Philadelphia is turning 333 this year. In those 333 years, we’ve managed to maintain the same high level of quirky character. We’ve been here to document governmental, industrial and civil revolutions – and through it all, Philadelphians have always made their voices heard.
Seriously, our city is brimming with oddities – from 18th century ads authored by grapegrowers to contemporary trolls terrorizing comment sections. All it takes is a simple surf through digital stacks to realize that Philadelphia might never stop producing novelty Americana – whether the year is 1682 or 2015.
The “Stupendous” Camelopard (1838)
In 1838, the “greatest wonder of the animal kingdom,” was the elusive camelopard – or, as modern scholars have taken to calling the beast, a giraffe. This ad describes the giraffe, AKA the clumsiest animal in the world, as “the most agile of the gazelle species.” Sorry, gazelles.
This particular giraffe was exhibited on 10th and Chestnut for 12 days, 12 hours a day. What they did with the giraffe at night is anybody’s guess. Considering the zoo didn’t open its gates for another 36 years, Philadelphians who longed to see animals other than squirrels and cats had to wait for oddities like the camelopard to come to town.
Modern equivalent: You can catch local camelopards Gus, Stella and Abigail at the zoo or even on the YouTube.
Voice of the Prophet (1863)
Behold, the written religious babblings of a street corner preacher. He begs readers to ponder the eternal existential question, “Why are we not happy?” You know why we’re not happy? Maybe because it’s 1863 and we’re all trying to forget how easy it is to die from the flu. Plus, there’s a civil war happening.
Actually, this “prophet” has some interesting thoughts on the war. His two cents: “What the Pale Faces of the North! ought to say to the Pale Faces of the South: – We the Pale Faces of the North! and you Pale Faces of the South! have BOTH done enough to Damn our Souls!” How…reflexive.
Modern equivalent: Philly Jesus.
“Buy my grapes, they’re authentic I swear!” (1797)
Vitis Gallo-Americana was, presumably, an Italian immigrant who just wanted to be American (hence his second last name). And that’s totally fine – even respectable. But when it came to Vitis’ grapes, Philly was a bit suspicious. It must have driven Vitis mad, because he was driven to writing this missive about his grapes.
In the ad, Vitis explains how he will be selling his grapes on Market between 3rd and 4th. They may have been transplanted from Europe, but they are now “truly American.” Also, they’re nutritious, or as Vitis so delicately puts it, rich in “burning and putrid Fevers.” Vitis’ putrid grapes, everyone!
Modern equivalent: Any street vendor on Market selling “authentic” goods.
“Hey John, we’re just gonna go ahead and publish these notes.” (?)
“Questions: Asked and Answered” is an undated instructional pamphlet from the Inquirer. This isn’t as weird as it is awesome. It’s essentially a guide for applying the Socratic method to journalism. Really, it’s a word of warning for those who readily accept any answer they’re given.
Still, it’s fun to imagine an old-timey Inquirer reporter rushing to file his first story on his first day on the job. But it was stolen by the newsroom bully, so the reporter scribbled down an angry internal dialogue where he’s the hotshot interrogator and the “government” is actually the bully. And his editor published it.
Modern equivalent: The Twitter feed of any Philly journalist.
There’s gold in them hills! (1849)
This piece of literature was written by a group of brave Philadelphians declaring the formation of their new association. What kind of association were they forming, you might ask? An association of Philadelphians who would leave their homes for California to mine for gold.
“The Association shall be called the Philadelphia and California Enterprise Association,” the document reads. What, you thought Philadelphians were exempt from the temptations of the Gold Rush? These guys weren’t messin’ around. Their declaration makes it clear that if you get caught drunk, all your gold goes to the Association. These were serious 19th century entrepreneurs.
Modern equivalent: Maybe all those contemporary entrepreneurs who have decided to take their ventures and skip town.
Letter to the Editor (1864)
The Age was a 19th century Philadelphia newspaper that was perpetually in and out of production. Here, we have a letter to the editor of The Age from American businessman George Francis Train (no lie, he organized railroads).
Outspoken about his desire to be a dictator, Train eventually ran for president in 1872. That was before he was arrested and tossed into an insane asylum, and before he moved to England and referred to himself as “Citizen Train.” It’s all evident in the letter, which he begins with “the age of treason has arrived” and finishes the sucker off with “I am willing to accept your apology.”
Modern equivalent: Philly.com comments.
Who Gets the Family Bible? (1801)
For just seven measly bucks in early 19th century Philadelphia, one lucky citizen could go home with an “Elegant Family Bible.” The ad describes everything the book contains and – you guessed it – this Bible boasts the kind of Biblical features you’d expect any ol’ Bible to have. Except, this Bible comes with pictures.
Modern equivalent: This Craigslist ad for a Bible.