Displaying items by tag: Norristown
Recently, we received a group of unidentified photos at our back door. They were left anonymously, so we don’t know much about them (again, please don’t anonymously leave things at our back door). But three of the photos interested me particularly because summer officially begins this Friday, and they show the classic summertime activity - baseball.
The photos show boys participating in the Atlantic Baseball School, a kids’ program run by Atlantic Refining Company. The boys could be at Roosevelt Field (the other photos are clearly Norristown), but the time was hard for me to pin down. Atlantic Refining was founded after the break-up of Standard Oil in 1911 and headquartered in Philadelphia. It lasted until it merged with Richfield Oil to form ARCO in 1966. The make of truck in the photos suggests it was taken after 1930 or so.
Clothes are often a good way to date photographs, but it’s difficult with children. The boys are not in their Sunday best, and many are wearing the baggy knickers typical for professional players in the first half of the century. Their hair tends to be longer than what I would expect in the 1950’s. There aren’t many crew-cuts.
I decided to look more closely at the truck. I had looked at the photograph several times before I noticed the straw hat sitting on the bumper. This, also dated the picture to before 1950, although the gentleman at the microphone is older, and might not have kept up with the latest fashion. The hat does place the photo in the summertime, but I had already guessed that. Finally, I looked more closely at the license plate, where you can see a small “40” in the upper, left hand corner. Turns out, license plates used to be issued annually and showed they year they were issued. So, the answer had been there all along.
Does anyone remember the Atlantic Baseball School? Atlantic Refining had stations all up and down the East Coast, including this one advertised in the Norristown sesquicentennial book (1962). The company was a long-time sponsor of Major League Baseball in Philly. Perhaps their baseball school was an outgrowth of that involvement.
Rumors of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. Hardcover sales are strong and audiobooks are increasing in popularity. People frequently like to share what they're reading and their thoughts about books on Goodreads, Litsy, and LibraryThing. Book clubs abound, and there’s a whole world within a world on Instagram known as “Bookstagram.”
In many ways this is a continuation (though in different form) of previous centuries' literary clubs and societies. As schooling became universal at the end of the 19th century, many people wanted to continue their education into their adult years. This coincided with a time when Americans liked joining clubs, and many of the clubs were based around reading and learning.
The Reading Circle in the early 1960's.
The Norristown Reading Circle was founded in 1910 by six women. The original plan was to read and review popular fiction, but it soon expanded to include history and current events. The meetings were held every other week at a member’s home. The membership was capped at 20. The club got a surprising amount of newspaper coverage.
We have two minute books for the Reading Circle, which was clearly more formal than a modern book club. The minutes from fall of 1923 illustrate how varied the topics were: on September 11 Mrs. Hunsberger talked about her trip to California, on the 25th Mrs. Anders gave an account of the Summer School for Working Girls at Bryn Mawr, on October 9 they discussed a novel called Spinster of This Parish, and on October 25, they all gathered at Mrs. Gotwals house to see her daughter’s wedding gifts.
In the late 19th century, Towamencin had the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association, whose object was “mutual improvement of Self Culture and to become familiar with Literature in general.” The members were all men, apparently young men from the minutes. The society also aimed to start a library. At meetings members practiced spelling and debated topics related to the club (should members be fined for not attending meetings?) or current events (the Civil War comes up a lot in the early years).
"Then spelling was practised a short time with deep interest."
These sorts of organizations were so common that in 1881, the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association merged with the Oxonia Literary Society and the Young Folks Literary Society.
A page from the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association acknowledging the assassination of President Garfield.
We have records of even more, in Gwynedd, Conshohocken, Upper Merion, and a few more in Norristown. These are probably just a sampling. Other societies were perhaps less formal and didn’t keep records, or didn’t last for as many decades as these clubs did. The idea that one can self-educate is inspiring, and the truly social aspects of these clubs seems so much more significant in the age of selfies and 144 character tweets.
Interior of the New York Store
One of most interesting collections we have here at the Historical Society of Montgomery County is the Leonard Friedman Papers, much of which concerns his work on Norristown’s Human Relations Commission.
Leonard Friedman was born in Philadelphia in 1918 and attended the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the army during World War II, then spent fifty years running his family’s business, the New York Store. In the 1970’s he served on Norristown’s Human Relations Commission which was created in 1966 to help the borough cope with racial issues.
His papers have many items relating to race relations in Norristown in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, providing a snapshot of life in Norristown during a turbulent time. One newsletter of the Interfaith Committee for Social Action describes a protest of 150 young black people at Norristown Borough Hall. At that protest Arthur Hall, a young man from Norristown, gave a speech demanding more respectful treatment from local police, questioning the curfew, and for an increase in the number of black police officers.
Arthur Hall from the 1968 Norristown High School Spice yearbook
Another issue Friedman’s papers focus on is fair housing in Norristown. In 1969, borough council passed Ordinance 2065 prohibiting racial discrimination in housing. There’s many newspaper clippings about white sellers refusing offers from black buyers and information for realtors to prevent discrimination in housing.
Pamphlet from the Fair Housing Committee
The Human Relations Commission was also concerned with the Norristown Area School District. Throughout the country at this time, cities tried to desegregate schools through bussing. A newsletter called "News ‘N’ Views" distributed by the school district explains six proposed ideas for achieving racial balance in NASD schools. In addition to that, Mr. Friedman himself wrote a letter to a Harold T. Huber, looking for help in redesigning NASD’s curriculum to include African-American history.
From the records, it looks like Friedman was on the Commission until 1973. There is a Human Relations Commission in Norristown today, but it was started in 2018, according to its website, so I don’t know the fate of the original commission.
If you’re reading this on Thursday, you might be hunkered down inside trying to keep warm. Now, don't worry about that headline, that's not tomorrow's forecast. The average January temperature for Norristown is 41 degrees. The high today was 16. In light of that, I thought these pictures of Ardmore after a 1902 ice storm might be appropriate. Because, it might be cold, but at least we haven’t had an ice storm.
The photos are from the Charles Barker Collection. Barker was a native of Ardmore, and a diligent documenter of its history. The photos are dated February 21 and 22, 1902. I checked the Times-Herald to see what had happened.
The front page had several articles about the storm. Telephone and telegraph wires were downed by the storm as you can see in this picture. In Norristown, trolley service was disrupted but continued to run all day. Trees were badly hurt by the storm and streets were full of broken branches. The newspaper reported that the orchard of Eli Dyson near Trooper was nearly destroyed.
The Keystone Telephone Company reported that 286 of its 500 telephones were working. People bringing their goods to market, like Joseph B. Rogers, a butcher from Jeffersonville, brought an ax with him to chop through the branches on his way into the borough.
The bright light, in all of this was the Historical Society's annual celebration of Washington's Birthday, which was well attended despite the weather.
From the Times-Herald, March 18, 1936
On March 19, 1936, Amelia Earhart came to Norristown to speak at the Norris Theater. Her appearance was sponsored by The Business and Professional Women’s Club of Norristown and was the concluding event of 1936’s National Business and Professional Women’s Week.
In our collection, we have a program from that night. The girls’ orchestra from Norristown High School played the opening music and local soprano, Orsola Pucciarelli sang three songs before the lecture.
Coverage of the event in the Norristown Times-Herald was very enthusiastic. The paper had two articles on Earhart’s talk. Both articles begin by describing her appearance. “Slim, trim, and decidedly feminine” one says, while the other devotes the entire second paragraph to the blue evening gown she designed herself.
In her lecture, the aviatrix expressed her confidence in flight. “There is no doubt about it,” the newspaper quotes her saying, “transatlantic air service will soon be regularly scheduled.” She also spoke in support of working women, saying that they had every right to fly in commercial aviation as men did. She also spoke about her flights across the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and her love of flying in general. The Times-Herald records, “I have no fear of flying, if I did I would not fly. I am a firm believer in preparedness and leave nothing to chance that I can possible help.”
The Ogontz School students drilling in 1919, from Penn State University Libraries.
Earhart was born in Kansas, but she was not a stranger to Montgomery County. After completing high school in Chicago, Earhart attended the Ogontz School for Girls in Rydal (now Penn State Abington) with an eye towards applying to Bryn Mawr eventually. Earhart clashed frequently with the school’s owner and headmistress Abby Sutherland, according to Penn State University Libraries' website dedicated to the Ogontz School. After a visit to her sister in Toronto in 1917 where she saw wounded soldiers returning from Europe, Earhart left the school to become a nurse’s aide there. She and her husband visited the school, which was still in operation then, the day of her talk. She told the Times-Herald, “My husband considers himself an alumnus of the school he has heard me speak of it so frequently.”
Earhart said in her lecture that she had no concrete plans for another flight. However, the following year, she attempted to fly around the world with her navigator Fred Noonan. In July of 1937, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.
I thought it would be nice to close out the year with some charitable giving. This week, I discovered a large ledger that recorded the accounts of the Bringhurst Fund in Upper Providence. The first pages of the ledger contained a copy of the will of Wright Bringhurst, the founder of the fund.
Mr. Bringhurst was the heir to his father Israel’s general store in Trappe and many acres of land in Schuylkill County, and he was a good steward of them. When the Reading Railroad built tracks in Schuylkill County, Bringhurst made quite a bit from the sale of the land. He also served in the Pennsylvania legislature. When he died a bachelor in 1876, his will distributed some of the money to his sisters and their children, but over half of the money was donated to the boroughs of Norristown and Pottstown and the township of Upper Providence to create low cost housing for the poor. According to Edward Hocker, in his 1959 article “Gifts for the Public Good Made in Many Pottstown Wills,” (Times-Herald, Dec. 30, 1959), Bringhurst wanted the fund to build the houses in order to provide work, and then rent the houses to the "deserving poor" at below market rates.
Bringhurst’s generosity made news at the time of his death. I found an unattributed article in an old scrapbook that reprints almost the entire will. It also points out that Bringhurst had not been known to be particularly charitable during his life.
The amount left to start the fund was just over $100,000. The will directed that it be divided among the three communities in proportion to their population. Also, the Orphan’s Court would appoint three trustees to oversee the fund.
Houses were built in Mont Clare, Collegeville, and Trappe. In Norristown, 28 houses were built on Chain, Marshall, Corson, Powell, and Elm Streets. Renters were charged a small amount rent. That money was then redistributed to the poor as coal, shoes, or medicine, or re-invested in the fund. I found this information in an article published in our own Bulletin, “A Few Facts in Connection with the Bringhurst Family of Trappe, Pennsyvlania” published in October of 1940. That’s the most recent information I could find on the Bringhurst bequest.
Our own records of the trustees for the Upper Providence portion end in 1926. There are plenty of pages left in the book, and the final entry gives no indication that the fund was running out. I was unable to find the exact location of any of the houses or what happened to the money. Did it run out? Was it absorbed into another program? If anyone has any information, please let me know.
If you’ve ever attended the Historical Society’s Memorial Day observance at historic Montgomery Cemetery, you’re probably familiar with the Grand Army of the Republic. This national association of Union veterans of the Civil War, had hundreds of posts across the country. One local Montgomery County post, the Zook Post, purchased several plots at Montgomery Cemetery for the burial of members who couldn’t buy plots of their own.
Adorable children at the G.A.R plot
The G.A.R. wasn’t the only organization for Union veterans, however. Norristown was also home to a chapter of the Union Veteran League. This group was much smaller than the G.A.R. because it had stricter rules for admittance. In order to be a member, one had to have volunteered for three years of service before July 1, 1863 (when the draft went into effect) and served for at least two years.
This morning, I came across the roster of post 94 in Norristown. It lists 56 members, all enrolled from 1891 to 1893. The roster lists the members’ names, place of birth, residence, occupation, plus contains information on their service.
Some members were wounded or captured, and the roster notes that, too.
From the roster, it looks like this post was founded July 9, 1891.
The group was founded in Pittsburgh in 1884 and lasted until about 1939 (the Grand Army of the Republic survived until its last member died in 1956). While neither group ever expanded to include later veterans (the Veterans of Foreign Wars was founded for them in 1899 by veterans of the Spanish – American War), the G.A.R. was succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans.
Since it was a smaller group with no apparent successor, information on the organization is hard to find. This roster was ended up with member Samuel E. Nyce, who donated it to the Historical Society in 1910.
Today, Montgomery County has many trails for those who wish to see their community at a pace a little slower than 70 miles per hour. There’s the Schuylkill River Trail, the Perkiomen Trail, the Audubon Loop, and the Cross County Trail. In fact, Montgomery County has a great history of walking.
In the 1950’s, an article in the Norristown Times-Herald by Edward Hocker (under his penname “Norris”) reports the founding of the Valley Forge Chapter of the National Campers and Hikers Association. He writes of walking as an antidote to modern life and says that old folks in particular encouraged people to escape the automobile.
“Those old times criticize the schools of today  because they pamper children by bringing them to school on a bus.”
A school bus from when the "old timers" were young.
In 1894, William E. Corson traveled across Montgomery County in search of forgotten cemeteries. His list of private burial grounds was eventually donated to the Historical Society, whose members then took up the project of recording them.
The most famous walker in the county’s history lived here only briefly. Edward P. Weston was a well-known pedestrian whose first long distance walk came as the result of a bet with a friend. His friend bet that Abraham Lincoln would win the presidential election of 1860, and Weston bet that he wouldn’t. Having lost the bet, Weston walked from Boston to Washington, arriving in time for the inauguration where he shook the new president’s hand (some say Lincoln offered to buy his train ticket back). Later, he walked from Portland, Maine to Chicago, and in 1909, at the age of 71, he walked from New York to San Francisco in 104 days.
Born in Rhode Island, Weston first came to Norristown in 1912 for the Industrial Day portion of the Norristown centennial celebration. His appearance was sponsored by Rambo & Regar who had named a sock after him. He returned in 1922 to lecture the police department on how to properly care for their feet. He had settled in Kingston, NY, a town on the Hudson River, when burglars broke into his home and shot him in the leg. He seems to have decided that living in the country was unsafe, and in 1924, he moved to Norristown.
In the two years he spent here, he lived at the Brandt Building at West Main St. and Barbadoes, later moving to DeKalb Street. Although he was here a short time, he left his mark. In St. Helena’s Church in Whitpain there’s a marble plaque that reads “Here at 84, I found religion. Edward Payson Weston.”
Weston moved to Brooklyn in 1925, where he died in 1929, two years after he was hit by a car, a somewhat ironic way for a great pedestrian to die.
In the very early days of this blog, I wrote about Treemount Seminary (you can check out that original post here). The school was a private boarding and day school founded in Norristown in 1857. The school existed for 43 years and educated about 5,000 students. For decades after the school closed, an active alumni association continued to keep its memory alive through annual reunions.
I revisited the Treemount Seminary papers this week while working through our school collection. This morning I found a small box, donated to the Historical Society of Montgomery County in the 1940’s that contained tintypes of students from the school.
Most of the tintypes are identified with a last name on the reverse, and most were taken by Thomas Saurman, whose shop was located at Main and Green in Norristown. According to Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Montgomery County by Henry Wilson Ruoff, Saurman himself was a graduate of Treemount.
Tintypes were a popular form of photography for the second half of the nineteenth century. They were cheaper than competing forms of photograph such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Their cheapness and their small size made them perfect for sending to family or collecting pictures of your friends.
Tintypes were also known as ferrotypes, are made through a process similar to how ambrotypes were made. They used a wet collodion process to create a direct positive image that was reversed. No negative was made, so only one image could be produced from each exposure, no copies. The main difference between the ambrotype and the tintype was the material the image appeared on. Ambrotypes used polished glass while tintypes were produced on metal.
The process of creating a tintype was invented by Hamilton L. Smith at Kenyon College in 1856. The plate was a thin piece of iron that had been lacquered black or dark brown. The image was not was sharp as an ambrotype, but their affordability made up for this shortcoming.
The rosy cheeks you see in so many of the photos was added by hand, and was typical at the time, not just for tintypes, but for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.
The paper mats you see around the images were also typical. Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes had to be kept in cases to protect the glass plates. Tintypes sometimes have cases, but the paper mat is more typical.
Henry C. Trexler's tintype
These tintypes were owned by Harry C. Trexler, a graduate of Treemount Seminary and came to the historical society through his brother Frank.
Ruoff, Henry Wilson. Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Montgomery County Pennsylvania. Biographical Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1895.
Ritzenhaler, Mary Lynn and Diane Vogt-O’Connor. Photographs: Archival Care and Management. Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 2006.
Any plans for the weekend? Maybe you’re thinking of taking in a movie. In early and mid-century Norristown, you had to be sure to see that movie on Saturday because movie theaters were closed on Sundays by law.
At the time, Sunday “blue” laws were common. Stores and businesses were closed and there was no mail delivery. Although observance of a Sunday Sabbath goes back to the early Christian Church, by the Middle Ages it had fallen out of favor. Protestants revived the idea, particularly the Puritans (although both Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected the need for laws to enforce the Sabbath.) In the United States, several groups promoted laws enforcing a day of rest sprung up in the late nineteenth century. In 1912 they succeeded in closing post offices on Sunday.
In 1947, the borough held a referendum on legalizing Sunday movies, and Ronald Heaton created a scrapbook of the newspaper ads that flew back and forth on each side.
The proposal was for movies to be allowed after 2pm on Sundays. Supporters of the measure argued that the late start time meant that the theaters would not be interfering with church services.
Opponents of Sunday movies argued that they would increase juvenile delinquency. Many nearby communities allowed Sunday movies including Conshohocken and Bridgeport (there were more movie theaters back then, kids). Supporters of the referendum argued that these communities saw no increase in juvenile crime. Some even argued that by giving kids a place to go on Sundays would reduce crime.
In addition to the competing advertising campaigns, many churches held meetings and sent letters directly to voters.
Ultimately, arguments about crime, employment, the local economy meant little to the defenders of the ban on Sunday movies. Their opposition to Sunday movies came down to the Christian observance of the Sabbath and its role in American tradition. This ad argues for the universality of dedicating the Sabbath to God.
One wonders if the people who wrote the ad knew the Rabbi was talking about Saturday.
Heaton also records earlier votes on the issue.
On election day, the proposal to allow movies on Sunday was rejected.
Once it was defeated the issue could not appear on the ballot for four years. In 1951, another referendum was held and Norristown’s four movie theaters were free to open on Sundays.