Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Many Landings of William Penn

Philadelphia, 1854

William Penn atop Philadelphia City Hall
This November makes it 329 years since the entrepreneurial Quaker William Penn stepped ashore, founding the city of Philadelphia. In the early nineteenth century, Americans knew more about the landing of William Penn than they did about the Pilgrims who supposedly disembarked at Plymouth Rock, something that only later became ingrained in the national consciousness.

Penn set sail for North America shortly after receiving a royal charter from King Charles II of England to cover a debt, by which he became the proprietor of a huge tract of land in what is now Pennsylvania and Delaware. Arriving in the fall of 1682, he landed first at New Castle, before sailing further up the Delaware River to Upland (later renamed Chester) where he moored.1 Continuing his journey another fifteen miles by barge, he came to an area known today as Penn’s Landing—a ten-block stretch along the river from Vine Street to South Street in Philadelphia. The importance once accorded this event is reflected by a superb menu from a banquet in 1854 celebrating the 172nd anniversary of his arrival. Hosted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the dinner was held at La Pierre House, a new luxury hotel distinguished by a large statue of a bald eagle on the roof over its entrance.2

La Pierre House (ca. 1854)

An American eagle also appears at the top of the menu shown below, perched here over a portrait of George Washington flanked by American flags, creating a splendid trifecta of patriotic images. Gilded and tinted in a lithographic process using three stones, the menu was made by Eugene Ketterlinus, one of the first printers in the country to produce colored and embossed lithographs. He received an award for his work from the Franklin Institute in 1858, sixteen years after establishing his printing house at 40 North Fourth Street, a few blocks from the wharves that lined the river where Penn landed.

Just as the menu was a notable achievement in the graphic arts, the dishes served at the banquet were an equally high expression of the culinary arts in America during the 1850s. Beginning with the soups and fish courses, the dinner proceeds to the releves, the boiled or roasted joints of meat and fowl that were carved in the dining room. Appearing next are the cold dishes, followed by eighteen entrees, interestingly labeled “side dishes” on this bill of fare. Typical of grand dinners in the fall, there are twelve game dishes, counting snipe, partridges, and five species of duck. One of the local specialties was the stewed (Diamond-back) terrapin, garnished with cream, butter, spices, and terrapin eggs, an ingredient that was the hallmark of the Philadelphia style. In keeping with the theme, there are also cardoons with cream (spelled “cardunes” on this menu), a dish made with the stalks of a spiny plant closely related to the globe artichoke. Cultivated by the early colonists, this vegetable was rarely seen by this date. Listed between the pastries and ice creams are the purely decorative sculptures made of confectionery; one of these ornaments is entitled “Genius of America, Protecting the World.”

Penn Marker (1882)
William Penn, an early champion of democracy and religious freedom, urged the English colonies to unite, thereby establishing the blueprint for the United States. Given the lasting importance of his legacy, the anniversary of Penn's arrival could easily have become the historic event most associated with the nation’s autumn holiday. However, soon after the Historical Society of Pennsylvania dedicated a small monument during his bicentennial in 1882, marking the spot in Chester where he first landed in their state, the so-called “Thanksgiving myth” was popularized in pulp fiction, forever linking the national holiday with the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. Perhaps William Penn landed in too many places along the river for his story to be easily transformed into folklore. In the end, the isolated marker proved to be no match for the never-ending tales about the “First Thanksgiving.”3 Nevertheless, his monument is still there,now situated several hundred feet inland, separated from the Delaware River by railroad tracks, in a decaying industrial area just south of Chester Creek. The red arrow marks the spot on the aerial photograph below; Philadelphia can be seen inthe distance.

Chester, Pennsylvania

1. The settlers in the three southernmost counties of Pennsylvania were permitted to split off in 1704, establishing the semi-autonomous colony of Delaware with New Castle as its capital.
2. La Pierre House opened in 1853 on the west side of Broad Street, between Chestnut and Sansom Streets. It was designed by John McArthur, Jr., the architect of the Philadelphia City Hall, a landmark building that is topped with a statue of William Penn. La Pierre House, later renamed the Lafayette Hotel, closed in 1900.
3. The most prevalent story is that the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Some maintain that it was held at Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia in 1619.

1 comment:

lostpastremembered said...

Wonderful post, Henry, and what a menu. You never cease to amaze with what you find!!!