A book report on the Old Main Line

An old man’s bully pulpit is a treasure trove of tidbits

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

Toady it’s called the vanity press, and the name it there for a reason.

If you have the money, a book with your name on it’s only a manuscript away. That has been true for some time measured perhaps from the invention of writing materials.

Vanity fair

It was a popular pursuit because most of us will have to find some other “bully pulpit” than the American Presidency. With these small reminiscences, people were able to create their own pulpit, then force their friends and neighbors to read it. That usually wasn’t as difficult to do as you might thing folks were looking for their names as well as (favorable) stories about themselves.

For G. W. Townsend, the book he wrote in his 80s was The Old Main Line. It was printed without a named publisher in 1922. Even he, in his preface, makes it clear the tome’s purpose wasn’t accuracy, but amusement. He was then in his “declining” years and had a number of things to say about his youth, as well as modern times. The book, which is 114 pages long originally was distributed as a pamphlet, then reorganized and some added comment to make it a book.

He also tries to give it merit by comparing “general conditions” in the 1860s of his youth and the 1920 of his maturity. It does so rather well, and it’s most interesting to see that old men then complained about the same things as old men do today the world’s going to Hell in a handbasket, today’s youth aren’t near as charming and funny as we were, and you don’t know how good you got it today.

Not all wrong

For Townsend, there is a certain amount of truth to some of this. America had just completed its first world war, getting a lot of men killed in the process of discovering what it takes to be a modern military. In 1917 the United States military was barely in the top 20 armies in the world in both size and capability. It had been a hard lesson for Americans and Townsend compliments the spirit of the boys who fought the war, but clearly perceives the world as a much more complex place whose occupants are diminished in character and charm compared with those of his youth.

Also people really did have it easier in that the 50 years from 1870 until 1922 saw more ‘progress’ to make life more pleasant for more people than had been accomplished since man first gathered in bands for protection. Electricity, medicine, transportation, food, just plain living was all much better. Queen Elizabeth I was not in her daily life .as comfortable as a middle class resident of the Main Line and certainly not as healthy.

His modern world

Townsend, in an attempt to show his understanding of the modern world, frequently refers to microbes. Perhaps in another century our discussion of bacteria and viruses will be equally charming and inaccurate.

But Townsend takes pride in pointing out the many ways in which they interfered with life during his youth compared to ‘today.’ These include the rarity of baths for even the gentlest of folk, and the unhealthiness of chewing bark — as popular as chewing tobacco prior to the invention of chewing gum. Even women’s long skirts were faulted for bringing the microbe-rich muck of the streets into houses.

He does get it right about one thing, flies were terrible. “Speaking of sanitary matters, flies flourished in the Sixties,” he says. “Nearly every country house had its horse stable nearby, which is now happily superseded by a cement floored garage, and stables, of course, bred flies by the millions.”

Protection differed then, too. “Wire fly screens were unknown a few houses had flimsy pink mosquito netting over a few windows,” he says. “Some 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; if the table was long, it drove the flies down to the diners,” he says. Townsend’s book has become a reference to the past that another 80 years later seems to be truth. But often amateur historians seeking to confirm the fact of a house or person keeps coming back on themselves to what Townsend said in his book.

A man of his class

If there is a weakness to this reminiscence it’s also a strength. This man discusses only the dealings of his very wealthy class and their view of those who weren’t. His prejudices are entertaining today, vying greatly with the political sensitivities that generate today’s correctness.

At the time he was probably equally as politically correct, however there were a lot of people who weren’t included in defining that term. Women and anyone seemingly not of Anglo Saxon descent leading the list of non-includees. Take, for example, his views of women’s clothing.

His discussion on clothes is no different that a man of the 1950s discussing the youth of today, lacking, of course the requirement for political correctness in his observations. Without comment, then, his words:

As to women’s dress, if one should have appeared on the streets in the Sixties with as short a skirt and as low a neck as now, she might have been arrested for indecent exposure. What will they not wear next? However, her train is not now stepped on by awkward man, nor does it now carry into the home the bacteria laden sweepings of the streets, as it did of yore. Now that we have become inured to it, it really seems more sensible, while after all, it’s only a matter of convention; it takes but a short time for even a considered impropriety to become proper, by our becoming accustomed to it; even the central African costume is perfectly proper there. Vice versa, a propriety may by change of custom, become an impropriety; as some one has said, if a Czar could issue and enforce an edict that no one should appear in public without gloves, it would only be a few years until bare hands would be indecent.

The jolly little African explorer Du Chaillou, who was a frequent visitor to Bryn Mawr homes, told the college girls once that he had been offered 100 wives at one time and that the whole lot would not have cost him as much to clothe as one college girl; notwithstanding this, he declined the proposal.

Although there is no biography of him in the book it’s clear he is a man who lived a complete life of wealth and privilege. He was probably a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, since he recounts stories of youthful endeavor at the campus.

Part of the summer crowd

In summers he escaped the dirt and death of the city, becoming one of the Main Line’s summer boarders, in his case staying two or three months out of the city at Wildgoss Boarding House. He did keep great notes, as he could list all the occupants from various events, and who, for example attended the opening of the Bryn Mawr Hotel and also who stayed there.

His listing of names of families and where their properties lay was for the most part accurate and valuable to today’s citizenry, seeking the history of their property. He is also complimentary of almost everyone adding little pieces of human interest to those he named. The youth were stalwart, the maidens fair, the men successful and the matrons quite correct.

Quaker attitudes

He also doesn’t express today’s deification of the original Quakers. Not that he mocks them, but he lived through the period of America’s greatest extravagance, particularly expressed through the great mansions of the Main Line. To him and his the Quakers appear to be a rather bucolic lot with their ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ speech and quiet, unassuming and plain ways. Except for Mr Roberts, of course, the president of the railroad.

With WWI having recently ended, he does take umbrage with the concept of pacificist. “The recent “conscientious objectors” among the Quakers hold firmly to this theoretical doctrine, but if all America, had folded its arms in 1776 we would still be a few small British Colonies; or if in 1860, slavery would still be a blot on our country, not only in the South, but in any other section where a community might want it; or if in 1917 (when the world’s aggressors were not good sports) we would all be now under the heel of Teutonic lust and brutality; New York and other coast cities would be in ruins and-well, it’s hard to imagine what might now be the state of those of us, who lived through it,” Townsend says. Dramatic effect was clearly an essential tool of the writer.

A railroad fan

He’s quite the apologist for the railroad, for example, reading his discussion of the strikes of 1877. To him there is clearly no case for the strike, they were a “howling mob surrounding it (the roundhouse)” and the First City Troop had a “hard experience of it.” Discussion of the hard experience of those workers shot was not in evidence. They were pawns, it seems, “of the lowest dregs of the cities slums had taken advantage of the disorder to indulge their appetite for violence, having nothing to lose and possibly something to gain,” he says. He recounts that police were instructed to attack the strikers with their clubs and “mark every man so you’ll know him the next day.”

But referring to the railroad’s early passenger service for the Main Line, he’s less positive. “The Pennsylvania Railroad did not cater much to commuters in the Sixties,” he says. “There were only six trains a day each way. If the 6 p.m.. was missed there was nothing till “the Emigrant” at midnight, which was a through train for arriving foreigners and it stopped at each destination they were booked for. It was unpleasantly odoriferous.”

Which meant there wasn’t a lot of entertainment for Mainliners. “There was naturally no going to the city for theatres, evening entertainments or club attractions; old rounders could not wander out on any old train, asking for the “Laoli Pocal” gate,” he says.

He does give a good description of the trains and the experience of riding them. “The cars were lighted by oil lamps and in cold weather, red hot coal stoves stood at each end,” he says. “A brakeman at each car turned a wheel like the present freight cars have.

Service was…

No fabulous 30th Street Station for them. “The city terminal was a small square brick building near the present West Philadelphia Station. There was only a short frame shed, so there was no herding behind iron bars, like animals in a Zoo, and no gate slammed in one’s face when the time to go has come, whether the train goes or not,” he says.

And evidently bad service in Philadelphia isn’t a recent phenomenon. “How often one feels now like the young Quaker, arriving just too late and hearing a fellow-sufferer say, “Damn,” was heard to murmur, “Thank Thee..” (For those not fully versed on the ways of the Quakers, swearing was not done.)

But people are people

Looking back at people’s lives it’s often hard to remember that they were once young and foolish and didn’t know, as we do, what was coming. Townsend breathes youth into well-respected names. Instead of what they chose to be remembered for when old and powerful, they are recalled by Townsend as regular people. People well met, but reading between the lines of this book they were no better at life then that we are today.

If there is a lesson in this book, it’s that life was nice and life was hard, both in the 1860s and in the 1920s. Like people today they laughed, cried, played jokes on one another and participated in that most exciting of games, the human race.

An excerpt from Townsend’s The Old Main Line expressing Townsend’s review of the effect of automobiles:

Now that motor traveling and transportation on the public highways have become so general, it would seem. more fair that the latter should be entirely financed by taxes on the vehicles in proportion to their destructiveness. Perhaps by the next fifty years, travel and transportation will be principally through the air and roads will not be needed much. It has begun.

The automobile speeders not only thought they had the right to tear up the township roads by their fast driving, but they were recklessly regardless of carriages and pedestrians; as some one has well said, they put the latter into either of the creed divisions of the “quick and the dead,”

Experience of time and punishment for serious accidents have made most of the motor drivers now more careful; their eyes are now generally over their wheels, though some girls frequently have theirs elsewhere when passing friends and especially in the city when passing such attractions as the gown and hat shops on Walnut street.

The so-called “automobility” was the bane of the horse driver. It took a longtime for horses to get used to a thin.- that had no visible means of propulsion, as the Chinese described it “no pushee, no pullee, go like hellee.”

Most horses arose on their hind legs as soon as they saw the thing coming and should they be slowly wending their way up a hill on a narrow road while the devilish thing appeared descending, it was alarming both to horse and man, especially when the motor driver was an inexperienced reckless youth and the machine swerved violently from one side of the road to the other, it seemed an even chance of hit or miss to the ascending horseman. Motoring was looked upon then as a sporting proposition by irresponsible youths.

Mr. Wayne MeVeagh, who was very fond of driving his horses, threatened to shoot at sight one such youth, who was utterly regardless of every one, as he plied his new sport; some others, old enough to know better, were similar offenders. Some old-fashioned people could not get used to the new invention and did not imagine that its use would ever relegate the horse to oblivion and some put signs on their gates forbidding its entrance.

Now, when they have found how comparatively harmless it has become under proper management and its cleanliness is so greatly to be desired over the horse, they feel like changing the sign to “no horses allowed.”