Monday, December 16, 2013

In Pursuit of Happiness and Betterment: A Visit to Historic Philadelphia

Think of the people that inspire you, and make you richer. Not in the monetary sense, but in the path for a more rewarding life. Surround yourself often and abundantly with these forces.

David McCullough is one of our national treasures. This great historian has an infectious love of seeking the past and his storytelling in his books, speeches and interviews never fails to inspire me. Out of anyone, he gets me the most excited about learning more about history. He reflects in this 60 Minutes interview,

"The only way to teach history, to write history, to bring people into the magic of transforming yourself into other times is through the vehicle of the story. It isn't just a chronology. It's about people. History is human. Jefferson when in the course of human events. Human is the operative word." See part one below of his tour in Philadelphia, and part two in Paris and in wonderment of the Brooklyn Bridge here.

For my November birthday this year, I asked my husband Steve if we could take a long planned but never materialized trip to visit historic sites in Philadelphia. We've managed to vacation abroad and in the American West, but sometimes planning a trip so close to home (less than two hours for us) took so long. Maybe because it's always there, seemingly so easy to get to. Or maybe I needed the perspective of storytellers and time to take this trip in its due course. Our journey was less than two full days, one night, but really it was hundreds of years in time.

"You understand those other times by being in the buildings, walking the streets, hearing the music and eating the food," says Mr. McCullough. When asked about the last presidential election, he bemoaned the unconscionable  amount of money being spent and despite all the words being produced, none of them memorable.

"We should demand more of them. We should get to be like people who go to the theatre all the time or go to symphony all the time and they know a punk performance when they see one and don't like it. That's the way we should be." We should demand more of them, but we should demand more of ourselves. To better ourselves. Part of this trip was about the pursuit of happiness, but my own course of personal betterment. Education is a lifelong process.

Carpenter's Hall, where delegates form the 13 colonies met for the first time in 1774 to air their grievances.

We couldn't visit the lending library in the 60 Minutes piece since it's not open for public viewing, but a page here showed us a photo of it. Mr. McCullough talked about Benjamin Franklin starting the nation's first lending library.

"At the very beginning comes the idea of learning, of books and ideas."

My friend, scientist and author J.J. Brown, was interviewed by daughter and actress Lillian Rodriguez about what she loves about libraries in front of the stunning Brooklyn Public Library.

"You can meet people that you've never met through their books. Cicero said that if you have a library and a garden you have everything you need. So if you have a pubic garden and a public library lots of people have everything they need." Authors are communicating years after they've left the physical world.

I think of the words of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, both authors, "The longest lives are short. Our work lasts longer."

Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted. In the mood for a fairytale, I watched the Pixar film Brave, about a young princess named Merida in the Scottish Highlands who reminded her countrymen, "Our kingdom is young. Our stories are not yet legends." I think of the youth of our nation, and when these legendary figures decided our fate.

Listen closely. Can you hear the debates? Are you tuned into the debates and issues of our age? Are you a witness? Or an activist?

The Signer, in remembrance of those who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States, forever changing the course of history.

The Liberty Bell. The crack seems almost fitting, since liberty at the start of our country wasn't equal for all.

Little Big Chief beside the bell at the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915 in San Francisco. As the sign here reminds us, "Forced to choose between segregation and assimilation that insisted upon suppression of their unique cultural practices, Native Americans may not have seen the hope of fair treatment and equal rights embodied in the Bell."

A woman beside a replica of a bell in the fight for women's suffrage. I've written previously and still believe the culture now is a disappointment for women in terms of role models, who is getting the media spotlight on a daily basis, and the values that are promoted. After Miranda Lambert appeared on the country music awards after some weight loss (I thought she looked fine before), and the next day all the talk was about her slimmer frame and how she achieved it. Steve said, "See how quickly she's praised in the media." I'm so tired of these value being emphasized. How about emphasizing education?

"At no moment in history has a bright young girl with plenty of food and a good constitution perished from too much learning." - from Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things.

One of my most memorable storytellers of 2013 was Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, a sweeping novel bout Alma Whittaker, a female botanist born in 1800 in Philadelphia. I thought of Elizabeth and Alma at once when I saw this poster for the Cornelius Varley exhibit at the American Philosophical Society Museum.

"Alma wished to devote even more time to the study of plants. She had bizarre fantasies. She wished that she lived in an army barrack of natural sciences, where she would be awoken at dawn by a bugle call and marched off in formation with other young naturalists, in uniforms, to labor all day in woods, streams, and laboratories. She wished that she lived in a botanical monastery or a botanical convent of sorts, surrounded by other devoted taxonomists, where no one interfered with another's studies, yet all shared their most exciting findings with each other. Even a botanical prison would be nice! (It did not occur to Alma that such places of intellectual asylum and walled isolation did exist in the world, to a point, and that they were called "universities." But little girls in 1810 did not dream of universities.")

"She also loved her microscope, which felt like a magical extension of her own right eye, enabling her to peer straight down the throat of the Creator Himself." - The Signature of All Things.

Benjamin Franklin writing in 1751 said the microscope, "has opened a world to us...a World utterly unknown to the ancients. There are very few substances in which it does not shew something curious and unexpected."

Off to the Betsy Ross House.

It's hard to conceptualize in our age of documenting so much digitally, but a sign revealed no one actually knows what Betsy Ross looked like. 

Not having money for luxuries such as sitting for a portrait, this image was painted by Charles Weisberger in 1892, decades after her death.

Betsy, I learned, was born at a farm in New Jersey on New Year's Day in 1752, the eighth of 17 children into a Quaker family. She was shunned for marrying outside her faith and was widowed three times, twice by the age of 30, her first husband dying while serving with a local militia, the second in an English prison after his ship was captured by the British. Two of her seven daughters died as infants, and her mother, father and sister died within days of each other during the Yellow Fever epidemic. Did you know the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 was one of the worst epidemics in U.S. history? Nearly 5,000 people perished - 10 percent of the city's population, in three months. Recommended for readers young and old is Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, a fictitious tale set during the fever. Learn more about the Free African Society, the city's coffeehouses, farmers' market, and historical figures of the day.

A "No Stamp Act" teapot. I caught a few episodes of the Sleepy Hollow television series, with Ichabod Crane transported from hundreds of years ago. Examining a receipt, he can't believe the taxes imposed and that no protests were happening against these levies. Maybe we're too distracted, I think intentionally, to protest as much as we should. I believe one of the strongest forms of protest is how you spend your dollars.

David McCullough champions the teaching of history and worries how historically illiterate we are. History puts everything into perspective for me.

An interactive kitchen invites children how to make a turkey pot pie as Betsy would (mine would be a vegetable pot pie). Cooking is another lost art.

An 18th Century garden getting ready for winter's slumber. A sign noted, "Neat pathways, geometric flowerbeds, small orchards, and gazebos are characteristics of early Philadelphia gardens."

My birthday dinner at City Tavern. A raspberry shrug (fruit sweetened vinegar with soda water) and a bread basket with Sally Lunn bread (chef Walter Staib described this in a video as an 18th century brioche), a bread with molasses, and Thomas Jefferson's sweet potato pecan biscuits (find a recipe and history for the biscuits here).

Creamed mushrooms on Sally Lunn bread. So comforting on a cold night.

Fried tofu over linguine and vegetables. On City Tavern's menu it notes, "In a 1770 letter to Philadelphia's John Bartram, Benjamin Franklin included instructions on how to make tofu."

Researching this post, I found a video Chef Staib preparing the mushroom toast and fried tofu. He said the tofu is one of his restaurants top sellers. I love the reaction of the host's first bite of the mushroom toast in using the word "earthiness."

The orange cake in the 60 Minutes piece isn't on the menu anymore, but fortunately Martha Washington's chocolate mousse cake is.

We stayed right across the street from City Tavern at the historic Thomas Bond House bed and breakfast.  A wine and cheese hour with local Pennsylvania wines.

Their inviting parlor.

Benjamin Franklin was an enthusiastic chess player, and a marker in a museum about him noted, "Franklin realized his passion for playing chess helped him be an effective colonial representative and later diplomat for the United States. Chess cultivated important traits of the mind. Strategic thinking in the game helped him anticipate moves during negotiations and checked him from making rash decisions. Chess led him to listen better, be patient and hope for positive change, especially called for during the debates creating the Constitution of the United Sates."

 Do you play chess? My husband loves playing and one day must show me how.

Breakfast at the Thomas Bond House. After strawberries and honeydew melon in almond syrup and banana bread, we savored eggnog pancakes with caramel vanilla syrup, cranberry juice and English breakfast tea.

The table decorations remind us to give thanks. Since reading the Signature of All Things, I've taken to visiting Elizabeth Gilbert's Facebook page, which I love for inspirational quotes, images of readers with her books, and their happiness jars. She shared this quote I love, "It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy."

Inspiring me, this quote by Benjamin Franklin, and giving me pause if we shifted our attentions away from chasing after lost youth and pursuits of vanity, what would our country look like if instead we asked,

"The Morning Question, What Good shall I do this day? Evening question, What Good have I done today?"

At the Christ Church cemetery, pennies on the grave of Benjamin Franklin.

There are so many stories here, such as the resting place of Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a yellow fever survivor and a founder of the American psychiatry movement. From the appendix of Fever 1793,

"Dr. Rush was one of the most famous doctors in the country.

He gave patients mercury, calomel, and jalap to make them throw up and have diarrhea. He drained blood from them (a common practice) to get rid of "pestilence" in their bodies. Medical experts speculate that Rush's treatments killed many of his patience.

Rush's insistence on perilous remedies for yellow fever patients was a rare misstep for the energetic doctor. He was far ahead of his time on many issues. He fought against slavery and capital punishment, and argued for public schools, the education of girls, and the compassionate treatment of the mentally ill. He treated his insane patients with gentle understanding."

Most resters here have little fanfare and lie in quiet anonymity, but their lives mattered too.

"Fall is my favorite season because it reminds me of death. When the leaves fall and they turn a beautiful color and the tree gives up its year's leaves it reminds me of death and that there's something that endures and sustains beyond death because there's the tree and there's the trunk of the tree and the tree continues to live. So it reminds me although there's death, there's sustained life, there's strength." - author J.J. Brown.

Christ Church, founded in 1695.

Inside lie some resting places. Above one soul, a stone on the floor here noted the earth had been bountiful to him. I want to be kind to our earth and give thanks for her bounty. I loved Merida's reflection in Brave, "Some say our destiny is tied to the land, as much a part of us as we are of it."

Carmen's Cheesesteak and Hoagies at the Reading Terminal market. 

They had a vegetarian Philly cheese steak! Wheat protein is the substitute for the steak, and I added hearty mushrooms here too, with a root beer.

Elfreth's Alley, said to be our nation's oldest residential street, dating back to 1702.

A word I found invoked so often in historic or older homes: character. They seem to have a soul to them. What stories lie here untold?

I love the welcoming pineapple over the front door.

It was starting to get cold and blustery, the perfect excuse to duck into the City Tavern's pub area for dessert: an apple ginger cobbler with cinnamon ice cream and hot apple cider.

I had the Woodlands on my list to see after I learned it was an inspiration for the White Acres estate in The Signature of All Things, but we arrived just as dark was settling in and we needed to make our journey home. They have haunting cemetery grounds all around.


So many journeys to take in our short time here. I'll never reach all the lands I long to see. Thankfully we have the portals of books  to access those places and times beyond our reach.



  1. Thank you Catherine for the tour of Philadelphia! It was somewhere I didn't get to visit but almost feel I have been because of your very informative post.
    I love David McCullough's books. John Adams was a particular favourite and especially having visited New England extensively with a couple of visits to Washington D.C.
    History has always been a passion of mine and while I love reading about people and events of the past there is nothing like actually visiting the places where these people actually lived. I've been lucky enough to visit many countries and see the places I've read about. One of the most significant moments in my life was to visit Walden Pond and see where Henry David Thoreau built his cabin and then to wander around Concord where he would have walked. When I took my husband there to visit exactly 40 years later it was just as moving for me.
    Wishing you every joy at Christmas and in the New Year.

  2. Greetings Megan! Thanks so much for the comments and well wishes. Glad you enjoy David McCullough too. I loved John Adams and even was impressed by the HBO mini-series based on the book I watched from the library. How lucky you got to see Walden Pond! We actually considered it on our road trip of the Northeast going home but I think like my Philadelphia trip I will see it when the timing is right. It would have been too rushed a visit. Isn't traveling wonderful, not just for the leisure aspect and change of environment but for how it enriches us learning about history and other cultures? It's something we'll spend money on instead of gifts for each other. Warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


  3. Catherine thanks for sharing your visit to Philadelphia and these wonderful places steeped in history. I'm happy you and Steve visited, you know I lived in Philadelphia for 2 years and enjoyed it so much. But who knew about Benjamin Franklin and tofu, most surprising! Our history shapes our present and the more we learn about it the better we understand ourselves and our possible futures, I think. Happy Holidays!

  4. Thank you for being one of the storytellers on my trip! I did not know you lived in Philadelphia. We were so impressed by Benjamin Franklin's lifelong quest of betterment of both himself and his nation, so inspiring indeed, and how far ahead of his time he was with tofu.

    Happy New Year!