We used to turn to history for its ability to make us feel good about ourselves, our communities, our nation. We'd delve into it to celebrate and self-congratulate. Just look at what's most treasured by us: Independence Hall, Valley Forge, the homes and burial places of the Founding Fathers.
And nothing could be easier in Philadelphia, a place with a proud stake in the past like nowhere else in America. This is where it all began, so why not morph into a historical theme park, a backdrop for major anniversaries? This is how it was done again and again; in 1876, when the city hosted its first world's fair in Fairmount Park; in 1926, when a gigantic electrically lit Liberty Bell served as an archway to the site of the second world's fair; and again in 1976, when ambitions for a world's fair fell short, but we made do by painting fire hydrants throughout the city red, white, and blue.
Philadelphia's penchant for painting fire hydrants during the Bicentennial grew into a national fixation.. Town fathers in Scotch Plains, N.J., painted hydrants in likenesses resembling patriots: Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, Ethan Allen, Crispus Attucks, and of course Benjamin Franklin. According to the Jersey Journal, "mailboxes, lamp posts and fire hydrants from Hoboken to Honolulu were re-painted red, white and blue."
How did painting fire hydrants turn into an obsession?
That's what can happen when the past, which is inherently complex and nuanced, ossifies into a simplified, monolithic, unchallenged master narrative for public history. It paves the way for unreasonable simplifications — for instance, Alexander Hamilton as a fire hydrant. And in 2018, we know more, and we know better.
What are our fire hydrants going to look like at the nation's 250th birthday in 2026? I bet they'll remain standard-issue colors.
A half-century later, the master historical narrative of the 1970s, characterized by idealism, heroics, and hard-won victory against tyrannical oppressors, has been challenged. We are less certain about long-standing assumptions, and find heroes less worthy of unbridled admiration. The old narrative now appears rickety, fragmented, even turned on its head in places. In its place we find a rich, varied, growing cluster of meta-narratives supported by stories and sites that create a more complicated, conflicted, and sophisticated relationship with the past.
The fact that America no longer welcomes people from anywhere and everywhere, for instance, becomes part of the story. So does the fact that Philadelphia's poverty level is among the nation's highest.
History is less predictable than what we believed in 50 years ago, and often less reassuring. But what we now know of the past is more real, more honest, and much more interesting and engaging than it was before.
The old spic-and-span story of the Liberty Bell as a symbol of freedom is complicated by stories of the unfreedom of President George Washington's enslaved Africans. The newsworthy subject of incarceration is interpreted at the stabilized ruin of Eastern State Penitentiary, a well-intentioned but failed attempt at prison reform.
In the 230 posts I've written over the last seven years at PhillyHistory.org — the blog for photographs from the Philadelphia City Archives —I've uncovered a host of little-known and unknown stories that repeatedly confirm how the past is at its best when it is conflicted and complicated. These tales offer up everything from race riots in South Philadelphia to dangerous lead levels in the children of Kensington. There's the long-forgotten fire at the North Philadelphia textile mill without fire escapes, where working teenage girls jumped to their deaths. There's the raging, underground Cohocksink Creek that caused entire city streets to collapse after rainstorms.
No, this isn't the history we thought we knew. Nor is it the kind of history we'll feel comfortable representing again in cutely painted fire hydrants.
How and where should the celebrations of 2026 take form? Should they even be referred to as celebrations, or should they be considered expressions of public memory? How will we decide to acknowledge what we now know is real history, history that could never be mistaken for propaganda, trivia, or nostalgia?