The History of Newtown Square
Newtown Township dates to 1681, when William Penn planned two inland “new towns” (the second one is Newtown, Bucks County). The township was laid out with a straight main road, Newtown Street Road, running south to north and bisecting the Township. An east to west road – Goshen Road – also bisected the Township – and intersected with Newtown Street Road. Penn planned for a Townstead to develop at this intersection. Buyers who bought plots of farm land in the more remote sections of the Township would be entitled to a Townstead plot fronting on the main road. The original town followed that plan – several churches, a crossroads tavern, a wheelwright and several other small businesses located along Newtown Street Road.
The original settlers were largely Welsh Quakers, and their livelihood was farming. For about the next 250 years, Newtown remained a farming community. With the construction of the West Chester turnpike, the nexus of the town moved up to the intersection of West Chester Pike and Newtown Street Road in the 19th century. A hotel and general store anchored that corner for over 150 years; and later a town hall was built as well. In the northeast corner of the Township, along the Darby Creek, several mills were located, and supported a population of more than 100 workers during the middle years of the 19th century. The Newtown that entered the 20th century was linked to the nearby city of Philadelphia by trolley and a freight rail line that terminated in the Township, but was still a farming community at the time of World War II.
After World War II came the growth of the “suburbs”, and Newtown, well situated for public transit, began to grow into a bedroom community and suburb of Philadelphia, 15 miles to the east. The trolley line could take you to 69th Street terminal and its connections to the City. If you preferred, Bryn Mawr and its railroad station were a ten minute car ride away, where the Paoli Local would whisk you to Center City Philadelphia in style and comfort. The sleepy pre-war Newtown Square of less than 2,000 people grew with each housing development and each decade, and in 2010 had a population of over 18,000.
Dunminning Mansion – designed by Theophilus P. Chandler for John Brown (Brown Brothers) in 1897, and demolished by developer Tom Bentley in 2007.
Newtown has experienced the same growth pains caused everywhere by explosive growth and suburban sprawl. Streets laid out in the 17th century do not easily accommodate 21st century traffic. Additional residents require additional services – police, fire, schools, recreation, shopping – and each of those items has a cost, and further changes the complexion of the town. The old farms are subdivided into residential tracts; and the old homes and barns are torn down. The unchecked growth, the lack of any central planning, results in the familiar mediocrity of suburban sprawl – commercial districts that are a mish-mash of buildings and styles , the prominence of parking lots fronting the streetscape, the loss of open landscapes and open spaces, as every inch of available space is thrown into the mix of commerce.
Newtown still has over 100 historic houses, barns, churches, cemeteries and other noteworthy structures that are witnesses to its long history. [See this page for entire Historic Resources Inventory] But those resources are under siege by the ongoing development. In Pennsylvania, townships are given the right to adopt tools such as historic ordinances to try to preserve the aesthetics of the old while accommodating the new. Unfortunately, Newtown has chosen not to adopt or use these tools for regulating growth, and so the changes and the loss of the historic fabric of the community continues unabated.
Timeline of Newtown Township history
Check here for a timeline showing various events in the history of Newtown Square.
Where else to find the History of Newtown?
Historic Newtown Township book: Following the Newtown Township Tricentennial Celebration in 1981, a number of very talented residents – researchers, writers and artists, began work on a book that would look at the history of Newtown, from the beginning up to 1981. The product of their effort was a wonderfully thorough hard bound book, Historic Newtown Township, which was published in 1984. The book was very popular with Township residents and quickly sold out. Copies from time to time pop up on Amazon.com and other online book sellers. Because the Historical Society would like to see the information in the book made available as widely as possible, in 2007 we had the entire book scanned, and it is now available on our website:
Paper Mill House & Museum: History is more than the written word. We are fortunate in Newtown to have a building, the historic Paper Mill House & Museum, in which to store and display artifacts and documents. We have a re-created 19th century general store, a display of old tools, and several rooms of items of local history collected and donated over the years See this link for more information:
History Blog and Articles: We have had various Society members and local writers take on topics of interest regarding the history of Newtown and its people and places. Here are a few places to look for short articles on history:
Facebook: To keep up on current events and programs relating to the Society and its affairs, like us on our Facebook site here:
YouTube: We have our own site at YouTube. You can see Lincoln and Douglas debate at the Square Tavern during the debates we hosted at the 2010 Historic Newtown Square Day. If you would like to create video on items of interest relating to local history, we would love to host what you create at this site. To see more, go to:
Twitter: Yes, we occasionally tweet. Go here to see our Twitter traffic, or follow us at @NewtownSquareHS:
Online Resources: There is a wealth of information available online. Here are some suggestions:
Would you like to be published?
History and preservation are ongoing projects. If you like to research or write, take photos or video, compile statistics, taken inventory in cemeteries, work on a website, or bring any other skills and interests you may have to the area of local history, we would love to have you join with us in our mission to preserve history, and to educate the public on topics of local interest. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.