What’s In An Odonym?

January 16, 2013 | by Peter Woodall


The names we’ve given to our streets, particularly the smallest of them, have the surprisingly frequent habit of changing over time. Often, city officials change them in an effort at consolidation. Why bother with Small, Emiline, Bradford, or Bedford, when you can just say Kater? Yet in this process of simplification, we have lost a connection to the people who gave their names to the streets, and the stories of another Philadelphia.

We can go back to old maps to find the former names many of our streets once went by, yet the evidence is sometimes there to be found in the inscribed marble tablets that were inserted into the masonry of corner buildings just above the first (and occasionally second) floor windows. For the past three years I’ve been collecting these slender reminders of the city that once was, souvenirs that have survived through happenstance and accidental preservation.


American Street. at Poplar | Photo: Peter Woodall

Saint John Street ran from Vine Street to Germantown Avenue, west of Second Street in Northern Liberties, and was one of 16 streets whose name was changed to American Street. Almost all the 16 changes–including Saint John–were recorded by the city in 1897.

Race Street at 3rd  | Photo: Peter Woodall

Race Street at 3rd | Photo: Peter Woodall

Sassafras was one of the original “tree streets” named by William Penn after “the things that spontaneously grow in the country.” It was renamed in 1853, according to city records, however most of the tree street names survive to this day, with Sassafras, Mulberry (Arch) and Cedar (South) the notable casualties.


22nd & Bainbridge Sts. | Photo: Peter Woodall

A mystery. There is no record of a “St. James Block” in city records or 19th and early 20th century maps. St. James Street does exist, but it runs intermittently in Center City between Walnut and Locust Streets. There is no record of a “S. James Block” on Bainbridge Street either, although there are several other James Streets in the city.


18th Street at Delancey | Photo: Peter Woodall

The Ashland Place sign identifies 18th Street at the corner of Delancey, but this is misleading. Ashland was actually what is now Bouvier, the next street east, which runs between Delancey and Pine Street. The city recorded the name change from Ashland to Fillmore in 1850, and from Fillmore to Bouvier in 1897. A different Fillmore Street still exists in Frankford.


E. Flora at Columbia Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

Volkmar was one of seven streets (Banana, Walter, McClellan, Davis, Lissner, Shulnier) names changed to create Flora Street. Volkmar went from Palmer to Columbia, between Girard and Moyer in Fishtown. The Volkmars were a prominent family in the neighborhood during the 19th century that included a prosperous merchant and an assistant Surgeon General. The year the change was made is not recorded, however the name changed sometime between the 1895 and 1910 Bromley Atlases.


21st and Naudain

William Street between 21st and 22nd was changed to McDuffie Street in 1858 according to city records. The date when McDuffie became Naudain is not listed in city records, however the 1862 Smedly Map identifies it as “William or McDuffie (now Naudain) between 19th and 22nd.


Woodstock Street at Brown | Photo: Peter Woodall

A name that appears not to have taken with the public. Windsor Square was called Woodstock Street in the 1895 Bromley Atlas, then Windsor Square in the 1910 Bromley, then back to Woodstock in an 1942 Works Progress Administration map. The city records show the change from Woodstock to Windsor happening in 1910, and say that Windsor currently exists, however all contemporary maps call it Woodstock.


Smedley St. at Fitzwater | Photo: Peter Woodall

The city recorded Hepburn Street changing to the less euphonious Smedley from Fitzwater to Bainbridge west of 16th in 1897. Very likely named after Samuel Lightfoot Smedley, who retired as Chief Engineer and Surveyor of Philadelphia in 1893.


Wildey at Frankford Ave. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Perhaps named after a Pennsylvania County, according to Philadelphia Street Names, by Robert Alotta, Bedford ran from Frankford Avenue to Ash, which is now called Fletcher in what is today Fishtown. Bedford changed to Wildey in 1858 according to city records, which makes it seem like an attempt at uniformity after the 1854 Act of Consolidation. However, Wildey did not exist until that name change, and the section of Wildey that doglegs and begins west of Frankford and runs into Northern Liberties was called Otter Street until 1897.


Waverly Street at 19th | Photo: Peter Woodall

The names of the little streets of Center City often changed from block to block, few more so than what is now Waverly Street, which had 19 street names folded into it in 1897. Ringgold Place (spelled Ringold on some maps) was one of the streets that became Waverly. It ran for only a half block, between 19th and Uber, which was originally Elm Street, then Ford Street in 1858 and Uber in 1897. After crossing Uber it was Wall Street and later Watt Street and finally Waverly Street as well


Waverly at 16th St. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Stone Street ran between 15th and 16th and is another of the little streets renamed Waverly in 1897. I’ve never seen a sign like this one. Was it the common form or a paid for by local homeowners?


Cherry St. at 3rd | Photo: Peter Woodall

Cherry Street ended at Third, took a slight dogleg south, then became Fetter Lane for the short block until Bread Street. The name was changed in 1897. The sign was either carved or re-carved fairly recently, much like the sign for Sassafras Street, also in Old City.


Randolph Street at Oxford | Photo: Peter Woodall

Mifflin Street ran from Girard to Montgomery Streets. It was renamed Randolph in 1867. The Mifflin Street in South Philadelphia between Moore and McKean also existed during this time and is of course extant today. Both Mifflin Streets were named for Thomas Mifflin, the first governor of Pennsylvania.


About the Author

Peter Woodall Peter Woodall is the Project Director of Hidden City Philadelphia. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.


  1. Davis says:

    Nice to see this piece. At the corner of 21st & Mt Vernon is the marker Washington Street. It presumably pre-dated the act of consolidation.

  2. Nic says:

    Great pictures. Love articles like this.

    Check out the book “Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees and Custer” by Robert Alotta. It’s about the origins of all Philly street names.

  3. Mark says:

    Great article and photos.

  4. Denise Dougherty says:

    Most enjoyable article – and coincidental. Only recently, I found and checked-out a book from the library’s Philadelphia Collection titled “Philadelphia Street Name Changes”. The book a is hardcover volume produced in 1996 by The Chestnut Hill Almanac Genealogical Series – Publication #2 and prepared by Jefferson M. Moak. After an Introduction, 115 pages follow almost like an old ledger list of Old Street Name, New Street Name, Location of Street,District, Ward and Year. What a project this must have been. Mr Moak does request contact from (other) researchers for collaboration for future volumes – bet he would love your photos.

    It was great fun to flip through the pages – especially when I found my street (Clifton) was once known as Lilly Ann Street. Rather charming, I thought.

    Thank you for taking the time and care to preserve those glimpses into our past. Glad to know others notice those little things too.


  5. Harry Kyriakodis says:

    I talk about street and street name changes in Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward:
    Fairmount Avenue used to be the central east–west street in the ward. When this was so, however, the thoroughfare was named Coates Street, since it passed through the estate of the Coats family. The earliest section had been deeded to the Northern Liberties District by Thomas Coats in 1771; the road opened from the Delaware River to Ridge Road the following year. Called Hickory Lane west of Northern Liberties, it was one of the oldest roads crossing Philadelphia from east to west. The city changed the name from Coates to Fairmount in 1873 because the avenue was the chief entranceway to Fairmount Park, then being assembled along the Schuylkill River.
    Another longtime east–west roadway is Poplar Street, initially called Poplar Lane, the name being modified by an ordinance dated September 8, 1840. The lower part of Poplar was a ropewalk—a long, straight and slender lane used for making rope—in the late 1700s. This accounts for the street’s peculiar narrowness as it nears the Delaware.
    Nearby Brown Street was named after Peter Browne, William Coats’s son-in-law. Other major east–west streets include Laurel Street (formerly Maiden Lane) and Wildey Street (previously Beaver Street). Olive Street was once known as Maria Street. And in the 1960s, the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project abolished Buttonwood Street in NoLibs’ southern sector.
    Most of Noble Street was also eliminated as a result of the Callowhill East project. The street was probably named after Richard Noble, an English surveyor who charted parts of Pennsylvania in William Penn’s time. Known as Bloody Lane in the late 1700s and early 1800s because a murder had been committed somewhere along its length, Noble Street was once a major Philadelphia roadway and went straight to Broad Street until the 1960s. One remaining bit of the street is the bumpy block-long stretch immediately south of the Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage building.
    St. John Neumann Way is insignificant compared to Front Street or York Road, yet it also has a unique story. This narrow cartway is not part of Philadelphia’s regular grid of city streets since it runs diagonally between Third and Fifth. When this bit of NoLibs was laid out, the vicinity of Fifth and Poplar was the lowest point in the neighborhood and the surrounding streets were graded somewhat high. The Commissioners of Northern Liberties in 1830 passed an ordinance to build a brick sewer to drain this territory into Cohocksink Creek.
    A pathway was laid above the sewer and the lane was named Culvert Street for over one hundred years. It received its modern name from Saint John Nepomucene Neumann, whose remains are nearby at St. Peter the Apostle Church (see chapter fourteen). The locale had such a vigorous Catholic populace in the mid-twentieth century that neighbors dubbed the way “Rosary Row” because of the number of young men who lived there while studying for the priesthood.
    Several secondary north–south streets also had name changes. Among them: Brook became Bodine, Charlotte and Dillwyn became Orianna, Apple became Lawrence and St. John (not to be confused with St. John Neumann) became American. Most of these name changes occurred in about 1897.
    NoLibs also has an assortment of tiny streets and secluded alleys that, if not charming, are uncommon. Reminiscent of Elfreth’s Alley in Old City Philadelphia and usually lined with small row homes (if not now, then in bygone times), these curious cartways include:
     the 600 and 700 blocks of Bodine (formerly Brook) Street
     the 600 and 1000 blocks of Galloway Street
     the 600 and 700 blocks of Hancock (formerly Julia and Rachel) Street
     the 800 and 900 blocks of Leithgow Street
     Mintzer Street
     Myrtle (formerly Jackson, then Kerr) Street
     the 700 and 800 blocks of Orkney (formerly Orchard) Street
     Reno (formerly Rawle) Street
     St. John Neumann Way (aforementioned)
     the 400 block of Wallace (formerly Lynd) Street
    Most of these passageways are barely six feet wide with hand-cut granite curbs, and are paved with Belgian blocks or even bricks.
    These interstitial streets are a sampling of the cartways and courtyards that have been lost through time and progress. Some are impassable owing to overgrowth and debris and often end abruptly at a property line. Yet these alleys are truly old and give the impression that they are, indeed, a remnant of yesteryear’s Northern Liberties.

  6. Bob Skiba says:

    What a great project, Peter! The first sweeping street name changes came in December of 1853, when the streets West of Broad St., running north and south, which had been numbered from the Schuylkill were changed. Schuylkill Eighth became Fifteenth St., Schuylkill Seventh became Sixteenth St. and so on. At the same time, High, Mulberry, Sassafrass and Cedar were officially changed by the Councils to the popularly used names: Market, Arch, Race and South Streets. The two numbering systems east and west of Broad Street in particular were much too confusing for visitors and tourists and probably for a few locals, as well.

  7. Paul Statt says:

    Thanks for this, especially the photos. On the southwest corner of Swain and 25th Streets, there’s a carved marble sign for “Park Terrace” (Or maybe “Park Terrasse,” auf Deutsch.) I can’t find a reference to this street anywhere. Swain Street appeared sometime between 1862 and 1875, according to PhilGeoHistory.

  8. Casi says:

    No mention of New Bold? Or was that done just to redistrict the area?

  9. JACK GALGON says:

    Great job, Peter! What a wonderful project!

  10. Lauren Drapala says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece…thanks for your detective work, Peter! I’ve been so curious about these markers.

  11. Fitzwater st was supposed to have been Fitzwalter st but a clerk misspelled it and put it out there as such and it was never fixed

  12. Hello,
    I am trying to find out where the name of the street “Little Boys Court” came from.

    Do you have any information or know where I may be able to find any leads?


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