The sight of people using the bathroom outside, living in houses with no plumbing and electricity, the smell of human waste lingering outside conjures up images of a disadvantaged nation.
But it’s not.
Up until the 1950s some residents of Philadelphia lived in squalor reminiscent of the poor conditions in many developing countries today.
An exhibit titled “The Way We Lived: Images of Philadelphia Housing and Reform, 1890-1955” at Paley Library illustrates the conditions with more than 50 photographs.
Evan Towle, Assistant Archivist and Photograph Curator for the Urban Archives department, said he hopes the exhibit will help students understand how people lived in Philadelphia in the early 20th century. “Hopefully it will spark some of their interest in Philadelphia,” he said.
One photograph on display shows children living in a dilapidated wooden bandbox. A bandbox is nothing more than a tiny house with no electricity or plumbing. Often they were overcrowded.
Towle said many of the houses at the time sat next to open sewers filled with human waste. “They were smelly and overcrowded,” he said.
Towle said the images illustrated living conditions of the time and were meant to be emotionally provocative. “What was important was reforming the conditions of the houses,” Towle said.
Since no plumbing existed in the structures, people used outhouses or privies when they had to do their business. Several homes shared the outhouses. “When a privy is full, one digs another hole,” Towle said.
John Pettit, who is completing a double major in Film and Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University, assembled the exhibit. He said that conditions of homes back then would be completely foreign to people now.
“It wasn’t uncommon for people to sell animals out of their homes at the time,” Pettit said. “A lot of these pictures are from 50 to 60 years ago, and it’s pretty remarkable what has been done in terms of housing.”
By 1955, legislation passed enacting standards in housing which included provisions that homes have plumbing and electricity.
Pettit said the various housing associations of the time played a role in passing the legislation.
Cynthia Wilson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Library Science at Clarion University, assisted in assembling exhibit. She hopes people will look at the exhibit and think about how people lived then and how people live now.
Many of the homes are gone now. Doing the research, Wilson uncovered some interesting facts.
“Sometimes you’ll find what was once a graveyard is now a playground,” she said.
Most of the photographs on display were shot by the Philadelphia Housing Association. The organization merged with Fair Housing Council of Delaware Valley in 1969 and changed its name to the Housing Association of Delaware Valley.
The photographs on display are part of a huge collection of images in the Urban Archives, located on the ground floor of the library.
The archive houses more than million pictures, ranging from women’s fashion during the 1950s to images of gangs in the 1970s.
Towle hopes more people would utilize the immense resource. “All they have to do is have a seat and tell us what they’re interested in,” he said.
All types of organizations have stopped by the archives, including ESPN and the History Channel.
The exhibit will be on display until Dec. 31 and is a pictorial testament on the history of the city. “I think people should stay in tune with where the city has come from and where it is going,” Pettit said.
Matt Stringer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org