Soupy Island: Fresh Air and Hot Soup at a Delaware River Playground
by Amanda Zellner
“[The Donoghys] hunted me up…with the information that they were hungry. Soup was still being given out, so the three little Donoghys were given a pint each in a tin cup and a few crackers. They ate it as if they were famished and went back for more,” Suzette wrote. Suzette was a pseudonym used by a woman in the early 1900s who recounted to the Evening Bulletin her day spent with the three Donoghy children at Sanitarium Playground. Soup was a key part of a child’s experience at the playground. In an article printed by the Public Ledger in 1889, a year when 103,516 people visited the Sanitarium, board members proudly boasted about a system so efficient that 1,000 people could be served a pint of soup and three crackers in 30 minutes. So memorable was the soup, in fact, that Philadelphians today refer to the legendary playground as Soupy Island.
In 1877, the Sanitarium Association of Philadelphia, a new private charity, opened the playground with slides, swings, pools, and other amusements, all intended for Philadelphia’s impoverished children. Late 19th century reformers claimed the city administration turned a blind eye to the public health problem and ignored the “unworthy” peoples living in slum districts. Private charities like the Sanitarium partially filled the void and provided relief. As part of the public health movement, the Sanitarium Association targeted hygiene, nutrition and disease among the poor. The movement was part of a 19th century trend, in which private charities felt a “paternalistic duty” to take care of the poor. Originally the playground offered health facilities, including a hospital ward and a soup kitchen. Today, the charity still operates as “Sanitarium Playground,” serving milk, soup and crackers to approximately 400 children daily in the summer. Soupy Island today is received with as much enthusiasm the Sanitarium was by the Donoghys in Suzette’s story.
“The three little Donoghys jumped up and down with excitement. They had never been on a boat; they had never played on the grass; they had never been on a swing, or splashed in a pool in all their squalid little lives,” Suzette wrote about the children, who were ages eight, seven, and four. Like many struggling urban working class immigrant families, the Donoghys lived in the slums of Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century and faced limited opportunities and poor conditions. Infectious diseases and high infant mortality rates threatened the impoverished families who lived in overcrowded, dimly-lit tenements. The Donoghys fell victim to such threats, losing their fourth and youngest child to the whooping cough. The Sanitarium’s founders had families like the Donoghys in mind when they established the playground and health sanitarium.
Built on the small piece of land that the Reading Railroad Company donated, the resort attracted the city's children, healthy or sick, in growing numbers. They took a free steamboat ride on the Delaware River to Point Airy on Windmill Island, where they received the playground’s fun, food, clothing, and medical attention. Above all, the Sanitarium offered fresh air, the main treatment prescribed to cure diseases like tuberculosis. By 1886, the Sanitarium outgrew Windmill Island and moved ashore to Red Bank, New Jersey. Shortly after Sanitarium Playground left Windmill Island, the land was removed by the U.S. government to make way for shipping traffic down the Delaware.
Although not really an island after the move to New Jersey’s coast, the playground never lost its sentimental hold on Philadelphians. Year after year, the Sanitarium's steamboats transported thousands of children like the Donoghys to the Sanitarium on New Jersey’s coast. The children rode two boats named after distinguished contributors to the charity: “John F. Smith,” and “Elizabeth Monroe Smith,” the latter better remembered as “The Lizzie.” The steamboats left from several locations over the years, including ports near Port Richmond and Queen Village. Through the mid 1900s, “The Lizzie” continued to pick up children, usually accompanied by their mothers, from Penn Treaty Park.
Suzette was not the mother of the Donoghys. In fact, she did not know the three children prior to their excursion to the Sanitarium, but they served her purpose because she was an advocate for the charity. She wrote, “The Sanitarium is supported entirely by voluntary contributions. It is estimated that to give one child all the advantages of a day’s outing, including the ride on the river, lunch, a bath and hospital treatments when necessary, costs nine cents, so, therefore, the people who love children could not spend a dime to better advantage then by sending to this association at Red Bank.” Suzette’s tone reflects that of many philanthropists in the 1900s. Generally well-intentioned, but sometimes patronizing, such reformers believed the poor were incapable of caring for themselves.
Despite reformers’ implicitly condescending assumptions about poor Philadelphians’ hygiene, the charity’s popularity continued to grow. The Sanitarium’s annual reports, many of which can be found at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, reveal a steady increase in yearly attendance to the playground through the early 1900s – proving the charity could withstand Philadelphia’s changing times. Eventually tuberculosis no longer threatened pandemic and city indoor plumbing requirements made public bath facilities less popular .The Great Depression contributed to the end of the paternalistic reform trend when hard times struck Philadelphia. For the Sanitarium, food and fun continued to drive thousands of children to the playground. As recently as 2007, Campbell’s Soup Company and longtime neighbor to Soupy Island stepped in to join the ‘soupy’ tradition by donating about 80 cases of their condensed chicken noodle and vegetable beef soup, along with new kitchen equipment and renovations to the park’s play facility, amounting to over $50,000 in contributions.
Although the ferries no longer leave the docks at Penn Treaty Park and the hospital ward is gone, not much else of Soupy Island’s magic has changed. In 2007, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter interviewed patrons of Soupy Island who recalled the fun days they spent as children riding the carousel (originally installed in 1901) and using wax paper to make the slides faster, and who now take their children and grandchildren to enjoy the carousel and “slippery slide.” Generations of grown children share the memory said best by a woman in the 2007 article: “It’s the best place ever.” Joseph Donoghy sang the same tune a century earlier, when he described his day on Soupy Island to Suzette as the "sportiest time I ever had.”
Amanda Zellner is a student historian from Drexel University completing a research co-op on PhilaPlace.
- Philadelphia Record Photograph Morgue. “Delaware River Bridge,” (images). Box 6, folder 558.
- Philadelphia Record Photograph Morgue. “Sanitarium Association of Philadelphia,” (images). Box 32, folder 3197.
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- Beckford, William Hale. The Child’s Crusade. Philadelphia: The Hallowell Press, 1916.
- Dangremond, Samuel. "Back in the Soup - a South Jersey Institution Celebrates Its Renovations," Philadelphia Inquirer , 20 July 2007.
- Dougherty, Christopher R. “ ‘A Pioneer Charity of the Country”: NJ’s ‘Soupy Island’ Sanitarium.” Necessity for Ruins, November 13, 2007: http://ruins.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/a-pioneer-charity-of-the-country-njs-soupy-island-sanitarium/
- Ford, William H. “The Sanitarium Association”. The City of Philadelphia as It Appears in the Year 1894 : A Compilation of Facts Supplied by Distinguished Citizens for the Information of Business Men, Travelers, and the World at Large. edited by Frank Hamilton Taylor, Trade Leagues of Philadelphia. 2nd ed, Philadelphia: Geo. S. Harris & Sons, 1894.
- Levine, Adam, ed. Philly H2O: Delaware River Images, Smith and Windmill Islands: http://www.phillyh2o.org/backpages/DelR_Smith.html
- Nark, Jason. “From Sanitarium and soup kitchen, to ‘island oasis’,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 July 2008.
- “A July Trip to the Sanitarium.” Reprinted from the Public Ledger in The Annual Report of the Sanitarium Association of Philadelphia, 1889.
- “Bound for ‘Soupy Island!’,”Philadelphia Record, 1 July 1938, p. 3.
- “The Little Donoghys, Chaperoned by ‘Suzette,’ Enjoy an Unexpected Outing at Red Bank.” Reprinted from the Evening Bulletin in The Annual Report of the Sanitarium Association of Philadelphia, 1914.