The American Philosophical Society – An Underrated Attraction

American Philosophical Society

This plaque can be seen, on the exterior of the building. If you'd like to read it, just click directly on the photo to enlarge it. Either way, here's the text:

The American Philosophical Society - Founded by Benjamin Franklin - 1743

Outgrowth of the Junto, 1727 : Reorganized, 1769 - The First Learned Society in the British Plantations in America - This Building Was Erected 1786 - 1789

Center City District Location - RED - Historic District - Old City

The American Philosophical Society is often overlooked, among the many places to visit in Philadelphia. Located in Society Hill, in the heart of the historic district, it can boast of being the oldest learned society in America. It was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1745, over two decades before the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Despite its name, the American Philosophical Society Museum is not remotely concerned with "philosophy", in the 21st-century understanding of that term.

Instead, it is concerned primarily with what we modern folks would describe as "science" or "natural sciences", and the history of scientific inquiry and learning. At the time of its founding in 1743, these fields were largely called "natural philosophy", and someone such as Franklin - its founder - would describe himself not as a "scientist", but a "natural philosopher". And so the name has remained thus, for the past two and a half centuries or so.

Accordingly, your visit to the Museum will be largely focused on history, science, and art - with absolutely no 21st-century philosophy involved. Over the centuries, it has amassed a veritable treasure trove of historical artifacts, scientific tools, maps, specimens, and works of art. It has rotating exhibits, often with fascinating topics. Its permanent exhibits include, among other things, a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, and a chair used by Thomas Jefferson while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence. Most uniquely, it holds the original 1701 Charter of Liberties promulgated by William Penn - the celebration of which was the original purpose of the nearby Liberty Bell - located right up the street, ironically.

Among its other merits, are the Museum's close proximity to other major places to visit in Philadelphia, its virtually nonexistent cost, and its size - you can see everything very quickly, as it's a very small building.

Visiting the American Philosophical Society Museum - Admission and Operating Hours

There is no official admission price, but a $1 donation is requested, per visitor.

Regrettably, the American Philosophical Society Museum has limited hours, as it's only open from 10 to 4, four days a week in the spring and summer, and three days a week, in the fall and winter.

That having been said, if you are in town during a day when it is open, it's well worth a visit.

Spring and Summer Hours - March 1 - Labor Day in September

Thursday through Sunday - 10 AM - 4 PM

Monday through Wednesday - Closed

Fall and Winter Hours - Labor Day in September - March 1

Friday through Sunday - 10 AM - 4 PM

Monday through Thursday - Closed

Getting to the American Philosophical Society Museum

It is located at 104 South 5th Street, on 5th Street between Chestnut and Walnut. This is a stone's throw from Independence Hall, literally right down the street from it, and is a short walk from Independence Visitor Center, located at 6th and Market Streets.

SEPTA offers easy and convenient ways of reaching the American Philosophical Society Museum. The Blue Line/Market-Frankford Line/El - all different terms for the same line - will take you to the 5th Street stop, where you disembark. It's only one and a half blocks to your destination. There are also multiple bus routes that run up and down Market Street; if you ask the driver if he/she is going near 4th, 5th, or 6th Street, you'll be fine.

If you are coming from the further regions of the city, or the suburbs, you can take SEPTA Regional Rail service, and wind up just a few blocks away. The vast majority of trains will stop at Market East Station - located at 11th and Market Streets - just eight blocks away.

Once you've disembarked at Market East, you have several options. It's easily walkable, but if it's too hot or humid - or rainy, or cold - you can take a SEPTA eastbound bus along Market Street to 4th, 5th, or 6th Streets, and walk a couple of blocks from there.

You can get on the Blue Line at its 11th Street stop, which you can reach without even going outside, although you do need to pay again, either with cash or a token.

Once you're off the train at Market East, just follow the signs in the concourse for "Market-Frankford Line". Once you're at the entrance, make sure you board a train labeled "Eastbound to Frankford". You'll be on it for a very short amount of time, about two minutes. It will stop at 8th Street, and then 5th Street, and you get off at 5th, and walk one and a half blocks south.

You can also take the purple Phlash Trolley if you have the good fortune to be in Philadelphia, during its six months of operation, between May 1 and Halloween. It runs frequently in a loop, throughout many of the places to visit in Philadelphia, and it stops at 12th and Market, right near Market East.

A History of the American Philosophical Society

The building you see today was constructed around the time of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, and the American Philosophical Society has been there since 1789.

46 years earlier, Franklin had offered this vision for what he wanted to accomplish by forming the Society:

"the promoting of Useful Knowledge, especially as it respects the Agriculture, Manufacturies, and Natural History of North America."

Its growth was fueled when members of the Penn family - which at that early date, still ruled directly as proprietors of Pennsylvania, in the name of the British monarchy - decided to join. Eventually, it became the dominant scientific society in Philadelphia.

Before the American Philosophical Society obtained its own home, it met in various sites around Philadelphia, such as Carpenters' Hall. Ironically, the Library Company of Philadelphia - also founded by Franklin - ended up trying to outbid the Society for the prime real estate on 5th Street. It took a 100 pound pledge from Franklin himself - and a 50 pound pledge from a wealthy merchant named Samuel Vaughn, to get the ball rolling, and some years to raise all of the needed funds for the new building. Franklin died less than a year after it was finally constructed, at age 84.

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