The Scent of Kensington

Every place has a recognizable scent to those who grew up in that location, and when you smell it, your mind is flooded with memories. If you lived by the ocean, it might be the smell of saltwater or the acrid odor of decaying fish. If you grew up on a farm, it could be the sweet smell of flowers or the not-so-sweet smell of cow manure. If you grew up in the city, you had a cornucopia of smells, many that were unique to your location.

I grew up in Kensington, spending my first 18 years living in a house near Front Street and Allegheny Avenue. In those years, I pretty much experienced most of Kensington and a lot of Philadelphia. I noticed that each neighborhood had some similar and some unique smells, depending on the type of factories nearby. I decided to list the odors and something I remember about them. If I missed any, and I will, please add them in the comments.

It seemed like one prevalent smell, probably for all of Kensington, was the smell of roofing tar. It was either being towed behind trucks or applied to row home roofs. In 1950, the houses in my part of town were about 30 years old. They all seemed to need new roofs. The memory I associate with roofing tar is asking roofers to throw down any pimple balls they saw. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t.

In the late 40s and early 50s, there were still horse-drawn milk wagons and hucksters prowling the streets to deliver or sell their goods. A horse is, of course, of course, being a horse; it went to the bathroom wherever it wanted. (Sorry, I had to use a line from the famous Mr. Ed TV show. 😊) The 100 block of West Wishart Street must have been one of the horses’ favorite places to drop a load. My favorite memories of horse-drawn wagons are the times we could pet the horses or even feed them apples. There were not many places in the city you could do that.

There is a particular odor that comes from rain hitting the streets during hot weather. There is actually a scientific name for it, but I can’t remember it. My best memory of this smell is sitting under the small overhang of a house on Howard and Wishart Streets. It was my favorite place to go during a rainstorm to play cards with my friends. Somehow, when I am lucky enough to experience that smell now, it helps to give me peace of mind.

On occasion, I was lucky enough to visit a place where they made Philly soft pretzels. These places were generally in the basement of a corner row house. The smell was incredible. Anytime I smell pretzels baking (they don’t smell as good as they did when I was a kid), it reminds me of Philadelphia and the special childhood I was lucky to have.

For me, no other food smells as good as Italian foods. Kensington was not known for having a proliferation of Italians or Italian food stores, but we were lucky; we had the Santuccis living a few doors away. When I was very young, we also had an Italian market near Front and Lippincott Streets. When I walked along Wishart Street, the scent of whatever food was cooking in the houses was sure to seep out. There was the smell of cabbage cooking and beef roasting, but in only one home—the Santucci’s—could you get the full Italian smell. I know that Larry Santucci is in this group, so Larry, I want to thank you for your family’s contribution to my smelly memories.

To this day, I hate the smell of chlorinated water. It ruins coffee, rice, and anything that’s cooked in water with chlorine in it. When I was a kid, there was no bottled water or even filtered water. We just had to endure that taste. Ugg!

We were lucky to have Cross Brothers Meat Packing plant located not too far from us at Front and Venango Streets, said no one ever. It was just up the street from Cramp Elementary, where I spent six years. A God-awful smell came from that plant. Once, a kid brought a cow’s eye to school and passed it around during recess.

Before garbage disposals, we had to separate our food garbage and put it in pails for collection. It was terrible enough to smell your own garbage, but it turned into a horrendous odor once it was in a truck for a day. The trucks all leaked garbage water on the streets, and God-forbid if you got stuck in a car behind a Philadelphia garbage truck.

Well, I have taken up enough of your time. I have many more odors that I remember, but you’ll have to help out now, though I did save the best for last.

Any bakery, especially Webb’s on Front Street and the German Bakery at Front and Clearfield, had the best smell in all of Kensington. That smell always reminds me of my grandmother, who loved the various culinary masterpieces from each bakery. Every morning she (Nanny) would go to the German bakery and buy some kaiser rolls, snowflake rolls, Danish, and a few other delights. Later in the day, she would get butter cake or crumb cake from Webb’s.

Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.



  • The Delaware rive had an oder at low tide especially. It was quite polluted in the 50’s and that may have contributed to that odor. I don’t detect that odor today. There are fewer fish now but the river cleaned up a great deal since then.

  • As a vegetarian/vegan since 1985, I need to confess that my family owned the largest slaughterhouse on the East Coast—Cross Brothers Meat Packers—providing meat for the New York & Philly kosher markets for decades. Most of my relatives worked here at some time or another including my grandma into her 80s, my dad before med school, and my uncle Morty. I used to write with Cross Brothers Meat Packers pencils with images of cows on the side to do my Hebrew homework in elementary school. Writing my chapter on how I turned vegetarian in my memoir and reflecting on all this history.

    Pamela Wible
  • Can’t wait to read all of these books. Who knew we had a genius in our mists in Kensington!

    Rochele Wood

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