I live around the corner from Henry George’s house – he’s the economist whose ideas inspired the creation of Monopoly – and just a few short blocks from Joseph Bonaparte’s – the elder brother of the Emperor Napoleon and a deposed king in his own right.
Every day, on my way home from school, I linger just a bit in front of the PSFS Building – the first skyscraper in the “International Style” to be erected in the United States – and Ricketts’ Circus – the site of the first complete circus performance held on American soil.
Whenever I visit my friend’s house on Bainbridge Street, I walk past the homes of jazz singer Billie Holiday and William Whipper, a lumber baron and founder of the American Moral Reform Society. I buy my produce at the Ninth Street Curb Market – one of several to emerge in response to food shortages of the World War I era – a trip that often takes me past the grade school attended by Joe Venuti, the “Father of Jazz Violin.”
No one will deny that Philadelphia possesses a rich and varied history, and thanks to the efforts of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, nobody can deny it possesses a lot more of it than you’d ever guess.
Without the iconic, blue Pennsylvania State historical markers erected by the PHMC, who but the most inquisitive of history buffs would realize the nation’s first Girl Scout cookies were sold at 1401 Arch St. or that Mother’s Day was founded by Philadelphian Anna Jarvis? Were it not for the commission’s diligent efforts at preservation, who would there be to keep alive the public memory of Lehigh Avenue’s sporting heritage, or W.C. Fields’ tenure as a Strawbridge’s employee?
The PHMC’s markers have always fascinated me, and I approach the knowledge they impart with a reverence most would reserve only for the most sacred of religious texts. The moment a blue plaque catches my eye, I cannot but stop to scan its text and in doing so enrich my understanding of the character of whatever place I find myself in.
Nor are these plaques, of course, limited solely to the streets and parks of Philadelphia. In fact, my earliest memory of a Pennsylvania State historical marker is one that commemorates the two years great songwriter Stephen Foster – he of “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” (itself commemorated by two PHMC markers) – spent living in my grandmother’s hometown of Towanda, Pa.
In fact, it amazes me that these blue markers have not become the object of countless college-student pilgrimages, that cars packed with reckless, young undergrads do not stream forth from Philadelphia to stand in awe of the marker for Bristol, an early river port, the first Bucks County Seat and the site of an astounding three markers officially listed as “missing” by the PHMC (unless, of course, a more surreptitious stream is actually to blame for the previous disappearances).
Philadelphia alone houses around 230 markers. Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties boost that number to upwards of 480, and the addition of Berks, Lancaster, Lehigh and Northampton counties yields approximately 730 officially-recognized sites, with Pennsylvania as a whole containing more than 2,000.
Planning a themed pilgrimage – or simply a tour – of officially-recognized sites has never been easier, thanks to the “Stories from PA History” (complete with a list of markers corresponding to each story’s theme) provided by ExplorePAHistory.com, a joint venture of the PHMC and several other state and nonprofit organizations. From William Penn and the Underground Railroad to jazz and baseball, these prepared lists are more than adequate for planning your first pilgrimage.
More advanced planners, however, might instead opt to use the search function provided on the PHMC’s Web site. I did and managed to plot out the George Washington themed tour you’ll find in this column’s sidebar.
As for me, I’ll continue slowing down every time I walk past Edgar Allen Poe’s house on Spring Garden Street, or Siegmund Lubin’s on North 15th Street, and nod my hellos to George every time I run to Superfresh.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.