Living History in Philadelphia's Old City Neighborhood
Elfreth's Alley is considered the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the United States, according to Elfreth's Alley Association, a local preservation group. The street squeezes 32 Federal- and Georgian-style houses onto one cobblestone city block. (Of the 32, 29 are still private homes, so please be respectful of their properties.)
The alley traces its origins to the early 1700s when landowners Arthur Wells and John Gilbert combined their properties between Front and Second streets to create the passageway. During that period, it was typical for tradesmen to work out of the first floor of their homes, and the street was named after silversmith Jeremiah Elfreth in 1706.
The newest home on the street dates to 1836. By the late 1800s, the character of Elfreth's Alley had changed in the wake of the city's industrialization. Gone were the tradespeople working out of their homes. Instead, the buildings were stuffed with factory workers, usually more than one family per dwelling.
About midway down the alley is the Museum House, which is open Thursday through Sunday during the summer months. The museum is at 124-126 Elfreth's Alley, in buildings which were once the homes of dressmakers, and has been restored to a colonial-era appearance inside.
The cost is very inexpensive—$3 for adults and $2 for children. Walking through the museum really gives you a sense of how tiny these homes are inside. There are also guided tours of the alley available through the museum, but we didn't take one.
Three-quarters of the way down the alley there is a very tiny side walkway to an intimate courtyard known as Bladen’s Court. This was created between 1749 and 1752 by two neighbors who wanted access to their backyards. The men, who were brothers-in-law, ended up on opposite sides during the American Revolution. William Rush sided with the patriots, and Abraham Carlisle with the British. Carlisle ended up being hanged in 1778 for collaborating with the British during their occupation of the City. (The courtyard, by the way, is named after a biscuit maker named William Bladen who lived there years later).
Bladen's Court is the home of one of Philadelphia's 13 storytelling benches in and around the city's Independence National Historic Park. Storytellers who relate tales of the colonial period every few minutes are located at each bench. This is a great summertime experience for tourists.
Elfreth's Alley, in the Heart of Philadelphia
Elfreth’s Alley was designated a National Historic Landmark on Oct. 15, 1966. It was even featured in a panel of the Family Circus comic strip in 1984!
The July day we visited the alley had a good number of tourists. The Elfreth’s Alley Association holds several events during the year to promote an understanding of what life was like during the colonial period. In June there is "Fete Day," designed to celebrate the ethnic diversity of the alley's residents from across the centuries. One highlight is "Deck The Alley," an annual December tradition in which residents deck their homes with holiday decorations and welcome visitors with caroling.
Because it was designed to be a cart path to the nearby Delaware River, Elfreth’s Alley is too narrow for modern-day cars, so it is safe for tourists to wander down and linger. It has its own traffic light at one end so pedestrians can easily cross the street to it. The alley is located only a few blocks from Independence Hall, so if you are visiting Philadelphia for a weekend of history it's worth checking out.
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