History of Head House Square in Philadelphia

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Philadelphia is full of historic landmarks and in this lesson, we'll look at a unique one. We are going to explore the history of Head House Square and see what it's meant throughout the city's storied history.

Head House Square

There are a lot of historic things that can be found in Philadelphia. Like American democracy. Or Philly cheesesteaks. Both are pretty important. It seems like every corner of the city is just dripping with history, and today we're going to focus on a few specific corners (or at least the space between them). Located on Second Street (near its intersection with South Street) is one of the many historic parts of Philadelphia.

However, this spot didn't see the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the invention of the American Republic. It oversaw the development of the American farmers' market. Head House Square (sometimes referred to as Headhouse Square) is the oldest surviving marketplace in the United States. It's a part of American history, and one that's entirely organic and homegrown.

South Street

Head House Square is located near South Street. That's significant because when William Penn created his original plan for the city of Philadelphia in 1682, South Street was the city's southern border. Originally, this was the extent of Philadelphia. Obviously, the city grew quickly beyond those borders. However, in the mid-18th century South Street became the epicenter of these changes. It's where the increasingly urbanized city proper met with the rural communities that would become the city's outer neighborhoods.

The original plan of Philadelphia, created by surveyor Thomas Holme for William Penn

This official city border is where people entering the city would meet and mingle. Of course, people at the border would sell food and other goods, while people just barely outside the border were able to sell other products…the sorts that a Quaker city would not want within city limits. So, South Street became a major place for both social and economic exchange. In time, a formal market seemed like a necessary investment.

New Market

The formal market came in 1745 (thirty years before the American Revolution). A long, brick-and-mortar shed was built housing numerous stalls for farmers and craftspeople to hawk their wares. At the time, it was called New Market (to distinguish it from the existing market in town). Today, the actual booths are known as the Head House Shambles.

A 1799 depiction of New Market

The American colonists of the time still considered themselves to be English citizens, and so New Market was built just like a rural English market. This sort of shed/stall structure was common across Britain, built so that farmers and craftspeople could simply back their wagons into a stall and start selling.

New Market survived the American Revolution (we can imagine founding figures stopping by to shop for mutton on their way to Independence Hall), and its role continued to expand as Philadelphia grew. In 1805, the square around the marketplace got the first of two ''headhouses'', a structure that stored equipment for volunteer firefighters. This headhouse is the oldest fire-engine house in the United States, and gave the square its iconic look (and name) that it's recognized by today.

The iconic headhouse of Head House Square

Architectural Style

Head House itself was built in the Georgian style of architecture, featuring colonial and European influences. It's worth noting the white trim, triangular pediment, cupola and emphasis of geometric shapes. Such neoclassical elements were really popular in the United States at this time because they were inspired by the Roman Republic (the political model of the American Republic). Other buildings to come out of this same era include the White House and US Capitol, as well as Jefferson's additions to the University of Virginia. While each was completed in its own unique style, they all show the same neoclassical nod to ancient Rome that we find in Philadelphia's headhouse.

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