Ardmore Project Suburban Life in the Early 20th Century

Mary Jenkins Ensign

The Woman Who Made News



Mary Jenkins Ensign died on February 18, 1936 in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. Though she had no immediate family to remember her, Ensign left behind a strong legacy of civic engagement and activism with the entire Ardmore community. Throughout her life, Mary Jenkins Ensign took on a public role as a female editor and elected official during a critical time for women’s rights in the United States. Her position as editor and publisher of the local newspaper, the Ardmore Chronicle, gave her the ability to shape the news that the Ardmore community received while also providing her with the opportunity to keep abreast of national issues. She was involved in various areas of the community, championing women’s rights through her writing, political position, and leadership in social groups. This paper will explore the roles that Ensign played as a public figure and champion of women’s rights in the Ardmore community while developing her own views and place within society.

Mary Jenkins Ensign was born on December 1857 to Joshua Kames and Sarah Elizabeth (Jenkins) Kames.[1] Mary was the youngest of three; her older brother William was born in 1853, and her older sister Clara in 1855.[2] Sarah Kames and all of the Kames children became members St. James Episcopal Church in 1872. Records indicate that the entire Kames family received baptism at this time, suggesting that they may have converted to Episcopalian beliefs.[3] Joshua Kames was the only family member who was not baptized in 1872, and was probably already a member of the church. Religion may have played a role in Mary Ensign’s later political and social life, especially in her support of the temperance movement in the early 20th century.

The Kames family lived in Philadelphia, where Joshua worked as a U.S Paymaster.[4] Joshua was also a prolific inventor and applied for patents for several inventions relating to railway cars, including a “metallic connector for electric railways,” a “conduit for electric conductors,” and a “compressed-air motor for propelling wheeled vehicles.”[5] Kames appeared to have been a progressive man, and his own modern views may have influenced Mary by encouraging a forward-thinking attitude about the future of society. Joshua Kames was also a Civil War soldier, contributing to a longstanding family tradition of public service in the United States.[6] Mary’s great-great-grandfather, Jacob Morgan, was a Welsh immigrant who became the founder of Morgantown, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a member of the Council of Safety, a colonel of Berks County Associators, and county judge.[7] His son, Jacob, served in the Revolutionary War.[8] Like her relatives, Mary dedicated herself to public service and later served as Postmaster of Ardmore, an uncommon position for a woman of her time.

All of the Kames Children stayed close to Philadelphia during their adult lives. Both Clara and William married and had children, and William became a publisher like Mary. Both of Mary’s siblings died before her; William in 1908 and Clara in 1929.[9] Although Mary never had any of her own children, she left money to her siblings’ children in her will, including $100 to J.Whitaker Pennypacker, Clara’s oldest son.[10] She also gave $100 each to William’s sons, Crawford and William G. Kames.[11]By the time Mary died, she had no immediate family left to execute her will. Though she died as a wealthy single woman, Mary was not a spinster—she had previously been married, but it is unclear whether or not she and her husband divorced sometime before 1920.

Census data provides an incomplete picture of the relationship between Mary and H. Legrand Ensign over the course of several decades. In 1920, Mary Jenkins Ensign told a census-taker that she was divorced while she was living alone on Cricket Avenue.[12]However, Mary never dropped H. Legrand’s last name and in the 1930 census she once again described herself as married. By 1930 Mary was also living with another woman, Lillian Burr, who was “single” and described herself as Mary’s “partner” on the census.[13] It appears that Burr played a significant role in Mary’s life, because Ensign listed her as the main executor and beneficiary of her will in 1936. Mary described Lillian Burr as her “dear friend… faithful nurse and co-worker for a number of years.”[14]The fact that Mary described Burr as her “co-worker” suggests that they were involved in some sort of business together, although Burr’s position as a “nurse” indicates that she cared for Ensign as a servant or employee. Although Lillian may have worked for Mary and the two women came from different social classes, it seems that they had a close social relationship. Ultimately, Ensign left her estate and all of her belongings to Burr, suggesting that Burr was her closest friend prior to her death.

Although Mary Ensign’s relationship with Lillian Burr had interesting dimensions that defied societal norms, the most radical aspect of Ensign’s personal life was her questionable marital status. It is unclear if Mary and H. Legrand were ever divorced, but they obviously had marital difficulties that were partially captured in census records. It is possible that Ensign’s confused marital state and uncommon living arrangements reflected the tension that she felt as an independent woman at a time when most women were confined to the domestic sphere. Even Ensign’s political views often revealed inner conflict—though she was fairly conservative in most of her political views as a middle-class supporter of the Republican Party, Ensign was very forward-thinking in terms of women’s rights. Her positions as newspaper editor and Postmaster, in addition to her many leadership roles and influential public voice, indicated that Mary was not comfortable fitting into the “normal” female role in early 20th century society.

Mary Jenkins Kames married Henry LeGrand Ensign, or H. Legrand Ensign, of Philadelphia, around 1884. Ensign, who had been a lieutenant in the army, became a lawyer and active community member in Philadelphia and later became involved in Ardmore.[15] Ensign was a partner in the Philadelphia law firm, “Richards & Ensign,” for several decades after the 1880s.[16] Records do not specify when Ensign moved his practice, but by 1890 the Philadelphia Inquirer stated that Ensign had a “country place at Ardmore where he lived ‘all of the year’.”[17]

H. Legrand Ensign also founded one of Ardmore’s first newspapers, the Ardmore Chronicle; an 1890 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer described Ensign’s initial project a “newsy little sheet and a typographical beauty, but it has one fault—it is Democratic in tone.”[18] Although critics labeled the Chronicle as “Democratic,” newspaper directories ultimately listed it as a “Republican” source.[19]There is evidence to support the idea that the newspaper was “Republican”, and it is very likely that both Ensigns were active members of the Republican Party at the time. In the period immediately following the Civil War, political divisions generally split the country along Northern and Southern lines; Southerners and anti-war Northerners made up the majority of the Democratic Party while Union supporters and most Northerners were absorbed into the growing Republican Party. 

As native Pennsylvanians and Union supporters, the Ensigns fit the common image of Republicans in the early 20th century. A 1904 issue of the Ardmore Chronicle stated that H. Legrand Ensign spoke to Lower Merion Republicans to encourage their support of a Republican candidate, “Mr. Clark,” for a local office, suggesting that he was involved in the local Republican Party.[20] Additionally, Mary Jenkins Ensign supported female suffrage, and the Republican Party’s platform included women’s rights at that time. Mary was also a supporter of the temperance movement that was often closely linked to women’s rights. Many female groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union led the push for prohibition of alcohol as part of a reformist social agenda to end domestic abuse and other social ills.

Mary Jenkins Ensign became editor of the Ardmore Chronicle in 1897 at a time when there were very few female newspaper editors.[21] In 1902, an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer estimated that there were only four female editors in Pennsylvania, highlighting Ensign’s exceptional position.[22] She was both the editor and publisher of the Ardmore Chronicle, and printed the newspaper through the female-run Ardmore Printing Company located in the Merion Title Building.[23] The fact that women controlled the production of a major source of news in Ardmore was fairly radical for the time; while women could write “fluff” pieces and social columns, few were respected as true journalists and writers. Mary Jenkins Ensign challenged the common gender norms in the newspaper world, proving that she could hold her own as an able editor and publisher.[24] As she established her own role in Ardmore society and proved her competency in a male-dominated industry, Ensign became more interested in giving women a greater public voice through the growing women’s rights movement.

Mary Jenkins Ensign’s involvement in the women’s rights movement developed throughout her career, and her interest in the movement grew at a time when the movement itself was expanding and benefiting from increased social activism amongst women around the country. The women’s suffrage movement officially began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, but failed to gain momentum for several decades as a result of divided leadership within the movement and political apathy amongst the majority of women. However, a turning point came in the late 1880s and early 1890s when large numbers of middle-class women across the nation began to embrace volunteerism and became “activists in progressive causes, members of women’s clubs and professional societies, temperance advocates, and participants in local civic and charity organizations.”[25] As more women became involved in the public sphere, the suffrage movement gained legitimacy, participants, and momentum. The movement began to grow, drawing support from other women activist groups like the Women’s Trade Union League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the National Consumers’ League.[26]

In keeping with the national trend of increasing female involvement in local civic and activist groups, Mary Jenkins Ensign joined several women’s community groups, including the local Women’s Club.[27] The Ardmore Women’s Club was very involved in the community, organizing social events, hosting speakers on a wide range of educational topics, and often coordinating with groups like the Women’s Suffrage Party. The Club also supported and ran the local “Free Library” movement, taking an active role in local education and literature.[28] Ensign’s membership in the Women’s Club may have helped her to develop a greater interest in women’s rights and community activism while also giving her new resources, knowledge, and opportunities to expand her social network by connecting her to a group of powerful and active women in the Ardmore community.

While Ensign was merely a member of the Women’s Club, she promoted the group in the Chronicle and took on leadership roles in other local clubs. In 1904, she was Chairman of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Merion Fire Company.[29] While Mary headed the Ladies’ Auxiliary, her husband was President of the Fire Company, indicating that though the couple was a formidable pair, “Mrs. H. Legrand Ensign” was an independent woman and leader in her own right. Despite the fact that she had a high-achieving and influential husband, Mary built her own reputation as a leader in the Ardmore community.

Mary Ensign used her public voice to highlight the ongoing national debate and educate members of the community about women’s rights at a time when women were very close to achieving national suffrage. As editor of the Chronicle, she ran articles about violence against women, women’s suffrage, and arguments in favor of temperance. Ensign frequently published pieces on the progress of the women’s suffrage movement and included stories about women in the news. She especially focused on suffragettes, including Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association.[30] Ensign was also the chairman of the Woman’s Suffrage Press and Publicity Committee for Montgomery County in 1915, using her position as owner and editor of the Chronicle to advertise for equal suffrage.[31] In May 1915, Ensign issued a sixteen-page piece on equal suffrage to every voter in her district.[32]

Ensign used her position as editor of the Chronicle to influence local perspectives on political issues like suffrage and the temperance movement, but her involvement in politics did not end there—she served as Ardmore’s Postmaster in 1911.[33] Although women did not get the right to vote nationally until 1920, Ensign was the elected Postmaster of Ardmore from 1911-1914. Newspaper articles at the time highlighted her womanhood, suggesting that it was very rare for women to hold such an office, even in local politics. Ensign was ousted from her post in 1914 by Democratic candidate Albert Reinhold Jr., although the change was met with resistance by many members of the community. Many residents of Ardmore, including “ninety-five per cent of the business people of the town,” signed a petition to keep M.J. Ensign in office.[34] Patrons of the office believed that Ensign was able to “conduct the office up to the highest standard…and inaugurated many new methods which were of great benefit to the service.”[35] These statements from the general public showed that Ensign took initiative and performed well as Postmaster. The fact so many people protested her replacement spoke not only to Ensign’s community involvement, but also to her impressive abilities to succeed in positions that were usually dominated by males in the early 20th century.  

Mary Jenkins Ensign’s life history provides an example of the potential influence that women were able to exert on their local communities in the late 19th and early 20th century. The fact that Mary Jenkins Ensign was given opportunities to develop such a powerful and influential role within Ardmore suggests that at least part of the general population supported women’s rights and other progressive movements at this time. Despite the fact that women were still nationally disenfranchised and often restricted to the domestic sphere, Ensign represented the successful progression of women into the public sphere through her community involvement and activism. Ensign’s outstanding performance and participation in local business, social groups, and politics helped to build her public role as a leader in Ardmore while encouraging other women in the community to find their own voice. Ensign’s place as a community leader was exceptional not only because of her gender, but also because of the scope of her influence. Her roles as editor of the Ardmore Chronicle and Postmaster helped to shape the Ardmore community and greatly contributed to local politics, especially through her support of women’s rights. Ultimately, Ensign’s impressive contributions to the Ardmore community laid the foundation for the future advancement of women’s rights by encouraging female participation and involvement in the public sphere.   

- Katie Hickey

[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0217, Sheet 10B.

[2] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County, Ward 26, District 0639, Sheet 3B.; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Chester County, Schuylkill Township, District 0095, Sheet 12B.

[3] Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania), “Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records”, 1872.

[4] “National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, D.C.), Civil War Union Draft Records, “Consolidated Enrollment Lists”, 1863-1865.

[5] U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (Pennsylvania), “U.S. Patent Office”, 1888; U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (Pennsylvania), “U.S. Patent Office”, 1893.

[6] National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, D.C.), Civil War Union Draft Records, “Consolidated Enrollment Lists”, 1863-1865.

[7] The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, “Mrs. Mary Jenkins Ensign”, 1898, page 378. 

[8] Ibid.

[9] Davies, John, Find a Grave Index (Pennsylvania), “Clara Kames Pennypacker”, 1682-2012 (2006); Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania), “Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records”, 1908, page 132.

[10] Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), RW 52507, (1936), page 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 14th Census (1920), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0109, Sheet 4B.

[13] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 15th Census (1930), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0022, Sheet 6A.

[14] Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), RW 52507, (1936).

[15] Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 October 1890, page 7.

[16] Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 January 1890, page 12.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 October 1890, page 7.

[19] N.W. Ayer and Son (Philadelphia), “N.W. Ayer and Son’s American Newspaper Annual and Directory”, 1918, page 840.

[20] Ardmore Chronicle, 19 January 1904, page 1.

[21] Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 October 1902, page 3.

[22] Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 October 1902, page 8.

[23] Ardmore Chronicle, 20 January 1904, page 1.

[24] Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 October 1902, page 8.

[25] "The Women's Rights Movement, 1848–1920." The Women's Rights Movement, 1848-1920. United States House of Representatives, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 May 1909, page 10.

[28] Ardmore Chronicle, 1914, page 1.

[29] Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 November 1904, page 2.

[30] Ardmore Chronicle, 1914, page 2.

[31] Oswald Printing Company (New York), “The American Printer”, 1915, page 655.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 March 1911, page 3.

[34]Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 March 1914, page 6.

[35]Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 March 1914, page 6.