If Philadelphia didn’t have the first modern suburbs, it came awfully close. By 1900, once obscure Main Line towns like Ardmore and Haverford had become synonymous with high living. In the 1920s, development blossomed as automobiles became widely available for the first time.
But tony towns were careful who would be allowed in. The 1920s was the decade when exclusionary zoning began to spread across America. In some cases, restrictive covenants were imposed to prevent black and Jewish Americans from entering. Often, the sheer cost of new homes has proven exclusive enough.
These booming developments found a cheerleader in The Inquirer, which targeted the wealthy and those hoping to join their ranks – the same people targeted by developers building new homes out of town.
“The population of the city has changed from the 20s [onwards] and, from the start, readers of elite newspapers were white audiences,” says Nikki Usher, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois.
As pre-Depression suburbanization exploded, The Inquirer heralded new, leafy housing developments suited to a specific set of new residents. A 1925 advertisement for Glenside Gardens promoted a “beneficially restricted” project at “The Highest Point In Abington Township”.
A 1926 advertisement for Elkins Park – “A Suburb You’ll Be Proud To Live In” – promised homes in a “wisely restrained” location where values were sure to rise. A year earlier, a development by Bala Cynwyd advertised its “exclusive and very restricted” nature.
READ MORE: Black families have been blocked from buying Main Line homes. It shaped American suburbs.
The coded language emerged at a time when Philadelphia’s black population was growing.
With these advertisements, the newspapers probably reflected the interests of an elite class that included their owners.
“Whoever owned the newspaper probably ran with the real estate developers, and ran with the people who were quickest to lament the racial changes in the city,” Usher says.