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History's Headlines: The Allentown YWCA is back where it began

History's Headlines: The Allentown...

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - On December 22, 2016, the YWCA OF Allentown issued a press release with some significant news: after over 20 years joined with the Allentown YMCA, they were to become autonomous again and were establishing a new headquarters at the Hamilton Financial Center at 1101 Hamilton Street.  The YWCA already had located its signature program “The Perfect Fit For Working Women” there. And the planned merger of the Allentown YMCA with the Greater Lehigh Valley YMCA and the re-launch of the YWCA “will take both the YMCA and the YWCA forward to serve the population and the surrounding communities.”

“The mission and purpose of the YWCA is to eliminate racism and empower women,” said Margaretha Haeussler, president of the YWCA board of directors. “The reorganization is an opportunity to expand and enhance the programs offered by the YWCA to the Allentown community.”

Changes are not necessarily new for an organization like the Allentown YWCA whose roots go back 131 years. It has met many challenges in its time to aid both women and the community at large. In 1886 the biggest thing happening in America was the presentation by France of the Statue of Liberty to the United States. But not everyone was impressed. It was a symbolic gift of liberty, sniffed The Times of London, “from one country that has too little to another that has too much.” For a group of Allentown women there was another event that was just as important on the local scale that year. Horrified by the proliferation of saloons and alcoholism that swept their city in the industrial era, they decided to do something about it.

Sometime that year they joined with a male group, The Sons of Temperance that met regularly at 639 Hamilton Street and shared space. There could be many reasons for this. It was cheaper than going out on their own and it avoided the problems women confronted when trying to organize any type of organization on their own. According to the city directories in 1890 the women took over 639 Hamilton as totally their own space.  It was then a branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. This organization had a national program and it was a link to the powerful prohibition movement sweeping the country that would lead to the enactment of the 18th amendment to the Constitution, which banned liquor from 1920 to 1933.

Why they decided to switch their allegiance from the WCTU to the Young Women’s Christian Association is unknown. They continued to support temperance issues. But perhaps they saw the YWCA as a more inclusive organization, one that would allow them to confront a wide range of women’s issues and attract a large membership. Whatever the reason, on November 18, 1898 the change was made.

Under the headline in the November 19, 1898 Morning Call, “Meeting of YWCA” was the news that a meeting would be held “at the reading room No. 639 Hamilton Street today at 2:30 p.m. A full attendance of the members is desired.” Perhaps this was a meeting to inform members of the details of becoming a Y. It went on to note that gospel services would be held on Saturday as usual at 3:30.

By 1900 the YWCA had moved to 722 Walnut Street, a large and once grand Victorian home that has since been cut up into apartments. Here the YWCA expanded. Within 10 years they were offering, along with Gospel singing, dressmaking, millinery instruction, a glee club, a dramatic group, physical education and elocution. The Y’s secretary during those years was Laura V. Keck, a dressmaker.

The Y’s president in the early 20th century is listed as M.E. Schwartz who lived with her parents Christian and Louisa Schwartz at 525 Turner St. Her father was a partner in the wholesale grocery firm of Johnston and Schwartz.

World War I was to change the Y’s role in two significant ways. The first was public. As men flocked to the U.S. Army, the army opened an ambulance training base called Camp Crane at the Allentown Fairgrounds. The Y saw a need for all the women relatives who came there. They set up a lodge within Camp Crane to provide lodging for them. The also supported the war effort by participation in the Patriotic League.

Another less public effort was to offer advice to young women who were coming into Allentown to work in the war factories. Most of all the young women needed support and safe places to live. The Y surly must have provided this advice.

In 1918 the Y moved to larger quarters at 929 Hamilton Street. Here they tried a new venture, the YWCA cafeteria. It was run by Carrie Junod. During the Depression of the 1930s it provided breakfasts for 15 cents and dinners for 35 cents.

Perhaps the most interesting organization of the many that the Y sponsored was the Chante Club. Created on October 16, 1929, it was directed toward career and professional women of various ages and occupations. Its name comes from the French “to sing.”  In the 1930s and 40s the members would travel north in the summer by trolley to a rural bungalow in Summit Lawn that was given to the Y in 1927 by members of the prominent George Ormrod family.

An English immigrant, Ormrod had been a partner with General Harry C. Trexler in the creation of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, among other business ventures. His home, at 1227 Hamilton Street, later purchased by Trexler, is now the site of the Nicos C. Elias funeral home.  At night, the women would sing around the campfire at the Ormrod  bungalow, hence the name. It held dances and events rolled bandages during World War II and lasted into the 1980s.

It was in 1963 that the YWCA and the YMCA were united in their building on 15th Street. Now over 50 years later they have decided to part. But their years of service to the community continues.


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