Archives > Historical Features > Exhibits > 18th Century


Although athletics was not a regular part of the curriculum of the Academy and College of Philadelphia and it would be over a century before Penn students had any organized, regular sporting events, athletic activities were not entirely absent from the lives of these early students. Benjamin Franklin himself was a swimmer, skater and an advocate of exercise and physical fitness for young men. Thus it is not surprising that at least one account of an athletic contest between students has survived.

This record of a Penn athletic event was penned by Alexander Graydon (1752-1818), who first enrolled in the Academy of Philadelphia as a young boy in 1760. After his father's death the following year, Graydon's mother moved from Bristol to Philadelphia where she took in boarders to help make ends meet. Her boarders included not only sophisticated theater people and British officers, abut also students at the Academy and College, located nearby at Fourth and Arch Streets. Alexander Graydon, living with his mother, continued his studies at the Academy and College of Philadelphia until September of 1766, when at the age of fourteen he withdrew to study law in the office of his uncle.

In his memoirs, first published in 1811, Alexander Graydon described this race run by some of the students:

My mother... had taken a house in Arch Street, facing the Friends' burying ground. The first lads that were place with her were two brothers, the sons of Colonel Lewis, of Virginia. The younger, named Samuel, had the attractions of a pleasing countenance and a great gentleness of manners… There was not a boy in school in whose welfare and competitions I took so decided an interest; the ardor of which was in almost perpetual requisition, from the circumstance of his being a champion in the gymnastic exercise of running, which was then the rage. The enthusiasm of the turf had pervaded the Academy, and the most extravagant transports of that theatre on the triumph of a favorite horse were not more zealous or impassioned then were acclamations which followed the victor in a foot-race around the square. Stripped to the shirt, and accoutred for the heat by a handkerchief bound round the head, another round the middle, with loosened knee-bands, without shoes, or with moccasins instead of them, the racers were started; and turning the left around the corner of Arch Street, they encompassed the square in which the Academy stands, while the most eager spectators, in imitation of those who scour across the course at a horse race, scampered over the church burying ground to Fifth Street, in order to see the state of the runners as they passed, and to ascertain which was likely to be foremost, on turning Market Street corner. The four sides of this square cannot be much less than three-quarters of a mile; wherefore, bottom in the coursers was no less essential than the swiftness, and in both Lewis bore away the palm from every one that dare enter against him. After having, in a great number of matches, completely triumphed over the Academy, other schools were resorted to for racers; but all in vain-Lewis was the eclipse that distanced every competitor, the swift-footed Achilles, against the vigorous agility of whose straight and well-proportioned form the long-legged stride of the overgrown and the nimble step of the dapper were equally unavailing.

Read more of Alexander Graydon's memories of Penn


The 187 pages (including many biographies) of this exhibit were researched, written and created by Mary D. McConaghy, Michael Silberman, and Irina Kalashnikova. This exhibit first appeared on the Web in 2004, as part of the celebration of Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday.