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Views of Narberth Past

Narberth Schoolchildren, about 1916

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Image source: Collection of the Lower Merion Historical Society, courtesy Jill Caldwell Sherwood

modern view of the historical image seen from the same viewpoint
15 Mar 2020

This 45-portrait proof sheet of Narberth Public School children is filed in the Lower Merion Historical Society's archive. Which grade are they in? What year is it? Their age, according to the wisdom of crowds (the average of 20 answers): 7.8 years old. Dental forensics confirm that top front incisors loosen at age 6-7, lateral incisors at 7-8, both of which we see. Finally (maybe this should have come first), the photo was accompanied by a list naming 22. According to the 1920 census, all were 6-8 years old, first and second grade, in 1916.

Narberth Public School: Its History in a Nutshell

dark stone 3-story building, large trees in front
The 1892 school building, circa 1940; the 1917 building can be seen at right

The Narberth Public School building attended by these children was constructed on the corner of Sabine and Essex in 1892 by Lower Merion. It was transferred to the new borough with its newly independent school district in 1895. A second building was added to its east in 1917. High school classes were offerred from 1909 to 1923, then transferred to Lower Merion. Our students were then sophomores or juniors, so they did not get to graduate in their home town.

Both buildings were demolished in 1961 and replaced by the current building at this location in 1963. In 1968 the Narberth school district was merged back into Lower Merion, which closed Narberth Public School in 1978 due to declining enrollment.

Family albums

young girl, her father to whom she bears a strong resemblance, and her grandfather
Lois Caldwell (row 3 #2), father John A., grandfather John B. Caldwell
photo of young girl and a painting of an older man
Honora Snyder (row 1 #4), father Dr. O. J. Snyder
side by side photos of young girl and her father
Cynthia Metzger (row 6 #3), father Carl Metzger, burgess of Narberth 1922 - 1926
two brothers
Brothers Worcester and John Jones (row 5 #6, 7) were born one year apart, leading to the conclusion that the sheet represents at least two grades.

Missing names

23 of these children are not named on the note that accompanies the photo. Can we ever discover their identities?

A boy and a girl, with very similar faces and expressions wearing identical glasses
Sister and brother? Or is it just the glasses? Row 2 #6, 7

Consider the pair that share the same expression and eyewear: if they are brother and sister, and if they lived in Narberth and if they were counted in the 1910 or 1920 census, they could be Dolores Durang, age 7 in 1916, based on the 1910 census, and Edwin, 6. The Durangs moved to St. Davids by 1920. Or they might be Dorothy Thornley, 8, and John, 6, from the 1920 census. A lot of ifs…

Two young girls wearing very similar dresses, lean back, hands clasped behind their heads
Sisters or BFFs? Same dress, same pose (row 1 #5, row 2 #1). The 1920 census lists 8 pairs of sisters (no twins) born 1908-1910.

Altogether, there were 235 children in Narberth in the 1920 census who would be the right age to appear in the photo. Lacking a personal memory, a contemporary document or some connection to those days, we can only guess at their names.

“Their Happy Faces”

The final word belongs to the unattributed Our Town correspondent, perhaps a proud parent, who reported the 1916 school commencement:

The first grade was first called. What an applause burst forth from the student body! Everybody realized this was the last time the little ones of the first grade should please them with their happy faces and splendid reciting as "first graders." The principal seemed to realize this more than any one. He has always shown a particular love for the wee tots. At the call of each individual's name, one after the other arose amidst hearty applause. The grade then quoted appropriate lines from Lowell's Vision of Sir Launfal and passed into the mysteries of second gradehood.

snow-covered bell hangs in a metal frame
The Narberth Public School bell was placed outside the Community Building in 1995, Narberth's centennial year. Courtesy Mayor Tom Grady


  1. "Commencement Week a Great Success", Our Town June 22, 1916, page 5 (PDF)
  2. "What is so rare as a day in June?" —James Russell Lowell, The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848)
  3. Public Schools in Lower Merion and Narberth, Lower Merion Historical Society
  4. Ted Goldsborough interviews two Narberth Public School alumni who attended school in the 1950s in the buildings these children knew. (four 12-minute videos)