Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Archive for October, 2009

Material Culture Museum Exhibit – Chestnut st. between Broad & Fourth sts.

Chestnut Street – Between Broad and Fourth

Whitman’s writing directly connected to this material topic is “The First Spring Day on Chestnut Street” from Whitman’s Specimen Days collection. In this piece of prose from around 1880-1881, Whitman expresses his joy and satisfaction at the scene on “Chestnut street — say between Broad and Fourth,” and explains why this part of Philadelphia stands out “even when compared with the great promenade-streets of other cities.”

Whitman describes a bustling scene from the first day of Spring between 1 and 2 in the afternoon, in which “nine-tenths” of the people are in great spirits to be there. A column in the August 6, 1923 edition of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reads, “The poet says that Chestnut [S]treet has a soul. It casts a spell. It is sacred ground. You must look your best when you walk down Chestnut [S]treet – everybody does” (“Men and Things”). Regardless of whether the “poet” cited in the column is Whitman, the sentiment is clearly one Whitman shares in his expressions of wonder. Even regarding the requirement to “look your best when you walk down Chestnut Street,” Whitman feels this is the norm: His second sentence notes the “gay-dress’d crowds,” and he later remarks on the “welldress’d women, ambulating to and fro.”

A Brief History of Time [regarding Chestnut Street]

Chestnut Street was originally laid in 1682 and named Wynne Street after Dr. Thomas Wynne, a Quaker friend of William Penn who traveled with Penn to the new colony. Penn would change the name to Chestnut Street the very next year as he renamed Philadelphia’s major streets after trees (“Chestnut St. 244 Years Old”).

George Washington once stayed at a building on 7th and Chestnut that by 1927 was the Green’s Hotel. Interestingly, Benedict Arnold was married in this same building (“Chestnut St. 244 Years Old”). The first Chestnut Street store opened in 1706 (“Merchants Plan Antique Vista”). By 1851, Philadelphia’s leading business were all located on Chestnut between 2nd & 10th, according to a pamphlet from 1851 published in 1926 by the Evening Bulletin (“Pamphlet Of 1851 Shows Old-Time Chestnut Street”).

A Rapidly Changing Street

According to a Philadelphia Evening Bulletin article from February 24, 1940, the North side of Chestnut Street between 11th and 12th had been a cow pasture in 1830, 50 years before Whitman’s writing. But per the will of Stephen Girard, the land was developed into houses between 1831 and 1837, with 16 of these houses actually on this block of Chestnut Street (“Cows Were On The Carpet”). Along with this article is a picture of that particular block [the North side] from 1864, which, though only 16 years before Whitman’s “First Spring Day” visit, would be drastically different from the view Whitman would have. For by the time of Whitman’s visit, the only “residence” still on Chestnut Street East of Broad was the Baldwin Mansion.

Whitman’s Experience – The Baldwin Mansion

In a catalogue published in 1922 by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, part of the entry on Hartman Kuhn reads, “1118 Chestnut Street, later known as the Baldwin Mansion, was occupied by the Union League Club 1862-1865” (Entry on Hartman Kuhn).

Whitman takes note of the Baldwin Mansion during a snapshot of his walk down the street [these snapshots in part and collectively form more “lists” or “catalogues” for which Whitman is famous]: “[T]he beauty of the cramm’d conservatory of rare flowers, flaunting reds, yellows, snowy lilies, incredible orchids, at the Baldwin mansion near Twelfth street.” As noted in the 1922 catalogue above, the Baldwin mansion in the 1860s played home to the Union League Club, an organization that maintained affiliation with not only Northerners geographically, but Republicans politically (Entry on Hartman Kuhn). There does not seem to be any indication that the mansion served as the main living quarters [during Whitman’s visit] for its owners or anyone else at least until it was sold  to vaudeville producer Benjamin Franklin Keith in 1900 (“Keith May Open Another House”).

Whitman’s Experience – Widening Chestnut Street

In about his only negative comments in “First Spring Day,” Whitman laments the width of Chestnut Street: “Of course it is a pity that Chestnut were not two or three times wider.” The concern over the streets width was not limited to the bard: Between 1915 and 1925, there were at least 14 articles that appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin written on the subject of widening Chestnut Street.

Chestnut Street was widened at least somewhat as early as 1884, only a couple years after Whitman published Specimen Days. In an article from April 11, 1924, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reports on an unsuccessful suit resulting from the widening of Chestnut Street “under the ordinance of 1884” (“City Wins Street Suit”). This same ordinance is presumably the “old ordinance of Councils” referenced in an article from May 17, 1915 concerning an unsuccessful suit filed by John Wanamaker [the John Wanamaker] (“Wanamaker Loses Appeal”).

The bulk of the debate in the Evening Bulletin over whether to further expand Chestnut Street took place from 1921-1922, as this latter article [Wanamaker] is the only one from before 1921, and the only of the 14 articles from 1925 about street widening concerned the narrowing of sidewalks for the construction of a new subway (“Oppose Sidewalk Cutting”).

Another Center of “Commerce”

Another historical building on Chestnut Street was the Masonic Hall. In this early 19th Century, this hall “was the favorite place for all social and patriotic functions” (Barratt 3), and was where the defeat of Napoleon was celebrated with a grand dinner on February 24, 1814. Though the building burned down on March 9, 1819, it was rebuilt in 1820 (Barratt 9).

Here is an engraving of the Hall from around 1870, about 10 years before Whitman’s day on Chestnut street:

Mason Hall on Chestnut Street - North Side between 7th & 8th sts.

Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street - North Side between 7th & 8th Sts.

A Brief [Concluding] Synopsis

For more than a half century before Whitman, Chestnut Street served as a center for some of Philadelphia’s earliest national [read: Post-Nation-Founding] patriotism and gatherings of politicos. During the Civil War, it served as home to the fervent pro-nation Union League. For years before Whitman went to Chestnut Street, it was a bustling center of business.

In Whitman’s time, the street was a rapidly-changing promenade, but amidst the changes maintained its status as Philadelphia’s commerce center and all-around “happening place.” From all evidential indications, Whitman’s wonder at the street’s personality is well-earned, and his account an accurate description of the street’s typical scene historically.


Barratt, Norris S. & Sachse, Julius Friedrich. Freemasonry in Pennsylvania, 1727-1907. Volume 3. The New Era Printing Company: Lancaster, PA. 1919.

Entry on Hartman Kuhn. From the Catalogue of the Memorial Exhibition of Portraits by Thomas Sully. By Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Philadelphia. 1922.

“Keith May Open Another House.” From “William Wegener in Grand Opera.” Special to the New York Times. August 9, 1900. The New York Times Archives. Accessed October 21, 2009.                  < C946197D6CF>.

“Masonic Hall” [Chestnut St. abv., 7th, N. side]. Copy of engraving by William Kneass after William Strickland. Topics: Robert Newell Photographs from the Library Company of Philadelphia. From the Brenner Collection. Accessed October 21, 2009.   <>.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Chestnut Street – Miscellaneous – 1969 & Prior, Chestnut St. 244 Years Old, March 18, 1927, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Chestnut Street – Miscellaneous – 1969 & Prior, Cows Were On    The Carpet, February 24, 1940, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Chestnut Street – Miscellaneous – 1969 & Prior, Men and Things, August 6, 1923, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Chestnut Street – Miscellaneous – 1969 & Prior, Pamphlet Of 1851 Shows Old-Time Chestnut Street, April 11, 1926, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Chestnut Street – Widening, City Wins Street Suit, April 11, 1924, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Chestnut Street – Widening, Oppose Sidewalk Cutting, February 5, 1925, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Chestnut Street – Widening, Wanamaker Loses Appeal, May 17, 1915, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

Philadelphia Inquirer, Chestnut Street – Miscellaneous – 1969 & Prior, Merchants Plan Antique    Vista, August 26, 1956, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, PA.

Brian for October 13 – War, Wisconsin, Chancellorsville

This post regards Whitman’s journal article entitled “Death of a Wisconsin Officer.” from the collection Memoranda During the War.

In this journal entry, Whitman spends most of his writing admiring the pains the surgeons and nurses go through [including keeping the place quiet] to keep men alive and notes the sharp change in treatment and attention toward the patients once their [the patients’] conditions were deemed terminal.

When I first read this journal article, I realized that I didn’t even know that Wisconsin had been an active player in the “War of the Rebellion.” As it turns out, Wisconsin was very Unionist in its sentiment, having enrolled over 91,000 for the Northern Army [73 total regiments].

Wisconsin in 1863

As you can see from this map from 1863 [the same year Whitman cites for his entry] made by Johnson & Ward, Wisconsin already existed in land-size the way we know it today. Having become a state in 1848, Wisconsin had previously been known as the Wisconsin Territory, an area that also included the present-day states of Minnesota, Iowa and parts of both Dakotas.

Whitman notes that this particular lieutenant was a casualty [nothing casual about it — is that in bad taste??] of Chancellorsville, one of the bloodiest battles [up] to date of the war.

In this vibrant and brilliantly-colored portrayal of the Battle of Chancellorsville, we see the war raging in the background, while in the foreground, Stonewall Jackson reacts to the friendly-fire shot that would ultimately lead to his death.

Chancellorsville was a terrible defeat for the Union [including Whitman’s dying Wisconsin lieutenant]; but it was not without cost also to the Confederates, who lost a greater percentage of fighters from the battle, and who also lost a top field commander in Jackson.

Brian for Oct 06 — George Washington [Whitman]

My post stems from part of the poem, “Virginia–The West”

Part of Whitman’s struggle is reflected in the final line:
“For you provided me Washington–and now these also.”

Having previously sung the praises of the new nation and its possibilities, Whitman is baffled that the very land that gave the nation its greatest hero prior to Lincoln [and the namesake for Whitman’s brother George] is the same land that produced those trying to break up the nation.

The Greatest Virginian

Above: The Greatest Virginian

The apple has fallen far from the tree

Above: The apple has fallen far from the tree

As we discussed in class, for Whitman America was to produce greatness down through the generations, and yet this generation of Virginians had gone in reverse direction from all the heroism of the General and first President.

Also, it was in Virginia that Whitman’s brother George Washington Whitman was injured during the war.

George Washington Whitman

George Washington Whitman

It was after visiting his brother in the hospital in December of 1962 that Whitman moved to the area and spent nearly all his free time volunteering as a nurse in the war hospitals for the next three years.

This poem reflects a time that profoundly impacted and inspired Whitman’s life and writings on war. This last point on the war injury to Whitman’s brother is especially poignant with regard to the last line of the poem: Virginia provided [George] Washington, who provided life to Whitman’s brother [symbolically at least, through name]. But Virginia also provided those who tried to kill George Washington Whitman, and thus alone provided the fatherstuff of civil war.

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