Despite the postponement of the annual Mummers Parade because of rain and snow on New Year's Day, 1929 seemed to begin bright with promise. With just under two million people, Philadelphia was the third-largest city in the United States and the 10th-largest in the world. There were more than 4,000 musicians and only 2,291 lawyers.
Spring training was just a few weeks away, and The Inquirer predicted that the Philadelphia Athletics would field a powerhouse that would win the American League pennant. The nation was about to inaugurate a new president, Republican Herbert Hoover, and an Inquirer editorial gushed: "The country has made wonderful progress under Coolidge. There is no anticipation other than it will continue to make wonderful progress under Hoover." The Broad Street Subway, whose construction the newspaper had energetically supported, had just started running.
But a deeper look showed a city frayed at the sleeves, worn at the elbows. Only 9,280 building permits were issued in 1928, down from 15,500 in 1924. Nine thousand Philadelphians lost their homes to foreclosure in 1928, and in 1929, 14,841 additional houses would fall under the sheriff's hammer. In February, one in 10 wage earners in the city was unemployed. Shantytowns along the rivers and squatter settlements in the marshlands housed hundreds of poor families. For others, reduced hours, lost days, and smaller checks were the norm. Men could not support their families, and in Philadelphia more than in any other U.S. city, wives and children were forced to take jobs to help make ends meet.
The grim economic news had a positive side. Philadelphians grew less tolerant of corruption in City Hall, which was controlled by the notorious Vare family. "No machine in Pennsylvania ever outdid the Vares for ruthlessness," wrote historian Paul B. Beers. "They registered the dead, known as the 'cemetery vote.' They falsified the registration lists so much that once, 122 voters were said to be living in one Philadelphia single-family dwelling. They extracted job-application and payroll assessments in the school system and kickbacks in the county row offices.
"When [future mayor] Richardson Dilworth as a young lawyer came to Philadelphia in 1926, he found that he could not get a petition accepted in the Prothonotary's Office unless accompanied by 50 cents. Similarly, the sheriff had to be paid off. The fire marshal took 10 cents per gallon of capacity of an oil burner. Commercial and industrial water was not metered, but the big billings were negotiated at City Hall and cash passed under the table."
For people living in the city, hard work was balanced by simple diversions, such as baseball and the new excitement of radio. As in 2008, the energy of the city's politics, construction, and entertainments obscured the coming storm.
Then, as now, a few people may have seen economic trouble on the horizon. But most did not, content instead to cheer on the A's and laugh at Amos 'n' Andy or The Goldbergs on the radio. By year's end, those amusements would offer needed comfort.
On June 1, President Hoover sent a telegram to The Inquirer's managing editor, John T. Curtis: "I congratulate you upon the one hundredth anniversary of the Philadelphia Inquirer and likewise all those others who share with you the valuable public service of carrying on its great tradition." Similar messages were received from politicians and other public figures, including two former presidents, Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft.
Under James Elverson Jr., who became publisher after his father's death in 1911, The Inquirer had become known as "the Republican Bible of Pennsylvania." It fought for civic improvements such as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which gained international acclaim as "Philadelphia's Champs-Elysees."
The gleaming white 18-story Elverson Building had opened in 1925 to house The Inquirer and still serves as the newspaper's headquarters at 400 N. Broad St. Elverson and his wife used the 12th and 13th floors for living space, where he died on Jan. 21, 1929.
Ownership changed several times during the 1930s until on July 31, 1936, Moses L. Annenberg announced that he had purchased The Inquirer. The newspaper had a daily circulation of 277,994, and nearly 700,000 on Sundays. It would remain in the Annenberg family for the next 34 years.
Construction began in May on one of the most dramatic additions to the city's skyline - the PSFS Building at 12th and Market Streets. The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, America's first savings bank, founded in 1816, opened the building in 1932. It was purchased 65 years later by Loews Corp., which reopened it as the Loews Philadelphia Hotel in 2000. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Jules E. Mastbaum, a Philadelphia movie theater mogul, had visited Paris earlier in the decade and had become enamored of the sculptures of Auguste Rodin. He began buying Rodin's work so he could open a museum. He died in 1926, but his widow followed through on his dream, and on Nov. 29, 1929, the Rodin Museum opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22d Street with more than 100 of Rodin's works, from every phase of his career. In the entry courtyard rests Rodin's best-known work, The Thinker.
When Broad Street Station, which had opened in 1881, became too small for increasing rail traffic, the Pennsylvania Railroad designed two new stations. Suburban Station was ready for passengers in 1930. Construction on the grander 30th Street Station was slowed by the weak economy, and the facility did not open until 1934. Its columned, neoclassical terminal housed a chapel, a mortuary, and a small hospital. In anticipation of connecting air service, the reinforced concrete roof had space for landing small aircraft.
Prohibition was the law of the land, but because of the Vare machine's lax enforcement, Philadelphia was one of the wettest cities in the nation. Speakeasies and breweries operated with little fear of the law. Among the best customers were iconoclastic young women known as flappers (a reference to their unbuckled boots, which flapped as they walked). They scandalized their elders with bobbed hair, public smoking, and suggestive dancing.
A mild counterrevolution was attempted, but with little consequence. To save America's young women from damnation, the Philadelphia Dress Reform Committee devised a "moral gown" - loose-fitting, long-sleeved and long-hemmed - with few takers.
Nevertheless, family life thrived in the middle-class rowhouses all over the city. After dinner, the family might listen to music on a record player made by RCA Victor in Camden, or gather around a radio made in the city by the Atwater Kent Co., the nation's largest manufacturer of radios, producing more than a million in 1929.
Radio, the first modern mass medium, had transformed Philadelphians into listeners, and its popularity only increased as the economy worsened. Social workers learned that when people were forced to sell a possession to make the rent, they would sooner surrender their refrigerators, bathtubs, telephones, and beds than the box that brought them such pleasure night after night.
On the evening of Oct. 6, they joined the rest of the world in hearing the first radio broadcast of a Philadelphia Orchestra concert. "Coatless, collarless and in sports clothes as though prepared for a game of golf," reported The Inquirer the next morning, "Leopold Stokowski conducted a symphony concert for an audience of unnumbered millions from the stage of the Philadelphia Academy of Music early last evening."
Then as now, one of the best-read sections of The Inquirer was sports. The Philadelphia Athletics under manager Connie Mack won 104 of their 152 regular season games, finishing 18 games ahead of Babe Ruth and the rest of the New York Yankees in the American League.
Although most games in the fledgling National Football League were played on Sunday, the Yellow Jackets (a precursor of the Eagles) were forced to play home games on Saturday because in 1927, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had ruled that Sunday games violated a 1794 law protecting the Sabbath. "Sunday is the holy day among Christians," the court said. "No one, we think, would contend that professional games partake in any way of the nature of holiness." Then, on Nov. 7, 1933, Philadelphians voted overwhelmingly to permit professional games on Sunday. The following Sunday, the new Philadelphia Eagles played the Chicago Bears to a 3-3 tie.
One of the nation's oldest youth sports programs, Pop Warner Football, was founded in Philadelphia in 1929 by Joseph J. Tomlin, a factory owner who set up a four-team league to occupy wayward boys. It didn't get its name until 1934, when a dozen local college football coaches were scheduled to speak to 600 young players at a clinic. It snowed that night, and only one coach showed up - Glen S. "Pop" Warner, who had just taken over as coach at Temple University. The league was named in his honor that night by popular acclaim.
Basketball also was big in Philadelphia, and no team got more Inquirer ink than the Philadelphia SPHAs of the recently reborn Eastern League. "SPHA" was an acronym for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, and the players came from the city's immigrant Jewish neighborhoods. The SPHAs wore blue uniforms with Hebrew lettering, and beginning with the 1929-30 season, they won three consecutive league championships. Sportswriters were apt to attribute their success to genetics. Jews, it was said, were naturally more coordinated and athletic. The New York Daily News' Paul Gallico wrote that Jews did so well because "the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind."
On Tuesday, Oct. 24, a record 16.4 million shares were traded on the New York Stock Exchange. "Stock Values Crash in Record Stampede. Bankers Halt Rout," headlined The Inquirer. Despite assurances from leading economists that there was no imminent danger of a depression, the market continued to plummet. Speculators who had bought on margin were forced to sell at any price. While panic raced across the floor of the exchange, thousands of spectators surrounded the building outside to witness the collapse of Wall Street.
On Friday, The Inquirer reported that activity on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange reached an all-time high, with 423,029 shares sold - nearly double the previous high, set on Nov. 30, 1928. Traders were "in a state of near-hysteria," intoned The Inquirer, as they saw "not only their paper profits, but their actual money, disappear."
The story jumped to an inside page: "Several cases of fainting were reported. In some of the throngs, there were many women who, if they did show a tendency toward tears, seemed otherwise to conduct themselves more reservedly than many of the men traders. . . ."
Well into 1930, many failed to see the enormity of the economic debacle unfolding before their eyes. In December, The Inquirer editorialized: "The right kinds of securities are stable investments for those who do not try to ride the market in an airplane."
Out on the Main Line, the wealthy laid off their domestic servants and gardeners. Nevertheless, the wealthiest Philadelphians continued to live as they had before the Depression, which is to say quite well. The view from society's box seats was round after round of charity balls, dog shows, debutante debuts, and foxhunts. The Inquirer provided extensive coverage of these events, and the adjective "gay" often was attached to them. Indeed, there was a weekly column entitled "Gay Adventures." During the winter months, there were daily reports from Palm Beach, Fla., where many Philadelphians fled winter's chill.
But the truth of the times was clearer among ordinary Philadelphians, who saw their jobs being eliminated, their goods repossessed, and their lifetime savings vanishing in bank failures. In late November, Mayor Harry A. Mackey spoke of the "anguished and unspeakably miserable victims of some misfortune whose pleas flood the city at this time."
Within a year of the crash, Karl de Scheweinitz, secretary of the new Philadelphia Committee for Unemployment Relief, said private welfare funds were exhausted and many people had nothing to eat but dandelions. Several hospitals reported "definite cases of starvation." Within three years, 50 Philadelphia banks closed. As sheriff's sales multiplied, homeowners became tenants and the city's reputation for owner-occupied houses evaporated.
By April 1931, two in every five Philadelphia workers were unemployed or reduced to part-time employment. The jobless turned to peddling, and the mayor's office declared in 1932 that 1,200 Philadelphians were selling apples on the street. Homeless families moved in with relatives to form "combined families." People slept in chairs and on floors. A 1934 housing survey found 24,000 such combined families. There were fewer marriages, few divorces, and fewer births.
In his book Philadelphia Stories: A Photographic History, 1920-1960, Frederic Miller describes a spirit of community that grew as the Depression deepened. "People tried to take care of their own, helping in the ways they had often aided the unfortunate. Neighborhood stores generally offered credit, their owners sharing the misfortunes of their customers in order to stay in business, and because they wanted to help. The city's police stations, traditionally a last resort for the homeless, offered the rudimentary hospitality of concrete floors to more than five hundred men a night by fall 1930."