The Peales

‘The ingenious Captain Peale” sired a dynasty of painters and started America’s first great museum.

The aide-de-camp strode into the painting room and handed a message to General Washington, who was sitting for his portrait, a miniature for Mrs. Washington. “Ah,” he remarked alter a mere glance, “Burgoyne is defeated.” And then, supremely honoring his young friend the artist, that imperturbable man put aside the dispatch for later study and resumed the pose.Read more »

How Did Our Prisons Get That Way?

The penitentiary was invented in the United States as a more rational and humane way of punishing. It quickly ran into problems that still overwhelm us.

Prisons are a fact of life in America. However unsatisfactory and however well-concealed they may be, we cannot imagine doing without them. They remain such a fundamental bulwark against crime and criminals that we now keep a larger portion of our population in prisons than any other nation except the Soviet Union and South Africa, and for terms that are longer than in many countries. Furthermore, we Americans invented the prison. Read more »

Unexpected Philadelphia

A fond, canny, and surprising tour of the town where the Constitution was born

Two hundred years ago Philadelphia was the natural place for the constitution-makers. There was nothing unexpected about that. Philadelphia had one hundred years behind her that were as respectable as they were impressive. Two generations after her solitary founder, William Penn, had set foot on the right bank of the Delaware, Philadelphia had become the largest city in North America, and the fourth (perhaps the third) largest city in the entire British Empire.Read more »

Made In Philadelphia

Artfully composed still-life photographs from a rare 1871 album transform brushes, sponges, and stationery supplies into symbols of a proud, industrial society

Five years before the 1876 Centennial Exposition celebrated the nation’s confidence in its technological prowess with towering displays of manufactured goods, a group of Philadelphia photographers, lithographers, and printers produced an elegant, leather-bound album paying tribute to local industry. They called it Gallery of Arts and Manufacturers of Philadelphia , and they pasted in fifty-eight black-and-white photographs, each mounted in a lithographed frame on its own gilt-edged page.Read more »

The Oddest Of Characters

Slovenly, impulsive, impoverished, and grotesque, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was the greatest naturalist of his age. But nobody knew it.

It is quite fitting,” wrote a Philadelphia journalist in 1804, “that the name ‘Rafinesque’ rhymes with ‘picturesque’ and ‘grotesque,’ because so the little man is.” The subject was a struggling twenty-one-year-old scientist named Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who actually was a rather attractive fellow when he was neatly groomed and at ease and in a good humor, but that was not often. Read more »

The Witch & We, The People

Did the fifty-five statesmen meeting in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention know that a witch-hunt was taking place while they deliberated? Did they care?

 

SEVENTEEN EIGHTY-SEVEN was not that long ago. It will be four years before we can celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of what happened in Philadelphia that summer. And it will be something worth celebrating. The United States Constitution was the culminating achievement of the Enlightenment in America, if not in the world.Read more »

You Are Invited To A Mischianza

Saluting a departing general, the British dazzled Philadelphians with the grandest party the city had ever seen; the tiny army that had toppled the general bided its time nearby

In the spring of 1778 William Howe, commander in chief of His Majesty’s forces in North America, received orders to return to London and justify his actions, or rather his inactions, for he had gained no conspicuous victory in three years of war. He was nearly fifty, plump and rosy, a friend of the gentler arts, the gentler sex. Through the winter of 1777–78 he and his troops had reposed comfortably in Philadelphia while Washington’s hapless little army, freezing and starving, lay vulnerable twentyfive miles away in Valley Forge.Read more »

The Philadelphia Ladies Association

Although it has been disparaged as “General Washington’s Sewing Circle,” this venture was the first nationwide female organization in America

When news that the British had taken Charleston, South Carolina, reached Philadelphia in May of 1780, merchants and government officials reacted to the disaster by taking steps to support the inflated Pennsylvania currency and solicit funds to pay new army recruits. And in a totally unexpected move, the women of Philadelphia emerged from their usual domestic roles to announce their intention of founding the first large-scale women’s association in American history.Read more »

Frederick Winslow Taylor

The Messiah of Time and Motion

Toward the end of the last century an idea took form in the mind of a Philadelphia factory engineer that was destined to change, in profound and troubling ways, the nature of work in the modern world. The engineer was Frederick Winslow Taylor, a brash and eccentric young man whose most notable prior accomplishment had been the invention of a crook-handled tennis racquet, shaped like a giant teaspoon, with which he had taken the measure of a number of the leading players of the day.Read more »

Fairmount

How the Philadelphia waterworks became a potent symbol of our lost belief that nature and technology could live together in harmony

Charles Dickens apparently found little to beguile him when he visited Philadelphia in the 1840’s. He gave scarcely a page to the city in his American Notes , and was sourly amused at being overcome with “Quakery feelings,” which manifested themselves in an urge to invest in the corn exchange. But when he got to the banks of the Schuylkill, he was deeply impressed: “Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off, everywhere.Read more »