Wednesday, August 25, 2010


by Nell Pratt

Ah, summer in Philadelphia! The warm breezes that blow up Market Street throwing grit into your eyes. The pungent odors wafting out of the subway entrances. The melting chewing gum sticking to your shoes as you walk the decorative sidewalks on Broad Street (hey, I remember when those sidewalks were new, a part of the then-mayor's beautification program. It took about a week for the chewing gum to start appearing).

Mostly it's about dashing from one oasis of cool, air-conditioned air to the next. I commute by train from my suburban home, and most of the time the air-conditioning works. But not always, and when it doesn't, you arrive at work sticky and snarling at the world. Note: SEPTA usually claims it's due to "overhead wires sagging from the heat." One of their list of creative excuses. What about the passengers sagging from the heat?

William Penn tried to do things right by insisting that there be five parks evenly distributed in his "Greene Country towne." Fairmount Park, which came later, is bigger than New York's Central Park (and, by the way, was designed by the same person, Frederick Law Olmstead). It has all sorts of wonderful treasures, including the country's oldest zoo–but you might want to wait until summer's over to visit.

Those of us who work in Center City do not get to enjoy the lovely green grass and trees–instead we schlep our way down concrete canyons, where the asphalt sucks up the sun's heat and throws it back in your face. But at least it makes you appreciate an air-conditioned building when you reach one.

The Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society, where I work, is air-conditioned. Sort of. It was built in a day when such things were non-existent or at best new-fangled and unpredictable. Wonder what the "gentlemen" of the city did in the summer? Well, first they brought out their summer seersucker suits, which are definitely cooler than wool. They moved slowly and sipped summer drinks with lots of ice. When that wasn't enough, they took themselves down to "The Shore" (yes, that one, but not quite the same neighborhood that Snooki and pals have made notorious) to their summer places, where they could catch cool breezes on the veranda of their Victorian hulks overlooking the sea.

The hoi polloi had to make do with day trips to suburban parks, and there were trolley lines to get them there. Willow Grove Amusement Park was one of them. That opened in 1890, and John Phillip Sousa was a regular performer there. Now it's a mall.

The Society was built solidly and its wall are thick, so it takes a while for heat to penetrate. It's not quite right for our paper-based collections, which really like steady temperatures, not too damp, not too dry, and our heating and cooling systems aren't quite what we'd like them to be. But we're working on it.

Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, trudging through the city streets in the midst of a wicked heat wave, I remind myself of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. I'm going to assume that you all know that event took place at Independence Hall, only a few blocks from the Society). As the story goes, the men (yes, it was all men) drafting the document were so paranoid about word getting out about what they were doing, that they nailed the windows shut. In Philadelphia, in July. I don't recall any mention of whether any of them passed out. I hope that at least they were permitted to take their coats off. And their vests. And maybe their wigs?

So I figure, if they could tough it out and produce the Declaration, who am I to whine about a little heat? It can't last much longer. Can it? Nell Pratt


  1. I live in NYC and know what you mean about the heat. I just wrote about it to my best friend Haylee, who lives in the opposite corner of Pennsylvania from you, where occasional cooling breezes come off Lake Erie, and of course she wants me to visit.

    But you know what? I think I'll take the shorter trip to see you, first. I love the way Philly has retained some of the feel of its own history.

    What sorts of things are in the collection of The Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society?

  2. I hear there's hot stuff going on behind the scenes too, Nell.

    Looking forward this book!

    Charlotte Adams

    Charlotte Adams mysteries

  3. Hi Nell,

    Scumble River is having a heat spell, too. And it's the end of September there. Phew! Hope we both cool off soon.


  4. Hey Nell,

    I love your description of the heat the signers had to endure. And with the windows nailed shut? Eww... it had to have gotten pretty ripe in there. But I love stories like that. It's what makes history come vividly alive.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. NYC has survived the last of our heatwave and looks like fall is on it's way as evident that it is 66 degrees. Gotta love it.

  6. Willow, if you like history, the Society is a treasure chest of goodies. It's been around for well over a hundred years, and things really accumulate. There's William Penn's Bible (now used to swear in Pennsylvania governors) and his wife Guglielma's receipt book (a combination of recipes and home remedies for what ails you). The history of coal mining in Pennsylvania. Letters to and from Presidents and captains of industry (would you believe John Wanamaker's include unused packets of mayonnaise? It's historical evidence!). I (Nell) am lucky enough to get to wander around behind the scenes and peek at whatever I want--it makes for some long lunch hours.

  7. Please don't confuse John Wanamaker's packets of mayonnaise with yours...

  8. What a great story! I bet it WAS hot for that signing.

    And...I think this is the summer that will not end. Ack. It just goes on and on and on...

  9. I surely hope the founding fathers were able to take off their coats and wigs behind closed doors. My, that would be awfully hot. Possibly they even took their shirts off:) Thank you for your post Nell.

  10. Ugh, I hate stepping in gum! It's hot here, too. And no rain. Thank goodness, I don't have to worry about wigs and heavy coats. Heat stroke, anyone?

  11. Really looking forward to this book, I live in Wilmington, and used to work in south Philly. Whenever my husband's British relatives visit, the first thing we do is take them to Independence Hall!