In the 1790s, huge numbers of European immigrants flocked to Philadelphia, the capital of the young American republic, and the country’s commercial and cultural center. One eager new resident, advertising himself as a “pastry cook from Paris,” was Etienne Simonet. At his shop, on S. Second Street near Lombard, opposite the covered shambles of the New Market (now Headhouse Square), patrons could buy pies of venison, gammon, and poultry. Simonet put out the word that his tarts, roasted on a spit, had a “goodness he can vouch for, as he makes them in a manner peculiar to himself.”
U.S. Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, who grew up in Philadelphia [in a house on Front Street in Queen Village], became an American hero for having led the nighttime raid by sailors who torched the frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor.
On June 18, 2015, neighbors gathered at the Twisted Tail to hear Michael Schreiber speak about the history of Headhouse Square. The following article has been excerpted from his talk. Schreiber’s book, “Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America.”
By Michael Schreiber and Amy Grant
In the 18th century, South Second Street contained a large number of taverns. Some were alehouses that drew a rowdy crowd. Others were more respectable; farmers who came from the countryside to sell meat and vegetables in the New Market often used their bedchambers for overnight stays.
The Sign of the Mermaid, a tavern on Second near Stamper’s Alley, was a popular destination. The Mermaid was one of Philadelphia’s larger taverns, with three stories, an addition in the rear, and separate kitchen and stables. Despite the tavern’s popularity, the owners faced many obstacles and eventually were forced to go out of business.
One day, alas! Did he full soon
Forsake his work and victuals;
And careless all the afternoon,
Drank ale and play’d at skittles.
But Love so much his wits had cross’d
His mind perplext and puzzled;
That many were the games he lost,
And much the ale he guzzled.
Then as he lost he fractious grew,
And swore his mates were cheating;
And thrice he for the fight withdrew,
And thrice he got a beating.*
Over two centuries ago, the White Horse tavern—later renamed the Black Bear—was a popular place of amusement on Shippen St. (now Bainbridge St.) in Philadelphia’s suburban district of Southwark. The tavern occupied several buildings on the north side of Shippen, just west of 3rd St. Although the buildings are gone now, one feature of the tavern remains—the little intersecting byway called Orianna St. In former times, the street was called Ball Alley, which described its function—men gathered there for ball games, drink, and gambling. On at least one occasion, even the president of the United States, John Adams, was entertained in Ball Alley.
Below is a brief sketch of the life of William Spafford (sometimes also spelled “Spofford”). William and his wife Rebecca were the first occupants of the large house still standing on the northwest corner of Front and Bainbridge Street.