Statue of General Muhlenberg in Philadelphia - Erected In 1910

Amusements of The 18th and 19th Century Philadelphians

A chapter on the Amusements of Philadelphians begins: For we must begin with the ‘good old times,’ when the Quaker influence predominated in the provincial city, when every one’s energies were directed mainly toward founding a home and acquiring “substance.” In those times amusements were few and of the simplest kind. The founders of this prosperous community led an active, busy life,— withal a quiet one; they did not feel the want of exciting pleasures, which, moreover, were condemned by their religion, and religion governed every act of their life. The very word ‘amusement’ was objectionable, as meaning something frivolous and worldly.

Later in the chapterlife after the city began losing its Quaker character is described…

Before the Revolution such barbarous amusements as cock-fighting, bull-baiting, and bear-baiting were frequently indulged in, especially cock-fighting, in which men of the highest respectability found pleasure.

Watson, in his “Annals,” quotes from a letter of Dr. William Shippen to Dr. Gardiner, in 1735, announcing that he sent his friend “a young gamecock to be depended upon,” and giving as a reason for not sending an old cock that “our young cockers have contrived to kill and steal all I had.”

The venerable annalist also states that Timothy Matlack had once “a great passion” for cock-fighting, which caused the wags to transform the initials T.G., with which he sometimes signed his political articles, into Tim Gaff, by which nickname he was afterward designated.

Bull-baiting and bear-baiting were patronized principally by a lower class of people; they were usually gotten up by the butchers, who reared and kept dogs for the sport. Yet, it is on record that some very respectable citizens also kept bull-dogs and found much enjoyment in the excitement of these fights. These practices were gradually abandoned by the better class of men, but did not disappear entirely for some years after the Revolution.

President's House, Philadelphia

President’s House, Philadelphia

Poulson’s Advertiser of April, 1812, contained a complaint from a correspondent that on Easter Monday a certain neighborhood (not named) was a scene of riot and confusion on account of a cock-fight; also that a boxing-match was advertised at Bush Hill, which had been prevented by constables and aldermen. The writer took this occasion to lament the increasing wickedness of mankind.

As late as 1821 cock-fighting was carried on, but the cock-pit was shunned by all who laid a claim to social standing. Waln, in “The Hermit in Philadelphia,” published in that year, says:

“Cocking, to which English ruffians are so generally addicted, is limited to a very small number of Philadelphia fashionables. Several cock-pits, however, exist in the neighborhood of the city under the superintendence of men who have nothing further to dread from the opinion of the world. Toward a certain quarter there is one of higher rank, to which some of our aspirants have the misfortune to belong. This barbarous predilection subsides with the rude passions of youth, and I do not know one veteran cocker to disgrace the character of our city.”

Source: Chapter XXIX — Amusements of The Philadelphians, History of Philadelphia. 1609 – 1884., J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott. L.H. EVERTS & CO, 1884, p. 939

Detailed histories of American counties can be found in Accessible Archive’s American County Histories collection.

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