Elfreth's Alley - the Oldest Street

Elfreth's Alley is the oldest street in Philadelphia where people have lived continuously since it was first constructed.  Many of the homes are historic landmarks because they still have 80% or more of the original work in the house - walls, floors, etc.  Let's take a leisurely stroll down the street and learn a bit more about the history of this treasured street.

historic marker on homes

as you enter the street, note the basement doors

car driving down the Alley

original shutters and doors.

Look at the original hinges

Even you can live in a historic home

colorful shutters

do you see the flag?

a store you can visit in one of the buildings

original brick and plaster

the room was barely big enough to walk through

rear of the house from the garden

connected to the house next door

beautiful home in the middle of the street
So, now you have had a picturesque tour - let's talk a bit about the famous street.  Built in 1702 by two men who shared the land, they wanted an alley to connect their shops. The cobblestones, which are not orignal, are sloped toward the center to carry water run off from the houses down to the Delaware River. Back in the 1700s, old water and waste was tossed out the windows into the street below.  If the street did not slope away from the homes, the stench would fill the street and make it unbearable to live there.

If you look carefully at the homes you will see an ingenious invention - it looks like an old stand for an absentee satellite dish, but it's quite clever.  If the lady of the house was upstairs sewing by her window but behind a lace curtain, she could look at the mirror and see below who was knocking at her door without even getting up.  It was a "mother-in-law" and I am sure you can guess why! It also allowed ladies to keep up on the gossip.  They could peer into this mirror and see down the entire length of the street.  They knew who was visiting whom and worse - when they left!  Be careful or you could be the next topic at dinner.

There are 32 houses on Elfreth's Alley all built between 1728 and 1836.  One of them is only 9 1/2 feet wide!  That's it! Imagine a house that is so tiny, the width is smaller than most bedrooms our children sleep in.  More than 3.000 people lived in these homes over the past 300 years. At first, artisans lived and worked here.Many of the residents would go to Christ Church to pray. A former slave - Cophie Douglass started his new life as a free man here. During the Industrial Revolution, immigrants moved here to live and work.

The alley is named after Jeremiah Elfreth, a blacksmith who resided there. The homes are mostly Georgian or Federal style homes.  What is Georgian?  A Georgian home means it was built during the time of the Kings George I, II, III  and IV of England. This time period lasted from 1714-1830. The Federalist period refers to the time of our country's beginning.  If you ask a patriot his affiliation, he will not say Republican or Democrat but Federalist! This time period ran from 1789-1801.  This is actually the time George Washington was president.  Thomas Jefferson was a founder of the Republican/Democratic party in 1792.

As with many historic homes and sites, many feel into disuse or crumbled apart as years past.. People did not start to think about restoring them or preserving them until around the 1930s. In this case, the Elfreth's Alley Association was formed to preserve the alley and all it's historic elements.

A wonderful element of Elfreth's Alley as well as the rest of Philadelphia are the Once Upon a Nation storytellers.  Just at the mouth of Elfreth's Alley is one of these spots.  A young man named Joe told us a great story of Revolutionary history that took place right here! I am sure I cannot do it justice, but if you want to look up the story - there is a book which you can order and read to your children or classroom.  The book is called Patriots, Pirates, Heroes, and Spies. 

Righty and Lefty on an old cart

The story is called "the Battle of the Kegs".  General Howe thought he could capture Philadelphia and end the war. In order to do this, he would have to travel past Fort Mifflin on Mud Island which was in the middle of the Delaware River. There were two problems with this plan - one - the colonial troops on the island and two - the chevaux de frises which were stuck into the river banks that would rip apart a ship's hull. The British did manage to capture the fort but General Washington had a plan. He asked David Bushnell for help. David was an inventor and created kegs filled with gunpowder that would explode when they collided with the British ships. Imagine the surprise of the British to find out they were under attack by kegs!

So, how is Elfreth's Alley part of this? Well, when we visited there, Joe told the story and we used the lovely alley to illustrate how the kegs were filled and then rolled down the street toward the Delaware River! Joe was a great storyteller and I hope when I read the story to my students I do him and the story justice (there's lots of kabooms! and action when it's told properly!)

here is where we met Joe the storyteller

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