The July 5 column of “Your Town and My Town” contained a partial review of an old book from the office library of the late J.M. Fronefield. Today’s column continues with the story of social life along the Main Line 80 years and more ago, as it has been described in “The Old Main Line,” written by Joseph W. Townsend in 1919.
It was in the 80’s, according to Mr. Townsend, that Philadelphians, seeking to escape the heat of the city’s summer, began to come out west of city line. The Wildgoos boarding house near Haverford College was one of the favorite resorts and one of which Mr. Townsend evidently knew a great deal personally. It was probably very much like Wayne’s Louella Mansion and the Bellevue Hotel, though these two did not reach the height of their popularity until a slightly later date.
“Wildgoos boarders were,” according to Mr. Townsend, “a jolly, good-natured crowd, living all summer like one large, happy family. Rooms could be engaged only for the entire summer, and were in such demand that there was always a waiting list.” However, to modern youth, the pleasure of that kind of Main Line summer life would probably seem very dull, with no automobiles, no movies and no sports as young people know them today. Even in Philadelphia itself there were only two or three theatres and these featured neither comic opera nor musical comedies.
Most of the houses in the country had only coal oil lamps and candles for illumination in the evening. Weather permitting, this part of the day was usually spent on the porch or on the lawn. On stormy nights, summer boarders were crowded into the parlor for music or games. Among the latter was one of “Familiar Quotations,” played like “Author.” According to our Main Line historian, “the game consisted of cards having about 100 quotations from both ancient and modern authors and was a liberal education in itself to those who played it, making a lasting impression of the best thoughts of the best authors. Proceeds from the sale of the game went to the “Sanitary Fair,” held in Logan Square during the war… selections were made by a well-known Philadelphian woman, Mrs. Lydia Hunn, the grandmother of Mrs. Charles Baily, of Strafford. Mr. Townsend comments in his book that “Mrs. Hunn must have read everything and remembered the best of it.”
One favorite evening entertainment consisted of charades, rebuses and conundrums. The latter were most frequently derived from the Bible, as most people were familiar with it. Spirit mysteries were very much in vogue then, as witnessed by the popularity of Planchette, predecessor of the Ouija Board.
It was “a small, thin, heart shaped piece of wood standing on little revolving rollers with one leg in the form of a short lead pencil. A large piece of paper was placed on a table, with the Planchette board on top of it. As one or more participants in the game placed the tips of their fingers on the board, it soon began to move.” The skeptical Mr. Townsend adds, “and the pencil naturally traced on the paper the semblance of the words that were in the operator’s mind!”
So much for indoor amusements. As for outdoors, there was driving in the little carriages built for two and designated as “buggies.” In Mr. Townsend’s opinion, “buggy driving was more sociable than modern motoring, as the horse did not require constant or undivided attention, having sense enough to turn when the road turned, which the motor car has not. The horse could also be guided with one hand, when the drivers’ intentions were serious and reciprocated. On long drives, the horses had to be rested frequently and roadside berries, with which the Main Line then abounded, were an agreeable accompaniment.”
Picnics were sometimes organized, occasionally even as far as to Valley Forge, though that was a long, tiresome drive with horses in those days. A popular picnic spot and a more nearby one was the Morris Dam on Roberts road. Wildgoos boarders and neighbors joined in these, some coming from as far as Overbrook. Moonlight hay wagon rides were another form of amusement among the older people as well as the younger. However, all of these pastimes and amusements were for the six days of the week only, for “Sunday in the 60’s was very different from that of today,” according to Mr. Townsend. (This columnist might add that in the 30 years since this book was printed, Sunday pastimes have changed still more!)
On Sundays in the 60’s, “church going, walking and visiting were the order of the day. Those who took long drives were often frowned upon by their more religious neighbors. Sunday evenings were mostly spent in hymn singing. There were, of course, no Sunday newspapers. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran but one train and that was from Philadelphia at eight o’clock in the morning. None went into Philadelphia from the suburbs.” Mr. Townsend tells of an early report of a committee of the railway company’s stockholders which devoted five pages to the iniquity of the company’s doing any business on Sunday.
(Sports in the 60’s, including a reference to “the gentle croquet mallets” will be described in next week’s column.)