Ardmore Project Suburban Life in the Early 20th Century

Charles H Frederick

Growing with the Times


In 1913, the Pennsylvania Railroad ironically marketed the region of Lower Merion, persuasively describing it as follows: “Its atmosphere is purer; it is thoroughly drained by numerous streams; its soil is fertile; and it is in a striking degree picturesque. Nature—the great landscape gardener—has carved and molded it into rolling hills and placid vales, and so studded it with trees and interlaced with crystal rivulets that the picture everywhere is lovely to look upon”.[1] The favorable and striking location became major factors in the growth of Lower Merion as one of the primary suburban residential areas in Pennsylvania. Roads and railways lay at the roots of suburbanization in Ardmore. The verdant hills and valleys gave way to the processes of industrialization and suburbanization, allowing for middle and upper middle class families to line the streets of the township, thereby creating a community that thrived off of business and transportation. In order to blend seamlessly into the prosperity of the town, it became a necessity to immerse oneself in various aspects of Ardmore culture, be it in the political, social, or economic spheres of society. Many people managed to find success in Ardmore during the twentieth century, but one man’s life in particular clearly illustrates this merging. Charles H. Frederick represented the self-made, well-off suburban gentleman. He had the family, the house, the car,[2] and the job which secured him a place within the social order of Ardmore. His life traces the patterns and progressions of suburbanization in Ardmore, as well as the decline of a rural and self-sufficient culture.

In August 1857, Charles H. Frederick was born to Mona and Maria Frederick in Berks County, the 6th Ward of the City of Reading. As a white, literate male, Charles was already subject to a world of opportunity. His family, however, lived a rather meager lifestyle. In the city of Reading, the buildings were primarily composed of semi-detached houses and row houses, with very few single houses or estates that sprawled along the Schuylkill River.[3] The Frederick home continued the typical housing pattern of the district. A small and somewhat cramped row house, the Frederick family consisted of Mona, Maria and their two sons, Charles and George. It was also home to Hezekiah Weidner, a local 23 year old Pennsylvanian. Charles and George were not required to work, and instead, focused on obtaining an education. By 1870, Charles, age 12, and George, age 10, continued their schooling while their mother maintained her domestic chores—tending to the children and house.[4] At this point in time, economy and labor had taken a new direction. From the previous quarter of a century, the country had strained its energy in the American Civil War and its new industry, thus allowing the national market to flourish with its sudden rise in railroads and manufacturing industries. Industrialization was at its prime, and skill was no longer a premium requirement for workers. Hezekiah and Mona had previously worked together as farm hands when agriculture was still an integral part of the economy of Berks County. But with the introduction of industrialization, farming faded into the background, and agricultural skill was no longer worthwhile. The two men were downgraded to day laborers—men without full-time jobs, trying to make ends meet working on railways.[5] Hands were soon replaced by machinery, and railroad construction in the United States was at its high point, causing people to put their faith and money in the industry.

On September 18, 1873, however, Jay Cooke and Company—a banking firm capitalizing off the railroad industry—officially closed, leaving the country in an economic frenzy.[6] In a hasty response to their recent suffering, northern railways began dramatically cutting worker wages and salaries. The cutbacks were not without consequence. Strikes and violence and death broke out across the northern states, and Reading contributed to the toll. On July 24, 1877, “crowds collected along the railroad, and the vicinity of Seventh and Penn streets was a scene of great confusion”. For hours, the townspeople obstructed train tracks and halted train traffic. In order to control the masses and obstructions, a squadron was marched down the road. But after being struck by stones and bricks, “a number of the soldiers without orders, commenced an indiscriminate firing down Seventh Street, and up and down Penn Street, driving the crowd before them”. This massive act of rebellion left 7 dead and 26 wounded.[7] Hezekiah and Mona had been part of the strike, but were left unharmed and unconvicted, unlike many of their fellow strikers. The next year, Hezekiah had left the Frederick home and settled down on South Sixth Street with his wife, Mary and his son, William. Mona Frederick, at the age of 70, was still struggling with the battle between traditionalism and the fast-paced nature of the city. Like the other strikers of Reading, he wished to return to the way things had been. Charles on the other hand saw the new industrial order as something of a mixed blessing, and was eager to begin creating a life for himself. In 1880, he moved to Montgomery County in Lower Merion.

Lower Merion’s “suburban life, with its pure air, pure water and healthful surroundings”, compared to the hustle and bustle of the city was a refreshing change for Charles. In 1881, Charles married Eleanor Galley. At the time of their marriage, Charles was 23 years old, while Eleanor was at the ripe young age of 17. According to the trends of the late nineteenth century, the early female age at marriage was a reflection of the new opportunities and favorable marriage age of males.[8] These new opportunities manifested themselves in the extensive railway and road system that began to emerge in Ardmore, Pennsylvania during the time. While Charles had experienced this burst of urbanization so early on in his lifetime, Eleanor and her family were relatively unfamiliar with this change. Originally from Delaware, the Galley family previously owned and prospered off of their farm, when agriculture was still a staple in the American economy.[9] When Delaware underwent its urban change, the family moved north to Lower Merion, seeking economic opportunity elsewhere.[10] When Eleanor married Charles, her family moved in with the two newlyweds. Their new home on Montgomery Avenue was large enough to house Eleanor, Charles, Eleanor’s parents, Frederick and Marguerite, her siblings, William and Maggie, and the newlywed’s three children, Henry (born 1883), Eleanor (born 1886), and Harriet (born 1897). It was approximately 500 feet of land, and strategically placed alongside the new Pennsylvania Railroad.[11] Charles had successfully begun his life as a self-made man, taking advantage of the industrialization that began to take shape in Ardmore.

Charles worked as a contractor and road builder, a job that soon gained him fame in the community. On February 21, 1899, Charles H. Frederick was elected a supervisor of the Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, along with William McElhany, Joseph Winters, Charles Sim and many others.[12] On May 15, 1899, township auditors petitioned that the position to which Frederick had been elected be “declared vacant” because Charles had yet to give a bond with security. According to the act of March 16, 1860, “failure to give such security within one month after his election the office shall be declared vacant, and the court of quarter sessions shall appoint”. However, it had also been stated that the act of March 16, 1860 “does not ipso facto oust him from office at the expiration of time [30 days]”. To secure his position, Charles H. Frederick issued a petition that allegedly had been made on March 20, 1899 (within the required 30 days), containing a bond “bearing the date March 6, 1899, signed by Charles H. Frederick as supervisor and the Merion Title & Trust Co. as surety”. There was an objection to the approval and an acceptance of Charles’s bond, and that Mr. Hood, the vice president of the surety company, made the executive decision to withdraw it, “[ . . . ] and the office was declared vacant by your [Frederick’s] failure to give security”. Frederick was not informed of the actions taken and was thus led to believe that the bond had been accepted, and on March 6, 1899, he took an oath of office and entered upon his duties.[13] Charles’s entrance into the political sphere allowed him to become a more prominent figure in Ardmore, thus adding to his overall success.

As a new supervisor, Charles had the opportunity to work with A. J. Cassatt, the “most accomplished supervisor of roads in the State”. Under his supervision, Charles was able to contribute to the “first class roads” of the township. Their methods shocked and appalled some Lower Merion farmers as the Pennsylvania Railroad took shape. Tax dollars went to the creation of top-notch road systems, railways, and trolley lines, thus lending to the extravagance and fortune of Ardmore, Pennsylvania.[14] Their efforts provided economic opportunity across the township. They were arguably the reasons for the rise in automobile businesses, and the influx of Irish, Italian and French immigrants in the late nineteenth century.[15] Immigrants were able to seek out jobs within the railway and automobile industry, and create a new life in this “land of milk and honey”. Immigrants who migrated earlier in the nineteenth century, however, found it increasingly difficult to assimilate in the changing economy. Eleanor’s father, Frederick Galley, was a Frenchman who emigrated in 1845.[16] Like Charles’s father, Frederick was reluctant to follow the ebb and flow of this rapid urbanization. As a former farmer, he described the railway as a “thorn in his side”; a hindrance that prevented him from doing what he did best.[17] Conversely, Charles found the revolution stimulating and profitable. He empathized with his father-in-law’s plight, as he had borne witness to it with his own father, but he also understood the benefits of urbanization. By 1900, Charles had successfully converted his in-laws to the industrial world. Frederick and his son, William, worked for Charles as day laborers.[18] By the early 1900s, Cassatt, Charles, and other workers significantly altered the landscape of Ardmore. What used to be Maple Road, was now known as Simpson Road, and it was extended an extra 2,400 feet, while new roads appeared, including Summer Street, St. Paul’s Road, Church Road, and many others.[19] Despite their attempt to stave off its introduction, Ardmore finally gave into the installation of a trolley in 1902.[20] These new additions allowed for the establishment of new businesses as well as a more residential neighborhood.

Having proved himself considerably as a supervisor, Charles was finally able to establish his own business. By 1905, Charles had decently sized advertisements in the local newspaper [21] and in the phonebooks by 1907 as a “general contractor, road builder, and odorless excavator”. [22] That same year, he and his family moved once again, just further down the street. The new Frederick household was located at 38 West Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, Pennsylvania and became the new location of his contracting business. This home was situated on over 400 feet of land, containing their large, single family home, a stable, and a greenhouse.[23] At this point in time, Charles was 51 years old and the father of four children (his youngest daughter, Aneita, was born in 1907). A new baby on the way must have given cause to move to a larger home, fit for his larger family. On the same token, this house defined the Fredericks’ social standing. This place was enveloped by expansive estates, yet it was also a prime location for business transactions, as it was central to the Pennsylvania Railroad, as well as the Ardmore trolley. His ability to own such a prominent home and support his family, as well as house lodgers from time to time [24] can be described as the fruits of his labor—an echo of his thriving career.

Between 1910 and 1920, tragedy struck the Frederick household. Eleanor Frederick, wife and mother, passed away from either influenza or pneumonia. This may have occurred in the year 1918, as influenza was reported to have been the leading cause of death at the time.[25] The typical family home in the twentieth century maintained the traditional gendered roles, despite the increasing number of women in the workforce following World War I.[26]  For years, Eleanor had played her role within the Cult of Domesticity by caring for her children, tending to the daily household chores, and generally performing all of her required domestic duties while Charles was out in the workforce, playing the breadwinner. Though Charles had always been the sole provider of the family, the new responsibility of sole parenthood was new and almost terrifying. At this point in time, he only had Harriet and Aneita to care for. Henry had moved to Devon, Pennsylvania and Eleanor had married a man named Sidney Perkins and moved to Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where she mothered 3 children: Charles, Jeanne, and Betty.[27] After Eleanor’s passing, Charles’s go-getter demeanor had changed. His behavior could only be described as “incessantly melancholy” and he rarely ever spoke of his wife again.[28] When her life stopped, so did everything else. The old West Lancaster home was no longer the place it used to be, and it was soon going to transform to fit the modernization of the town. The plans to build a theater in Ardmore had been finalized, and it would stretch from 30 to 38 West Lancaster Avenue.[29] It was time to move once again.

This time, the family found themselves at 73 Cricket Avenue in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. This new home was far from what the Fredericks’ were used to. It was a smaller plot of land, and did not have the usual bells and whistles of their previous properties like stone buildings, stables, or winding driveways.[30] The increase of suburbanization in the Ardmore area made the area more dense and compact, leaving very little room for the huge estates that once existed. Charles continued his line of work as a contractor, but by the late 1920s, Ardmore had already begun to take its familiar suburban form of today, leaving very little room for improvement or change within the landscape.[31] With old age fast approaching, Charles began to invest his money in stocks and bonds, to benefit off of capital appreciation and dividend payments. He also began to receive money through mortgaged and rented dwellings throughout the immediate area.[32]  By 1930, Charles was 72 years old, and living with Aneita, who was now 22 years and single.[33] His age made him no longer fit for his previous career and lifestyle, and in 1931, he was struck with an illness. On January 27, 1932, Charles created a will that allocated $1,000 to each of his four children. In it, he appointed his youngest daughter as sole executor and trustee. As a result, “all the rest, residue and remainder of [his] estate, real, personal or mixed [ . . . ] give, devise and bequeath unto [his] executors and trustees”, thus placing Aneita in a curiously authoritative position, controlling any rent, income, dividends or profits after her father’s death. Frederick also specifically outlined that his profits should be divided quarterly into equal parts to his descendants. On March 15, 1932, Charles H. Frederick made a codicil to his January 27, 1932 will. Rather than giving each of his children $1,000 each, Frederick changed it to $5,000 to Henry, Eleanor, and Harriet. Yet he left a larger sum of $10,000 to his daughter, Aneita.[34] His codicil and appointment of Aneita as trustee stemmed from his total amount of savings he had accrued over the years, which amounted to approximately $82, 136. 44.  He left an extra $5,000 to Aneita in order for her to pursue her career in nursing, and she did.[35] After battling it for two years, Charles H. Frederick died from arteriosclerosis and complications on January 4, 1933. Arteriosclerosis can begin as early as childhood, and is a slow and progressive disease. The common causes of this deadly disease range from high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and smoking. Charles had picked up a fondness for tobacco after his wife’s death, a “repulsive habit” that likely led to his untimely end.[36]

By the end of Charles H. Frederick’s life, Ardmore, Pennsylvania had transformed into a land once settled with mostly farmland to a packed and booming suburban town. Starting from almost nothing, Charles had seen the budding of urban and industrial expansion within his hometown. Yet despite the violent opposition he had witnessed, Charles learned and understood the value of being a young, white, literate, American male. He “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” and began capitalizing off these strengths and the changing times in Pennsylvania. His early involvement in the expansion of the Lower Merion Township earned him popularity and affluence within his community. His inability to shy away from modernization and commitment to movement exemplifies the need to embrace societal changes in order to see success.

[1] The Lower Merion Historical Society. Lower Merion and Narberth. Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
[2] State Highway Department of Pennsylvania. List of Motor Vehicles Registrations and Licenses. 1917.

[3] H.F.Bridgens, Plan of the City of Reading (1860).

[4] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 9th Census (1870), Pennsylvania, Berks County, Reading Ward 6, Sheet 30.

[5] Anonymous. Telephone interview by the author. November 30, 2013. Interviewee was told that her great-great-great grandfather (Mona) used to bring home vegetables from crop yield. "In some ways, food was better than money".
[6] WGBH Educational Foundation. "The Panic of 1873." PBS.  

[7] The Reading Times Dispatch, "The Bloody 1877 Railroad Strike in Reading, Pa.," July 24, 1877.

[8] Haines, Michael R. "Long Term Marriage Patterns in the United States from Colonial Times to the Present.", National Bureau of Economic Research, November 16, 1995.

[9] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 9th Census (1870), Delaware, New Castle County, Brandywine Township, Sheet 12.

[10]U.S. Bureau of the Census, 10th Census (1880), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, Sheet 37.

[11] Ellis Kiser and C.A. Potts, Atlas of Lower Merion, Montgomery County Including Part of Delaware County, Overbrook Farms, Wynnefield & Overbrook Impr. Co., (Philadelphia, 1886), Plate 6.

[12] The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 January 1899, 6 col. c.

[13] County Court Reports Containing Cases Decided in the Courts of the Several Counties of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, PA: T. & J.W. & Co., 1899. 448-51.

[14]The Bulletin and Good Roads, 11 February 1899, 3 col. b.

[15] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 10th Census (1880), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township.

[16] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, Distrcit 0216, Sheet 4.

[17] Frederick, Harriet. Diary, September 22, 1900. Harriet recollects her grandfather "spouting nonsense" about the new roads.

[18] 12th Census (1900), District 0216, Sheet 4.

[19] Ellis Kiser, Atlas of Properties on Main Line: Pennsylvania Railroad from Overbrook to Paoli, (Philadelphia, 1908), Plate 8.

[20]The Lower Merion Historical Society. The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion. Diane Publishing Co., 2000.

[21] Ardmore Chronicle, 13 May 1905, 4 col. d.

[22] Suburban Directory 1907: Mainline District (Philadelphia, 1907), 65.

[23] Ellis Kiser, Atlas of Properties on Main Line: Pennsylvania Railroad from Overbrook to Paoli, (Philadelphia, 1908), Plate 8.

[24] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 13th Census (1910), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0096, Sheet 6.

[25] Toro, Ross. "Leading Causes of Death in the U.S." Chart. Live Science. June 30, 2012.

[26] University of Massachusetts. "Employment of Women, WWI." Forge of Innovation.

[27] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 14th Census (1920), Ohio, Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Ward 22, District 0430, Sheet 22.

[28] Anonymous. Telephone interview by the author. November 30, 2013. Interviewee was told by her great aunt (Aneita) that Charles had become “unbearably reticent”.

[29] Walk Ardmore! The Main Street of the Main Line. N.p.: Main Line Today, 2012.

[30] George W. and Walter S. Bromley, Atlas of Properties on Main Line: Pennsylvania Railroad from Overbrook to Paoli (Philadelphia, 1926), Plate 11

[31] Ibid.

[32] Death records (Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown)), RW 48577.

[33] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 15th Census (1930), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 70, Sheet 7.

[34] Wills (Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), RW 48577 (1933).

[35] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 16th Census (1940), Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, District 51-650, Sheet 4.

[36] Anonymous. Telephone interview by the author. November 30, 2013. Interviewee was told by her great aunt (Aneita) that Charles smoked.