A Centenarian Historian Discusses Life in a Small Town in the 1920s



By Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet / 05.06.2018
Professor Emeritus of History
Southern Oregon College


Because I turned 100 last October 10, I owe it to others who remember my earliest place of residence (Bala in eastern Pennsylvania) to offer a few memories for publication. Few there are now, I fear, who can recall first hand, life as lived by a boy turning into a youth as the Prosperity Decade choked, then staggered, to its close.

Born in Philadelphia in Hahnemann Hospital the night of October 10, 1917 (when World War I was the premier thing on adult minds) to Florence Davis Scull Bornet and Vaughn Taylor Bornet, a steel detailing engineer, my first home was in Bala Cynwyd on Bala Avenue opposite Bala Elementary School’s playground. My rented home was diagonally situated across from a lumberyard obscured by trees in one direction and nothing but homes in the other. That small suburban town, by the way, owes its name to Lake Bala in Wales. It can be found up the Schuylkill River when leaving the Philadelphia Parkway by making a left turn on City Line, then driving a mile or so uphill.

. Looking uphill from my rented first home was the already venerable (and a bit ornate) Egyptian Theater which boasted black and white silent movies and vaudeville. Its double bill on Saturday was $.15 and later $.25 for us. It was there in the late twenties that Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” arrived. It was my first Talkie! “Mammmmy; the sun shines East…. It shines on my mammy!” Sometimes we ate Mars Bars (famous after 1932). Live performers were just about to vanish, for then. Distant TV was unknown to all of the public. Heavy bicycles were a must for kids. (Mine with balloon tires, my very last cherished possession back then, was stolen in 1931.)

There was what passed as a decidedly local shopping district (groceries, mostly) half a block up Bala Avenue, near the commuter train station. That grocery store had half a dozen open bins containing dry baked goods and other edibles. Oatmeal was common; but air conditioning certainly was not. More than a few women then wore “real fur coats” in cold weather, with classy mink the ultimate. Spats and knickers were common among well dressed males. Gasoline was likely to be “Sunoco” and “Gulf.” Tires had tubes, and many car radiators boasted visible thermometers (while running boards were common, along with “gear shifts” that relied on a “clutch.” An ice box was likely.

The nearest street originating at right angles off Bala Avenue was Aberdale Road, just one block long. We would buy number 38, stone outside bordering the first floor, wood above; we would live there about 14 years. I started my “working career” as a child, delivering the Saturday Evening Post to neighbors on our street; then the Philadelphia Public Ledger. When Main Line Daily Times started, in 1930, I was among its very first delivery boys with a route that extended a bit into Cynwyd. By then I needed every nickel I could get.

There was much roller skating back then, with the always steel wheels often being totally worn down. There was occasional ice skating on a frozen street. But I don’t remember skiing at all. Sledding was great! I practiced serious baseball pitching in our driveway, hurling, sans catcher, toward garage doors with every window totally protected. (I would win five games in a row in college.) Summers at Ocean City brought surf fishing and fun with relatives at the beach.

My home seemed a permanent part of life. I wore out two bb-guns shooting at bottles (nothing live). I took note of our overgrown garden. My father just lost interest in it sometime; the huge upright piano stood neglected as he did professional stride playing “downtown,” The Victrola stood neglected in a corner with Caruso 78 records no longer played. Somehow, my parents’ Twenties were different from their earlier years (I think the death of two infants, the ones before me, knocked something vital out of them; what I don’t know).

We would have gladly stayed on in Bala in the Depression years, but “Philadelphia’s leading engineer”—as a newspaper called my father (who did the elevated trains and the House of Correction)—suddenly lost his contract for a giant projected Philadelphia Post office. He released 44 engineers and closed his office. Quickly we lost our two houses and three cars to Merion Title and Trust Company and moved in with relatives many miles away.

As a growing boy, earlier, I was a steady customer of the Bala Public Library, reading all of the Frank Merriwell, Ken Strong, Boy Allies, and other juvenile sets. I attended the nearby Bala School with “Miss Nellie” long in first grade and “Miss McCahn” solid in 4th. Silver cornet playing began in its half-furnished second story room. I still toot.

Although my Mother graduated from a Friends (Quaker) high school far downtown, she was totally uninterested in a Meeting long in a stone building several miles up a highway. I was told, when small, to go alone to a Presbyterian Sunday School at an intersection across from Cynwyd; to get there I walked slowly uphill past a substantial Catholic school with a playground. (We never talked of religious matters in our home, and I do think that the formal church they chose more than did its duty toward me, especially on psalms and Christian highlights.)

Had I walked the opposite direction from my home it could have taken me to City Line where, if I turned right, I would arrive at a store where 12-exposure black and white Kodak roll film could be developed and printed. Across the street, likely waiting, was streetcar 70, one of many, a vital and direct conveyance to good transfers. If vacationing, in the 1920s we would make visits to Ocean City on the Blackhorse or Whitehorse Pike for solvent Philadelphia types in the hot and humid summers. The compulsory ferry (fun for juveniles) was displaced by the Delaware River Bridge, which finally finished its long drawn out construction in 1926.

In the substantial regional snows of winter, kids tied a rope to bread, milk, cleaning, and ice horse drawn wagons, going blocks Saturday morning. Our autos were a LaSalle, Nash, and Chandler. The black telephone used everywhere had a vertical stem nearly a foot in length and a heavy receiver to be lifted to one’s ear. Phonebooths were common. My sister, aware of her Quaker ancestry, graduated from Swarthmore in 1928, relishing her Nash convertible, Chi Omega friends, and near-Ivy League prestige. It was in nearby West Chester.

Father did a tour of Berlin and Paris around this time and was especially ecstatic about his first airplane flight (over the English Channel). My pleasant book about the adventures is in Happy Travel Diaries, 1925 to 1933, self-published recently by Bornet Books.

While one could drive down the city’s beautiful parkway to get downtown, it was that trolley 70 that was central to Bala’s economic life. It took one to the Elevated Trains that duly became a subway with access to Wanamaker’s. Many passengers emerged at Billy Penn’s statue high over City Hall—and wide Broad Street’s Manufacturers’ Club (long closed), of course, from whose second story I watched the Mummers Parade annually. (On a wall at home was its framed and very ornate $1,000 stock certificate—soon to be valueless.)

Lower Merion Junior High School (Pa.) cheerleading team. Vaughn Davis Bornet. 1931-32.

Going the other direction off Bryn Mawr for three miles led to Lower Merion junior and senior high schools. It was there in 1931 to 1933 that I attended each—being in band and orchestra, the only male cheerleader in Junior High (partnered uneasily, with a Virginia), and was paid to play in Ardmore Boy’s Band now and then.

In 1932-33, with my helpless and suddenly indigent parents clear across Philadelphia, I was farmed out to my Aunt Ella Scull’s home where I lived in her athletic sons’ bedroom. It was congested with their medals and cups. Did I ever wonder those nine months if I could one day catch up with them—by doing “something” very well? What I do know is that two nights a week I was Boy Scouting with Troop 1’s lawyer scout master Pop Ferris. That serious scouting was indebted to equipment and procedures derived from awful World War I, a fact little noted at our level. Still, I was a bugler (with the bugling merit badge). I always played Taps. I do recall that our scoutmaster had spent the War as a signalman aboard a merchant ship. (We learned Morse Code well.)

A word about our “tony” Lower Merion Township high school. Its band followed the football team (which used the plumpish balls then good for drop kicking). I took Latin and two years of really dull German. Shop changed subjects each semester and included metalsmithing, printing, woodworking, and electrical. (Years later, in Georgia, my new college friends, other than from maybe three cities I think, got only 11 years of schooling. That would have been considered out of the question in my Pennsylvania where 12 was required of all.) Carved into the concrete out front was: “ENTER TO LEARN; GO FORTH TO SERVE.” I remembered it without looking it up.

A word about safety. During the nine months I lived fifty miles from my parents, clear across Philadelphia, I visited half a dozen times. I sometimes got to them, starting by walking across Bala. Then I took our streetcar 70. Transferred eventually to the Elevated, riding until the Subway arrived under City Hall. Emerged, glancing at the beggars. Caught a conveyance going 90 degrees off, through urbanized Temple University, alone for a long time. In Jenkintown, I walked happily (but tired) two miles downhill to my sister’s old home in Rydal. (Two days later my sister’s husband drove me diagonally on Park roads back to my Aunt’s, and Monday’s familiar schooling.)

I can recall no lectures on the need for my “safety” from bums, drugs, assault, alcohol, “strangers,” or other catastrophes. How can that be? I was after all walking in Philly’s center and was for most of a day a 15 year old kid who was all alone. Maybe uniting my family, however briefly, was an absolute necessity. I thought I’d mention all that.

I do hope this cursory account of a boyhood and early youth centered in a place called Bala, not far from Overbrook one way and Valley Forge (yes!) 14 miles the other, has jogged the memories of some readers. I hope it has stirred interest in an American past long since read about or seen in a movie by some others. (Maybe a budding novelist will be jarred into seeking out my Eastern Pennsylvania locale for that next book.)

Anyway, I doubt that there are very many around that can do what I just did. From entirely personal memory I have tried to restore somewhat a past that is close to 100 years back. What one must do is remember that many of those upwardly bound in the Twenties would be descending downward in the Thirties. That’s what happened repeatedly back then, believe me.

Those years of prosperity destined to sink to Depression were enclosed by two terrible World Wars. My childhood and boyhood years portrayed here, 1917 to 1933, would change course after those “normal” years, unexpectedly. Prosperity took two steps (and more) backward, 1930-31, the nation’s transition point, and for years afterward. That is all too true. I have greatly enjoyed recreating the scene for you and some of the more pleasant and normal aspects of that start in life that I had the good fortune to experience so very long ago.


Originally published by History News Network, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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