Happy 334th, Philly. Sorry about the blimp

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In 1908, the Inquirer commissioned this blimp to float over the city.

Our fair city is 334 years old today, and local officials plan to commemorate it with ... tweets.

But not so much in the way of pomp and circumstance, which is in keeping with Philly’s tendency to avoid tooting our own horn. But in 1908, it was a different story: 

Found on The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News powered by Newspapers.com

Philadelphia celebrated its 225th anniversary a year late, because -- well, exactly why was hard to determine immediately, but things do take time to come together around here. There was an enormous, week-long festival called Founders Week -- for months, the Inquirer’s classified ads were full of people trying to rent out their front bedrooms to visitors at exorbitant rates. (Sound familiar?)

But the real cause for celebration, at least according to the Inquirer, was a blimp the newspaper hired to float around the city for the duration of the festival.

Under the dirigible, thousands of people gathered in town and boatloads of dignitaries filled the streets, including President Ulysses S. Grant’s son, by then a general in his own right, but we were obsessed with the blimp. Obsessed. It was a front-page story for the entire week. The newspaper suggested that excitement over its arrival nearly caused a riot. Dozens of column inches were devoted to recreating, in minutiae, every dip and turn The Inquirer Airship made around City Hall. 

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“No conquering Roman, returning to his country after a war full of valorous deeds, could ever have received a reception so demonstrative,” an Inquirer reporter wrote, definitely not exaggerating anything at all. “The cheers of the vast concourse of persons were showered lavishly upon this piece of newspaper enterprise.”

On Day 4 of breaking blimp coverage: “No more daring, sensational or spectacular feat has ever been attempted in this city than the flight of The Inquirer Airship through the darkness shortly before 9 o’clock last night.”

In fairness, we did take a break from following the blimp’s every move to note that a New Yorker showed up at our birthday party and told the mayor he thought Philly was pretty okay:

Found on The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News powered by Newspapers.com

Time is a flat circle.

Later celebrations were not nearly as lavish, held against the backdrop of the tumultuous century ahead. In October 1932, the Inquirer covered a pageant commemorating the 250th anniversary of William Penn's landing on the banks of the Delaware River. But the front page was dominated by a speech President Herbert Hoover gave in Detroit the same day, in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign against one Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“The tide has turned, the first trench has been taken and ‘the gigantic forces of depression are in retreat,’” the Inquirer quoted Hoover as saying.

Found on The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News powered by Newspapers.com

The Great Depression would continue for the rest of the decade.

As the 260th anniversary approached in 1942, rather than celebrating our illustrious founding father, some in Philadelphia were talking about melting Penn’s statue down for scrap metal for the war effort. There was a furious back-and-forth on the matter in the editorial pages for weeks, but, fortunately, the idea never gained much traction. One can only imagine the curse leveled against our sports teams had Penn, a Quaker, been turned into artillery.

Found on The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News powered by Newspapers.com

Philadelphia’s 300th anniversary celebrations in 1982 were a bit sunnier, at least in disposition. It was freezing that late October, but citizens gathered on the banks of the Delaware for a non-denominational religious service -- just as Penn would have wanted, they hoped. The city had been celebrating its tricentennial for nearly a year at that point, with events every week.

Found on The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News powered by Newspapers.com

The Daily News marked the occasion with an editorial.

Found on The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News powered by Newspapers.com

Penn would have been thrilled with the size and progress and ever-growing diversity of his “greene countrie towne,” the editorial board wrote, just as he would have been dismayed by the challenges facing it -- schools and crime and the flight of industry. That sounds familiar, too.

 “But dreamers are never really discouraged,” the board wrote. “And dreamers who are practical people know that problems can be solved if you work at it.”

 Happy 334th, Philly, you City of Dreams, you. Apologies for not getting you a blimp this time -- but 335 isn't too far away.

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