What was Amish life like 65 years ago? Last week I came across a documentary called, simply, “The Old Order Amish”. This was filmed in Lancaster County and was just recently uploaded to YouTube. It’s on the Periscope Films channel, a company that preserves rare and obscure old films.
It’s a fascinating nugget from the past and I recommend watching (it’s viewable at the end of this post). The film is 32 minutes long. You will see how the Amish in Lancaster County lived in the 1950s. I had a few observations to share.
Old Order Amish Documentary
Here are some observations I had from the film, ten in total.
1. The Lancaster Amish Population is Five Times Larger Today
The Lancaster County Amish population at the time of recording was about 8,000 Amish. It’s now over five times larger (around 43,000). Though the community has grown, many if not most of the homes and farms you see in this film should still be around today.
Some look quite familiar. I imagine if I were watching this with an Amish person from the area, he’d be able to tell me who lives on these farms today.
2. Amish don’t appear too camera-shy
The Amish here don’t seem too camera-shy. We see various scenes from Amish life, including a woman demonstrating baking in a outdoor oven and listening in on some conversations. The narrator notes that “the women are extremely proud of their show china.”
3. The “Gay” Outside World
The narrator talks about “the distinction between the plain Amish world” versus “the gay outside world”. “Gay” in this case being a synonym used for “fancy” – a term once commonly used to describe Pennsylvania Dutch people who were not part of the plain Anabaptist churches.
4. Amish Farm and House?
I think this may have been filmed in part at the Amish Farm & House, the area’s oldest tourist attraction, which opened in 1955. I may be wrong, but just a hunch.
5. No SMV Triangles
One thing you’ll notice is the buggies do not contain the SMV triangles, nor the levels of lighting and reflectors you’d see on Lancaster buggies today.
The SMV triangle was not developed until the 1960s, following a study of tractor accidents by researchers at Ohio State University. After some reluctance, Amish began adopting it for their buggies and it has since been adopted around the world.
6. A visit to Amish church
We get an explanation of the Amish church service and also hear snippets – including a preacher and singing from the Ausbund.
They film when it looks like church is just getting out (note the small children frantically waving at the camera). The scenes don’t look all that different from what you would see today. Of course there would be some smaller less noticeable differences. But hairstyles and clothing appear to have changed little over six-plus decades.
Then there is food and visiting. “Late in the day the get-together breaks up,” the narrator explains, “as the older folks leave to take care of the animals, and the younger folks to take care of their courtship.”
7. Non-Amish school teacher
We get a good look inside an Amish school. The narrator notes that the Amish are adamant about their children being educated in the one-room schoolhouse. But in this case the teacher is an outsider, one with “an understanding and respect for the Amish way of life.” I believe that was more common than it would be nowadays.
Some of these children are Amish grandmas and grandpas in the community today. I wonder if any of them have had a chance to view this film. I bet they’d get a kick out of it.
8. A visit to a public sale
Next the documentary stops in at an auction. Like today, it’s a chance to buy something but also to socialize, to get some hot dogs and hot chicken corn soup. “Those who do the buying are the men,” the narrator observes. “But the women do their utmost to exert a bit of influence.”
We also get a look at corner ball or mosch ball as it’s described here.
9. Threat of “the world” was a worry even in the 1950s
The narrator discusses Amish trips to town and the threat to their “symbolic wall” protecting them from worldly influence. “And yet it could not be otherwise in the 20th century” the narrator notes, citing economic pressures and the need to make money to buy farms.
This is not a new theme and is one that is many degrees more acute today. This section hints at external pressures and business changes to come even in the late 1950s.
We also get a view of a farmer’s market, probably in Lancaster city, foreshadowing the popularity of such businesses among Lancaster County Amish today. There is also mention of “the constant threat of the speeding auto”, another ever-present concern for the Amish now.
10. Closing on an ominous note
There is a good bit more covered in the film than what I’ve discussed here. But to take a look at the film’s close, interestingly it finishes on an ominous note. The narrator asks “can the struggle between the horse and the buggy, and motorized transport, end other than disastrously for the Amish?”
“As the American personality moves towards homogenization,” we hear, “Amish non-conformity is increasingly resented.” We see scenes from a funeral procession. The narrator then suggests that “the only salvation for the Amish farmer is to remain blissfully unmindful of the attitudes of the world. His back must stay turned on the world.”
Looking back over six decades later, how accurate were these ideas? I would say that while individuals and communities may have departed from the “Amish way”, Amish society as a whole has adapted to change, in a wide variety of ways.
Some have more or less kept, or even doubled-down on, their isolation. But many others have opened up to varying degrees – through business interaction, farming co-ops, lunchpail work, greater civic involvement – while retaining their Amishness. There remains resentment for Amish as “different” – just look at discussions over things like buggy lighting or social security – but I’d argue that the overall view of the Amish is much rosier today than the tone of this film’s conclusion suggests it’s heading.
However, the point about dangers on the road is still very relevant, probably even more so, I’d think, than in the 1950s. Especially when we consider the size of the Amish population, and the increase in both cars and distractions.
Watch “The Old Order Amish”
Here’s the full film. Interested to hear about any additional things you noticed.