We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Embodied History

The Lives of the Poor in Early Philadelphia

By Simon P. Newman

Publication Year: 2011

Offering a new view into the lives and experiences of plebeian men and women, and a provocative exploration of the history of the body itself, Embodied History approaches the bodies of the poor in early national Philadelphia as texts to be read and interpreted. Through a close examination of accounts of the bodies that appeared in runaway advertisements and in seafaring, almshouse, prison, hospital, and burial records, Simon P. Newman uses physical details to paint an entirely different portrait of the material circumstances of the poor, examining the ways they became categorized in the emerging social hierarchy, and how they sought to resist such categorization.

The Philadelphians examined in Embodied History were members of the lower sort, a social category that emerged in the early modern period from the belief in a society composed of natural orders and ranks. The population of the urban poor grew rapidly after the American Revolution, and middling and elite citizens were frightened by these poor bodies, from the tattooed professional sailor, to the African American runaway with a highly personalized hairstyle and distinctive mannerisms and gestures, to the vigorous and lively Irish prostitute who refused to be cowed by the condemnation of others, to the hardworking laboring family whose weakened and diseased children played and sang in the alleys. In a new republic premised on liberty and equality, the rapidly increasing ranks of unruly bodies threatened to overwhelm traditional notions of deference, hierarchy, and order.

Affluent Philadelphians responded by employing runaway advertisements, the almshouse, the prison, and to a lesser degree the hospital to incarcerate, control, and correct poor bodies and transform them into well-dressed, hardworking, deferential members of society. Embodied History is a compelling and accessible exploration of how poverty was etched and how power and discipline were enacted upon the bodies of the poor, as well as how the poor attempted to transcend such discipline through assertions of bodily agency and liberty.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


pdf iconDownload PDF (520.0 KB)
pp. 1-3

Title Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (15.6 KB)
p. 4-4

Copyright Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (44.1 KB)
p. 5-5

Dedication Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (13.8 KB)
pp. 6-7

Table of Contents

pdf iconDownload PDF (23.4 KB)
pp. 8-9

List of Illustrations

pdf iconDownload PDF (78.1 KB)
pp. ix-x

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (7.4 MB)
pp. 1-15

Early national Philadelphia was a "large, populous & beautiful city ... regular and well built," filled with ''wide and straight" streets flanked by trees. To citizens and visitors alike, this "metropolis of the United States" appeared to be the nation's "finest town, and the best built."1 Such impressions of space and grandeur were portrayed quite beautifully by ...

read more

1: Almshouse Bodies

pdf iconDownload PDF (3.6 MB)
pp. 16-39

During the 1780s and 1790sjoseph Marsh,Jr., compiled a series of hefty ledgers. Today Marsh's dusty and crumbling Daily Occurrence Dockets of the Philadelphia Almshouse lie in the Philadelphia City Archives, and they constitute a detailed inventory of the bodies of distressed and suffering Philadelphians who-whether by choice or not-found them ...

read more

2: Villainous Bodies

pdf iconDownload PDF (4.4 MB)
pp. 40-60

George Washington was the very embodiment of republican respectability, and in dress, demeanor, and stature the Virginian displayed "a perfect good breeding." For Washington, control of his body, his words, his emotions, and his actions had all been integral to his very being ever since he had copied out and begun practicing rules of civilized behavior ...

read more

3: Hospitalized Bodies

pdf iconDownload PDF (3.5 MB)
pp. 61-81

More than anything else, the records of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Sick Poor reveal a great deal about the illnesses and injuries most commonly suffered by all of Philadelphia's lower sort. But while the hospital promised expert medical care, it was as much an institution of social control as were the prison and almshouse, and its services were ...

read more

4: Runaway Bodies

pdf iconDownload PDF (2.6 MB)
pp. 82-103

In the fall of 1793, an indentured white American servant named John Collins ran away from his master's iron works in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Collins's master Dennis Whelan placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette, offering twelve dollars reward for the capture of his valuable skilled worker. Whelan described his servant as being "above 20 ...

read more

5: Seafaring Bodies

pdf iconDownload PDF (4.1 MB)
pp. 104-124

It was George Ribble's body that marked him as a man of the sea, the way he moved, his scars and tattoos, and the clothes he wore. As he walked through Philadelphia early in President Thomas Jefferson's second term, Ribble displayed the rolling gait of the man who spent as much time aboard ships as he did on land, and he wore the clothes of the seafarer, ...

read more

6: Dead Bodies

pdf iconDownload PDF (2.0 MB)
pp. 125-142

Illness, disease, and injury were everyday occurrences and experiences for Philadelphia's lower sort, and while some recovered their health many more died in and around their homes and workplaces. Death was a publicritual in which neighbors, friends, and relatives gathered around the dying person. Disease, ill health, accidents, and violence made such ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (2.4 MB)
pp. 143-148

Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries it was Benjamin Franklin late eighteenth-century Philadelphia's most famous resident-who popularized and indeed epitomized the rhetoric of opportunity. Franklin famously proposed-both in his autobiography and in the advice of "Poor Richard" that he penned for his popular almanacs-that "if we ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (4.1 MB)
pp. 149-181


pdf iconDownload PDF (1.8 MB)
pp. 183-198


pdf iconDownload PDF (736.0 KB)
pp. 199-207

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (292.9 KB)
pp. 209-211

This book has been made possible by the generous support of institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, my work has been sup ported by a Research Grant from the Urban Studies Research Fund of the University of Glasgow, a travel grant from the Wellcome Trust, a Social Science Research Grant from the Nuffield Foundation, and a ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202922
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812218480

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies