Philadelphia — A ‘city of firsts’ that feels little need to brag

The Convention and Visitors Bureau touts Philadelphia as “a city of firsts.” The Independence Hall Association lists five pages of “Philadelphia Firsts” on its website. But the firsts did not begin with Ben Franklin.

This is the eighth in a series of essays on key phrases from Philadelphia’s history, being written for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia project.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau touts Philadelphia as “a city of firsts.” The Independence Hall Association lists five pages of “Philadelphia Firsts” on its website. A walking tour of the city links “Philadelphia Firsts” to its home page.

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George Morgan may have been the first to title a book on Philadelphia The City of Firsts, in 1926, but even that far back he acknowledged the research of others who had been tracking those firsts for “many years past.”

The firsts did not begin with Ben Franklin.

Philadelphia was a vision before it was a city, and its grandest innovations were in place before Franklin was even born. The ideas that revolutionized the West, religious freedom and political democracy, were proclaimed by William Penn and put into practice by the first sturdy settlers of his colony.

Franklin did do mighty work. But he never did it alone, and the work went on after he left the city and even after he died. Together, in the years before 1800, Philadelphians organized almost all the essential institutions of the modern America that emerged in the nineteenth century.

Tireless invention

They created the country’s first banks, first insurance companies, and first stock exchange. The first daily newspaper, the first magazine, the first political cartoon, and the first public library. The first patent and the first trade show. The first turnpike and the first steamboat. The first non-sectarian college and the first university, and the first night school. The first hospital, the first medical school, and, maybe more tellingly, the first asylum for the insane.

The first law firm and the first formal teaching of the law. The first labor organization and the first strike. The first protest against slavery, the first anti-slavery society, and the first independent African American church. The Army, the Navy, and the Marines, and for that matter the nation itself, and its first flag besides.

The beat continued across decades

The pace of invention scarcely slowed after 1800.

In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia claimed America’s first automobile, electric car, advertising agency, collegiate school of business, museums of science and of art, telephone, photograph, professional schools for women, books and magazines for the blind, municipal waterworks, Newman Club, rabbinic college, religious newspaper, YMCA, and more.

In the twentieth century, it had the country’s first radio license, television station, modern skyscraper, airmail delivery, scientific management, black-owned-and-operated shopping center, computer, and more.

And the city birthed not only those great engines of progress but also inventions of delight: the nation’s first circus, balloon flight, merry-go-round, ice cream, soda (and then, inevitably, ice cream soda), pencil with eraser, Girl Scout cookie, western novel, bubble gum, zoo, movie, revolving door, Slinky, uniforms with numbers to identify players, and more.

Oh, yeah … New York

Still, the census did announce that New York surpassed Philadelphia in population in 1800, and Washington did displace Philadelphia as the national capital at the same time. Later commentators have speculated with numbing regularity that Philadelphians developed an incorrigible inferiority complex after those losses and that the sense of inferiority came naturally to a city of Quakers.

But those speculations are rubbish. Philadelphia was never a city of Quakers – by 1800, Friends were less than a tenth of its population – and Quakers were never so modest. In William Penn’s portrait, he wore a gleaming suit of armor. He turned to Quakerism to temper his pride and try to turn it to love.

And the non-Quaker majority was never modest either. Ben Franklin expected that Philadelphia would become the capital of the British Empire and that king and Parliament would in time relocate from the Thames to the Delaware.

When the 1800 census counted more people in New York than in Philadelphia, arrogant Philadelphians simply refused to credit the count. Even in 1810, when the next tally found New York’s advantage increasing, Philadelphians still maintained that their city was larger. By 1820, they did finally concede that New York might have more inhabitants, but they insisted that Philadelphia excelled its upstart rival in law, medicine, science, art, architecture, and every other amenity of cosmopolitan culture.

First in modesty

Philadelphians did eventually grow discouraged competing with the emerging colossus to the north. After decades, even generations, of primacy, they did ultimately reconcile themselves to second place in the American urban pecking order. And when they did – when they gave up measuring themselves against New York – they launched on their most distinctive and most marvelous innovation of all.

Others cities followed New York, and in boosting and boasting they still do. Long before the nineteenth century was out, Philadelphia ceased to be an American city in that sense. It gave up braggadocio as a way of life.

It did, to be sure, mount the Centennial of 1876. It did send the Liberty Bell on promotional tours of the nation for decades. But it did so in its own chastened way.

As observers as different as Henry James and Lincoln Steffens said, it became a city peculiarly contented with itself. It did not imbibe modesty from its Quaker founders, but it did not imbibe the American disease of belief in divine blessing from them either. Quaker egalitarianism precluded such a sense of chosenness. Quakers considered themselves merely a people among peoples. They lived well, but they did not trumpet that they lived better than anyone else.

No ‘1 percent’ here

In the nineteenth century, in New York, the Four Hundred made fabulous fortunes while the Four Million scrambled to escape the city’s tenements and slums. In Philadelphia, the American Dream that Franklin first formulated actually touched the masses.

As one observer put it, in 1877, the city “exceeded in comfort within the reach of the poorest classes any other city in the world.” At a time when barely a fifth of New Yorkers did, most Philadelphia families owned their own homes. The city’s people were skilled workers who made good wages, not de-skilled employees whose labor made their bosses rich. In significant numbers, they even had vacation homes in the mountains or down the shore, a full generation or two before unions and the New Deal brought such benefits to workers elsewhere.

When Philadelphia ceased to be the first city, it took to itself the title of city of firsts. The title was at once a harmless expression of pride and a profound expression of identity.

It signified a place that could look backward and appreciate its past as New York never did. A city civilized in an un-American way. A city urbane as well as urban. A city of well-being as well as wealth. A city that could be an object of affection as well as an arena of ambition. Perhaps, as Penn hoped, a city of love. Certainly, a city to love.

Michael Zuckerman is professor of history emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania

This essay is published in partnership with The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with support from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia is a civic project to build “the most comprehensive, authoritative reference source ever created for the Philadelphia region.” This year the project has commissioned nine essays on signature phrases describing Philadelphia.

NewsWorks is publishing all the essays in the series. The ones published so far are collected on its Phrasing Philadelphia minisite.  Other phrases explored in the project are: “City of Brotherly Love,” “Holy Experiment,” “Green Country Town,” “Cradle of Liberty,” “Corrupt and Contented,” “Workshop of the World,” “Athens of America,” and “Place That Loves You Back.” 

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