South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel

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Reading, Recreation, and the Arts

      The proliferation of newspapers in South Jersey during the 19th century is evidence of an enormous thirst for information from the printed page among a people of increasing literacy. Publishers, awake to this trend, trumpeted the benefits that accrue to a widely-read public.

      The inaugural editorial of the Salem Messenger, in 1819, urged heads of families to subscribe to newspapers in order to be informed "of what is transacting of importance in every part of the world," assimilating thereby mankindís actions and ideas, a potential agency for bringing universal peace. A knowledge of "the improvements in arts, sciences, and mechanism" will dispel superstition. Newspapers, furthermore, are an incentive to children to read and learn. The editor reckoned newspapers second only to the Bible "in usefulness." To have one in the house was a duty a father owed to himself, his family, and his country.

      The Messenger was Salemís second newspaper of the 19th century, trailing the 1816 publication of the Salem Gazette by three years. Gloucester County had two newspapers, published at Woodbury and Camden, by 1818. The Washington Whig was published at Bridgeton in 1815, and a second Cumberland County newspaper, later called the West Jersey Observer, was started at the county seat in 1822. The people of Cape May County began reading the Ocean Wave in 1854.

      New publications rolled from the presses at an astounding pace until the end of the century. Frequently, they were the exponents of particular political parties, skewing their news and editorials vehemently in the direction of their partyís point of view. There was no intention or effort to report occurrences dispassionately or objectively. In the opinion of Lucius Q. C. Elmer, a Cumberland County historian writing in the 1860ís, such a volume of print was pointless: Bridgeton, in 1862, had three newspapers, whereas "only one really good one can thrive, this being a case where, as in most of the towns of the State, too much competition has not tended to increase the value of the article produced."

      After 1900, the number of daily and weekly publications decreased, but the aggregate circulation of each issue of the daily newspapers increased steadily.

      Readers desiring, for information or pleasure, a broader scope of material than that which lay within the columns of the newspapers turned to the public libraries. A library company was formed at Woodbury in 1794, and within the next ten years a library was started at Salem. Other South Jersey cities and smaller communities began providing a similar service for their residents during the last several decades of the 19th century.

      The urge to get into print spawned a plethora of essayists, poets, short-story writers, and a sprinkling of novelists in 19th-century South Jersey. Their works of literature brought them little recognition outside the subscribership of the local newspapers, where most of these effusions were published. Nonetheless, the compulsion was satisfied in an era that has been described as "a period of violent and prolific literary output," when to be an author "was a sign of social distinction."

      Pseudonyms were the rage. A Salem poet, David P. Brown, for example, used the pen name, David of York. This exuberant unknown, who made an unsuccessful try at writing novels as well as poetry, was a member of Salemís Prescott Institute, a discussion club that encouraged its young members to pursue publication of their literary outpourings.

      A list of "Vineland Authors," printed in 1917, credits the cityís writers with seventy-seven volumes in hard cover and 142 pamphlets. To this there was appended in 1961 an additional list of twenty-two hard-cover books written by Vinelanders, most of which were published before or immediately after the turn of the 20th century. They ranged in titles from Quick, My Rifle to Items of Interest: A monthly record of Dental Literature. Camden authors included Stephen Pfeil and Arthur L. Manchester both of whom wrote articles for professional periodicals. Several of the counties published local histories during this period. Florid, inaccurate, and incomplete as many of these volumes are, they are nonetheless a boon to todayís historians, who are relieved thereby of the necessity of working entirely from scratch.

      One 19th-century novel of South Jersey origin attained a modicum of fame, especially among readers who fancy local history. It was Charles J. Petersonís Kate Aylesford, which weaves a story of real and imaginary Revolutionary characters at Pleasant Mills around a fictional heroine. The popularity of the novel can be gauged by its influence on local nomenclature: Elijah Clark has been deprived of identification with his 1762 mansion, known commonly for years as the Kate Aylesford Mansion; the fictional Sweetwater has joined the historical Pleasant Mills and Batsto as names for communities at the Forks of the Little Egg Harbor; and a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution has adopted Petersonís heroine as the namesake of its organization. Petersonís novel was first published in 1855. It was reprinted as The Heiress of Sweetwater in 1873, when Peterson took the pseudonym, J. Thornton Randolph.

      All in all, however, South Jerseyís literary product of the century was doomed to blossom unseen except by the eyes of a few newspaper readers of the time. Writers of more enduring fame who were associated with the area either came from elsewhere or, having been born in South Jersey, went elsewhere to write. Walt Whitman, born in Long Island, resided in Camden from 1873 until his death, in 1892. Throughout these years he was an invalid whose poetic vitality had been expended. James Fenimore Cooper, on the other hand, was Jersey-born (in Burlington), but moved with his family to New York State when he was but an infant. In the writings of neither was their connection with South Jersey a prominent factor.

      The sea, the surf, the beach, the dunes, and spanking, white sails on the horizon drew seascape painters to the South Jersey coastal islands in the late-19th century. They came to paint but did not stay to live. Except for George Essig, none were ever residents of the area. Essig was a painter whose work has come to be more and more appreciated in recent years, long after his death in or about 1919. Born in Europe, he studied under the Philadelphia marine artists, James Hamilton and Edward Moran. He spent much of his life in Ventnor.

      The wildlife artist and ornithologist, John James Audubon, traveled the Great Egg Harbor country for several weeks in 1829, and afterward located at Camden for an extended period. In 1829, George Conarroe, a portrait painter from Salem, began to exhibit in Philadelphia. Thereafter he resided most of the time in the Quaker City.

      The paucity of artists and renowned literary figures in 19th-century South Jersey notwithstanding, the people counted themselves as being properly cultured by the standards of the time. The larger towns had their music and lecture halls, where local and itinerant troupes of players, singers, and speakers entertained, informed, and inspired enthusiastic audiences.

      Whereas, in some places, these halls were proudly called the "Grand Opera House," the fare dispensed within was rarely grand. Although Hamlet was staged, as at Salem in the 1860ís (when the lecture hall had not yet become the Grand Opera House), the preference was for such offerings as Ten Nights in a Barroom or Peckís Bad Boy, the orations of Horace Greeley, and musical programs by a traveling company of Swiss bell ringers. A spectacle of mechanical wonder and electrical effects was featured in a performance of She, at Atlantic Cityís Grand Opera House in 1890. A cycle of Shakespearean plays, with Julia Marlowe, filled the Temple Theatre in Camden for eight nights running in 1893, but Uncle Tomís Cabin was the perennial favorite. Minstrel shows and vaudeville competed with melodrama and serious theater for the attention of South Jerseymen in their pursuit of culture.

      Traveling circuses, menageries, and animal shows of various sorts enticed one and all to thrilling exhibitions of skill and daring. In most, the animals alone were not the attraction. The feature performance was often preceded by a parade through town. A brass band would announce the appearance of a hundred horses drawing an enormous gilded chariot followed by dozens of carriages. On the carriages were cages from which fearsome tigers, lions, leopards, and other "wild" animals stared menacingly through the bars at the crowd, Later, inside the pavilion, in delirious excitement young and old would behold processions of trained jungle beasts, elephants walking tightropes, men walking on stilts, performing monkeys, equestrians, acrobats, clowns, aeronauts, contortionists, scalping scenes with real Indians acting, and other marvels too numerous to tell. Everyone turned out, even the preacher -- or so one did at Mays Landing in 1851 and thought the event of such import as to be worthy of mention in his journal. The Boardwalk had "Daniel Boone and His Trained Lions," and its show of twenty-four "Educated Horses," which did "everything but talk," but the small towns were not bereft of like entertainment.

      South Jersey music lovers in the 1890ís, if their appetite for the sound of the brass band was whetted when the circus came to town, could find satisfaction on the Boardwalk. In the morning on the lawns, on porches and in pavilions in the afternoon, and in the grand ballrooms after dinner, the hotels along the wooden way offered band concerts during the season. John Philip Sousa was one of the great bandmasters who enthralled the Boardwalk crowds from the Gay Nineties to the Roaring Twenties. Sousa loved the city by the sea, married the daughter of a Boardwalk photographer, composed a march about Atlantic City, and in 1927 directed his band in the last of their thirty-five summer concert seasons on the Boardwalk.

      Of lesser note, but of greater access than Sousaís band to the ordinary workers, who could spend at most a week of the year in Atlantic City, was Jenningsí Sixth Regiment Band of Camden or the City Silver Band of Vineland. The Vineland band, begun in 1881 as an outlet for musically talented employees of a shoe factory, matured in the 1890ís into a semi-professional group that was booked for concerts in towns and cities throughout South Jersey, until it was disbanded in 1936. On summer weekends, along the banks of the Delaware, outdoor band concerts entertained music lovers during the closing decades of the 19th century.

      Camden and other cities presented not just music to families with leisure hours to spend. Balloon ascensions, performed throughout the area, were magnetic in their appeal. Fireworks rocketed skyward in noisy color. Swings, seesaws, and merry-go-rounds delighted the children.

      Mechanical rides were the irresistible first choice of many bent on amusement. Camden had such a contraption long before Atlantic City and its amusement piers were dreamed of. A "Circular Pleasure Rail-way" was advertised in 1834 by a proprietor who "respectfully" informed the public that, upon his railway, "two elegant miniature cars are propelled, by an easy and healthful application of power by the passenger." A shaded grove, pure air, and the short walk from the ferries added to his amusement parkís felicity. Parents and teachers were assured that "perfect safety" and "propriety of conduct" would be maintained by his establishment.

      At Atlantic City, however, wheels, loops, dips, and revolving towers that whirled, spun, whisked, and inverted screaming vacationers attained the fantastic. A half-dozen carousels were on the Boardwalk in 1891, happily turning out pleasure for the throngs and just as happily turning in money for Atlantic Cityís entrepreneurs. An "Epicycloidal Wheel," an "Observation Roundabout," and other variations of the Ferris Wheel lifted carloads of passengers up and around in breathless suspension over the Boardwalk. The braver riders boarded the toboggan slides, switchbacks, and serpentine railways - - all of them types of a ride known in later times as roller coasters. In 1893, an amusement apparatus took its carload of riders in convoluted panic down a toboggan slide to a groove in a huge Ferris wheel, which caught them up, whirled them for five minutes, and then shot them out of the groove to the starting point. The Machine Age hit South Jersey with a bang.

      Another sort of vehicle on wheels, the bicycle, intrigued South Jersey pleasure seekers and health enthusiasts in the Gay Nineties. Atlantic City, of course, had its bicycles. In Cape May, streaking cyclists were such a menace to life and limb that the city, in 1896, set a bicycle speed limit of eight miles per hour. Haddonfield passed an ordinance barring bicycles from the townís sidewalks. In Pennsauken Township, the two-wheelers had to be equipped with a bell, "to give warning of their approach," and a lantern or lamp, which was to be burning after dark.

      Gravel roads and bike paths from Cape May to Millville were constructed with funds raised by the Cape May Bicycle Road Improvement Association, while cyclists in Camden County campaigned for better roads, The cycling fever struck Camden with indoor races, outdoor races, long-distance races, and eventually six-day bicycle races. Vineland, as usual on the moving front of progress, conducted training sessions for would-be riders of high-wheeled bicycles as early as 1875.

      After the turn of the century, speedsters at Cape May, no longer content with the snailís pace of bicycles, organized the Cape May Automobile Club for the purpose of sponsoring automobile races on the beach. The first of them was run in a downpour at the end of July, 1905, when the winner, in a 40-horsepower Winston touring car traversed a mile of strand in one minute, twenty-three and one-fifth seconds. Weather and elapsed times improved in the August races, when the 80-horsepower Darracq covered the mile in thirty-eight seconds flat.

      Most of the South Jersey sports events of the era were not so daring. Along the Delaware, speed skating in the winter and yacht racing in the summer delighted spectators gathered on the river bank. In the 1880ís, the Cooper Point regatta is said to have been one of the most prestigious in the nation, next after Newport. The majority of those who preferred athletic participation to observation settled for foot races, a long-honored sport in South Jersey that went back at least to 1837, when races for the fastest runners of Salem and Gloucester Counties were held at Swedesboro, and possibly back much further to colonial times. Throughout the century, they were a standing feature at the country fairs. Boxing, illegal until the 20th century, wrestling, and rifle and pistol shooting rounded out the individual sports of the period in South Jersey.

      Horse racing, too, was a favorite of spectators, but whether it was primarily an athletic event or a moneymaking business is a moot question. The breeding of race horses has long been a South Jersey enterprise, and running them in contests is of equal antiquity.

      The heaviest wagering at the county fairs was on the horses. A racetrack, the Thunderbolt, was completed in Salem County in 1868. At Gloucester City, a track was opened in 1890 by "Duke Billy" Thompson, a racing entrepreneur whose ghost was revived by opponents to the Garden State Race Track when it went into operation at Cherry Hill in the early 1940ís. Business or sport, horse racing has been a bane or blessing (depending upon oneís point of view) to South Jersey from the distant past to the present.

      Cricket, popular today in Great Britain but less in favor in America, was a team sport known in 19th-century South Jersey. The Philadelphia Cricket Club, organized in 1854, played their games in Camden. Later, in the same city, property owners fenced in their vacant lots, turned them into cricket fields, and charged admission to the matches. Cricket teams were organized in Paulsboro as well.

      Baseball, a sport given impetus by Civil War soldiers who relaxed with the game during their off-duty hours, was known in South Jersey by 1865, when Salem won by a score of 37-11 over a team from New Castle, Delaware, that summer. New local leagues appeared annually in the years following. Camden players went pro in 1883 with a team that dominated an early professional league, the Inter-State Association.

      Football and basketball, in 1900 still less popular than baseball, were played in Camden in the 1890ís under the sponsorship of the Athletic Association of Camden and the Y.M.C.A.

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