Joseph Price’s World
By Mary Keim
Joseph Price (1753–1828) kept his diary from New Year’s Eve, 1788 until three days before his death. He has left us a unique and priceless glimpse into life in Lower Merion in the years following the American Revolution.
Nobody knew the diary more intimately than Mary Keim, who transcribed its 3,000 pages. Here are her insights into Price’s life and times, early Lower Merion, how the Society tracked down the document and made it available to the community, and the man she came to consider “a personal friend”.
It is a real pleasure for me to be able to talk about Joseph Price. I think I’ve been regaling my close associates and friends about Joseph Price for about four years. I’m glad to see that some of them are here. They’re not tired of him yet.
The Price family
Joseph Price was the fourth generation of the Price family to live in Lower Merion. He was the fourth generation to live here, but he was the second generation to be born here, because his great-grandfather, Edward ap Rees, came from Wales in 1682 and brought with him a three-year-old son who was the grandfather of Joseph Price. So Joseph Price’s father, John, was born in Lower Merion, and Joseph himself was born here.
His great-grandfather was one of the first six Welsh Quakers to come into the State of Pennsylvania, so he comes from a very well established family here in Lower Merion. I’m going to give you just a very brief sketch of a few things about Joseph so you’ll know where he’s coming from, and then I’d like to talk about some of the various topics. You will find in this diary that everything that you’re interested in and concerned about today, people were concerned about in that day also. And their concerns are registered in this diary.
About Joseph Price
Joseph Price didn’t have very much education but for his time he was a well-educated man. Schools in those days, you know—we had two in Lower Merion at this time—one was the Merion school in connection with Merion Friends, located we believe just about where the market at Albrecht’s is today 701 Montgomery Ave., Penn Valley. And the other was the Old Dutch schoolhouse up at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church cemetery.
The schoolmasters were for the most part itinerant; there would be some Irishman who would come into the country and he would be hired for a while, or someone would come down from New England, or someone local. One of the Rittenhouses from Germantown was a schoolmaster at one time, for the Merion school. But these men would come and then, if they passed muster with the people who would be hiring them, they would be taken around into the neighborhood to see how many people would enroll their children. Of course, that meant that they were going to pay the fee that paid the salary of the master. The terms were for six weeks, and sometimes there wasn’t any school because they didn’t have a master or because not enough people were enrolling their children in the school. So Joseph Price’s education was, we would say, minimal.
He was a reader
But what he had was a great respect for learning, and he had a very active mind. So that what he produces in his diary is interesting, it’s not just day-by-day pedestrian account of life. He was a great reader; he read the things that you would never suspect a farmer and a carpenter who lived in Lower Merion to be reading at that time. He read Alexander Pope, and he read John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He read William Penn’s No Cross No Crown, he subscribed to newspapers. One of them was the Peter Porcupine journal which was written and published in Philadelphia for only a couple of years in the late 1790s, and Peter Porcupine was the pseudonym of William Cobbett who was a very prominent English writer. He wrote pretty extensively about politics in England, and for that reason he was in the colonies and in the United States for a while, because his political opinions were not appreciated in England. He did go back later, when his opinions ceased to be respected in this country. He sort of bounced between the two.
But Joseph Price was a man who was interested in learning. When he went into town, and that was often, many times he would buy books for his children. I thought that was interesting. We never hear a word about his children going to school, but he bought books for them, so they read and apparently had some education.
He was a farmer
Almost everybody who lived in Lower Merion was a farmer at that time, and they would have at least a small area that they would plant and gather crops from, but he was a carpenter. He had been an apprentice carpenter, then had become a master, and he in his turn was able to have apprentices work for him.
He was a builder
You know, perhaps, some of the buildings that still exist in Lower Merion: the Price House, the present Hamper shop on Montgomery Avenue; the William Penn Inn which is at the corner of Clover Hill Road and Lancaster Avenue—very hard to see; we have some pictures of it, an older picture and one taken by Dick Jones not too long ago. and Dick almost got killed taking it because the traffic is heavy there, and there are so many trees in front of it. The Academy, the Lower Merion Academy, in Cynwyd was built by Joseph Price along with a man whose name was Lewis who worked with him.
He was a coffin maker
Joseph was, as a carpenter, also a coffin maker. And since he was a coffin maker he also had to attend to the burial. Someone else would dig the grave, but Joseph Price went to the home of the deceased and put the body in the casket, and saw that it was taken to wherever he had a grave for it. Many of the burials of course were in Merion Friends’ cemetery. And Mary Wood has been working in the archives of Merion Friends, and she has found that, by going through the diary, there are 200 additional names of people buried there that Joseph Price has spoken of being buried there that were not in the official records. So she has been very pleased about that.
As a coffin maker and as a funeral director, as we would call him today, he gives us information about diseases. We know what people died of, and that I would like to enlarge on a little bit later. But this is the kind of information that comes up.
He was an innkeeper, sawmill operator & petty official
He was an innkeeper, and that gave him access also to other information. He was a sawmill owner and operator. He was an active citizen. He had a number of rather, I would say, not the most important of posts in Lower Merion. He was an assistant assessor; he was an auditor; he was on the school board that managed Merion school. He was an overseer of the poor. We get a little idea about the welfare conditions in those days—how people were cared for when they were unable to care for themselves.
He was a turnpike superintendent
He was the assistant superintendent of Lancaster Turnpike when it was built. This was the section from the Market Street bridge up to Paoli that he was concerned with. So we hear a lot about that.
He was a legal consultant
He was trusted by his neighbors. When they had wills they wanted to have written they’d call in Joseph Price to help them with the will. He would be a witness. He would take the widows up to Norristown to have the will probated. And in many cases he was administrator of wills, and a guardian of minor children.
He was a soldier
He had a military connection. During the Revolution he was in the American army, and he says in his diary that the first time he ever mustered was in June 1775 and the last time that he met with his troops was in May, 1807.
Some people have said that Joseph Price was a major in the war of 1812; I doubt that very much, because in the first place he would have been too old. He was born in 1753, and in 1812 he would have been too old. We do have a copy of his resignation from military service in 1807. He’s known sometimes as Major Price, but actually when he resigned he was a Captain. And the title Major is something like a Kentucky Colonel title, because at one time in his career he was elected “major” of the troop he was concerned with. I don’t think he would have claimed that. I think it is a title that has been given to him later.
He was a husband and father
Joseph Price when we first meet him in the diary was 36 years old and he was still single. He didn’t marry until he was 44, but then he had eight children: five sons and three daughters. And the exceptional thing is that all of those eight lived at least to adolescence, because in those days so many babies died—so many children. You would read in his accounts during the summertime particularly, there would be two babies one day, and then a family would lose another child the next day. And the deaths among children were really pitiful for us to think of today.
The water was, in many cases, very bad. He tells about cleaning his well on several occasions, and going down into the well and finding the skin of a rabbit there with the flesh completely gone, and you can imagine it smelled bad, as he said. Just drinking that kind of water must have contributed a great deal to the deaths of children.
These children were raised at least to adolescence; the youngest one to die was 16. That was a daughter who had tuberculosis. He lost a son who was about 23, and that was the son who went down to New Orleans on an adventure and became ill down there and died.
Where did Price live?
That was a question for a long time. We couldn’t really find out exactly where Joseph Price lived other than at the Inn at Clover Hill and Lancaster. He referred always to his home as “Locust Hill”. We found which way he was going when he would approach places that we knew of—we found that it was somewhere in the area of the General Wayne because he would mention looking over at Streeper’s and seeing that the snow was on the roof or had fallen off the roof, and he was always able to go over to Streeper’s very quickly it would seem, and found that the meetinghouse was very accessible, so we knew it had to be in that general area.
On the Hills map of 1809 we find Locust Hill is very plainly identified. It was a narrow piece of property that he owned that started at present-day Montgomery Avenue just about opposite the convent and Waldron Academy. And it ran from there along where the railroad is today, across East Wynnewood Road, through the Shortridge Tract, up as far as where Hecht’s/Wanamakers was, the Wynnewood shopping center and a little bit over Lancaster Avenue. So this was his extensive property. And we could from that figure out where exactly how he had worked these things out, and various things he would talk about—going to his mill, and from the mill going up to the Inn, and so on.
He had his sawmill on Indian Creek just about opposite Chestnut Avenue in Narberth and across E. Wynnewood Road and in the Shortridge Tract; there along the creek is where he had his mill. And there is a dot on the Hill map that shows a sawmill was at that location.
He lived at Locust Hill and he also lived in a forest hut. The forest hut was a little temporary structure that he built right alongside of this sawmill. And the reason he built it was, I’m sure his wife loved this, before the place on Lancaster Pike was ready, the Inn was ready…. he had already rented his house at Locust Hill, so he had to get out of it. So for three or four months, they lived in what he called his “forest hut” alongside the sawmill, there along Indian Creek.
He lived thereafter in the William Penn Inn, but only for three and a half years. They moved there in 1799, and he was out of there in 1803, and I’ll talk a little more about his reaction to tavern-keeping. His neighbors—that’s something we find interesting and useful for people who are looking for their ancestors—we see names that he mentions every day, like Roberts. He had a neighbor David Roberts, he was a friend of Algernon Roberts, the Righters, the Hagys, the Leverings, the McClenaghans, you can almost look at a street map of this area and pick out the names of the people he associated with.
Price’s Lower Merion
One of the things we would like to visualize was what Lower Merion was like in the time that he was writing. And remember that his diary was started on New Year’s Eve in 1788, and he wrote in the diary until three days before he died. So he kept it until September 15, 1828. He died on the 18th of September.
It was farmland and forest
There was a lot of farmland, there was a lot of forest. Practically everybody had wood available if they owned land. They were very close to nature —much more than we are. Joseph Price starts every entry with the weather… what the weather was like that day, where the wind was… whether it was cold, hot, so on. He only mentions the thermometer once in the whole 40 years. So apparently he had no access to a thermometer.
It was quiet
That’s what we find so hard to believe today. We are so used to so many noises. It was so quiet that in his home at Locust Hill he could hear the falls, when the wind was from the north. First he mentions Rummel’s falls. Well, Rummel’s falls were displaced when Flat Rock dam was built. He mentions hearing the falls; it’s quite a distance from the middle of Narberth up to Flat Rock!
It was dark
No street lights. Nothing of that sort. It was wonderful for him to be able to see the Northern Lights. He mentioned many times the Northern Lights, and the fact that the fireflies were so many on several occasions that they illuminated the place as if it were a camp. There was that much light there from the fireflies; perhaps they were bigger than ours, I don’t know. But there were a lot of them.
The other thing about the nights being dark, he often mentions how many times he’s in a meeting and they have to wait until the moon comes up or else get some light—candles, they actually did carry candles on horses—I don’t understand how. He does mention some kind of lighting for them. But they would wait for the moon.
There were few roads
Of course, there were very few main roads, and the roads that existed were muddy in the spring and in wet weather, and dusty in the summer. Really the best time to travel was in the wintertime when there was snow on the ground and they could go in sleighs. That was always an occasion for getting the family together and putting them in the sleigh and going off to visit somebody, because of course they couldn’t work at any kind of agricultural work outside, during that time. So that was a big social time for them.
The other thing that you might think of is the vehicles that they had. He mentions having a “chair” which would just take two people in it; and he mentions wagons, but to take your family out over bumpy roads and unsprung vehicles like that, could not have been very comfortable. But with a nice blanket of snow it was a comfortable arrangement and you could take a good number of people in these sleighs which were not too expensive to maintain.
The other point about the diary that I found fascinating was the events you hear about. Not just what was happening in Lower Merion, but what was happening to our new government, and our new country. Philadelphia during the early part of this diary was the center for the United States government. But in addition to events, we find out a lot about money—what coins were used, what the situation was with exchange of money. We find out a lot about food, and recreation, and position of women. I can tell you that very briefly: all their property belonged to their husbands. He doesn’t think it should be any different, so it’s not at all emphasized, but I was rather taken aback to see how women who would inherit certain things, property, that would immediately belong to their husbands. And his brother John married a very wealthy young heiress, the daughter of Benjamin Humphrey who owned a good bit of Bryn Mawr. And when Benjamin Humphrey died, his brother John, after a while, after she had borne a child to him, married her and took over all her property. Then it became Price property. But John Price died, and the widow came into her own at last.
A lot about health and mortality, a lot about weddings and funerals, daily work, politics, legal matters, education, crime and punishment, and other social problems.
The first official Thanksgiving
Let me tell you about a couple of events that I think will be of interest. One of the first in point of time was when he mentioned on November 26, 1789, that this was the first Thanksgiving. George Washington, president of the United States, had called for a day of thanksgiving. Of course, that was not an annual event; it was an unusual event, and was not celebrated with turkey or anything of that sort. In fact, holidays were not celebrated at all by these Quakers. They didn’t celebrate Easter, they didn’t celebrate Christmas; they were very sober and straight-laced about things; they did not celebrate birthdays. When Joseph Price’s birthday comes along he mentions it. and he’ll say “Well, forty-five years old and not a bit better than I was last year or the year before.” Or he mentions the fact that he hasn’t made as much money as he would have liked. But that was the first Thanksgiving in 1789.
The death of Benjamin Franklin
Then in 1790 he mentions the death of Benjamin Franklin, and his burial in town. He does characterize Franklin as a great statesman.
1793, yellow fever. That was the big year of yellow fever in Philadelphia. Many of the people who could move out of town, came out to Lower Merion and other places further away even, to get away from the disease, the yellow fever. Of course they didn’t know what the cause of it was, so, many people left their houses and camped out because they thought they would be better off if they got out of their houses. That made them prime material for mosquito bites and didn’t help a bit, but the yellow fever appeared in Philadelphia year after year. As soon as August, the end of August, would come along he would mention again that yellow fever—or he called it the plague or some sickness—was in Philadelphia.
The Whiskey Rebellion
In 1794 we hear about the Whiskey Rebellion. His brother Edward was in a cavalry troop in Philadelphia, and he went out to Western Pennsylvania to fight with the Whiskey Boys. Joseph Price mentions that when his brother comes back the troops at “the Buck”—where Al E. Gator’s (restaurant) was on Lancaster Avenue Lancaster Ave. at Old Buck Lane—that was a center, a popular tavern also.
The Lancaster Turnpike
In 1795 the opening of the Lancaster Turnpike was a big event. Joseph Price tells about that. A couple of days or weeks before the Pike was opened, he went to town with the superintendent of the Turnpike, whose name was John Curwen—you know Curwen Road up in Rosemont—and they brought back the milestones, and put the milestones down. He said “Planted eight in one day” and then the next day he planted eight more—that was recorded. And the first toll that was taken on Lancaster Turnpike, a stone cutter named North was the first man ever to pay toll in the United States. So if anybody ever has that for a trivia question, you will know the answer.
One thing we looked for in the diary was the death of George Washington who was one of his idols. There’s a little gap in the diary. George Washington died in December, 1799, and Joseph Price wasn’t writing or the papers have been lost. We visualize the diaries being a bound volume or volumes, but this man just took pieces of paper and fastened them together somehow with string or bound them in a loose fashion and carried them around with him. Things got lost. Sometimes he didn’t have any paper. And sometimes apparently these pieces were lost. But there were, in all, about 3,000 pieces of paper. I don’t know what I would have done if there had been any more, because for each of the pieces of paper I could write, get about two and half pages of his diary on the paper that I finished.
The election of Thomas Jefferson was a big event, celebrated in Philadelphia. Joseph Price didn’t think much of Thomas Jefferson—he was a Federalist, he made no secret about that, and he didn’t approve of Jefferson, ’til Jefferson died, then he thought he was a pretty good guy. But the election of Thomas Jefferson was celebrated in Philadelphia particularly by the various guilds or collections of men who worked in certain lines of work—like the butchers who had their big celebration, and others like the carpenters, and so on.
In 1803, this is a good answer for a trivia question. Thomas Adams, the son of ex-president John Adams by this time, helped to raise the roof on the Price House, the present-day Hamper Shop. 714 Montgomery, Narberth He lived in Philadelphia at that time, and he came out here because the raising of a roof of a new house was a great social occasion for men because they got together, they had a very jolly time, they cooperated, and at the end, and during… there was plenty to drink and plenty to eat. They had a wonderful feast at the end. But I think they drank practically all the way through.
Hamilton and Burr
In 1804 the Hamilton and Burr duel occupied a lot of Joseph Price’s concern and attention. That was something, as Hamilton as a Federalist was one of his heroes, but he gives some of the flavor of what people were thinking at that time.
Deaths of Jefferson and Adams
And then in 1826 he mentions the memorial service held in Norristown for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—you remember Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died the same year, in 1826, on the same day, the Fourth of July. So this was about a month later that a memorial service was held in Norristown and the principal speaker was Henry Clay. And Joseph Price went to that and gives some of the flavor of that particular experience.
Richard Allen, African-American preacher
And there are other things that I think are worthy of notice. He mentions that a Negro man came to speak at the little schoolhouse one Sunday afternoon, and came again after that. His name was Richard Allen, and of course Richard Allen was a well-known African-American preacher in the early days. And Price says he was a great preacher. He liked what he had to say.
Elias Hicks, preacher
And then in Friends Meeting Elias Hicks was there; he was the figure in the Hicksite split among the Friends. And he identifies him as “Elias Hicks from Long Island.” And he preached at Merion meeting. It is interesting too that there were all these preachers at Merion meeting. We think of the silent service. He particularly mentions the silent services. Most of the time there is somebody preaching there. Of course they are visiting preachers from one place or another, many times women. There would be two women who would preach.
A funny thing happened…
There are some good stories—for it is not all serious in here. Some of them are very funny. Sometimes I don’t get the point at all, and I don’t think other people do either. What is this? Is this funny? But if he tells some of his problems and some of the things that happen to him—they are really very funny, I think.
Where’s my coffin?
He tells once about losing a coffin. He has to go almost in town with this coffin and he has it on the back of his wagon or something. When he gets almost to the place where he has to deliver the coffin, he finds it isn’t there. Oh, what is he going to do? He is very upset about it, because it’s not only that it might be damaged in some way, but he doesn’t have any more wood. So he goes back and looks, and finally finds the coffin. It’s standing up against a tree. I don’t know how; someone must have helped him out. He puts the coffin back (in the wagon), and takes it to the house. But it has elements of humor, if it isn’t your coffin. If you’re not responsible for delivering it.
Shooting the bull
And there’s another story that I thought gave a sort of new dimension to “shooting the bull”. He and his cousin Rees, one day, decided they would have to get rid of a pretty obnoxious bull, so they were going to shoot it. So in the orchard they were taking shots at the bull, and the bull wouldn’t get hit, but it wouldn’t stop either, and it would turn around and pursue the people who were shooting at him, and they were almost ready to climb trees, ’til finally another person came up and helped them, and shot the bull.
Kill the fire, the funeral can wait
This is another funeral story. He had delivered a coffin to a place up around Matson Ford Road, and it was a very, very cold day, and he told about how miserable everybody was and how cold they were. And he got up there, and he was, as he says, screwing up the coffin, and a fire—suddenly people came in and said the roof is on fire. So Joseph Price leaves the work he is doing with the coffin, and climbs up and makes a hole in the roof and reaches out somehow and puts the fire out, comes back, and finishes screwing up the coffin, and goes on with the funeral.
These are amazing things that happen.
The Bettering House pickup
Titus Yerkes bought what is now the General Wayne Inn. Well, he really didn’t buy it, that’s not right to say. His wife, Mary Streeper—that was her maiden name—had come into possession of the Inn, she inherited it from her father Abraham and when Titus married her he became the owner of what is now the General Wayne.
Now, Titus Yerkes was a good Baptist and a very good friend of Joseph Price. One day, at the time when Titus was serving as the Overseer of the Poor, he got Joseph Price to go in town with him, and pick up two women who were in what was called the “Bettering House”. You know, if a young person was unemployed and needed to have a place to live, he or she was sent to the Bettering House in Philadelphia. And that’s where they learned to do a few elemental jobs I guess, and were kept there.
Well, these two women were from Lower Merion, from Montgomery County, and so they were not supposed to be in a Bettering House in Philadelphia. So they went in for these two women. One of them was about ready to deliver a child. So they start on this trip up to the Montgomery County Court House which was up near, beyond Norristown.
As they started in the wagon, they got about half-way to Norristown and the wheels fell off. Well, they put the wheels on, and tried to do what they could, but they kept falling off. So when they got up to Norristown they had to make an arrangement for some other transportation, and each one of them, both Titus and Joseph, got a “chair” which would accommodate only two people—a chair on wheels with a horse attached—and each took one of the women, and they finally arrived at the poor house in time for the woman to have the child. They knew they had to push on… no question about that.
The horses in Lower Merion were always running away
And of course the horses are always good for a story because, it seems to me, the horses in Lower Merion were always running away. I wondered if these men didn’t know how to tie good knots? What is wrong with them?
Joseph went into the city one night in his bachelor days, and he took a couple of women with him—young women from around—and they went in to see a play. And when they came out to pick up their horse at the livery stable, the horse had run away. So they had to make their way home, and I don’t know quite how they did it because they had to cross on a ferry and finally got home. Then he had to go in the next day to look for the horse. So he was always lending horses to people whose horses had run away. His horse would run away often, it seemed to me.
Health and mortality
Health and mortality is fascinating. We’re all concerned now about our health insurance. What was happening here, I’ll try to give you a quick overview of this.
In the first place, there were a good many doctors. There was Dr. Anderson at St. George in Ardmore; there was a Dr. Heidrich up in the northern part of Lower Merion; there was Dr. Brookfield who married into the Price family, and there were many other doctors that he mentioned. So there were plenty of doctors around.
They all seemed to have the same method of treatment, and that was bleeding and plasters. This amazed me: Joseph Price’s wife was giving birth to her sixth child, and the doctor came and bled her before the delivery! We kind of throw up our hands at that. But the treatments that they used were very similar: plasters, bleeding, and they also used laxatives to a great extent. He used Anderson’s pills regularly because this is something that is good for him.
Vaccinations and diseases
Vaccinations—that was interesting to me. Children were vaccinated if their parents would permit this. And of course what they were vaccinated with was the cow pox serum, rather than the real smallpox serum. None of his children had smallpox.
Many adults would get measles and very often would die of that. And then there was the flux, the ailment that carried off so many children, and adults too, in the summertime. I could remember hearing about “summer complaint” and of course the bad water here and the poor refrigeration all had a part in that. He talks about people having boils, about having “the waste” which I think must have been cancer. He talks about people who were ill for a number of years, and they died of “the waste.” And consumption, which of course we translate as T.B. Palsy, which sounded like stroke, and lockjaw, yellow fever which we have already mentioned. Alcoholism, that was something that carried many men off. Juvenile diabetes—he had a young sister who died of juvenile diabetes. Of course he didn’t know what it was, but the way he described it, you can tell that to anybody today and they’ll say “Oh, diabetes.” So all of these things caused very high mortality for infants and children in summer, especially.
And I wanted to tell you something, I tell you with a little trepidation, but you know we’ve been hearing about the “mad cow” disease. And I’ve been thinking about that, and I happened to make a list of one very unfortunate family where there had been a number of deaths very close together. And after I had that list, in the process of editing, I also saw that this same family had had a cow that went mad.
This was John Erwine’s family, his cow went mad in May, 1790. And it’s mentioned because this agricultural society that Joseph Price belonged to was also a sort of benevolent society. If any of the farmers in the area had unduly bad luck they would try to help them out. So they took up a collection to buy John Erwine a new cow. This was in 1790.
His son died just about three years later. His wife died a week after the son died. Four days after the wife died, a daughter Polly died. Then about four months later a daughter Jane died. And then three weeks after that, a son David died. Price mentions “this is the fourth and last child, all the family dead but the father.”
I don’t know whether they ate the wrong kind of beef or not, but at least they had a mad cow about three years before everyone in the family died. I don’t think that can be taken seriously, but it’s something that strikes you when you read these old accounts.
Accidents and murder
There were lots of accidents. You know you think of automobile accidents today as being such a killer of young people, particularly. But these accidents were due to unruly horses, to wagons that broke down or had shifting loads. They would be unloading something and the load would shift, or they would be riding in a wagon with a load that would shift. Lots of fires. One can understand that with open fireplaces and candles. At one point he mentions his six-month old child stuck his finger in the candle flame and had a big blister on his finger. But all of these things were contributing to a lot of misery.
Scythes at harvest, particularly. They would have these sharp scythes. Harvesting was a time when there were a lot of arguments, and a lot of drinking. And very often there would be fights arise, and somebody would take a scythe to someone else, or else just in the use of the scythe, might have an accident. There were many fights—many alcohol related. This was not a peaceful backwater that you could think of. There was a lot going on.
Suicide and depression
And there were many suicides. And he talks about a young fellow that he befriended and worked for who had a considerable —owned considerable property. He built a house for him. And after four or five years the young man jumped out of the third story window, and he had been drinking, and had DTs and I don’t know what all before that.
He talks about depression. That surprised me. We talk about people being depressed today. They were depressed then. And he mentions it—he uses the word “depression.” And one of the persons he describes as being depressed, was also “hipt” and that’s h-y-p-t and what he meant by that was that he had hypochondria and the man thought he had a lot of things wrong with him that he didn’t have wrong. But he was a very depressed person.
Joseph Price did build another house on his property for a doctor and he called it the “doc shop”. I thought that was pretty funny. He had two doctors who were in there successively.
I know time is passing. I have said enough.
Questions & answers
Question: Did he design the houses?
Answer: Yes, he did. And he was very proud of this. Now I suppose he was aided by the books of plans that could be bought, but it is possible to identify a good many of the houses that he did. There’s a lot of similarity. I think you will see that in some of the pictures up here. (on a display table.)
“Where is this diary?”
Question: How did you get interested in this project?
Answer: We had, in the library at Ashbridge, been thinking “where is this diary of Joseph Price? Why can’t we find it?” We knew that a local historian, Charles Barker, had taken extracts from it, and that that was in the possession of the Montgomery County Historical Society, and Charles Barker’s extracts had been published in the journal, or publication, of the Montgomery County Historical Society
We found that the whole diary in its pieces, as it were, was at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and we wondered how we could get to it. We didn’t know it was such a big thing. And we thought at one time, Mary Wood and I, that we could go in and one person would read and the other record, and we could come home and so on. When we found out where it was, we wrote to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and asked how we could get a copy. And they said that at that time they were thinking of making a microfilm of the diary, and would be glad to sell a copy.
So the money was raised in the Society, and I am very thankful for this, and they sent us one reel. Then they sent another letter saying they were very sorry but this is so much bigger than we thought, if you want the rest, send more money. So when it came to us, it’s in two big reels, and as I say, they did microfilm just for the diary, about three thousand pieces of paper.
“There is much more”
But the thing about this is, there is much more. And there is a lot of work for someone else to do, because it is not only just the diary, but it includes the papers. And these papers are very, very interesting. There are bills and invoices, and letters, perhaps the first draft copy of letter. There are agricultural records, and there are some tax records of Blockley Township. I don’t know why he had them, but they are among those papers, and a lot of information about the poor house being established—the county poorhouse.
After about 1807 we didn’t have to take care of the Lower Merion elderly; they sent them up to the poor house outside of Norristown.
When we got the microfilm, we had to start to read it. JoAnne Debes started with me, and we worked together for a month or so. We were only working one morning a week. Then JoAnne got a job, so I decided we had better bring that microfilm reader and the microfilm home to my house and I could work on it, which I did for about three years or so.
Question: After you finished reading it, then what did you do?
Answer: I read it again to make sure there were no errors in it or omissions, and then, we’re trying to get it into final shape because this is going to be a sort of desk-top publishing job, rather than turning it over to a printer. It’s almost ready.
Ted Goldsborough: And there will be an index, table of contents, biographical list of names found in the diary. Mrs. Keim did find that Joseph Price had a problem with alcohol. Do you want to say anything more about that?
Mrs. Keim: It was a problem that was shared by an awful lot of people, and many times, especially in his last five years of life, he had trouble; he would be writing, and I had trouble, because he would be writing when he had too much to drink. But he was always very penitent; he didn’t approve of drinking, and he wins your pity. He really ruined his health, although he lived to be 75, so he did pretty well, considering.
Spelling and pronunciation
Oh yes, spelling. Of course there were no standards for spelling then. This was before Noah Webster and shortly after Samuel Johnson. So he spelled phonetically, and the spelling gives you a good idea of how things were pronounced, because for “chair” he would write “cheer.” And for “share” he would write “sheer” so you get the overtone of what was happening. Then one famous word… he was doing some work for people… what he wrote was, he had been building a “peazar.” And I said “what is this?” Well, my friend Mary Wood came to the rescue and said “I think that’s piazza.” Well it was. They may have used that “r” sound you hear up in New England—Piazar.
Question: If he were a Quaker why was he in the war, in the military?
Answer: Well there were a lot of Quakers in this area who were in the war. Algernon Roberts, and I hate to say numbers but it looked like a dozen or fifteen. And they were read out of meeting when they did that. So he was “out of unity.” Joseph Price was out of unity for all his life, apparently, but he still went to meeting. And he’s buried in Friends cemetery, but of course there are lots of people buried there who were not Quakers. Now I don’t know what happened about Algernon Roberts, whether he was ever taken back or not. But a considerable number were not.
Price’s wife and children
Question: Who was Joseph Price’s wife?
Answer: His wife was Mary Walter. There was a fairly small gene pool here among the Quakers because they liked to marry Welsh Quakers. And Joseph Price’s sister was married to Jonathan Walter, and Mary Walter was Jonathan Walter’s sister, and she married Joseph Price. So that was the family.
Question: What do we know about his children?
Answer: Well, we know that the daughter and a son had died by 1824. Then after his death, from things that we’ve seen, we know that only three names appear on the census and on the tax rates etc. so I don’t quite know what happened to them after that. I wish I did. But I’ve been so concerned up to 1828 that I haven’t been able to follow some of the later developments.
Ted Goldsborough: It was sad, as Mrs. Keim was getting toward the end, it was as if she were losing a personal friend , here at the end of the diary, when she knew she was getting close.
Question: Did you work with the actual papers? Did they have any watermarks on them?
Answer: I really can’t tell you that. But I know that he did buy some of his paper from the local mills, because he mentions going to Sheetz and buying a quire of paper. But some of it was used so many times for so many purposes. He has notes here and there and on the margins and allover. It’s sort of beaten up, but I imagine they (watermarks) are there.
Question: Did you bring the original documents to Mrs. Keim’s house?
Answer: It was on microfilm, and we brought a microfilm reader to Mrs. Keim’s house.
Mrs. Keim: I don’t know what the status is now with the changes going on down at the Historical Society of Pa., but I don’t know whether they would let people actually handle it any more. These papers were all in boxes, in sturdy cardboard boxes, and I don’t know whether they would allow people to handle them. You would have trouble too; you even have trouble working your way through the microfilm, because they took the pictures sometimes of pages and there would be a gap, and then further along there would be the missing pages that went in there. So it is sort of hard to find your way.
Ted Goldsborough: There were several gaps in the diary, and we made an inquiry of the Historical Society where we had purchased the microfilm, to see if perchance they might have a few more pieces around that they didn’t microfilm. They sent us one or two pages of photocopies, but they said there was nothing else.
Question: Where does the project go from here?
Answer: We hope that we’ll be able to print enough copies of this to give the libraries and schools, and people who are interested in it. But that’s it. What’s really very necessary, and I should say this, is that Rebecca Warlow did an index of about a quarter of the diary, and that’s given us a great start on that index. That’s going to be a big job. You still can get a lot out of the diary now, without an index, if you have time to spend to go through it. But it would be ever so much more useful if we had an index.
What happened to the diary after Price’s death?
Question: Who thought of saving the diary, and what was the history of the diary after Joseph Price died?
Answer: For many years apparently it disappeared. And we read that Charles Barker had for many years heard about a diary of a Major Rees Price, and that it was so like Pepys’ Diary—it was so indiscreet—but that was a lot of nonsense. But Charles Barker is the person who ran this down. In about 1937 he found it was a possession of the Wynne family, Thomas Wynne family. And he made arrangements to see it, and the person in the family told him he couldn’t find it. Well then, that person died, and the son, another Thomas Wynne, found it and notified Barker and Barker was invited to come and go through it, and that’s when he made his hundred pages of extracts in his beautiful handwriting. Charles Barker was a wonderful scholar. Very accurate. This was over in Wynnefield.
Ted Goldsborough: You may recall that the Barkers, Charles Barker’s family, were a well-established family in Gladwyne, and had a mill down on Mill Creek.
Mary Keim: But Charles Barker didn’t live in Lower Merion at that time.
Question: How did we find out that the diary was in the hands of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania?
Answer: We telephoned. We thought it might be there, since Montgomery County just had the extracts.
Mary Keim transcribed the diary’s 3,000 pages, working for over three years from a microfilm reader. For this achievement she was honored by the Federation of Museums and Historic Organizations in Harrisburg. She served as secretary of the Lower Merion Historical Society. A resident of Narbrook Park, Narberth for over 50 years, Mary died in 2016 at age 99.
This essay is based on a lecture she presented at Waverly Heights, Gladwyne, September 21, 1997. In 2022 it has been lightly edited for reading clarity, and by the addition of headings, links, illustrations and updated location references.