Read All About It!
by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
originally published January 15, 2003
One of the first things you discoveras a journalist is justhow different newspapershave been in history.
Today we see theirrole in society to be anobjective observer anddocumenter of events.Their success is probablya function of howclose they come to ourown views, and even themost loyal newspaper workerwould tell you objectivity isan impossible task, but a goal always sought.
Actually, objectivity is a pretty new conceptin journalism – in theory and even newerin practice. Originally, most newspapers wererun to support some view or political position.Some whose views appear in newspaperscome to see their perspective as beingtruth.
One fellow who had a strong viewof the newspapers of Lower Merionwas John Nugent.Afounder of the Lower MerionHistorical Society, he was also a journalistand professor of English. Hewas most of all a character, with aflair for expression. His views ofjournalism in Lower Merion are asflamboyant as they are telling.
Nugent tapped out an acerbic -and oft-fanciful – treatise of LowerMerion newspapers for the society.The dates of its creation areunkown but probably was completedin the 1960s.
He begins with the first newspapersin the township, that is,those published there. Newspapershad been available in the townshipfrom Philadelphia, and onecannot doubt that many dwellersin the Welsh Barony kept up todate with the ruminations of BenFranklin through his newspaper.
But in Lower Merion thefirst papers appeared in themid-to-late-1880s. Unlike thepartisan sheets of earlier times,they were enterprises designedto profit the publisher throughthe sale of advertising to localmerchants. There was often asimilarity among newspapers,because many of them usedpre-printed pages; typically, page oneand page four were original, with the preprintedpages making up the second and thirdof four pages.
“Page four (the back page) was the churchpage, which only changed when a clergymanwas superseded after having ignored a goodlyportion of the Ten Commandments anddeparted after receiving the bum’s rush fromenvious deacons, churchwardens and chartermembers of the ladies’ aide,” said Nugent inhis treatise prepared for the historical society.”Page one was devoted to information concerningrunaway horses, dog fights and raidson volunteer firemen’s smokers.”
Evidently in Nugent’s view, that wasconsidered news in Lower Merion at thattime. The Norristown papers carried politicalnews and The Philadelphia Recordoccasionally published articles on activitiesoutside the city.
More entertaining was Nugent’sview on early typesetting. One can only imaginehis views in a university lecture.
“They (publishers) wore celluloidPiccadilly collars, and with a fistful of Germanhand type, set up glimpses of the passingscene,” he said. “Their ingenuity was astounding.Gen. George Washington, for example,was printed ‘general ggeorge wwashington,’indicating the sad lack of capitals.”
For disbelievers, this is actually true; it wascommon practice. And it wasn’t until OttmarMerganthaler cooked up the linotype machinein 1884 that any appreciable improvement wasmade to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention,Nugent said.
Newspapers were printed on cheap paper,and there are few, if any, examples of newspaperssurviving from this era.
But Nugent documents the newspapers,beginning with the edge of the city atCynwyd.
“Here could be found the Bala-CynwydNews, edited by Richard Bleep-Bleep ofAtlantic City (remember: the greater the truth,the greater the libel.). Onemorning Richard packedhis toothbrush and an extracollar and bought a coupleof one-way tickets to Ripvan Winkle country. Thepublisher’s wife added ajoyous tranquility by goingalong with the editor, neverto return. The publisherdidn’t get rid of his smilefor at least a year. Then hemarried his landlady.”
Clearly not one to takean even-handed approachto history, he continued hisdiscussion.
“Next on the sceneappeared The Merionite,which was born, thenexpired unloved andunheralded sometime inthe ’20s. All aspects of this publication providea series of mysteries,” he said.
Nugent is somewhat callous to the triumphsand tragedies of the area’s newspapers,even those run by locals. “The Welsh ValleyHerald was the brain child of a young newspaperman,E. Paul Raum, a native son,” hesaid.
Evidently he knew much about him, perhapseven as a personal acquaintance. “Hecould recite long Biblical passages, seeminglywithout being coaxed, knew a great manyfolks who were not too bright,” he said. “Bothhands shook when he buttoned his shirt. E.Paul sold the paper to a neighbor and his wife.They had a son who suffered from anadvanced case of the doldrums. Sonny Boyassumed command and completed his coursein Yawning 4. Farewell, Herald!”
In Narberth in the early 1920s came apaper called Our Town, run by Tom Elwood,who served his apprenticeship on theCleveland Plain Dealer. He evidently wasmarried to a local girl and was thereby enticedto remain in Lower Merion.
“Now we traipse into Athensville,” continuedNugent, who had a tendency to wanderoff the topic in his writing. “From the late1880s, printer’s ink ebbed and flowed theretwice in 24 hours, sometimes more often. Thegreat magnet drawing citizens’ attention werethe obituarycolumns,” he said.
“These newspapers smelled pretty bad …rotten ink, and were no good for wrappingfish; even dogs slept outside when they wereused to line the floors of their kennels.”
Sometime about 1889 the ArdmoreChronicle was first published. “Immediately itwas named by wiseacres the Comical,” hesaid. “We asked a later publisher of theChronicle what happened next. He replied:’Some kind of a Polack named BillyKamerdze from over in Phoenixville showedup. Chronicling did not provide oodles ofrubles and kopecks so he acquired a secondjob measuring pounds and pints at grocerystores and gas stations. He, as an inspector ofweights and measures, estimated the kalbasiand could determine which thumb the butcherhad counted in.’ ”
But some of the papers were political innature. “Early in the 20th century we had apaper, The Record, published ostensibly fromHaverford but really supported by the politicalDirigo Hall, Jeffersonian in concept and echoingthe sentiments of thefarmers’Tammany Hall atMerion Square (PovertyHill) later elevated toGladwyne,” he said.
Dirigo Hall was inWest Ardmore at the time,according to him, adjacentto a blacksmith shop. “Atone time a Civil war cannon,stolen by an undertakerfrom a NationalGuard armory, decoratedthe front lawn,” he said.”It was melted down forsalvage metal in the throesof World War I.”
The precursor to thisnewspaper even made anappearance in Nugent’sperspective. “In the early1920s a stiff-kneed horseenthusiast, Francis (Red) Siemer, assembled asmall publication, The Main Liner, and publishednotes of the latest doings in the mustangset,” he said. “Ladies riding sidesaddle werefeatured.”
He continues with his view of Ardmorejournalistic endeavors with an equal level ofdispassion. “Delusions of grandeur struckArdmore, trees were chopped down, parkingmeters installed and a local daily newspaper,the Main Line Daily Times reared its uglyhead under the auspices of George Walker andco-workers who had never heard of theVolstead Act,” he said.
Evidently it wasn’t overly successful.”Bankruptcy was assured and Ardmore wentback to the Comical. A skyscraper, the TimesMedical Building, was abandoned by almosteverything except birds who swarmed in andslept on the windowsills every night,” he said.
“Then a portly Midwesterner, AinslieHickerson, appeared deus ex machina on thelocal scene.”
According to Nugent, Hickerson “was thefinest linotype operator I have ever seen inaction. He began life as a Midwest farm boyand won a four-year scholarship at theUniversity of Iowa. Sometime later heappeared in Brownsville, Pa., and purchasedan interest in a weekly paper.”
Evidently successful, he bought the defunctMain Line Daily Times. In the early 1930s,Hickerson crossed out the “daily” part “andbegan publication of the Lower Main Line’sgreatest newspaper,” Nugent said. His son,Linden, became sports editor at the Times and,after A. E. sold out to Goodson, Linden coveredsports for the Suburban and WayneTimes.
Nugent was perfectly happy to discuss thepersons who worked there in a way lawyerstoday would either not allow or delight in,depending on whom their clients are.
“Joe Mattis became comptroller of theorganization in everything but name; Joe Burt,a native of Brooklyn, advanced from advertisingmanager to business manager and TomO’Leary, a jealous managing editor, assumedthe editorial direction,” he said. “BernardKramer, later to become publisher of theChronicle, wrote thousands of pieces aboutbig trees, old trees, oak trees, Penn trees, gallows’trees, but hardly ever about shoe trees.”
The last paper to rouse Nugent’s interestwas the Bryn Mawr Home News. “The HomeNews carried advertising of gentlemen buyingsecondhand sugar barrels and beer casks, usedschoolbooks and onion sets,” he said.
Nugent proved that the journalists of hisera were a different group from today’s professionaland ever-so-capable journalist. Itmay be worth reporting that Nugent’s reputationwas at one time well known.
As historians seek accuracy, it might beworth ending with a contemporary view ofNugent.
“Mr. Nugent, a talented writer and loverof history, first president of the L. M.Historical Society, etc., also ‘liked his teastrong,’ so some of his recollections maybe suspect.”