Philadelphia by Thomas Nast, in Charles Dickens's Pictures from Italy and American Notes (1877), Chapter VII, "Philadelphia, and Its Solitary Prison," p. 324. Wood-engraving, 4 ⅛ by 5 ⅜ inches (10.6 cm high by 13.5 cm wide), vignetted. Descriptive headline: "The Eastern Penitentiary and Its Prisoners" (325).

Passage Illustrated: Municipal Water — A Source of Civic Pride

Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off, everywhere. The Waterworks, which are on a height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order. The river is dammed at this point, and forced by its own power into certain high tanks or reservoirs, whence the whole city, to the top stories of the houses, is supplied at a very trifling expense. [Chapter VII: "Philadelphia, and Its Solitary Prison," page 323]

Commentary: Breezy Humour rather than Social Commentary

Nast rarely offers a psychological study in the socially realistic manner of such sixties illustrators as Marcus Stone, whose 1868 study of the prisoner mentally collapsing in the "Solitary System" of Philadelphia's Eastern Penitentiary grimly reminds us that Dickens saw himself as a Reformer and social critic. Certainly such an in-depth examination of the prisoner's derangement would not have been congenial to Nast's inventiveness and lively comic sense. He imagines a pedestrian (perhaps even Dickens) gingerly trying to avoid all the water accumulating on the sidewalks from the washing of steps and windows by African-American household servants on the tree-lined streets of Philadelphia. Other illustrators, in contrast, have focussed on the evils of the "Silent System" of Britain's Pentonville and Belfast prisoners as adapted by American penal authorities in the City of Brotherly Love.

Dickens, in contrast to Nast's amusing illustration, is perfectly serious about the value of abundant clean water in a city of any size, having observed the sanitation and public health problems resulting from a shortage of such supplies in the poorer districts of London such as the notoriously unhealthy slums of Saffron Hill and Smithfield.

Relevant Illustrations in the 1868 and 1910 Editions: The Solitary Prisoner

Left: Marcus Stone's contribution to Dickens's social commentary, The Solitary Prisoner (for the same chapter in the 1868 edition). Right: Harry Furniss's psychological study The Solitary Prisoner in the Philadelphia Penitentiary serves as the frontispiece in the 1910 Charles Dickens Library Edition. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Related Materials

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Dickens, Charles. Chapter VII: "Philadelphia, and Its Solitary Prison." Pictures from Italy, Sketches by Boz and American Notes. Illustrated by Thomas Nast and Arthur B. Frost. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877 (copyrighted in 1876). 322-29.

_______. Chapter VII: "Philadelphia, and Its Solitary Prison." American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by J. Gordon Thomson and A. B. Frost. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880. 281-96.

Created 22 May 2019

Last modified 12 June 2020