James Smart's Philadelphia
Of All Things
February 13, 2019
by James Smart
They’re cleaning out Philly’s attic
There have been reports recently about plans to disperse the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum, involving Drexel University and other institutions. I’m sure those concerned will do what’s best, because I know David Rasner, who has been head of the museum for a while, and was my lawyer in days of yore or thereabouts.
But we old-timers remember when the City government still took responsibility for the museum, and Joe Mc Cosker, the somewhat legendary curator, admitted that it was Philly’s attic, full of obsolete but charming stuff.
And everybody called it the Atwater Kent Museum.
Fancy museums didn’t want some of the city’s attic-valued items. So in 1938, Mayor S. Davis Wilson approached
A. Atwater Kent and convinced him to buy the Seventh Street building of the Franklin Institute, which had moved to its new palace on the Parkway in 1933, and set up a city museum.
Kent agreed, bought the building and deeded it to the city, with conditions that it would always be free, and that it be named for him.
Sixty years or so later, the museum started charging admission, and dropped Kent’s name. It seems that the deader you get, the more people will ignore you.
Atwater Kent was a strange sort of genius. He was born December 3, 1873. His family claimed that they knew he was mechanically inclined when, in his home in Vermont at age five, he took apart his mother’s sewing machine. (There is no information about whether he put it back together.)
Before he got his degree from Worcester Technical Institution, he was already running an electrical motor manufacturing company. His automobile ignitions were in use for 50 years.
After college, he worked for a motor company. On a business trip to Philadelphia, he met the young woman who would become his wife, and stayed here.
He built his first pioneering consumer-oriented radio in 1921. In 1924, he bought the huge property on Wissahickon Ave. below Queen Lane, where some 4,000 workers began building more than 5,000 radio sets a day, many in fancy mahogany cases. In 1929, his peak year, he had 12,000 employees and produced nearly a million radios.
From 1926 to 1934, he sponsored the musical Atwater Kent Hour weekly on that new idea, radio networks,
NBC and CBS.
But other radio makers were catching up to him, and he had made his fortune. In 1936, Kent sold his company to the local upstart Philco, and retired.
In 1937, he contributed big bucks to the restoration of the Betsy Ross House. And in 1938, he conceived of the Philadelphia history museum that would bear his name forever.
His worth was estimated at $42 million. That would equal $720 million today!
Kent moved to Hollywood, where he became noted for throwing elegant parties once a week at his estate. Film stars and, especially, starlets, flocked to his soirees, and he was known to present elegant gifts to deserving young women.
Atwater Kent died in Hollywood on March 4, 1949
As late as the 1960s, when the city was going to hire a new curator for the museum, the candidate would be flown to meet Atwater Kent, Jr., sometimes on his yacht, to get his approval.
. Now, the 70-year-old museum is in a sort of historical limbo. I can’t wait to see what happens when they clean out Philadelphia’s attic