How a Havertown Author Made the Amish a Tourist Attraction
Marguerite de Angeli's award-winning children’s book, Henner’s Lydia, made a lasting impression in 1936.
Photo by Jared Castaldi Published June 2, 2011 at 08:48 PM
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Why do we gawk at the Amish? After all, it’s not like they’re new in town. The Anabaptist sects of Lancaster County—the Old Order Amish and the similar-looking Mennonites and Brethren—have lived in Pennsylvania since the 1720s. But they only became a tourist attraction maybe 75 years ago.
For this, credit Havertown native Marguerite de Angeli, whose 1936 children’s book, Henner’s Lydia, put the Amish on the national tourist map. The book appeared at about the same time as—and its impact aided by—a controversy over Amish schools that erupted the following year. In that case, the Pennsylvania Amish petitioned for—and eventually won—the right to be exempted from compulsory education after the eighth grade.
“Henner’s Lydia demonstrated the savvy of a writer who sensed a market intimately connected to Americans’ yearnings for the simple life,” wrote historian David Weaver-Zercher, author of The Amish in the American Imagination. “Consciously or not, de Angeli played upon these longings by connecting her Amish characters to a mainstream American past.”
By downplaying the specifics of being Amish, de Angeli made the sect something to which even nonmembers could relate. In the years since, millions have visited Lancaster County to experience how “their” ancestors used to live.