Elfreth's Alley is a common tourist destination, but people live there, too. (Nathaniel Hamilton/WHYY)

Making your home on Elfreth’s Alley takes “living history” to a new level.

On one of oldest continuously residential streets in the nation, residents can be drawn into the past without even trying. 

Take Rob and Susan Kettell, who moved onto the block in 1975, and have lived there longer than any other resident. They found an actual spinning wheel in their three-story home — and have no idea how it got there. 

Susan Poulton is one of the newer residents. Since 2021, she has lived on the little alley behind the alley, Bladen’s Court, which features three Georgian-style homes. While searching her attic one day, she found a pair of shoes that she believes dates back to the 1850s.

That would be a century and a half after people began living on the street, a date historians peg to 1702. It was named for resident Jeremiah Elsreth (know how those old s’s looked like f’s?), a blacksmith who purchased several homes on the block, which he rented out. Being close to the Delaware River, sailors and workers with jobs related to shipping resided there. 

In modern times, the street is convenient to other industries. When the Kettells arrived in Philadelphia from California, Rob was entering grad school at Penn and Susan was to teach in Burlington County, across the river. Elfreth’s Alley was right in between. They raised two daughters there, and added an addition with a modern kitchen. The dining room floor is still the original wood used when the home was built in 1797.

You might be able to see it if you choose the right day to visit. In 1934, the Elfreth’s Alley Association (EAA), began an event called “Fete Day,” held each June, during which residents opened their homes to visitors. One aim was to save the street from the fate of structures such as Ben Franklin’s home on Market Street, which had been demolished in the 1800s. 

Fete Day still happens annually, and the residents also host “Deck the Alley” each December. Both dates are fundraisers; the EAA purchased two adjoining homes and converted them into a museum, complete with authentic furnishings.

Elfreth’s Alley is a common tourist destination, but people live there, too. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Elfreth’s Alley was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1956. But that doesn’t mean it is actually the oldest of its kind.

“Despite the various interpretations found online — the claim is that it’s the oldest continuously residential street — I don’t have any specific documentation or report that identifies Elfreth’s Alley with that title,” said Emily Schricker, current EAA president.

“That claim is not what we base our museum or current interpretation on,” she added. “We work to tell the stories of the working class residents that helped build our city and our country. People come to see the Alley because it is a beautiful collection of well preserved, early American architecture that allows them to step back in time and be surrounded by history. Our goal is to also educate them on the amazing people that have lived on the street.”

Those currently living on this historic venue embrace their connection to the past.

“Living on the oldest residential street in the country is a unique experience,” said Poulton, now two years into owning her home. “It’s fun that when working in the front yard, I’m actually helping to caretake a National Historic Landmark.”

The Elfreth’s Alley historical marker. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

What Susan Kettell enjoys most about living on the block is the opportunity to share its history. 

“You meet people from all over the world,” she said. “I just had people in my house from Poland in my house today.” She also recently had visitors from Cincinnati. “We’re so glad to share it … and meeting people from all over the world is really remarkable, which is one of the reasons why I invite people in all the time from off the street. It’s a gift [for] us to give.”

Talking with the group from Poland, Kettell learned they were worried about Russia “coming close to their country.” They exchanged addresses, she said, and one woman was crying when she left.

“You just don’t realize inviting someone into your home means a lot to people, and you’re not charging them any money,” Kettell said. “It’s like, come here and share what I have in terms of our city, and people are like, ‘Oh, this is the highlight of my trip.’” 

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the “alley behind the alley” where Poulton lives. Also, that block has homes in the Georgian style, not Tudor style, according to the Elfreth’s Alley Association chair emeritus.