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Think you know Philadelphia? This book may make you think again. In Real Philly History, REAL FAST, Jim Murphy distills people, places, and things that slipped through the cracks into a rapid-fire tour that’ll make you want to revisit Philadelphia’s past.
Nanny Goat riots, parfait burials, the Building of the Century, and tsunamis of culture driven by waves of immigrants—Murphy, a certified city tour guide, details it all in a book that takes a new route through the last three and a half centuries.
Real Philly History grew from articles Murphy wrote over a decade for publications in Society Hill and Queen Village. Organized into sections with themes like Mob Rule and Hidden in Plain Sight, it provides concise background information with bullet points on why, where, and how to visit, and is small enough to carry on explorations.
Giving Penn his due
You’ve likely noticed that Philadelphia is pretty churchy, with historic congregations cross the length and breadth of the oldest sections. The city is said to have been founded as William Penn's “holy experiment.” Why?
Penn was an Englishman who’d been imprisoned for his Quaker beliefs. When King Charles II granted him land in the new world, religious tolerance was uppermost in Penn’s plan for his settlement. Progressive religious views, and Penn’s determination to live in peace with Indigenous peoples, are among the reasons Murphy believes the visionary deserves more than an Old City park and a statue perched on City Hall. A lot of people think it’s Ben Franklin up there, indicative of Penn's relative anonymity.
The truth about Commodore Barry
Naturally, premier attractions are covered, but where Murphy shines is in revealing lesser-known places, overlooked heroes, and rarely discussed events that played so significantly in local, often national, history.
Take that statue behind Independence Hall: the colonial with one arm outstretched and a spyglass tucked under the other. That’s Commodore John Barry. Given the placement of his statue, he’s probably somewhere in your photo collection. But who is he?
Murphy explains that Barry is considered the father of the US Navy and was instrumental in sea and land battles during the Revolution—facts the historically astute may know. Here’s what they probably don’t know: The commodore “helped physically drag and carry two unwilling members of the Pennsylvania State Assembly from their lodgings to the nearby state house to ensure a quorum was present so that Pennsylvania could set a date to ratify the U.S. Constitution.” For that alone, Barry should be more famous.
Restoring vanished history
Murphy spotlights history that has vanished. In the early 20th century, when indoor plumbing was limited and fewer than five percent of Philadelphia families had access to a bathtub, the Gaskill Street Baths (1898-1942) provided a vital service. For a nickel, an adult could get towel and soap and take a shower, 365 days a year. They were the first public baths with public laundry in the country.
Among the important figures Murphy reintroduces is James Forten, a successful 19th-century Black businessman who, when captured by the British Navy at age 14, chose to remain a prisoner rather than live in the home of a Royal Navy captain. When Forten eventually returned to America, he became a sail maker and activist, leading Philadelphia’s Black community and helping to organize the American Antislavery Society.
Without entering a museum, you can see remarkable art here, and the book identifies some pieces you may have missed, such as The Dream Garden (1916), a glorious glass mosaic that sparkles in anonymity inside the vestibule of the Curtis on 6th Street. Designed by Maxfield Parrish and executed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the 15 feet high by 49 feet wide masterpiece was almost removed in a 1998 estate sale to a Las Vegas casino, but a citywide effort led by the Pew Charitable Trusts and other institutions kept it in the space for which it was created, where it continues to surprise and delight passersby.
At 12th and Market, the building itself is the work of art. In 1969, Philadelphia’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects declared the PSFS Building “The Building of the Century.” Opened in 1932 as headquarters for the former Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, it was the first multistory building in the world equipped with air conditioning and the first skyscraper designed in the spare international style. Now a Loews hotel, the building is a National Historic Landmark and still wears the iconic PSFS in red neon on its roof.
Hurrying to the past
Most locals know that the city’s central east-west streets are named for trees. The well-informed may be aware that Race, Arch, and South were once Sassafras, Mulberry, and Cedar. But how many of us know that about a century ago, 4th Street was lowered 15 feet? Extra credit if you know why.
Besides establishing Philadelphia’s impact across time, Murphy makes earlier versions of the city tangible, enabling 21st-century readers to imagine the city in which anti-Catholic riots took place, or how the Old Pine Street Churchyard accommodated increasing burials by interring decedents in layers, known as “parfait burials.” It’s possible to envision the Philadelphia of 1763, where astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon began a topographical survey to establish the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. A century later, the Mason-Dixon line defined a nation at war with itself.
Generously illustrated, the book offers an opportunity to see Philadelphia through time by preserving the footnotes and below-the-surface details. Real Philly History, REAL FAST may inspire readers to take spend a little more time in the past, noticing and remembering.
What, When, Where
Real Philly History, REAL FAST: Fascinating Facts and Interesting Oddities about the City's Heroes and Historic Sites. By Jim Murphy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021. 234 pages, soft cover; $18.95. Get it from Temple University Press.
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