Ardmore Project Suburban Life in the Early 20th Century

Harriet Donnelly

A Tale of Twelve Cities

In the early twentieth century, Ardmore had many prominent citizens, including leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, influential politicians, and decorated war veterans. Newspapers and documents of the time period extensively shared these figures’ stories, which remained an integral part of the early history of Ardmore. Through these primary sources, the history of Ardmore focused on the perspective of these white, privileged citizens who lived in Ardmore for most of their lives. However, Ardmore’s proximity to the major cities of Philadelphia and New York, along with its network of roads, trains, and trolleys, facilitated migration to the suburbs and attracted people from all over the world. Although a large percentage of Ardmore’s population in 1920 was born in Pennsylvania, over forty percent of the residents came from other states and countries, underscoring that Ardmore was a hub of migration and diversity, rather than the homogenous town that the history of Ardmore’s most prominent citizens suggested.[1] Interestingly, these migratory citizens did not receive the same amount of attention in the literature of the time, and conducting historical research on these mobile figures proves more difficult. This lack of exploration about the migrants leads to notable silences in analyzing the history of Ardmore and neglects the perspective of this large, important group of residents. By researching a late migrant to Ardmore, her displacement from her home, and her changes in family and fortune throughout her life, historians can include the perspectives of mobile, migratory residents in the history of Ardmore.

Harriet A. Donnelly, a southern-born woman who settled in Ardmore for only the last twenty-five years of her life, represented this migratory part of the Ardmore population. Exemplifying mobility in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Harriet Donnelly traveled to at least twelve major cities and regions. Harriet Donnelly was a widow and a mother who appears in very little of the literature of Ardmore and the other places in which she lived. Due to the relatively little information about Harriet Donnelly from her will and local newspapers such as the Ardmore Chronicle, researching her requires filling in gaps by researching other family members, such as her husband and her sisters, through additional sources, such as the U.S. Census and marriage records. Harriet’s constant migration throughout her life serves as an extreme example of both the locational and economic mobility that many citizens of Ardmore in 1920 experienced before settling permanently in the suburbs.

Harriet A. Donnelly was born as Harriet A. Featherston in August 1842, in Virginia.[2] Harriet’s parents were Richard Featherston and Phoebe Cogbill, though Richard died before Harriet was eight years old.[3] The second-youngest of the family, Harriet had two older brothers, Jon and Robert, and three sisters, Elizabeth, Mary, and Martha.[4] All members of Harriet’s immediate family were born in Virginia, and all of the women eventually migrated to the North.[5] Harriet’s experience with migration started at a young age, for her family moved often to different towns within Virginia. In 1850, Harriet lived in Amelia, Virginia, but she also spent much of her childhood in Petersburg, near the Appomattox River.[6] Like 15% of antebellum southern families, the Featherstons were small-scale slave owners with fewer than eight slaves.[7] Harriet’s family owned between four and seven slaves, which suggests that her economic status would likely have been classified as middle class.[8] Though the Featherstons’ livelihood would have been agricultural rather than suburban and industrialized, this middle class status is like many of the residents of Ardmore in 1920.[9]  Like most of the residents in Ardmore in 1920, Harriet was a white woman, and she was able to read and write English.[10]

On July 20, 1858, when Harriet was sixteen, she married Daniel K. Donnelly in Wake, North Carolina.[11] Daniel Donnelly was born in Pennsylvania, and he was about eleven years Harriet’s senior.[12] Although there was often a large age gap between husbands and wives in early twentieth-century Ardmore, women did not usually marry at the age of 16 and often did not marry or bear children until their twenties or early thirties.[13] By contrast, Harriet bore her first son, Edward, in 1860, rendering her a much younger mother than most of those on the Main Line and tying her identity to wifehood and motherhood from a much younger age.[14] The Donnelly family, which included Harriet, Daniel, baby Edward, and Martha Featherston, lived together briefly in North Carolina.[15] Harriet migrated from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in 1861 or 1862, the start of the Civil War.[16] Harriet’s specific motivation for migrating is unknown; she may have wanted to escape the burgeoning war, she may have been forced to leave her home, or her husband may have wanted to return to his home in the North. By 1870, Harriet’s mother and Harriet’s three sisters lived in the same home in Philadelphia, which suggests that the Featherston family migrated together due to the war, or they may not have been able to sustain themselves after the abolition of slavery.[17] Another possibility is that because Daniel Donnelly worked in the trades as a carpenter before becoming a professional contractor, he may have seen greater economic opportunities in the industrial North than the agrarian South.[18] Aside from the Featherston family’s exodus from the South, Daniel’s search for better prospects and socio-economic mobility may have propelled the Donnelly’s family’s constant locational mobility.

Whereas Harriet’s place of residence in Pennsylvania in the 1860s is unknown, Harriet and her family lived in Philadelphia by 1868.[19] In 1862, Harriet bore her second son, William, and in 1868, Harriet had her only biological daughter, Mary.[20] In 1870, the Donnelly family lived next door to Harriet’s mother (Phoebe Featherston), Harriet’s three sisters (Elizabeth Lumpkin, Mary Featherston, and Martha Featherston), and Harriet’s six nieces and nephews.[21] In early twentieth-century Ardmore, it was common for extended families to live together in one house or in close proximity to each other, and Harriet demonstrated the importance of both the nuclear and extended family in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[22]

After migrating from the slave-owning South to Philadelphia, Harriet’s economic status decreased. In 1870, the Donnelly family’s personal estate was held in Daniel’s name and had a net worth of $204, which was low compared to the rest of their Philadelphia neighborhood.[23] In 1870, Daniel Donnelly still worked as a house carpenter, while Harriet’s occupation was “keeping house.”[24] At this point in her life, Harriet likely had little to do with the family’s personal finances, because she did not own property and did not work outside of her home. Based on this census data, Harriet Donnelly fit the mold of the lower middle class woman in the late nineteenth century and many of the middle-aged women in early twentieth-century Ardmore: a homemaker, a wife, and a mother.

By 1880, Harriet Donnelly lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with her husband Daniel, her three children, and a servant named Annie Graham.[25] The presence of the servant suggests that Harriet’s migration to Atlantic City coincided with a higher socio-economic status, even though Daniel’s occupation remained the same.[26] In the meantime, Harriet’s sister, Martha, had married William Scott, a carpenter born in England, and moved to Jersey City, New Jersey.[27] Notably, the two Virginia-born sisters lived in the same household or state for much of their lives, underscoring their close relationship. Both Harriet and Martha also had children who died tragically at a young age. Harriet’s daughter Mary died on April 19, 1886, at the age of 18, due to unknown causes.[28] Similarly, on May 30, 1890, Martha’s fourteen year-old daughter, Maggie Scott, died at Daniel Donnelly’s home.[29] It is unclear how Maggie died or why she was at the Donnelly home at the time of her death. In 1890, Maggie lived in the same Philadelphia residence as Harriet’s sister, Elizabeth Lumpkin, who held the funeral services and arranged the burial.[30] Given the Donnelly family’s care for Maggie, it is clear that Harriet’s relationships with her extended family continued long after her childhood in Virginia.

In 1900, Harriet still lived in Atlantic City with her husband Daniel and a boarder named Lizzie Bostle.[31] Lizzie Bostle had immigrated to the United States from France in 1890 when she was 5 years old, though it is unclear why she came to the United States or when she entered a relationship with the Donnelly family.[32] Harriet’s son, Edward, lived in the neighboring house, along with his growing family.[33] Like many of his neighbors and many of the residents of Ardmore in 1920, Edward Donnelly employed a servant, which suggests that he managed considerable wealth and that the Donnelly families lived in an upper middle class neighborhood in Atlantic City.[34] In 1900, both Daniel and Edward worked as contractors for buildings rather than carpenters, while Harriet still did not have an occupation outside of the home.[35] This change in occupation suggests that with migration, individuals can seek better economic opportunities.

Between 1900 and 1905, Harriet, Daniel, and Lizzie Bostle moved to Cricket Avenue in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.[36] The migratory Donnelly family may have been attracted to Ardmore’s well-connected transportation system or economic opportunities, or the elderly Daniel may have sought Ardmore as a place for retirement. Daniel Donnelly died on February 18, 1905, at the age of 74, leaving 63 year-old Harriet as a widow.[37] However, Harriet’s household did not remain small for very long. Lizzie Bostle became Elizabeth Spencer on June 15, 1905, when she married Lewis D. Spencer, another native of Pennsylvania.[38]  The ceremony, conducted by Ardmore’s Reverend F. C. Colby, took place in Harriet’s home.[39] After their honeymoon, Elizabeth and Lewis lived with Harriet on Cricket Avenue.[40] The Spencers’ marriage at home was unusual, for many other weddings in Ardmore were conducted in a church and included a large reception with many bridesmaids and other attendees.[41] This small ceremony may suggest that Harriet and Elizabeth were not as ingrained in the Ardmore community as the other brides were.

Based on Ardmore’s local newspaper, the Ardmore Chronicle, Harriet Donnelly played a small role in her new town, especially compared to such prominent figures as Charles Barker, Herbert Arnold, and Emma Hamilton. Harriet, Daniel, Elizabeth, and Lewis are rarely mentioned in the Ardmore Chronicle, and their names are conspicuously absent from lists of attendees at various community meetings and events and lists of benefactors for events and charities from 1904-1908.[42] Harriet Donnelly and Elizabeth Spencer were not listed as members of the Women’s Club, which was gaining prominence in Ardmore’s community and became a strong advocate for women’s suffrage.[43] In addition, Daniel Donnelly did not have an obituary in the February 1905 issues of the Ardmore Chronicle, and Harriet’s purchase of 143 and 145 Cricket Avenue was not listed as a real estate transfer in the September 1908 issues.[44] These absences would suggest that the Donnelly family did not fully integrate into the community.

However, Harriet Donnelly was occasionally recognized in the social columns of the newspaper for her extensive travels. In 1907 alone, Harriet and Elizabeth traveled to Frutchey, PA, and the Adirondack Mountains.[45] Harriet and Elizabeth also made frequent trips to visit friends in New Jersey, going to Newark in January 1906 and Longport in August 1908.[46] Lewis often did not accompany the two women, and they had the freedom to travel alone.[47] In May 1908, Harriet went by herself to visit her home town of Petersburg, VA, as well as Richmond and Washington, thus maintaining her relationship to her southern roots.[48] Harriet Donnelly and the Spencers did not appear in the 1910 census, and they may have been traveling out of state.[49]

Although Harriet lived on Cricket Avenue while her husband Daniel was alive, she did not own a home or an automobile in Ardmore until after his death. Harriet purchased her properties at 143 and 145 Cricket Avenue (two halves of a duplex) on September 19, 1908, over three years after Daniel’s death and Elizabeth’s marriage.[50] Harriet bought the property from Benjamin Hevener, who resided in 141 Cricket Ave in 1900.[51] In 1908, Harriet’s Cricket Ave property was worth $2,250.[52] In 1920, and most likely before then, Harriet lived in 145 Cricket Ave, which was the previous residence of Reverend Colby, who had married Elizabeth and Lewis.[53] It is unclear if Harriet had lived in 145 Cricket Avenue as a renter or a boarder prior to her purchase or if she had rented a home elsewhere on Cricket Avenue before 1908. Furthermore, the residence at 143 Cricket Avenue was rented in 1920 by a widower named James Donaghy, and because Harriet owned the property, she would have been his landlady.[54] Unlike her previous residences, Harriet Donnelly bought and owned the properties on Cricket Avenue herself and became the head of the household. As of 1920, only 13% of the homes in Ardmore were owned by women and only about 14% of the heads of the household were women, which differentiated Harriet Donnelly from the many women in Ardmore who did not own property.[55] In addition, Harriet Donnelly owned a Buick automobile, which she purchased in 1925, when she was 83 years old.[56] Harriet’s purchase of the automobile was fitting for a woman who was constantly traveling and moving, and the fact that Harriet was an elderly woman when she purchased her automobile would have further differentiated her from the men and the younger women who drove around the town.

In 1920, Harriet still lived in Ardmore with her "adopted daughter" Elizabeth Spencer and her son-in-law Lewis Spencer, but her household now included her ten year-old grandson Donald Spencer.[57] Elizabeth was the only adopted daughter in Ardmore at the time, which distinguished Harriet Donnelly’s family and would likely have garnered attention in the town.[58] By 1920, Harriet Donnelly was also one of the oldest residents of Ardmore, for less than 1% of the population was over the age of 80. Harriet’s advanced age, as well as her migratory life experiences, may have accounted for her lack of integration with the rest of the community and strong focus on her own family instead.

Harriet Donnelly wrote her will in 1928, the year before her death, when she was 86.[59] Harriet named her son, Edward R. Donnelly, as the executor of the estate.[60] Edward still lived in New Jersey, though he had moved to Suburban Hotel, East Orange prior to the writing of Harriet’s will.[61] Harriet Donnelly bequeathed her entire estate and belongings to her children, Edward, William, and Elizabeth, and her married grandchildren, George Donnelly, Mabel Force, and Bella Hayes, further suggesting that Harriet Donnelly was a central part of a close family unit.[62] Notably, Harriet Donnelly bequeathed specific items, such as her automobile, furniture, and jewelry, to Elizabeth Spencer, who “sustained toward [her] the position of daughter.”[63] Donnelly’s will also bequeathed her two estates on Cricket Avenue to Edward and William “in equal shares.”[64] Harriet Donnelly had $4,861.20 in savings and checking accounts, but most of her wealth ($37,000) came from debenture bonds, which suggests that Harriet and Daniel made smart investments.[65] Harriet Donnelly died in Ardmore on May 15, 1929.[66]

Although she never had a formal occupation outside of the home, Harriet’s life was rich with experience through her constant migration. Harriet lived in or traveled to twelve places across the East Coast, and though she spent her youth in the South, she lived most of her long life in the northeast. Harriet maintained close relationships with her family, contended with the deaths of her daughter and her niece, and extended her family by adopting a daughter from a foreign country. Throughout her life, Harriet Donnelly seems to have identified herself as a wife and mother, as did most women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but she also owned property in her own right, which was rare for a woman during the same time period. By the time she lived in Ardmore, Harriet gained more independence than she had in the past, due in part to the death of her husband and her need to manage the family finances. Harriet Donnelly managed considerable wealth while in Ardmore, especially through her debenture bonds and real estate. During her time in Ardmore, Harriet Donnelly could easily have been characterized as a widow with a large family consisting of her children, their spouses, and her grandchildren, but a look at her past proves that to be an incomplete portrait. Although Harriet Donnelly’s story is not as well-documented as those of other Ardmore citizens, she played a unique role in the community as a newcomer from the south, a constant migrant, and an independent woman who gained some financial power.

- Janine Perri

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

[2] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 7th Census (1850), Virginia, Amelia, Sheet 69A.

[3]Ibid; Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Reel 1055 (1909).

[4]7th Census (1850), Amelia, Sheet 69A.

[5] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 9th Census (1870), Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Ward 16, District 50, Sheet 467A-B.

[6]Ibid; Ardmore Chronicle, 2 May 1908, 1 col. c..; Col. T, J. Cram, S.E. Portion of Virginia and N.E. Portion of Nth. Carolina, (Virginia, 1860).

[7]"Slaves and Slaveholdings," The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed December 9, 2013.; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 6th Census (1840), Virginia, Chesterfield, Lower District, Sheet 216; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 7th Census (1850), Virginia, Amelia, Schedule 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] 14th Census (1920), District 0109, Sheet 8A.

[10] Ibid.

[11] North Carolina Division of Archives and History (Raleigh), Bond 000152730 (1868).

[12] 9th Census (1870), District 50, Sheet 467B.

[13] 14th Census (1920), District 0109.

[14] 9th Census (1870), District 50, Sheet 467B.

[15] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 8th Census (1860), North Carolina, Wake County, Raleigh, Sheet 296.  

[16] 9th Census (1870), District 50, Sheet 467B.

[17] 9th Census (1870), District 50, Sheet 467A.

[18] 8th Census (1860), Raleigh, Sheet 296.

[19] Philadelphia City Archives (Philadelphia), Film 2071013 (1886).

[20] 9th Census (1870), District 50, Sheet 467B; Philadelphia City Archives (Philadelphia), Film 2071013 (1886).

[21] 9th Census (1870), District 50, Sheet 467A.

[22] 14th Census (1920), District 0109.

[23] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), New Jersey, Atlantic City Ward 2,  District 0006, Sheet 1B.

[24] Ibid.

[25] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 10th Census (1880), New Jersey, Atlantic, Atlantic City Ward 2, District 0006, Sheet 10B.

[26] Ibid.

[27] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 10th Census (1880), New Jersey, Hudson, Jersey City, District 036, Sheet 71B.

[28] Philadelphia City Archives (Philadelphia), Film 2071013 (1886).

[29] The Philadelphia Inquirer,  2 June 1890, 6.

[30] Ibid.

[31] 12th Census (1900), District 0006, Sheet 1B.

[32] 14th Census (1920), District 0109, 8A

[33]12th Census (1900), District 0006, Sheet 1B.

[34] Ibid.

[35] 12th Census (1900), District 0006, Sheet 1B.

[36] The Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 February, 1905, 6.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ardmore Chronicle, 24 June, 1905;.14th Census (1920), District 0109, Sheet 8A.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] See “Allen-Warren,” Ardmore Chronicle,  January 4, 1904, 1., for example

[42] See Ardmore Chronicle,  March 24, 1906, 4 col. c., for example.

[43] See Ardmore Chronicle,  October 5, 1907, for example.

[44] Ardmore Chronicle, 25 February 1905; Ardmore Chronicle, September 1908.

[45] Ardmore Chronicle, 3 August, 1907, 1 col. a;  Ardmore Chronicle, 21September, 1907, 1 col. a.

[46] Ardmore Chronicle,  13 January, 1906, 1 col. a, ; Ardmore Chronicle,  8 August, 1908, 1 col. a.

[47] Ardmore Chronicle, 21 September, 1907, 1 col. a.; Ardmore Chronicle, 13 January, 1906, 1 col a.

[48] Ardmore Chronicle,  8 May, 1908, 1 col. a.

[49] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 13th Census (1910), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0109.

[50] Recorder of Deeds, Lower Merion Township, Book 599, pg. 23.; George W. And Walter S. Bromley, Atlas of Properties on Main Line: Pennsylvania Railroad from Overbrook to Paoli: (Philadelphia, 1926), Plate 11.

[51] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, South Ardmore, District 0217, Sheet 13B.

[52] Recorder of Deeds, Lower Merion Township, Book 599, pg. 23.

[53] 12th Census (1900), District 0217, Sheet 13B.

[54] 14th Census (1920), District 0109, 8A.

[55] 14th Census (1920), District 0109.

[56] Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), RW ----- (1928).

[57] 14th Census (1920), District 0109, 8A.

[58] Ibid.

[59]  Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), RW ---- (1928).

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.