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Elfreth's Alley

Posted on Friday, September 5, 2014

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The Nation’s oldest continuously inhabited street

The History

When William Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682, he envisioned a new type of city. Persecuted in London for his religious beliefs as a Quaker, Penn worked to insure that Philadelphia would have a very different culture by guaranteeing its citizens the freedom of religion. But Penn wasn’t just looking to escape the religious intolerance of London, he also wished to escape the city itself with its crowded and dirty streets that regularly led to the spread of disease and deadly fires. In Philadelphia he envisioned a “greene country towne” with wide streets, green lawns, and open squares filled with trees and fresh air.

Early residents of Philadelphia embraced Penn’s “holy experiment,” as diverse people from across the world came to Philadelphia to escape religious persecution. Meanwhile, Penn’s plan for a “greene country towne” proved to be considerably less popular. Almost immediately residents began to subdivide properties and divide blocks with smaller streets and alleys, quickly creating an urban environment that rivaled the density of those in Europe.

Elfreth’s Alley was created just 20 years after Penn founded Philadelphia. Blacksmiths John Gilbert and Arthur Wells had adjacent properties on 2nd Street and in 1702 each gave up a small portion of land to create an alleyway where the two properties met. In the coming years portions of land fronting the alleyway were sold and houses were built to face it. The Alley would be named Elfreth’s Alley after blacksmith Jeremiah Elfreth who lived on the alley in the 18th century.

Elfreth's Alley
Thirty-two houses now line Elfreth’s Alley, each constructed between the years of 1728 and 1836. The alleyway is still paved with brick and cobblestones and the houses maintain their colonial charm. As time passed the demographics of the alleyway changed. In the 18th century English Colonists, Jewish Merchants, and former African slaves resided there. In the centuries that followed the proximity of the Alley to docks of the Delaware River made it a common place of residence for working class immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and other parts of Europe. All told, over 3,000 people have lived on Elfreth’s Alley since its creation.

What to See

Simply walking down Elfreth’s Alley is an experience. The Alley is seemingly untouched by time, the houses still decorated and kept up to look as they did in the 18th century. While the authentic preserved homes are the stars of the show, everything from the sidewalks to the streetlights help to maintain the colonial authenticity.

The Elfreth’s Alley Museum, located at 124 and 126 Elfreth’s Alley provides visitors with the unique experience of actually entering two of Elfreth’s Alley historic homes. The museum contains artifacts and interpretation to help show visitors what life was like for those who once lived on the street. Simply entering the museum to see the inside of these historic homes is itself a unique treat. While Philadelphia has no shortage of 18th Century housing, most of the homes that have been preserved are much larger homes owned by the wealthy elite of Philadelphia in the 18th century. Very few working class residences like those found on Elfreth’s Alley remain today. 

Elfreth's Alley

Insider Tips

On the first Saturday in June, Elfreth’s Alley celebrates Fete Day, a tradition dating all the way back to the 1930s. On Fete Day not only are the two houses that comprise the Elfreth’s Alley Museum open to the public, but every other home is as well! Not only can you can explore these historic homes, the event also often features live music, games, book signings, colonial crafts, demonstrations, and barbecue!

How to Get There

Guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour will end their tour just blocks away from Elfreth’s Alley at the National Constitution Center. Guest can easily walk down Arch St and past the Betsy Ross House (which guests will see on our tour) and make a left on 2nd Street, Elfreth’s Alley will be right on that block on the right hand side of the street.

Elfreth’s Alley is also easily accessible from the 2nd Street stop on the Market Frankford Subway line. While street parking is in short supply, numerous nearby parking lots should make parking a breeze for those that choose to drive.

Hours

Elfreth’s Alley Museum Summer Hours
Friday: 12-5pm
Saturday: 12-5pm
Sunday: 12-5pm

Additional Information

Elfreth’s Alley Museum
124-126 Elfreth's Alley
Philadelphia, PA 19106
215.627.8680

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