Philadelphia, The Original American Melting Pot NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday travels to the historic city of Philadelphia, the first U.S. capital, as part of a month-long series to find out how Americans have changed since the 18th century – and ask what it means to be an American today.
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Philadelphia, The Original American Melting Pot

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Philadelphia, The Original American Melting Pot

Philadelphia, The Original American Melting Pot

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Around the country this weekend, Americans are celebrating their independence from Great Britain with fireworks and hotdogs on the grill. And the question we want to ask in the series we begin today is who is an American? Every Sunday this month, Weekend Edition will travel through time from 1708 to 2008 in the City of Brotherly Love, a Cradle of American Liberty: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the 18th century, Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America. Reporter Joel Rose has been looking for traces of that colonial city. He joins us. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE: Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: So who were the earliest Philadelphians?

ROSE: So, the very earliest people in the region were Lenni Lenape Indians who lived in a number of different settlements in the Delaware Valley, including what is now Philadelphia. You also had some Swedish and Dutch settlers in the 17th century. But the first settlement that we would recognize today as a real city was officially chartered in 1701 by William Penn. And Philadelphia was dominated in the early years by the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers.

Mr. BILL ROBLING (Actor): Good day. How are you, friends?

ROSE: Two days a week, actor Bill Robling puts on a three-corner hat and stockings and greets visitors at the Free Quaker Meeting House in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood. Robling drifts in and out of character as he explains the group's religious beliefs.

Unidentified Woman: Why is the meeting house set up this way?

Mr. ROBLING: The meeting house is set up this way because of the nature essentially of that quiet, contemplative worship. They like to face one another.

ROSE: Back home in Britain, the Quakers were a radical sect that rejected the elaborate rituals and hierarchy of the Anglican Church. As of 1708, Quakers were easily the largest group in Philadelphia. But Robling, in character now, says that was already beginning to change.

Mr. ROBLING: (As 18th Century Quaker) We are starting to get many immigrants here. It is said that Mr. Penn's activities in recruiting all over Europe are going to bring more and more people here eventually.

ROSE: There isn't much physical evidence left of what Philadelphia looked like in the early 18th century. That's according to historian Daniel Richter who directs the McNeal Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He took me on a walking tour that started in a modern park where William Penn's original vision for the city is laid out under our feet in concrete and stone.

Dr. DANIEL RICHTER (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Essentially Penn didn't like cities. And he imagined not so much a city as a kind of rural town in which every lot would be at least a half an acre in size, which would have left plenty of green space in between these broad thoroughfares.

ROSE: Did that pan out at all?

Dr. RICHTER: No. Almost from the first day that anyone got here, there was no green country town. What happened was that no one wanted to spread out. Everyone wanted to immediately start carving up their large one and a half acre lots into smaller pieces. So already by 1708, even though there were probably only 3,500, 4,000 people living in Philadelphia at that point, it was a very densely-packed place with everybody huddled up against the river where all the business was and where all the people lived in anything but a green country town. It was really quite a fragrant place with open sewers running everywhere.

ROSE: Philadelphia's population was growing fast. Drawn by the promise of religious freedom in Pennsylvania, Richter says immigrants began flooding into the colony from all over Europe and beyond.

Dr. RICHTER: There was a very substantial German population, large numbers of Irish people - many of them from Northern Ireland - and there were Presbyterians moving in. Others were Catholics, although they generally had to keep that under their hats. There was a Jewish population that remains. There were Swedes and the Dutch. There was also a very large African-American population here from pretty early on. And Philadelphia becomes, you know, the first rate North American melting pot.

ROSE: By the eve of the American Revolution, Philadelphia was the biggest city in the colonies. The city stretched further north and south along the Delaware River. But it remained a compact urban settlement where rich and poor lived nearly side by side. Daniel Richter says the density and energy of the city contributed to the American Revolution and the nation's founding.

Dr. RICHTER: Think about the small space we're talking about here, maybe a mile and a half tall, half a mile wide, thirty, forty thousand people in that space. Nothing goes unnoticed. And when things happen in the streets, when people put up an effigy and burn it, when they start marching around, when they start breaking people's windows who failed to sign on a non-importation agreement, this isn't something you read about in the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day, this is something you see right outside your window.

ROSE: Today if you come to Independence Hall, the building is surrounded by a lot of open space. But that was not the case in the 18th century, was it?

Dr. RICHTER: No. This was 5th and Chestnut Street. This was a little bit up and out of the hustle and bustle down by the waterfront but was very much part of the thriving city. And it was built up very densely all around here. Walk right up there and look right in those windows, which would not have been closed since there was no air conditioning in the 18th century, and literally see in here what's going on inside.

ROSE: So inside Independence Hall there's a very famous painting of the signers of the Constitution. And you can't help but notice that they're all white men. But if you'd walked around the streets outside of Independence Hall that day in the 1780s, what would the city have looked like?

Dr. RICHTER: Ah, it would have been an extraordinary melting pot of languages and peoples and religions, particularly if we're talking about the period of the Constitution. Slavery had officially been abolished in Pennsylvania in 1780. There was a thriving free African-American community here, and shops and other enterprises run by African-Americans would have been part of the scene. You would have heard the German language everywhere. You would have heard a whole variety of accents of English and would have certainly not got a sense that those elite people with their silk stockings and their powdered wigs were at all representative of the City of Philadelphia as a whole.

ROSE: So, Liane, by the 1790s the city was the cultural, economic and political capital of the young nation. But the coming century would bring big changes for Philadelphia, not all of them good.

HANSEN: Joel Rose, I want to continue this conversation, particularly about some of those big changes that you just mentioned. But we're going to digress just for a moment. Weekend Edition's food commentator, Bonny Wolfe, has this essay on what Philadelphians were eating then. And spicy pepper pot soup was very popular.

BONNY WOLF: Quakers probably didn't eat spicy pepper pot soup. Their diet was simple and plain. But the soup was an early Philadelphia favorite. The story is that the soldiers at Valley Forge were so cold and hungry that George Washington told his cook to make them something hot and hearty. Supplies were low, but the cook managed to throw together some tripe, peppercorns and bits of meat, and made a soup. Bring on the red coats! It's more likely that the soup was introduced by slaves from the West Indies or was a variation of Dutch goose, a German dish of stuffed tripe.

From 1700 to 1775, colonial America grew from 250,000 to two and a half million. Some of the growth was from immigration. The Scotch, Irish, Germans, Jews, Swedes and French all brought their cookery with them. The culinary contributions of Native Americans and black slaves were already part of the stew. New world produce - tomatoes, corn, beans, squash - was no longer strange. And American cuisine had begun to develop. Philadelphians could get a bowl of pepper pot soup at City Tavern, the place for American revolutionaries to meet over a glass of Madeira and steaming roast of venison. Tavern served as community centers, political forums and comfortable stops for travelers. So did George Washington's house.

George and Martha hosted so many guests at Mount Vernon, he called their home a well-resorted tavern. When the Washingtons lived briefly in Philadelphia, one guest wrote of a December 1795 dinner. In the middle of the table was placed a piece of table furniture about six feet long and two feet wide. It was very elegant and used for ornament only. The dishes were placed all around, and there was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkeys, ducks, fowls, hams, puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins and a variety of wines and punch. Dinner was mid-afternoon and the big meal of the day. Supper was a light meal of leftovers. There was nothing called lunch. The lower classes ate differently. They were often lucky to have a pot to hang over the fire to cook some hominy with bits of meat, if they had it.

Corn was the staple of the American table, regardless of your wealth. Recipes using corn appeared in American Cookery written by Amelia Simmons in 1796. It was the first cookbook by an American. Simmons gave corn recipes called receipts for Indian pudding, Johnny cakes and Indian slapjacks. She also had recipes for watermelon pickles, spruce beer and soft gingerbread Americans favored over the hard British kind. What British cookbooks called little cakes, Miss Simmons referred to as cookies, a word derived from the Dutch. The Dutch word for cabbage salad became coleslaw. These were American foods. There's no recipe for pepper pot soup in American Cookery, but you can still enjoy a bowl at Philadelphia's City Tavern.

HANSEN: Weekend Edition's food commentator, Bonny Wolf.

WOLF: Joel, you ever try the pepper pot soup?

ROSE: Unfortunately, I've never tried the pepper pot soup, Liane.

HANSEN: I've had it. And it's good. It's OK. But, you know, it just doesn't sound, according to Bonny, that they had cheese steaks in the 18th century.

ROSE: No. The cheese steak history is a long one, but it doesn't go back quite that far.

HANSEN: All right. Well, let's continue our conversation then about Philadelphia and those significant changes the city faced when it entered the 1800s. What kind of changes?

ROSE: Well, the first thing that happens is the federal government leaves. That happens very suddenly in 1800 when the capital moves to Washington, D.C. Philadelphia remains a very important financial center throughout the 19th century, but it's slowly losing its influence to New York City which passes Philadelphia in population sometime in the 1830s and never really looks back. Here's how historian Daniel Richter describes it.

Dr. RICHTER: Philadelphia, while still an important cultural and economic center, it was dealing with this enormous hole in its political and cultural fabric caused by the departure of government.

HANSEN: Historian Daniel Richter. And Joel Rose in Philadelphia, thanks a lot.

ROSE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: The hole Richter mentioned was about to be filled by one of the men who founded the nation's first museum. Next week, my visit to Philadelphia where I learned about the soldier, naturalist and artist Charles Wilson Peale. This is how consulting curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Carol Eaton Soltis described Peale.

Dr. CAROL EATON SOLTIS (Consulting Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art): He began as an artisan. He worked his way up. He was part of the ambition of the new nation to nation build, to culture build. He was an optimist, he was a visionary and he was an intense, intense person. He tried to show that in the museum.

HANSEN: Our series on who is an American continues next week with Philadelphia 1808.

(Soundbite of song "Egg")

Unidentified Actor #1: (As John Adams): It's a masterpiece I say. They will cheer every word, every letter.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As Thomas Jefferson): I wish I felt that way.

Unidentified Actor #3: (As Benjamin Franklin): I believe I can put it better. Now then attend, as friend to friend, on our Declaration Committee. For us I see immortality.

Unidentified Actors: (As John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin): In Philadelphia City.

Unidentified Actor #3: (As Benjamin Franklin): A farmer, a lawyer and a sage, a bit gouty in the leg. You know it's quite bizarre to think that here we are playing midwives to an egg.

Unidentified Actor #1: (As John Adams): Egg? What egg?

Unidentified Actor #3: (As Benjamin Franklin): America, the birth of a new nation.

HANSEN: That was John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson from Sherman Edward's original Broadway cast recording of the musical "1776". To learn more about the first Philadelphians and to see the 1683 grid plan for the city, visit

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