Street sweeping in Philly: A history of the city’s efforts to keep itself clean

Philadelphia is the only major city in the U.S. without a street sweeping program.

An Elgin motor sweeper in Philadelphia, 1917

An Elgin motor sweeper in Philadelphia, 1917

Philadelphia Dept. of Records
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For 12 years, Philadelphia held the title of “National Cleanest Town.”

Do a double- or a triple-take at the above sentence if you need to, but this shocker is true: From 1947 to 1959, that title was bestowed upon Philly by the National Clean Up and Paint Up Bureau.

One look at the city’s streets today lets you know that distinction is no longer applicable. The trash and litter are so prevalent — albeit worse in some neighborhoods than others — that the moniker of “Philthadelphia” is commonly tossed around. A good portion of fault can be traced to one simple fact:

Philadelphia is the only major city in the United States without a street sweeping program.

That wasn’t always the case, however. The idea that a city should mandate sanitation was conceived here (of course), and though Philadelphia wasn’t the first to implement organized municipal street cleaning, the city did have it for decades.

What happened? In light of several recent pushes to bring the service back — and the everyday condition of our sidewalks — here’s a brief history of street sweeping in Philly.

Trash piling up in the Sharswood neighborhood of North Philly

Trash piling up in the Sharswood neighborhood of North Philly

Paige Gross / Billy Penn

18th century: Franklin’s efforts and a revolution

Benjamin Franklin is credited with founding a plethora of civic organizations, including the nation’s first hospital, first public library, first mutual insurance company, first liberal arts academy and first volunteer fire department.

He’s also the Founding Father of public trash collection programs, according to West Virginia University historian and professor emeritus A. Michal McMahon.

In “Small Matters”: Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, and the “Progress of Cities,” McMahon notes that Franklin was bemoaning the state of the emerging colonial town-cities as early as 1751, warning against overpopulation and over manufacturing, and recognizing the correlation between disease and environment.

Per Penn prof Kathleen Brown, 18th-century diarists from Philadelphia wrote that during rainstorms, it was especially challenging to navigate the streets due to all of the mud, dead animals, rotting vegetables and the content of chamber pots. Yuck.

In 1762, Franklin boldly proposed an act that would take seven years to finalize and pass in Philadelphia. The statute delineates the need to prioritize cleaning and paving streets, alleys, and sidewalks; suggests a program to expand the storm-water drainage system; plans a system of scavengers and requirements for removing sweepings, ash, shavings and manure from the city; and implements a tax and fee schedule to fund the attempt to bring order to the urban environment.

Upon implementation, Franklin’s vision of technology and systematic infrastructure as a solution to the city’s sanitation problem was a success, per McMahon. However, the chaos caused by the American Revolution regressed Philadelphia back to a state of disarray.

19th century: Political bosses take over

In the mid-19th century, Philadelphia underwent a significant change that further exacerbated its inability to manage waste piling on the streets.

The consolidation of county and city in 1854 geographically and demographically expanded the City of Philadelphia proper. With this growth — along with the turmoil of the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution — came the proliferation of more muck and rubbish on the streets, which posed a severe public health crisis.

Philadelphia turned to her northern neighbor for guidance.

The nation’s first municipal street cleaning department — which initiated and oversaw organized street sweeping — was established by Colonel George E. Warring in New York City in the mid-1890s. As a pioneer of the sanitation movement in the U.S., Warring was one of the country’s strongest proponents of normalizing standard flush toilets, creating comprehensive sewage systems and renovating garbage-collecting procedures in every municipality.

“Informal street cleaning had been done in big cities previous to this,” said Francis Ryan, director of Rutgers’ Labor and Employment Relations program, “but Warring’s initiative was unique because it employed street sweepers full time as city employees.”

Most of the cleaners were older men unable to work in the city’s manufacturing or heavy transport sectors. Warring’s new department clothed these men in white coveralls. Due to their look, they were dubbed “The White Wings.” (Note: women were explicitly forbidden from being hired for these jobs.)

A 'Cleanup Week' parade in 1914

A 'Cleanup Week' parade in 1914

Philadelphia Dept. of Records

Philadelphia modeled its first Street Cleaning Bureau after this New York experiment, and also adopted the White Wings look, Ryan said. Unlike NYC, however, Philly’s street cleaners were hired by independent contractors, many of whom were also political bosses in Philadelphia’s Republican Party machine.

The most famous of these contractor bosses were the South Philadelphia Vare Brothers, a trio who dominated street cleaning enterprises and garbage collection routes.

20th century: Thank the women

By 1900, Philadelphia had a population of over a million, and the sheer amount of waste generated demanded new kinds of services.

“Remember also that horses were the main source of commerce transport over ground,” said Ryan, the Rutgers professor, “and tons of horse manure accumulated on streets around the city.”

Across the country, a women-led movement for better public health led to multiple “sanitation parades” across the U.S. Though it was considered inappropriate for women to be involved in politics in this era, trash was considered an “extension of the household,” — like temperance and the prevention of cruelty to children and animals — so it was an “acceptable” issue for women to get riled up about.

The public activism and organizing of women in Philadelphia led to the city municipalizing its street cleaning and trash collection services in 1922, said Maurice Sampson II, director of Clean Water Action for Eastern Pennsylvania.

The Department of Public Works oversaw the Street Cleaning Bureau, which employed about 5,000 street cleaners, trash cart drivers and laborers. Most of these street cleaners, Ryan noted, were recent Italian immigrants and African American migrants who came to the city in search of a better life. “Discrimination led them to turn to the municipal state as a means of economic survival, taking these difficult and dirty jobs,” he said.

Street sweepers post for a photo op with politicians

Street sweepers post for a photo op with politicians

Philadelphia Dept. of Records

Though the city meant well, certain garbage collection systems were only worsening the litter problem, thereby rendering street sweeping efforts futile.

Per Ryan, some trash collection routes were serviced by horse-drawn wagons all the up through the 1950s in some parts of the city. And while some modern trucks with covered backs had been purchased by Philadelphia as early as the 1920s, most trucks in service were open backed — which allowed ample spilling along the way. So, horse manure and “collected” trash ending up back on the streets.

Maurice Sampson II, the Eastern Pennsylvania Director of Clean Water Action, is not entirely sure when or where the term “Philthadelphia” (or “Filthydelphia”) was first coined, but he does believe that it was likely a newspaper reporter who came up with the lackluster nickname during the 1930s.

Swedish immigrant and community activist Sigrid Craig is quoted in 1936 stating that she was tired of hearing the term applied to her adopted home. She started a one-woman crusade to clean up Philadelphia and approached local government officials about initiating programs to clean up the community.

In 1938, the city — along with Craig and volunteers from her Better Philadelphia Committee — developed the Clean Block Program. Program participants were identified as “Block Captains,” who were responsible for encouraging residents of their designated block to heed and maintain beautification and sanitation efforts. By the 1950s, Craig’s program evolved into the “Clean-up, Paint-up, Fix-up” campaign, which led to the implementation of a police sanitation unit in 1954 with a focus on neighborhoods.

The Philadelphia Streets Department was formed in 1952. The department’s outreach efforts included teaching residents the proper ways to put trash out on the curb and reminding people to use public trash cans. Sampson noted that this wasn’t initially fruitful, given that trash bags only began to be commonly utilized in the 1970s.

In 1965, in conjunction with the national beautification movement espoused by the Johnson Administration, Mayor James Tate formalized the partnership between Craig’s campaign and the Clean Block Program and renamed it the “Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee” (PMBC). Tate inducted Craig as chairperson of the 75-member group he enrolled to oversee the program and provided City Hall offices for its operation and a paid five-person staff. (That program remains in place to this day.)

Street sweeping and other city cleanliness initiatives and services began to take a nosedive when Frank Rizzo was mayor from 1972 to 1980. Per Ryan and Sampson, cutbacks in federal funding to municipalities beginning led to subsequent cutbacks in street cleaning services.

These led to clear consequences for how the city was able to deliver these essential health programs in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Today: Parking concerns rule

By John F. Street’s first mayoral term in the early 2000s, the Streets Department had gotten rid of a street sweeping unit. Why? According to Sampson of Clean Water Action, complaints from residents not wanting to move their parked cars to alternate locations during street sweeping days combined with budget issues.

Some, including Jon Geeting of the Phila 3.0 PAC, believe that former councilman Frank DiCicco’s influence on Street may have put the final nail in the street sweeping coffin since most of the “alternate parking” complaints seem to have come from residents of what was then DiCicco’s First District.

What do some of the experts that Billy Penn reached out to think the city should do to deal with its sanitation troubles?

Sampson thinks that we need to conduct a neighborhood-based, integrated solid waste management plan that takes into account waste generation and waste collection. This comprehensive plan should include recycling, composting and disposal — as well as litter management via street sweeping and other “tools”. “We must also take into account public policy which addresses the very real issues that address the overproduction of plastics and it affects on our health and environment,” Sampson said.

Ryan believes that instead of channeling tax monies to corporations, “we should prioritize human needs and improving the quality of life in our urban neighborhoods.” He specified street sweeping as a proven way to keep areas of the city clean that need it most — such as business districts and corridors.

When Mayor Kenney was campaigning, he made the promise to bring back street sweeping, something that Phila 3.0’s Geeting often writes about, along with other perceived shortfalls of the mayor’s “Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet.” The way Geeting sees it, street sweeping advocates come in “two flavors”: Team Machine and Team Broom-and-Bags. Geeting is in the former camp. His organization recently released a petition that calls for the mayor to bring back street sweeping and purchase street sweeping machines.

Whether the mayor or City Council decides to address the issue remains to be seen.