How Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia Landmark, Got Its Name

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How Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia Landmark, Got Its Name
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Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/photos/pepsiline.)

Elfreth's Alley is a narrow street bordered by 32 buildings in the Old City section of Philadelphia. The alley and adjacent buildings, considered the oldest residential street in the United States, provide an example of an 18th-century neighborhood, as well as how working-class families lived at the time. In October 1966, the alley was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It had already become a location attraction, enticing visitors curious to see the alley, the buildings that are open, and the Elfreth's Alley Museum. Yet when I asked several Philadelphia natives how Elfreth's Alley got its name, not one knew. It was time to do some research.

Elfreth's Alley originally was open space where two Philadelphia blacksmiths' properties met. In the early 1700s, the blacksmiths, John Gilbert and Arthur Wells, each sold a narrow strip of their land where it adjoined, allowing the creation of a narrow alley. This strip of land was subsequently developed, becoming a cobblestone street with a series of homes and shops.

The oldest houses remaining on the street date back to 1713. Some of the first homes along the street were built and managed by Jeremiah Elfreth. Elfreth was a tradesman, but he also successfully speculated in real estate. He purchased and built homes along the alley, as well as others within the area; Elfreth lived nearby on Second Street. By 1750, residents began calling the alley "Elfreth's Alley."

During the next two centuries, the alleyway remained primarily residential, providing homes and shops to a wide variety of people. English colonists became the first citizens of the newly formed United States. A former slave began his life as a free man living on Elfreth's Alley. Newly arrived immigrants took housing in the small homes along the alleyway. Over the course of time, the Elfreth's Alley Association estimates that over 3,000 individuals have lived on Elfreth's Alley. At some point in time, Elfreth's Alley became the 100 block of Cherry Street, ostensibly because residents disliked having the word "Alley" as part of the name.

In the early 1900s, Elfreth's Alley had become a dilapidated eyesore, consisting primarily of poorly maintained homes owned by absentee landlords. As a result, the homes on the alley were threatened with demolition on several occasions. In 1934, the Elfreth's Alley Association was created by residents interested in the historical value of the street who successfully prevented several homes from being destroyed. In 1937, the association lobbied to have the 100 block of Cherry Street renamed back to Elfreth's Alley and won.

Elfreth's Alley now hosts the Elfreth's Alley Museum , with twice-daily tours of the street and special events throughout the year. The museum's hours vary seasonally; check for the most up-to-date times, as well as special events. Special events are hosted throughout the year, such as the annual Fete Day, First Fridays showcasing local artists and craftspeople, BrewFest, and the annual Deck the Alley holiday event.

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