I always wanted a short and sweet history of America in the 1800s, but I couldn’t ever seem to find one. After writing this (and the next few) episodes, I now know why this history doesn’t exist. There is just a lot going on.
So much of the early nineteenth century feels so alien. Public hangings as popular entertainment? Rusk cakes sold by children at tea time? Militias training in the streets?
And then some of that history feels very familiar. Economic inequality that makes life dangerous for the most vulnerable. Scraping by with a street hustle. Unfair and humiliating burdens placed on the working class.
But there are changes coming to Philly streets. And this episode is about understanding how big those changes will be.
Pivot Point No. 1: The Most Vulnerable
There are two pivot points in this story. Moments where you are seeing one thing, but as it comes into focus, you can also see a distorted, mirror image of something ugly going on.
The first pivot point is the Black chimney sweep calling out “Sweep-o-o-o,” working the street with his two soot-covered young apprentices. This is more than just a colorful image of days gone by, when the streets offered opportunities to make a living. The young apprentices represent some of the most vulnerable residents of Philadelphia in the Early Republic: free, young Black boys kidnapped on the city streets of the north and sold into slavery in the south. Their story has been told by historian Julie Winch in her 1987 article in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, and in Richard Bell’s 2020 book Stolen.
Pivot Point No. 2: Poverty on Display
The second pivot point is the public militia marching down Philly’s streets on parade to celebrate July 4th. This feels festive and familiar. But the inequitable, and compulsory, public militia system that is on display here was a major source of simmering class tension. The wealthy could pay their way out, or buy themselves a swanky officer rank. But the working class was forced to muster and march, buy their gear, and take unpaid leave from work.
The working class would get their own back with rowdy street parodies. Philadelphia’s irreverent fantastical militias were wildly popular in the Early Republic, especially because they really irritated the establishment. And the tatters of these working-class parodies influenced the Christmas time street revelries that, in turn, evolved into Philly’s mummer tradition of today.
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