A message from the past

Shot of the Philadelphia Inquirer of May 23, 1862, three sheets of which turned up during the staff’s purging this week.
Shot of the Philadelphia Inquirer of May 23, 1862, three sheets of which turned up during the staff’s purging this week.
Posted: May 25, 2012

We had a Purge Party at the paper Monday. Think free pizza, not Joseph Stalin. Management is encouraging us to cull our belongings so we have hopes of squeezing into the ladies garment department at Strawbridge’s.

In preparation for next month’s move, reporters — notorious hoarders all — have been tossing treasured 1997 city budgets, primitive modems, maps from when the Iron Curtain still stood.

Midafternoon something surreal appeared atop a row of cabinets, up for anyone to grab — as if the institution itself had coughed up a slice of its past.

A Philadelphia Inquirer, yellowed and raggedy-edged.

The date: May 23, 1862.

A century and a half old to the date I write these words.

There had to be some message in the surfacing of this time capsule from the Civil War, when this newspaper and this city made great leaps forward.

Until the war, The Inquirer had the reputation for being “genteel and respectable in tone,” in the words of historian Nicholas B. Wainwright. A voice for commerce and a steady course.

War gave the newspaper a mission. Publisher William W. Harding expanded his stable of reporters, sending the most intrepid from the Inquirer Building, then at 121 S. Third St. onto the battlefields.

The paper’s reporting was so cleanly neutral that the Confederate high command grabbed copies when it could because Gen. Robert E. Lee felt the correspondents knew what they were doing.

The dog-eared pages that turned up this week show a paper in the midst of a growth spurt. In 1862, The Inquirer boasted a daily circulation of 55,000. It had sold only 7,000 copies when Harding assumed leadership seven years earlier.

For 2 cents an issue Philadelphias could read all about the fighting going on in Virginia, where the Union Army of the Potomac’s commander, Major Gen. George B. McClellan, had attacked the Peninsula, eyeing the capital of the Confederacy.

A dispatch from a reporter near Rappahannock, Va., relied on information from people of color about the strength and position of nearby Confederate troops. “The negros are very intelligent, and gave many interesting items in reference to the Rebels,” the reporter observed.

What caught my eye were the ads, eye-straining lines of small type distilled to their essence. The paper was loaded with them.

Advertisers sought Protestant girls for chamberwork, and offered “good plain cooks with City references.” They hawked fine wire for fastening bouquets, Arctic ice boxes, umbrella repairs and compasses. Opportunity abounded for copyists with steady hands, and clearheaded men interested in a counting house. Wonder cures were announced for consumption, coughs, and hemorrhages.

Then there was this curious enticement: “Strangers should always visit the model hair dyeing, cutting and bathing saloon, Eleventh and Branch.”

Then there were the amusements — the grand reopening of the German Summer Theatre, at 444 N. Third St., with the Philadelphia debut of Der Goldteufel: admission 10 cents. At the Assembly Buildings, audiences could take in the salty tales of Capt. Williams, the Yankee Whaleman.

The paper ran listings for marriages and deaths, as well as the sales and letting of homes and rooms. City real estate was available in plenty. For $4,000 a family could purchase a three-story brick house with modern improvements at 2006 Vine.

Readers could shop for dandelion beer (good for nervousness, impure blood and obstruction of the kidneys), grass butter and Muringer’s patent beef tea. They could pick up 100 barrels of pitch or illuminating coal. Ladies could buy cloaks, paletots and mantillas.

Old currency was the desire of several bankers’ queries, among them Jay Cooke, one of the war’s financiers. For auction were lots of boots and brogans, oranges and lemons, then the spring and summer fabrics, the ginghams, mohairs, plain and plaid mozambiques.

The paper printed a list of 34 sick and wounded soldiers arriving from Virginia by the steamer Daniel Webster. Briefs filled space — the accounts of recruiting in New Hampshire, horse thieving in Kentucky, and the capture of rebel emissaries in Missouri.

Longer pieces, headlined Local Intelligence, reported area shootings, meetings, mishaps and finally one curious affair at the Van Amburgh & Co menagerie, where just before opening hours a large striped hyena slipped its chain and led a 45-minute chase, occasionally snapping at pursuers and scaring the elephants.

These things that mattered, they are all gone. That Inquirer building is now a visitor’s center. Branch Street is no more. The house on Vine is a patch of green where the homeless dine each night, across from the Free Library. Better treatments have replaced patent medicines. People just buy another umbrella when one breaks.

The city has moved on, and so will we. It’s good to remind ourselves of that every once in a while.

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com or @danielrubin on Twitter.

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