Month: October 2020

Sometimes a Cigar…

  A portrait purporting to show Joseph Smallwood Vetterlein and his wife Emma, early Pew Holders in our church, has several odd features: Emma leans away from Joseph, whose eyes are half-shut, and one might wonder why he is so awkwardly gripping a lighted cigar in his left hand at the center of the picture.

The Vetterleins, who  rented Pew 9B (main aisle) in our church around 1911, had a house at 4212 Spruce Street, and also built an estate called Knollhurst, in Radnor. Joseph’s brother, Herman G. Vetterlein, was an officer of the American Catholic Historical Society who donated a dome window to our church. The brothers were both involved in the family cigar business – and Joseph is likely displaying the family product in the photo.

Joseph and Herman were born in Philadelphia, and the cigar business was started here by their father, Theodore Vetterlein, a German immigrant. Theodore’s rags-to-riches story was told in Frank Leslie’s Magazine: he arrived in this country “poor, without friends or relatives,” took a job in a tobacco shop, and ultimately saved enough money, first to open a partnership, and then to go into business for himself. By 1864, towards the end of the Civil War, his company, Vetterlein & Co., had a “fine warehouse” at 111 Arch Street and a branch in New York, and Vetterlein was renowned as a “leading merchant of Philadelphia.

Tobacco was once surprisingly important in Pennsylvania. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia  reports that  “the city’s tobacco industry…included, according to one estimate, some nine hundred factories by the turn of the twentieth century….” mostly employing newly-arrived Puerto Rican and Cuban laborers. The Vetterlein factory, located at 144-146 North Fifth Street – Independence Mall today – made cigars using wrapper leaves supplied from their tobacco warehouses in Bethlehem and Souderton PA. A report from the National Register for Historic Places notes that a contributing factor to “the success of tobacco cultivation in Lancaster County…was the presence in the area of many farm families, particularly among the Amish and Mennonites, who, with their strong work ethic, provided a ready supply of workers almost year round for this labor-intensive crop…” They were also Germanic speakers, so the Vetterleins could have had a business advantage.

Whatever the strategy, their business was very successful. A 1912 ad for Vetterlein’s products claims that their “Saboroso Cigars were first made in 1877, when Hayes was President. Men have often changed their political beliefs during this period, but never their opinion of Saboroso as the best of all 5 cent cigars. The Saboroso ‘party’ has remained solid for 35 years” –from Hayes to Taft — the memorable presidents. The Vetterlein Company also sponsored the Saboroso Cup, which was presented each year to the Phillies or Athletics player with the highest batting average.

Business success couldn’t outrun fate, though. On September 14, 1914, the Trenton Times reported Joseph’s sudden death under the headline: “Millionnaire Cigar Maker Dies at 63.” The news item declared that “the tobacco merchant was stricken at Atlantic City Saturday, Agust 29, while on his vacation. He continued to improve and it was thought he was out of danger.”  It continued “Roy Vetterlein, a son, thirty-one years old, has been touring Europe and knows nothing of his father’s death. He is due in New York tomorrow.” What a way to find out, reading the morning paper! Vetterlein’s death certificate lists “catarrhal hepatitis” as the cause. Infected seafood was one possible vector. An interesting question is whether he was alive when the photo with his wife was taken: it would have been a late date for a Victorian death photo, but he does look oddly stiff! Perhaps, since the death was sudden and family were away, it was seen fit to create a memento. Emma died a few year later in 1920. The Vetterleins are buried at The Woodlands, in a family plot on one of the main asphalt pathways through the cemetery.

Operation Discovery

Amid the unsettled mix of optimism, experimentation, disruption, and social change that were the 1960s, Jeanne McGettigan (SFDS ’61-’67) recalls being part of a capstone character-building summer program at SFDS aptly named “Operation Discovery.”

The pilot project was launched in 1964 by the Archdiocesan Commission on Human Relations with a goal to “develop the hidden talents and to foster a sense of community responsibility” among mostly black youth in the low-income area around Most Precious Blood Parish in North Central Philadelphia. By 1966, the program had expanded to four other Philadelphia city parish neighborhoods – including SFDS — and one in Chester.

Students invited to SFDS (the Southwest Center) and the other centers were seventh, eighth and ninth graders from surrounding parochial and public schools, selected for good grades “and a keen  intellectual curiosity… no distinctions were made regarding race, nationality or religion…” This was notable at the time, since Civil Rights were still new. For SFDS participants, Jeanne recalls that the idea of parochial school students mingling with public school students was an exciting and strange experience!

What happened in the six-week program? In addition to creative classes, the Catholic Standard and Times noted that “Each center produces its own weekly newspaper, The Discovery Times…Frequent debates are held on questions related to teenage dress, civil rights, capital punishment, the minimum voting age and the high school ‘drop out’ problem…Basic logic,…parliamentary procedure and the art of conducting public meetings also form part of ‘Operation Discovery’s’ challenging curriculum…” along with “trips to area museums and historic places of interest….

Jeanne reports on the debate classes in which “I competed with what was really an essay (not a speech) on taking responsibility. I was in way over my head and other, public school debaters blew me out of the water.  As I mentioned to you, I remember best the comparative self-assuredness of the black students from public schools.  They demonstrated more confidence and much less deference to authority.  I was a bit in awe of them.”

In September, 1966, the Catholic Standard and Times reported that about 500 “Operation Discovery” students completed “a summer of discovery and learning Tuesday by visiting the Nation’s Capital and hearing an inspiring speech by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey” who “told of how he had to delay his education for lack of funds, but emphasized that he finally won his college diploma. Mr. Humphrey, chairman of the President’s Space Council, painted a rosy picture for the youngsters of the Nation’s capabilities in space. He predicted that the U. S. will put a man on the moon before 1971..and  ‘In less than five years, we’re going to have a village on the moon in the sense that a manned station will be set up to maintain scientific data.’” (Jeanne’s verdict: “He seemed ‘fake’ to me at the time, but I was probably suspicious of most adults who were overly jolly, as he presented himself”). 

The paper reported that “The final act of the six-week leadership development program was the placing of a wreath on the grave of President Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery.” It was a sobering moment after the optimistic pep talk: Kennedy – the first Catholic president and national emblem of youth – had been assassinated in November 1963, just a few months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech. King would be killed in 1968. Americans landed on the moon in 1969. Sadly, moon villages never materialized and racial inequality never disappeared. “Operation Discovery” seems to have become lost in history, but could have had positive lasting effects: Jeanne reports “My experience with Operation Discovery was really the first time I had been encouraged to see myself as someone with an active role to play in the broader community.  I also recall enthusiastically grabbing hold of the idea that poverty was a problem that could be analyzed and, with sufficient good will, solved.” The challenge remains!

Operation Discovery Program Booklet, circa 1967
Operation Discovery students shown at one of the Centers