Back to the Future
In September, 1887, the Philadelphia Inquirer used the centennial anniversary of the adoption of the Federal Constitution to look back on what Philadelphia had been in 1787, to analyze and criticize the state of the city in 1887, and to project what it might be like a hundred years in the future. The article was part editorial sermonizing and part wishful thinking. Optimistically foreseeing the end of municipal corruption and the advancement of science, the paper was spot-in in some instances and entirely missed the mark in others. “In 1987,” the Inquirer trumpeted,”once again, Philadelphia is the leading city on the American continent just as it was 200 years ago in 1787.”
Below is a summation of the two page article, with its original paragraph headings and the charming lithographs representing the Jules Verne-esque Philadelphia of 1987 that the Inquirer artists conceptualized.
Throughout the article, the virtues of the latest technological wonder–electricity– were extolled. Dirty, noisy steam driven trains and steet cars would be replaced by efficient, silent, electrically driven, lightweight aluminum transport fitted with rubber wheels. No more smoke belching from coal and wood fires, no clattering of horse hooves on stone streets, no clanging of trolley bells. All this was made possible, the Inquirer said, by electricity, and by the cutting edge Keely motor.
John Ernst Worrell Keely, left, was a Philadelphia inventor who claimed to have constructed an “etheric generator” that ran only on water which the apparatus would “disintegrate” to produce a mysterious vapor or “ether” that could run powerful machinery. Hopeful investors poured nearly a million dollars into his research. Keely predicted that his new “vacuo-engine” would make all other sources of energy obsolete. Facing legal problems and accused of fraud, Keely died of pneumonia in 1898, having produced nothing. When asked by a friend what epitaph he’d like, John Keely replied, “Keely, the greatest humbug of the 19th century.” There is a model of the Keely engine at the Franklin Institute.
A Ship Canal Across Jersey.
In the twentieth century, the Inquirer went on, a wide canal would be cut across southern New Jersey, from Camden to Barnegat Township, and Smith and Windmill Islands in the Delaware River would be dredged away. The resulting increase in maritime traffic would boost Philadelphia to its rightful pre-eminence in America, once eclipsing its rival New York. No canal was ever built, but in 1898 Smith and Windmill Islands, which stood east of Walnut Street, below, were, in fact, removed.
Palatial Tunnels. Bridge to Camden.
In addition to the trans-New Jersey canal, two tunnels would be dug to Camden, from Moore Street in South Philadelphia and from Lehigh Avenue to the north. A bridge would also finally be constructed, since objections to its impeding ship traffic on the Delaware were dropped when the Keely motor (!) made tall masted sailing ships obsolete.
Disturbed by the number of tall buildings sprouting up in Philadelphia, the Inquirer also predicted that in 1961 a law would be passed limiting all buildings to 150 feet. These contiguous buildings would surround each block with a continuous roofline and encircle a garden or recreational space in the block’s center. Because of new elevator technology, kitchens could now be installed on the top floor, instead of the basement, alleviating smoke and cooking odors throughout the house. Electric heat meant an end to dirty flues, vents and furnace fumes.
Visitors who arrived in Philadelphia via balloon would be treated to an expanse of marvellous rooftop gardens and restaurants, all equipped with balloon tethering posts, see illustration above.
William Peter Elkiner’s Experiment.
In this section, the Inquirer addressed the problem of Philadelphia’s city government, one that in the late 19th century was notorious for corruption. The name “William Peter Elkiner” was a conflation of Peter Widener, left, and William Elkiner, below, right, actual Philadelphia business partners, who were two of the wealthiest men in the United States. Widener had served as City Treasurer and used his political influence to gain control of the city’s streetcar system, with his partner, Elkins. He then used his incredible wealth to buy large blocks of stock in the United States Steel Corporation, Standard Oil and the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1887, as this article was being written, he was completing the construction of a large mansion at North Broad Street and Girard Avenue. It still stands today.
The Inquirer took the fictitious “William Peter Elkiner” to task for seeing himself as being above the law, for attempted bribery and for failing to fulfill contracted public duties. However, in the Philadelphia of 1987, said the Inquirer, the mythical Elkiner’s plans to stall the passage of the bill limiting the height of city buildings would be thwarted by city councils and courts that were now staffed by “intelligent and upright citizens.” Not only would Elkiner’s attempts be futile, but the very fact of his opposing the bill would help it to pass more quickly. “The case is dismissed. And that was the end of that.” In 1987, intelligence and morality would replace complacent corruption. If only.
The Saloon Subsides.
Siding with the Temperance movement, the Inquirer also predicted a national prohibition on liquor in 1904. This prediction wasn’t far off the mark; the Eighteenth Amendment took effect on January 17, 1920. It also predicted a surge in the economy due to the saving of money formerly spent on alcohol and a lessening of crime and therefore of the prison population. Here the paper’s optimism was misplaced. In fact, National Prohibition created a lawless atmosphere and vastly increased criminal activity. Called “the noble experiment,” it was repealed in 1932.
Who Shall Vote.
Constitutional amendments would extend the right to vote to men and women alike, “but limited it , by well-known restrictions, to those only, of either sex, who were likely to vote intelligently and honestly.” The Inquirer didn’t elaborate on what these “well-known restrictions” were, or how it would be determined who would be likely to vote intelligently and honestly.
Actual Philadelphia in 1987. The newly completed Liberty Place dominates the skyline.
Philadelphia in 1987.
In general, the article was hopeful in foreseeing that the next 100 years would bring a clean, quiet, comfortable city, a far cry from the noisy, dirty, urban landscape of the late 19th century. The Inquirer wrote:
Machinery does so much that men formerly had to do by their own powers, and does it so much more quickly, that everybody has time for relaxation and mental improvement. A sound mind in a sound body and healthful employment for both will make the possessor happy…amid the comfort and luxuries of the Philadelphia of 1987.