SOCIETY HILL. Where the past meets the present. You are now walking down streets laid out over three centuries ago. In the 18th century you might have crossed paths with Benjamin Franklin, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. President James Madison's house still stands on Spruce Street.
The Founding of the Colony. The founding of Pennsylvania in 1682 by Quaker visionary William Penn was a "Holy Experiment." Its capital city of Philadelphia was a place where political, ideological and religious differences would be overcome by "brotherly love," where all people would prosper from its excellent location between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, providing easy access to forests, farmland and the Atlantic Ocean.
Free Society of Traders. In the same year the colony was founded, over 200 of Penn's financial backers in London, anxious to promote trade and commerce between the new colony and England, formed the Free Society of Traders. The Society proceeded to establish a glass works, a tannery, saw and grist mills, a brick kiln and a fishery that actually caught whales in the Delaware Bay. Half a block away, "uphill" from the Delaware, stood the Society's trading house. Thus the area became known as "the Society's hill."
The London-based Society, however, faced strong economic competition from Philadelphia's local merchants and traders. By 1723 the Society of Traders had failed—leaving onlyits name, "SocietyHill," which continued to identifythe communitythroughout the 18thcentury.
18th-Century Philadelphia. At the time of the RevolutionaryWar Philadelphia was America's largest and most cosmopolitancity. Settlementstretched along the Delaware River from north of Vine Street to below South Street in the Southwark District. [See "Queen Village" sign at the other end of this structure at Lombard Street.]
In the 19th Century. Until the mid-19thcentury Philadelphia's maritime economy contributed to its stability. Then the new world of rail transportation shifted its commercial and business interests westward, away from the river. Residents, too, moved west to newer city neighborhoods or to new suburbancommunitiesaccessible bycommuterrailways. Inan era whenthe historic orarchitecturalsignificanceof the City'scolonial build-ings wasyet to be recognized, many of the area's old buildings were converted to warehouses,wholesale establishments and small businesses.Others remained residences or were adaptedfor boarding houses, often providing shelterfor periodic waves of immigrants to theQuaker City.
Society Hill Today. The creation of Independence National Historical Park in the 1950s sparked a growing interest in Philadelphia's past and brought residents back to the area. Hundreds of historic structures were restored to their original 18th- or 19th-century appearances by private citizens, and many award-winning contemporary houses were built. The newly revitalized neighborhood needed a name. "Society Hill" was chosen to recall its colonial roots.
Society Hill extends west from Front Street to8th Street, and at the north extends from Walnut Street south to Lombard Street.
(sidebar) Cover page of the 1682 Articles of incorporation for the Free Society of Traders from which Society Hill derives its name. It reads "The Articles of Settlement and Offices of the Free Society of Traders in Pennsilvania: Agreed upon by divers Merchants and Others for the better Improvement and Government of Trade in that Province." "London, Printed for Benjamin Clark in George-Tard in Lombard-street, Printer to the Society of Pennsilvania, MDCLXXXII."
THE NEW MARKET AND HEAD HOUSE. This graceful structure, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the oldest colonial markets in America. It is adjacent to what is probably the nation's oldest volunteer firehouse. Built in 1745, the covered colonnaded marketplace was called "the shambles," an old English word meaning "butcher shop or meat stalls." At the north end, a three-story firehouse known as "the Head House" was built in 1805.
The New Market. In an era before refrigeration and supermarkets, open air markets provided vendors a place to sell fresh foods. In colonial Philadelphia, the first publicmarket was located at the east end of High (now Market) Street. In 1745, a "New Market" was started here at Second Street (stretching from Pine to South Street)for the convenience of the growing population in Society Hill and Southwark (now Queen Village).
On market days (Tuesdays and Fridays) shoppers purchased fish, turtles, fresh vegetables and fruits, eggs, turkeys, chickens, veal, mutton, sausage and prepared foods, such as meat and apple pies. Occasionally raccoon, possum, bear-bacon or bear's feet were available. The farmers' wagons arrived the night before, pulling up to stalls along the shambles. Customers walked inside the covered center arcade to make their purchases. On dark days, oil lamps at the ceiling were lit. Vendors continued to sell their goods here into the 20th century.
The Head House. In 1736 Benjamin Franklin began a campaign of fire prevention, urging the establishment of community volunteer fire companies equipped with manually operated pumping engines and large bells to signal fires.
In 1805 the Head House at Pine Street was built, pairing it to an earlier Head House located at the South Street end of the market shambles (demolished about 1860). These two "head houses" contained fire engines and apparatus for the members of three volunteer fire companies: The Fellowship, The Hope and The Southwark Hose Companies. The second floor interiors served as meeting rooms for the firefighters.
Private citizens raised funds for the clock in the gables and the alarm bell in the cupola which rang for fires and announced the opening of market days.
This property, owned by the City of Philadelphia, was saved from demolition and repaired in 1962-63, but was again in need of preservation thirty years later A grassroots citizens' group, The Head House Conservancy, accomplished this in the 1990s.