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Episode No. 10 – Philly Streets in the 1700s (Companion Blog)

While researching this episode, I was reminded of the Leslie P. Hartley quote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

We in Philadelphia feel that we kind of know Colonial Philadelphia. It was a simpler time. Men wore those funny, triangular shaped hats. Horses clip-clopped along cobblestone streets.

But Colonial Philadelphia was fundamentally, a very different place. It wasn’t a less complicated version of today, dressed up in ye olde clothes. And it was a place that many of us would not actually enjoy visiting.

Independence Mall

The National Park Service at Independence Mall is somewhat responsible for perpetuating this romantic myth about Colonial Philadelphia. In the 1950s and 60s, they created a cleaned up colonial version of the city by liberally pruning away layers of complicated history. They got rid of physical structures that did not date to a certain period in colonial and revolutionary-era Philadelphia. And they also removed the stories that showed the complexity, and inequality, of colonial society.

Looking north from Independence Hall c. 1838

J.C. Wild print, Free Library of Philadelphia

Looking north from Independence Hall today

-Independence Hall Visitor Center

Loss of Complexity

I think this simplification and loss of complexity is a problem because the founding documents of the United States of America were soon to be written here, in the dirty, crowded, unequal, and unregulated streets of Philadelphia. We feel a sense of closeness and understanding of these enduring founding documents, but they were written in a city that we wouldn’t recognize: a city where enslaved Africans and indentured servants labored, where women had few legal rights, where Native Americans were cheated of their land, where criminals were publicly whipped and hung, and the poor scraped by in squalid back alleys.

There was still an almost medieval sense of order to society, with white men of property at the top. Everyone else’s value was rated against how close they came to meeting this standard. And it was acceptable to meet out justice unequally based on your rank in society.

But there was always resistance

But there was always resistance to this order: servants and the enslaved gathered boisterously outdoors on their day off, enslaved people ran away, indentured servants left to fight with the British, and self-supporting women worked outside of the home to keep their families fed, clothed, and together.

We have come a long way from those days in colonial Philadelphia, but not far enough.


Southeast Prospect of Philadelphia c. 1720, The Library Company of Philadelphia
Street lantern post-1751 fueled by whale oil, Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary project
Nicholas Skull Map of Philadelphia 1762, Library of Congress


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