by James Smart

Experts at naming such things, I suppose, chose “Fashion District” as the name of the newly reupholstered Market Street shopping area. But pardon me, as a lifelong old Philadelphian, for thinking that it’s a rather dumb name.

Market Street was originally called High Street back in the 17th century when William Penn and his buddies were naming things. But markets soon lined up on that central thoroughfare, and Philadelphians began calling it the “Market Street.”

It would sound more Philadelphian to me if the new bunch of businesses there were called the Marketplace, Market Square or something similar. Fashion District sounds too much like New York.

Penn’s 17th-century planners used numbers for the north-south streets, except for the broad street Penn wanted in the middle. But they started naming the east-west streets for the first people who had bought land in the new little colonial city.

Penn’s Quaker sensibilities were offended by glorifying individuals in that way. He ruled that the streets should take their names from nature, so his map-drawers changed Songhurst Street, after land-buyer John Songhurst, to Sassafras Street, and Wynne Street, named for Wynne, became Chestnut Street. (Ed. Note: Dr. Thomas Wynne, 1627 to 1692, was the personal physician of Penn and one of the original settlers of Philadelphia. Born in Ysceifiog, Wales, where his family dated back 17 generations, he accompanied Penn on his original journey to America on the ship “Welcome.” Wynnefield and Wynnewood are named for him.)

Thomas Holme (Holmesburg), who was handling the planning here while Penn was still in England, had named a street after himself. Under the new rules, he changed it to Mulberry Street. But as the city began to grow and people living in it began talking about it on a day-to-day basis, popular usage soon wiped out some of Penn’s names. High Street became popularly called Market Street because that’s where the markets were located.

Cedar Street was the city’s southern boundary, so people began to call it the South Street. There was a slope at the river bank that required an arch to carry Mulberry Street over the Front Street, so people began calling Mulberry the Arch Street. Sassafras Street had a nice, clear and level run across the city, and it became the popular street for young guys to race their horses, a lot like 20th-century hot-rodders, so folks started calling it the Race Street.

Penn might be horrified to find that in modern times, many streets have been given the names of prominent men. In the 19th century, a whole bunch of east-west streets were named for politicians and civic leaders. And, yes, in northeast Philly, there is a Penn Street.

Finally, in the 20th century, some street names were changed to honor such modern leaders as Cecil B. Moore, John B. Kelly Jr., John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Back in the 17th century, when King Charles II agreed to give Penn this huge parcel of land in North American to pay off a debt to his father, he named his proposed colony Sylvania, meaning “forest.”

In the grant’s papers, King Charles stuck the name Penn on the front, presumably to show whose Sylvania it was. Penn considered that disturbingly immodest but couldn’t get anyone to overrule the king, even when he offered the secretary of state a 20-guinea bribe. So Pennsylvania is what we got.

I wonder what Penn would think about the name “Fashion District?”

James Smart, a longtime resident of West Mt. Airy, is an author of several books about Philadelphia history, freelance writer and former columnist for the Philadelphia Bulletin.

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