Chronicles of America 

Life In Philadelphia

The rapid increase of population and the growing prosperity in Pennsylvania during the life of its founder present a striking contrast to the slower and more troubled growth of the other British colonies in America. The settlers in Pennsylvania engaged at once in profitable agriculture. The loam, clay, and limestone soils on the Pennsylvania tide of the Delaware produced heavy crops of grain, as well as pasture for cattle and valuable lumber from its forests. The Pennsylvania settlers were of a class particularly skilled in dealing with the soil. They apparently encountered none of the difficulties, due probably to incompetent farming, which beset the settlers of Delaware, whose land was as good as that of the Pennsylvania colonists.

In a few years the port of Philadelphia was loading abundant cargoes for England and the great West India trade. After much experimenting with different places on the river, such as New Castle, Wilmington, Salem, Burlington, the Quakers had at last found the right location for a great seat of commerce and trade that could serve as a center for the export of everything from the region behind it and around it. Philadelphia thus soon became the basis of a prosperity which no other townsite on the Delaware had been able to attain. The Quakers of Philadelphia were the soundest of financiers and men of business, and in their skillful hands the natural resources of their colony were developed without setback or accident. At an early date banking institutions were established in Philadelphia, and the strongest colonial merchants and mercantile firms had their offices there. It was out of such a sound business life that were produced in Revolutionary times such characters as Robert Morris and after the Revolution men like Stephen Girard.

Pennsylvania in colonial times was ruled from Philadelphia somewhat as France has always been ruled from Paris. And yet there was a difference: Pennsylvania had free government. The Germans and the Scotch-Irish outnumbered the Quakers and could have controlled the Legislature, for in 1750 out of a population of 150,000 the Quakers were only about 50,000; and yet the Legislature down to the Revolution was always confided to the competent hands of the Quakers. No higher tribute, indeed, has ever been paid to any group of people as governors of a commonwealth and architects of its finance and trade.

It is a curious commentary on the times and on human nature that these Quaker folk, treated as outcasts and enemies of good order and religion in England and gradually losing all their property in heavy fines and confiscations, should so suddenly in the wilderness prove the capacity of their "Holy Experiment" for achieving the best sort of good order and material success. They immediately built a most charming little town by the waterside, snug and pretty with its red brick houses in the best architectural style. It was essentially a commercial town down to the time of the Revolution and long afterwards. The principal residences were on Water Street, the second street from the wharves. The town in those days extended back only as far as Fourth Street, and the State House, now Independence Hall, an admirable instance of the local brick architecture, stood on the edge of the town. The Pennsylvania Hospital, the first institution of its kind to be built in America, was situated out in the fields.

Through the town ran a stream following the line of the present Dock Street. Its mouth had been a natural landing place for the first explorers and for the Indians from time immemorial. Here stood a neat tavern, the Blue Anchor, with its dovecotes in old English style, looking out for many a year over the river with its fleet of small boats. Along the wharves lay the very solid, broad, somber, Quaker-like brick warehouses, some of which have survived into modern times. Everywhere were to be found ships and the good seafaring smell of tar and hemp. Ships were built and fitted out alongside docks where other ships were lading. A privateer would receive her equipment of guns, pistols, and cutlasses on one side of a wharf, while on the other side a ship was peacefully loading wheat or salted provisions for the West Indies.

Everybody's attention in those days was centered on the water instead of inland on railroads as it is today. Commerce was the source of wealth of the town as agriculture was the wealth of the interior of the province. Every one lived close to the river and had an interest in the rise and fall of the tide. The little town extended for a mile along the water but scarcely half a mile back from it. All communication with other places, all news from the world of Europe came from the ships, whose captains brought the letters and the few newspapers which reached the colonists. An important ship on her arrival often fired a gun and dropped anchor with some ceremony. Immediately the shore boats swarmed to her side; the captain was besieged for news and usually brought the letters ashore to be distributed at the coffeehouse. This institution took the place of the modern stock exchange, clearing house, newspaper, university, club, and theater all under one roof, with plenty to eat and drink besides. Within its rooms vessels and cargoes were sold; before its door negro slaves were auctioned off; and around it as a common center were brought together all sorts of business, valuable information, gossip, and scandal. It must have been a brilliant scene in the evening, with the candles lighting embroidered red and yellow waistcoats, blue and scarlet Coats, green and black velvet, with the rich drab and mouse color of the prosperous Quakers contrasting with the uniforms of British officers come to fight the French and Indian wars. Sound, as well as color, had its place in this busy and happy colonial life. Christ Church, a brick building which still stands the perfection of colonial architecture had been established by the Church of England people defiantly in the midst of heretical Quakerdom. It soon possessed a chime of bells sent out from England. Captain Budden, who brought them in his ship Myrtilla, would charge no freight for so charitable a deed, and in consequence of his generosity every time he and his ship appeared in the harbor the bells were rung in his honor. They were rung on market days to please the farmers who came into town with their wagons loaded with poultry and vegetables. They were rung muffled in times of public disaster and were kept busy in that way in the French and Indian wars. They were also rung muffled for Franklin when it was learned that while in London he had favored the Stamp Act--a means of expressing popular opinion which the newspapers subsequently put out of date.

The severe Quaker code of conduct and peaceful contemplation contains no prohibition against good eating and drinking. Quakers have been known to have the gout. The opportunities in Philadelphia to enjoy the pleasures of the table were soon unlimited. Farm, garden, and dairy products, vegetables, poultry, beef, and mutton were soon produced in immense quantity and variety and of excellent quality. John Adams, coming from the "plain living and high thinking" of Boston to attend the first meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, was invited to dine with Stephen Collins, a typical Quaker, and was amazed at the feast set before him. From that time his diary records one after another of these "sinful feasts," as he calls them. But the sin at which he thus looks askance never seems to have withheld him from a generous indulgence. "Drank Madeira at a great rate," he says on one occasion, "and took no harm from it." Madeira obtained in the trade with Spain was the popular drink even at the taverns. Various forms of punch and rum were common, but the modern light wines and champagne were not then in vogue.

Food in great quantity and variety seems to have been placed on the table at the same time, with little regard to formal courses. Beef, poultry, and mutton would all be served at one dinner. Fruit and nuts were placed on the table in profusion, as well as puddings and desserts numerous and deadly. Dinners were served usually in the afternoon. The splendid banquet which Adams describes as given to some members of the Continental Congress by Chief Justice Chew at his country seat was held at four in the afternoon. The dinner hour was still in the afternoon long after the Revolution and down to the times of the Civil War. Other relics of this old love of good living lasted into modern times. It was not so very long ago that an occasional householder of wealth and distinction in Philadelphia could still be found who insisted on doing his own marketing in the old way, going himself the first thing in the morning on certain days to the excellent markets and purchasing all the family supplies. Philadelphia poultry is still famous the country over; and to be a good judge of poultry was in the old days as much a point of merit as to be a good judge of Madeira. A typical Philadelphian, envious New Yorkers say, will still keep a line of depositors waiting at a bank while he discourses to the receiving teller on what a splendid purchase of poultry he had made that morning. Early in the last century a wealthy leader of the bar is said to have continued the old practice of going to market followed by a negro with a wheelbarrow to bring back the supplies. Not content with feasting in their own homes, the colonial Philadelphians were continually banqueting at the numerous taverns, from the Coach and Horses, opposite the State House, down to the Penny Pot Inn close by the river. At the Coach and Horses, where the city elections were usually held, the discarded oyster shells around it had been trampled into a hard white and smooth floor over which surged the excited election crowds. In those taverns the old fashion prevailed of roasting great joints of meat on a turnspit before an open fire; and to keep the spit turning before the heat little dogs were trained to work in a sort of treadmill cage.

In nothing is this colonial prosperity better revealed than in the quality of the country seats. They were usually built of stone and sometimes of brick and stone, substantial, beautifully proportioned, admirable in taste, with a certain simplicity, yet indicating a people of wealth, leisure, and refinement, who believed in themselves and took pleasure in adorning their lives. Not a few of these homes on the outskirts of the city have come down to us unharmed, and Cliveden, Stenton, and Belmont are precious relics of such solid structure that with ordinary care they will still last for centuries. Many were destroyed during the Revolution; others, such as Landsdowne, the seat of one of the Penn family, built in the Italian style, have disappeared; others were wiped out by the city's growth. All of them, even the small ones, were most interesting and typical of the life of the times. The colonists began to build them very early. A family would have a solid, brick town house and, only a mile or so away, a country house which was equally substantial. Sometimes they built at a greater distance. Governor Keith, for example, had a country seat, still standing though built in the middle of the eighteenth century, some twenty-five miles north of the city in what was then almost a wilderness.

Penn's ideal had always been to have Philadelphia what he called "a green country town." Probably he had in mind the beautiful English towns of abundant foliage and open spaces. And Penn was successful, for many of the Philadelphia houses stood by themselves, with gardens round them. The present Walnut was first called Pool Street; Chestnut was called Winn Street; and Market was called High Street. If he could have foreseen the enormous modern growth of the city, he might not have made his streets so narrow and level. But the fault lies perhaps rather with the people for adhering so rigidly and for so long to Penn's scheme, when traffic that he could not have imagined demanded wider streets. If he could have lived into our times he would surely have sent us very positive directions in his bluff British way to break up the original rectangular, narrow plan which was becoming dismally monotonous when applied to a widely spread-out modern city. He was a theologian, but he had a very keen eye for appearances and beauty of surroundings.

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