1897 Philadelphia Traffic Jam

1897 Street Scene: 7th & Market St. in Center City

A snapshot of a moment in time, this historical image encapsulates urban life at the end of the 19th century: a dynamic blend of industry and commerce, technological advancements and innovation, and burgeoning social and cultural change. It was the era of women’s rights, education and equality; muckraking journalism; unionization and workers’ rights; the birth of the progressive movement; the print revolution; a thriving arts and literature scene; the beginnings of electricity and motorized vehicles; the telephone and the telegraph and expanded entertainment and urban nightlife opportunities. 

 In the heart of Philadelphia in 1897, this lively scene on Market St. during an apparent traffic jam captures the hustle and bustle of center city life. The juxtaposition of horse drawn carriages and the relatively new electric trolley cars of the Philadelphia Traction Co. epitomizes the technological changes of the era.

Though little else is known about the photo, it having been used in a press release indicates the event depicted is likely of some cultural and social significance. The abundance of onlookers gathered combined with the prevalence of American flags points to the possibility of an oncoming procession.

Given Philadelphia’s rich and unique history as the birthplace of American independence and democracy - as site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and American Constitution,  and first official American capital - it is not hard to imagine the possibility of a 4th of July celebration taking place on the very cobblestone streets that the Founding Fathers walked over a century before.

Another important event of 1897 that may have precipitated the gathering and presumed procession captured in this photo, is the “Centennial of the Launching of the Big Ships of the U.S. Navy”: a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the U.S. Navy and the launching of its first six ships-from six different ports along the east coast, including Philadelphia.

Whatever the occasion, this scene is a rare window into the realities of city life in America at the height of the Gilded Age and culmination of the Industrial Revolution.

  • Title: Philadelphia Traffic Jam, 1890's
  • Artist: Credit:U.S. Bureau of Public Roads National Archives #30-N-36713 
  • Source Publication: Automobiles, p.53
  • Provenance: American Heritage Publishing (printed in the second half of the 20th century as part of their archive)
  • Medium: Black & White Photograph
  • Dimensions:8X10
  • Classification:Work & Industry: Pennsylvania- Philadelphia, 1890's
  • Commonality:Rare, Authenticated