Exploring Philadelphia’s Rich History

This week in North Philly Notes, Jim Murphy, author of Real Philly History, Real Fast, explains the stories from the city’s past that intrigued him enough to write a book about them.

History is for everyone. Real Philly History, Real Fast, provides more than 50 short chapters that provide a complete story of figures, places, and events in Philadelphia history in mere minutes.

The book answers intriguing and important questions you may never have thought about. Like why did Charles Willson Peale add the second “L” to his middle name? Who stole the first book from the Library Company of Philadelphia? And where was its most famous painting found?

Or what little-known Revolutionary War hero took the fight right to Britain’s front door, terrifying its citizens and driving the British Empire’s insurance costs through the roof? How did the Acadians come to live in Philly and where did they stay? And what special skill saved black businessman James Forten (not his real name) from a life of West Indian servitude?

But wait there’s more! Real Philly History, Real Fast, answers these probing questions: What Philadelphian has over 40 towns named for him? What statue may be the second most photographed in Philly (behind Rocky, of course)? And where did the Liberty Bell receive its last crack?

Real Philly History, Real Fast will make the city feel familiar to you no matter how long you’ve lived here because it presents its history in a new light.

As an amateur general historian and certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides—as well as a constant walker and a lover of Philadelphia—I dig for information in my determination to find great stories wherever I can. I look at each story like a detective with a mystery to solve. I originally spent an average of 25-35 hours on each story in this book, researching facts, checking multiple sources, and then cutting each story down to their very essence.

Of course, no one book can cover all of Philadelphia history. There are more than 300 blue-and-gold Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission signs in Philadelphia alone, not even including the suburban counties. And while this book is geared toward center city, you will find stories on Fort Mifflin, the Lazaretto, Cliveden in Germantown and Taller Puertorriqueño in Fairhill.

One story of particular interest to me was the Mason-Dixon survey. I learned in researching the story that some nationally syndicated publications describe the vista of the Mason-Dixon line as being 3-feet wide. That’s absolutely wrong. The team, which numbered as many as 115 people, cut a vista 24-30 feet wide through dense Pennsylvania forests. Also interesting to me: that survey began on South Street in Philadelphia, a fact many Philadelphians don’t know.

Philadelphia had two superstars who jump-started this city: Penn and Ben. Or William Penn and Ben Franklin. And although they missed meeting each other by about 20 years, they helped make this the fastest growing city in the country. In 1770, Philly passed New York and Boston to become the largest, most important city in the Colonies. That growth was due to William Penn’s unique grid system, his five public squares, his well-regulated market and his ability to attract people here to his City of Brotherly Love. Penn’s attitude toward the Lenni Lenape, his system of government and his religious tolerance were all unique.

These are just a few of the tidbits you will discover in the book, which meant to whet your appetite for more Philadelphia history. As I said, there are countless stories to be told…

This President’s Day, Think Twice Before Posting That Meme of President Trump

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of Presidents’ Day,  we re-post this Chicago Sun-Times op-ed by Thomas Foster, author of Sex and the Founding Fathers, which considers character attacks on the Commander-in-chief.

In our divided nation, one thing that both sides agree on is that Trump has broken the mold. The sense that never before have we had a President like this inspires some opponents to employ unusual tactics. But as anti-Trump discourses proliferate with every new move the administration makes, think twice before sharing that photo of his face superimposed on Queen Elizabeth’s body, or the criticism of Ivanka Trump as his daughter/First Lady, or the image of Trump as a gay man soliciting sex. There’s no shortage of such internet creations and although they might seem novel, all draw on character attacks as old as the nation and as antithetical to a progressive agenda as President Trump himself.

Take the artistic work of Indecline that cropped up in cities during the campaign. Trump’s naked body on full display was meant to speak volumes, to challenge a vision of him as powerful and virile. “The Emperor Has No Balls” read the plaque at the foot of the piece.

Many perceived this as an effective way to counter the accusations made by President Trump that Hillary Clinton lacked the “stamina” to be President. But still others rightly noted that it did little but support those who seek an idealized body-type for masculine leadership – body shaming, indeed.

Creative? Yes. New? Maybe not. Although ever-changing, body ideals have been mobilized since the American Revolution and have been, in modern times, used to make figures such as George Washington appear more masculine and more in keeping with current standards than eighteenth-century types.

G-000865-20111017.jpgThen there are the popular images of Trump as Queen Elizabeth, a commentary on his authoritarian leadership approach but also, undoubtedly, to undercut his claims to manliness – and drawing very effectively on long histories that shame gender-blurring. Such contrasts also highlight and play on bodily and character differences that we assume to exist between leaders (manly) and others. This occurred even at the time of the Revolution when Washington was depicted by the British as a cross-dressing tyrant. Today they inform politicized art, such as in a colorful mural that plays on the image of Washington as the man’s man and make it possible for an image of him in a dress to carry such shock and resonance.

Trump has also emerged as a gay man seeking casual sex – a photo of him holding up an executive order has been modified so the text is instead of a tawdry personal add, worthy of eighteenth-century attacks on personal character in an effort to derail public policies and presence. And there’s this one of him holding onto a leather-clad Putin.

Even the criticism of his family members has historical roots. Melania Trump has been criticized for not immediately occupying the White House with family in tow to complete the nuclear family that we’ve come to expect from the President’s First Family.

And, Ivanka has been tarred as a daughter-First Lady substitute in her stead. We’ve seen this before. Aaron Burr’s relationship with his daughter was the source of intense criticism about the nature of their relationship (complete with incestuous insinuations) and widowed Jefferson relied heavily on his daughter, Martha, to serve functionally as a First Lady.

So, yes, to be that clichéd historian, we’ve seen it all before.

It’s no wonder that the first shiny thing that opponents see that criticizes Trump, sparks a reflex to share or retweet. After all, nothing of substance has yet seemed to stop the changes that we are witnessing. Perhaps this photo of him in a dress will do it? And if not, it will at least bring humor to those feeling beleaguered?

The memes are obviously well-aimed to get under his famously thin skin. And yet anti-Trump discourses have too often reverted to old tropes — and progressives would do well to steer clear of them lest we find ourselves reinforcing a world we work hard to leave behind.

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