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Philadelphia is again working on instituting a comprehensive street sweeping program. It’s been the only major city without one for two decades, helping inspire the moniker “Filthadelphia.” But that wasn’t always the case.
More than a century ago, Philly staged a public cleanup effort so robust it was considered “a model” for other cities.
Right around this time of year in 1914, the city’s streets were likely looking relatively spiffy. April 20 to 25 had been designated the first “Help Us Clean Up Philadelphia” week, with officials running a major awareness campaign encouraging all 1.5 million residents to assist.
A man named William H. Connell was leading the charge, according to a report at the time from The Spectator, a weekly newsletter on American insurance companies published by The Spectator Company in New York.
At the time, Connell was the chief of the Bureau of Highways and Street Cleaning, where he spent two years planning a massive public awareness campaign. He got buy-in from private businesses, public utilities, schools, and transit to help spread the word.
For example, Connell personally signed and distributed 3,400 letters to places that sold cleaning supplies, asking them to advertise the citywide cleaning week. He posted placards in 3,200 trolley cars, pasted 7,500 signs on the sides of wagons, and enlisted phone and electric companies to slap stickers on all their mail.
School children were given blue and yellow pins, with 100,000 of them distributed, and then-Superintendent Dr. Brumbaugh reportedly allowed 165k kids to skip class so they could participate.
The “moving picture” houses showed slides about the week-long effort before shows. At least 260,000 bulletins were distributed via Philly police. And Connell enlisted a The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of New York to distribute 200k circulars to its clients, which read:
“We request every policyholder to fall in line with this great movement and to cooperate with the city officials in cleaning up the city. Tell your neighbors about it. Spread the news. Give us suggestions. But first of all clean up your own premises.”
The whole event “exceeded expectations,” The Spectator reported.
After 100,000 cubic yards of trash were collected and removed from Philadelphia streets, the news spread — even traveling as far as a town in British Columbia, Canada, where the Nelson Daily News called the event “a miracle of modern times.”
Over the past century, the city has fluctuated in cleanliness. Philly municipalized street cleaning and trash collection services in 1922, hiring about 5,000 street cleaners, trash cart drivers and laborers — mostly Italian immigrants and Black migrants.
From 1947 to 1959, Philly was named “National Cleanest Town” by the National Clean Up and Paint Up Bureau. When the Philadelphia Streets Department was formed, residents began to be allowed to put trash on the curb, and public trash cans were added.
In the early 2000s, thanks in part to complaints about parking, street sweeping disappeared entirely. In 2008, Philadelphia put resident volunteers back on the task, with the annual spring cleanup that’s part of the nationwide Keep America Beautiful Day.
Current city government has made a couple of attempts to bring back institutionalized cleaning.
Two years ago, Philly tried implementing a weird leaf blower/street sweeper hybrid program that was not successful. Now it looks like the truck part might return; Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed budget allocates $62 million to revive street sweeping.
Meanwhile, the “Help Us Clean Up Philadelphia” pin first given to schoolchildren in 1914 is still being sold by auctioneers.
“If any reader in another city shall become interested in the good example Philadelphia has set in this matter,” wrote The Spectator of the project, “there is no doubt that any particulars desired for local use will be cheerfully furnished to city officials anywhere.”