Tucked away along busy street in Philadelphia’s Old City is of the city’s most important historical destinations: Elfreth’s Alley.
To an unknowing passerby, Elfreth’s Alley might not look that much different than any of the other residential streets in Philadelphia; however, despite its benign look, Elfreth’s Alley is one of the city’s most historic places.
It was on this narrow passageway that Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross often walked. And, it was along this street that William Penn’s message of tolerance was widely adopted as shopkeepers of different nationalities, races, and genders worked side-by-side, something that was almost unheard of in the 18th century.
However, despite the slew of history that occurred along Elfreth’s Alley, what makes it special is something entirely different: it’s America’s oldest, continually resident street.
The first houses on Elfreth’s Alley were built in 1702, though those standing today date from between 1728 and 1836. Over 300 years later, almost every house is still inhabited by a family who maintains the homes to look very similar to how they did in the 18th century.
This gives you the ability to easily imagine life in pre-Revolutionary War Philadelphia. It also gives you a chance to contrast colonial life with modern life, as you may spot a modern mailman, trash collector, or even delivery service truck going about their daily business on this historical street.
Even better, there’s no telling whose footsteps you may be walking in. While I mentioned above that Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross frequented Elfreth’s Alley, there surely were other famous early Americans who did as well. After all, most of our Founding Fathers spent over half their public careers within a few blocks of this historic residential street.
However, Elfreth’s Alley wasn’t just a residential street. In the 18th century, it was often common for houses to double as businesses, with offices or shops on the first floor of a house, and the family living on the upper floors.
Because of this, the older houses along the alley have their entrances at ground level, while the houses built in the 19th century have their entrances raised up a few steps above street level.
Over the last 300 years, the houses along Elfreth’s Alley have changed hands many times, but the street has always remained home to dozens of families. Facing pressure from the expanding city, the Elfreth’s Alley Association was formed in 1934 to help preserve these historic homes from getting swallowed by development.
Fortunately, the homes along the alley were protected from the wrecking ball, and today, Elfreth’s Alley is one of Philadelphia’s few remaining examples of 18th-century working class housing.
If you want to learn a bit more about the street’s history, there is an interesting, but rather small museum dedicated to the past residents of the street. It is located in the middle of the street, having taken over two of the oldest houses in the alley.
For an even better look into the history of Elfreth’s Alley, visit during one of the yearly open houses, when many of the homes along the street are open to visitors.
However, even if you don’t visit the museum or have a chance to peer into a colonial home, visiting Elfreth’s Alley is still a great way to get in touch with Philadelphia’s history.
Museum Hours: Friday-Sunday: 12p-5p
Museum Cost: $3 for walk through tours.
Address: 126 Elfreth’s Alley