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How the Philadelphia Suburbs Got Their Names

Many of Philadelphia’s suburbs have been around since before the American Revolution, and some are even as old as Pennsylvania itself (indeed, the land on which some of these places sit was purchased directly from colony founder William Penn). Like Philly, they’re rich in history, and many take their names from the settlers that claimed the land or the places those pioneers originally called home.

This list is extensive, but not complete. It doesn’t include municipalities that are designated as cities, most census-designated places that are not municipalities, Philly’s New Jersey suburbs, or a handful of other locales.

Abington

According to the township’s bicentennial history booklet [PDF], the name is “of English origin, being applied from so-called parishes formed more than 900 years ago in Northampton and Cambridgeshire, England.”

Ambler

What used to be the village of Wissahickon was renamed in honor of Mary Johnson Ambler, a local woman who led efforts to rescue and care for the survivors of a nearby train collision—known alternately around the Philadelphia area as The Great Train Wreck, The Camp Hill Disaster, and The Picnic Train Tragedy—in 1856.

Ardmore

The community of Athensville (“a nod to the fascination with the Greek revival style movement of the time”), was renamed Ardmore in 1873 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose Main Line ran through the area. The suggestion for the name came from a local reverend and may refer to one of several places named Ardmore in Ireland.

Aston

Named by the town constable after his hometown in Oxfordshire, England.

Bensalem

While the township was founded just 10 years after the colony of Pennsylvania, the origins of its name are still up for debate. According to the township’s website, the “Salem” part appeared in land records as far back as its founding, while the “Ben” was tacked on later. The name is thought to mean “hill of peace,” “peaceful mount,” or “son of peace,” a possible nod to the pacifist Quaker William Penn.

Berwyn

Like Athensville, the former Reeseville had its name changed by the Pennsylvania Railroad. According to the local historical society, the new name came from “the Berwyn Hills overlooking the beautiful valley watered by the river Dee, Merionethshire, Wales, because the village overlooked from a commanding height the beautiful valley of Chester, and its position was popularly thought to be the highest point topographically along the Pennsylvania Railroad between Philadelphia and Columbia."

Broomall

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Named in honor of John Martin Broomall, a local lawyer who served in the Union Army during the Civil War before being elected to three terms in Congress.

Bryn Mawr

Both the community and the college that it’s home to are named after the farm [PDF] owned by Rowland Ellis. Ellis led a group of Quakers to Pennsylvania to escape religious persecution in Wales and later served in the colonial government. The name derives from the Welsh term for “big hill.”

Chadds Ford

This Delaware County township was formerly known as Birmingham, but after years of being confused with the Birmingham in neighboring Chester County, residents petitioned the board of supervisors to change the name in 1996. The new name came from a colonial-era crossing point on the Brandywine River called Chads’ Ford, where John Chads operated a ferry service.

Chalfont

Named after Chalfont St. Giles, the English village where William Penn met his first wife.

Cheltenham

Named by two of the town’s original settlers after their hometown in Gloucestershire, England.

Conshohocken

Derived from either the native Lenape word Gueno-Sheiki-Hacki-ing (“beautiful or peaceful valley”) or kanshihakink (“elegant land”).

Darby/Upper Darby

A corruption of Derbyshire, England, the county that many of the area’s settlers came from.

Downingtown

Originally called Milltown because of the number of mills there. During the American Revolution, it became known as Downing’s Town, after the Downing family, which owned an inn and an industrial mill complex. The name was officially changed to Downingtown after the War of 1812.

Doylestown

Named for William Doyle, an early settler and owner of a tavern located at a then-major crossroads in the area.

Exton

Depending on who you ask, the community was either named by a local farmer after the English village he was born in, or by an engineer who helped lay out the railway through the area and gave it his mother’s family name.

Hatboro

Hatboro was known as the Billet (or Crooked Billet) in its earliest days as a small village, and both names seem to originate with an early resident. John Dawson, a hat maker from England, arrived in the village in the early 1700s and opened an inn while also maintaining his hat business. The first name came about either because the inn was named The Crooked Billet Inn, or was just called that by the locals because its sign was a billet, or chunk of wood, that hung crooked. The second name came from Dawson’s other line of work.

Haverford and Havertown

Both named for the town of Haverfordwest in Wales.

Horsham

Named after the town in West Sussex, England.

Jenkintown

Named for either William Jenkins or his son Stephen, early Quaker settlers and landowners in the area.

Kennett Square

The town gets its official name from what was then a village in Wiltshire, England, and its nickname, the “Mushroom Capital of the World,” comes from the fact that the area produces more than half of the country’s mushroom crop.

King of Prussia

The town is named after a Revolution-era tavern, the King of Prussia Inn. The name of the inn points to Frederick II (also known as Frederick the Great), who was—you guessed it—the king of Prussia at the time. The reason the inn was called that, however, is a little murky. It may have been named after Frederick for his assistance to the British during the French and Indian War, or a nod to his support of George Washington during the Revolution. An alternate theory suggests that the name was meant to attract the business of Prussian soldiers who were fighting in the war.

Langhorne

Named for Jeremiah Langhorne, an early Quaker settler who served in the colonial government and was later Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Lansdale

Named for Philip Lansdale Fox, a surveyor for the North Pennsylvania Railroad who established the rail station that the borough grew around.

Lower Merion

Derived from Merioneth, the Welsh county that many early settlers came from.

Media

Named by a resident and descendant of an early settler for the borough’s central location in Delaware County.

Narberth

Named after a town in Wales.

New Hope

Named after the New Hope Mills, built by local businessman Benjamin Parry with “new and fresh hopes for the future” after one of his other mills burned down. Before that, the town was called Coryell's Ferry.

Norristown

Named for Isaac Norris, who purchased the town’s original land from William Penn (though he never settled there, and instead lived in Philadelphia and served as mayor).

Perkasie

A corruption of the Lenape word Poekskossing [PDF] (“where the hickory nuts were cracked”).

Phoenixville

Named after the local Phoenix Iron Works, a major producer of nails in the 1800s. The business’s owner, Lewis Wernwag, chose the name because the heat coming from the iron that made the nails reminded him of the mythical phoenix.

Pottstown

Named after founder John Potts.

Radnor

Named for Radnorshire, Wales, where many of the township’s first settlers came from.

Royersford

Named for the Roya family, who owned the land near a local crossing point on the Schuylkill River.

Schwenksville

Named after founder George Schwenk.

Souderton

Named for the Souders, a family of early settlers.

Telford

Named for the North Pennsylvania Railroad’s nearby Telford station, which was named for Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford.

Thornbury

Named after the English home of Anna Gainer Pearce, whose husband George was granted land in the township by William Penn.

Trappe

Named for a tavern in the early days of settlement called The Trap.

Warminster

Named after the town in Wiltshire, in England.

Warwick

Named after the town in Warwickshire, England.

West Chester

Originally called Turk’s Head after a local tavern, it was changed when Chester County was split in two and the borough became the county seat. The “west” differentiated it from the city of Chester, which had been the old county seat and became the county seat of the newly formed Delaware County. (Chester residents, unhappy with the changes, tried to destroy the new county courthouse in West Chester with a cannon, but were stopped by a group of locals.) The “Chester” in the borough, city, and county’s names comes from the city of Chester in Cheshire, England, where many of the area’s settlers came from.

Yardley

Named after William Yeardley, a Quaker minister who settled the area with his family.

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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

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Of Buckeyes and Butternuts: 29 States With Weird Nicknames for Their Residents
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Tracing a word’s origin and evolution can yield fascinating historical insights—and the weird nicknames used in some states to describe their residents are no exception. In the Mental Floss video above, host John Green explains the probable etymologies of 29 monikers that describe inhabitants of certain states across the country.

Some of these nicknames, like “Hoosiers” and “Arkies” (which denote residents of Indiana and Arkansas, respectively) may have slightly offensive connotations, while others—including "Buckeyes," "Jayhawks," "Butternuts," and "Tar Heels"—evoke the military histories of Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. And a few, like “Muskrats” and “Sourdoughs,” are even inspired by early foods eaten in Delaware and Alaska. ("Goober-grabber" sounds goofier, but it at least refers to peanuts, which are a common crop in Georgia, as well as North Carolina and Arkansas.)

Learn more fascinating facts about states' nicknames for their residents by watching the video above.

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