Elfreth's Alley - the Oldest Continuously Residential Street in America
Looking down Elfreth's Alley, off 2nd Street between Arch and Race Streets, in autumn... With the Union Jack flying, it's easy to imagine that you are walking through colonial Philadelphia - now known as Old City.
Elfreth's Alley is one of the many attractions of Old City Philadelphia.
Continuously occupied by Philadelphians since 1702, it holds the proud distinction of being in longer continual occupancy, than any other residential street in the nation.
The Alley - and it deserves that name, as it is very narrow - can be found just off 2nd Street (north/south), between the east/west streets of Arch Street and Race Street.
It is an easy walk from the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the other Old City attractions for travelers. There are also occasional events at Elfreth's Alley, to enhance the visitor experience, particularly on the first Friday of every month, year-round.
It is only 20 years younger, than the city of Philadelphia - and the colony of Pennsylvania - themselves. The original Elfreth, whose name has survived for over three centuries, was an individual by the name of Jeremiah Elfreth, a glassblower by trade, who owned property there.
The impetus for its construction was the 1702 decision by a pair of blacksmiths, John Gilbert and Arthur Wells, to cede some property along their common border on 2nd Street, to create an extra walkway through the burgeoning city. Then as now, 2nd Street was booming, and it helped ease traffic.
Elfreth's Alley survived the early years of the colony and the Revolutionary War intact, but it almost did not survive industrialization and the 20th century. By the 1930s, the area had become dilapidated, surrounded by factories, and there was a serious threat of it being demolished.
An ominous sign for its long-term survival was the temporary loss of its ancient name - it had been officially redesignated as the 100 block of Cherry Street, as part of an overall effort to simplify the street-naming process.
In 1934, the Elfreth's Alley Association was formed in order to save it from the wrecking ball, and one of its many successes was lobbying for the restoration of Jeremiah Elfreth's name to the Alley.
Plaque commemorating Elfreth's Alley's origin as 1736 - four decades prior to American independence.
It faced an additional threat after World War II, when Interstate 95 was constructed nearby. Two and a half centuries earlier, this extra walkway between Arch and Race had originally been created, to ease the flow of traffic from 2nd Street. And so, it would have been very ironic, if the construction of a modern highway in Philadelphia had led to its demolition.
Fortunately for us, it outlasted these persistent 20th-century threats to its existence, and so we can enjoy it today.
There is an Elfreth's Alley Museum, which you can visit if you have the time and inclination. Two of the 32 houses - all of which were constructed between 1728 and 1836 - are also open to the public.
We recommend, strongly, that you do take the Elfreth's Alley Museum Guided Tour, a $5.00 tour, lasting between 40 minutes and an hour. The tour is fascinating and informative, and is well worth your time and money.
However, this page is predicated on the assumption that you will be squeezing this attraction, into a jam-packed day of things to do in Philadelphia, and so it's discussed accordingly (i.e., that you aren't taking the guided tour, due to lack of time- although as noted above, we strongly recommend that you do take the tour, if you do in fact have the time.)
One of its advantages is the fact that it is open, by definition, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And you don't have to limit yourself to just seeing the homes, themselves. There are now 24 hour a day cell phone tours, which guide you through a detailed tour of the Alley and its history.
So even if you don't have time for the Museum, or the open houses, or even the cell phone tours, we still highly recommend at least an amble down Elfreth's Alley. It is very conveniently located in Old City, and it is well worth your while.
Added Monday, July 19, 2010...
The Elfreth's Alley Museum - 126 Elfreth's Alley - The Mantua' Makers House
Hours of Operation and Admission
Phone number - 215.574.0560
Tuesday through Saturday - 10 AM - 5 PM
Sunday - 12 noon - 5 PM
Guided Tours of the Museum
Adults - $5
Children 6-12 - $2
Children under 6 - free
Family - $12
Self-Guided Tours of the Museums
Adults - $3
Children 6-12 - $1
Children under 6 - free
The history of 126 Elfreth's Alley is the best-documented of the houses, due to its status as one the only two houses there, permanently open to the public. 124 Elfreth's Alley, next door, is the other, which currently houses the gift shop.
They hope eventually to have 128 - on the other side of the museum - also open as another educational and interpretive center, but that remains in the future.
126 was in fact constructed by Elfreth himself, as an investment property, at some point between 1739 and 1762. In 1762, he sold it to a pair of mantuamakers named Mary Smith and Sarah Melton.
You might ask - as we did - what a mantua or a mantuamaker is, or was. It was generally a gown, an item of women's clothing, but on the high end, generally worn for more formal occasions. As they were finer pieces of apparel and catered to a more affluent and sophisticated market, a mantuamaker needed advanced skills and sensibilities - and accordingly, occupied the highest rung on the clothing-manufacturer occupational ladder, as opposed to the more numerous seamstresses.
Mantua makers were found listed under "occupations" from the first census in 1790, all the way to 1910. The term died out as mantua makers eventually began identifying themselves as "dressmakers".
Sarah Melton carried on her mantua making business in the front parlor of 126. When you enter today, you see that it is not lavish - an unvarnished wooden floor, mustard-colored doors and trim, a small Venetian rug, a couple of Windsor chairs, and no curtains on the windows. It is interpreted and furnished, according to an estate inventory taken for Melton upon her death in 1794.
A Map of Elfreth's Alley and the Surrounding Area
View Elfreth's Alley in a larger map
Getting to Elfreth's Alley
Unsurprisingly, there is absolutely nowhere to park near Elfreth's Alley, and so mass transit and/or walking are your only options.
If you are visiting Philadelphia between May 1 and October 31 - and it is before 5:30-6 PM - your best option is the purple Phlash Trolley
- which has three stops nearby - Penn's Landing, 2nd and Market, and 3rd and Market Streets, which are all just a stone's throw from Elfreth's Alley, which is located between Front, Second, Race, and Arch Streets.
However, the Phlash does not run at night, and Elfreth's Alley can be easily enjoyed after dark, particularly during the hot and humid Philadelphia summers.
offers multiple options to get you to Elfreth's Alley.
The SEPTA Blue Line / Market-Frankford Line / "the el"
- which are just different names for the same SEPTA transit line - offers convenient service to Elfreth's Alley. Just disembark from the Blue Line at its 2nd Street / Old City Station, which places you at the intersection of 2nd and Market Streets. Just walk up 2nd Street, one and a half blocks, and you'll find Elfreth's Alley.
However, the Blue Line is generally only of value, if you are already in Center City, or from one of the nearby neighborhoods. If you are traveling from the outlying neighborhoods, or from the suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey-
You're better off taking SEPTA Regional Rail
Nearly every inbound Regional Rail train will stop at Market East Station
- which is located at 11th and Market Streets. From there, you have multiple options.
You can take the Blue Line, without even going outside. Once you come up from the train platform at Market East, just follow the blue-and-white signs reading "Market-Frankford Line". However, you'll need to purchase tokens to board the Blue Line - it isn't free interchange. Just go to the SEPTA ticket window, at Market East, before you head over to the Blue Line.
Eventually, you'll come to the Blue Line 11th Street Station. To go to Elfreth's Alley, make sure that you follow the signs for the platform reads "Eastbound to Frankford". You'll only be on the Blue Line for a short time, though, as it will stop at 8th Street, 5th Street, and then 2nd Street / Old City - your stop. Unlike the train, where you get a long notice before you have to get off - you need to be ready to jump off immediately, so don't even bother to sit down, as it's only three stops.
You can also take one of the many SEPTA buses, heading eastbound down Market Street. Just cross the street from Market East, to the south side of Market Street, where you can board an eastbound bus. But before you board the bus, ask the driver - "Are you going to 2nd Street, and/or Penn's Landing?" If he/she isn't going that far, wait for another one. Get off at either 2nd and Market Streets or Front and Market Street (not all the way to Penn's Landing), and walk to Elfreth's Alley.
For more information on Elfreth's Alley, take a look at the
official Elfreth's Alley web site.
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