History: Changing With the Times

by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
originally published September 12 – 18, 2001

The amountof time themodernperson savesbecause of theadvance of technologyand prosperitymeans we can domuch more eachday, includerelaxing and doing things we enjoy.

Almost everything in people’slives is more efficient. At the turn ofthe century, figure the time it tookto do the everyday tasks of living andadd the chores all members of afamily had to do. Include people’sdaily work and that left much lesstime for fun than today.

Consider activities we so casuallyaccomplish today.

For example, a typical start to awork day: taking a shower, fixing abagel and a cup a cup of coffee thengetting to work on time.

In less complicated times, insteadof turning on the hot water tap andjumping under the shower, youwould have hauled the water a gallonor two at a time from the backyard to the kitchen. Once those fiveor so trips were over, you could startheating the water.

Of course you would have lit thewood stove before you dragged thetub into the kitchen and filled it. Ifyou had coffee, you’d have groundthe beans and put a pot on the stove.But you’d probably be drinking tea -Starbucks would never have made iton the Quaker Main Line.

Grabbing the family’s bar of soap,you shucked your clothes and startedyour bath. Unless you were reasonablyaffluent, you’d put the sameclothes back on. Considering thetime to wash and iron, clothesweren’t changed often.

With your tea brewing, yousliced bread off yesterday’s loaf totoast over the open fire in the stovebecause the day’s dough was still risingin the warm airbehind the stove. Ifyou were lucky theremight be someunsoured milk left. Ifnot, you milked thecow. Butter and jammade for a goodsnack. Breakfast waiteduntil several hoursof work were done.

Before trotting offto work you had togive the transportationa bucket of oatsand rolled a bale ofhay into its stall. Addup the time and ithad been four hoursuntil you unlocked the door of youroffice that may have been about amile from your home.

Clearly this wasn’t what peopledid. But everything took a great dealmore time to accomplish, which iswhy so many parts of our modernlives seem to be accelerating exponentially.All the time it took maintainingourselves is replaced by timeto make things happen.

For the Main Line’s early inhabitants,leisure was centered on worshipand the major events such asweddings and funerals. For a teenager,most activities involved beingwith others in group settings.

Also the community helped eachother, and these were occasions for alittle fun mixed in with the work.Barn raisings were not only the bestway to get a structure off theground, but they also brought familiestogether. In the winter, withoutcrops to tend, there was more timefor fun, but even this usually had autilitarian result. Quilting bees, forinstance, weren’t to support someone’scrafting interest, they werenecessary to keep warm.

Historian Mary Woods looked atwhat Main Liners did over the generationsand determined it was boththe same as in other places but witha very different flavor.

“Only the few wealthy familieshad leisure for anything other thanweddings, funerals, meeting andchurch,” she said. But the religiousnature of the Main Line’s communitiesfocused available time on goodworks. “Spare time was often devotedto the care of the ill, elderly andindigent,” she said.

Quakers and Mennonites alikewere normally glad to share withthose less fortunate or physicallyinfirm. Financial records showmoney paid to support the poor – incolonial times that was often about12 pounds a year.

Later these efforts would be institutionalized.”There was an organizedeffort in Lower Merion tofeed the deserving poor, whichbecame the Bryn Mawr CitizensAssociation in 1888,” Woods said.

Community responsibly was stillimportant to the people of the 19thcentury, and it wasn’t just womenwho did good works. “As communitiesgrew, businessmen cleaned upmuddy walkways, public dumps, andthe like, working to improve lifearound them,” she said.

But life wasn’t easy and in spite ofthe good will of the Quakers, noteveryone behaved themselves. Barsand taverns were centers of conviviality,where men gathered to discussthe crops and the weather and managetheir communities. Many servedless noble purposes.

Drunkenness was an extremelycommon escape from the fiercedrudgery of a mill worker’s life orthe boredom of a farmer’s dailychores. The good wages earned bymill workers meant there werewomen willing to show men a goodtime for a share of the money.Gambling, fighting, boxing and racingwere all popular.

Each generation gained in leisuretime, and leisure activities migrateddown the social scale. Where only awealthy settler would have a book toread in 17th century Pennsylvania,the great-grandchildren of theirlaborers could read and even own abook or two. Their great-grandchildrenprobably don’t know anyonewho doesn’t read.

Thanks to the increasing leisuretime, some women’s good works stillbenefit us today. “Main Line womenorganized the Woman’s Club in the1890s and opened the ArdmoreLibrary, staffing it themselves,”Woods said.

Over the generations, more timeand less work continued to changethe lives. Perhaps that is why everygeneration for the past three centuries(and perhapsmillennia) have complainedabout howeasy life was for theyounger generationand how lazy theywere.

Young people werestill more interested insocial activities andwhen their parentsallowed them theyfound ways to meeteach other.

“Young people metone another at MagicLantern exhibitions,performed comic skitsand mock trials,arranged dances, hay or sleighrides,” Woods said. Even this had aserious purpose – that was wheremates would be found.

Technology was making manythings possible so quickly that lifewas changed in scores of years ratherthan in centuries. A person in the1880s had a life more like theirgreat-great-grandparents than theirgrandchildren.

Take the telephone. “It was firstintroduced in the 1870s and ’80s andbecame a necessity for many,”Woods said. A telephone meanthours saved as well as contacts maintainedwith friends and associates inways impossible the generationbefore.

In the same way that the telephonereduced distances, so didtransportation. People could actuallylive some distance from where theyworked for the first time in history.Automobiles furthered independentmovement even more. “They wererare and expensive, and contributedboth problems and pleasures on theMain line,” Woods said.

Now that people could getaround, and modern equipment gotthe work done more quickly, organizedactivities became very popular.”The Wayne Swimming Pool,largest of its kind, was completed in1895, but by 1904 it was deemedobsolete because the golf and bicyclecraze had lured away users,” Woodssaid.

Sports gained in popularity bothto play and watch. Ardmore BallPark installed an awning over thegrandstand and soon attractedwomen out the ballgames. TheArdmore Bowling Alley advertisedcurtained alleys for ladies.

The increased leisure time andease of movement began the processof separating the involvement ofboth the family and the communityfrom recreational activities.

Instead of finding their ownentertainment, technology was makingit easier for people to watchrather than participate. Not thatthere weren’t still plenty to do -dancing, riding, traveling, card playing,singing and amateur diversionsstill were popular, but the seeds ofthe couch potato were definitelyplanted in the early 20th century.

Devices were even making entertainmentmore efficient and less timeconsuming. Instead of learning tomake music themselves, people couldlisten to Al Jolson sing on a Victrolaor over a radio, making Victrolainventor Eldridge R. Johnson ofMerion and radio tycoon AtwaterKent of Ardmore even richer.

The next step was movies. “TheMethodists of Ardmore presentedan Edison Motion Picture film incolor, 1,500 feet long and requiring40 minutes showing time,” Woodssaid. Soon there were movie housesin almost every village.

Then came television. Now itwas possible to be entertained athome, without having to do anythingbut watch. You didn’t evenhave to get dressed and drive to atheater. Leisure time had becometotally personal and totally local -you could be entertained to yourheart’s content without leaving yourhouse.

Now technology is taking us fullcircle, as computers help peoplereestablish themselves within analmost infinite number of communities,without the limitations ofspace and distance. With a computerand an Internet connection, peoplecan electronically meet withothers of like interests and find outmore about the world than was everpossible – without ever leaving achair.

Sitting in your bathrobe, you canactually discover, for instance, whatour forefathers did with their hour,or maybe two, of leisure time aweek.