Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 27
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
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Historical Society Sponsors Tour That Imagines Princeton in the 1930s

Ellen Gilbert

“For 15 cents you saw a cartoon, a newsreel, and a double feature in the 1930s,” said Princeton Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) curator Eileen K. Morales while pointing to the the Garden Theater. The Garden, which actually dates back to the 1920s, is still there. Its competitor, Struve’s Arcade, which opened just down the street in 1938, is now home to the Triumph Brewery. In between, there was a bowling alley.

For almost two hours last Saturday, Ms. Morales, undaunted by the 90 degrees-plus temperature, led a tour called “Einstein, Segregation, and the WPA: A Walk Around 1930s Princeton.” In conjunction with the HSP’s current exhibit, “Princeton in the 1930s,” the tour focused on how Princeton has changed, and how it has stayed the same since the era of the Great Depression.

Although education for many children typically ended with the eighth grade, the lack of jobs during the early 1930s resulted in significant numbers of students remaining in the system and enrolling in high school. Between 1930 and 1938, said Ms. Morales, enrollment in Princeton’s public schools rose from 1200 to 1700. While teachers elsewhere were laid off, Princeton teachers kept their jobs and their salaries as a result of the increased demand. A tendency to hire single women surfaced after 1935, Ms. Morales observed, because of the perception that they would be easier to lay off, if necessary.

Segregation was in place in Princeton during this time, and 185 Nassau Street, now a hub for University arts programs, was the Nassau Street School for “white children,” with the Witherspoon Street School serving “colored children.” When the state abolished segregation in 1947, the Nassau Street facility became the elementary school for all children, and the Witherspoon Street school became a middle school for everyone. This transition “went smoothly,” according to Ms. Morales.

The University

While not much campus construction went on at the university during the 1930s, Fine Memorial Hall (named after the mathematician Harry Fine), now called Jones Hall, was an exception, built in response to the need for space for newly-hired faculty. Albert Einstein, who had been hired by the Institute for Advanced Studies, had his first office in Fine Hall, and Ms. Morales pointed out that this fact contributes to the erroneous notion that Einstein worked for the university as well as the Institute. (An interesting corollary to the PHS exhibit on Princeton in the 1930s and this tour is “The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s: An Oral History Project,” which may be found online at

Speaking of university demographics, Ms. Morales noted that at the beginning of the 1930s the majority of students at Princeton University were Protestant, and — hard as it may be to believe — between 75 and 85 percent of all applications at that time were accepted. As an employer of many local African Americans and Italian immigrants, Ms. Morales suggested, it behooved the university to keep its operations going, creating a “trickle down effect” that helped the working class. By the late 1930s the university looked to recruit students from public, as well as private schools (16 students from PHS went to Princeton in 1936), and to draw more students from the midwest and south, according to Ms. Morales.

Two Friends

When Albert Einstein’s name came up again during the tour, it wasn’t in front of 112 Mercer Street (his Princeton home). Among the details of the history of the new Paul Robeson Center for the Arts Council of Princeton recounted by Ms. Morales was, to be sure, the site’s earlier incarnation as the “colored YMCA.” An added nugget was the fact that the Y’s location was in a neighborhood that Einstein, who never drove, often walked through. He stopped to talk to people who lived in the area, and his growing interest in Princeton’s African-American community coincided with a 1932 appearance by Paul Robeson at the McCarter Theatre. Einstein asked to meet Robeson, and their shared interest in music and the local community led to a long friendship. Einstein joined the local chapter of the National Association of Colored People (then housed at 184 Witherspoon Street), and he and Robeson tried to sponsor anti-lynching legislation in Congress.

Also located in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, the condominium building now known as the Waxwood was home to the aforementioned Witherspoon “school for colored children.” Inspired by the success of the YMCA in obtaining WPA grants for renovations after the Y was destroyed by fire in 1936, the school, then in disrepair, applied for and also received WPA money. A recently retrieved time capsule, dating from 1939, was an information-rich find, according to Ms. Morales, since it provided the names of students and teachers at that time, and describing the curricula they followed.


A remarkable Princeton businessperson during the 1930s was Christine Moore Howell, who owned a beauty salon on Spring Street. Although she was black, Ms. Moore catered to a whites-only clientele. As a member of the New Jersey Board of Beauty Control, she helped set standards for beauty parlors, and was herself an inventor of various hair tonics and lotions. Unlike Ms. Moore, Burnett Griggs, who was white, served both white and black customers for over 40 years at his Imperial Restaurant at the corner of Witherspoon and Hulfish Streets. Edgar Palmer, Princeton graduate and board chair of the New Jersey Zinc Company, was less egalitarian as he bought up the properties that now form Palmer Square, forcing blacks and Italians renting apartments there to move further away from their jobs at the university to Birch Avenue residences.

Passing the former site of the Palmer Square Playhouse, Ms. Morales returned to the subject of movies. The playhouse opened in 1937 with a feature starring Clark Gable, who appeared on the Playhouse’s screen again in 1939 as the star of its biggest hit, Gone With the Wind. The PHS owns programs distributed at GWTW performances which “made moviegoers feel like they were attending real theater,” according to Ms. Morales.

Two murals, the WPA-commissioned scene in the Palmer Square post office, and the Norman Rockwell work that hangs over the bar in the Nassau Inn’s Tap Room, were among the tour’s final stops. Ms. Morales acknowledged the controversial nature of the former, which depicts Native Americans deferring to white people, but it is, she said, part of Princeton’s history.

The exhibition, “Princeton in the 1930s,” which opened on September 11, 2007 at Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, will close in just two weeks on July 13. Until then, it is open Tuesday through Sunday, 12 to to 4 p.m. A hand-out, “Timeline of the 1930s: Selected events in the world, the nation and Princeton” is available at the front desk. For more information, call (609) 921-6748 or visit

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