Ardmore Project Suburban Life in the Early 20th Century

William Warren Woodruff

The Makings of an Ideal Citizen in Early Twentieth Century Ardmore


Twentieth-century Ardmore Pennsylvania offered many opportunities to its middle class white citizens. The social mobility of the middle class allowed them membership in many different clubs, access to a wide-range of jobs, and the ability to make important connections with those in their class. William Warren Woodruff, a member of this white middle class, was heavily involved in many aspects of the Ardmore community, including business, technology, and arts and recreation. His participation in all of these social institutions aligned with the principles of what made an ideal citizen, and shows his effort to achieve that end.

Born in 1861, William Warren Woodruff II lived in Pennsylvania his entire life. His parents, William Warren and Edith Phillips had a two-year-old daughter, Lucy, at the time of their son’s birth. [1]  The Woodruffs were a solidly middle class family. William, his father, worked in the education system throughout his entire career. He began teaching, at the age of 18, in a school in Gustavs, Ohio.  At the same time, he studied at the Academy at Vienna Ohio in preparation to enter college. He finally did so in 1850 when he enrolled at Oberlin College. Upon his graduation in 1854, William continued to teacher in the Midwest until 1857 when he moved to Chester County Pennsylvania. Spending only two years in the district, he greatly distinguished himself and earned the position of County Superintendent of Schools. Retaining this position for ten years, he moved to Bucks County where he took on the superintendent position there for the next seventeen years. Before he retired in 1896, he added Principle of the Carlisle Indian School to his résumé.[2] Growing up with a successful, and active father instilled in Woodruff a certain mentality that became crucial to his career. He learned the value of hard work, as well as the importance of activity in one’s community. 

In 1864, Edith died splitting the young family apart for a few years. According to the 1870 United States Federal Census, young William was living with only his father in Chester County at this time.[3] It is unknown where Lucy was living. By 1880, his father had taken another wife, Alice Jackson, and the entire family, Lucy included, was living in Bucks County.[4]

Woodruff does not reappear on the censuses until 1900 because the 1890 census was destroyed. However, the city directories for Philadelphia shine some light on these lost years. Woodruff lived in Philadelphia from 1883 to 1895. Upon moving to the city, he worked as a clerk for the first two years.[5] Starting in 1885, he became a printer, and in 1890, he started his own printing business, “W W Woodruff & Co.”[6] This company remained at 35 North and 7th Street Philadelphia until 1895 and was very successful. This is marked by Woodruff’s membership in the Manheim Club in 1892. [7] A substantial fortune was a necessity to become a member in such a club. Woodruff’s prosperous printing business provided him with a solid financial base, as well as knowledge of the commercial market of Philadelphia.

During his time as a printer in Philadelphia, he married Jennie Finney in 1884 and they had their first son, William Warren III three years later. Their second son, John Finney, was born in 1894.[8] It was at this time, around 1900, the young family made the move out of the city and into the suburb of Ardmore. The presence of a full-time servant in the Woodruff’s household in 1900 also marks their significant wealth. Their live-in servant was Irish immigrant Mary Slogan.[9] On every census the Woodruffs appear on, they have at least one servant living with them. Their fortune was great enough that they could consistently maintain this hired help. Interestingly enough all of their servants were of Irish descent; this shows a clear preference for white hired help.

When they moved to Ardmore, they bought a large plot of land at 103 Linwood Avenue. The house they built was freestanding and of a larger stature.[10] The area of Ardmore where the Woodruffs settled was a strongly white middle class area. The majority of the homes on this side of town were large and the households included at least one servant. Ardmore had a distinct residential trend where the people with more money lived closer to the main street, Lancaster Avenue. Looking at the Mainline Atlas for Ardmore in 1920 is very telling of this trend. The smaller houses clearly cluster in the southwestern area, while the larger houses spread out throughout the area right below Lancaster.[11]

By 1900, Woodruff left the printing business and found employment in another facet of Philadelphia’s commerce: retail. He worked as a purchasing agent for the department store Strawbridge and Clothier. Strawbridge and Clothier was one of the foremost department stores in Philadelphia during the early twentieth century. Woodruff commuted into Philadelphia every day by way of train. Living in the suburb and commuting on the train was a very popular movement in this area at the time. As soon as many people who worked in the city could afford to, they moved out of Philadelphia and into its quiet outskirts. Woodruff remained in the clothing industry for the rest of his career, and was quite successful in the company.

With his middle class status, Woodruff had the privilege to become a member of a few different clubs. Already a member of the Manheim Club, he also became a member of the Lower Merion Young Men’s Christian Association. His membership in this club is especially integral to his persona as an ideal citizen. The YMCA thought of itself as an institution that shaped young men into moral, upstanding members of society. Within its walls, men received education as well as other important lessons of morality. The Y provided a suitable recreational outlet for men. Only white Christian middle class men could become members in the Y; inclusion was coveted.[12] The Lower Merion YMCA began quietly in the early part of the 1900s with “Man Meetings” held at the Lower Merion Title Building. The ever-involved Woodruff was a likely attendant to these meetings. His attendance at these meetings was a way for him to improve himself and make connections with the other members of the organization.

Woodruff quickly rose to prestige within the Y by becoming the Recording Secretary for the Executive Board in 1907. His promotion to the Board of Trustees in 1908 solidified his higher status in Ardmore’s society.[13] Wealthy men dominated the Board of Trustees because they were the ones who had extra capital to donate to the Association. They also had the connections and the status required to help promote the group. Woodruff further elevated his position and power in the YMCA through his election as President in 1911.[14] His role within the Y, such an integral part of Ardmore, reflects his status in the community as a whole. His election as president shows his contemporaries’ trust in him to run the organization. This also brings into consideration Woodruff’s personality. He must have been a very affable, outgoing person, for these are the desirable characteristics in any leader. It is not likely he would have been entrusted with this important role had he been an irresponsible person of a disagreeable temperament. Also, when electing a president the candidate must be a good representation for the entire organization. Woodruff exemplified the members of the Y and was the role model for them to fashion themselves after. New members would look to the leader as a guide.

Not only a successful businessman and prominent member of the community, Woodruff was a believer in advancement and technology. He was a strong proponent of all the progressive movements during his life. Woodruff developed an early love for automobiles and became a strong advocate for their use in the business world. He owned a car in 1905, which was early in the timeline of the private consumption of automobiles. Given his progressiveness and the presence of an automobile factory in Ardmore, this is not entirely surprising. The prosperous factory produced a great number of cars and made the new invention easily accessible to the residents of Ardmore.  Woodruff gave his friends and neighbors rides in his car to show off his favorite new technology. He even provided his friend Charles A. Barker with his first car ride in the summer of 1905.[15]

When it came to business, Woodruff claimed his employer was on the cutting edge through their use of auto trucks for deliveries. The Philadelphia Inquirer published his thoughts on this in an article about their automobile parade. On June 8, 1911, the Inquirer held an industrial automobile parade in Philadelphia to display recent advancements in automobiles. The 304 commercial motor cars followed a parade route that passed through all the streets with prominent businesses. After the parade, the cars stopped so spectators could examine them and seen demonstrations on their motors. Five auto car delivery wagons and five Garford vehicles represented woodruff’s own employer, Strawbridge and Clothier. The article refers to Woodruff as “one of the most interested men in the parade and particularly in the exhibit”.[16] He said that auto trucks expedited the delivery of goods and they were far more efficient than a four horse team. According to Woodruff, Strawbridge and Clothier was one of the first big firms in the city to purchase the new trucks and soon other companies would follow suit. A year later in an article appearing in the October 13 1912 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Woodruff is again seen promoting the progressive technology of automobiles. He gave a speech to the Philadelphia Automobile Trade Association on the subject on motor deliveries.[17] Clearly, he believed in the use of automobiles and that they were a boon to the business world.

Woodruff’s other progressive activity was his heavy involvement in the Stock Market when it became popular in the 1920s. At the time of his death in 1935, he had shares in about 20 different companies.[18] When buying shares in stocks became popular, Woodruff probably saw this new system as a great way to not only increase his fortune, but also to take advantage of the booming economy that he was so heavily involved in. Besides his large stake in Strawbridge and Clothier, most of his investments were in companies tied to necessities such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, Philadelphia Electric Company, and the Scott Paper Company.[19] It is also important to note that he managed to hold on to these stocks during the hardest years of the Great Depression. The fact that he did not sell his shares shows both his financial stability and his faith in the market. It is likely that Woodruff firmly believed the market would eventually bounce back and he wanted to retain his stake in such a fruitful endeavor.

In addition to his business and civic pursuits, Woodruff was heavily involved in the arts. His hobby of amateur theatre rounds out his business oriented personality. A few articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer include his name on the playbill as one of the performers. All of his performances were on a small scale, mostly occurring at people’s homes or at one of his clubs. His first recorded performance was in a musical and literary evening at the Masonic Lodge in Ardmore on May 13 1900. He played the part of “the Herald” in The Grasshopper.[20] A few years later in the May of 1910, he took on the title role of William Shakespeare in the Women’s Auxiliary’s production of The May Days of Shakespeare. The article on this event praises Woodruff for his spot on portrayal of the bard.[21] This lighthearted hobby further lends to the notion that Woodruff was a likeable man with a well-rounded with a wide range of interests and pursuits.

The entire Woodruff family followed suit and got very involved in their community. Mrs. Woodruff, Jennie, was heavily involved in most of the women’s clubs of Ardmore. She was a member of The Women’s Club, The Women’s Auxiliary, and she even participated in the formation of the Young Women’s Christian Association. As an active member of these clubs, she held numerous meetings and events at her home.[22] Woodruff supported his wife’s activities because he allowed these functions to enter his private home. His youngest son, John, also acted like his father by enlisting in the United States Army during World War I. He was stationed in France in 1917 driving ammunitions trucks. A letter he wrote home to his parents about his experiences was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the summer of 1917.[23] Many men from the Philadelphia area were fighting in the war, but the newspaper chose to highlight John. The Woodruff family evidently had a significant standing in the community.

William Warren Woodruff II had the makings of an ideal citizen in twentieth-century Ardmore. All of the activities he was involved in contributed to his rounded character. The character traits deemed desirable or valuable in a citizen shaped this ideology towards which white middle class men strived. Woodruff, seeing this doctrine promoted in all of his clubs, tried to involve himself in all aspects of society. His wealth and status within the community greatly enabled him to do so. Without the correct socio-economic standing, he would not have been able to enter into the exclusive circles that proved so important for making connections. Both his wife and son’s activities helped promote the family as ideal and advance their standing in Ardmore’s society. Woodruff, as a member of the middle class, was on the correct track in becoming an ideal citizen and setting an example for the rest of the community to follow.

- Kristen Hunter

[1] U.S Bureau of the Census, 8th Census (1860), Pennsylvania, Chester County, West Chester, Sheet 85.

[2] Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Google eBook, (Oberlin: Oberlin College for the Alumni Association, 1912) 179.

[3]  U.S Bureau of the Census, 9th Census (1870), Pennsylvania, Chester County, Upper Oxford, Sheet 28.

[4] U.S Bureau of the Census, 10th Census (1880), Pennsylvania, Bucks County, Newtown, District 154, Sheet 8.

[5] U.S City Directories, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania City Directory (1883), 891.

[6] U.S City Directories, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania City Directory (1890), 1016.

[7] Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 August 1892, 14.

[8] U.S Bureau of the Census, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, South Ardmore, District 0217, Sheet 16.

[9] 12th Census (1900), District 0217, Sheet 16.

[10] George W. and Walter S. Bromley, Atlas of Properties on Mainline: Penn R.R from Overbrook to Paoli, Philadelphia (1913), plate 11.

[11] George W. and Walter S. Bromley, Atlas of Properties on Mainline: Penn R.R from Overbrook to Paoli, Philadelphia (1920), plate 11.

[12] Paula Lupkin, Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of the Modern Urban Culture, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[13] Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 April 1908, 3.

[14] Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 February 1911, 5.

[15] Montgomery County Historical Society (Norristown), Charles Reed Barker Diaries, June 2, 1905.

[16] Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 June 1911, 6.

[17] Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 October 1912, 6.

[18] Montgomery County Record Office (Norristown), RW 51793 (1935).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 May 1900, 6.

[21] Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 May 1910, 6.

[22] Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 December 1907, 3.

[23] Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 June 1917, 5.