"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. ….. The
Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct
churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals,
prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the
encouragement of a great example, they form a society." - Alexis de Tocqueville
We often take institutions for granted in our daily life. They operate in the background of
our world, providing us with entertainment, knowledge, fellowship, and for some people,
the very basics like food and shelter and medical assistance. A vibrant set of
institutions can be one of the distinguishing features of human society. The town has
more, and more varied institutions than the village, and the city has more, and more
varied institutions than the town. This has been especially true in the United States from
the beginning as was noticed by de Tocqueville.
Philadelphia led the way. From the very beginning, some of its citizens had the wealth,
the education and the commitment, to create lasting institutions that would profoundly
change both it and the nation as a whole. Benjamin Franklin was, it seems a one man
institution generator, creating societies to fight fires, lend books, debate public issues,
support scientific research and provide citizens with insurance. It's noteworthy that he
usually sought out men from all classes to associate with and receive ideas from.
Library Hall, Philadelphia
After an institution was founded, members often began a drive to build a building to house it,
but these institutional buildings served a political as well as practical function. These buildings
became the public face of these institutions and announced their importance to the broader
Fortunately a significant number of these buildings have survived from the 18th and 19th
centuries including Carpenters Hall, Independence Hall, American Philosophical Society Hall
and the Philadelphia Athenaeum.
Their founders took great pride in these institutions and the architecture often reflected it.
These buildings are among the most beautiful representatives of the styles of architecture
being used during these years. Sometimes, like Independence Hall , their very size makes the
building noteworthy, Other times the buildings are relatively small like Carpenters Hall but their
distinction lies in beautifully designed and executed work of the highest technical quality. If
institutions are one of the key ways we measure a society, then these buildings say a lot of
good things about Philadelphia in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia