The city’s economy and population experienced rapid growth as the country stabilized and had time to focus on things other than war. However, two massive yellow fever outbreaks in the 1790s caused thousands to flee, virtually shutting down trade and commerce for short periods of time. The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 killed nearly one in ten residents, while most of the upper class fled to the suburbs.
Benjamin Rush, the most famous American physician of his time, gained renown during the epidemics when he refused to flee the city and insisted on treating as many patients as possible. The work of Rush, along with that of Phillip Syng Psysick (the “father of American surgery”) and the success of Pennsylvania Hospital all contributed to making Philadelphia the leading center for the study and practice of medicine in the United States. By 1800, Philadelphia had largely recovered from the epidemic, and became one of the United States’ busiest ports and the country’s largest city with almost 68,000 people in the city and nearby suburbs.
However, as the largest city in the country, it was among the most heavily affected by international events. As the British and French warred against each other, the United States tried to stay neutral, but could not. Maritime trade was interrupted by the Embargo Act of 1807, when the United States tried to stop trading with both Britain and France, and by the War of 1812, when the United States went to war against the British in an effort to reassert its independence. Philadelphia’s shipping industry never recovered, and New York soon became the United States’ busiest port and largest city.
While the embargo was initially bad for the city, it ultimately helped shape Philadelphia into the United States’ first major industrial city. Many goods were not available due to trade embargos, so factories were established to make those goods at home. Manufacturing plants were built and the city became an important center for paper, leather, shoes, and boots. Coal and iron mines and the construction of new roads, canals, and railroads helped the city grow into an industrial power. Major projects included the Water Works, a gasworks, and the U.S. Naval Yard.
Philadelphia also became the financial and cultural center of the country. Chartered and private banks including the First and Second Banks of the United States and the first U.S. Mint opened. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Athenaeum, and the Franklin Institute were created and public education became available after the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the Free School Law of 1834.
© Karrie Gavin from Moon Philadelphia, 1st Edition