Fashion, stables, medicine, telephones in 1860 through 1880s

On the way of life in the 60’s in the Philadelphia suburban area, Mr. Townsend, in his book, “The Old Main Line,” gives us many brief, but telling insights.

Old men and young boys alike wore long tail coats and stiff, starched shirt bosoms in the morning as well as the evening. “At college,” our historian tells us, “the sophs forbade the freshmen to wear high silk hats. Imagine a youth of today, of any class at college, wearing this doubtful ornament.” (Mr. Townsend was writing almost 40 years ago, when dress was considerably more formal than now.)

In the 60’s, well dressed men often wore leather boots that came to their knees, and into them tucked their trousers on stormy days. On a comfortable evening at home these were replaced by canvas slippers, with “flowers worked on their tops by devoted wives or best girls.” Women’s clothes likewise were far more formal in the 60’s than in later days, with “wasp-like waists and sweeping trains, worn even on the street.”

Food, though plentiful then as now, did not have the wide variety that greater transportation facilities and increased refrigeration have made possible. Mr. Townsend writes in nostalgic vein of the delicacies prepared by Augustine, the great Philadelphia colored caterer. He tells of a trip on a Pennsylvania Railroad private car which “was stocked as usual with Augustine’s viands… a noted Englishman, who had just landed to visit the centennial exposition of ’76 was one of the party that sat down to the first luncheon in the little dining room of that car… One delicacy after another tickled his Anglican palate as never before, and turning around, he whispered, ‘If this is what you Americans have on a railway car, I wonder what you have at home.’ ” Mr. Townsend adds, “We did not tell him that we did not always have Augustine at home.” However, regular dining cars were an unknown quantity in the ’60’s and ’70’s. On a trip of any length passengers dined at railway restaurants along the route.

Among the many things that would seem unsanitary to us of a later day were the prevalence of flies and the lack of screening in the ’60’s. Stables bred flies by the millions during a time where wire screens were unknown, though, according to Mr. Townsend, “a few houses had flimsy mosquito netting over a few windows… some householders had canopies of such netting over their beds… some had wire cages to cover each dish on the table, some had a mechanical fly fan in the middle of the table. In hotels the colored waiters, with large palm leaf fans, kept the flies off a part of the time.”

Of medicine in the ’60’s, Mr. Townsend says that “homeopathy was being experimented with by many, but its small pellets were laughed at by ‘the Old school’ which was then wedded to its searching draught.” Professional massage, or osteopathy, as it was later known, was not practiced at all in those days. No one had operations for the removal of the appendix or tonsils and adenoids, as their presence, for good or evil, was not recognized then. If any of these things went wrong, Mr. Townsend writes, “You were blissfully ignorant of it and there was a chance of getting well, or at least of dying a natural death. Neither did you have your teeth X-rayed and yanked out.”

Telephones were not introduced until the late ’70’s, and did not become at all prevalent until the early ’80’s. Even then, many hesitated to have them installed. One thing that graced practically every house, however, was the lightning rod, in fact sometimes several of them. The barn and stable had to have their share also. “The lightning rod man was a feature in country life… he went up and down the breadth of the land, persuading everyone that life depended upon having lightning rods… he was succeeded in his ubiquity by the life insurance man, and later by the bond salesman.”

In the absence of automobiles, cattle could safely roam the roads, and frequently did. Tramps did the same. It is said that cooks in some of the large houses sometimes fed a dozen or so in a day. Private chalk marks made on gate posts by these hoboes indicated “the quality of the fare or the character of the dog.”

Conditions were particularly bad before and during the great railway strike of ’77. In one nearby Rosemont section a “relief Association” was started by John H. Garrett, by which the hungry traversing the roads were fed. When, in 1879, a business revival eased the employment situation somewhat, some of the habitual tramps “had become so enamoured of the fun and easy life that they never could return to work… they wintered in the county poor houses and with the first robin they would begin their summer wanderings, sleeping in barns and empty houses, and feeding at kitchen doors.” Lancaster pike was of course the best travelled highway of all for those “knights of the road.”

(The next installment of “Your Town and My Town” will tell of the early days of the Pennsylvania Railroad from information given in the first “Guide” of the Railroad, published in 1855. This material was first used in this column more than seven years ago, and like the story of the old Main Line will now find many new readers among present subscribers to “The Suburban.” To several among these new readers, the writer extends sincere thanks for appreciative letters recently received.)