A Peek at Philadelphia in the 18th century

In the late 18th century, Philadelphia was the most developed city of the colonial region. It was second only to London within the British Empire in terms of population.

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But in those days, the city itself was huddled mostly along the great Delaware River. After all, it was the deep river that made Philadelphia such an attractive port.  The areas to the west would only be absorbed into the city bustle later, which btw, gives you a sense of how radically the scale of cities like Philadelphia have changed over the last two hundred years. They have exploded as human populatoins have exploded.

So if you want to see what colonial Philadelphia was like, you need to head east to the Delaware River.  And there you bump into the Powel House

Of the major city houses that in the latter half of the eighteenth century, helped to give Philadelphia an appearance that Jefferson found “handsomer” than eithe rLondon or Paris, only the house on the west side of Third Street, midway between Spruce and Walnut, may be said to retain much of its original character. Now numbered 244 and known for many years as the “Powel House”, this is today owned and maintained for the enjoyment of the public by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks.

It was the home of Samuel Powel, last of Philadelphia’s colonial mayors and the first to hold that office in the new republic.  Here is an image of Third Street from those days. Powel’s house is in the center right and partially obscured from view by trees.

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Today, the Powel House is a focal point for preserving what remains of old Philadelphia. Here is the facade as it can be seen today

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It was not an ordinary home. To the contrary, Samuel Powel was a prominent figure in society. At that time, among the upper levels of society, it was expected that one would entertain. The Powels were no exception, and from the interiror rooms, you get a sense of the heights of taste and elegance of that day. Here is a peek

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The arrangement is formal. No couhces or arm chairs. The hosts and visitors were on display in this setting as much as the fixtures and furniture. Particular attention was paid to the front hall, where visitors would be received

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I can’t help but wonder if Powel or any of his guests thought for a moment how two hundred years would change things. Would they have been able to imagine the way Philadelphians live now? What would they say about our culture and lifestyles? No doubt, they would be a amzed by many things that we take for granted.

And what would we make of their lives if we could go back and pay a visit? We would, no doubt, find their formal manners difficult to get used to.  And we might not enjoy the amount of physical labor that was erquired for just about everything.

Who did the work? Where and how did they live?

More to follow!


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