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Episode No. 18: Philly Streets in the Gilded Age (Companion Blog)

Illustration of a telegraph pole on Philly streets during the Civil War, 1861 (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Electrical wires first appeared on Philly streets in 1845. A few pioneering wires were strung up on poles to facilitate the latest communication innovation: the telegraph. By the Civil War, tall telegraph poles were a common sight. At war’s end, telegraph poles sprouted like the masts of ships from street corners. They had grown to three-stories tall, carrying dozens of wires.

In the 1880s, more electrical wires were strung across Philly’s streets. They powered new Brush electric arc street lights on major streets. These lights gave off an intense, glaring light, and they emitted a loud hissing noise.

Department stores were early adopters of these lights indoors, dazzling shoppers with their night time brilliance. However, these harsh lights were more widely used to extend working hours in steel mills, textile mills, and mines (“The Brush Electric Light,” Scientific American, April 2, 1881).

Like so much in the Gilded Age, innovation looked very different depending on your perspective.

Stereoscopic view of the Merchant’s Exchange flanked by telegraph poles, 1870 (Library Company of Philadelphia)
Looking west down Market Street from Front Street, 1882 (Library Company of Philadelphia)

A Gallery of Gilded Age Streets

Map of the City and County of Philadelphia, O.W. Gray and Son, 1883 (Library of Congress)

Birdseye View of Philadelphia looking west from the Delaware, 1887 (Library of Congress)

Philly was in a state of transition in the Gilded Age, 1884 (Library Company of Philadelphia)

City Hall slowly taking over the skyline of Gilded Age Philadelphia, View from 7th and Arch Streets, 1886 (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Chestnut Street above 6th Street, looking east, during 1887 Constitution Centennial celebrations. Note all of the wires running across the street (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Electric telegraph, telephone, and trolley wires at Walnut and Third Streets, 1898 (Library Company of Philadelphia)


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