The Army Aid Society


In 1862, a group of men and women came together in Norristown to find a way to support the Union Army.  They called themselves the “Army Aid Society.”  According to its constitution, the society’s purpose was to supply “articles of comfort and convenience to the volunteers from Montgomery County who have enlisted in the Army.”

The Historical Society has a collection of the Army Aid Society’s minutes, correspondence, and lists of donors.

Groups like the Army Aid Society sprang up all over the country during the Civil War.  Most were called “Ladies’ Aid Societies,” and Norristown’s Army Aid Society was dominated by women who seemed to have held all the leadership positions in the organization.


A page from the minutes showing the supplies sent to the soldiers

The day to day work of the society was to raise money and make clothes and food to send to the soldiers.


Ticket to a fundraiser

Also part of this collection is a scrapbook of envelopes printed during the Civil War.  More colorful and patriotic than modern envelopes, these creative designs resulted from the new postal rate that allowed letters of up to one half of an ounce to be mailed for three cents (according to National Geographic).  Prior to that, the Post Office charged by the sheet, so no one used envelopes.  With all the men leaving their homes for the war, tens of thousands of Americans were now buying envelopes.

Many of the envelopes have political cartoons:



Others were more colorful:



The minute book for the Army Aid Society, covers the entire existence of the society.  In May, 1865, the group recorded its resolutions on the death of President Lincoln.


A month later, the group disbanded.  The Union had been saved.


East Norriton School District

There’s a persistent myth that people in the past had better penmanship.  The handwriting of Natalie R. Rogers dispels that myth.  A teacher, and later principal, in the East Norriton School District, she kept the records of the school board for several years.  It’s isn’t completely illegible, but it’s hardly easy to read.  So examining the minute book for the East Norriton School District  (1910-1920) was not easy.


The kind of handwriting that drives archivists crazy.

Luckily, she was not secretary for the whole period, so we can still glean some interesting facts from the minutes.  For example, the district purchased its first school bus in 1917.  It was a “Studebaker Auto Bus” and cost the school district $1550.  Here’s a Studebaker bus from 1912 that’s probably very similar.


Most of the meetings concern taxes, the purchase of books and supplies, and staff.  In 1911, the board debated establishing a high school in the district, but didn’t come to any conclusion. Students from East Norriton attended Norristown High School, with the East Norriton School district paying their tuition.  A note in the minutes from March 4, 1918 reports that the school district will coordinate with Norristown High School so 8th graders will move more easily into high school.  Secondary eduation was not compulsory at the time and students not wishing to go could stay in the East Norriton schools until they were old enough to leave school.


This volume covers the time of the US involvement in World War I, and I was curious to see the impact of the war on the schools. Unsurprisingly, there was a shortage of supplies, and schools had to be closed for a week in January, 1918  and all of February because of a coal shortage.  The war itself, however, is not mentioned.


This book records the final exam grades of the students only for 1910 and 1911.  The graduating classes are still small (only one pupil was examined in 1911).


The grades for the class of 1910

The back portion of the book contains pre-printed contracts for teachers and other documents necessary for a school board.

Overall, the minutes show little conflict and very little concern with the specifics of the school curriculum.  There are little details about the hiring or qualifications of teachers.  There is a lot about finances, however, so some things don’t change.

Property of the Norriton School District

Earlier today, our hardworking volunteer and board member, Ed Ziegler asked me about a wrapped package sitting on a table in our stacks.  The brown paper was marked “East Norriton School.” It turned out to be two minute books from the Norriton and then the East Norriton School District.  They came into our collection in 1948.

Norriton copy

The first volume covers the years 1892 till 1902.  It opens with several meetings concerning how the school district would mark Columbus Day (1892 would have been the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the New World).  Most of the meetings concerned purchasing books, building maintenance, and the annual examination of graduates.

Every now and then, something more interesting comes along.  In 1893 there is an expenditure for the purpose of replacing a stolen dictionary.  Also in 1893, the board decided that each school should get a “water closet.”  At a later meeting (1898), steps are taken to prevent the abuse of the water closets by the students.

The grades of the graduating class are recorded for each year. Here’s one of them:


This is typical of all the years in the first volume.  The class is overwhelmingly female and the highest grade is is a B+.  The highest average I saw was 92 in the first volume.  A note in the minutes from a meeting on May 30, 1896 says that student with an average above 70 were to be promoted.

Occasionally, the board got involved in discipline.  At the beginning of 1897, the board investigated “the trouble existing between the assistant teacher Anson Moser and a pupil John Staddon.”  The board interviewed the older students in the classroom and determined that John was a “trying pupil.”  The minutes note that Moser used “capitol punishment” (presumably they mean “corporal”) which he was not permitted to do as an assistant teacher and demanded an apology.


A few diphtheria cases closed one of the schools in 1899.  This led to the school board applying to Norriton Township to act in the capacity of the board of health.  A sanitary agent was soon hired to regularly look the children over for disease.  After that, there are regular reports of various disease outbreaks.

One thing that hasn’t changed (at least for many schools) is that the district never seemed to have enough money.


The second volume covers the new East Norriton school district from 1909 until 1920.  More on that one next week.

“no hope for me at all”

A few months ago we received a large collection of papers from a woman named Ida who had died in 2000 at the age of 95.  She had kept a lot of things from her long life, but most of it was not of a personal nature.  There are no diaries and what correspondence she kept were impersonal, such as Christmas cards with only a signature.  Much of the collection consisted of mass produced programs and travel brochures.   I was beginning to despair of finding anything personal when I came across a single, sad letter.


Post marked Philadelphia, 1956, the letter has no return address and is signed with only a first name, “Lorraine.”

The letter begins noting that it has been some time since the two had seen each other.  Lorraine goes on to describe the deep depression she has been in since she last saw Ida.

“now there seems to be no hope for me at all, I can no longer look to the future and know that things will work out, because the present is all to clearly pressing me downward until I shall soon reach the depths of a living hell.”

Letter 1

The first page of the letter

She goes on to explain how the few months she knew Ida were happy for her.

“I almost felt for the first time in my life that I was almost needed in some small way, that all seemed to give my life itself a purpose.”

The letter, which almost fills four sheets of paper, goes on to describe the break between the women in only very vague terms.

“That night while taking you home I know I told you a lot of things that must have been pretty hard for you to take and accept as a part of anyone’s life, but I only told you about another part of life that exists, even though you detest the thought of such things, still — you cannot deny that they are so….it was something I would never had disclosed to anyone else to, even to you had I had the slightest inclination as to the result.”


Ida in the 1920s

Lorraine goes on to say,

“I do think, though, that my entire description of another side of life was entirely misinterpreted into meaning something that was the farthest from my mind….I sought out these people because I had to be able to have someone to talk to — and one of my own kind was the only solution since I had no one else in the world to turn to until —  until you came along….But in saying everything I said, Ida, I never dreamed of swaying you to that way of thinking or of living.  In fact had it ever become a question of your doing so in my mind, I would have flatly and outrightly [sic] denied the possibility of ever changing you, and furthermore I would have then done everything in my power to turn you bitterly against that life.”


Lorraine ends the letter by wishing that Ida’s “dreams and ambitions become realities in the very near future.”

From the collection, I know that Ida was a single woman her entire life, but because of the dearth of personal material, I really can’t say what relationships, romantic or otherwise, she might have had.  In an interview for a local newspaper she says that she never had time for a husband or children.  And I don’t know if she replied to Lorraine’s letter, though if I had to guess, I would say no.  But she did keep this letter when most of her other correspondence was discarded or destroyed.

Centre Square Fire Company

Yesterday, I worked through part of a large collection donated by John Nealy Mears upon his death in 1969.  Mears was very interested in the history of Whitpain township, railroads, and local fire companies.  He collected many early records of the Centre Square Fire Company, which was founded in 1913 and is still going today.  Mears wrote a history of the company for its 1963 anniversary.  Below are some highlights from that history.

On February 21, 1913, a  group of men from Centre Square, Blue Bell, Belfry, and other parts of Whitpain gathered at the Centre Square Hotel to discuss establishing a fire company.  This led to a town meeting a few days later at the Odd Fellow’s Hall.


The Centre Square Hotel

By the end of the month, 35 men had signed up as the first members of the fire company.  More would soon join, so the fire company actually had 73 charter members.  Early meetings continued to be held at the Odd Fellow’s hall, but in 1914, the company rented a former livery stable across from the hotel, and it bought the property a few years later.


A list of some of the early members from the minute book.

Firefighting was certainly different in the early 20th century. When Centre Square Fire Company bought it’s first fire wagon, they did not buy a horse to go with it.  Mears writes, “many of the early members were farmers and farmers are practical men.” They simply took the place of the horse and pulled the wagon themselves, only utilizing horses from their farms if the fire was out of town.

The first fire recorded in the minutes was on November 6, 1913 at Walter Schaeff, Sr.’s barn.  The company’s second fire was the very same night at John R. Morris’s home.  In 1919, the firefighters bought their first real fire truck, an REO Speedwagon (yes, like the rock band).


This isn’t Centre Square’s REO Speedwagon, but it’s the same model.

In those early days the water came from ponds, lakes, and dams maintained by local homeowners for the purposes of fighting fires.  The men in charge of managing those water sources were known as the “Dam Committee.”

Over the decades, many men and women had donated their time and money to the Centre Square Fire Company, and it’s still around today fighting fires in Whitpain.