The late Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough once quipped, “If any of you are interested in immortality, start keeping a diary. Then, when you feel your days are numbered, donate it to your favorite library. It will be quoted for hundreds of years by future historians.”
That’s certainly the case with the diaries of Joseph Price, a fourth-generation Quaker from Lower Merion Township. Though he had little formal education, he was among the township’s most esteemed residents—an “everyman” in so many ways.
When Price built the Rees Price House in Narberth for a cousin in 1803, ex-president John Adams’ son Thomas helped him raise its roof. It survives and used to be Lankenau Medical Center’s Hamper Shop. You’ll find it on Montgomery Avenue near the southwest corner of Meetinghouse Lane. An inscription on a plaque outside the now-defunct thrift shop outlines Price’s considerable legacy: “Quaker Farmer, Innkeeper, Undertaker, Militiaman, Diarist, Saw Mill Operator, Milestone Installer, Carpenter, Turnpike Supervisor, Patriot, Concerned Citizen.”
Price began his diary when he was in his mid-30s. His first entry is New Year’s Eve 1788, and his last comes three days before his death at age 75. Written on odd scraps of paper—some 3,000 of them—and loosely fastened with string, his entries constitute an extraordinary 40-year repository of the day-to-day details of life on the Main Line after the American Revolution.
Through Price’s diaries, we learn that President George Washington called for the first national day of Thanksgiving on Nov. 26, 1789—and a day of mourning when Ben Franklin died in 1790. Three years later, Price documented the first influx of urbanites when yellow fever drove Philadelphians from the city to Lower Merion.
In 1795, the opening of the Lancaster Turnpike was momentous. As an assistant superintendent, Price wrote often about the section from Philadelphia’s Market Street bridge all the way to Paoli. Contracted to cut and place milestones along the new highway with superintendent John Curwen, Price “planted” eight in one day. The next day, he “planted” eight more. No. 9 was nine miles from Philadelphia, and it’s now on display in front of Bryn Mawr’s Ludington Library. Milestones laid by Price extend into Chester County and beyond, along what was America’s first long-distance macadamized highway. They’re one of the few Price legacies visible beyond his own neighborhoods.
“The Price diaries are an absolutely invaluable look into 18th-century life in Lower Merion,” says Kate Jiggins, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society’s board of directors. “The breadth of skills and experiences of this one man, coupled with the fact that he logged an entry every day for 40 years, is truly astounding. There’s nowhere else in our collection where we get such a detailed and complete look at all aspects of the lives of the early settlers in this area.”
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