A quixotic search for the Toynbee tiles of Philadelphia

Toynbee 12My son Isaac was the first to spot one.

e burst with excitement as he told his brother Ethan and me about seeing a Toynbee tile on a street not far from our hotel in Philadelphia.

So we set off on a journey of several miles and several days, our eyes glued to the streets, our minds churning with questions about what and who and how.

Toynbee tiles are the name given to plaques with enigmatic messages that started showing up in the streets of Philadelphia in the 1980s. The tiles then appeared in other large cities. When I say “in the streets,” I mean that literally. Toynbee tiles are embedded in the streets.

The “Toynbee” part of the tiles refers to the original message that appeared on them:

Toynbee Idea

In Movie 2001

Resurrect Dead

On Planet Jupiter

Toynbee apparently refers to the British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose work included an analysis of the cyclical development of civilizations, and their eventual breakdown.“Kubrick’s 2001” is apparently the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Newer versions of the tiles refer to “House of Hades” and the “ground bones of journalists.”

How the tiles got into busy streets and intersections — and who put them there — is part of their mystery, and their allure.

I remember seeing the tiles when I lived in Philadelphia in the 1990s. I used to pass one frequently on 18th Street, and another on Broad Street near City Hall, and at least one other on South Street. The images stick in my mind even though I never gave the tiles much thought. They were just part of urban life, much like graffiti, foul smells and impatient traffic.

The Toynbee tiles took on a new meaning after my family watched the 2011 documentary “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.”

The movie illuminates one of those mundane aspects of urban life that might have otherwise been left to obscurity. The filmmakers start with simple questions – What are these tiles? Who created them? What do they mean? How did they get to the streets of Philadelphia? – and lead viewers on a journey of discovery. The film is a testament to the power of curiosity.  

In Philadelphia, city officials have mostly left the tiles alone. Cars drive over them. People walk over them. When streets are repaired, the tiles are dug up or striped over. Mostly, though, they just blend into the streetscape.

Not so in other cities. In Topeka, Kan., this summer, city officials spotted a Toynbee tile in a street and extracted it. They considered it graffiti.

Like most people, I’m not sure what to make of the Toynbee tiles. I am intrigued, though, as are my boys and my wife. Everywhere we walked in Center City Philadelphia on a recent trip, we kept our heads down, our eyes glued to the streets, hoping to spot one of the Toynbee tiles. We timed stoplights and dodged traffic as we stood in intersections to read the messages and photograph the tiles.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I know that. But a good mystery ignites the imagination in ways that don’t always make sense. Contemplating untold stories that lurk beneath our feet pushes us to look at the world in new ways as we try to understand the enigmatic facets of everyday life.

Curiosity leads to amazing places sometimes – if you’ll let it.

Toynbee 8
A poster for the movie “Resurrect Dead” on a signpost on South Street in Philadelphia.
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