The Flavor of Fun in the Old Days

What did people in Squirrel Hill do for fun in the late 1800s and early 1900s? Well, lots of things. The Spencers of Amberson Avenue, written in 1959 by Ethel Spencer, is a vivid memoir about growing up in Shadyside (not so far from Squirrel Hill) in those days.  She writes of activities still popular today, such as bike riding, roller-skating and climbing trees. Other pastimes are gone, but details make her memories memorable, such as the joy of having the iceman come in the sweltering summer heat with huge blocks of ice. When he took the ice into the house, she and her friends scrabbled in his wagon for small chips to cool their mouths, and when he drove away, “there was always a fringe of children hanging to the back of the wagon.”

Some of the ice for neighborhood iceboxes was locally made. The Bruce ice ponds were up in Squirrel Hill around Wightman Street and Wilkins Avenue. The Bruces cut blocks of ice from the ponds in winter and stored them in a nearby icehouse. A side note about the Bruces: They eventually sold their business because they found raising goldfish for pets more lucrative.

Ethel Spencer’s recollections of fun things to do ranged from the mundane—making swirls with her heels in the soft asphalt road in hot weather—to the grand—the end-of-summer visit to the Exposition in downtown Pittsburgh. She writes, “The atmosphere was a rich amalgam of delicious odors: the nutty fragrance of popcorn balls, the syrupy smell of taffy … the sharp smell of pickles.” Her favorite booth was Heinz’s, where she could sample some of the 57 varieties of relishes and jellies handed out by smiling girls. The “Expo” was a big deal—described as “part country fair and part World’s Fair.” It had a Main Hall, Machinery Hall and Music Hall, with 100,000 feet of exhibition space in the three buildings. The Expositions lasted from 1889 to 1916, losing out in favor of hockey, the ice made by the latest refrigeration technology of the time.

Baseball was big then, too. In 1908 people were singing, “Take me out to the ballgame, Take me out with the crowd, Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack …” Cracker Jack came along in 1896. Professionals first played at Exposition Park on the north shore and then Forbes Field in Oakland.

Schenley Park had two baseball fields for recreational use. It had other amenities, too, among them a large bandstand where the Anderson Playground is now and a menagerie, the forerunner to the Pittsburgh Zoo, on Flagstaff Hill. Schenley Oval was a real horseracing track with a stately grandstand. Racing was popular, not only on racetracks but on local roads. When Beechwood Boulevard was constructed in the early 1900s, it was used for racing. In his book, Pittsburgh: A New Portrait, Franklin Toker says, “Pittsburgh’s ruling class used to run motorcar races along the curves of Beechwood Boulevard as soon as that fine road was laid out in 1903; that activity might have been a condition of its design.”

Children enjoyed riding a different kind of vehicle: a 40-ft. diameter carousel was housed in a building at the corner of Panther Hollow Drive and Greenfield Avenue. The carousel had 46 horses and other animals. It was in operation from 1913 to 1940.

In the early 1900s people began to go to the newfangled moving picture shows. The Orpheum Theater at the corner of Forbes and Murray was possibly the first of the theaters in Squirrel Hill; the Manor and others followed. By the 1950s, children were lining up around the block to spend a Saturday afternoon watching cartoons at the Manor for a quarter. Popcorn, Boston Baked Beans, Sky Bars and other treats were sold at the concession stand.

Francis G. Couvares, in his book, The Remaking of Pittsburgh, Class and Culture in an Industrializing City, 1877-1919, quotes Margaret Byington of the Pittsburgh Survey as saying, “… children were always begging for five cents to go to the nickelodeon … and on Saturday nights, whole families regularly sought ‘a glimpse of the other side of life.’” A 1916 advertisement for the Orpheum Theater in the Jewish Criterion featured the five-reel movie, “Fear of Poverty.”

Couvares notes that the new moving picture medium was “produced and distributed by small-time operators, many of them Jewish immigrants.” On a related note, an article in the March Allegheny City Society newsletter by James W. Kastner mentions that the Gould Theater on East Ohio Street, which showed silent films, was one of the members of Gould Amusements founded by Squirrel Hill resident Samuel Gould.

Gould didn’t own the Orpheum Theater, but that theater had a different Jewish connection. It was rented by the congregation of Beth Shalom for services before the synagogue was built high on Beacon Street.

Local churches offered other social opportunities. When Mary S. Brown Memorial Chapel at 3424 Beechwood Boulevard was dedicated in 1909, the Methodist congregation held a weeklong celebration that included, besides the religious ceremonies, a grand organ recital, a “profusely illustrated” lecture of “The Holy Land Through Heart and Eye,” a musical recital, and a Grand Pew Social, where members were “invited to select their pews and sittings for the year.”

Life was different back then, but one thing has stayed the same: People find ways to enjoy themselves, with whatever means they have at hand.



Anyone interested in learning more about Squirrel Hill history is invited to attend the meetings of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society, held on the second Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the Church of the Redeemer, 5700 Forbes Ave. Go to to view upcoming lectures and events or look at the calendar in this magazine.  Also, please consider joining the SHHS. Membership is only $10 per year. There is no charge for attending the meetings.


about SHUC

Preserving, Improving, and Celebrating the Quality of Life in Squirrel Hill

For over fifty years, the Coalition has been an active and important link in the community. It has served as a sounding board for new ideas, as well as a “watchdog” in the areas of public safety, education, residential quality, the business district, and parks and open space. With its focus on the quality of life in the 14th Ward, SHUC continues to monitor activities and future developments in the community through a range of standing committees.


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