“The Old Main Line” part 4: Life in the “60s” – Drexel & Childs

On the way of life in the sixties 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 children 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 today of any class at college wearing this doubtful ornament. . .” And at that, Mr. Townsend was writing almost thirty years ago, when dress was a little more formal than now!

In the sixties well dressed men often wore leather boots that came to their knees, and into them tucked their trousers on stormy days. For 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 sixties than in later days, with wasp-like waists and sweeping trains even on the street! Food, though plentiful then as now, did not have the wide variety that greater transportation facilities and increased refrigeration has made possible. Mr. Townsend writes in nostalgic vein of the delicacies prepared by Augustine, the great Philadelphia colored caterer. He ells 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 Exhibition 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 slyly adds, “We did not tell him we did not always have Augustine at home.” However, regular dining cars were an unknown quantity in the sixties and seventies. 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 sixties. Stables bred flies by the millions during a time when wire screens were unknown, though, according to Mr. Townsend, “a few houses had flimsy pink 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 sixties, 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 draughts”. 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 or adenoids, as their presence, for good or evil, was not recognized then. As Mr. Townsend states it, “If any of these things went wrong, 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 to have your teeth X-rayed and yanked out.”

Telephones were not introduced until the late seventies, and did not become at all prevalent until the early eighties. 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, and certainly the barn and stable had to have their share also! “The Lightning Rod man was a feature in country life”, our humorous historian tells us, “he went up and down the breadth of the land, persuading every one 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 they did. Tramps did the same. It is said that cooks in some of the large houses sometimes fed a dozen or more 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 strikes of ‘77. In one nearby Rosemont section a “Relief Association” was started by John B. Garrett when the hungry who were traversing the roads were fed. A business revival in 1879 eased the employment situation somewhat. However, some of the habitual tramps “had become so enamored of the free and easy life that they never could return to work . . . they wintered in the County Poor Houses and with the first robin, would begin their summer wanderings, sleeping in barns and empty houses and feeding at kitchen doors.” Lancaster Pike was of course the best traveled highway of all for these “knights of the road.”

Business along the Main Line in the sixties and seventies was practically non-existent. About all that was necessary was an occasional small country store and a blacksmith shop. Among these old store was the “West Haverford Store”, on the Pike in Rosemont, later occupied by Lippincott and Eadie.

To Mr. Cassatt, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Main Line section owes its township government. As the Suburban communities began to get more thickly settled, he saw that some form of local government would become necessary, especially as regards police protection. And so Mr. Cassatt was instrumental in having the State legislature enact a law for the government of “Townships of the First Class” having a certain number of inhabitants. Lower Merion Township was the first to qualify while Haverford Township followed in a few years. The governing body of such townships has always been a small number of elected Commissioners. In a similar manner the affairs of township schools are in the hands of a school board elected by the voters.

Among the prominent men of the period of which we have been writing were George W. Childs, editor of the Public Ledger, and Anthony J. Drexel, a prominent stockholder in that newspaper and one of the wealthiest men of his time. It was these two men who founded the town of Wayne as a real estate operation. When Mr. Childs was asked one day, according to our historian, why they built their new town so far up the road, when there were numerous properties just as available nearer to Philadelphia, he quickly replied that it was “in order to give the new settlers more time to read the Ledger on the train!” Mr. Childs lived on a large property on Bryn Mawr avenue which was then a new road that had just been laid out southward from Whitehall. His place was called “Wootton”, and because Mr. Childs’ “Herat was as big as his house”, it became “Welcome Hall” for all visitors, whether of distinction or otherwise.

Among other early famous men and large property owners of the Main Line were John Converse, who built his mansion on the Pike at Rosemont; Samuel Vauclain, president of Baldwin Locomotive Works, who built near the Converse place, and T. Wilson Brown, who settled in Villanova. The latter had a large part in the founding and the maintenance of the Bryn Mawr Hospital.

Among many other names mentioned by Mr. Townsend is that of a man well known in our community, since up to the time of his recent death, A. J. County made his home here. Coming to this country as a young Irish lad, he became associated with the Pennsylvania Railroad, eventually becoming one of its vice-presidents.