The Cook family's coffeehouse is located in the city of Philadelphia, and is a site where people discuss news, politics, current events, and titillating gossip. (And here we were thinking they just served coffee!) Grandfather and his friends frequent the place, as do lawyers, doctors, politicians, and merchants. Beating Starbucks to the punch by about two hundred years, eighteenth-century coffeehouses were a large part of the public sphere and were very important in the formation of things like public opinion. Take, for example, the discussion of the fever early on in Chapter 4 (4.17-4.27). The conversation includes Grandfather, a doctor, a government clerk, and a lawyer, all exchanging ideas and opinions on the epidemic; though the doctor is clearly the medical authority on the matter, all the men have something to say. (And boy, do they ever.)
Philadelphia is the place that Matilda loves so very much, and it comes to be a character of sorts in the book. At first, the city is represented as a diverse melting pot of people, sounds, and colors, alive with commerce and merchant activity. There are West Indian women selling hot soup in the marketplace and lively conversations between merchants and lawyers, politicians and plebes underway in the coffeehouses. Free blacks can walk the streets in safety thanks to the anti-slavery influence of the Quakers.
Once the fever strikes, however, the city turns into a nightmare vision of pain and suffering with corpses on every corner. The streets are deserted and trade is completely cut off from the city. Like any other character in the book, Philadelphia feels the effects of the fever. And like any good character, the city changes over time. How is the city different at the end of the novel? Does it recover from the fever?
Also of note: in 1793, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, and remained so until 1800, when it was moved to Washington, D.C. This is why George Washington and other historical figures pop up from time to time. (It's not just where they had vacation homes, or something.)
The novel is set in 1793, a year that would be classified as part of the Federalist period. The Revolutionary War had ended less than two decades earlier, and the country was beginning to take shape under the hands of Presidents George Washington (1789-1797) and John Adams (1797-1801). While America had soundly defeated the British in its battle for independence, there was still internal political division to deal with, as well as foreign threats at every turn. (The Spanish are here! The British are back!) In a way, this era can be characterized as a time when America was still very much trying to define itself as a nation.