Washington Week

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Fast Facts about Philadelphia

By Jenna Goff
Washington Week Fellow

Philadelphia is home to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but from July 25-28, it will also be home to thousands of delegates and members of the media when the Democratic National Convention comes to town. Here’s everything you need to know about the largest city in the battleground state of Pennsylvania:

1. Philadelphia is inextricably linked with the founding of American democracyAs the largest colonial city in the 18th century, Philadelphia was the most rational choice for the First and Second Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. The Founding Fathers met in the Pennsylvania State House (known today as Independence Hall) to form common grievances against Britain, sign the Declaration of Independence, establish the frameworks of American government, and sign the Constitution. Philadelphia also served as the capital of the US in the 1790s, during the presidencies of Washington and Adams.

2. 2. Aside from being the birthplace of American independence, Philadelphia is a city of many other firsts. It is home to the nation’s first university (University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1749), first hospital (Philadelphia Hospital, co-founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751), first daily newspaper (Philadelphia Packet and Daily Advertiser, founded in 1784), and first zoo (Philadelphia Zoo, founded in 1874). It also houses the nation’s first medical school, the Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765. Even today, one out of every six US doctors is trained in Philadelphia. 

3. Philadelphia is home to the nation’s first African American church, Mother Bethel AME, founded in 1794 by Richard Allen, a former slave. Allen bought his freedom in 1783 and began to preach, traveling all around the Northeast. He soon realized the need to unite for change and to meet the needs of his fellow African Americans, both free and enslaved. Through fundraising (even President Washington contributed) and hard work, Mother Bethel opened with 121 members in 1794. Ten years later, the congregation was up to 457. The church later worked with the Underground Railroad to house runaway slaves and provided training for integration into the free black community. Worship services still continue today.

4. The city’s famous Liberty Bell was originally known as the State House Bell. It was cast in 1751 and hung in the tower of the Pennsylvania State House. The bell was not commonly referred to as the Liberty Bell until the emergence of the abolitionist movement in the mid-1800s. Around the same time, the crack seen today silenced the bell forever. It began a nationwide tour in 1885, traveling from New Orleans to San Francisco for display at expositions and fairs. By the 1920s, the bell had returned to its home of Philadelphia as a universal symbol of American freedom. While many commonly state that “Pennsylvania” is spelled wrong on the bell, with only one “n,” the name of the state was not standardized when the bell was made so the spelling was technically correct.

5. Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, erected in 1809, is the first American theater and the oldest continually-operating theater in the English-speaking world. It operated as an equestrian circus for its first three years and was then converted into a legitimate performance hall. President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette attended the theater’s first production in 1812. Later in the 19th century, the curtain call originated at the theater when actor Edmund Kean appeared on stage after the show. And in 1862, the Walnut Street Theatre was purchased by the brother of a man who also had a thing for theaters: Edwin Booth, sibling of President Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth. 

6. Philadelphia City Hall was intended to be the tallest building in the world when construction started in 1870, but both the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument were finished before it and stood taller. The Hall wasn’t completed until 1901. It was, however, the tallest occupied building for eight years, until New York City’s MetLife building was completed in 1909. It still holds the title of having the tallest statue on top of any building in the world, though. The thirty-seven foot statue of William Penn weighs 27 tons.

7. Philadelphia has a strong history of hosting party conventions. The city was home to the nation’s first Republican National Convention in 1856. The delegates nominated John Fremont of California, who had gained popularity as a Western explorer, as the presidential nominee, with William Dayton of New Jersey as his running mate. Fremont opposed the expansion of slavery, and ran with the slogan: “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Fremont and Victory!” With nearly 80 percent of eligible Americans casting a ballot, however, Democratic candidate James Buchanan won the election with 174 electoral votes. 4 electoral votes.

8. The last time the DNC was held in Philadelphia was in 1948, with President Harry S. Truman and Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley on the ticket. Many cite this historic convention as the emergence of the modern-day Democratic Party. Hubert Humphrey (mayor of Minneapolis, a candidate for Senate and later Vice President) led the fight for a coherent platform that was inclusive of many specific civil rights. It included the abolition of state poll taxes in federal elections, an anti-lynching law, a permanent fair employment practices committee and desegregation of the armed forces. Although it would take many years for these measures to actually be enacted, the platform passed by a close vote of 652-582, causing all 22 Mississippi delegates and 11 Alabama delegates to walk out of the convention hall. 

9. The first DNC in Philly (in 1936) was equally as monumental and perhaps even more unfavorable to Southerners. Until this point, Democrats required that nominees receive two-thirds of delegate votes to clinch the nomination. This rule essentially gave the South a de facto veto on presidential candidates. The 1936 nominee, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pushed to eliminate this two-thirds rule in favor of a majority nomination, citing that it would lead to less balloting and allow candidates to be more easily nominated. But he also had an ulterior motive: by eliminating the South’s veto power, the rule change made it easier for Democrats to adopt civil rights and other more liberal ideas. As a result, the party evolved enough in the next 12 years to pass the 1948 platform. 

10. The famous Philly cheesesteak was first conceived in 1930 by Pat Olivieri, a hot dog stand owner. According to his great-nephew Frank, the current owner of Pat’s King of Steaks, the cheesesteak didn’t actually even have cheese on it for the first decade of its existence. It was originally a steak sandwich with onions on a hot dog bun. The cheese came in the 1940s, when a drunken manager placed provolone on top of the steak. 

11. Philadelphia is where ENIAC, the first programmable fully electronic computer, was designed and built between 1943 and 1946. The machine was intended to compute values for artillery range tables during WWII. It was less than efficient (it took days to rewrite the machine to solve a new problem), but it successfully used plug boards to communicate instructions to the machine. Costing the government $400,000 (almost $5 million today), ENIAC’s 40 panels occupied the majority of a 50-by-30 foot room in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School. But since WWII had ended by the time it was completed, ENIAC was first used to do calculations for the construction of the first hydrogen bomb during the Cold War.

12. In 1957, 26-year-old Dick Clark transformed a local Philadelphia television program into a national icon when American Bandstand first aired on ABC. The show broadcast images of average American teenagers dancing to top rock-and-roll hits live from Philly five days a week until 1964, when it moved to Los Angeles. It also featured musical ratings from the teenagers, as well as performances from many popular artists.

13. It’s fitting that Philadelphia sports are just as groundbreaking as their city. The Philadelphia Phillies are the oldest continuous one-name, one-city professional sports team in American history. The baseball team played its first game on May 1, 1883. The Philadelphia Eagles are also one of the oldest NFL teams. Previously known as the Frankford Yellow Jackets, the team was one of ten professional football teams in 1931. It was in this year that Bert Bell and Lud Wray bought the team for $2,500 and renamed it the Eagles, in honor of the Eagle that graced posters from the National Recovery Act during FDR’s New Deal program. Now, Eagles fans have been voted the most aggressive in the NFL.

14. Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum of medical history is home to a variety of bizarre American artifacts. It has slices of Einstein’s brain, a tumor from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw, tissue removed from the vertebra of John Wilkes Booth’s brain, and a book bound with human skin. The museum was completed in 1863 and has grown to include more than 25,000 medical relics. 

15. Philadelphia has one of the most thriving art scenes in the country. The city houses the most Impressionist paintings of any city outside of Paris, including Monet’s The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pond and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Philadelphia also has the most outdoor murals of any US city, totaling more than 2,000. And, of course, the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art are perhaps most well known from the famous running scene in the movie Rocky. The stairs were recently named the second most famous movie location in the world.

16.  Even with over 300 years of history under its belt, Philadelphia continues to be a city on the rise. It was named the number three 2015 Place to Go by The New York Times for its ever-increasing outdoor oases and cultural events. And this year’s DNC is sure to breathe even more history into the remarkable city.


Photos via: flickr, Library of Congress, National Archives