For Philadelphians, prohibition was markedly ill-timed. The city was pining to enjoy life again after three straight years of unfathomable loss. On nearly every red brick block, residents were absorbing the deaths of 1,400 Philadelphians in the Great War and more than ten times that in the Great Influenza of 1918.
Even before the United States entered the war, 27 Philadelphians lost their lives when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania. Among the lost were eight members of the Crompton family of Chestnut Hill who all perished despite the young father’s attempt to buckle belts around his infant son and other five children to keep them afloat with him.
Then 60,000 city boys left for World War One and 1,400 never returned. Just weeks later, 12,000 Philadelphians succumbed within 35 days as influenza slammed the city. Bodies were stacked like firewood in funeral directors’ yards. Coffins were auctioned to the highest bidders. Priests collected corpses off front porches. The final death toll was 17,500.
The city was ready to forget, and distractions abounded as it roared into the ’20s. Philadelphians became early adopters of the automobile. Local boys returning from the European war drove motorized vehicles there and dreamed of having cars and trucks of their own. Self-starters, which Cadillac first installed in 1912, were becoming standard, making driving easier. The new cars had closed cabs, so they were useful in any weather. Homebuilders were incorporating auto garages into the rowhouses they built in the Cobbs Creek section of the city, at least 20 years ahead of the rest of the country. By the war’s end in 1918, 7,000 trucks and 100,000 autos filled city streets. Cars were so popular that the city’s Automotive Row of tire stores and parts makers and auto showrooms stretched almost four miles down Broad Street, the city’s broadest north-south street and the longest straight urban boulevard in the country.
Market Street bisected Broad with a lineup of department stores to fuel city dwellers’ dreams — Lits, Gimbels, Wanamaker’s, Frank & Seder, N. Snellenburg & Co. and Strawbridge & Clothier.
Elsewhere in the city, proposals were afoot for a massive new library and a Greek Revival art museum. City fathers were planning a world’s fair for the newly opened Fairmount Parkway. And widow Maria Nacchio and her eight children were twisting some of the first Philadelphia soft pretzels in their South Philadelphia bakery.
Philadelphians were ready to toast to a brighter future, even if their alcoholic drinks were in teacups.