The best books about Philadelphia

16 authors have picked their favorite books about Philadelphia and why they recommend each book.

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Not All Wives

By Karin Wulf,

Book cover of Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia

A well-written study of Philadelphia’s single women in the eighteenth century, this book offers an unusual view of women’s lives by focusing on the unmarried female residents of an urban middle-colony environment. (Most works on colonial women have studied married women in rural New England.) Each chapter highlights an individual woman and the diverse experiences of others like her, including poor women, dependents in siblings’ households, female shopkeepers and other tradeswomen, and women who form organizations with other women. Remarkably comprehensive, it presents a counterpoint to more familiar narratives.

Who am I?

Nearly 200 years passed between the first English settlements and the American Revolution. Yet Americans today have a static view of women’s lives during that long period. I have now published four books on the subject of early American women, and I have barely scratched the surface. My works—Liberty’s Daughters was the first I wrote, though the last chronologically—are the results of many years of investigating the earliest settlers in New England and the Chesapeake, accused witches, and politically active women on both sides of the Atlantic. And I intend to keep researching and to write more on this fascinating topic!

I wrote...

Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800

By Mary Beth Norton,

Book cover of Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800

What is my book about?

An examination of American women’s lives during the late eighteenth century, Liberty’s Daughters is based primarily on their own writings, especially correspondence and diaries. It describes their experiences before, during, and after the revolutionary war—as wives and mothers, as patriots and loyalists, as single or married, as free or enslaved, as rural or urban residents. It covers white women’s increasing involvement in politics before the war, and their role in managing family property while their husbands were away in the army or serving in Congress. It also looks at how the war affected the lives of enslaved women in the South, allowing some of them to run away to seek freedom.

The book reveals the changes in women’s lives after Revolution, as young women began to attend newly founded academies (high school equivalents) and sought more personal independence in marital relationships. The first American feminist, Judith Sargent Murray, began to write and publish her ideas during and after the war; she was the American counterpart to the more famous Mary Wollstonecraft in England. The book argues that the Revolution had a major impact on women, and women likewise had a major impact on the Revolution.

Betsy Ross and the Making of America

By Marla R. Miller,

Book cover of Betsy Ross and the Making of America

Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. That’s the legend, which did not appear until her grandchildren started to capitalize on tourism to the Philadelphia Centennial celebrations in 1876. The real Betsy Ross proves far more exciting. She sewed flags, but she was also an artisan, a businesswoman, a Quaker who was too political for her Meeting, and involved in the public protests leading up to the Revolution. Miller connects family networks, the material culture of the drapery and textile industries, British trade policies, and Revolutionary politics and protest into a whole cloth. This is a visceral look at the War for Independence from one of its epicenters and the vantage of one of its most iconic women.

Who am I?

Little House on the Prairie, Roots, the Bicentennial, family vacations, and an early childhood in New Orleans all shaped my perception of the world as a place overlaying history. Although I could not have completely articulated this then, I specifically wanted to know what women before me had done, I wanted to know about parts of the story that seemed to be in the shadows of the places where I consumed history, and I wanted to know “the real story.” The intensity of recreating a person’s world and their experience in it made me question how historians know what we know, and how deeply myth, nostalgia, or even preconceptions guide readings of the evidence. The authors here all show an awareness that re-telling a person’s life can move it away from the evidence and they try to return to that evidence and find the “real story,” or as near to it as possible.

I wrote...

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

By Leigh Fought,

Book cover of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

What is my book about?

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass's varied relationships with white women-including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing--who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women's movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed "woman's rights man."

Fever 1793

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Book cover of Fever 1793

When I first read Fever 1793—set in Philadelphia during a yellow fever epidemic—I thought it was a well-written and thought-provoking glimpse into how people would respond in a crisis. After re-reading it post-pandemic, I would now add “prophetic.” Mattie is a typical grumpy teen who would rather have fun than work in her family’s coffee house. But there is a deadly fever rapidly spreading through the city. Desperation unleashes her inner strength, allowing her to prevail over disease, fear, food shortages, unscrupulous thieves, and well-intentioned but poorly-managed medical science.

Who am I?

I’ve always loved learning about the past. Whenever we travel for vacation, my family has become resigned to making a stop at a historical site, especially for Colonial America. It was no surprise to them that I set parts of my first published novel (and series) in 18th century North Carolina. Each novel on my book list is set in a different century and features ordinary people who, when thrown into extraordinary circumstances, respond with strength, courage, and grace. These historical “fish-out-of-water” stories remind us how much people have changed across time—and how they’ve stayed the same. 

I wrote...

Whisper Falls

By Elizabeth Langston,

Book cover of Whisper Falls

What is my book about?

Whisper Falls tells the story of two teens who cross paths through a rift in time and build a “long-distance” friendship spanning two hundred years. When modern-day Mark grows alarmed by the brutal life Susanna leads in 1796, he uses technology to comb through history to discover—and perhaps alter—what the future holds for her.

Readers will be exposed to a group of people who have been oft-neglected in fiction and in history: indentured servants of post-colonial America. Woven with rich historical description, gripping mysteries, and vivid scenery, Whisper Falls will leave you enchanted and inspired by this tale of perseverance, courage, and love.

Laboratories of Virtue

By Michael Meranze,

Book cover of Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835

This is one of the first books on prisons I ever read and it’s the one that got me hooked. It’s not just about prisons, though. Laboratories of Virtue is about the period during and after the American Revolution when the US moved away from colonial-era punishments into the beginnings of what we have today. It was a moment when we could have gone in a lot of different directions, but Meranze shows how we ended up with long-term incarceration as our go-to punishment for serious (and some not-so-serious) crimes.

He brings in developments in society generally, explaining how anxieties about theatre and crowds contributed to middle-class and elite reformers’ growing distaste for capital punishment and a preference for privately meting out punishment. This book is a great introduction to how punishment and penal trends are the products of changes in society and perceptions of crime, rather than a direct…

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

I wrote...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

What is my book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system – the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier.

Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light anxieties and other challenges of nineteenth-century prison administration that helped embed our prison system as we know it today.

Never Caught

By Erica Strong Dunbar,

Book cover of Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

This best-selling book tells an important story about Black women's struggles for freedom and autonomy at the founding of the American nation. And tells it so well! One of my favorite things about this book is that the title is a bit misleading: this is not actually (another) book about the Washingtons.The book centers on Ona Judge, a woman who freed herself after the Revolution and forged a new life in the tumultuous world of the newly independent United States. Dramatic and suspenseful as her personal story is, this book also tells a bigger story about how it was enslaved people themselves who made the North free. Heartbreaking, heroic, dramatic, suspenseful, inspiring.

Who am I?

I'm an American historian and former director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Program in Sexuality Studies—and former pizza maker, gas pumper, park ranger, and tour guide at the house in which Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. As a historian, I've spent my career trying to understand the lives of people in early American history who weren't well known at the time. In writing the Sewing Girl's Tale, which focuses on a survivor of a sexual assault, it was especially important to keep her at the center of the story. Ultimately, I wanted to know: What was life in the aftermath of the American Revolution like—not for some Founding Father—but for an ordinary young woman.

I wrote...

The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America

By John Wood Sweet,

Book cover of The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America

What is my book about?

On a moonless night in the summer of 1793, a crime in the back room of a New York brothel transformed Lanah Sawyer’s life. It was the kind of crime that even victims usually kept secret. Instead, the seventeen-year-old seamstress did what virtually no one else dared to do: she charged a gentleman with rape. The trial rocked the city and nearly cost Lanah her life. And that was just the start.

The Sewing Girl's Tale is the story of an extraordinary prosecution in the aftermath of the American Revolution—and its contemporary relevance. Reviewers have hailed the book as “a masterpiece” (Wall Street Journal), “decidedly pro-woman” (Atlanta Journal Constitution), and “excellent and absorbing” (New York Times).

Monument Lab

By Paul M. Farber (editor), Ken Lum (editor),

Book cover of Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia

Monument Lab is one book to get your hands on, if you are curious to know how a historic city can remake its traditional monumental history to become more inclusive and reflective of a holistic past and present. The book is about the organization called Monument Lab, which works with communities, artists, and more to reshape the monument culture of Philadelphia. Filled with short essays and colorful photographs, Monument Lab and Monument Lab the book model the democratic turn towards inclusive monument making in an American city.

Who am I?

Laura A. Macaluso researches and writes about monuments, museums, and material culture. Interested in monuments since the 1990s, the current controversies and iconoclasm (monument removals) have reshaped society across the globe. She works at the intersection of public art and public history, at places such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

I wrote...

Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World

By Laura A. Macaluso,

Book cover of Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World

What is my book about?

Monument Culture brings together a collection of essays from scholars and cultural critics working on the meanings of monuments and memorials in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a time of great social and political change. The book presents a broad view of the challenges facing individuals and society in making sense of public monuments with contested meanings.

From the United States to Europe to Africa to Australia and New Zealand to South America and beyond, the contributors tackle the ways in which different places approach monuments in a landscape where institutions and ideas are under direct challenge from political and social unrest. It also discusses sharply changed attitudes about the representation of history and memory in the public sphere.

Mistaken Identity

By Lisa Scottoline,

Book cover of Mistaken Identity: A Rosato & Associates Novel

Scottoline, a former big-firm litigator, has created Benny Rosato, the founder of an all-female firm of defense lawyers, as the master of the world of courts and jails. In Mistaken Identity, however, Benny defends an unexpected client—“Alice Connoly,” who is Rosato herself, a double claiming to be a long-lost twin. What follows raises the question of why (as the mysterious defendant asks) Alice is in jail while Rosato is free, secure, and successful. In a way, Mistaken Identity is a feminist version of The Trial--a fever dream of that same hellish world that Kafka saw beneath K.’s feet--the law, supernatural and inhuman, that waits to devour the innocent and the guilty alike.

Who am I?

Garrett Epps is the author of two published novels and five works of non-fiction about the U.S. Constitution. He graduated from Duke Law School in 1991; since then he has taught Constitutional Law at the American University, the University of Baltimore, Boston College, Duke University, and the University of Oregon. For ten years he was Supreme Court Correspondent for The Atlantic, and covered from close up cases involving the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, and the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. He is now Legal Affairs Editor of The Washington Monthly, and at work on a novel about crime and justice during the years of Southern segregation. 

I wrote...

Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America

By Garrett Epps,

Book cover of Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America

What is my book about?

The Fourteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, changed the Constitution, and America, in more ways than we can count. It is the Amendment’s Citizenship Clause that made birthright citizenship part of our fundamental law; the Equal Protection Clause that doomed school segregation and other racist laws; the Due Process Clause that guarantees the right to use contraceptives, choose abortion, or marry a partner of either sex.

The story of that Amendment’s Framing in 1866 is often referred to but seldom told. Democracy Reborn is the only current one-volume history of how the Amendment came to be. The story memorably involves such figures as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, Andrew Johnson, and Walt Whitman.

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead

By Chanelle Benz,

Book cover of The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead: Stories

This story collection grabbed me right away from the title and stole my heart with some of the most exciting and visceral characters that I’ve read. In “West of the Known,” my favorite story, a young girl escapes violence to become an outlaw; in “The Diplomat’s Daughter,” a woman renames and reworks herself into a feared force of nature. I’ll be honest that reading this book inspired me and scared me; I wanted to write as powerfully and truthfully about anger and violence in women as Chanelle did. So when I asked her to read an early copy of my book, and she came back with lovely praise, I just about lost my mind.

Who am I?

I’m fascinated by angry, feral, primal women. In my book, ten stories feature these women, the ones doing the things we’re not supposed to do, thinking and feeling and saying the things we’re not supposed to. I think we’re beyond powerful when we embrace our anger, nourish and cultivate it, channel it. So I write about these women in the hopes that I’ll get a bit of their strength. The books in this list have inspired me as a writer and thrilled me as a reader.

I wrote...

Dig Me Out

By Amy Lee Lillard,

Book cover of Dig Me Out

What is my book about?

Dig Me Out is ten deeply absorbing stories about the women who won’t smile: angry, aching women, and women returning to base instincts, primal fears, and mythic power. Across past, present, and future, around the midwest and the world, these women demand we witness as they work to break through, to defy, to become. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be safe, but it will be real.

Spanning genres, continents, and eras, Dig Me Out takes on misogyny and homophobia, societal and climatological violence, and the specter of our technologized future — all with a punk rock literary twist.

Sold on a Monday

By Kristina McMorris,

Book cover of Sold on a Monday

This is a surprising backdrop for a romance, and I didn’t even buy the book for a romance read. The start is sad and intriguing – based on a true event – where a reported snapped a photo of a sign saying “children for sale” with the children in the background. The reporter is trying to build his career, and the photo was just a personal shot he took because he was shocked. But it ends up in the paper and causes a horrible cascade of events, which also brings him together with a woman who works at the same paper. This is such a different story and the romance is very sweet. 

Who am I?

I really enjoy coming up with fresh, unique storylines. I have to applaud books that have a new approach and surprise us—it’s not easy for authors to do! The perfect story, to me, is romantic drama and family life all entwined. Family is everything, whether it’s the family we’re born into, one created by marriage, or one by random circumstances. I enjoy reading and writing romance in the context of family drama because it’s the core of who we are. The best stories have romance and also tell about a family coming together. 

I wrote...

More Than Memories

By Kristen James,

Book cover of More Than Memories

What is my book about?

Molly Anderson returns “home” to a town she doesn’t remember, hoping it will spark a memory. She meets Trent Williams, a Ridge City police detective, and something else sparks. Trent takes on her case and promises to do everything he can to solve it.

Trent has his own secrets, but they have a mystery to solve. Molly quickly realizes her relationship with Trent went deeper than memories. How could she have forgotten her lifelong friend and love? Has he really been waiting for her for the last four years? Can she love him again if she doesn’t remember him? There’s also the possibility that she did something awful, and maybe that’s why she’s afraid to remember her old life.

As Bright as Heaven

By Susan Meissner,

Book cover of As Bright as Heaven

Alright, alright, alright, I get it: no one wants to read a pandemic book. Not here, not now. But Meissner’s novel, set in Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish Flu, is a surprisingly uplifting tale. In addition to sisters, we also get to experience the time from the viewpoint of the girls’ mother. It’s a beautiful, resonating story that reminded me of the tricky balance that always exists—pandemic or no—between mitigating risk and living life to its fullest. 

Who am I?

I’ve always been a lover of all things history, so it’s no surprise I gravitated to the world of historical fiction for my profession. What moves me the most is how, across time periods and culture, the bonds of family (more specifically sisters), remain one of the most enduring and poignant themes with which almost all can identify. Growing up, my relationship with my own sister was complex and difficult. However, now that we are grown, I can fully appreciate just how much my connection with her shaped—and continues to shape—the person I am. Exploring family ties in literature (both writing and reading) is one way in which I celebrate our common humanity. 

I wrote...

If It Rains

By Jennifer L. Wright,

Book cover of If It Rains

What is my book about?

It’s 1935 in Oklahoma, and lives are determined by the dust. Fourteen-year-old Kathryn Baile is a spitfire born with a severe clubfoot. Once her beloved older sister marries, Kathryn’s only comfort comes from her favorite book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Then Kathryn’s father decides to relocate to Indianapolis, and only the promise of surgery to finally make her “normal” convinces Kathryn to leave Oklahoma behind.

Back in Boise City, Melissa Baile Mayfield is the newest member of the wealthiest family in all of Cimarron County. In spite of her poor, rural upbringing, Melissa has just married the town’s most eligible bachelor and is determined to be everything her husband—and her new social class—expects her to be. Melissa secretly defies her husband, risking her life to follow God’s leading.

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