Illustrations by Ran Zheng
If you’re one of the 55 percent of Delawareans born somewhere else, you know a lot of the state’s common knowledge gets lost in translation. Here’s the lowdown on breaking the Delaware code on such things as Separation Day, the Sandbox and the superiority of subdivisions—and that’s just stuff starting with S.
History made Delaware the First State.
On Dec. 7, 1787, when 30 Delaware patriots unanimously voted to ratify the U.S. Constitution, Delaware became the first state to do so, beating Pennsylvania by five days. Since 1993, Dec. 7 has been proclaimed Delaware Day to honor the state’s primary status in the union.
Delaware also celebrates a Separation Day.
On June 15, 1776, the Assembly of the Three Lower Counties (of Pennsylvania) declared independence from the commonwealth—and hence England—and renamed themselves the Counties of New Castle, Kent and Sussex Upon Delaware. Separation Day is marked with a festival in New Castle, site of the historic vote.
Lore made Delaware the Diamond State.
Thomas Jefferson supposedly described Delaware as a jewel, for its strategic location, yielding the Diamond State, according to delaware.gov. However, monticello.org, the website for Jefferson’s home, cannot find Jefferson using such a term and calls it a “spurious quotation.”
Delaware is a state; it’s not in a state.
That’s something residents may need to say when traveling—even just a few feet into Pennsylvania’s Delaware County. To add to the confusion, Indiana, Iowa, New York, Ohio and Oklahoma all have counties named Delaware. Everything named Delaware comes from Thomas West, the third lord de la Warr (or Ware), a Briton who lived in Virginia for just a year.
Delaware is one of nine states with only one area code.
That makes 302 shorthand for the state itself.
The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal divides the state physically and culturally.
Upstate it’s urban and suburban; downstate it’s rural. That split is increasingly contradicted by growth in MOT (Middletown, Odessa and Townsend) and coastal Sussex County. Downstate is also known as Lower Delaware (beware, there’s no Upper Delaware) and Slower Delaware, or sometimes just Slower Lower.
Tolls on Del. 1 are higher on the weekend to generate more revenue from heavy beach traffic.
Volunteer fire companies serve most of the state but increasingly rely on paid staff.
They raise money by renting their halls and selling food, often chicken, barbecued or with dumplings. Two notable long-time exceptions: The Oyster Eat in Georgetown and the Ladies Shrimp Feast in Lewes.
Taxes paid by residents are relatively low because so many companies are incorporated in Delaware and pay corporate taxes.
They picked Delaware for its specialized and speedy business court with a long body of business law (Chancery Court, established in 1792) and an encouraging tax structure. Shopping is mostly tax-free (as the billboards remind out-of-staters), with a gross-receipts tax charged to retailers and service providers.A local library card works in almost every library in the state.
Delaware was once a company state, with du Pont family members and the DuPont Co. vastly improving its quality of life. But with DuPont slimmer, merged and spun off, the state can no longer count on “Uncle Dupie” for generosity and leadership. Still, Delaware has many gifts, creations and legacies from the family and company, including Bellevue State Park; the Crystal Trust; the Delaware Art Museum; Delaware Park; the DuPont Environmental Education Center; the du Pont Highway; the DuPont Nature Center; Gibraltar; Goodstay; Hagley Museum & Library; the Hotel du Pont (its Gold Ballroom and Green Room unmatched for proms, weddings and significant life events); Kennett Pike; Longwood Gardens (a world-famous Pennsylvania attraction in the Wilmington phone book); Mt. Cuba Center; the Music School of Delaware; Nemours/Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children; Nemours Mansion & Gardens; the Playhouse on Rodney Square; Rodney Square and the streetscape around it; St. Andrew’s School; the Unidel Foundation; various University of Delaware buildings; Valley Garden Park; and Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.
Low-digit license plates (some cast in black porcelain) demonstrate First State status and allegiance—at a high cost.
In 2008, No. 6 sold for $675,000. “The governor has No. 1, the lieutenant governor has No. 2, and the secretary of state has No. 3,” Butch Emmert told NPR in 2018 when he auctioned No. 20 for $410,000. In the 1940s and ’50s, “license plates were traded as political favors, but the practice of trading and selling them became more regular with time,” said Emmert (plate No. 107). “Now, it’s not the plate, it’s the number.” Low-digit surf-fishing tags are likewise promoted to provide the same thing.
Half of America’s credit card market is represented in Delaware after banks sought out a state to allow higher interest rates on credit cards.
The Financial Center Development Act of 1981 “brought 40,000 banking jobs to Delaware in 24 months,” Ben du Pont (his father, Pete, was the governor who signed the bill) wrote on Twitter in 2019. “Delaware’s unemployment rate went from above average, to the lowest in the US.” Almost 48,000 people today work in the state’s financial sector.
Yes, the drivers are bad.
Delaware is consistently rated one of the worst three states in the country for careless driving resulting in death, Inc. magazine concluded in 2018.
Claymont celebrates a Christmas Weed.
On Dec. 17, 1993, The News Journal ran a front-page photo of a small evergreen tree, improbably growing in a crack on Philadelphia Pike and even more improbably adorned with Christmas ornaments and garland. A grinch concerned with safety (the Delaware Department of Transportation) that day chopped down what the paper called the Christmas Weed. It was replaced—eight times, after being repeatedly vandalized—and eventually guarded 24/7 until Christmas Day. The heartwarming saga led to an annual Christmas parade (with a new Weed).
The Dover Air Force Base mortuary is America’s sole port mortuary and the largest Department of Defense mortuary.
The mission of the facility, established in 1955, is to “provide dignity, honor and respect to fallen soldiers by preparing them to be returned home to their families,” the government says. At various points, families and the media weren’t invited to the ceremonies for service members killed overseas, but the military today releases photos of the “dignified transfer” of their remains.
Each Sussex County beach town has a different character.
Sedate Lewes is dotted with historic structures, including Delaware’s oldest house. Rehoboth Beach is the center of the state’s LGBTQ community and is called the nation’s summer capital for Washington movers-and-shakers who vacation there. Dewey Beach caters to a younger partying crowd. Bethany Beach (dry until 1984), South Bethany (with 5 miles of canals) and Fenwick Island bill themselves as quiet resorts. Henlopen Acres joins the last three with an older full-time population, but with “a country seaside community” slogan. Bethany, where a totem pole welcomes visitors, and Rehoboth began as religious retreats.
Those 11 ominous towers on the Sussex coast were built during World War II to watch for a German invasion that never came.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t reason for concern, though. German U-Boats regularly prowled the Atlantic coast during the war, preying on merchant and military vessels. One tower in Cape Henlopen State Park is open for visitors to climb 70 feet above the dune.
The Brandywine School is a style of realistic and often heroic illustration, most famously rendered by Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover.
Get your fix at the Delaware Art Museum or the Brandywine River Museum.
A few notes about music royalty.
Wilmington native Clifford Brown (referred to by jazz cats and those in the know simply as “Brownie”) was “one of the most influential jazz musicians of the mid-20th century,” his historical marker says. In 1954, he formed the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, “considered by many to be the greatest ‘hard bop’ ensemble of all time.” Jazz singer Cab Calloway, a Hockessin resident at his 1994 death, has a performing arts school named for him. Reggae star Bob Marley left Jamaica for Wilmington in the 1960s and worked for a time as a forklift driver at the Chrysler Assembly Plant in Newark and as a lab assistant at DuPont. Wilmington native George Thorogood has been performing blues and rock with his band the Destroyers since the 1970s. Influential punk and alternative band Television included Tom Verlaine, who grew up in the state; Richard Hell, who met Verlaine at Sanford School; and Delaware native Billy Ficca. Wilmington native Johnny Neel was a member of the Allman Brothers Band and the Dickey Betts Band.
Delaware has a small presence in movies.
“Meet the People,” a 1944 musical, is partly set in “Morganville.” “Dead Poets Society” was the first major feature film shot entirely in Delaware, in 1989. The 1995 dramedy “Empire Records” is set in Delaware, but was filmed in Wilmington, N.C. “Fight Club” is set in Wilmington in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, but the 1999 film “never actually names a city as its setting because it could take place anywhere,” shmoop.com says. It was filmed in Wilmington, California. “Mayor Cupcake” (2011) was set in Bridgeville and filmed there. The 2015 horror film “Goosebumps” is set in “Madison.”
Delaware has a smaller presence in television.
A 1996–2000 NBC/TNT series called “The Pretender” and a 2002–03 Cartoon Network series called “Robot Jones” were set in Delaware.
Upstate, Delaware’s most popular radio station is WSTW, which broadcasts from North Wilmington.
Downstate, Delaware’s most popular station is, er, WSBY in Salisbury, Maryland. Delaware has about three dozen licensed radio stations, but its small size means residents also enjoy radio stations broadcasting from Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Delaware is too close to major cities in other states to support a roster of TV stations.
WRDE, with studios in Lewes, is an NBC affiliate in the Salisbury, Maryland, market. Public station WHYY is licensed to Wilmington and has a newsroom there, but most operations are in Philadelphia. It also repeats programming on WDPB in Seaford. Philadelphia-based ABC affiliate WPVI creates Philadelphia’s most popular local news with the help of a Wilmington bureau. WBOC in Salisbury has newsrooms in Dover and Milton.
Some Delaware-isms recall what used to be.
When natives say they’re going to “tap MAC,” they’re using a slogan from a 1970s ad campaign for a brand of automated teller machines. Happy Harry’s was a Delaware drugstore chain founded in 1962, absorbed by Walgreens in 2006. Black Cat, a name for where routes 13 and 40 merge, is from a club that burned in 1946. There’s a long list of “where fill-in-the-blank used to be,” such as the Wilmington Dry Goods, Hercules and Brandywine Raceway.
Leipsic, Lewes, Little Creek, Loockerman Street and Newark are not pronounced like you might expect.
Although it’s named for Leipzig, a German city pronounced LIPE-zig, it’s LIP-sick. Lewes is LOO-iss, like the name Louis. The last part of Little Creek is pronounced crick, from the regional dialect. Dover’s Loockerman Street is pronounced LOCK-er-man, as if it had only one O. Former mayor Vance Funk has speculated Newark’s pronunciation might come from the Ark of the New Covenant, hence New-ARK (not newurk). It might also come from England’s Wark or Newark-on-Trent.
Delaware is east of the Mason-Dixon line.
In 1763, the Penns (who controlled Pennsylvania, which then included Delaware as its Three Lower Counties) and the Calverts (who controlled Maryland) hired Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to survey the boundary between their colonies. The resulting line forms the east-west border between Maryland and Pennsylvania and the north-south border between Maryland and Delaware. Before the Missouri Compromise, which attempted to set rules for the addition of slave states to the Union, the Mason-Dixon Line was considered the northern limit of slavery in the United States. Delaware was conflicted about slavery. Its first slave was recorded in 1639, a year after the first permanent European settlement. Its 1776 constitution banned slavery; its 1792 constitution allowed it. In 1865, the 13th amendment banned slavery throughout the United States.
“Why does Delaware have such a strange shape?”
The Delaware Public Archives asks in a lesson for fourth and fifth graders. One key element was a 1682 ruling drawing an arc 12 miles from New Castle, creating America’s only circular state border. The arc goes into the Delaware River, and in 1934 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Delaware owned the riverbed up to New Jersey’s mean low water line. Dredging spoils deposited in two areas on the eastern side of the river have created uninhabited parts of Delaware attached to New Jersey, called Killcohook and part of Artificial Island.
Subdivisions are supreme.
Three-quarters of Delawareans live outside municipalities, so when they’re asked where they live, they’ll often respond with their subdivision, named by a developer. In the 1940s, Alfred J. Vilone Sr. created Vilone Village and named the streets after family members. In 1950, he developed Fairfax, big enough to have a shopping center and highway signs directing you to it. Residents unite through civic or homeowner associations to get streets cleared of snow (although the state later offers a partial reimbursement).
Chateau Country literally refers to mansions on large lots in the rolling hills northwest of Wilmington.
It figuratively refers to the lifestyles of the 1 percent.
Brandywine Hundred is literally a remnant of colonial history and figuratively a state of mind.
The history involves old lines on the map that, depending on your source, meant 100 families or 100 men for the militia. The state of mind basically encompasses all the suburbs north of Wilmington (even if they’re not in the hundred called Brandywine). North Wilmington is a synonym for Brandywine Hundred.
Delaware’s highest point is a gentle suburban hill on Ebright Road, 300 feet from Pennsylvania.
There’s a bench if you’re winded by the climb. A few spots to the west are 2 feet higher, the Delaware Geological Survey concluded in 2007, but the official azimuth was not moved.
Delaware is small.
The greatest distance between any two points is not quite 100 miles as the crow files, Google Maps calculates. At its narrowest, it is just nine miles across. Only Rhode Island is smaller.
The Sandbox, Churchmans Marsh and the Tyler McConnell Bridge are known as regular traffic bottlenecks, but Google Maps doesn’t know any of them.
The Sandbox is a Delaware Department of Transportation storage facility on I-95, south of Wilmington. The marsh is off I-95, south of the Sandbox. The bridge is on Route 141, northwest of Wilmington, over the Brandywine.
Slaughter Beach, the Murderkill River and the Whorekill (an old name for Lewes Creek) might get their names from naughty events in the past. Or they might come from a long-deceased bureaucrat, the Dutch for “mother river” and the Dutch for “muddy river.”
Many place names are vague.
Like Pike Creek (a tributary of the White Clay Creek, but colloquially lots of subdivisions filled with single-family homes and townhouses), Claymont (named after a West Virginia plantation) or Bear (named after a long-demolished and long-lost inn).
Some roads have names and numbers, but one or the other is far more common.
Popular names include Marsh Road instead of Del. 3; Kirkwood Highway instead of Del. 2; and Foulk Road instead of Del. 261. Popular numbers are Route 273 instead of Ogletown and Christiana roads, and Route 141 instead of its several names. Some roads are so long that the preference switches. In New Castle and Kent counties, Del. 1 is Route 1 or Highway One, rather than the Korean War Veterans Memorial Highway, but in Sussex County it’s often the Coastal Highway.
Much of the state’s cuisine comes from outside its borders.
It doesn’t have a definitive dish like Philly cheesesteak, reinterpreted by restaurants all over. As former News Journal critic Al Mascitti has joked, Delaware’s state appetizer is Maryland crab stuffed in Pennsylvania mushrooms.
The humble hot dog is reinterpreted and glorified.
Since 1935, Deerhead Hot Dogs have sported a chili sauce. At Johnnie’s Dog House in Talleyville, the Delaware Destroyer is two hot dogs on a sub roll with mac and cheese, chili, onions and hot sauce.
No ketchup is served at Thrasher’s French Fries.
It’s been that way since the chain was founded in Maryland, in 1929, and it continues today in every location, including one in Rehoboth Beach.
The staff wears Colonial attire at Jessop’s Tavern, fitting for a building that dates to 1674.
New Castle’s rich history includes the 1682 arrival of William Penn, the 1704 pick as county seat, the 1776 declaration as Delaware’s capital and the 1831 terminus of Delaware’s first railroad (where an unused railroad ticket booth remains). The capital moved to Dover in 1777, the county seat to Wilmington in 1881.
In Delaware, deli meats, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions and oregano on a long roll is a sub.
It’s a hoagie in the Philadelphia area and at your local Wawa. An Italian sub has capicola, genoa salami, prosciutto, provolone, lettuce, tomato, oregano and olive oil; the American version uses boiled ham, cooked salami, American cheese and mayo. Pickles and hot or sweet peppers are optional.
Speaking of Wawa, in 2018 it was voted America’s best sandwich shop.
The coffee’s good, too. The Pennsylvania chain, in Delaware since 1969, is known for made-to-order subs, breakfast sandwiches, no-surcharge ATMs, cheap gas and clean restrooms.
Signature state dishes, the Bobbie (house-roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and mayo) and the Nic-o-boli (cheese, pizza sauce and choicesof a dozen fillings baked in dough), were named after real people.
Bobbie, the aunt of Capriotti’s founder Lois Margolet, served such a sandwich after Thanksgiving. After lifeguards requested a protein-packed item, Nick Caggiano Sr. invented the Nic-o-boli for downstate-based Nicola Pizza.
Scrapple (pork, spices and corn meal, formed into a loaf that’s then sliced and fried) is a classic breakfast choice, particularly downstate.
RAPA, a Bridgeville scrapple maker since 1926, runs an online survey about five popular-ish toppings: mustard, grape jelly, ketchup, maple syrup and mayo. Scrapple co-stars with apples in Bridgeville’s Apple Scrapple Festival Oct. 11–12.
One out of four Delawareans has met 2020 presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, says one survey.
Arden, Ardentown and Ardencroft began as an economic movement, with residents renting land.
All three municipalities were founded under the single-tax philosophy of economist Henry George. Having just one tax, on land, would create “a more just distribution of wealth,” the “Arden Book” says. The Ardens, whose residents jokingly refer to themselves as “Ardenistas,” retain a “tradition of free-thinking, creative, outspoken people,” it adds.
The Delaware Way means that politicians cross political lines for the good of the state, its people and its industries.
This was more common in decades past when just a few movers and shakers, often linked to the du Pont family and DuPont Co., could hash out arrangements. The concept is at risk today, with political parties veering toward their extremes and the du Pont/DuPont influence declining.
Politicians literally bury the hatchet at Return Day.
The Georgetown ceremony, two days after each general election, began as a day to count and validate ballots. Today it’s a celebration of victory, an attempt to instill the Delaware Way in all and a chance to speculate on campaigns two years in the future.
Delaware is one of 17 states to elect the governor and lieutenant governor separately.
In the 1980s, Delaware had a Republican governor and Democrat lieutenant governor.
Delaware is solidly blue.
All three members of Congress are Democrats, and Democrats dominate both houses of the state legislature. The state has 340,000 registered Democrats, compared to 199,000 Republicans. In New Castle County, more voters are registered as unaffiliated (aka independent) than Republican, and only one representative district (in southeast Sussex County) is overwhelmingly Republican in voter registration.