This optimistic history of Trenton, with talk of progress for the "Trenton of Tomorrow," came out just as the stock market was crashing in 1929.
|1929: Celebrating on the brink|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|The future, in all its glittering promise, was there for the people of Trenton to see.
At the Armory, spectators marveled at exhibits showing the latest in Roebling steel rope, Lenox china, and a new invention called television.
Outside State Street, 20,000 children were marching in a parade, while the mayor was exclaiming, "What a perfect school system! What perfect physical specimens!"
It was Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929 -- "Education Day" in a Trenton proudly celebrating its 250th birthday.
"And so we pass on," a historian wrote for the occasion, "with the comforting realization that the Trenton of Today is better than the Trenton of Yesterday and the confident anticipation that the Trenton of Tomorrow will be better than the Trenton of Today."
Wall Street, however, would have a different name for Oct. 29, 1929: "Black Tuesday."
On that date, the stock market crashed in a wave of panicked selling -- ending the booming run of '20s prosperity and triggering the Great Depression.
It was an event that brought the hardest of hard times to New Jersey's Capital City. Factories went idle and jobless men filed into bread lines. An industrial decline set in which has never been reversed.
"It's the perfect irony," said city historian Charles Webster. "Here we are, the prosperous city of Trenton, celebrating 250 years of history, but we're so arrogant we can't see it's nothing but a downward spiral from 1929 on.
"But aren't we all like that? We're making money, enjoying success, not understanding that someone will eventually pull that rug out from under us. We don't want to see there's the possibility of failure."
Trenton's celebration came 250 years after its first settler, Quaker pioneer Mahlon Stacy, landed upon what he called "ye Falles of ye Delawarr." By the '20s, unprecedented prosperity had come to the city, making it a national leader in steel, pottery and rubber and giving rise to the boast "Trenton Makes, the World Takes."
For the first time, Trenton could boast a radio station, concrete roads and a first-class hotel, the Stacy-Trent. And in 1929, the progressive mayor, Frederick Donnelly, won federal assistance to rebuild Trenton's crumbling docks into a deepwater port.
The 250th anniversary fete was to be Trenton's chance to pat itself on the back. (The date of the event, in October, fell months after the actual time of Stacy's arrival in May 1679, but no one seemed to notice.)
Helping to plan events was a who's who of society: Ferdinand W. Roebling Jr., heir to the Roebling steel fortune; Trenton Times editor James Kerney; churchman-historian Hamilton Schuyler; brewing magnate John Kuser, and real estate developer Edmund Hill.
Their whole experience had taught them to believe in Trenton's boundless possibilities. Most got a prep education at Lawrenceville School followed by a degree from Princeton. They lunched at the Trenton Club or the Carteret Club. They served together on boards of directors for banks and on volunteer commissions to care for the city's social problems.
Hill was typical of the group. Nearing his 80th year in 1929 he had owned a bakery, engaged in politics, promoted Trenton business, sold real estate and made a small fortune. He kept track of the doings of himself and his friends in a diary and worked on an autobiography. The title was to be "A Dreamer of Dreams, Man of Which Came True."
If the elite of Trenton had a certain arrogance, it was an arrogance that outsiders fully justified. In preparation for the big birthday, The New York Times had run a laudatory article on the city. "No boom town of the West can outdo her in pride," it reported.
Anyone who looked closer, however, could have seen hints of trouble in Trenton's boom.
A strike in 1922-23 had dealt a crippling blow to the pottery industry, and the plants that survived were being absorbed by outside corporations. On Sept. 1, 1929, the biggest of them, Maddock Pottery, which had overextended itself by building a new Hamilton plant. was taken over by American Standard. Layoffs followed.
Over the course of the '20s, Trenton's biggest linoleum, rubber and watch companies were also absorbed into conglomerates. Plants shut down, never to reopen. Wages were cut, too, leaving employees unable to buy the goods that were supposed to fuel prosperity.
Ominously, John A. Roebling's Sons Co., Trenton's biggest employer, had passed on to a new generation. The plant still made millions, but the newest Roeblings had little of the engineering genius and financial brains of their elders.
In July 1929, the board of directors followed the advice of its investment counselor, sold off most of its fixed-income bonds and put the money into the stock market.
Bad call. On Oct. 24, the New York Stock Exchange was struck by its worst downturn of the year. Millions of securities went up for sale in panicked trading, but no one would take them. The tickers, unable to keep track of it all, fell behind by three hours. The Trenton Times was among the many evening papers across the country unable to print the usual list of closing prices.
Other than that omission, however, the newspapers gave no hint that Trenton might be affected by what was taking place.
The Times and the State Gazette were busy printing the full details of what was to be the most anticipated week in Trenton. It was a week to party:
* Oct. 24: Trenton's leading businessmen, accompanied by their wives in 1700s-era costumes, attended a ball at the Stacy-Trent. The State Theatre was showing "Midnight Daddies"; Joan Crawford's latest movie, "Our Modern Maidens," was playing at the Lincoln. In the Trenton Times, a wire story marveled that debutantes had a tough life after all: a 16-hour schedule that was busier than the working girl!
* Oct. 26: More than 15,000 people gathered at the dedication of the Mercer County Airport in Ewing to watch a fleet of 160 airplanes -- one of them flown by Army air ace Jimmy Doolittle -- wheel and wag their wings overhead.
* Oct. 28: Civic Day was declared. The Trenton Armory hosted the first day of the "Industrial Progress Exhibition" with its products of the future.
* Oct. 29: Education Day. A cornerstone was laid for what would become the new Trenton Central High School on Chambers Street. More than 20,000 schoolchildren marched downtown in costumes, including graduation uniforms and costumes of colonists, Indians and knights. Mayor Donnelly appeared thrilled. "What a perfect school system we have," he said.
The State Museum on West State Street, featuring New Jersey's biggest exhibit of plant life, butterflies, insects and Indian relics, had its grand opening.
Simultaneously on Wall Street, 16 million shares of stock were being dumped in blind panic. Billions in business values were wiped out. President Herbert Hoover issued a statement insisting the economy was still "fundamentally sound."
* Oct. 31: All Trenton's stores, plants and schools closed for the big parade: 51 floats rolling down State Street with more than 50,000 people watching. Consuls from Ireland, Italy, Hungary and eight other nations showed up, too.
Hill, the real-estate man and developer, wrote: "A most wonderful display -- I was amazed by it!"
Only gradually did anyone realize that Trenton's celebrated industrial progress was in trouble.
Christmas shopping was light. Roebling, the company that inspired the slogan "As Roebling goes, so goes Trenton," asked men to work half-time so it could avoid layoffs. Laborers and construction tradesmen, meanwhile, got an even grimmer message: no work.
On Nov. 29, Goldberg's Department Store on South Broad Street opened up a promotional effort to step up shopping. Its newspaper ads shouted: "Inaugurating a TRENTON PROSPERITY CAMPAIGN urged on by our confidence that all conditions point to an optimistic future!"
No amount of pep could stem the tide of Depression, however, which hit at the worst possible time: winter.
Thousands shivered at home, unable to buy heating oil or even to feed themselves. Those who hit bottom floated to railyards, where they became hoboes, or settled into shanties on Hamilton's Duck Island.
By 1931, as many as one-third of Trenton's able-bodied men -- 10,000 people -- were unemployed. Sixteen percent of the city was on some form of relief. One of them was the Cipriano family.
John Cipriano was about 3 years old when he accompanied his mother and brother to a breadline on Canal Street. His mom clutched a precious meal ticket that enabled her to take some canned goods, a bag of flour and a packet of concentrated grapefruit juice. Somehow, during the long wait, she dropped it.
"Oh, she was in tears," recalled Cipriano, who is now a city councilman. "But everyone just stopped, got to their knees and started looking for that ticket. No
one thought of jumping ahead [in line], and someone finally found it and gave it to her."
"Those were tough times, but I tell you, we did stick together."
And yet, as 1931 drew to a close, and as the shanties took on an ironic new name -- "Hoovertowns" -- there was no sign of recovery.
Hill's diary, which once reflected the proud spirit of Trenton, took on a sad, listless tone as he struggled to make ends meet.
"Worried, worried and worried for ready cash," he wrote, adding that he even had to ask for a $100 loan. The man who once called himself a "dreamer of dreams" was overcome with gloom: "Now, when I am near the end of my life, I can see that many of my dreams have come true, but I cannot rid myself of the idea that my life has been a failure."
His health and energy slipping away from him, Hill stopped filling in his diary Dec. 31. One of his last entries was a sentiment that many in Trenton might have shared: "Feeling weak."