As Times Goes By on Lancaster Avenue: 1:05pm, April 22, 1914

The date is Wednesday, April 22, 1914.  On that day, George Herman “Babe” Ruth played his first professional baseball game, pitching for the (then minor league) Baltimore Orioles, in an exhibition game against the major league Philadelphia Phillies. To the amazement of the spectators, Babe Ruth proved to be one of those rare pitchers who could also hit! He left the game with a six hit, 6-0 win.  Incidently, Baltimore’s Major League Team at the time was the quaintly-named “Terrapins,” the main ingredient in the city’s famous turtle soup.  The terrapins went the way of the dodo the following year, and the Orioles replaced them as Baltimore’s MLB team.

The residents of the Philadelphia neighborhood of Belmont, like so many other Americans, were bewitched by baseball.  However, sports radio broadcasts were still a decade away.  Like telegraphs, wireless radio receivers of the time could only pick up Morse code dots and dashes.  Those unable to attend a baseball game at Shibe Park due to work or family obligations had to be content with detailed newspaper accounts published in the evening papers.

Belmont at the time was a solidly middle class neighborhood, largely a mixture of German, Italian, and Eastern European Jewish families. Although residents of Belmont enjoyed more leisure time than the factory workers of neighborhoods like Kensington, they still toiled long hours in the shops, groceries, law offices, and other small enterprises that lined Lancaster Avenue.  At 1:06pm at this day, the streets, were relatively empty, aside from a lone pedestrian and a couple of electric trolleys whooshing by. According to architect Robert Morris Skaler, whose family owned  L. Skaler & Sons kosher butcher shop, the owners usually lived above the store and all children were expected to help out with the chores. After hours, the adults would retire to the local pubs such as Trench’s Saloon to scan the Evening Bulletin and discuss the merits of various players, the rising star Babe Ruth among them.  After leaving classes at E. Spencer Miller School, the kids would have the same debates while hanging out at Furey’s ice cream parlor.  Or they would reeanct the game in games of half-ball on Belmont’s side streets, which at the time were almost car-free. On warmer spring nights, the sounds of upright pianos and Camden-made phonographs (popularly known as Victrolas) emanated from rowhouse windows.  Those who could spare a few dollars for a vaudeville show flocked to the William Penn Theater at 4063 Lancaster Avenue, completed two years earlier and able to seat 3,200 people at a time.

Students at the E. Spencer Miller School, 43rd and Westminster Avenue, June 14, 1933, 19 years after the railroad clock photograph.

The clock that stood outside 4255 Lancaster Avenue, located outside of the Walter M. Engle jewelry store, proudly noted that it kept railroad time. Inside the ornate little Engle store, another wall clock reminded the customers that it kept “True Time.”   Until the fall 1883, almost all cities and towns in the United States kept their own local time, based on when the sun reached its highest point in the sky.  Yet railroads such as the Pennsylvania, Union Pacific, and the Chicago Burlington & Quincy had greatly reduced the time it took to transport freight and passengers across the country.  Morever, railroad managers needed uniform time schedules to keep hundreds of trains on schedule and from crashing into each other.  Finding local time too burdensome (and it was), the railroads divided the country into four time zones, very close to the ones we know today. Despite a fair amount of local grumbling, most Americans adapted their lives around this executive fiat.

In 1914, a clock marked”Railroad Time” in front of a store on Lancaster Avenue signified modernity and predictability, essential traits in industrial powerhouse city such as Philadelphia. So did the dangling electric streetlight and the telephone wires overhead.  On Sundays, the bells of Belmont’s many  churches chimed in sych with the subtle thunk of the Engle clock’s minute hand.

The city of Philadelphia on April 22, 1914 had its share of poverty and labor unrest, but by and large, was prosperous and secure.  Yet within a few months, the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary would plunge the world into the bloodiest war in history. American joined the fight on the side of Britain, France, and Russia in April 1917. Scores of the young men of Belmont would leave their jobs, families, education (and their old time zone) behind to fight in the trenches, patrol the seas, and soar in the skies. Industrial production ramped up, the pace of life quickened, and time became even more precious.

At war’s end, Congress made the five zones of “railroad time” synonymous with national time.

Sources:

“What Happened on April 22, 1914,” OnThisDay.com, https://www.onthisday.com/date/1914/april/22, accessed April 8, 2020.

“Railroads Create the First Time Zones,” History.com, November 16, 2009,  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/railroads-create-the-first-time-zones, accessed April 8, 2020.

Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), pp. 95-99, 107.

Jeff Gamage, “A Collection of Postcards Captures Phila’s Changes,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 8, 2014,

https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/20140208_Collection_of_postcards_captures_Phila__s_changes.html, accessed April 8, 2020.

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