Tucked away in Philadelphia’s Old City there exists a small alley that gives visitors a glimpse of a working class, 18th century neighborhood. Elfreth’s Alley, known as the nation’s oldest residential street, is a narrow thoroughfare with 32 small (by contemporary standards) residences built between 1728 and 1836 in the Federal or Georgian architectural style. It began as a cart path in 1702 that permitted the city’s residents easy access to the docks. It is now, in a sense, a living history museum that is still home to Philadelphians. The museum is located in two row houses that were built in the mid-18th century and they now serve as a restored period home. Elfreth’s Alley was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
parallel to Quarry and Arch Streets and perpendicular to Front and 2nd
Streets, Elfreth’s Alley was not
included in the original plans of Philadelphia.
It was created after landowners Arthur Wells and John Gilbert opened
their properties to allow local residents to pass to and fro. It slowly developed over the years until it
was paved with cobblestones and homes began to be constructed in the
1720s. It was named after local
blacksmith, Jeremiah Elfreth. It soon
became home to local artisans and craftsmen, such as shipwrights, glassblowers,
carpenters, printers and furniture builders, many of which operated their
businesses from their homes.
was frequented by many famous Philadelphians, to include Ben Franklin who often
visited a friend, William Maugridge, who lived at 122. It was also home, for a time, to seamstress
Betsy Ross, Dolley Payne Todd Madison (prior to becoming First Lady) and
Stephen Girard who would go on to become the wealthiest man in the U.S. by the
early 19th century. The
industrial Revolution drastically changed the alley and surrounding neighborhood
as the homes were now occupied by immigrants working in the new factories that
encroached on the small alley. A stove
factory actually occupied several row houses within the alley in 1868. By 1900, Elfreth’s Alley’s residents were
By the early
20th century the alley and its buildings had fallen into a state of disrepair. Fortunately, it was saved from demolition on
more than one occasion by Dolly Ottey and the Elfreth’s Alley Association which
was founded in 1934. Ottey and other
association members worked tirelessly to preserve and restore the alley’s
buildings and historical legacy. The
greatest threat to the alley appeared in the early 1950s in the form of
Interstate 95, which now passes just east of the alley. The association was also instrumental in
getting the alley National Landmark status.
Alley now represents a rare and wonderful example of an 18th century
working class street that is in stark contrast to the restored mansions of the Society
Hill neighborhood. Some of the alley’s
private residences are open on two separate occasions within a year, during its
Fete Day celebration that takes place in early June and its Deck the Alley
holiday special in early December. The
Elfreth’s Alley museum sponsors group and self guided tours of its building as
well as the alley itself.