The Elfreth’s Alley Tour Is Superb for Visitors to Old City
The Elfreth's Alley Tour is highly worthwhile for visitors to Old City Philadelphia. On this page, we'll discuss specifically, what your experience on the Elfreth's Alley Tour will be like.
If you'd like more in-depth information about Elfreth's Alley's history, and how to travel there via the various methods on SEPTA, we'd recommend that you take a look at our Elfreth's Alley Guide.
The Elfreth's Alley Tour Includes A Guided Tour of the Museum - Take the $5.00 Tour, Not the $3.00 One
When you arrive at the gift shop, you'll be asked if you'd prefer the $3.00 tour, or the $5.00 tour. We'd strongly recommend that you take the $5.00 tour.
For your five bucks, you get a highly informative, guided tour of not just Elfreth's Alley itself, but the Elfreth's Alley Museum, and it can take between 40 minutes to an hour, depending on how many people are there. It's both highly entertaining and educational - spend the extra two bucks and go all in on the Elfreth's Alley tour.
Here’s some of what you’ll learn…
The full-fledged Elfreth’s Alley Tours are generally given at the top of the hour (although this can change, depending on how crowded it is, on any given day). But for the most part, try to arrive a few minutes prior to the top of the hour, to take your $5.00 tour.
First, your guide will take you back out of the gift shop and take you outside. He/she will then explain some of the basics on Elfreth’s Alley's history and architecture.
Many of the Elfreth’s Alley homes have changed in appearance, over the centuries. This is due to the many historical forces that have guided Elfreth’s Alley’s development.
Elfreth's Alley, today, consists of beautiful, well-maintained Georgian and Federal homes. But what became Elfreth’s Alley, originally had very humble origins. Due to its proximity to the Delaware River port – the lifeblood of 18th century Philadelphia – a primitive, mud cartpath was created between 2nd Street and the port, as the most efficient way of taking goods to and from the port.
Traffic on the mud cartpath boomed. As time went by, skilled workers and artisans (i.e., the manufacturers of much of this merchandise) realized that it would be better for business, if they themselves moved their businesses (which were also their homes) to the mud cartpath. There was so much traffic on the mud cartpath, that it made good economic sense. Thus, how the first residents came to Elfreth’s Alley – the oldest continuously occupied residential street in America.
Your guide will then point to an example of two houses on the south side of Elfreth’s Alley, and note how low the large windows are to the street. There was a purpose for this. Since the skilled artisan who had set up shop there wanted to sell wares to passersby, they wanted large, low windows for display of their goods.
Interestingly, Jeremiah Elfreth - the 18th century Quaker whose name has graced the Alley for centuries – never actually lived there! The name “Elfreth’s Alley” came about because he was the largest property owner on the Alley – he owned four rental properties, leased to tenants.
As time went on, and Philadelphia prospered, more prosperous residents began moving into Elfreth’s Alley. Your guide will show you homes on the north side of the Alley – with windows that are much higher off the street. These reflect homes that were built for privacy (at least by 18th century standards), and not to sell wares to passersby – that’s why the windows are built higher.
As you look up at the north side at the Alley, your Elfreth's Alley Tour guide will point out an invention that Benjamin Franklin had brought back from Holland, called a “busybody”. (You can see a full page of his innovations on the Benjamin Franklin Inventions Page).
Basically, a busybody was a kind of folded mirror, placed just outside an upstairs window. Because of the way the mirror was angled, it made it possible for you to determine who it was, knocking at your door, without your having to reveal the fact that you were home. (It was the Franklin, 18th-century version of Caller ID). It was called the “busybody” because it not only permitted you to see who was at your door, but also who was knocking on anyone’s door, anywhere on the Alley.
Not that privacy was available in any meaningful sense, on Elfreth’s Alley. As you’ll see when you visit, the townhouses are packed in like sardines. During the 18th century, this was deemed housing for “the middling classes” – skilled workers, but they were what we would consider, economically, lower middle class today. They had independent businesses, but often did not own their homes and stores (which were often identical, especially on Elfreth’s Alley).
For the most part, they were inhabited by residents like Betsy Ross, who lived just a couple of blocks away from Elfreth's Alley, at the Betsy Ross House. She was a skilled upholsterer – an artisan, very similar to those tenants on Elfreth's Alley, as she was a tenant, not the owner, of the house that bears her name today.
Fire was a major risk, also, in 18th century Philadelphia, due to the proximity of the homes. Your Elfreth's Alley Tour guide will point out some conspicuous metal ovals, high up on the walls of the homes. These were called firemarks - they were proof that you had purchased fire insurance, from one of the volunteer fire companies that had sprung up in the 18th century. Among Franklin’s many innovations was the introduction of fire insurance against loss, and his legacy lives on today.
These elaborate plates each bore the mark of a different fire company, hence “firemark”. The reason why they were placed so high on the wall – that was to discourage theft of the firemarks, which were not only expensive, but also to ensure that your home was conspicuously noted as having insurance. You can see a collection of these at eye level, in fact, over at the Betsy Ross House.
Your guide will note that contrary to a persistent belief, the volunteer fire companies wouldn’t just sit by and let your house burn down, even if you didn’t have fire insurance. Even if they had been sufficiently callous to do so, they couldn’t, as a practical matter. The houses were so close together in Philadelphia, that if one house went up in flames, it was a threat not just to its immediate neighbors, but the entire block, and potentially the entire city.
William Penn - the founder of the city of Philadelphia and the colony of Pennsylvania - had witnessed the Great Fire of London in 1666, which had devastated the capital. Having seen such destruction by fire, one of Penn’s central goals for Philadelphia, was to have wide, well-ordered streets on a grid pattern, to reduce the chances of fire.
However, as you can see, Elfreth’s Alley – a narrow alley with densely packed houses – was exactly the opposite of what he wanted his city to look like! But that’s because places like Elfreth’s Alley weren’t on the original map laid out by Penn and his surveyor, Thomas Holme, in the 1680s. They didn’t want alleys – they wanted the full width between Race and Arch Street, in this case. But since it was more practical to have an easier and faster route to the port, Elfreth’s Alley came into being.
Elfreth's Alley Tour - Other Things Your Guide Will Describe To You
You'll learn about, among other things:
The subtle differences between Georgian (i.e., 18th century style) and Federal (early, post-Revolutionary War American) architectural styles, both of which can be found on the Elfreth's Alley Tour...
Pediments and transoms - both architectural features;
Bootcleaners - you'll see them near the thresholds of some houses, to keep visitors from dirtying the floors, when they entered from the street;
The origin of the phrase "sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite", when you see the bedroom upstairs;
Trinity houses (so named, because they had three floors);
Boxwinder steps - when you tour the house, you'll ascend the boxwinder steps to get to the upper floor, so named because of their unique structure;
Dormers - The rough equivalent of a modern attic, the small rooms on the third floor were called dormers, and usually were the quarters of the apprentices;
Flemish bond - This is an architectural flourish on the exterior brick walls. It was created by first putting in a horizontal brick, then a vertical one, into the wall, creating an interesting visual pattern;
The horrible sanitation of the time, which was responsible for the many epidemics of contagious disease that plagued Philadelphia during that period, such as the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which killed 10% of the city's population;
Your Elfreth's Alley tour guide will also take you into the various rooms in the museum. It's surprisingly large, given how tightly packed the homes are. You'll see the front room, where the dressmakers sold and manufactured their goods, as well as the bedroom upstairs.
In the kitchen, your Elfreth's Alley tour guide will note that cooking was relatively uncommon on the Alley in the 18th century, as it was generally only by done by live-in servants, and the residents of Elfreth's Alley generally wouldn't have had any... And you're invited to guess what each implement in the kitchen was used for...
Your tour will conclude in the courtyard, during which the guide will discuss the twin threats to the survival of Elfreth's Alley, during the 20th century.
During the 1930s, as Philadelphia continued to industrialize, developers wanted to get rid of it. But fortunately, the Historic Preservation movement had begun in America, and due to its value as a heritage site, it was spared. In the 1950s, when Interstate-95 was being constructed nearby, there were again calls for Elfreth's Alley to be demolished, but once again the Historic Preservation effort permitted it to be saved.
Of course, taking the Elfreth's Alley tour in person, is far more interesting than just reading about it online. You really get a feel for what it was like for an ordinary person living in colonial Philadelphia, and it's a unique Philadelphia tourist attraction, for that reason. (And we obviously didn't list everything that we learned, because this page would be even longer!)
Accordingly, we highly recommend that you take the tour. You'll wind back up in the gift shop on the way out, during which you can browse for souvenirs.
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