12 American Stories from Philadelphia’s Historic District - My Family Travels

Philadelphia is one of America’s most fascinating cities for families because every cobblestone and brick reeks of history.

Over a two-day weekend, I was struck by how much we learned about America by just walking in and out of the remarkable museums of the Historic District.

The restored 18th century homes of Elfreth's Alley Philadelphia
Elfreth’s Alley is the oldest continuously inhabited street in the U.S. with 32 Federal and Georgian style homes, dating to the 18th century. Photo c. Ron Bozman/RKR Media

The city’s oldest section, much of it dating to the early 1700s, comprises important landmarks between Front (or 1st Street) and 7th Street, and from Vine to Lombard. Beautifully preserved colonial homes still stand between Front and 2nd Streets, from Chestnut to Walnut Streets, for a closer look.

Before you head out a for a walk, share some of these intriguing stories with your kids.

The Moshulu upper deck bar
The Moshulu, a floating restaurant at Penn’s Landing, has a popular bar on the deck. Photo c. Ron Bozman/RKR Media

1. President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Bolling, claimed to be a descendant of Pocahontas and renamed a four-masted sailing barque Mosholu, which means “one who fears nothing” in the Seneca language. We learned this on that Moshulu, now a restored tall ship moored at Penn’s Landing that serves excellent seafood and steak in a dress-up atmosphere. Their casual upper deck bar is a great place to orient all ages to the city.

2. Samuel Fraunces was a Jamaican-born restauranteur nicknamed “Black Sam.” His popular lower Manhattan place, Fraunces’s Tavern, was a favorite haunt of the Revolutionaries, especially General George Washington. When Washington moved to the new capital of Philadelphia as president, Black Sam came to run the staff and, from 1791-94, they lived together in the Presidents’ House. The house foundation can be seen today at 6th and Market in Independence National Park.

Ice cream scoopers work at Franklin Fountain
Ice cream scoopers work at Franklin Fountain, a contemporary version of a turn of the century soda fountain. Photo c. Ron Bozman/RKR Media

3. The Franklin Fountain has been serving ice cream, floats and house-made sodas since 2004 in a building that is much older. They credit Philadelphian Dr. Philip Syng Physick, considered the “father of American Surgery,” for flavoring the soda water he gave patients and inventing the first soft drink in 1807.

Thomas Jefferson's rented bedroom
A replica of the rented bedroom where Thomas Jefferson did very little sleeping, at Declaration House. Photo c. Ron Bozman/RKR Media

4. Jacob Graff may have been America’s first Airbnb host. He rented two rooms to Thomas Jefferson of Virginia on the top floor of his red brick house in June 1776. Within three weeks, Jefferson had completed writing the Declaration of Independence. Be inspired by the reproduction rooms at Declaration House, 7th and Market Streets.

5. In 1838 at age 13, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper began to educate herself while working as a servant in a Quaker household. She grew up to be a teacher, writer and noted poet yet faced discrimination because she was of African descent. We heard how that realization launched her career as a public speaker, abolitionist, Christian leader and suffragette from a life-size video re-enactor at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.

6. Ben Franklin was the da Vinci of his time. A respected printer from Boston, he also discovered the Gulf Stream, experimented with electricity and was a Founding Father who worked on both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – the latter when he was 81! There is much more to learn at the fascinating Ben Franklin Museum in Franklin Alley.

Display of rowdy members of Revolutionary Army at Museum of the American Revolution
The Revolutionary Army consisted of slaves and colonists from many countries, who often fought each other, as seen at the Museum of the American Revolution. Photo c. Ron Bozman/RKR Media

7. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” These words from the Declaration of Independence, while accepted and ratified by the Continental Congress, caused great anxiety among the Founding Fathers, most of whom were slave holders. Dive deeper into 18th-century morality at the Museum of the American Revolution.

8. The Oneida Nation of Native Americans was loyal to the Revolutionaries’ cause and fought alongside colonists throughout the American Revolution. According to the Museum of the American Revolution, their crucial assistance was given in exchange for having their lands returned, but it never happened.

Foundation of the original President's House, Philadelphia
Foundation of the original President’s House, where POTUS #1 and #2 lived, when Philadelphia was the capital. Photo c. Ron Bozman/RKR Media

9. Martha Washington’s personal slave, Oney Judge, escaped from their Mount Vernon estate and successfully fled to New Hampshire when she heard that she was being given to Martha’s beloved grandchildren. It is one of many stories told through video re-enactments at the President’s House.

10. When President John Adams and his wife Abigail, both abolitionists, moved into the President’s House in Philadelphia, they had no slaves. They employed four servants of both European and African descent and paid wages themselves, as the new United States government would not cover household expenses.

Shane Confectionary hot chocolate maker
Shane Confectionary serves several flavors of hot chocolate in addition to a wide variety of candy. Photo c. Ron Bozman/RKR Media

11. Hot chocolate comes in flights. At the ca. 1911 Shane Confectionary, the nation’s oldest operating chocolatier, roasted cacao beans are pounded by hand and melted over a burner to produce cocoa. You can try several flavors, plus historic buttercreams, at their vintage store on Market and 1st Street.

12. Liberty, and the concept of living life as you choose, has been fought over throughout history, something the National Liberty Museum makes clear. This small museum feels like a Hall of Fame of those who fought for freedom, and shares many powerful lessons for school-age children.

There’s much more to see and do with the family in Philadelphia. While some attractions are free or low-cost, a Philadelphia CityPASS provides discounted admission to the top places, both inside and outside the Historic District. For more information and current hotel packages, please go to VisitPhilly.com.

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