First Half 18th Century
Sometimes a building's absence
is more important than its
presence. William Penn
envisioned Philadelphia as a town
of freestanding houses on
generous parcels of land - sort of
like a typical English village. Soon
though, commercial realities hit
and it became obvious that the
land closest to the Delaware River
was very valuable. Those wealthy
enough to be able to buy parcels
found they could add to their wealth
by building smaller homes on the
rear of their parcels for rentals.
After all, in colonial America only about one family in ten
could afford to own a house. The poor and most of the
working classes - the vast majority of the population -
could only afford rental dwellings. Many of the smaller
rental units were built of wood, and some of them survived
into the 1930's, but very few remain today.
These homes were simple boxes with a floor
plan the size of the planter pictured here.
Often they were only two stories high with a
ladder or a tiny winding stair. Each floor
usually had only one room, with the family
sleeping on the second floor and doing
everything else on the first floor; including, for
some craftsmen, making and selling wares.
While these arrangements seem a little
shocking by modern standards, they were no
worse and maybe better, than what were
available in most English urban areas at the
What was a problem throughout the west was
increasing living density before public
sanitation had a chance to catch up. Wells
were the principle source of water and out
houses were often dangerously close to them.
Combine this lack of sanitation and a very
active port with a strong trade to the tropics,
and you have ideal conditions for frequent
epidemics which killed thousands on a
regular basis. It wouldn't be until the
mid-1800s that Philadelphia would get its first
public water supply and public sewers.
This small brick planter is a
reminder that most of society
lived humbly with few