by Lou Mancinelli
The diaries of late 19th-century Philadelphia banker Cornelius Weygandt offer a glimpse into what it was like to live and to stroll up and down the streets of Victorian-era Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill.
Discovered in the 1980s by local historian Mark Frazier Lloyd, a longtime resident, former Germantown Historical Society (GHS) executive director and former president of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, the diaries span the second half of the 19th-century from 1849 through 1907.
Lloyd chanced upon learning of their existence when he was reading “On the Edge of Evening,” an autobiography by the diarist’s son, a University of Pennsylvania English professor, also named Cornelius Weygandt, published in 1946. “The way the guy writes is just beautiful,” Lloyd said of the professor.
The professor’s father, Weygandt the diarist (1832-1907), graduated from Central High School and went straight to work at Western Bank at 4th and Chestnut Streets. By 1863, he was appointed cashier, the modern equivalent of being chief financial officer at a corporation.
His diaries are an early glimpse written in a sort of accountant’s prose at the new American suburb built for upper-middle class commuters who took the train from Center City to their Victorian enclaves, in Weygandt’s case, near Tulpehocken and Greene Streets.
Since 2006, the diaries have been available at the University Archives and Records Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where Lloyd has overseen 14,000 cubic feet of records as director of the archives for the past 29 years.
After learning the diaries existed, Lloyd followed a string of coincidences and learned the diaries were in the possession of Weygandt’s granddaughter Ann, a University of Delaware English professor.
The diaries were donated to the Archives in 1991 and made available in 2006, two years after the last of Weygandt’s living grandchildren died. They are now being used in Penn history courses.
“The key thing here is that Cornelius Weygandt, the diarist, and Cornelius Weygandt, his son,” said Lloyd, “both lived on Tulpehocken Street. So the connection with the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion is immediate.”
The Victorian mansion at 200 W. Tulpehocken St. is located on the same block were Weygandt lived. Some of the diaries are now available online at the Mansion’s blog.
One of Weygandt’s acquaintances whom he often saw at the bank and wrote about was Frank Furness, a leading Victorian-era architect who designed many prominent Philadelphia buildings, like the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Gravers Lane and Mt. Airy train stations,St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Germantown, The Haverford School, etc.
“Furness was kind of a bubbling boiling tea kettle of new ideas about architecture and engineering,” said Lloyd.
Weygandt was also a friend and neighbor of Henry Howard Houston, a businessman and philanthropist for whom the Houston Elementary School in Mt. Airy is named. Houston, who ran the Philadelphia, Germantown and Chestnut Hill Railroad (now SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West Line), lived two doors away from the Weygandts on Tulpehocken Street.
Lucy Weygandt, the diarist’s daughter, was a member of the first graduating class of Bryn Mawr College, in 1889. Weygandt, the diarist, was born in 1832. He married Lucy Elmaker Thomas. The couple had three children.
Weygandt’s diaries reveal a concentration on the minutia of every day life that have nothing to do with wealth or an elevated station in life. For example, on Saturday, Oct. 20, 1900, Weygandt wrote: “Dinner with Lucy of vegetable soup, roast beef, vegetables, etc., with chocolate corn starch, seckel pears for dessert. Diarized a little after dinner. A cloudy afternoon. Drove … first to the monastery and grounds on the Wissahickon above Carpenter’s Lane; a charming site now adorned by Autumn foliage.”
On New Year’s Day, 1895, Weygandt woke up to “a beautifully clear bright morning” and ate breakfast with Lucy, and 24-year-old son, Cornelius (“Corney”), who lived at home while working as a journalist at the Evening Telegraph. Corney went sleighing on the Limekiln Turnpike, and Weygandt took a walk, enjoying “the keen dry air, and the rather ticklish walking over the icy surface of the snow.”
Lloyd, 61, who has lived in East Mt. Airy for 29 years, was raised in the same area mentioned so often in Weygandt’s diaries. Lloyd moved to Germantown from Illinois in 1965 when his father was hired as pastor of the Germantown Community United Presbyterian Church at Tulpehocken and Greene Streets, right where Weygandt lived.
Like Weygandt, Lloyd also graduated from Central High School, though more than100 years later, in 1970. He studied history at the University of Chicago, graduated in 1974 and studied history for one more year at Penn.
He joined the GHS board of directors in 1978. Two years later he became executive director. It was about that time that Lloyd became involved with Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, the area’s only historically restored Victorian mansion.
“It gives you great respect for the ability and accomplishments of the people of the past,” Lloyd said about the mansion and the more than a cupboard’s worth of Victorian-era homes still standing in Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill.
“That’s what historic structures do generally. You associate talent and achievement with these great buildings.”