When Doctor Alexander Hamilton visited Philadelphia for the first time in 1744, he was surprised to find two very different worlds. Philadelphia was growing rapidly at the time because it was the main port for exporting agricultural products.

Hamilton was familiar with the world of merchants and professionals of his rank. But it was the Quakers, members of a pacifist denomination, who had dominated the colony since its foundation. Despite their wealth, they led very simple lives, which made Philadelphia a city with little entertainment.

The city’s other world was made up of a variety of immigrants who all spoke different languages, including a large number of Germans who had settled in the colony. According to Hamilton, this “scum” was ignorant and unable to speak English correctly.

A gap had begun to form and widen in the cities of the Thirteen Colonies. In the richest homes, there was now fine imported tableware from England, along with chairs, knives and forks. Just a few decades earlier, dishes were made of clay, and people used benches and only had spoons

While there was little poverty in the countryside, city life could be very difficult. The annual income of an unskilled worker was not enough to support a family. Some years, other family members also had to work. If the father was in good health, urban poverty was only a phase before acquiring a plot of land in the countryside, a symbol of independence. An accident or illness, however, could reduce a family to begging in the streets. Women with several children under their charge often had a much harder time escaping poverty. Dr. Hamilton saw few Quaker women in public, but he did come across women vendors, laundresses and servants walking the streets of the city.

Author: Léon Robichaud

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