Our Philadelphia/Chapter 9
CHAPTER IX: THE FIRST AWAKENING
I HAD been out, I do not remember how long, but long enough to confirm my belief in the Philadelphia way of doing things as the only way, when I found that Philadelphia was involved in an enterprise for which its history might give the reason but could furnish no precedent. To Philadelphians who were older than I, or who had been in Philadelphia while I was getting through the business of education at the Convent, the Centennial Exposition probably did not come as so great a surprise. Having since had experience of how these matters are ordered, I can understand that there must have been some years of leading up to it. But I seem to have heard of it first within no time of its opening, and just as I had got used to the idea that Philadelphia must go on for ever doing things as it always had done them, because to do them otherwise would not be right or proper.
The result was that, at the moment, I saw in the Centennial chiefly a violent upheaval shaking the universe to the foundations, with Philadelphia emerging, changed, transformed, unrecognizable, plunging head-foremost into new-fangled amusements, adding new duties to the Philadelphian's once all-sufficing duty of being a Philadelphian, inventing new attractions to draw to its drowsy streets people from the four quarters of the globe, and, more astounding, giving itself up to these innovations with zest.I looked on at the preparations,—as at most things, to my infinite boredom,—from outside: a perspective from which they appeared to me little more than a new form of social diversion. For they kept my gayer friends, who were well on the inside, busy going to Centennial balls at the Academy of Music in the Colonial dress which was as essential for admission as a Colonial name or a Colonial family tree, while I stayed at home and, seeing what lovely creatures powder and patches and paniers made of Philadelphia girls with no more pretence to good looks than I, felt a little as I did when the coloured dignitary rang at our front door with the Assembly card that was not for me. And between the balls, the same friends were immersed in Centennial Societies and Centennial Committees and Centennial Meetings and Centennial Subscriptions and Centennial Petitions, Philadelphia women for the first time admitted, and pining for admission, into public affairs; while I was so far apart from it all that I remember but one incident in connection with the Centennial orgy of work, and this as trivial as could be. When we moved into the Third Street house we had found in possession a cat who left us in no doubt of her disapproval of our intrusion, but who tolerated us because of the convenience of the ground floor windows from which to watch for her enemies among the dogs of the neighbourhood, and for the comfort of certain cupboards upstairs during the infancy
INDEPENDENCE HALL: THE ORIGINAL DESK ON WHICH THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE WAS SIGNED AND THE CHAIR USED BY THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS, JOHN HANCOCK, IN 1776
(BOTH ON PLATFORM)
of her kittens. She kept us at a respectful distance and we never ventured upon any liberties with her. Those of our friends who did, heedless of her growls, were sure to regret it. Our family doctor carried the marks of her teeth on his hand for many a day. It happened that once, when two Centennial canvassers called, she was the first to greet them and was unfavourably impressed by the voluminous furs in which they were wrapped. When I came downstairs she was holding the hall, her eyes flaming, her tail five times its natural size, and I understood the prudence of non-interference. The canvassers had retreated to the vestibule between the two front doors and, as I opened the inner door, another glance at the flaming eyes and indignant tail completed their defeat and they fled without explaining the object of their visit. I must indeed have been removed from the Centennial delirium and turmoil to have retained this absurd encounter as one of my most vivid memories.
Upon the Centennial itself I looked at closer quarters. I was as removed from it officially, but not quite so penniless and friendless as never to have the chance to visit it. Inexperienced and untravelled as I was, it opened for me vistas hitherto undreamed of and stirred my interest as nothing in Philadelphia had until then. As I recall it, that long summer is, as it was at the time, a bewildering jumble of first impressions and revelations—Philadelphia all chaos and confusion, functions and formalities, spectacles and sensations—buildings Philadelphia could not have conceived of in its sanity covering acres of its beautiful Park, a whole shanty town of huge hotels and cheap restaurants and side-shows sprung up on its outskirts—marvels in the buildings, amazing, foreign, unbelievable marvels, the Arabian Nights rolled into one—interminable drives in horribly crowded street-cars to reach them—lunches of Vienna rolls and Vienna coffee in Vienna cafes, as unlike Jones's on Eleventh Street or Burns's on Fifteenth as I could imagine—dinners in French restaurants that, after Belmont and Strawberry Mansion, struck me as typically Parisian though I do not suppose they were Parisian in the least—the flaring and glaring of millions of gas lamps under Philadelphia's tranquil skies—a delightful feeling of triumph that Philadelphia was the first American town to do what London had done, what Paris had done, and to do it so splendidly—burning heat, Philadelphia apparently bent on proving to the unhappy visitor what the native knew too well, that, when it has a mind to, it can be the most intolerably hot place in the world—sweltering, demoralized crowds—unexpected descents upon a household as quiet as ours of friends not seen for years and relations never heard of—brilliant autumn days—an atmosphere of activity, excitement and exultation that made it good to be alive and in the midst of Centennial celebrations without bothering to seek in them a more serious end than a season's amusement.
PHILADELPHIA FROM BELMONT
But, without bothering, I could not escape a dim perception that Philadelphia had not turned itself topsy-turvy to amuse me and the world. Things were in the air I could not get away from. The very words Centennial and Colonial were too new in my vocabulary not to start me thinking, little given as I was to thinking when I could save myself the trouble. And however lightly I might be inclined to take the whole affair, the rest of Philadelphia was so far from underestimating it that probably the younger generation, used to big International Expositions and having seen the wonders of the Centennial eclipsed in Paris and Chicago and St. Louis and its pleasures rivalled in an ordinary summer playground like Coney Island or Willow Grove, must wonder at the innocence of Philadelphia in making such a fuss over such an everyday affair. But in the Eighteen-Seventies the big International Exposition was not an everyday affair. Europe had held only one or two, America had held none, Philadelphia had to find out the way for itself, with the whole country watching, ready to jeer at the sleepy old town if it went wrong. As I look back, though I realize that the Centennial buildings were not architectural masterpieces—how could I help realising it with Memorial Hall still out there in the Park as reminder?—though I realise that Philadelphia prosperity did not date from the Centennial, that Philadelphians had not lived in a slough of inertia and ignorance until the Centennial pulled them out of it: all the same, I can see how fine an achievement it was, and how successful in jerking Philadelphians from their comfortable rut of indifference to everything going on outside of Philadelphia, or to whether there was an outside for things to go on in.
I know that I was conscious of the jerk in my little corner of the rut. The Centennial, for one thing, gave me my first object lesson in patriotism. There was no special training for the patriot when I was young—no school drilling, with flags, to national music. An American was an American, not a Russian Jew, a Slovak, or a Pole, and patriotism was supposed to follow as a matter of course. It did, but I fancy with many, as with me, after a passive, unintelligent sort of fashion. I knew about the Declaration of Independence, but had anybody asked for my opinion of it, I doubtless should have dismissed it as a dull page in a dull history book, a difficult passage to get by heart. But I could not go on thinking of it in that way when so remote an occasion as its hundredth birthday was sending Philadelphia off its head in this mad carnival of excitement. In little, as in big, matters I was constantly brought up against the fact that things did not exist simply because they were, but because something had been. An old time-worn story that amused the Philadelphian in its day is of the American from another town, who, after listening to much Philadelphia talk, interrupted to ask: "But what is a Biddle?" I am afraid I should have been puzzled to answer. For a Biddle was a Biddle, just as Spruce Street was Spruce Street, just as Philadelphia was Philadelphia. That had been enough in all conscience for the Philadelphian, but the Centennial would not let it be enough for me any longer.
My first hint that Philadelphia and Spruce Street and a Biddle needed a past to justify the esteem in which we held them, came from the spectacle of Mrs. Gillespie towering supreme above Philadelphians with far more familiar names than hers at every Centennial ball and in every Centennial Society, the central figure in the Centennial preparations and in the Centennial itself. I did not know her personally, but that made no difference. There was no blotting out her powerful presence, she pervaded the Centennial atmosphere. She remains in the foreground of my Centennial memories, a tall, gaunt woman, not especially gracious, apparently without a doubt of her right to her conspicuous position, ready to resent the effrontery of the sceptic who challenged it had there been a sceptic so daring, anything but popular, and yet her rule accepted unquestioningly for no better reason than because she was the descendant of Benjamin Franklin, and I could not help knowing that she was his descendant, for nobody could mention her without dragging in his name. It revolutionized my ideas of school and school books, no less than of Philadelphia. I had learned the story of Benjamin Franklin and the kite, just as I had learned the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, and of General Marion and the sweet potatoes, and other anecdotes of heroes invented to torment the young. And now here was Franklin turning out to be not merely the hero of an anecdote that bored every right-minded school-girl to death, but a person of such consequence that his descendant in the third or fourth generation had the right to lord it over Philadelphia. There was no getting away from that any more than there was from Mrs. Gillespie herself and, incidentally, it suggested a new reason for Biddles and Cadwalladers and Whartons and Morrises and Norrises and Logans and Philadelphia families with their names on the Assembly list. That they were the resplendent creatures Philadelphia thought them was not so elementary a fact as the shining of the sun in the heavens; they owed it to their ancestors just as Mrs. Gillespie owed her splendour to Franklin; and an ancestor immediately became the first necessity in Philadelphia.The man who is preoccupied with his ancestors has a terrible faculty of becoming a snob, and Philadelphians for a while concerned themselves with little else. They devoted every hour of leisure to the study of genealogy, they besieged the Historical Society in search of inconsiderate ancestors who had neglected to make conspicuous figures of themselves and so had to be hunted up, they left no stone unturned to prove their Colonial descent. It must have been this period that my Brother, Grant Robins, irritated with our forefathers for their mistake in settling in Virginia half a century before there was a Philadelphia
THE DINING ROOM, STENTON
to settle in and then making a half-way halt in Maryland, hurried down to the Eastern Shore to get together what material he could to keep us in countenance in the town of my Grandfather's adoption. It was soothing to find more than one Robins among the earliest settlers of Virginia and mixed up with Virginia affairs at an agreeably early date. But what wouldn't I have given to see our name in a little square on one of the early maps of the City of Philadelphia as I have since seen J.'s? And the interest in ancestors spread, and no Englishman could ever have been so eager to prove that he came over with the Conqueror as every American was to show that he dated back to William Penn, or the first Virginia Company, or the Dutch, or the Mayflower; no Order of Merit or Legion of Honour could have conferred more glory on an American than a Colonial Governor in the family; no aristocracy was more exclusive than the American founded on the new societies of Colonial Dames and Sons and Daughters of Pennsylvania and of every other State.
It was preposterous, I grant, in a country whose first article of faith is that all men are born equal, but Americans could have stood a more severe attack of snobbishness in those days, the prevailing attitude of Americans at home being not much less irreverent than that of the Innocents Abroad. In Philadelphia it was not so much irreverence as indifference. The habit of Philadelphians to depreciate their town and themselves, inordinate as, actually, was their pride in both, had not been thrown off. Why they ever got into the habit remains to me and to every Philadelphian a problem. Some think it was because the rest of the country depreciated them; some attribute it to Quaker influence, though how and why they cannot say; and some see in it the result of the Philadelpliia exclusiveness that reduces the social life of Philadelphia to one small group in one small section of the town so that it is as small as village life, and has the village love of scandal, the village preoccupation with petty gossip, the little things at the front door blotting out the big things beyond. A more plausible reason is that Philadelphians were so innately sure of themselves—so sure that Philadelphia was the town and Philadelphians the aristocracy of the world—that they could afford to be indifferent. But whatever the cause, this indifference, this depreciation, was worse than a blunder, it was a loss in a town with a past so well worth looking into and being proud of and taking care of.
A few Philadelphians had interested themselves in their past, otherwise the Historical Society would not have existed, but they were distressingly few. I can honestly say that up to the time of the Centennial it had never entered into my mind that the past in Philadelphia had a value for every Philadelphian and that it was every Philadelphian's duty to help preserve any record that might survive of it—that the State House, the old churches, the old streets where I took my daily walks were a possession Philadelphia should do its best not to part with—and I was such a mere re-echo of Philadelphia ideas and prejudices that I know most Philadelphians were as ignorant and as heedless. But almost the first effort of the new Dames and Sons and Daughters was to protect the old architecture, the outward sign and symbol of age and the aristocracy of age, and they made so much noise in doing so that even I heard it, even I became conscious of a research as keen for a past, or a genealogy in the familiar streets and the familiar buildings as in the archives of Historical Societies.
If the Centennial had done no more for Philadelphia than to put Philadelphians to this work, it would have done enough. But it did do more. The pride of family, dismissed by many as pure snobbishness, awoke the sort of patriotism that Philadelphia, with all America, was most in need of if the real American was not to be swept away before the hordes of aliens beginning then to invade his country. In my opinion, the Colonial Dames, for all their follies, are doing far more to keep up the right American spirit than the flaunting of the stars and stripes in the alien's face and the lavishing upon him of the Government's paternal attention. The question is how long they can avoid the pitfall of exaggeration.
If there was one thing in those days I knew less of than the past in Philadelphia, it was the present outside of it. Of my own country my knowledge was limited to an occasional trip to New York, an occasional visit to Richmond and Annapolis, an occasional summer month in Cape May and Atlantic City. Travelling is not for the poor. Rich Philadelphians travelled more, but from no keen desire to see their native land. The end of the journey was usually a social function in Washington or Baltimore, in New York or Boston, upon which their presence conferred distinction, though they would rather have dispensed with it than let it interfere with the always more important social functions at home. Or else the heat of summer drove them to those seashore and mountain resorts where they could count upon being with other Philadelphians, and the winter cold sent them in Lent to Florida, when it began to be possible to carry all Philadelphia there with them.My knowledge of the rest of the world was more limited. I had been in France, but when I was such a child that I remembered little of it except the nuns in the Convent at Paris where I went to school, and the Garden of the Tuileries I looked across to from the Hotel Meurice. Nor had going abroad as yet been made a habit in Philadelphia. There was nothing against the Philadelphian going who chose to and who had the money. It defied no social law. On the contrary, it was to his social credit, though not indispensable as the Grand Tour was to the Englishman in the Eighteenth Century. I remember when my Grandfather followed the correct tourist route through England, France, and Switzerland, his children
DOWN THE AISLE AT CHRIST CHURCH
considered it an event of sufficient importance to be commemorated by printing, for family circulation, an elaborately got up volume of the eminently commonplace letters he had written home—a tribute, it is due to him to add, that met with his great astonishment and complete disapproval. I can recall my admiration for those of my friends who made the journey and my regret that I had made it when I was too young to get any glory out of it; also, my delight in the trumpery little alabaster figures from Naples and carved wood from Geneva and filigree jewellery from the Rue de Rivoli they brought me back from their journey: the wholesale distribution of presents on his return being the heavy tax the traveller abroad paid for the distinction of having crossed the Atlantic—a tax, I believe, that has sensibly been done away with since the Philadelphian's discovery of the German Bath, the London season, and the economy of Europe as reasons for going abroad every summer.
I was scarcely more familiar with the foreigner than with his country. Philadelphia had Irish in plenty, as many Germans as beer saloons, or so I gathered from the names over the saloon doors, and enough Italians to sell it fruit and black its boots at street corners. But otherwise, beyond a rare Chinaman with a pigtail and a rarer Englishman on tour, the foreigner was seldom seen in Philadelphia streets or in Philadelphia parlours. In early days Philadelphia had been the first place the distinguished foreigner in the country made for. It was the most important town and, for a time, the capital. But after Washington claimed the diplomat and New York strode ahead in commerce and size and shipping, Philadelphia was too near each for the traveller to stop on his way between them, unless he was an actor, a lecturer, or somebody who could make money out of Philadelphia.
I feel sorry for the sophisticated young Philadelphian of to-day who cannot know the emotion that was mine when, of a sudden, the Centennial dumped down "abroad" right into Philadelphia, and the foreigner was rampant. The modern youth saunters into a World's Fair as casually as into a Market Street or Sixth Avenue Department Store, but never had the monotony of my life been broken by an experience so extraordinary as when the easy-going street-car carried me out of my world of red brick into the heart of England, and France, and Germany, and Italy, and Spain, and China, and Japan, where I rubbed elbows with yellow Orientals in brilliant silks, and with soldiers in amazing uniforms—I who had seen our sober United States soldiers only on parade—and with people who, if they wore ordinary clothes, spoke all the languages under the sun. It was extraordinary even to meet so many Americans who were not Philadelphians, all talking American with to me a foreign accent, extraordinary to see such familiar things as china, glass, silks, stuffs, furniture, carpets, transformed into the unfamiliar, unlike anything I had ever seen in Chestnut Street windows or on Chestnut Street counters, so extraordinary that the most insignificant details magnified themselves into miracles, to the mere froth on top of the cup of Vienna coffee, to the fatuous song of a little Frenchman in a side-show, so that to this day, if I could turn a tune, I could still sing the "Ah! Ah! Nicolas!" of its foolish refrain.
THE BRIDGE ACROSS MARKET STREET FROM BROAD STREET STATION
Philadelphia talking an appalling lot of rubbish about art, and the new affectation of interest was more deplorable than the old frank indifference.
I was as ignorant of art as the child unborn, but not more ignorant than the average Philadelphian. The old obligatory visits to the Academy had made but a fleeting impression and I never repeated them when the obligation rested solely with me. I had never met an artist, never been in a studio. The result was that the Art Galleries at the Centennial left me as blank and bewildered as the Hall of Machinery. Of all the paintings, the one I remembered was Luke Fildes's picture of a milkmaid which I could not forget because, in a glaring, plush-framed chromo-lithograph, it reappeared promptly in Philadelphia dining- and bedrooms, the most popular picture of the Centennial—a popularity in which I can discern no signs of grace. Nor can I discern them in the Eastlake craze, in the sacrifice of reps and rosewood to Morris and of Berlin work to crewels, in the outbreak of spinning-wheels and milking-stools and cat's tails and Japanese fans in the old simple, dignified Philadelphia parlour; in the nightmare of wall-papers with dadoes going half-way up the wall and friezes coming halfway down, and every square inch crammed full of pattern; in the pretence and excess of decoration that made the early Victorian ornament, we had all begun to abuse, a delight to the eye in its innocent unpretentiousness. And if to the Centennial we owe the multiplication of our art schools, how many more artists have come out of them, how much more work that counts?
However, the good done by the Centennial is not to be sought in the solid profits and losses that can be weighed in a practical balance. It went deeper. Philadelphia was the better for being impressed with the reason of its own importance which it had taken on faith, and for being reminded that the world outside of Philadelphia was not a howling wilderness. I, individually, gained by the widening of my horizon and the stirring of my interest. But the Centennial did not teach me how to think about, or use, what I had learned from it. When it was at an end, I returned placidly to my occupation of doing nothing.