A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort.”
There are two kinds of people in Cape May – those who remember Pennywise, and those who don’t. It may sound like a trite way to start my column, but it’s true, and for more than 55 years, Pennywise was a big deal around here. Forget who is a local, cottager, “shoebie,” or any other label out there, in the pages of Pennywise magazine, everyone was equal.
Every issue featured the same elements and design, from the grid of pictures on the front page with a list of names inside to the witty, handwritten musings of editor, Joe Barker. Barker published Pennywise with his business manager, Louis Pron, and a small staff made up of Carola Collings and W. Brinton Smith, who occasionally filled in as temporary editor.
Pennywise was printed weekly during the summer season and sporadically throughout the rest of the year, with a sister edition printed monthly in New Hope, Pennsylvania, Barker’s hometown. Each new edition was delivered to local merchants at the beginning of the week, and shortly thereafter people clamored to get their copy.
On a personal note, I remember fondly that rush to pick up a copy and see if it included pictures of my family members or me. Their photographers would walk the beach, the mall, the promenade and even show up on historic tours. Having your picture in Pennywise was a badge of honor and somewhere around my house, I have a stack of them with pictures of my family.
The magazine was founded in 1931 and run by the same small crew until the late 1980s. Fun and kitschy are the best words to describe the essence of Pennywise, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it was some small-time periodical.
Amidst Barker’s biting wit and the themed editions came regular contributions from fans, including the following New Year’s resolutions that were published in January of 1937: “Dave McGuckin – Anything that’s a good time I’ll do to the Nth degree. Ned Street – No more gin from teacups. Betty Lewis – To love a new one every week and give up spinach. Jean Burpee – Not to break anymore dates or stand anyone up. Marie Washington – To love only one. Nina Hawley – Not to touch the staff.”
Here’s another favorite quote from a 1983 Pennywise that mentions Cape May’s renaissance – it really captures the mood of the town as the locals fought with urban renewal: “Remember when all of Cape May was painted white with green trim and awnings, and how shocked everyone was when Christine McCloskey Croft Amore painted one of her houses on Congress Place a bright pink with white contrasting gingerbread and everybody jokingly called it ‘the birthday cake’ or ‘The Pink House?’ Since then it has been moved and made an ‘historic landmark.’ And now the style is to paint with Victorian color combinations, and we must admit personally, we rather like the ‘rainbow village effect.’ Others disapprove…”