April 11, 2018

Artifacts From Historical Society Collection On Display in “Trolleys, Trains, and Transit”

BACK IN THE DAY: The Dinky train stop used to be closer to town, near Blair Arch on the Princeton University campus, as this archival photo from the Historical Society of Princeton’s program at Princeton Public Library shows. (Collection of Historical Society of Princeton)

By Anne Levin

Back in 1910, you could end up paying a fine if you got caught spitting while riding the trolley between Trenton and Princeton.

“Any person who shall expectorate or spit on the floor, seat, or platform of any trolley passenger car in this state shall be deemed and adjudged to be a disorderly person, and upon conviction shall be subjected to a fine of not more than Ten Dollars for each offense,” reads a yellowed dispatch from the Trenton and Mercer County Traction Corporation. The warning notice is just one of the curious artifacts in a special exhibit going on display the evening of Tuesday, April 17, at Princeton Public Library’s Discovery Center.

“Open Archive: Trolleys, Trains, and Transit” is a show of materials related to transportation, presented by the Historical Society of Princeton and culled from its extensive collection. Timetables, trolley tickets, and posters — one from a special ball for commuters, another from a theater company called “Princeton Junction and Back,” formed by those who took the train from Princeton to New York each workday — are all part of the show.

But Stephanie Schwartz, the Historical Society’s curator of collections and research, wants at least some of the show to be a surprise. “The idea is to take things that people might normally see in a museum exhibit, but have them out in the open,” she said. “It allows them to get really up close and personal with the materials. My favorite thing about this is that we have no labels, which makes it different from what people are used to. So visitors can guide the conversation. They can make observations, ask questions — I’m always there, but we will follow the lead of where the conversation goes. Visitors can be the historians themselves.”

The show is co-sponsored by the historical society and the library, and presented with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The historical society has organized open archive events in the past, to favorable response. The first was in collaboration with Princeton University Archives on the Princeton and Slavery Project.

“We’ve been working on doing more of these events,” said Schwartz. “A lot of them are in collaboration with the library, which gives us a great downtown hub to bring some of our materials, and also make them accessible to patrons who might not make it to us out here.” [the historical society is based at Updike Farm on Quaker Road].

For Schwartz, digging is the best part of her job. The historical society’s collection is larger and more extensive than most people realize. “I love to share that with people, and in a format that’s a little more personal than an exhibit on the wall,” she said. “It’s a great way for us to pull out our holdings and look at everything in the collection.”

Why a show on transportation? “The fact that we still have the Dinky line here shows how significant Princeton is related to travel,” said Schwartz. “So many people in this area commute by train. It is, and has always been, integral to the town’s life and identity.”

Schwartz will be on hand at the event, which will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. She plans to make some opening remarks and stick around to answer questions. “But mostly, we just want people to spend time with the collection,” she said. “That’s the idea.”