Ardmore Project Suburban Life in the Early 20th Century

Emma Hamilton

College Graduate, Activist, Spinster, 20th Century Woman

Emma F. Hamilton was born to Richard Joseph Hamilton, Sr. and Annie (née Hess) on January 18, 1881 in Pennsylvania, and she continued to reside in the Lower Merion Township of southeastern Pennsylvania up until her death on September 20, 1944.[1] For the vast majority of her life she lived at 50 Linwood Avenue, Ardmore, PA with her parents and her siblings. Emma was the second youngest member of her family, being eighth out of nine children. But according to the earliest census return in which Emma is listed (1900), only four of her siblings were still alive at the start of the twentieth century.[2] In 1900, Emma resided at 50 Linwood Ave. with her two older brothers, Richard J. Hamilton and Henry Hamilton, and her younger sister Alice Edna Hamilton.[3] Her elder sister, Mary, had married Andrew Jackson Young and lived across the street from the Hamiltons. Emma’s family also retained a servant named Amanda Wood, at this time.[4] The presence of a servant indicates that the Hamiltons were fairly affluent, and likely members of the upper-middle class. Another indicator of their wealth was the fact that they lived in Ardmore, which is a town along the Philadelphia “Main Line.” The Main Line is a collection of relatively prosperous suburbs outside West Philadelphia that are concentrated around the eponymous Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Many of Philadelphia’s elite moved to these suburbs during the late nineteenth, including the Hamilton family. But the Hamiltons were not members of the older elite class that had roots in Pennsylvania for many generations. Instead, they were part of a newer class of self-made immigrants who worked their way up the social ladder to accumulate wealth. Richard J. Hamilton Senior was an example of such an individual. His success as an oak cooper allowed his family to lead a comfortable and privileged lifestyle. This newfound wealth, however, did not come without some initial loss.

Emma’s father, Richard J. Hamilton, was born on February 2, 1838 to Mary and Richard Owen Hamilton, in Philadelphia, PA, and he was the oldest of five children.[5] His father, Richard Owen, was born in Ireland and his mother, Mary, was born in Scotland; and they likely immigrated to the United States sometime between 1840 and 1844, according to naturalization data.[6] Richard Owen Hamilton probably did not make a lot of money as a bottler, which was his listed profession on the 1850 census record.[7] He also did not have much time to accumulate wealth as he passed away in 1853. Richard J.’s mother, Mary, passed away shortly thereafter in 1855, leaving him and his four siblings orphans. Richard was only seventeen years old at this point. But by the time that the 1860 census enumerator came around, Richard had established a successful cooperage business (i.e. barrel and cask manufacturing) in Philadelphia.[8] He had triumphed against the odds of being an orphan and being a second generation Irish/Scottish immigrant in mid-nineteenth century America. A few years later, in 1865, he married Emma’s mother, Mary “Annie” Hess, and they started their life together in Philadelphia.[9] Meanwhile, his cooperage business was steadily growing, and he opened its branches throughout Europe, Australia, Africa, and South America. (In fact, by the time of his death in 1912, his cooperage business was one of the largest in the world.) With this increasing wealth and prosperity, he was able to move his family from Philadelphia to the suburbs along the affluent Main Line, specifically to Merion Square (also known as Gladwyne) by 1878. He now had enough wealth to retain a servant. Along with this property in Merion Square, he later purchased the property at 50 Linwood Avenue in Ardmore, which was where his family spent the majority of their lives. Soon after this move, in 1881, Emma F. Hamilton was born.[10]

Not only did the Hamiltons’ wealth situate them within a prosperous social sphere, but Richard Hamilton’s participation and leadership positions in several associations also led to the family’s renowned reputation. Among several positions, in 1895 The Democratic Association of Lower Merion elected him as one of its vice presidents; in 1903 the Lower Merion Township Commissioners appointed him onto their legislative committee; by his death in 1912, he was president of the Lower Merion Building and Loan Association, a director for the Bryn Mawr National Bank and a director of the Merion Title and Trust Company.[11]Furthermore, ever since Emma was a young child, her family was frequently cited in the Philadelphia Inquirer for their social activities. For example, in 1893, they were going to visit the World’s Fair; in 1895, they attended the annual meeting and social gathering of the Ladies’ Aid Society that was hosted by Mrs. Herbert A. Arnold; in 1898, Richard Hamilton built a shelter shed near his cooperage business in Philadelphia; in 1899 he and his family participated in a theatrical event portraying the Gibson pictures.[12] Specifically in regards to Emma, one of the earliest articles was published when she was 13 years old, and said that she and a group of friends threw a surprise party for Miss Eva May France of Bryn Mawr; another mention, barely three years later, explained that “A party of young people from Bryn Mawr and Ardmore drove over to the home of Miss Emma Hamilton.”[13] Other examples of Emma’s mention in society were her attending the wedding of Miss Elizabeth Bellangee in December 1897, her friend, Amanda Morris, returning from visiting Emma in 1898, her picnicking in Valley Forge with a small group of friends in 1899, and her attending a dinner party in 1900.[14] These frequent mentions showed that the Hamiltons were popular and held in high regard within the Ardmore community and were also wealthy enough to be included in many of the social gatherings in the area, even though they did not come from elite families of old wealth (of whom there were often many illustrations in the newspaper).

But out of all of these events, the 1895 gathering for the Ladies’ Aid Society deserves special attention. Firstly, the article listed at least three members of Emma’s family as being in attendance: her parents and her sister Mary (named as Mrs. A.J. Young).[15] Secondly, this demonstrated that the Hamilton family was very receptive of women’s rights in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Another indicator of the avant-garde position the Hamiltons held in regards to gender equality was in their sending both Emma and her younger sister, Alice Edna, to Swarthmore College to receive Bachelor of Arts degrees.[16] Considering that only a minority of females received a college education at that time (less than 20% according to census summaries for 1900), this was certainly quite an accomplishment.[17] Hence, both Richard J. and Annie Hamilton were supporters of the female’s right to have an education, for they would not have sent both of their daughters to receive a high level of education if they believed otherwise. In regards to Emma, yearbook records revealed that she was a sophomore in 1902, thus she was most probably away at college from 1900-1904.[18] In contrast to the many mentions of Emma in the 1890’s, there is a hiatus from 1900-1906; the majority of this break is possibly a consequence of her time away at college. By attaining a college degree, Emma took her first major step, albeit quietly in the absence of newspaper articles, in breaking the mold of the stereotypical middle-class female. But beginning in 1907, Emma F. Hamilton returns with a vengeance.

Emma’s college education was only the start of her active participation in the women’s rights movement, which was slowly permeating throughout the U.S. in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. She was 23 years old when she graduated from Swarthmore, and she could have easily settled into the typical domestic life of a housewife by getting married, having kids, and supporting her husband and household. But Emma did not do any of these things and took her second, and even bolder, step towards breaking the aforementioned mold; she valued her own independence above reliance on a spouse and headed down the path of becoming a spinster. Indeed, all of the more than two dozen articles that mention Emma after 1906, apart from her father’s 1912 obituary, revolved around her participation in the Ardmore Woman’s Club. These began with an article published on February 18, 1907, when Emma was 25 years old and the treasurer of this club, entitled “Women are Planning Agriculture Day: Production of Eggs and High Prices of Farm Products Among Topics for Discussion.”[19] Regarding the members of this club, the article claimed that the Woman’s Club of Montgomery County is “an organization of well-known Main Line women…the members are Main Line matrons, well-known both in Philadelphia and the suburbs,” which is in congruence with Emma’s social sphere as aforementioned. The club had called both men and women, including State Zoologist Dr. H. A. Surface, to Agricultural Day to discuss the scientific improvements necessary to raise and maintain fowl to meet the demand for eggs. It is interesting that these women were tackling issues that affect their entire community with modern science, not just women-centered issues.[20]

Emma then climbed through the ranks and became president between then and October 5, 1907, as reported by the article about the first session of the club year, for which approximately 100 people were in attendance.[21] An intriguing fact is that this reception and tea was held in the newly erected Young Men’s Christian Association building, where the Woman’s Club of Ardmore obtained new quarters. The YMCA of Ardmore was an association that explicitly had a target audience of young men over 16 years of age, as per a 1904 article in the Ardmore Chronicle.[22] Over the years, the “Y” slowly started welcoming women to its lectures and events, but its main aim was still to focus on young men. Between 1905 and 1907, not only did the YMCA change their headquarters from the Merion Title & Trust Company to their own building, but it appears that they also changed who they allowed into their organization. The Woman’s Club of Ardmore continued using the YMCA building for several of their events including a musical and social function in January 1908, regular sessions as in October 1908 and April 1909, a literary event in February 1909 (that was praised as being “one of the most profitable ever held”), and another theatre production named “A Scrap of Paper” in February 1909.[23] Emma clearly dedicated a significant portion of her life to broadening the role women played in the local Ardmore community and the Philadelphia area at large, especially since the events held by the Woman’s Club were so popular and well-received.

Then in May 1909, after one and half years at the helm, Emma Hamilton retired as president and took the position of director, along with Mrs. R. H. John and Mrs. H. J. Wightman.[24] To replace Emma, Mrs. Andrew Macdonald was elected president. Despite not being president, Emma remained active and involved in the activities of the Woman’s Club, a prime example of which was seen in her fundraising efforts for the Ardmore Free Public Library. An article from July 25, 1909 detailed how the members of Woman’s Club turned down Andrew Carnegie’s $5000 offer to build a library, instead wanting to raise the money themselves.[25] One of the ways they planned to raise this money was a “mid-summer fete,” which several women including Emma organized. Though it would have been easier for the women to simply accept Carnegie’s proposition, they showed their determination and self-reliance in fundraising the money on their own. A potential factor of their declining the $5000 (over $100,000 in 2013 dollars) could be their unwillingness to play into the “damsel in distress” stereotype. The women of Ardmore’s Woman’s Club proved their competence and independence from men. This is quite possibly very similar to the train of thought that led Emma to stay unmarried (i.e. a spinster) throughout her life. Emma’s younger sister, Alice Edna, who was also college educated, followed in Emma’s steps and also remained a spinster.

In addition to Emma’s potential desire for going against the middle class house-wife paradigm, there were also dramatic changes in Emma’s life that may have led her to staying unmarried. By the year after the campaign for the Ardmore Free Library began, the Hamilton family dynamic had changed such that Emma’s older brother, Richard, had married and moved to a nearby house on Linwood Avenue with his wife and children.[26] Emma’s second brother, Henry, had also married, but he continued living in the same house with his wife, Margaret, his parents and his sisters. The more dramatic event in Emma’s life was the passing of her father, Richard J. Hamilton, on October 11, 1912. According to his obituary published the day after his death, he had heart disease for several years but his health seemed to be improving; hence, his death was a surprise to his family.[27] In fact, he and his wife had recently sailed to Boston on the Merchants and Miners’ Line steamer, which they certainly would not have done if he was in failing health.[28] After Emma’s father’s death, there is another decrease in articles about Emma. There are actually only three brief mentions of Emma from 1911-1917, two in which she acted as a hostess to Woman’s club events and one where she was a guest at the Yacht Club Centre.[29] However, her mother, Annie Hamilton, stepped up to the plate.

By attending the Ladies’ Aid Society meeting in 1895, Annie Hamilton displayed her initial proclivity towards equality for women. Then there is a large gap between 1895 and when she acted as a hostess for a meeting of the Ardmore Woman’s Club in 1911.[30] One would think that after her husband’s death and because of her own age (she was 71 when Richard J. passed away), she would retire completely from the social sphere. Annie Hamilton, however, did nothing of the sort. She actually became even more involved in the women’s rights movement. Annie was the president of the Woman’s Club in 1915 and oversaw much of the fundraising for the aforesaid Ardmore Free Library; she also represented Ardmore at a state-wide meeting of every woman’s club in Pennsylvania in 1916; a May 1917 article described her as a leading Main Line suffragist who sought to arrange community canning centers.[31] Annie Hamilton was still the president of the Woman’s Club when all the hard work of the club had culminated in her laying down the cornerstone of the Ardmore Free Library building on June 2, 1917.[32] Annie was not only an active member of the Woman’s Club but she also played her part in maintaining the Hamilton’s position in society in events such as the launching of a cargo carrier from Hog Island in 1919 and hosting a party in 1922.[33]

In contrast to Annie, whose age was approaching the mid-70’s by this point, Emma only had two mentions around this time: one when the cornerstone for the library was laid in 1917 and another when she hosted a party for the Woman’s Club in 1922.[34] This sharp decline in articles about Emma after 1911 may be attributed to a few reasons. First, she already had her tenure as president of the Ardmore Woman’s Club and may have felt it best to step back and allow others to be at the helm. Second, Emma was probably emotionally affected by the changing dynamics of her family, especially the death of her father. Third, after the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted women the right to vote, Emma may have thought that the major goal of the women’s rights movement had been accomplished and her active participation was no longer necessary. Furthermore, between the 1910 and 1920 census returns, Emma’s family size was cut in half, due to the passing of her father and the moving out of Henry and his wife, Margaret, leaving only her mother, sister, and herself.[35] (However, the Hamiltons employed a new servant at this time, Mary McGready, who stayed with them for at least two decades, since the census returns indicated her living with the Hamiltons in 1930 and 1940. Emma even left $500 to Ms. McGready in her will, which showed that they had a close relationship.)[36] Then in 1927, the matriarch of the family, Annie Hamilton, passed away leaving only Emma, Edna, and their servant, Ms. McGready, as residents of 50 Linwood Avenue.[37]

There were no further newspaper articles that refer to either of the surviving Hamilton sisters. Because a similar silence was also seen after Richard J. Hamilton’s death, the passing of Emma’s mother likely was an overwhelmingly emotional time for Emma. In fact, the only other document that detailed Emma’s life was a passenger list dated for the year immediately after her mother’s death. In 1928, Emma took a trip to Le Havre, France and returned to New York, NY.[38] It is possible that the passing away of her mother was such an overwhelming experience that she needed a change in environment. Or perhaps there was some link to her visit and her father’s international branches of his cooperage business. Regardless, Emma returned to 50 Linwood Ave., Ardmore and lived there for her remaining two decades of life with her sister as the only family member who lived with her.[39] Though Emma had still been able to marry, she did not do so. This could be a continuation of her potential belief in the independence and self-reliance of women. Additionally, she may have been influenced by the strength displayed by her widowed mother after Richard J. Hamilton’s death. Annie Hamilton was no damsel in distress, and her dedication to work and incredible spirit would have reinforced the self-reliant ideals advanced by feminism, and would have added further fuel to Emma’s passion for breaking against the middle-class housewife stereotype.

The only member of the Hamilton family who was still an active participant in society was Emma’s brother Richard Hamilton, who lived only a few houses from Emma and Alice Edna. He continued in his father’s footsteps and was the president of the Merion Title and Trust Company.[40] Furthermore, in 1919 he was elected as chairman of the new management committee that oversaw the Lower Merion Young Men’s Christian Association.[41] Since the people who were at the head of the “Y” were often wealthy members and leaders of their communities, Richard Hamilton’s position exhibited a continuation of his father’s hard earned legacy. Though Emma did not live with any family aside from Alice Edna, it is assumed that she had close interactions with her brother, Richard Hamilton, and her nephews since, in her will, she left a decent portion of her fortune of $32,454.66 to her brother and his children.[42] She also bequeathed a significant sum of this money to her sister, Alice Edna, since Richard and she were the only living siblings Emma had by the time of her death on September 20, 1944.

Though Emma Hamilton never had a waged profession according to census records, she had a small fortune in her will, as her aforesaid wealth of more than $32,000 in 1944 is worth more than half a million dollars today, accounting for inflation. The source of this money constituted of savings bonds, investments, trust certificates from the Merion Title & Trust Company, and the $20,000 inheritance from her father’s cooperage business.[43] In addition to a list of the sources of her wealth, the Orphans Court records for Emma also provided an inventory of all of the items in her house at 50 Linwood Avenue; these showed that she lived in a two story house with three bedrooms, and a significant portion of the furniture was made from mahogany wood.[44] Moreover, given that four out five censuses with Emma Hamilton listed a servant residing with the Hamiltons, all of this is evidence of a comfortably wealthy, though not necessarily elite, lifestyle.[45] This upper-middle class life was possible because of the hard work of Emma’s father, Richard Hamilton Sr, who was a second generation Irish/Scottish that managed to establish an extremely successful cooperage business. Both Richard Hamilton Sr. and his wife, Annie, cultivated a strong sense of women’s equality and independence in Emma. If it were not for the wealth left behind by her father and the feminist values passed on by her mother, perhaps Emma would have been forced to enter the domestic housewife role she had eschewed. In reality, though, when Emma F. Hamilton passed away, she defied the stereotypical mold society established for her and lived as a strong, independent woman of the early 1900’s.

[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 16th Census (1940), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 46-98, Sheet 9B.

[2] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0211, Sheet 1A.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 7th Census (1850), Pennsylvania, Moyamensing Ward 2, Philadelphia, PA, Sheet 264B.

[6] Philadelphia Naturalization Records, 1844, Database Online.

[7] 7th Census (1850), Moyamensing Ward 2, Sheet 264B.

[8] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 8th Census (1860), Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Ward 3, Philadelphia, PA, Sheet 317.

[9]Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 October 1912, pg 1.

[10] 12th Census (1900), District 0211, Sheet 1A.

[11]Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 December 1902, pg 3; 24 April 1903, pg 3, 12 October 1912, pg 1.

[12]Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 October 1893, pg 13; 22 December 1895, pg 30; 18 November 1898, pg 12; 4 November 1899, pg 5.

[13]Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 May 1894, pg 23; 10 October 1897, pg 39.

[14]Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 October 1897, pg 39; 5 December 1897, pg 34; 14 August 1898, pg 29; 30 July 1899, pg 8; 4 March 1900, pg 16.

[15]Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 December 1895, pg 30.

[16] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0211, Sheet 1A; U.S. School Yearbooks, Halcyon, Swarthmore College, 1902, pg 47; Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 June 1906, pg 3.

[17] Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial Edition, 1900, pg 411.

[18] U.S. School Yearbooks, Halcyon, Swarthmore College, 1902, pg 47.

[19]Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 February 1907, pg 3.

[20]Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 February 1907, pg 3.

[21]Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 October 1907, pg 3.

[22]Ardmore Chronicle, 5 March 1904, pg 1, column 3.

[23]Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 January 1908, pg 3; 3 October 1908, pg 6; 21 February 1909, pg 6; 24 February 1909, pg 11; 14 April 1909, pg 3.

[24]Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 May 1909, pg 3.

[25]Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 July 1909, pg 4.

[26] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 13th Census (1910), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0095, Sheet 11B.

[27]Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 October 1912, pg 1.

[28]Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 August 1910, pg 4.

[29]Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 May 1911, pg 10; 26 June 1911, pg 3; 27 July 1913, pg 13.

[30]Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 February 1911, pg 3.

[31]Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 August 1915, pg 3; 13 January 1916, pg 3; 7 May 1917, pg 3.

[32]Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 June 1917, pg 15.

[33]Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 July 1919, pg 5; 12 March 1922, pg 6.

[34]Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 June 1917, pg 15; 23 April 1922, pg 8.

[35] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 14th Census (1920), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0109, Sheet 6B.

[36] 16th Census (1940), District 46-98, Sheet 9B; Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), RW 63895 (1944).

[37] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 15th Census (1930), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0070, Sheet 7A.

[38] New York Passenger Lists (1928), line 24, pg 206.

[39] 16th Census (1940), District 46-98, Sheet 9B.

[40]Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 August 1919, pg 2.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), RW 63895 (1944).

[43] Ibid.

[44] Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), OC 49438 (1944).

[45] 12th Census (1900), District 0211, Sheet 1A; 14th Census (1920), District 0109, Sheet 6B; 15th Census (1930), District 0070, Sheet 7A.16th Census (1940), District 46-98, Sheet 9B.