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Philadelphia County Subdivisions


The earliest English settlers of Pennsylvania brought with them, along with their other political institutions, the idea of townships, boroughs and districts as the basic political and administrative divisions of county organization, and the ward as that of the more populous of them, particularly the City. The earliest northwestwardly boundaries of Philadelphia County extended far beyond their present limits, as did those of the other two original counties, Bucks and Chester. The area within the projected limits of Philadelphia, except for present Montgomery County, was never part of the County in a meaningful way and for this reason the areas no longer part of Philadelphia County have been left out of consideration here. Because of this, maps of the County herein included prior to 1784, the date of the erection of Montgomery County, fail to show the full extent of Moreland township. When Montgomery County was erected out of Philadelphia, the new County line was run along already existing township boundaries with the sole exception of that of Moreland, which was roughly halved by a line continuing the north-western boundaries of Lower Dublin and Byberry townships.

The first sub-division of the original Counties was into townships. The twelve shown on the map were, to the best of our knowledge, those originally marked off within what is at present Philadelphia County. These were all definitely in existence by 1712. While we cannot document the earliest date for the entirety of this plan, there is a clear evidence that some of these townships, at least Germantown, Moreland, Moyamensing, Passyunk and the Northern Liberties were organized by the time of William Penn's arrival here in 1682. The existence of others prior to 1712 can also be proven but the question is complicated by the fact that the organization of a township did not require the official sanction of incorporation by the Provincial Assembly and thus a legal basis for precise dating simply does not exist. To add to the uncertainty in this matter, many areas were known by their later township names long before their bounds were set and their existence recognized in official records. Kingsessing, for example, which we can document as a township no earlier than 1712, was known to the Swedish settlers here by that name at least as early as 1653. The Chronology presents in order our sources for, and dates of, the earliest official evidences of the existence of these County sub-divisions.

The later divisions of these townships into other townships, boroughs, districts and wards was the direct result of population growth and the consequent need for more highly developed governmental forms to accommodate it. The map series illustrates the technical steps in this growth of the Philadelphia area which, interestingly, was a quite different style of expansion from that which Penn had envisioned. The heavily built and populated area grew in a great arc centered on the Delaware river at the City instead of by a neat progression westward across the grid laid out by Thomas Holme at the Proprietary's direction. With the exception of Germantown's early incorporation as a borough (which status it soon lost) this almost smooth natural sweep is reflected in the early incorporations, by the Provincial and State Assemblies, of the Districts of Southwark and the Northern Liberties and the township of Moyamensing.

The incorporation of townships, an apparent inconsistency with what was said above, seems to have been due to several centuries' growth of confusion concerning their civil nature. While a township has always been capable of achieving corporate status, it was normally an unnecessary step, as townships in both England and America were in almost all cases simply rural areas obliged to perform police functions only. Incorporation into the more sophisticated body of a borough or district was necessary to enable an area to perform a full complement of civil functions. As townships in America began to exercise some of these functions a feeling seems to have grown on the part of the officials performing them that without incorporation such activities had a doubtful basis in law. The granting of corporate status provided assurance in such cases.

The attainment of more developed political status is a convenient standard by which to trace an area's growth. Each step from township to borough to district reflects the more complex level of organization necessary to deal with problems resulting from increases in population, commerce, and social activities: providing paving, lighting, sanitation services and a water supply; organizing election and tax districts; and achieving the legal status required to make the financial arrangements necessary for all these. The further subdivisions of these bodies, including the City, into wards is part of this pattern. The ward always has been, and still is, the indivisible unit for tax and election purposes and thus represents the greatest degree of organization for governmental functions. While a more orderly picture of ward development may be traced by their growth in the City, the division of the boroughs and districts of the County presents better evidence of more "natural" growth. It is, again, the areas along the Delaware and those closest to the City that are earliest divided into wards.

The first official division of the City into wards, primarily for police purposes, took place in 1705, and so ingrained was this practice in City government that it was done almost informally. The City Council, recognizing the need to sub-divide the City, simply appointed a committee and established the wards on the basis of its report. Since the City did not have the power to enact ordinances until 1710, there was, of course, no ordinance. The next official change did not come about until 1785, accomplished this time by an Act of the State Legislature though informal changes apparently were made before that time. In 1785 and 1786, by statute, Dock and Mulberry wards respectively were sub-divided and their east-west boundaries extended from river to river, the first official action extending the western boundaries of any ward beyond Seventh Street. These wards were officially divided apparently as they had been informally divided for tax purposes at least ten years earlier. We assume the other wards did not retain Seventh Street as their western boundary but that at some time between 1705 and 1784 there was an extension of the area of each of them westward to the Schuylkill River, while their north-south bounds remained the same. However, there is no mention of any action of this kind in either the Council Minutes or the State Statutes.

An increasing number of re-organizations in both the City and County were made in the years 1840-1850, which mark an especially accelerated growth in the population of the entire County. The County area outside the City had surpassed it in total population between 1810 and 1820, and by 1853 consisted of twenty-eight separate jurisdictions, eight of which were further sub-divided into wards. There had been, by then, many years of increasing agitation for the consolidation of these units into one City. Again, the need for police protection was one of the chief reasons. The old system of division into further autonomous units simply could no longer meet this and other demands. The movement culminated in the consolidation of 1854 by which the City and County became co-extensive. The Consolidation Act (P.L. 21, February 2, 1854) set up an entirely new ward structure. The City wards had always been named but the other jurisdictions had numbered theirs and the consolidated City adopted the number system when its twenty-four wards were established. The pre-consolidation seventeen wards of the old City became Wards 5 through 10 in this new division.

The Consolidation Act, however, did not change the method of dividing wards, which still required a legislative enactment. Our present method came about with the adoption of the State Constitution of 1873. This requires a citizens' petition to the Quarter Sessions Court and appointment of a study commission upon whose favorable report an election is decreed by the Court. If the election results favor sub-division, it is so ordered by the Court in a final decree establishing the existence and boundaries of the new wards.

During this century a new factor has become foremost in ward sub-division. Until the first quarter of this century, the erection of new wards could be taken as an indication of the increase of the City's population, and by 1958 some of the twenty-four wards of 1854 had become eight or nine separate wards. But since 1930 the number of Philadelphia's residents has remained relatively stable and the establishment of new ward boundaries since then reflects population shifts within the City rather than its growth. This is best exemplified in the case of the 35th ward as established in 1890. The post World War II influx into that area resulted in its division in 1957 into seven wards. The other side of this coin is that while certain areas have grown, others have lost population. Movement for the creation of a new ward normally followed shortly after its need was felt; steps to change the boundaries of a ward shrunken in population were rarely even considered. Wards five through ten of the 1854 alignment retained the same boundaries until 1965 despite their steady loss of population for over 100 years. The effects of urban redevelopment programs, the continuing rehabilitation of the midtown area and the "flight from the suburbs" into such areas as Society Hill have introduced factors of population shift very different from the relatively simple ones on which ward alignments were based traditionally.

The movement to solve these problems in a comprehensive and effective manner coincided with the recent "one man, one vote" decisions of the United States Supreme Court, since the ward boundaries were also those of election districts for State and Federal offices. In March, 1963, Philadelphia's Court of Quarter Sessions appointed a five-man commission instructed to submit a report and plan for realignment of all the City's wards. Thus for the first time in more than a century, the City's ward plan was considered and revised as a whole in order to make allowance for the many and novel factors of the present day City's growth and change. The most noticeable aspect of the committee's 66 ward plan is the scrapping of standard division lines that seem to have been unconsciously accepted as convenient ever since the first ward bounds were drawn. For example, 7th Street, from Vine to South Streets, had been used as a ward line almost continually since 1705. These new lines in many cases depart widely from the "traditional" ones in the attempt to secure as equal as possible a population division among the wards. It may seem strange that this is often regarded as a radical change since population distribution has, after all, always been the basic consideration in ward planning. The goal aimed at was a ward population of approximately 30,000 and a review of the figures cited for each ward in the committee's report indicates how well this was achieved. This report was accepted and a final order issued by the Court of Quarter Sessions on August 2, 1965.

Chronology of Philadelphia County Subdivisions 1683-1854
Chronology of Philadelphia City Subdivisions 1705-1854
Philadelphia Wards, 1854-1966

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