Doylestown in the 1920s

The picturesque Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown was known to outsiders as authentic, charming, and rich with history. When World War I ended, the town’s essence remained intact. But the cultural, political, economic shifts occurring nationwide eventually took effect.

During the 1920s and 1930s in Doylestown, trolleys were phased out when the affordable automobile was introduced for the masses, and those still interested in public transportation traveled to and from the city on an electric engine instead of steam. The Doylestown Fair began in 1923 and was the highlight of many, featuring horse races and food vendors galore. And the town’s first real movie theater, the Strand, was constructed in 1925, the same year South Pacific author James A. Michener graduated high school.

At that time, Doylestown gained notoriety as the supposed birthplace of Daniel Boone, the origin of Burpee seeds, and the home of concrete marvels Fonthill Castle and the Mercer Museum. In the decades to follow, Doylestown would lay claim as the childhood home of the award-winning writer James A. Michener and cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, and would become a tourist destination for city dwellers, holiday makers, and artists alike.

Art in Doylestown

Charles Sheeler and friend Morton Schamberg began renting a home in Doylestown in 1910. Built in 1768 and named after builder Jonathan Worthington, the house was settled at the corner of Center Street and present-day Mercer Avenue. Arranging the lease for Sheeler and Schamberg was Henry Mercer, a Doylestown native, archaeologist, tile-maker, and architect of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, Fonthill Castle, and the Mercer Museum—which sits across the street from the Michener Art Museum.

Doylestown House, Stairway, Open Door, negative date: about 1916-17
Photograph, gelatin silver print. © The Lane Collection. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The fieldstone exterior, stark interior and rural landscape that surrounded the Worthington house established a simple, serene setting for the painters’ inspiration and a perfect retreat from the city. It was here that Sheeler first began experimenting with photography, capturing barn structures, rural pastures, and his home’s interior on film. His talent caught the eye of local architects who commissioned Sheeler to photograph their projects.

Sheeler continued to work in Doylestown through the mid 1920s, with frequent visits to New York City. These years in Doylestown were a transformative time in Sheeler’s career, when his photography moved from a source of income to an expressive and defining art form.

Towards the end of the 1920s and throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Doylestown and its surrounding towns became a haven for cultural leaders migrating from Philadelphia and New York. The romantic countryside that called to Sheeler just two decades earlier produced that same draw for other artists.

Al Aumuller, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein II, seated in back is Helen Tamiris, they are watching hopefuls who are being auditioned on stage of the St. James Theatre, World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller. 1948. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Bucks County became an oasis for playwrights George Kaufman and Moss Hart. Kaufman bought what is now known as the Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm with his wife Beatrice in 1936. He became close with neighbor and fellow playwright Hart, who retreated to Fairview Farm just down the road from Barley Sheaf the following year. The two of them collaborated on a series of plays well-received by critics including The Man Who Came to Dinner and I’d Rather Be Right. Both playwrights took active roles in the creation of the Bucks County Playhouse.

Lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II came to Doylestown with his family to escape the busy New York life in 1941. In his home at Highland Farm, Hammerstein partnered with Richard Rodgers to form a musical partnership that would produce noteworthy musicals such as Oklahoma, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and South Pacific—the adaptation of Michener’s novel.

Bernstein at rehearsal for West Side Story. Carol Lawrence who played Maria is at his left, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is playing the piano, 1957. Music Division. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Bernstein at rehearsal for West Side Story. Carol Lawrence who played Maria is at his left, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is playing the piano, 1957. Music Division. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

It was also at Highland Farm that Hammerstein mentored a young Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim spent his childhood summers in Bucks County and befriended Oscar Hammerstein’s son James. Sondheim wrote his first musical, By George!, in Bucks County when he was a fifteen-year-old student at the George School in Newtown. Sondheim based his musical Merrily We Roll Along on a play of the same name by Bucks County writers Kaufman and Hart.

Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck purchased the house and property of Green Hills Farm in Bucks County in 1935 and lived there for 40 years. During this time, Buck raised her family, managed organizations for disadvantaged children, and penned more than seventy books, including important novels such as This Proud Heart and The Patriot.

Pearl Buck, ca. 1932, Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Pearl Buck, ca. 1932, Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Poet, writer, and satirist Dorothy Parker called Bucks County her home in the early 1930s. Parker was known for her witty theater criticism for Vanity Fair and humorous poems in The New Yorker. She and her husband Alan Campbell purchased a run-down farmhouse in the quiet Philadelphia suburb with the help of author and screenwriter S.J. Perelman. Many of Parker’s written pieces were drafted during the time she lived at the farmhouse. Parker and Perelman were neighbors and friends for nearly 35 years. Perelman considered his Bucks County home an escape from the hustle and bustle of New York City. One of his most notable novels is Acres and Pains, which chronicles much of his country-living experiences.


Take the exhibition home!

Our stunning 234-page catalogue includes photographs by Sheeler and others, plus essays written by scholars, historians, and archivists.

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