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A VIEW OF WILMINGTON, DELAWARE IN THE "NEW CENTURY" -- ON ANTIQUE POSTCARDS

(Text copyright 2002, Donata Lewandowski Guerra, B.A. Swarthmore College)

     The Wilmington, Delaware of the New Century that began in 1901 can rightly be viewed as a city unfolding in The Age of Confidence.  Although one native son (Henry Seidel Canby) gave that title to his self-absorbed 1934 memoir of growing up in Victorian-era Wilmington, the city's own coming-of-age as it expanded and profited from the Industrial Revolution -- indeed, its very ethos -- exemplified assuredness (and even, at times, an undeniable smugness). At its best, confidence is a virtue that Wilmington could reflect from its Quaker founders, incorporating their plain-spoken simplicity and directness.  At worst, a narrow provincialism, the bane of all small towns, could turn this virtue into an impediment. (I myself am tempted to claim that Canby embodied that very narrowness, despite the supposed "broadening" that might have come with his Yale education.)

MARKET STREET, RAILROAD, AND RIVER

BUSTLING MARKET STREET - 1912
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"DOWNTOWN" DURING THE LAST CENTURY

     The lower numbers of Market comprised the commercial heart of Wilmington during the first part of the Twentieth Century.  Wilmington merchants had had their start on these streets from the earliest times, and according to John A. Munroe, in his History of Delaware, as time progessed, the Eighteenth century Wilmington merchant gave way to the Nineteenth century manufacturer until, by mid-Twentieth century, the Wilmington bureaucrat superceded both to dominate the city. 
     However, as the New Century dawned in 1901, these postcard views demonstrate that the merchant class was still thriving on the lower end of Market Steet.   The Five Cent Store at 221 Market was a convenience for the shoppers pictured, and at 106 W. Second Street, M. Smith Watchmakers and Jewelers helped with non-electronic time-keeping.
      L. Fellheimer, Dealer in Mens' and Boys' Clothing and Gent's Furnishing Goods occupied 308 Market while N. Lieberman, the Popular Clothier presided at the S.E. Corner of 5th and Market. Both names attest to the important contribution of proprietors of German and Russian Jewish origin to the strength of the mercantile community in cities like Wilmington and throughout the land in this period.

1912 - FRONT STREET
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By 1900, the city was manufacturing leather goods, vulcanized fiber, and railroad cars and wheels.

     Not only did the Pennsylvania Railroad employ a good number of Wilmingtonians, but noted manufactureres Jackson and Sharp, Harlan and Hollingsworth, and Pusey and Jones (first employer of this web author's father) fabricated railroad cars for an industry that was the equivalent of the airline in our own present day.

     The life of the citizenry was indivisible from the era's industrial technology, as well as from the city's geographic location on its two rivers, the Christiana and the Brandywine.  Pusey and Jones Corporation's first contract involved an order for a war sloop for use in the Civil War; by the time of World War I shipbuilding, the company employed 2000.

HARLAN & HOLLINGSWORTH SHIPYARD, 1918
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The Christiana River was ideal for shipbuilders.

     (One of my first memories includes a visit to Pusey and Jones, on the waterfront, in the mid-1950s where my father was employed as a young Traffic Manager.  Even at so early an age, I had the sense of an epoch that was already ending. Pusey's physical plant was old: wooden floorboards worn from a century's worth of footsteps, and glass panes, though thick and ancient, unable to bar the future.  Though the old industrial site was solid, a sense of "retirement" permeated the air.  By 1959 Pusey and Jones would be no more, and my father would join the DuPont Company.) 

NEW THIRD STREET BRIDGE, circa 1925
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Card published by PACO, Philadelphia

     Those of us in the New Millenium live at significant remove from the Wilmington life of 100 years ago.  In imagining that period, one must keep in mind that "going by foot" and having an "awareness of the water" were two components of that life.  Railroad, river, and Market Street were close -- the space between them easily traversed on foot.  Even in the mid-part of the last century, pedestrians were not hesitant.  (During the Second World War, my father, serving in the U.S. Navy, walked from his parents' South Wilmington house in the small hours of the morning to the Wilmington Railroad Station to catch a train to Baltimore.  Who can envision ambling the city in such stillness as provided by a simpler, more tranquil time?  Again and again, in my own mind, I would like to take that dark journey with him...)

    

   HEADING UPTOWN ON MARKET STREET  -  TOWARD RODNEY SQUARE

MARKET STREET NORTH FROM EIGHTH
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Goldey College occupies a building that would later host Kresge's.

     The "old" Post Office (right) rose, a solid Victorian  rendered in Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, one block West of Market on Shipley.  In contrast to the later buildings we will view near or on Rodney Square as pictured  in their Beaux Art/Renaissance Revival grandeur, this public building is already dated by its style (the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., constructed in the mid-1800s, being the most prominent example).
     Richardson's 1870s and onwards interpretation of Romanesque resonates in the Wilmington building -- deep windows and heavily recessed doors,  a rough exterior stone texture, repeating bands of windows, and, of course, a lone tower as piece de resistance!
     This style, as well, marked some of the other public buildings of the city, including a number of its public schools.

Equitable Building, Once Home to DuPont Offices
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Souvenir Post Card Co., New York, 1910

The Equitable Building (left),  constructed in 1890 by Baker and Dallat of Philadelphia, provided space for Dupont offices after 1902.  The seventh and eighth floors were added to accomodate the company's need for quarters. .  The arched stone entryway and elongated arches stretching over the first five floors mark the style as later Richardsonian Romanesque, while its darker  horizontal beltcourses round the lower stories give it the substantial presence evocative of money-making.

THE OLD POST OFFICE WITH ITS CLOCK TOWER.
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Wide arches, tower, and beltcourse mark Romanesque style. As fascinating: the wood dwelling behind.

TROLLEYS AND LONG WHITE DRESSES, EARLY 1920s
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Sebold-Herb Co. card, published in Philadelphia

     It is noteworthy that the period captured above -- in which the Bijou Theater is visible on the left of the street -- corresponded to the heyday of the Silent Film era.  The white "boaters" of the gentlemen pictured to the right contrast with the "cap" on the workingman walking away from us on the left.  There was substantial immigration from abroad in this period, and pockets of Irish, German, Italians, and Poles developed around the city.  (Tour Rodney Square by clicking the link at the top of this page.)

Tour Rodney Square on page 2 of this site and then click here to visit my site-in-progress WILMINGTON, DELAWARE THEN AND NOW -- A CITY IN VINTAGE AND MODERN IMAGES

Want to get in touch? You can send me e-mail at:

OldWilmington@nc.rr.com