In 1937, William C. Mulford published a booklet in which he described mid-19th century Bridgeton. His depiction of the city in 1850 certainly qualifies as a snapshot of the 19th century version of Bridgeton and the life of its inhabitants. The publication has long been out of print, but in 1985, South Jersey Magazine excerpted a considerable portion, preserving a variety of information about this location.
Mulford explains in the foreword to his booklet that his rendering of 1850 Bridgeton was “an outgrowth of a suggestion made by the Historical Research Committee of the Greenwich Tea Burning Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution” to preserve “historical information of which we have knowledge.” He acknowledges that his research was culled from details provided by his father and others “and confirmed by my own observations.”
For some residents reading Mulford’s booklet in 1937, Bridgeton’s earlier lack of telephone wires, paved roads and cars would have been a distant memory. For some reading it today, it would be culture shock—“…wood was the fuel for both cooking and heating,” he informs. “…clothes were boiled, but no one bathed in a bathtub…no one could buy ready-made clothing and…no stenographer touched the keys of a typewriter or took a snapshot…”
Bridgeton’s roads were unpaved in 1850. Mulford reports that streets “were of earth, sometimes topped with gravel. The earth was rounded up in the center by means of scrapers drawn by horses.”
Only the business district of Commerce Street sported something like a paved road. According to Mulford, “8 or 10 inches of oyster shells were placed [on the dirt road] to be crushed by the feet of horses or the iron tires of wagons. In time, this made a solid roadway that yielded a fine white dust in dry weather.”
Sidewalks fared slightly better. Mulford writes that “only a small portion of sidewalks were paved, such pavements usually being of brick with some flag-stone being used.” Since this was 10 years prior to gas lights being installed throughout the streets, roadways were not lit at night. Even when gas lights were introduced, they were extinguished by 10 p.m., leaving the streets dark for the remainder of the night.
Around the business district, the city’s population of 3,500 was grouped in various residential areas known usually by nicknames reflecting the nearby dominant enterprises. One group “around the grist and woolen mills on East Commerce Street” was known as “Milltown.” Another residential area located near the glass plants on South Pearl Street was “sometimes called ‘Glasstown.’ ” Another section was dubbed “Laurel Hill.”
Houses, according to Mulford, were mostly wooden structures, although there were some brick homes. Usually occupied by one family, Bridgeton residences were “two or two-and-one-half stories high” with shutters that could be closed at night for protection.
Unlike Vineland, whose founder Charles K. Landis prohibited fences on residential properties, Bridgeton not only allowed but encouraged fences. They were, as Mulford writes, “built as a finishing touch to the property and for protection against stray cattle.”
Mulford begins his description of 1850 grocery stores by listing what they didn’t have: There “were no shelves filled with cartons of breakfast cereals, cakes, crackers, sugar, flour, etc. The ready-to-eat cereals were unknown; other goods were usually kept in bins or barrels and measured out, as sold…cheese, bacon, ham, eggs, salt mackerel, candles and ‘spirits’ or oil for lamps about filled the list of goods kept by the grocery man.” Some stores would also carry dry goods.
Purchases were not always paid for in cash. Mulford explains that customers could engage in a barter system, exchanging goods they were able to produce, such as butter, pork and potatoes, for what they needed.
Next Week: Nineteenth Century Life