Ghettos on the Main Line: A (Once Ignored) Reality of the Past

Even in the Main Line’s golden age, the rich were outnumbered by their servants—and tried to hide it.

The infamous Fritz Court in Wayne.In urban planning, appearances always matter. So it was probably inevitable that the first planning proposal for the Main Line would get hung up on one perplexing issue: How do we hide the servants?

“Low-priced houses for local employees will continue to be close-packed rows of rather unattractive houses on narrow streets,” wrote landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who created the 1919 plan for local leaders. “These are not appropriate for the suburban district and tend to depreciate the entire region.”

Those “close-packed rows” were actually the nice worker housing. In 1912 Bryn Mawr, a researcher found 10 families living with only a single water spigot in a former stable that was “more like a kennel than a habitation for human beings.” Bare ground was the latrine.

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Though it was not an isolated case, appearances mattered more.

“They won’t let a sewer be put in on the street—though we’ve all signed for it—because they want to crowd out the poor section by making conditions too bad to live in,” one landlord told a housing investigator. “They want the work done all right, but they expect the workers to roost in trees like birds.”

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During its golden age—roughly 1870-1930—the Main Line was always home to more working people than magnates. The logistics of large estates demanded it. A large mansion might require a staff of 10-15 people. “The numbers swell greatly if you count garden staff and farm workers,” says Jeff Groff, director of public programs at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. “At its height of staffing, Winterthur had over 250 people, but the majority was garden and farm workers.”

On the Main Line, A.J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, had about a dozen house staff at his Cheswold estate in Haverford. (The immediate Cassatt family consisted of six people.) Bryn Mawr’s Timberline estate had 75 employees—inside and outside—until World War I.

“Fairly standard in a large household was butler, housekeeper, cook, kitchen maids, laundress, footmen, governess or nursery maid,” says Groff. “Depending on the scale, there might have been additional staff with specialized functions. Many houses had more than one chauffeur. And if they still were pursuing horse-related sports, there was all the staff that went with that.”

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Pools, tennis courts and other recreational facilities sometimes needed staffing, too. “They might’ve also brought in day help if they were entertaining,” Groff says.

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Some staff and their families lived on their employers’ estates, but many didn’t. For them, the choice was often ramshackle buildings on small lanes between estates or behind businesses on Lancaster Avenue. Few noticed until the late 19th century, when Lower Merion leaders finally considered the implications of the reform “City Beautiful” Movement then working its way through the nation’s big cities.

Between 1880 and 1900, city dwellers increased from 28 to 40 percent of the population. In the 50 years following the Civil War, the U.S. population almost tripled—from 31.4 million in 1860 to 91.9 million. Meanwhile, the rural population plummeted after 1900, as farmers were displaced by machines.

With so many more people in the cities, pressure mounted to remedy their worst features—social unrest, crime, crowding and poverty. In 1890, reformer Jacob Riis observed that “three-fourths of [New York’s] people live in the tenements, and the 19th-century drift of the population to the cities is sending ever-increasing multitudes to crowd them. The remedy must proceed from the public conscience.”

City Beautiful advocates proposed plans to wipe away social ills, inspire civic loyalty and morality in the poor, bring the country to cultural parity with Europe, and lure the upper classes back from the suburbs (at least to shop and spend money). Their philosophy was expressed in the rebuilding of Washington, D.C., improvement of sanitary conditions, and the opening of missions like Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. In Philadelphia, the desire to improve public spaces led to the creation of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

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Here, the movement was launched by the Main Line Citizens Association, an organization that dated to 1877, when volunteers came together in Bryn Mawr and Rosemont to act as unofficial police. After the townships created official police forces, the association turned its attention to civic improvement. By 1909, it had about 800 members, with committees on road improvements, home gardens, vacant lots and public parks. About 1910, the group successfully lobbied for the creation of a state commission to address chestnut blight. Soon after, the association turned its attention to housing.

A graduate of Wellesley College and an experienced social welfare researcher, Louise M. Bosworth started her career with Boston’s Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, where she examined the incomes and expenditures of 450 women workers. She was not a bleeding heart. Women were often underpaid, Bosworth concluded, but too many tended to regard their jobs as temporary. Thus, she wrote, “they are not likely to make any great effort to master thoroughly the requirements of their occupations and, thus, to fit themselves to earn higher wages.”

The Main Line Citizens Association hired Bosworth to investigate conditions in the area. What she found in Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Rosemont and Wayne was worse than she’d seen in the city, where the rich saw but had learned to ignore bad housing conditions.

“In the country,” she wrote, “the proximity is concealed by large grounds shutting off all immediate surroundings, and out-of-the-way districts in which the poor are only too often packed in with all the worst evils of city conditions existing in the middle of wide fields and woodlands.”

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In Ardmore, behind a stable at Spring and Holland avenues, Bosworth found a row of 32 cheaply built houses. Density was 209 residents per acre. “A high average for city housing,” she wrote, “and a disgraceful proportion in the country.”

Because the houses were built at the edge of a wetland bordering the Haverford College campus, their yards were mud much of the year and their basements wet. Despite conditions, they all remained rented.

“In one, an Italian woman who spoke little English indicated by hollow coughs—during the performance of which, she pointed into the cellar—the disease which has attacked several members of the family,” wrote Bosworth. “Her husband says she will die unless they can find another place to live.”

Opposite Bryn Mawr Hospital, the once-fashionable Whitehall Hotel—built around 1870—had become a four-story tenement. Bosworth found the top floor abandoned because of roof leaks. About 80 people lived in the remaining 49 rooms, with one sink per floor.

“In this four-story building,” she wrote, “with so many makeshift kitchens and stoves and furniture all crowded in together, there is no fire escape of any description, and none but the one main staircase.”

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Worst was the stable, where mainly black residents lived in haylofts over the horse stalls. “The courtyard in the center is the common dump heap,” wrote Bosworth, “and here are chicken heads and entrails, old kitchen utensils, cans, garbage, bedsprings, mattings, refuse of every description evidently being simply disposed of by pitching it out these inner windows.” She called conditions here “frankly immoral.”

In Rosemont, Bosworth found squalor on dead-end streets abutting the railroad tracks, including Franklin Avenue. “Here live three Italian families with their hordes of lodgers, most of whom work for the railroad,” she wrote. “Filthy, odorous water closets with badly working flushes, and obstructed drains so that the sewage overflows the yard and a wealth of chickens with the freedom of the premises makes this spot squalid indeed. There is the usual water in the cellar, leaking roofs and overcrowded bedrooms full of cots and dirty, with one hardworking woman of each house tending babies, cooking for her family of 8, 13 and 14, and doing all the washing and cleaning, as well.”

On Highland Avenue in Wayne, Bosworth found about 70 people living in a shack community known as Fritz Court. One water hydrant and two privies served all. “A family of five live in one [shack] measuring about 11 feet by 8,” she wrote. “There is one double bed for the five, and the place is alive with vermin. The walls are papered with newspapers, wrapping paper and scraps of anything which will paste up to keep out the wind. It is about as crude a shelter as I could picture.”

Probably no one liked such places. But, as Bosworth noted, they seemed necessary. “The well-to-do are able to live in the country and work in the city only because they are well-to-do and can afford to commute,” she wrote. “While the poor must perforce live beside their work, as close as may be.”

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Too shrewd to gamble on moral arguments, Bosworth pointed to her audience’s self-interest. Servants who lived in unsanitary conditions, she noted, came daily onto the premises of the well-to-do. Flies, mosquitoes, mice and rats also traveled. “The more intelligent realize that creating a small hygienic spot to go and live in is ridiculously futile,” she observed.

Created in response to Bosworth’s report, Olmsted’s plan proposed expansion and vigorous enforcement of existing regulations. “Every dwelling should be  provided with an indoor water closet and a sink,” Olmsted wrote, “both provided with running water and connected with the sewer.”

Garbage should be collected in all neighborhoods, and Olmsted proposed that estate owners form a “syndicate” to build decent, affordable housing without the necessity of earning a profit. That never happened, though Washington made its own efforts during the Depression. Fritz Court was demolished in 1936 with a $300,000 federal grant and replaced by a 51-unit complex called Highland Homes.

Other suggestions regarding setbacks, road widening, parking, paving materials, sewers and parks were gradually adopted. Lower Merion approved its first zoning plan in 1927 and its first overall plan in 1937. Neither provided a full solution.

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“The provision of new housing in all but the low-cost field can safely be left to private initiative,” the 1937 plan declared. “How far the township should go in encouraging new construction of low-cost housing is a vexing problem. Beyond requiring open spaces for recreation, negative at best, the way is not clear.”

The problem was never really solved. Many workers simply went away when the Depression depleted the fortunes that allowed the rich to hire servants. Others were pushed out when building codes made housing unaffordable.

Today, enough low-cost housing exists in Main Line townships to satisfy regulatory requirements. But many grunt workers also reverse-commute from less affluent neighborhoods—another way to hide the servants.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.
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