I love Philadelphia history. As a child born in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia in the 1960s I was literally raised in it, with it, immersed in it.
My late father worked on the Continental Congress reenactment. That was 1974. It was super cool. I remember it. We got to meet Jimmy and Roslyn Carter before he was President among others. (I found a video on YouTube about it, actually .) The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1774, so in 1974 in advance of the US Bicentennial, there was this reenactment.
Circa 1975 I was 11. And my parents somehow convinced the then Superintendent of Independence National Historic Park, Hobart Cawood, to let me be a volunteer tour guide of the Todd House (Dolly Todd Madison’s Philadelphia home way before she was a First Lady- I was obsessed with her as a kid and even have a China doll my mother made for me from a kit still), and the Bishop White House (the Philadelphia one, not the Rose Tree one White sent his family to during the Yellow Fever outbreak in late 18th Century.)
I gave my tours in Colonial garb. My mother made me a costume that included a mob cap (from a pattern similar to the one above I saw on eBay). I was a kid, but I loved Philadelphia history so I did research and made sure what I said was historically accurate. Grown-ups who took my tour told me then that my tour was better and more interesting than a lot of the grown-ups like Park Service folk giving tours. Regular lay volunteers were nice to me the precocious kid. Actual Park Service guides? Mmmm they tolerated me. Sort of.
Hobie Cawood allowed me to have memories to carry with me forever. It was a magical experience. Better than any camp I could have gone to that summer.
Around the same time I also helped a Philadelphia gardener named Bill Spann plant the kitchen garden at the Todd House. I contributed one of the plants to the garden from my own garden – Irish Camphor. My paternal grandmother had smuggled it home from a trip to Ireland and gave me a piece to grow, and I split part of my plant and donated some to this garden which was planted then to be historically accurate for a Colonial kitchen garden. I do not know if they still have a garden there or not.
Flash forward to the mid 1980s and starting to look for a “real” job. One of my great aunts had been a Civil Service employee her whole life (starting in World War II) and she used to get these paper catalogs of job listings for government jobs. She used to give them to me because to her a government job was the best kind of security. I looked through one of the catalogs and they had jobs that were either GS3 or GS4 grade Park Ranger jobs at Independence National Historic Park. I applied for a job, and to my surprise, got it.
I got this job as my friends were getting ready for one last post-College summer at the beach. I didn’t really want to go to work, but my parents were insistent. I went and got my polyester Smokey The Bear uniforms (complete with hat.) I will admit Main Line friends at the time mocked me.
I remember going to report for work at the visitors’ center. As an entry level baby Park Service employee, I had orientation and also shadowed park ranger tour guides and was tasked with also creating my own tour. I went back to my first Independence National Historic Park first loves – the Todd and Bishop White Houses. I was shocked at how historically inaccurate or historically sloppy the tours were at that time. I actually found it depressing.
So once again, now as a young adult, I researched and created my tour. No one really checked it, but I made it historically accurate. I did not embellish. It was tough being a new kid though. The established rangers viewed new kids on the block much like you would view a pesky younger sibling and were very cliquish. I will admit that was pretty much the only job I never really made friends.
Working for the Park Service in the cradle of American liberty in the mid 1980s did come with a pass key. I happily on breaks and lunch times explored photo archives that existed on upper floors of either the First or Second Bank (I forget which.) One time I also went with people to the tippy top to the wooden bell tower where the Liberty Bell once hung. That was super cool. All around inside the bell tower at that time were the signatures of famous people and regular people who had climbed to the top. I signed my name in ball point pen near where Ronald Reagan had signed his name. I have no idea if my signature or even his and others still exist as restoration work was done a few years ago.
In the post 9/11 world, I doubt as a Park Service employee that you can just wander at will like you once could. One of the drawbacks which I don’t know if it has changed was dealing with the unbalanced and homeless who frequented the historic sites. That was hard and sad.
I will admit that while I loved giving tours of my favorite houses from my childhood and it was a kick, I hated the job. I hated the scratchy and super ugly polyester uniform. I did not like the government worker cliques I encountered. So I maybe lasted a couple of months. And I quit and much to my parent’s anger, went back to the beach for the majority of one last summer.
Many years passed and I remember another time years ago now doing the tourist thing with a friend in from out of town. I remember taking them down to the Independence Hall area. We went on a tour of houses, Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and even a carriage ride tour. It was so historically OFF that to this day, I have never recommended those tours again. I recommend self-touring.
Well, in April’s Philadelphia Magazine there is an article about these tours. It’s worth reading. Thanks for stopping by and below is a very small excerpt:
Fact-Checking Philly History Tours: Truths, Half-Truths and Truthiness
By Don Steinberg
….Sightseeing tours of historic Philadelphia are like blizzards of candy factoids raining from the sky. As the landmarks whiz by, guides shower visiting pilgrims with history-book facts, anecdotes about the founding fathers, incredible backstories about public art, impressive and begging-for-fact-check firsts and biggests and oldests….It turns out not every truth, at least when it comes to Philadelphia history tours, is self-evident. Based on my small sample size, I’m putting it at about 83 percent. That means — good news! — our city sightseeing tours are mostly accurate. But there’s still a fertile area of dare-you-to-disprove sketchiness and just enough whacked-out face-palmers to keep the city’s vital tourist audience entertained. What could be more American?
Ten years ago, Philadelphia City Council passed a law, and mayor Michael Nutter signed it, that said anybody who wanted to give a paid sightseeing tour in Center City had to pass a Philadelphia history test to get a license. That ordinance remains on the books, and this April we celebrate the 10th anniversary of its never being enforced.