Random Thoughts on History and the Past

Our recent trip to Pennsylvania included a lot of history, which is the top consideration whenever we plan a trip. I’m lucky that my husband is also interested in the past, as it makes for an agreeable itinerary for both of us.  The primary reason for the trip was so I could attend the regional Costume Society of America symposium in Shippensburg, PA, but when we realized how close Philadelphia was, we decided to add a few days to the trip and visit the city.

Much of what is now referred to as the Old City is owned publicly and is administered by the National Park Service. A large part of this is the Independence Hall complex, seen above. In the center is what was the old Pennsylvania State House, and it was there that the Continental Congress met to discuss and sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and where eleven years later the Constitutional Convention was held.

To the right is Congress Hall, where the Congress of the United States met after the government moved to Philadelphia in 1790, and behind the trees on the left is where the Supreme Court met.  In a building to the right of where I took this photo is where the Liberty Bell is now housed.

I always find the juxtaposition of modern buildings and historical ones interesting. Philadelphia is a modern city, and that is left from colonial and early Federal days is scattered  throughout the Old City. The house in which Dolly Madison lived with her first husband survives, but the house that was George Washington’s Presidential residence does not. You can visit Betsy Ross’s house, but not Ben Franklin’s.

Both Washington’s house and Franklin’s are represented as “ghost houses”, where frames made of white pipes show where the houses would be if they had survived. It’s hard to believe that the President’s residence was torn down, but look at the photo above and you can see the big yard in front of Independence Hall. Years ago this lawn was full of homes and businesses. Washington’s house was located on this lawn.

This is the Thomas Bond House, which now houses an inn, and which is where we stayed. To the left is a parking garage, to the right a paved park, and beyond that, an apartment building. The paved park is the site of the home of William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony.

It is useful in such a situation to be able to imagine the missing buildings, and to see this house as part of a street of similar ones.

Thankfully, such a street still exists. It’s Elfreth’s Alley, where the houses all date from 1720 to 1830. It is literally in the shadow of  Interstate 95 and is just off a busy modern street, but all that is forgotten when walking this alley. So how did it survive? It became home to poor immigrants, and was rediscovered in 1934 when preservation efforts began. If you look at cities where a lot of old buildings survive, you’ll see that poverty is often the reason.

And while it’s a shame that so much of historic Philadelphia was lost, the real story might be that it is amazing that so much still exists. For comparison, how many pre-1830 buildings are still standing in New York City. The answer is very few.

I found this visit to Colonial Philadelphia to be oddly comforting in our stressful political climate. It was a great reminder that the figures of the past were not perfect beings, but they were still able to create a democracy that has lasted 230 years. They enslaved people, even Franklin (who later argued against slavery). They gave women no say in the proceedings, and when Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal…” he meant all white men.

In a time when we seem to be going backward in our progress as human beings, this serves as a reminder of how far we have come since 1776. It also helps to remember that history, like fashion, is not linear. I think the best example of this is our recent elections. Total control is no longer in the hands of one political philosophy, but is now shared with those of different views. If you study how our Constitution was written, you’ll see that our country has never agreed on every issue, but it is necessary that all voices be heard.

But enough of that – let’s look at signs of fashion history. We spotted this sign just down from the Betsy Ross House, but it is not a hoop skirt factory, but an apartment building. At one time this was an industrial building, but I’m unsure if hoops were ever made there.

When traveling, don’t forget to look up.  This building on Market Street is no longer a seller of trunks and bags, but one can imagine what it must have been like one hundred years ago.

At the site of an old public house, A Man Full of Trouble must have been referring to the hatbox she is carrying.

On the way home we stopped in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which is most known for the raid of abolitionist John Brown. Again, the National Park Service has a big presence, and it interprets not only the raid, but also the town of Harpers Ferry as it was in the nineteenth century.

I had been wanting to visit Harpers Ferry since college, when one of my professors declared that everyone in the town had one leg a bit shorter than the other from walking on the hilly streets. I actually can’t confirm that is true.

Part of the town is level, and runs along the Shenandoah River. This has been restored to look as the town did in the nineteenth century. Not knowing this, I got all excited when I saw the shop windows full of antique merchandise. As it turned out, it was just an illusion.

Still, it was fun peering into a general mercantile of the time.

The best interpreted store was an actual men’s haberdashery, Philip Frankel & Co.

Due to it being off-season, there were few rangers about to tell about the buildings, but the park has done a decent job of posting information for those willing to take the time to read.






Filed under Road Trip, Viewpoint

12 responses to “Random Thoughts on History and the Past

  1. jacq staubs

    Love Philadelphia!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Harper’s Ferry is an awesome place to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary Boehm

    What fun! Did you know that Philadelphia was the most important town in Colonial America? Unfortunately, the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, in which two of my ancestors died [The Reverend James Sproat and his wife, Sarah Smith, the granddaughter of William “Tangier” Smith, the Lord of the Manor in Smithtown, Long Island….not nobility but he owned 50 miles of shoreline on Long Island] made Philadelphia a less desirable place to live. It is a lovely place to visit. I will have to go back soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for sharing your travel adventures. I agree with your observation that many historical buildings still exist due to poverty and the inability to change their abodes and surroundings due to lack of funds. Unfortunately many treasured old homes on the coast of Maine have been snatched up by the wealthy who think nothing of razing the gorgeous relic and putting up a McMansion! Luckily there are still treasures hidden in rural areas where the wealthy fear to tread.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post was a dream! I am simply dying to visit Philadelphia! So much history!


  6. I first visited Philadelphia when I was 8. I remember Elfreth’s Alley (“narrowest street in America”) and making paper at the Franklin Institute. I’ve been back for American Library Association conferences (6 or 7 over the years) and have managed to see interesting places each time. Dinner at the Victor Cafe is great fun. They say the textile district is just a shadow of what it used to be (60+ years ago) — mostly home dec now — but I’ve gotten some good stuff.


  7. Phyl D

    “It also helps to remember that history, like fashion, is not linear.”
    Could I have a t-shirt made up with this quote, please?


  8. When we visited Philadelphia 15 years ago, I have to say I was a little surprised by all the ‘Here used to stand…’ plaques on modern buildings and parkettes we came across. While I understand that we can’t keep everything, I do wonder how ‘Robert Moses’ type developers manage to convince cities to thoughtlessly destroy their significant heritage and replace it with mediocre modernism. Your photo of Independence Hall shows a Deco-era office building thoughtfully built that repeats the massing of the old hall, but then a modern building is jammed in next to it that seemingly had no thought of complimentary massing, finish, or placement to what is arguably the United States most important historic structure!


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