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The Inquirer at 50, in 1879: Chronicling a booming city

The grand train depot at Broad and Filbert bustled with travelers. When these commuters and visitors exited the station, they found themselves overwhelmed by the smells and sounds of the city.

The grand train depot at Broad and Filbert bustled with travelers. When these commuters and visitors exited the station, they found themselves overwhelmed by the smells and sounds of the city.

The air in 1879 was thick with a mix of horse manure, cooking food, and coal and steel smoke. It rang with the calls of a dozen newsboys hawking their wares, the bangs of hammers, and the shouts of construction workers at nearby Penn Square.

Steps from the busy rail terminal, the world's tallest building was rising. Laid out on a five-acre site at Market and Broad Streets, this was City Hall, the new center, as commerce and people moved west from the Delaware River.

Philadelphia was being shaped into the city we know today. The Inquirer was there to record it all.

The New Public Building, as it was then called, was a monument to Philadelphia's Iron Age, a symbol of its power, prestige, and population growth. The operations of government had long been crowded at Fifth and Chestnut Streets. A special election in 1870 decided the location of the new building: 51,623 Philadelphians had voted for the winning location, while 32,825 wanted Washington Square.

It was a massive undertaking, the largest masonry building in the world, with more than 700 rooms. Until its completion in 1894, the construction site was a blur of activity, with deliveries of granite, wood, metal, glass, stone, ceramics. Materials arrived by trains and horse-drawn carriages, some of which ran along tracks to reduce friction.

The so-called Scotch Mafia dominated this phase of construction, including architect John McMahon, mason and contractor William Struthers, and sculptor Alexander Milne Calder. Working on-site, Calder created more than 250 relief and free-standing sculptures for the building, including the 37-foot-tall, 24-ton statue of William Penn that tops the structure.

John Wanamaker, a successful merchant with two stores, saw how this building would become the hub of the city. He placed his great department store, the 12-story granite Wanamaker building, in City Hall's shadow. It would be completed in 1910, and "Meet me at the Eagle" became a part of the local lexicon.

In 1879, William Penn's "greene country towne" was a cosmopolitan center of business, culture, and manufacturing: If it could be made by hand, it was made here.

"Philadelphia was at the top of its game," said Roger Lane, a history professor at Haverford College. "They had iron and coal, steel and shipyards, and Baldwin locomotives. They made watches and wallets and baby carriages, and basically anything you could make."

Geographically, the city was as large as it is now, although with 800,000 people as compared to today's 1.4 million. The growth was due to 1854's Act of Consolidation, which added outlying areas to its boundaries.

The old borders were the Delaware River and the Schuylkill, and Vine and South Streets. Consolidation added the Townships of Roxborough and Byberry, the Boroughs of West Philadelphia and Bridesburg, and the Districts of Kensington and Southwark. The city still had a disjointed feel, but its newspapers helped unify the populace.

"I don't want to call it a city of neighborhoods, but a city of distinct areas," said Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph's University. "You could see a critical mass of a particular group putting its stamp on a particular area. Believe it or not, reading the newspaper was the kind of thing that binded people together, in the sense that they were common city people, part of something larger than themselves."

Suburbs began to flourish, thanks to the rail lines put in for America's 100th birthday. Many who could afford to moved to homes along the railway's Main Line, its stops memorized in an easy saying, "Old Maids Never Wed and Have Babies Period" - Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Paoli.

The rails also took the city's focus away from the river.

"It would be the trains that were really transformative for Philadelphia and the nation, and not just those stretching across the continent, stretching Atlantic to Pacific, but the local train network that led to a more accelerated pace of suburbanization," Miller said.

"You had systems being built that had a profound effect on the character of Philadelphia. In 1879, you're beginning to see a city that's going to look a lot like it will for the next 100 years."

While the port still flourished, shipping was no longer front-page news.

Instead, every edition of The Inquirer had at least two columns of train schedules, noting how the Pennsylvania & Reading Railroad was departing for the "Coal Regions" with local stops at Germantown and Manayunk.

The railroad companies were frequent newsmakers. In April, the city hosted the "Trust Timekeepers," the people who decided the train schedules. An August article headlined "A Run on Rails" detailed how all of the city's steel rail mills were sold out for the year, and the iron rail mills had more orders than they could supply.

The Inquirer itself had grown considerably since its first issue 50 years earlier. It now offered twice as many pages - eight - for the bargain price of four cents.

This paper was six columns across and jammed with news, rows of gray text with slightly bolder headlines: international and national articles, with daily dispatches from Washington and Harrisburg; local news of crime, politics, and public education; reports from New Jersey titled "Over the River"; and a daily "Our Letter From New York," which often began with a description of the weather to the north.

A typical front cover could contain as many as 35 "stories," although some were only a few sentences long. A reader could learn about the yellow fever sweeping Memphis, a conflict in Kabul, and the price of flour in Madrid, all without turning the page.

Largely gone were the poems, stories, and essays that once choked the paper's columns, although the occasional bit of fiction made publication. A Jan. 1, 1879, essay boasted that all the news from its first issue would fit into one column of the modern Inquirer.

"From day to day, during the changing years that now number nearly fifty, the columns of THE INQUIRER have chronicled the happenings, big and little, that have merged into local and general history," it read. "Every form of human happiness and human misery, of morality and crime, virtue and vice [have] . . . been mirrored daily."

This was a time of prosperity after darkness - the Civil War and the slump that followed, the bank failures of 1873. The Inquirer was thick with ads for frivolities like Champagne, wallpaper, music boxes, ball invitations, and fine Parisian silks. The port's listings included more leisure excursions, with steamship lines making weekly trips to Savannah, Ga.; Liverpool, England; and Antwerp, Belgium.

The New Jersey Shore was already a popular summer destination and, under the headline "Our Brighton," The Inquirer celebrated the 25th anniversary of the rail line that carried passengers to Atlantic City, "the city by the sea." It encouraged subscribers to continue reading while vacationing, for 12 cents a week or 50 cents a month.

Travelers were invited to prepare for their journeys with a prepackaged meal, something tasty like "Cooked Boned Chicken in Jelly" or "Broiled Wild Duck Sausage With Truffle."

This was a Philadelphia pre-Eagles, pre-Phillies, pre-Flyers. But sports flourished, and The Inquirer was heavy with coverage of the favorites: boxing, cricket, rowing - and walking.

In 1879, days-long walking contests were "it." Walkers circled a track all day, took an overnight break, then resumed in the morning, aiming to log the most miles in the time allotted. The sport drew cheering crowds that filled arenas such as Gilmore's Garden - later Madison Square Garden - who watched "professional pedestrians," known as "peds," walk as many as 500 miles "in splendid style."

Addie Freeman was a hometown hero, representing the city and state in the 12-day "go as you please" race for the "belt and medal of the states of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania." The Inquirer described the start of the race this way:

"At eight o'clock the women appeared on the track, and were loudly applauded. Miss Freeman, dressed in white satin, trimmed in red and wearing light cloth sandals, stepped off with spirit; she is rather slender and hardly handsome, but her face is expressive, determined and interesting. Miss Hughes followed in black silk, pink sash and high shoes; she is the largest woman of the three. Miss Wilson wore a black velvet dress; she walked in a sprightly manner and attracted much attention. . .."

Nonprofessional walkers were also inspired, as an April 1879 article headlined "The Walking Mania" noted:

" 'Pedomania' has manifested itself in the usually quiet Quaker City and turned it into commotion and locomotion. Pedestrians, pleur pneumonia and 'Pinafore' are apparently the three popular P's of the period. . .."

The "Pinafore" was Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, which drew steady crowds to multiple city locations. News that a new scene was being added and another performance put on at West Philadelphia's Institute Hall, 40th and Ludlow Streets, drew the following advice from The Inquirer: "As there is no doubt that the audiences will be large, seats should be secured at once at Boner's, No 1102 Chestnut Street."

That fondness for frivolity extended to the circus, which, in 1879, established a presence at Broad and Federal Streets. Cooper, Bailey & Co. floored Philadelphians when it performed under "the brilliant white glow of electric light which greatly enhanced the grandeur and showed a decided change for the better from the same performance given on the previous nights . . . under the flicking flames of the old conventional . . . lights."

"That's a thorn in Barnum's side," a circus official cackled to The Inquirer.

"Pleur pneumonia," indeed all lung diseases, continued to be the biggest killer. The Inquirer published weekly statistics, noting the number of deaths and causes. In one June week, the city tallied 253 deaths: 49 blamed on consumption and nine linked to lung inflammation.

But whether all lung diseases could be blamed on one cause was unknown. Even though the city was the home of two preeminent medical colleges, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Pennsylvania, the practice of medicine "was very primitive," said Lane, the Haverford College professor.

With drinking water coming from the Schuylkill, which was thick with coal dust, "the city led the country in death from waterborne diseases," Lane said. The air was also choked with pollutants, including factory smoke, dust, and chemicals used to do everything from dying cloth to refining leather.

Because of the many ailments about, and because most doctors went to diploma mills, potions and tonics promising magical fixes to physical ailments were extremely popular.

H.T. Hembold, owner of Temple of Pharmacy at 830 Chestnut St., sold a compound called "fluid extract of Buchu" for $1 a bottle, or six for $5. Hembold said the tonic was "a specific remedy for all disease of the bladder and kidneys," which, if not addressed, could lead to "epileptic fits and consumption."

At least once a week for all of 1879, Gray's Specific Medicine advertised in The Inquirer. Its ad featured two drawings of a man's face, one "Before Taking" and the other "After Taking," which showed how the magical elixir could transform a thin, shrunken-chested, straggly-haired man with a frown into a full-faced, smiling gentleman with full hair and broad shoulders.

Famous names were making news in 1879. Three years after the Battle of Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull was still on the front page, preparing attacks on Forts Stevenson, Buford and Totten in North Dakota.

An inquiry into Custer's Last Stand was also finally wrapping up, and immediate history was kinder to the losing general than the future would be. An article about Custer's untouched office in his Michigan home began:

"The former home of the gallant but ill-fated Custer, where now reside his venerable parents and only sister who was widowed by the same terrible tragedy at the Little Big Horn, which extinguished the light in many a bright home on that terrible June day in 1876. . . ."

The presence of the past was in evidence in a story about Jefferson Davis. When the former president of the Confederacy considered running for the Senate in Mississippi, The Inquirer noted: "As a means of pacifying the few people in the North who still honor him by despising him for treason, he declares that he is not a monster, but is just like other men, that the war would have been fought without him and the outcome would have been similar."

And news that someone had tried to kill the actor Edwin Booth during a play in Chicago was played on the front page under the headline "Attempt to assassinate the great tragedian." Nowhere did the article say that Edwin was the older sibling of John Wilkes Booth, who had slain a president.

In the 50th-year essay, The Inquirer noted that many of the businesses that had advertised in that long-ago issue were now themselves gone. It also wondered how history would view its efforts.

"Perhaps," it mused, "those who go over the files of papers of the present day a half century hence will find as much to contrast, and it may be that our business, political and social ways and habits may at that day in the future seem to those who make the comparisons to have been quite peculiar."