Paulson, Mary A.


Paulson, Mary A.


Mary A. Paulson, a widow, generated income to support her family by renting out one Cooper Street house while living in another house next door.

Biographical Text

The life of Mary Paulson, a resident of Cooper Street in the first three decades of the twentieth century, illustrates strategies employed by widows to support their families. Mary lived at 421 Cooper Street for about ten years beginning in 1897 and then after the death of her husband generated income by renting out the house while living at 419 Cooper Street next door. Her extended family included sons who joined the military during World War I, a daughter who became a school teacher, and a sister-in-law who had been in a mental institution.

Mary A. Maxwell was 27 years old when she married Joseph R. Paulson, a widower 30 years her senior. Joseph, listed in public records variously as an optician, cutlery maker, and jewelry merchant in Philadelphia. They spent the first decade of their marriage in Philadelphia, but by 1897 moved to 421 Cooper Street, which Joseph may have inherited from his mother, Mildred Keen Paulson, after her death in 1875. By the 1900 Census, the household consisted of Joseph, age 64; Mary, age 34; their sons Joseph Jr., age 6, and Charles, age 5, and a housekeeper, 55-year-old Clara Brewer. By 1905, Brewer's place had been taken by 21-year-old Rachel Ball, an African American who like many others in the early twentieth century had migrated north from Virginia. The family also added a daughter, Ruth, born in 1902.

The Paulsons lived at 421 Cooper Street for at least a decade and then, by 1910, made another move to the more fashionable suburb of Haddonfield. Still, they retained ownership of 421 Cooper Street. In 1911, when Joseph died, the family's former home became a source of financial security for Mary and her children. Mary rented out 421 Cooper Street to other families while living next door in 419 with her children Joseph Jr., by then then age 19; Charles, then 17; and daughter Ruth, 9. For almost a decade, her tenants in 421 were members of another extended family headed by a widow, Clara Starn, until that family moved in 1920 to Merchantville.

The Paulsons' extended family at 419 Cooper included Emily L. Paulson, the sister of Mary's late husband, who had inherited the home as well as the smaller house behind it at 424 Lawrence Street. Born c. 1841, Emily lived much of her adult life with her mother, Mildred, and then her brother. But for at least ten years, while in her 60s c. 1900-1910, Emily had lived as a patient at the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane. The nature of her mental illness is not known from public records, but at this West Philadelphia institution she would have experienced the "moral treatment" philosophy advocated by the founder of the hospital, Quaker physician Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride advocated humane treatment in beautiful surroundings, and the institution in Philadelphia inspired many other "Kirkbride Plan" hospitals around the country. In this era, causes for admission to the institution could range from grief and anxiety to severe forms of insanity. At the time of Emily's residence, the hospital's roster of patients included wives and daughters of merchants, lawyers, and other people of prominence.

At age 70, Emily returned to Camden as a member of Mary Paulson's household, and the Paulsons remained at this address for the next two decades. The two teen-aged sons, both musically inclined, opened a music studio in the home to teach other young men how to play the mandolin or violin. Soon they faced more life-altering choices as the Great War began in Europe and especially when the United States entered the conflict in 1917. By then, the oldest son, Joseph Jr., still claimed 419 Cooper Street as his home address but had landed a job as an orchestra leader for a theater in Juneau, Alaska. He served as a musician in the U.S. Navy, 1918-19. His younger brother Charles served closer to home, in the quartermaster's office of the U.S. Army in Sea Girt, New Jersey, 1917-18. Both returned home to 419 Cooper Street: Charles by 1920, when the household consisted of his mother, age 54, aunt Emily, 77, and 17-year-old sister Ruth, who later became a teacher at Hatch Junior High School. Joseph returned home during the 1920s after a brief wartime marriage and later divorce.

Mary Paulson retained ownership of 421 Cooper Street as a rental property until 1925, a time when changes such as construction of the Delaware River Bridge spurred investor interest in Cooper Street properties for possible conversion to business uses. The sale of 421 Cooper Street that year warranted a story in the Camden Courier-Post to note that the property had been in the hands of only two families--the Paulsons and the Coopers--since Camden's earliest history.

The Paulson family's association with 419 Cooper Street lasted until the 1930s. Transfer of the property from Emily to Mary Paulson for $1 in 1931 suggests that Emily had died, and by 1937 the house was up for sale. In the midst of the Great Depression, the original price of $10,000 plummeted by more than half over three years until the house finally ended up listed for sheriff's sale to satisfy back taxes. Charles Paulson made his living as a salesman and shopkeeper, married, and began his own family in Camden and later Haddonfield; by 1940, Joseph Paulson worked as a musician at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Mary Paulson, meanwhile, went to live with her by-then-married daughter Ruth Soistmann in Merchantville, ending the era of 419 Cooper Street as a single-family home.

Time period on Cooper Street


Location(s) - Cooper Street

419 Cooper Street
421 Cooper Street

Location(s) - Other

124 Walnut Street, Haddonfield


Head of household

Birth Date

September 1865



Death Date

Unknown, after 1940

Associated Individuals

Joseph R. Paulson (1826-1911), husband
Joseph R. Paulson Jr., son
Charles Paulson, son
Ruth Paulson Soistmann, daughter
Emily L. Paulson, sister-in-law
Clara Starn, tenant
Clara Brewer, housekeeper
Rachel Ball, housekeeper



“Paulson, Mary A.,” Learning From Cooper Street, accessed July 15, 2024,

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