Suburban Development

West Philadelphia, 1850

West Philadelphia, 1850
West Philadelphia, 1850

In this illustration, West Philadelphia, on the far side of the river, was shown as mostly countryside. Along this side of the river (east shore) are (left to right): the Arsenal at Gray's Ferry, the Naval Home, The Market Street Bridge to West Philadelphia, and the ziggurat-like reservoir for the Water Works (the reservoir is now the site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art). From the background of J[ohn] Bachmann's "Birds Eye View of Philadelphia" [looking West from NJ] hand colored lithograph, 1850.

Between 1850 and the 1920s West Philadelphia transformed from a sparsely populated region to a densely populated one. In spite of some existing industrial and trade centers, West Philadelphia's relative isolation from the city also made it an excellent location for other purposes. The landscape became dominated by residential and institutional development that enveloped, and in most cases erased the mill villages, trade centers, industrial areas, and surrounding farms and fields. This new landscape was for the most part unmistakably suburban.

West Philadelphia was not unique. Suburban development occurred in other parts of the county, such as Germantown, as well in locations around many other cities. Similarities can be identified in the forces fueling such development. On the other hand, the details of how this was carried out sometimes varied considerably because of different practices, traditions, economies, and vision.

Five factors consistently emerge through each of West Philadelphia's eras of suburban growth. 

  1. Regular public transportation into the city center. 
  2. Extension of municipal services into outlying areas. 
  3. Development of new financing methods and application of mass production methods into the building trades. 
  4. Social and economic changes that increasingly separated work from home. 
  5. New ideals of home promoted by author advocates, reformists, and architects.

To understand why this location fostered suburban growth, one must look back to the 18th century. In the 18th-century, the area that would become West Philadelphia was accessible only by boat or ferry. 

Exhibit by Matthew Grubel, 2008