printer.

In nearby Germantown, colonial weavers were busily transforming flax into linens for the surrounding community. When the fabric shredded into rags, locals would bring them to Rittenhouse Town to be made into paper. Paper produced at the Rittenhouse mill was sold to printers in nearby Germantown, Philadelphia, and even far away New York to become Bibles, broadsides, newspapers, & almanacs.

Seven of the early 18th-century German buildings survive. In the early 19th century, John Fanning Watson wrote of these early Dutch structures. "Most of the old houses in Germantown are plastered on the inside with clay and straw mixed, and over it is laid a finishing coat of thin plaster." Historic Rittenhouse Town is now a National Historic Landmark.

Rittenhouse Paper Mill & Homestead

Jacob Rittenhouse Home

Rittenhouse Homestead

Enoch Rittenhouse Home

Rittenhouse Paper Mill

Jacob Rittenhouse Home

Abraham Rittenhouse Home

Enoch Rittenhouse Home

Road Trip - Philadelphia's Germantown

Here are a few 18th-century houses from Philadelphia's Germantown, which have managed to survive. For those of you who love to trace change-over-time, I have included some 19th-century depictions of the houses as well as the 21st-century photos.


Thomas Harrison Wilkinson (1847-1929) Detail of 19th-Century Watercolor of Wyck.

Wyck. Rev. Samuel F. Hotchkin's Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill, 1889.

1690-1824 Wyck. Wm Strickland 1824 floor plan using 1700 hall, 1736 front parlor, 1771 library & dining room replacing c. 1690 log structure.

1690-1824 Wyck. I realize that there is more garden than house here, but I could not leave it out.

1690-1824 Wyck. If you look carefully, you can see roses & vines growing up the walls of Wyck in the late 19th century watercolor above.

1690-1824 Wyck. I just could not resist the roses climbing up the walls.

1690-1824 Wyck. Both 19th-century depictions show vines & roses growing on Wyck.

1690-1824 Wyck. I am trying to stay away from garden & flower images, but sometimes, I just can't help myself.

  1730 Stenton The Home of James Logan 1867 Photographer John Moran. (Love this Victorian obsession with growing vines up the side of the house.)

Stenton. Rev. Samuel F. Hotchkin's Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill, 1889.

1730 Stenton The Home of James Logan

1730 Stenton The Home of James Logan

 Thomas Harrison Wilkinson (1847-1929) Although this watercolor is said to be Grumblethorpe or John Wister's Big House, it is far different than today's building. I am certain this view is in Germantown, however, so I am including it.

Grumblethorpe, John Wister Residence c 1870 Photographer Robert Newell

Grumblethorpe or John Wister's Big House. Rev. Samuel F. Hotchkin's Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill, 1889.

1744 Grumblethorpe or John Wister's Big House

1744 Grumblethorpe or John Wister's Big House


Cliveden April, 1859 Photographer Frederick De B. Richards

1767 Benjamin Chew's Cliveden 1867 Photographer John Moran

Cliveden. Rev. Samuel F. Hotchkin's Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill, 1889.

1767 Benjamin Chew's Cliveden

1767 Outbuilding at Benjamin Chew's Cliveden

Johnson House

Thomas Harrison Wilkinson (1847-1929) 1768 Late 19th-Century Watercolor of the Johnson House.

1768 Johnson House Built by Quaker John Johnson 1867 Photographer John Moran

1768 Johnson House Built by Quaker John Johnson

1768 Johnson House Built by Quaker John Johnson

1768 Outbuilding at Johnson House Built by Quaker John Johnson

Deshler-Morris House

1772 Deshler-Morris House sheltered George Washington in 1793, during the Yellow Fever epidemic.

1772 Deshler-Morris House sheltered George Washington, Martha, and her grandchildren in 1793, during the Yellow Fever epidemic in downtown Philadelphia, about 6 miles away.

  1795-1798 Upsala Home of John Johnson 1867 Photographer John Moran

1795-1798 Upsala Home of John Johnson