1947 PP&L 28th Annual Report cover Image Courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg; Record Group 37; Records of the Public Utility Commission; Bureau of Rates & Research; Annual Reports; Series 37.4
Primary documents (original source documents) provide invaluable detailed information about the mindset of the people building and buying suburban housing; and the documentation often still exists for the postwar period. If you are new to conducting research, please visit Learning Historical Research, a website that provides a detailed but navigatable discussion on primary research using manuscript collections, periodicals, government documents, photographic images, maps, interviews, quantitative data and landscapes.
Included on our Primary Resource page you will find several types of resources that we at the BHP have found helpful in researching suburbs. Please note, the primary resources scanned here are for reference purposes only. Researchers may be required to seek institutional approval to publish, reproduce, reprint or quote from the records. Please be sure to properly cite the information.
In an attempt to better understand Pennsylvania's postwar suburbs development and to explore the possible research avenues available, our office undertook a project to pick out an individual suburb for study. After using various mapping programs to look at street patterns for evidence of developments and other online tools for housing data, we decided on the subdivision of Lawrence Park in Marple Township, Delaware County. Like many other subdivisions of the 1950s, the Lawrence Park community (which is bounded by I-476, Sproul Road and Lawrence Roads) was originally farmland. The land was purchased by Ralph Bodek, a Philadelphia-based builder who also established a similar development in Springfield Township, Delaware County.
As can be seen from photos of the subdivison, Ralph Bodek's preference was for split-level housing. He even went so far as to have a book written that carried his name titled How and Why People Buy Houses (1958). This book compared split-level housing with row houses, duplexes, ranch houses, and 2-story colonials. The respondents for the book were all families that had purchased housing in Lawrence Park. They were all asked about what considerations went into their housing decisions, and what factors influenced them such as advertising and friend suggestions. The book also provided some suggestions on why people might choose a split-level house. Several respondents for the book said that they enjoyed "going upstairs to bed," and that the seperation of sleeping space from living areas was important to them (Ralph Bodek, How and Why People Buy Houses (Philadelphia: Municipal Publications, Inc., 1958), 49.) Interestingly though, some respondents did not like picture windows, stating that the house was "like a fishbowl" (Bodek, 46) and Bodek found that "in a few cases [there was] an irrational prejudice against asbestos siding" (Bodek, 55).
A very important resource that we used during our study of Lawrence park was the local newspaper, the County Leader. In this paper we found many useful articles dealing with topics like the local school, the formation of the Lawrence Park Civic Association, and the Lawrence Park Shopping Center. The local newspaper provided many details that helped to give a complete picture of the subdivision prior to, during and directly after its construction.
Another repository that was helpful was the Pennsylvania State Archives. It was here that we found additional resources such as planning documentation, as well as evidence of other development ammenities such as bus transportation, which became available to the residents of Lawrence Park to 69th Street in Philadelphia in 1959. The resources that can be found at the archives are important when details are needed to document the history of a subdivision and what it had to offer its residents.
To see some examples of the documentation that we were able to find, see the examples above, and click on one of the photos below.
Local newspapers contain a wealth of information about a town's suburban development, including zoning issues, advertisements for new housing, construction of new roads, schools and other ancillary resources, "neighborhood" news columns, real estate transfer notices, articles about local builders and developers, and much more. Newspapers, either on microfilm or in clippings files, may be available to view at most local historical societies or libraries.
Sometimes, information about a development can come from a non-typical article. By looking at the various School Bus Schedules, we were able to determine when a particular street in a developement appeared. Other typical news items, such as an advertisement for a new housing development gave us the name of the builder, the house price, an artist rendering of the house type, and the selling agent's name.
To see examples of the documentation that we were able to find, see the examples above, and click on one of the photos below.
Pennsylvania PostWar Planning Commission The Postwar Planning Commission was created by the General Assembly under an act approved by Governor Edward Martinon April 28, 1943. The members represented the industrial, labor, agricultural, and civic interests of the Commonwealth and were charged with developing plans and recommending measures to offset the potential for the kind of post-war unemployment that had occurred after the World War I. The Commission established committees to examine problems arising in industry, employment, housing, conservation, agriculture, education, and fiscal and tax policy. The commission was abolished by the General Assembly by repealing its initial legislation in June 1947.
The Project Application File of the Post-War Planning Commission, 1945-1951 [RG 31, series #31.20] contains contracts written for state grants to aid in the construction of public works in the post World War II years. Each contract gives the date and name of the party applying for the grant, the amount of money involved, the type of project, the file number, agreement details, and the signatures of the witnesses and other individuals involved in the contract. Other material that can be found in each applicant's package include financial data, voucher forms, general contracts, and in some cases blueprints or sketches of the project (the rejected applications are less detailed).
Bureau of Community Development
PA Map of Metropolitan and Urban Industrial Districts Courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, MG 190; James H. Duff Papers; Official Papers, Post-War Planning Commission
The Bureau of Community Development administered or assisted communities in utilizing Federal and State programs involving grants and subsidies for planning, housing renewal and related physical community improvements. Divisions under the Bureau included Housing and Redevelopment, Planning, Recreation and Conservation, and Mass Transportation. The Bureau was eliminated in 1970 when the Department reorganized.
Included in the records of Community Plans and Studies (1963-1968) [series #34.3] at the Pennsylvania State Archives are comprehensive plans for various improvement projects for communities, cities, boroughs, and counties throughout the state. These plans were financed by various agencies under the provisions of Section 701 of the Housing Act of 1954, as amended and administered by the Bureau of Community Development, Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs. Many of the plans address population anaylsis, economic structures, existing land use, highway systems, and community facilities. Topics of plans and proposals include general development, proposed zoning ordinances, comprehensive studies, capital improvements, and regional evaluations.
PP&L postwar expansion chart Image Courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg; Record Group 37; Records of the Public Utility Commission; Annual Reports of Non-transportation Utilities; Series 37.4
Included in the records of Urban Planning Assistance Project Files (1958-1979) [series #34.5] at the Pennsylvania State Archives are the plans, reports, and studies funded through an urban planning grant under provisions of Section 701 of the United States Housing Act of 1954. The purpose of the program was to facilitate comprehensive planning for urban and rural development by state and local governments. Grants were made to local governments and other public planning agencies to prepare, administer, coordinate, and evaluate community, county, and region wide plans, particularily in the areas of housing and land use. Examples of project topics include land use, planning, economic development, housing, subdivision regulations, open space preservation, transportation, and education.
The Public Utility Commission was created in 1937 to regulate intrastate rates and services of public utilities. These records may give an insight into how public transportation changed during the postwar period, and also a look into the financial and statistical statements of water, gas, and electric utility companies. An interesting resource was the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company's annual reports, with the data provided, a researcher can track the growth of residential, rural, industrial, and commerical utility users, trends and cost of living increases.
Since the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg does not have copies of all Pennsylvania county records,the researcher should visit their county courthouse (County Courthouse List) or county office to examine the record. There are at least three departments at the county level that will have beneficial records to begin your research: Tax Assessment (Tax records, Property information); Planning Commission (subdivision and land development ordinances, agendas & minutes, census information, annual reports) and the Recorder of Deeds (land transactions and title searches).
Many of the county Tax Assessment offices have on-line property record databases - by inputting the street name, you can determine the current owner's name (which is used to begin the deed trace). A deed for a property is a government document that tells you who had official ownership of that property. A typical deed describes a property in legal detail, including boundaries and acreage. For example, for a particular property we found out the grantor (and builder) was Curtis Jones, Inc., that lot number 16 was 406 Graystone Road, there were certain building restrictions, and the property was part of the "Subdivision Plan of Mercer Hill Village Annex." Further tracing back of the property uncovered the information on the entire tract (that became the subdivision). Tracing one address may be an option if you are unable to locate a subdivision plan or pertinent information about the subdivision's origin from other sources. Some Recorder of Deeds offices have the images of the deeds (for a fee) available on-line.
The Montgomery County Planning Commission had in their files a "Record of Review by Municipalities, 1950-1963." This document provided by township: the number of lots, applicant's name, owner's name, engineer, subdivision name, street location, and the approved date of various subdivision requests; in addition, the plans for the subdivisions were on microfilm. Subdivision plans are an invaluable resource, for they offer information regarding the street names (which sometimes change over the years), lot dimensions, location, grade, cut fill and widths of roads; locations of utilities, name of the owner of the land, subdivision plan dates (original submission, revised dates, approved date), the plan book number and page. Subdivision applications also have useful information ranging from the subdivision name, number of lots, application date, total acreage, average lot frontage, average lot size, average cost of home, linear feet of new street, if public water or sanitary sewer was included and whether or not the subdivision conformed to township zoning. Using the data from the "Record of Review" we were able to chart which townships had significant periods of growth and when.
To see some examples of the documentation that we were able to find, see the examples above, and click on one of the photos below
Municipal records may be found at the county courthouse, local historical societies, local libraries or the municipal office. These records can range from minutes of the borough authority or board of supervisors, water system reports, municipal financial reports, subdivision plans, and various correspondence. Documents like the Township of Abington's Board of Commissioners 1951 Annual Report (PDF) offers a look into suburban development in the form of information on sewer system connections, building regulation and zoning activities, and new street construction.
Other municipal documents include township zoning ordinances, planning reports or comprehensive plans. The municipal zoning regulations give specific details regarding permitted use, conditional use, development ratios, design standards, and special exception uses. The 1960s Whitpain Township Comprehensive Plan provided further research options, for they discussed where the best records were available, including those of the 1952-1955 Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission and a 1958 report published by the Montgomery County Planning Commission. The report tracked the areas of change in population density over time, results of a survey of factors that influenced the location of growth (convenient to work 16.0%, reasonable priced homes 12.3%, good schools 11.2%, pleasant surroundings 23.3%), forecasts of population growth, and impacts of future growth.
To see some examples of the documentation that we were able to find, see the examples above, and click on one of the photos below.
An oral history interview with former owners or residents of a property can provide beginning points of reference for further investigation. More importantly, first-hand accounts of the lifestyle, attitudes, and formation of the neighborhood can provide or clarify missing or undocumented information; thus it should be used to corroborate other primary documentation and secondary resources.
Historic photographs are a visual document of a particular time and place. For anaylsis of architecture and landscape features, it is an excellent resource which one can use to compare the property's current appearance to its original or historic appearance, or to help describe how the landscape changed drastically once development occurred, or corroborate written descriptions of a neighborhood.
Follow the evolution of a Better Homes & Gardens Plan Number 904 in Dauphin County. Designed by architect Arthur L. Herberg and built by the homeowner in c. 1947