- Historic Sites
The simple, affectionate water colors of an unassuming Scots immigrant, David J. Kennedy, bring back the Philadelphia of 1876 and our first great world’s fair
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
By 1876 a network of railroads spread out toward nearby cities and towns; but the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers were much used. Philadelphia was a great port and shipbuilding center, although trade with southern ports and the Gulf of Mexico now had taken the place of the old European and China trades. Passenger steamers served the little ports up and down the bay and river: Trenton, Bristol, Burlington, Chester, Wilmington, New Castle, Salem, Cape May. On the long pool in the Schuylkill above the dam at Fairmount, the May Queen and the Star would take those on pleasure bound from the pier at the foot of Coates Street up the river to the zoo, the Centennial, the Falls, and the Wissahickon for twenty-five cents. There were famous riverside restaurants, like Belmont Cottage, and the river was a great center for oarsmen, as it is today.
It would be a delusion to suppose from the peace and charm of Kennedy’s water colors that the people of the Centennial city lived in a golden age, free from the troubles that human beings, frail and foolish, inflict upon themselves. On September 18, 1873, the great financial house of Jay Cooke & Company closed its doors, and the resulting financial panic brought great distress to the country. OnJuIy i, 1874, the kidnapping of a Philadelphia child named Charley Ross added a new name to the dark legends of America and a new horror to haunt the minds of parents. Scandals and corruption in Washington during the Grant regime were matched in Philadelphia, where, in 1873, Joseph P. Mercer, the city treasurer, was arrested for conspiracy, convicted, and sentenced to the penitentiary.
Yet in spite of panics, crime, and corruption, all was certainly not gloom. The Franklin Institute celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1874 with a great exhibition in the Depot Building at Thirteenth and Market, memorable for having introduced the ice-cream soda to the American public.∗
∗At least, such is the Philadelphia tradition. Other cities dispute for the honor.
The institutions of the city were thriving. The Academy of Natural Sciences, in the midst of one of its greatest periods and having already outgrown three buildings, opened its fourth building on Logan Square in January, 1876. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the April following opened one of the great buildings of the age, designed by the Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. The huge granite pile of the city hall, designed by another remarkable architect, John McArthur, Jr., had been begun in 1872 and was only slowly rising at the time of the Centennial. The Philadelphia Zoological Society had opened America’s first zoo in 1874.
This was the city that Kennedy loved and painted for sixty years. This simple, affectionate man’s portrait of his city is also a portrait of himself. His life revolved about his work, his home, his church, and his city. One day, when he had not been in Philadelphia very long, he saw a girl across the street. Let him tell it in his own way: George Young & I who boarded with my sister Mrs. Glendenning in Bonsall St., left one morning to go down to the City and in crossing gth Street from Bonsall I happened to look across gth St. (we were then on the east side) & there on the doorstep of No. 5/0 stood a most genteel & ladylike young lady with a doormat in her hand, which she hung on the iron railing. I called to George, George, look at that young lady on the doorstep on the other side, is she not elegant & ladylike see what large pretty black eyes she has. I tell you what, George, I cannot but admire her & must find out who she is, (she caught us looking at her & wondered what impudent fellows we were)
He did meet and marry her, in the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church (reproduced on page 17). A thrifty, hard-working Scottish pair, they ultimately bought their own red-brick row house at 131 North Sixteenth Street and raised four children. After the Centennial, Kennedy tells us in his notes on his life, “I have been in no business, but have employed my time in finishing up the sketches I have taken in and around the City since 1836 & putting them in my sketch book, which now comprises 6 volumes each 3 inches thick.” A title page of one of these volumes, Lights & Shades of Other Days , is the best description of their contents.