Why do we gawk at the Amish? After all, it’s not like they’re new in town. The Anabaptist sects of Lancaster County—the Old Order Amish and the similar-looking Mennonites and Brethren—have lived in Pennsylvania since the 1720s. But they only became a tourist attraction maybe 75 years ago.
For this, credit Havertown native Marguerite de Angeli, whose 1936 children’s book, Henner’s Lydia, put the Amish on the national tourist map. The book appeared at about the same time as—and its impact aided by—a controversy over Amish schools that erupted the following year. In that case, the Pennsylvania Amish petitioned for—and eventually won—the right to be exempted from compulsory education after the eighth grade.
“Henner’s Lydia demonstrated the savvy of a writer who sensed a market intimately connected to Americans’ yearnings for the simple life,” wrote historian David Weaver-Zercher, author of The Amish in the American Imagination. “Consciously or not, de Angeli played upon these longings by connecting her Amish characters to a mainstream American past.”
By downplaying the specifics of being Amish, de Angeli made the sect something to which even nonmembers could relate. In the years since, millions have visited Lancaster County to experience how “their” ancestors used to live.
World War II slowed the growth of Amish tourism. But with peace came the deluge: Between 1945 and 1960, car ownership in the United States grew 133 percent. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940, putting Lancaster County within easy reach of Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York.
In 1955, Plain and Fancy, a musical about an Amish barn raising and wedding, debuted on Broadway. That same year saw the appearance of the Amish Farm & House, Lancaster County’s first Amish tourist attraction. Dutch Wonderland amusement park followed in 1963. Visitor numbers to Lancaster County reached 2 million in 1960. In 2007, it was up to 11 million.
Born in Lapeer, Mich., as Marguerite Lofft, de Angeli was the daughter of a photographer and part-time illustrator who was skilled at his work—but less so at business. “We moved frequently,” wrote de Angeli in her autobiography, “sometimes to a better house, sometimes to one not so nice as the one we had left.”
Shadrach Lofft occasionally left town—once for Chicago, another time for New York—to find better work. But he always seemed to land back in Lapeer. Eventually, he went to work as a traveling salesman for Eastman Kodak. In 1902, he was assigned to Pennsylvania and moved his family to the Philadelphia area.
At 13, Marguerite was an observant child. On the train east, she’d noticed that Pennsylvania houses were often built of stone and separated by neat rail fences. In Michigan, the houses had been clapboard, with fences crudely made of upended tree stumps. And there were trolleys in Philadelphia—something she’d never seen before. The Loffts’ house had gas lights. In Michigan, they’d used oil lamps.
“It was a marvel to have access to a real library where books were lent as often as needed, where the librarians gave willing help to find books,” wrote de Angeli. “We’d had no library in Lapeer.”
There were also museums and art galleries. Marguerite became fascinated by the history and customs of Pennsylvania, many of which she learned through stories told by her father of his trips around the state. Among other things, Shadrach told her about the Amish, “their amusing expressions and turned-around sentences.”
In high school, Marguerite took singing lessons, which led to paid positions as a contralto in the choirs of churches in Chester and Overbrook. She had planned to attend Bryn Mawr College, but her voice lessons conflicted with the necessary college prep work. “I decided that the singing lessons were more important to me,” she wrote.
At 19, she auditioned with producer Oscar Hammerstein, who offered her a position in his chorus. The job would’ve meant international travel and glamour. But her parents dissuaded her. “If I married and reared a family, my life would have more meaning and, in the end, would be more satisfying,” Marguerite later wrote, describing their advice. “I could see how wise and right my parents were. I never went to another rehearsal.”
In 1910, Marguerite married John Daily de Angeli (whom she called Dai), a salesman for the Edison Phonograph. Over 18 years, she bore six children. She continued to sing in church choirs and, in the early 1920s, began to explore illustration. After a little practice, de Angeli began to get commissions illustrating Presbyterian and Baptist Sunday School newspapers. Later came work for magazines.
During the Depression, this work sometimes fed the family. In 1929, wrote de Angeli, “Dai had no work, and it seemed as if all sources of income had dried up, except occasional commissions.”
In 1935, using her own kids as models, de Angeli wrote and illustrated her first children’s book: Ted and Nina Go to the Grocery Store, followed quickly by Ted and Nina Have a Happy Rainy Day. Her editor, Margaret Lesser of Doubleday, took her to lunch to celebrate the books’ success, then left her with a suggestion: “How about a book on the Pennsylvania Dutch?”
Pennsylvania Dutch is a non-precise term for early German settlers (the “Deutsch”), who included members of the Lutheran and Reformed churches, as well as the Mennonites, Amish and others. For her book, de Angeli quickly decided to focus on the Amish because of their distinctive dress.
“I had a conviction that I should stay with a family and learn to know their ways for myself,” she wrote. “What they ate for breakfast, how they behaved toward each other in early morning, their attitudes toward people, their habits of work.”
Alas, de Angeli—who then lived in Coatesville—didn’t know where the Amish lived, and she didn’t own a car. Her brother agreed to take her on a business trip to Reading, dropping her off in Womelsdorf, Berks County, because it sounded Dutch. Directed to Lancaster County, she found a room in Morgantown and was introduced to a local physician with many Amish patients, who agreed to show her around.
De Angeli spent a morning at an Amish school, sketching the students and listening to their dialect. She noted the boys’ bowl haircuts, how the girls’ dresses extended down to their wrists and shoe tops, and how their bonnets and broad-brimmed hats hung on pegs at the rear of the classroom. She noticed that many were named Lydia or Yonie, and how the adults told them apart. (A boy whose father had a duck pond was “Duck Yonie.”)
“There were 26 children,” she wrote. “And, if I remember correctly, 21 of them were named Stolzfus.”
Her doctor friend later let her ride along on his calls. De Angeli noted the bare floors, curtainless windows and folding doors between rooms that opened to make large spaces for Sabbath meetings. When she sketched, no one objected. Not yet a tourist attraction, the Amish hadn’t developed their now-characteristic shyness.
An Amish mother showed de Angeli a small hooked rug that her daughter was making. “Teach a child to vork vhen he is little,” she was told. “And vhen he grows up, he likes to vork.”
What de Angeli produced was a story about a fictional (though not very) Lydia Stolzfus, whose father Henry (nicknamed “Henner”) promised her a buggy trip to Lancaster if she finished the small rug she was making. (“People who don’t finish things don’t amount to much,” her father told her.)
In the process, Henner’s Lydia—sprightly and scatterbrained in a way later perfected by Disney heroines—copes with multiple chores and distractions, but eventually finishes the rug and is rewarded.
Consciously or not, de Angeli never touched on the nitty-gritty of Amish religion, which vests authority in an all-male clergy, uses shunning to maintain order and strongly condemns the individualism prized by most Americans. Instead, she compared them to the Mayflower Pilgrims—everybody’s ancestors—who had come to America for religious freedom.
Moreover, Henner’s Lydia emphasizes traits that everyone values—children should have chores, for instance, and extended families are a good thing. Adults of the period—born before automobiles were common or electricity was widely available—could look at the book and fondly remember their own childhoods.
Weaver-Zercher wrote that De Angeli’s illustrations “underscored a rustic, rural life that Americans saw vanishing”—one with front porches on every house, fields of corn, and pantries full of homegrown and home-preserved vegetables.
“Henner’s Lydia depicted America at its mythic best—full of innocence, blessed by God, and rippling with strength,” added Weaver-Zercher.
De Angeli’s book featured an illustration on every page. Still, compared to modern children’s books, the story is a heavy read for young children. Many of her paragraphs are as much as 70 words long and use words like “industrious.” The Cat in the Hat, by contrast, has just 231 words, and only one with as many as three syllables.
Children’s author Hendrik Willem van Loon wrote a glowing review in the New York Times. Cornelius Weygandt, once an English literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a copy to a friend, who wept because it took him back to his childhood.
The book was a hit, particularly among Lancaster booksellers. A shop at the bus station ordered them in bulk. An Amish grandfather bought 50 copies, one for each grandchild.
Copycats followed. In 1937, the year after de Angeli’s book appeared, came The Amish of Lancaster County, the first of a still-unending stream of visitor-oriented booklets claiming to tell the truth about the sect. By 1939, the first Amish dolls, paperweights and other novelties were being marketed nationally. From 1939 to 1944, five more children’s books on Amish themes appeared. In 1950, one Lancaster merchant claimed to be selling 10,000 Amish dolls annually.
Could something similar have happened with Hasidic Jews, whose outward appearance—marked by prayer shawls, “shtreimel” fur hats and curled sideburns—is no less distinctive than the Amish? Doubtful.
De Angeli and others led Americans to believe that the Amish were like them, only better. So we took to them like “a new toothpaste,” in the words of one commentator on the subject.
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