Item: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts once had separate visiting days for women, when all nude statues would be covered.

Item: In 1683, Margaret Mattson was accused of bewitching several unsuspecting cows.

Item: In 1937, dentistry labs in Philly turned out some 83,000,000 artificial teeth.

It's vintage "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

Except, believe it or not, it comes from the government. More specifically, from a government-sponsored book called Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace.

The guide was part of the much-praised, and still largely unknown, American Guide Series, produced during the late 1930s and early 1940s for each of the country's then-48 states, plus additional volumes for a variety of cities, Philadelphia included.

But don't let the political lineage discourage you.

John Steinbeck called the series "the most comprehensive account of the United States ever put together."

His only misgiving? His camper wasn't big enough to carry the entire set on his legendary, and literary, cross-country travels with his poodle Charley.

A correspondent for the London Times was even more effusive, writing that the guides "have left in print several million words of penetrating and humane documentation, possessing which some future American generation may well marvel at the civilization recorded by a small library of Government sponsored volumes."

Translation? The guides are full of really cool stuff. And the Philly guide is a perfect example.

To be sure, it has the usual suspects covered in spades: Independence Hall? Got it. Franklin Institute? Got it. Edgar Allan Poe House? The Betsy Ross house? Got it. Got it.

Plus, there's a trove of detailed information on the founding and mammoth growth of Philadelphia itself, including the sometimes difficult problems such growth brings about.

But the guide also has a raft of fun historical tidbits you likely won't find anywhere else. Not in Fodor's. Not in Michelin. Not in anybody.

Item: In 1863, the city's first instance of ticket-scalping occurred when a scalper bought 500 tickets to the sold-out play 'Virginius.'

In one chapter, you can read about Green's Hotel at Eighth and Chestnut, where Benedict Arnold was married, and in another, about a beauty parlor near Delancey that gave pedicures and permanent waves to dogs.

Turn to page 645, and you'll learn where the famed pirate Blackbeard used to hang out with his criminal cronies in Marcus Hook. On page 229, you'll find out how a onetime officer in the French Guard of King Louis XVI gave puppet shows in a house near Second and Pine.

You'll discover that the first African American theater in Philadelphia was the Standard, which opened in 1888, on South Street east of Twelfth. And that, at one time, the illuminated clock in City Hall was darkened every night at 8:57 p.m., then relighted three minutes later, so people who couldn't see the hands of the clock could set their watches.

And, as they say, there's lots more where that came from. The Philly guide runs 700 pages.

But, big as it is, it's still not the biggest.

That title goes to the Washington guide, which tops out at more than 1,000 pages and a robust 5½ pounds.

In fact, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was given his copy, he joked, "Where's the steamer trunk that goes with it?"

But the reason the American Guide Series came into being was no laughing matter. In the 1930s, the Depression had the country by the throat, and Roosevelt's response was to create the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, a federal effort designed to put millions of people back to work.

Its best-known programs were those tasked with upgrading the nation's infrastructure. Far less publicized, and more highly questioned, were several programs specifically aimed at putting people in the arts back to work.

There was a program for artists, another for musicians, a third for actors, and a fourth for writers, called the Federal Writers' Project.

In its eight-year existence, the Federal Writers' Project and its offshoots employed an estimated 10,000 people, and produced thousands of publications on everything from zoology to ethnic studies to folklore. But perhaps its biggest claim to fame is the American Guide Series.

Item: Captain Thomas Webb, a Methodist evangelist, delivered his sermons in full military attire, with a sword across the pulpit.

Interestingly, according to Jerre Mangione, author of The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, though writing experience was certainly welcome, it wasn't the determining factor in being hired. Being poor was.

Happily, for the rest of us, many of the writers low on cash were also incredibly high on talent.

Contributors included such future literary luminaries such as Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Ralph Ellison, Katherine Dunham, and Studs Terkel.

Together, they amassed two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Medals of the Arts, two National Book Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and even a Nobel Prize.

But, as they say, you can't please everybody. And the Federal Writers' Project was no different.

For starters, there were some philosophical issues over the cost of the program, as well as whether the government should be involved in such an effort at all.

There were also concerns over the politics of some participants, many of whose beliefs leaned a bit to the left.

In fact, more than a bit in the case of San Francisco, where artists doing a mural in Coit Tower included in it the traditional Communist hammer and sickle symbol along with the phrase "Workers of the World Unite."

Item: In 1934, visitors to the Franklin Institute were greeted by a six-foot mechanical man nicknamed Egbert.

But nothing caused quite the stir that page 75 of the D.C. guide did.

That was the page that noted that George Washington Parke Custis, stepgrandson of George Washington, had bequeathed a tract of land to "his colored daughter, Maria Syphax."

It didn't take long for the other shoe to drop.

Critics demanded that the Writers' Project be immediately scrapped for printing such a scurrilous claim. It's not clear whether the critics were scrapped when the claim turned out to be true.

A final FYI. You won't find the Philly guide in your local Barnes & Noble. And though you might turn up a few on the internet, they can be a bit pricey.

Your best bet is your local library. The Free Library, in fact, lists 14 copies in its catalog.

Fourteen ways to learn that "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was written by onetime Philly resident Sarah Josepha Hale.