There is, says Ecclesiastes, “a season for every activity under heaven.” That, of course, includes time for goofing off.
Regardless, the Quakers who first settled these parts were not convinced. They were famously intolerant of anything that wasted time. Time, they believed, was best used to save souls. So, colonial Pennsylvania’s laws banned “all prizes, stage plays, cards, dice, May games, masques, revels, bull-baitings, cock-fightings, bear-baitings and the like.” The courts, meanwhile, were authorized to punish any sort of amusement that “excites the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness and irreligion.”
And that, of course, pretty well describes most of the things we do for amusement today. Back then, they’d be shutting down Eagles games faster than thee could say, “Thee.”
In the centuries since the Quakers lost control, we’ve found many ways to play—some strange, some familiar, some illegal.
Here’s a selection.
Water has always been a fast way to a good time. In Media, the Broomall’s Lake Country Club was founded in 1919 “for social enjoyment” on an artificial body of water the Broomall family had created in the 1880s by damming a tributary of Ridley Creek. They used the lake to harvest ice and, later, rented it to a fishing club. As the Media Swimming and Rowing Club, however, it came into its heyday—drawing crowds for Fourth of July celebrations, children looking for a place to swim on a hot day, and young couples who rented rowboats for a turn around the lake (and some socially appropriate semi-privacy).
In 1926, the club hosted champion Johnny Weissmuller (later “Tarzan” in a dozen movies) and other top swimmers for competitions connected with the U.S. sesquicentennial in Philadelphia that year. A popular annual event was the “savage” dance, for which members dressed as jungle natives, smeared themselves with lake mud and cavorted around a fire. Things were quieter during World War II, when most young men were overseas, leaving their wives and girlfriends—like these six
lovelies in 1945—waiting for their beaus to return from the front.
Once, the horse was an essential piece of machinery. It moved heavy loads and provided transportation. By the 1890s, those days were mostly gone. Railroads moved goods; the first automobiles had appeared; self-propelled reapers brought in the harvest; streetcars were switching to electricity. Suddenly nostalgic, Americans re-imagined the old nag as a high-performance pet.
Europeans started the trend. Ireland’s Royal Society staged the first Dublin Horse Show in 1864. In England, the Easy Surrey Society Show dates back to 1837, providing an early model for new-money Americans longing for British “class.” In 1896, a “meeting of gentlemen” at the Devon Inn (today the site of Waterloo Gardens) launched what is now the United States’ oldest multi-breed horse competition. Most of the first shows—including the 1898 event shown above—were held on the inn’s lawn. Competitions were popular, but the mingling of the glitterati’s unmarried sons and daughters was also a desirable spectacle.
Bicycles have been around in one form or another since the early 1800s, but they were uncomfortable and dangerous for the first half of the 19th century. That changed in the 1870s with the development of the high-wheeled tricycle, which was suitable for women trapped in long skirts and corsets, as well as men who wanted to maintain some dignity.
This young woman may be Helen King or, possibly, her mother. The photo was among King’s belongings donated to the Chester County Historical Society after she was found dead at her West Chester home in 1946. Was she actually having fun here? It’s hard to say, but the dress and the hat suggest that she was not in the habit of going fast—or far.
Baseball fans who consider the Phillies their “home team” might do well to remember when the term referred to the guys down the block. In the 19th century, everyone played baseball. Schools had teams, of course. But boroughs and villages also fielded squads, like the Media team shown to the left at a match in Howellville, Chester County. Churches had teams; factories had teams. In 1890, even the Chester County Hospital had a team of doctors—pictured above—who used the field at the Normal School (now West Chester University).
In the 1957 film Music Man, Professor Harry Hill makes it his duty to warn the townsfolk of the dangers of billiards, which he memorably summarized as, “Trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool!”
Pool has long had a conflicted image. Located in a private home, a pool table is a symbol of wealth. Located elsewhere, it’s a pastime for the down-and-out and shiftless. In popular culture, the prevalence of pool halls and brothels are how one recognizes the bad side of town. In Media, one such example was this combination pool hall and bowling alley on the second floor of the Pierson Garage on Baltimore Avenue. The year is unknown, perhaps sometime in the 1930s. It’s midday; business is slow. Which prompts the question: “Why aren’t these guys at work?”
Golf was not invented on the Main Line. Shocking, but true.
On the other hand, the Main Line was the site of the ancient Scottish game’s first course in the Delaware Valley. In 1893, Philadelphians Marcellus Cox and Montgomery Wilcox discovered golf while summering in Canada. Excited, they hurried home to begin laying out a nine-hole course on the present site of the Devon Horse Show. That’s probably where these two dapper golfers were playing on a less-than-manicured green.
Other clubs followed: Philadelphia Golf Club in 1895, Aronimink and the Merion Cricket Club in 1896. There were many others. By 1900, according to one estimate, 250,000 Americans played the game. Pennsylvania lagged behind New York and Massachusetts, with 165 and 157 courses, respectively. But the southeastern corner of the state was what one writer called a “beehive of bunkerland,” with 17 clubs. The Devon course, alas, did not survive.
Cricket has been played in the United States since the 18th century. It was even played at Valley Forge by Gen. George Washington. But one fact remains: Cricket is unequivocally English. In the U.S., that image once appealed to Mayflower types, but it eventually doomed cricket as a popular sport.
The Merion Cricket Club was a perfect example of why baseball won America’s heart. The club was first organized in 1865 by 15 young men—teenagers mostly—who played on private property near the Wynnewood railroad station. Later, they got serious, electing officers, choosing an official color, and buying land and a clubhouse. The one pictured, Merion’s third, was destroyed by fire in 1896.
Baseball, on the other hand, was played in vacant lots by factory workers and farmhands. And as U.S. cricket remained a country-club pastime, the English version was morphing into a professional sport watched, played and appreciated by the masses. Eventually, even the upper crust lost interest in cricket. Merion introduced tennis in 1879, soccer and golf in 1896, and squash and hockey in 1900. Today, cricket’s presence has been reduced to a few ceremonial games a year—mostly to justify the club’s name.
Parents who’ve taken their children abroad but have deliberately avoided French beaches will immediately understand the dilemma faced by local 19th-century Methodists. Like everyone, they longed for a temporary summer escape from the hot city, but popular resorts were rife with things they preferred not to see: alcohol, dancing … and worse.
So, in 1872, they founded their own “sacred resort”—the Chester Heights Camp Meeting in southern Delaware County. Like similar resorts in Ocean Grove, N.J., and Rehoboth Beach, Del., Chester Heights offered a full season of religious programming in a relaxed setting.
Most camp meetings have long since vanished, but Chester Heights continues. Many of its 65 Victorian-era cottages have been passed down through families that still gather each summer to hear the Word pronounced at the central tabernacle—as it was in the 1940s by this unknown woman.
In the days before lawn service, when the suburbs were new and mowing grass still seemed exciting, one dad leaned over the fence and said something like, “Vroom, vroom. Betcha my mower is faster than your mower.”
And thus was born the Devon Lawn Mower Derby in 1954. Its entrants zoomed down Steeplechase Road and careened around the corner onto Hunters Lane—all for a shot at a gold (-colored) trophy. The race was so popular that the event later moved to the Devon Horse Show grounds.
About the time local Methodists were finding God in the woods, others were enjoying themselves with fast horses and the things that fast horses bring. From 1876 to the 1920s, Lower Merion was home to Merion Park, an oval racetrack located within walking distance of the Quaker meetinghouse.
With prizes ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, it was one of the nation’s best-known sulky tracks. There were horses like Guideless Wonder, which trotted the mile in two minutes and 15 seconds without a driver, and the blind Jay Eye See, which ran on instinct.
But neighborhood impact was profound. Track-goers made the Gen. Wayne Inn such a rowdy place that the Quakers fenced their burial ground to prevent patrons from using it to discard their used beer. In Bala Cynwyd, this staid structure—originally the Wisconsin House at the 1876 Centennial—was officially a hotel for jockeys. Unofficially, it was the best little whorehouse in Lower Merion, and a hot spot for post-race revelry.
When you play the horn, quite soon you’ll want to be accompanied by another horn. Then, perhaps, a trombone, a tuba and a set of drums. Music loves company, after all.
That’s how it was in rural 19th-century Chester County, where farmers in places like Kimberton, Chester Springs and Great Valley formed community bands to entertain themselves and their neighbors. One of the first was the Charlestown Cornet Band, first organized in 1857 by Dr. Nathan A. Pennypacker, a community politico, school director and all-around doer.
Festivals in 1884 raised money for the group’s gilded bandwagon and the blue, gold-trimmed uniforms they’re wearing above for an 1887 serenade outside the West Chester office of U.S. Rep. Smedley Darlington. If its members look morose, they may have been missing the recently deceased Pennypacker, whose influence quite possibly held the group together. In 1895, a local newspaper mentioned efforts to revive the crew. But that was the last reference in local archives to the Charlestown Cornet Band, whose horns soon fell silent again.