Every four years, when presidential elections roll around, Pennsylvania is a big deal: It’s a swing state with 20 electoral votes. But it’s been a power player in politics since the beginning.
Pennsylvania was one of the original 13 colonies. During the Revolution and Civil War, Philadelphia was the capital, and two documents that are still making news, 245 years later — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — were drafted and ratified there.
Fast forward to the 19th century, and you land smack in the heart of The Gilded Age with captains of industry who inscribed on institutions throughout the state: Carnegie, Schwab, Rockefeller, Heinz, and Hershey. (Thank you, Milton, for the chocolate kisses!)
Which brings us to food. Pennsylvania is snack food heaven! You’ve got your cheesesteaks and hoagies and stromboli. Funnel cake, whoopie pies, Twizzlers, Tastykakes, shoofly pie, and oh, yeah… scrapple.
Not only does it lead the nation in potato chip production, it’s also tops in pretzel bakeries, mushroom growing, meatpacking plants, rural population, the number of licensed hunters, State Game Lands, and covered bridges. Bonus shout-out to Crayola Crayons; they’re all made in PA.
In this episode, we discuss the state’s unusual tourist attractions, romp through its history, and name-drop some of the best-known and best-loved Pennsylvanians. Then we recommend five books we love that took us to the Keystone State on the page: two memoirs that go deep into the unique culture of western and eastern Pennsylvania, two novels set in Philadelphia (one dark, one light), and a literary thriller starring, perhaps, the world’s biggest introvert.
100 Greatest Pennsylvanians: Why, hello, Benjamin Franklin! Get the whole list.
Pressed Coffee and Books with bonus John O’Hara: We love this coffee shop + used bookstore in Pottsville, PA. And just around the corner, there’s a statue of native son and author John O’Hara. (Mel read his novel Appointment in Samarra and dubbed it ‘kind of depressing, but a beautifully written account of 20th-century high (and low) society in coal country.’)
Oh, Centralia. Burn, baby, burn.: The town of Centralia had an underground coal fire that started in an abandoned mine in 1962. That fire is still burning, almost sixty years later. Read more about it on the Uncovering PA website and History.com.
Mr. Rogers Grave: The kindhearted Mr. Fred Rogers is buried with his parents (and grandparents) in Latrobe, PA.
Jim Thorpe—The man, the town: Jim Thorpe was one of the 20th century’s greatest athletes, and a town in Pennsylvania bears his name, even though he never set foot there. Read more about Jim Thorpe at Mental Floss.
The Jaws tombstone: Lester C. Madden served in the Korean War. But his greatest love — as far as we know — was a movie: the 1975 blockbuster Jaws . He’s buried in a cemetery about 3 miles from downtown Pittsburgh in a grave marked with a tombstone depicting the Jaws movie poster. Get the story and photos (!) on Atlas Obscura.
Charles Dickens’ raven: Dickens had three different ravens during his lifetime, all of them he named Grip. The first one was written into his short story Barnaby Rudge and later, that bird inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write his poem The Raven. The original, taxidermied Grip now resides at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Get the story at the Free Library website and Atlas Obscura.
Susan Campbell Bertoletti: She’s the author of Growing Up in Coal Country — as well as many other excellent children’s books about tough subjects. Get the whole scoop on her website.
Liz Moore: She’s the author of Long Bright River. Here’s a video of her appearance at the legendary Strand Book Store in NYC. And this article from the BBC explores Kensington, the tough neighborhood where the action of Long Bright River takes place.
Annie Dillard: She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and wrote our recommended book An American Childhood, among many others. Here she is, in conversation with NPR.
Marie-Helene Bertino: She’s the author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas. In this video, she talks about her book at the BEA Librarian Breakfast.
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Top image courtesy of Sean Pavone.
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