Valentine’s Day is coming and love is in the air, so the time is right to delve into the history of Princeton’s most romantically named street: Lovers Lane. The narrow quarter-mile stretch of road connects Stockton and Mercer streets. One side is lined with homes nestled among the trees and on the other side lies Marquand Park.
A lovers lane is, of course, historically, a place where people go, typically in cars, for some secluded romance, away from the prying eyes of parents or gossiping acquaintances. A Wikipedia article on the topic offers a list of cities around the world that have a street called Lovers Lane. But Princeton’s version has decidedly unromantic origins.
As explained in the 1990 guide “Princeton: On the Streets Where We Live” by Jeanne Silvester and Randy Hobler, Lovers Lane is just an evolution and simplification of the name Lubberly, who was a farmer who owned the Guernsey Hall estate on the street in the early 19th century. And far from its current name’s connotations, “lubberly” is also an archaic adjective meaning big and clumsy.
But just because the street’s true origin story lacks any sort of loving feeling does not mean it has not sparked a certain curiosity — and sometimes disappointment — among the people in town.
A senior editor, writing his parting thoughts for Princeton University’s Nassau Literary Magazine in its March 1, 1856, issue, gave the following reminiscence about Lovers Lane:
“It will be the remembrance of a walk before prayers in the morning, during the Summer months down through ‘Lover’s Lane,’ where the arching trees were vocal with the melody of birds, and where the fragrance of the flowers in the garden or growing wild in the adjacent woods regaled senses quickened by the healthy air and walk. By the way, we used to linger awhile in Lover’s Lane because we thought the name imparted the frequent presence of Princetonian damsels. But we solemnly assure the reader, that we never met a single lady (no, nor a married one) in that lane. We dare say that the name was given without reason — for how can a lane be ‘Lover’s Lane’ when visited by gentlemen only …
“There was a rock in that lane where we used to sit, and — a sigh — and looking up into a grand old tree above our heads, respond to the mysterious utterings of its waving branches and fluttering leaves, then start from reverie at approaching footsteps — alas! footfalls with no music in them — for the damsels, where were they? Why would men, black and white, forever pour down that lane, deceiving the expectant ear, and crushing with cruel disappointment the sensitive heart? Well, misery loves company, and we have the intense satisfaction of knowing that many a Sophomore’s heart has bled in that same lane, for although there was charming nature with her birds and flowers, spread out before him, yet it was ‘Lover’s Lane,’ and his agonized spirit would cry out, ‘Where, oh! Where are the damsels?’”
And while the street’s name may be misleading, it maintains a sentimental value. Twice in the age of the automobile residents in Princeton have mounted campaigns to have the street renamed as Olden Lane, as the road is called once it crosses Mercer Street and as it had been called before the Lovers Lane appellation came into use.
The April 7, 1933, edition of the Princeton Herald reported on a petition signed by residents in what is now known as the Institute neighborhood to have the named changed due to the difficulty cars encountered locating Olden Lane from Stockton Street:
“The difficulty experienced by visitors in finding Olden Lane has resulted in the request to the Township Committee that the one-block continuation of that street, between Mercer Street and Stockton Street, known as Lovers Lane, be re-christened to bear its original title of Olden Lane. The application was made to the Committee at its meeting on Monday night by B. Franklin Bunn, former Mayor of the Borough of Princeton, who described the trouble which visitors to the Battle Park section had in finding Olden Lane when they entered Princeton by way of Stockton Street.”
But an unsigned op-ed titled “Thoughts of Lovers Lane” in that same issue argued for emotion over logic in keeping the name Lovers Lane in place.
“As a rule, any help which can be given to strangers is to be encouraged, and most reversions to original titles — particularly those of such historical significance as the name of Olden — are to be commended. But despite the fact that sentiment is the sole argument that can be advanced against these sound considerations, the name of Lovers Lane should remain. Place a sign, if necessary, informing visitors that Olden Lane is but one block away, or indicate, by including the name in parenthesis below that of Lovers Lane upon the street marker, that this roadway is a continuation of the other, but do not brutally legislate away the only designation which befits this secluded thoroughfare.”
By May 5, 1933, the notion of renaming the street was abandoned with the compromise that an explanatory sign, “leading to Olden Lane,” would be placed at the intersection of Lovers Lane and Stockton Street.
In 1950 the issue became not misleading signage but missing signage. Proponents of changing the name advanced another practical argument that was again quickly abandoned in favor of sentimentality.
As the Daily Princeton reported on September 18, 1950: “Consideration of a plan to rename Lovers Lane was quickly dropped last summer by the Princeton Township committee, which had underestimated the force of sentiment. Chairman B. Franklin Bunn submitted a proposal to change the name of the Theological Seminary side street to Olden Lane. He explained that his motive was to save the township some money, since university students continually stole the street signs to decorate their rooms. But residents of Lovers Lane were proud of the street’s name, resented any change and were vociferous in saying so. The proposal was shelved.”
(Fittingly, B. Franklin Bunn, a 1907 university alumnus who served as mayor of both Princeton Borough and Princeton Township and managed the Princeton University Store for more than 40 years, has his own street now: Bunn Drive, changed from Research Road in his honor in 1973.)
The Lovers Lane name stayed, and so did the practice of stealing street signs. A report from Borough Council meeting in the July 12, 1963, issue of the Princeton Herald noted that during a school break, university officials had inspected dorm rooms and discovered 16 stolen street signs, which were returned to the town. But, it added, “Still missing and apparently so treasured that their illegal possessors carry them with them wherever they go are two signs for ‘Lovers Lane.’”
But town officials have wised up to attempts to take advantage of the street’s name. On-street parking has been prohibited there since 1962, owing primarily to the narrowness of the street. (Marquand Park, with the winding pathways through its arboretum, has its own parking lot). And would-be sign thieves can no longer stand on their tippy toes and pry the sign off its post: the street signs at both ends of Lovers Lane are mounted at nearly twice the height of typical signs.