Samuel H. Ashbridge letters
Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107
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Overview and metadata sections
Samuel H. Ashbridge spent his entire life living and working in Philadelphia. He was born in Philadelphia on December 5, 1848 and died in his home in the city at the age of fifty-eight after several months of ill health. His father and mother were both members of old and prosperous Quaker families. A Republican, he was elected mayor with over eighty percent of the vote, serving from April 3, 1899 to April 5, 1903.
Before becoming mayor, Ashbridge worked in the private sector as a clerk in a mercantile business, and then as a proprietor in a coal yard. He served as Philadelphia coroner until 1899. He resigned that position to become mayor.
Ashbridge was mayor at a time when Philadelphia was going through an urban evolution that drew from the industrial advances surrounding it. The city had the advantage of a deep water port and the availability of the Pennsylvania railroad system. With development came the trials and tribulations of any large city, one of which was the great demands on a clean water supply. A significant project that began during Ashbridge’s tenure was the development of a new water filtration system for the city. An extensive report was presented to the administration that outlined what was needed to remedy “the deplorable condition of the City’s water supply…due to the pollution of its sources.” This filtration system was begun under the Ashbridge administration. Several letters addressed this undertaking; a few eliciting support for the writer’s own solution to the water pollution problem.
The John Wanamaker Department store was a well established institution by 1899. Wanamaker pioneered the concept of the department store. It was a “Palace of Consumption” that made shopping a pleasurable experience for ordinary people. In 1876 he and his brother-in-law opened a multipurpose clothing store in Philadelphia that had the earmarks of his much larger store at Juniper and Market streets. Wanamaker’s was the first store to print a copyrighted store advertisement. It was also the first to use the price tag, before which most buying was done by haggling.
Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Boulevard was the result of Mayor Ashbridge’s proposal to connect the small farming community of Torresdale directly to central Philadelphia in 1902. The road was originally named Torresdale Boulevard. It was renamed Theodore Roosevelt Boulevard when the highway extended to Pennypack Creek in 1918.
Two important events that took place during the Ashbridge administration were the Philadelphia Exposition of 1900 and the Republican National Convention that was held June 19 – 21, 1900 in Convention Hall.
Ashbridge is buried at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
The letters in the collection date from April 4, 1899 to December 26, 1900. Only the first two years of Ashbridge’s administration are represented. There are over two dozen undated letters.
The letters and notes range from the entertaining (“For Gods [sic] sake take the flag pole down from Billy Penns [sic] hat…”) to heart-rending requests to the mayor for help in escaping from inhumane treatment in a jail or insane asylum. Some writers give the mayor political advice on topics such as corruption in eliciting election votes and a politicized police department. One apparent fan transcribed a speech the mayor gave in April 1899 at the unveiling of the Ulysses S. Grant monument that still stands on Kelly Drive today. Fellow Republican President McKinley attended this ceremony. At times, correspondents identify themselves as Republican in an effort to have the mayor become sympathetic to their point of view.
Some letters are meant to be taken personally, telling the mayor what they think of him: As in a letter from “Mugsy,” which reads, “I am a burglar and pickpocket and I want to meet you some time to get points on my business…”
One letter informs the mayor that eating celery is the cause of typhoid fever. This letter, ostensibly from a doctor (he signs the letter with “Dr.” before his initials) is apparently written in all seriousness. Some letters are obvious “crank” letters -- they are illegible, redundant or discuss witches in the midst of Philadelphia’s citizenry.
Aspects of the immigrant experience in Philadelphia can be gleaned from the letters. Two letters written in 1899 give voice to anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feeling among some Philadelphians.
A letter of particular interest was written by Doctor William H. May, M.D. He took issue with the mayor's 1900 Memorial Day speech. The author found “contemptible” and “uncalled for” remarks that indicated that Confederate veterans of the Civil War were especially cruel and committed acts contrary to the rules of warfare. The author, a Confederate veteran himself, thought the talk should have emphasized the country’s shared destiny. A letter and a pamphlet let the reader know that not all were enthralled with the transition from Mom and Pop stores to the large department stores fostered by the John Wanamaker dynasty. A flyer, by Uncle Billy Penn, called Wanamaker a man who, “recognizes not the Moral Law of Humanity (God’s Law) in Business…” apparently for Wanamaker’s restraint in trade and monopoly of the retail business.
There are several comments on the major undertaking to build a new water filtration system in Philadelphia. Writers also give their view of local politics, primarily in the form of support or criticism of the mayor. The majority of the letters, however, are written by citizens who request help in difficult situations or have complaints about city services. These too serve as a window into the social and economic conditions of the city.
In addition to the letters, there are meeting notices, a political cartoon that implies the mayor won his election by stuffing the ballot box, invitations to social events, and the front page of The Call newspaper from the day Ashbridge was inaugurated which includes his inaugural address. Items in the collection give us some insight into the labor situation in Philadelphia and the rest of the country. One is an indictment of John Wanamaker and his “cuss’d Department Stores.” Another is a newspaper article reporting on the conviction of factory owners who allowed women to work past the legal twelve hours a day.
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Randi Kamine.
- Finding Aid Date
- ; 2014.
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research.