The John Gibb Smith Collection, housed in the Print and Picture Collection of The Free Library of Philadelphia, consists of over a thousand photographs that give a comprehensive overview of Philadelphia's transit system during the first third of the Twentieth Century. It serves as an outstanding resource not only for those interested in transportation history, but also for people wishing to learn about everyday life in the metropolis.
Most of the photographs in the collection are of trolleys; almost every type of car that operated in the city between the 1890s to the early 1940s is represented. Many of the views are street scenes that also feature people, businesses, and homes. Most were taken during the Philadelphia Rapid Transit period (1902-1940), but some show the equipment of its predecessors (including a few horse cars). There are also prints of subway cars and PRT non-passenger equipment. The transportation portion of the collection is rounded out by pictures of both city and suburban trackage and a series of photographs showing the construction of the Market Street subway-elevated line.
Trolleys were the most important form of transportation in Philadelphia from the mid-1890s to approximately 1920. Routes covered most of the city and extended into many of the suburbs. In the 1890s, the fares of from five to twenty cents were too high for most working-class Philadelphians to be able to use the cars on a daily basis. Middle-class men and women used the fast and quiet trolleys to go from their homes in West Philadelphia (and similar neighborhoods) to Center City for both business and pleasure. For those who could afford the fares, the city expanded geographically at the same time it shrank temporally. By the 1910s, most Philadelphians could afford to ride the trolleys regularly, for workers became better paid as the fare standardized at five cents.
When John Gibb Smith donated his collection to the library in 1946, he noted the dearth of pictorial material available related to his interest in early Philadelphia transportation. His efforts to bring together a visual archive and his foresight in donating it to an institution that would preserve it for others are praiseworthy. This small selection of images gives a sense of the larger collection; a larger virtual exhibit, "Tracking the Trolleys," is in preparation. For further information on trolleys and their role in suburbanization, see Sam Bass Warner, Jr., Street Car Suburbs. For a look at the social space amusement parks occupied in turn-of-the century America, see John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million.