Ardmore Project Suburban Life in the Early 20th Century

Franklin P Azpell

The life of Franklin P. Azpell and the Making of the Modern Businessman


Franklin P. Azpell was born into a poor, rural household. At his birth in 1854, his father was a farmer without any land of his own. He died when Franklin was six, forcing his mother to care for him and his siblings by herself. Frank—as he chose to be called—died the head of an urban, affluent household. At the time of his death in 1925, he owned a store on a busy thoroughfare that sold high-end music players. His estate was valued at over $92,000. If this ending seems improbable in light of his beginnings, it seems ridiculous in light of his profession. For the majority of his life, Azpell made and sold horse harnesses. Beginning by working under an experienced harness-maker in Radnor, he had moved to Ardmore after his marriage to start his own business. He would work in his Ardmore harness shop for over thirty years. Though the course of Frank’s life appears abrupt and random, a closer look at his life and work reveal a natural path to his commercial transformation. The life of Franklin Azpell was a model for the formation of the modern, urban, small-businessman.

Frank Azpell, born in Radnor in 1854, was brought up by a poor, rural family. Radnor Township in 1850 had a population of only 1,386 people.[1] Frank’s father, Richard J. Azpell, was a farmer who did not own any land.[2] Frank’s father was likely a tenant farmer or a farm laborer, working the land of a wealthier farmer or estate-owner in the area. Had things not changed, Frank may have ended up following in his father’s footsteps: working for richer farmers in the hope of perhaps gathering together enough money to buy some land for himself. But the death of Richard Azpell in July of 1861, just before Franklin’s seventh birthday, disrupted this rural lifestyle.[3] Frank’s mother Mary Azpell moved Frank, his older sister Cordelia, and his newborn sister Emma out of Radnor. By 1870, Frank was 16 years old and living with his mother and two sisters in neighboring Lower Merion Township. Born in a township of close to 1,400 people, Frank had moved to a growing area, which by 1870 contained almost 5,000 inhabitants.[4] Lower Merion was not by any means a city, but it may have seemed like it to Frank. The move was not permanent, but Lower Merion must have made an impression on him. After his marriage, he would decide to settle in the growing urban community of Ardmore.

Franklin would not forget his brief break from rural life, even as he moved back to Radnor. His mother Mary had done an amazing job raising him by herself. But as he approached a working age, it was important for Frank to learn how to make his own living. Sometime between 1870 and 1880, he had found a place to live and work. Because Azpell was already close to adulthood—he was 16 in 1870—he likely moved much closer to 1870 than 1880. But no matter the date of his exact departure, by 1880, he was a boarder in the house of a Radnor harness-maker named Barclay Hall. In exchange for a place to live and an education in the trade, Frank helped make harnesses in the shop.[5] Barclay’s harness shop (Figure 1) was located southwest of the “College of St. Thomas of Villanova,” at the intersection of Spring Mill Road, Old Lancaster Road, and Radnor & Chester Road. The business directory of the “1870 Radnor Township Atlas” defined Barclay’s occupation more specifically than the 1880 Census, listing him as a “saddle, harness and collar maker.”[6] Ten to fifteen years after his father’s death, Azpell had moved out of the house of his single mother to learn harness-making from an important rural tradesman.

In returning to Radnor, Frank Azpell found employment in a shop purposed to serve the needs of a rural community. Hall’s saddle, harness and collar shop was the only business in its intersection. In the whole 1870 Atlas, it is one of only four businesses total.[7] Not only were there few businesses in the area, Hall owned by far the least amount of land. His twelve acres appeared tiny in comparison to the surrounding estates, most of which were at least twenty-five acres. One nearby estate, owned by L. Ramey, was one-hundred and five acres.[8] Houses, and therefore inhabitants, were few and far between. It is obvious that Hall’s shop was in a rural community from Radnor’s lack of businesses and low population density. But more than that, the saddle, harness, and collar shop provided an inherently rural service. Horse travel was more important in an area where it took a long time just to reach the next house. Durable saddles and harnesses would have been prized more in long distances of the rural environment than in the close quarters of the urban. Furthermore, the horse collars that the business directory specifically mentioned were suited primarily for rural life. Horses used for plowing, pulling heavy carts, and dragging heavy objects would have needed a horse collar to allow them to pull at maximum efficiency. Horses in an urban environment, which most often pulled carriages, would not need a collar, or at least not a heavy-duty one. These harnesses were made for horses that performed hard labor. Barclay Hall’s shop, where Frank Azpell learned the harness trade, was a rural shop made to serve a rural community. When Azpell eventually established his own business, he would consciously separate his work from this kind of rural shop. But, the importance of Barclay Hall in his life should not be diminished. When Frank’s second son was born in 1889, he named him Barclay H. Azpell.[9]

After his years of training under Barclay Hall, Frank Azpell established himself in the much more populous community of Ardmore. He had a wife, Sallie, whom he married in 1882 and three children: George, Barclay, and Margaret.[10] Azpell’s occupation, harness-making, was essentially unchanged from that of his mentor. But, as he worked to establish his own store, his approach was completely different. In store location, advertisements, and social activities, Frank Azpell attempted to bring an urban commercial approach to a rural occupation.

The location of Frank’s harness business was completely different from where he had learned his trade. By 1896, Franklin Azpell owned a storefront on West Lancaster Turnpike (see figure 2). With that Lancaster location, Frank placed his business in the heart of a burgeoning commercial area. His shop was surrounded by other businesses including a stone cutter’s shop, and Charles Frederick’s contracting and road-building office. In contrast to Barclay Hall’s lonely intersection, Frank Azpell’s harness store was packed close to other lots.[11] In choosing this location, Azpell intended for his store to be more visible and accessible than his teacher’s. Where Barclay Hall’s shop would likely have required a horse to get to, Frank Azpell’s shop was open to foot traffic. Pedestrian access increased the likelihood of attracting people who just happened to be walking by. Azpell chose an urban location for the increased sale opportunities of an urban environment.  

Frank Azpell’s advertising in the local newspaper, The Ardmore Chronicle, made a clear distinction between his harness shop and the rural harness shop in which he been taught. Advertisements for Azpell’s harness shop appeared throughout the April 1904 editions of The Ardmore Chronicle (see an example: Figure 3). Azpell’s store was still involved in the harness business but its function had changed. He had simplified his shop’s description to “harness and horse goods,” instead of Barclay Hall’s “saddles, harnesses and collars”. While Azpell likely sold many of the same goods, he directed them towards a different audience. His advertisements appealed to an urban population with urban concerns. As an example, the horses featured in Azpell’s advertisement had blinders over their eyes. In a busy street, blinders kept horses from bolting at surprises that appeared in their peripheral vision. They would have been unnecessary in a rural environment where distractions were minimal. Azpell not only drew the horses in an urban context, but also in an urban fashion, directed towards an audience which valued style as much as substance. The two horses in his advertisements were not horses bred for hard labor. They were fashionably dressed in their harnesses. Though they wore the horse collars generally associated with the rural plow-horse, the collars had a decorative character. Lines swooped down the middle of the collar and they draped proudly on the horses’ chests. They were carriage horses, meant to look good while they were performing their duties. In the product description, Azpell emphasized that same point: his harnesses were made to “look well and wear well.”[12] Frank Azpell made harnesses for horses that would be paraded where people were watching. They were as much of a social statement as practical pieces of horse apparel. Azpell’s directed his advertisements to an urban audience, where fashion was just as important as function.

Azpell’s use of Ardmore’s urbanized social scene also emphasized his urban approach to a rural business. Early in his career, Azpell was a force in the Ardmore business community. Hucksters, selling imitation goods at cheap prices, were disrupting businesses in the area. The county had laws against this activity, but was not doing its job in enforcing them. Azpell called other business leaders in the area to a meeting at his store where they formulated a plan to force the county to act.[13] Frank used social connections in the urban business community to further his commercial interests. The organization of business leaders was more influential than any business acting alone. He also involved his business in Ardmore’s social events. By participating in public events, for instance donating a “set of harness” to the Fire Department’s parade, Azpell gained publicity for his products as well as improving his business’ public image. [14] From urban social events like parades and social connections derived from the density of urban businesses, Frank Azpell adapted a distinctly rural business to an urban setting. In the process, Azpell broke from the traditional artisanal nature of his occupation. Where harness-makers like Barclay Hall would have been most skilled at making things, Azpell’s greatest skill was selling things. Azpell’s would need this commercial gift when his business came under threat.

Sometime between 1910 and 1920, Frank Azpell transformed his business. With the emergence of the auto industry, horse harnesses had ceased to be a profitable venture. By 1920, Frank and his son Barclay—who had stayed at home to work with his father—had become Victrola salesmen.[15] While it is tempting to view Azpell as the victim of economic forces beyond his control, his business aptitude and choice of product reveal a different reality. Azpell's business transformation was not a radical departure from his previous life. Instead, it was a continuation of his commercial trajectory.

Frank Azpell, as a result of the proximity of his West Lancaster shop to Ardmore’s Auto Co. factory, physically experienced the growth of the auto industry. This rapid growth was illustrated in the Main Line Atlases from 1896-1920 (see figure 4). In 1896, when land on West Lancaster first appears under Franklin Azpell’s name, there is no Auto Car Co. In 1900, the Auto factory occupied a lot that was separated from Frank’s harness shop by an equally-sized Merion Engine HQ. In 1913, little of the separation between Azpell’s shop and the Auto Car Co. remained. By 1920, the Auto Car Co. had swallowed up Azpell’s harness shop.[16] The physical growth of the factory mirrored the growth of the industry’s commercial presence in Ardmore. In April 1904, when The Ardmore Chronicle featured an Azpell harness advertisement in all but one issue, there were no articles or advertisements even indirectly mentioning cars.[17] Ten years later, as the factory neared Azpell’s harness shop, each industry’s presence in the newspaper had flipped. Frank no longer had advertisements in The Ardmore Chronicle. But in the May 2, 1914 edition of The Ardmore Chronicle, advertisements for every aspect of car ownership littered its pages. Slogans advertised “everything for the motor car” and companies pushed “automobiles to hire,” and “automobile insurance.” An article in the paper even read like a car advertisement. Entitled “Auto a Necessity,” the article began with this sweeping, but so far prescient, declaration about cars: “that they will ever go out of style or out of use is beyond consideration.”[18] By 1914, automobiles had become such of an important part of life in Ardmore that, according to one Ardmore Chronicle writer, it would not be possible to think of life without them. As the fortunes of cars waxed, the fortunes of Azpell’s harness shop waned. If he wanted to pass on a profitable business to his son, Frank knew he had to change.

Frank Azpell’s decision to sell Victrolas was not the desperate decision of an artisan whose trade was no longer valued. It was instead the decision of a businessman who had found a more profitable product to invest in. Throughout the late 1900s, Azpell had shown that his business skills were not limited to selling harnesses. Azpell was involved in the real estate boom along the Main Line. In 1907, an article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer titled: “Building on the Main Line.” Under the sub-heading “Considerable Business in Real Estate,” the article mentioned Frank Azpell, describing five houses he had built in Ardmore that would “rent for a moderate sum.”[19] In 1907, Azpell was still a harness-maker. But, that did not stop him from seizing business opportunities when they were available. Presented with the opportunity to profit from a real estate investment, Azpell took it. Frank showed a similar diversity of economic interests in the assets revealed upon his death. Azpell had, to name a few, a $2000 bond for the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia, 150 shares in the Mexican United Mining Company, and even, shares of the Hartford Automobile Parts Co. At his death in 1925, his estate was valued at $92, 287.[20] Frank likely could not have gathered this much wealth in just the years following his choice to begin selling Victrolas. When he changed his business, his financial situation was comfortable enough to invest in new products without having an outstanding amount of debt. Azpell’s finances indicate that his decision was based less on averting financial disaster and more on investing in the future.

Frank Azpell’s choice to specifically sell Victrolas echoed choices he made earlier in his business career. The Victrola was a product of the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1906, it was the first phonograph to put the iconic horn inside of the cabinet. In doing so, the Victor Company hoped that their talking machine would be “accepted, like the piano, as a fine piece of furniture.”[21] After several years, the Victrola took off. The machine was so popular that it became shorthand for any kind of music-playing machine.[22] The Victor Talking Machine Company also made sure to support it with a steady stream of high demand records. In 1914 alone, they manufactured approximately 23 million discs. [23] The Victrola was more than just a high-demand investment; owning a Victrola was a fashionable statement. For the people who had a Victrola in their parlor, “it had become a symbol of affluence and good taste.” [24] Just like a nice piano in the living room, the Victrola was designed to be seen, just as much as heard. This marriage of style and substance was precisely what Frank Azpell was used to selling. His advertisements in the April, 1904 Ardmore Chronicle struck the same chord. Just as an Azpell harness was meant to “look well and wear well,” an Azpell Victrola would look well and play well. In a simple 1923 advertisement in The Villanovan (see Figure 5), Azpell would describe his shop as “Main Line Home of the Victor.” The statement appears rather innocuous. But, for the average customer, an association with the Victor name would have been all Azpell needed to do to sell the idea of fashion and function. The business may have changed, but the businessman did not.

When Franklin Azpell was young, it was enough for a small-business owner to be an artisan: someone who merely learned his trade and plied it well. By the turn of the century however, this was beginning to change. In the early 20th century, as a result of the popularization of newer technologies like the automobile, it was no longer enough for a business owner just to be competent in a trade; technology might soon displace it. The modern economy required a set of financial skills that would be adaptable to changing products. The life of Frank Azpell was the perfect model for this transformation. As a young man from a rural background, Azpell lived with a tradesman and learned as best he could. But, as he moved into the growing community of Ardmore, urban circumstances forced him to adapt his rural business. In doing so, Azpell acquired valuable business skills in selling his products and managing his business’ image. When the automobile took off and his trade suddenly lost value, Azpell had not lost everything; he still had his ability to sell. Finding an investment that would sell well in a growing affluent community, he established a new business in the commercial tradition of the old. By the time of his death, he could rest well passing off his business to his son. Born into a world of tradesmen, Azpell left a businessman.

- Colin Owens

[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 7th Census (1850), Pennsylvania, Delaware County, Radnor Township.

Note: All population figures from the census are estimates, derived from multiplying the number of sheets by the number of entries per sheet. They will almost always be slight over-estimates.

[2] Ibid. Sheet 225B.

[3] Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records, Reel: 1007.

[4] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 9th Census (1870), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, Sheet 482A and Sheets 481A – 542A.

[5] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 10th Census (1880), Pennsylvania, Delaware County, Radnor Township, Sheet 16C.

[6] Delaware County History, Radnor Atlas, 1870.

[7] Ibid.

[8] G.M. Hopkins, Atlas of Bryn Mawr and Vicinity or of Properties Along thePennsylvania R.R., (Philadelphia, 1881), Plate 11.  

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

[10] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 13th Census (1910), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, Sheet 13B. and 12th Census (1900), Lower Merion Township, Sheet 1A.

[11] Ellis Kiser and C.A. Potts, Atlas of Lower Merion, Montgomery County Including Part of Delaware County and Overbrook Farms, (Philadelphia, 1896), Plate 6.

[12] Ardmore Chronicle, 2 April 1904, 3 col. d.

[13] “Against the Hucksters Montgomery County Dealers Organize for Self Protection,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 Aug 1891, Page 5.

[14]“Plans for Fireman’s Fair,” Ardmore Chronicle, 10 Sept 1904, 1 col. g.

[15] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 14th Census (1920), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, Sheet 2A.

[16] Atlas of Lower Merion, (Philadelphia, 1896), Plate 6;                             

    E.V. Smith, Atlas of Properties Along the Pennsylvania R.R. Embracing 1 to 4 miles Each Side of the Road and From Overbrook to Malvern Station, (Philadelphia, 1900), Plate 11;

   Ellis Kiser and J.M. Lathrop, Atlas of Properties on Main Line Pennsylvania Railroad From Overbrook to Paoli, (Philadelphia, 1913), Plate 11;

   Ellis Kiser and J.M. Lathrop, Atlas of Properties on Main Line Pennsylvania Railroad From Overbrook to Paoli, (Philadelphia, 1920), Plate 11.

[17] Ardmore Chronicle,  2 April 1904, p. 3;  16 April 1904, p. 2;  23 April 1904, p. 2;  30 April 1904, p. 2.

[18] Ardmore Chronicle. 2 May 1914.  p. 8, col. A.

[19] “Building on the Main Line.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 April 1907, p. 3.

[20] Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), Transfer Inheritance Tax Appraisement,  RW 40081.

[21] Gelatt, Roland, The Fabulous Phonograph (1877-1977), 2nd Edition, (New York, 1977), 146.

[22] Millard, A. J., America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound, (Cambridge, 1996), 131.

[23] Ibid. 133.

[24] Ibid. 131.


1870 Radnor Atlas

(Figure 1) Source: Radnor Atlas. 1870


Azpell's Shop on Lancaster

(Figure 2) Source: Atlas of Lower Merion, 1896


Ardmore Chronicle Advertisement

(Figure 3) April 2, 1904 Ardmore Chronicle

1896, 1900, 1913 and 1920 Main Line Atlases

(Figure 4) Sources: Main Line Atlases (Clockwise from top-left) 1896, 1900, 1913, 1920

Villanovan Advertisement

(Figure 5) Villanovan Advertisement. December 1922