MEMORIES OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION VIII October 18, 2009
I've never drawn an unemployment check in my life, and in two more months I'll be 85. Once, I think it was in 1954, after being injured and disabled for several weeks while working a sales territory that ran up the Redwood Highway in Northern California, I lost my job, and so went to the State Unemployment Office because I needed money to buy food.
About twenty of us as new applicants were ushered into a room and told to sit at desks, and then we were talked down to by a pedantic jerk as if we were kindergarten children. Exasperated, I finally stood up, tore up my application, dropped it on the floor and left the room. It was a struggle for awhile, but we made it through those tough times. I used the lessons I had learned in childhood, when my father had led our family through the Great Depression, which were instilled. . .a work ethic that never leaves you. That was the only time I ever applied for Unemployment. My brother never took an unemployment check either, and my sister was a Dental Hygienist, who stood on her feet, while working for various dentists, for more than fifty years. I might mention that she had a bad heart, eventually leading to heart surgery in which they replaced the valve using a pig's heart valve, and she still continued working. She was known for her sunny disposition and steady work habits.
THE GARMENT INDUSTRY AND MOTHER: There was a period in there where finances got to be extremely thin and mother was doing all that she could to stretch each thin dime to make it count. Milk at the time was eight cents a quart, but money was so tight that if one of us kids spilled over the bottle on the sink or pitcher on the table, it was a major tradegy. Nothing was wasted. Peeling potatoes or carrots, we had to make sure we didn't cut too deeply and waste anything. You used as much of the onion as you could, as well. We were not wasteful in any way, the ham bone was used for soup.
But with three children to raise, attention to our clothing was important. Anything that was accidentally torn was sewed up or patched again by hand. Socks were darned, and I can remember many nights that after everyone was in bed and asleep, that mother would still be sitting in the living room, under the lamp, carefully darning our socks. There was a special little basket containing her darning needles and yarn of different colors, so that the colors always matched up. At times she would fall asleep with the darning materials and repaired socks in her lap. Mothers got upset when children would fall and rip a hole in the knee of a sock, because that meant another half hour or hour of work at night to darn the hole. Children didn't think of that when they were out running around, playing, the additional work they made for their mothers, but in those days most women learned such skills and that saved money in the long run. Remember, nickels and dimes added up to dollars!
Mother had a sewing machine, one she had bought for herself when you she single and working at the bank, a Singer, with a foot treadle. She made almost all her own clothes, suits, dresses, beach-wear, and she was always well-dressed, Depression or not. She made some of our clothes too, but she taught my sister how to sew and throughout her lifetime, she too made most of her own clothes. Hand-tailored clothes? That was a luxury that only the rich could afford, right? Not when you bought your material at Macy's or Gimble's, on sale, and knew all about materials.
She was the first up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night. We didn't go to school with holes in our socks or other pieces of clothing, but we were always neat and clean, with our clothes ironed, right down to our undershorts. Every piece of clothing was ironed and folded and put away in the drawers. When you consider that there were no electric irons, that they were heated on the stove and were heavy and extremely hot, the family wash for three children and two adults was a big job.
THE EMBROIDERED EMBLEMS
Then as money became harder to get, mother sought out something to do from home and she found an add in the daily paper for a job she could do at home. She had to go to the ever teeming garment district on the West Side in New York, and found that the factories there had piece work that could be done at home. She would make the trip to the city to visit a manufacturer of blouses who put emblems on them, such as stars, circles, and shields. One design in particular I remember were the anchors, perhaps one for each sleeve of the blouse. They were embroidered on large sheets of muslin in rows across and columns down, several dozen per sheet. First one had to cut the rows across, then cut them into singles, then trim them. Such fine detailed designs were not easy to cut out of the material to which they were sewn and it had to be done very carefully with a pair of very sharp small scissors in order to get into the corners. It was tedious. It was tiring and again, late at night she'd sit there after everyone was in bed and cut, her fingers would get stiff, but she kept working. They only paid something like 15 cents to 25 cents a gross, if I remember correctly, and if you didn't cut them to their satisfaction, they'd take the whole gross, but not pay you a cent for them. I remember her saying that a couple of times when she came home. The larger ones could have paid up to a dollar a gross, but my memory falls short there. The lower the price they paid for such things, the cheaper they could sell the blouses or clothing and beat out a competitor.
You went up and down in freight elevators in the garment district, and you walked into lofts where dozens of women worked at sewing machines in order to get to the office to deliver the embroidered pieces. It was a different world over there, and most of the owners were immigrants from Europe, the women sewing from Puerto Rico or eastern Europe. There was mother, having to travel from New Jersey to this strange place in order to deliver the work she had completed. They had record books to show what she took home with her and what she brought back, and paid her those few dollars in cash, down to the penny.
Most of the men in the garment industry were merciless, stingy with both money and compliments or appreciation, not phased out by tears I'm sure as some women were desperate for those little amounts of money, and they were mostly unappreciative of the women who worked so hard for them. Mother would have to leave home early go take bus and ferry to New York, and deliver the bags of cut-out emblems. They'd all have to be counted out and wrapped in bundles, all according to instructions. But, it would be a few more dollars and that bought milk and bread for the family. She'd return home with those few dollars, happy to have earned them, and with more sheets of those emblems to be cut out. Yes, I tried to do some of them when she was pushed to deliver them, as did Charles. We weren't very good at it and might have cost her some of those losses, I don't know, but she never blamed us for it if we did.
Luckily we weren't as poor as some of the other women who worked in that industry, who lived with their families in the tenaments in the inner city of New York. We always lived in one or two family homes, across the Hudson river in New Jersey.
Everything was based upon nickels and dimes, which I will emphasize in these stories again and again, and so she kept careful track of her expenses to go to New York, a nickel for the bus down to the Delaware-Lackawanna Ferry Boat, a nickel to cross the river, a nickel across town, and then, when she got paid, to stop at Horn and Hardart's Cafeteria and spend a nickel for some soup or a dime for a sandwich in the automatic food dispensers.
Later in life she suffered such severe and painful arthritis in her hands and I wonder now if it came from those long hours cutting out those embroidered designs with such small scissors. She went to Boston to an Arthritis Hospital, but they couldn't help her much. When she was young she had such pretty hands, but always covered them with gloves when she went out as that was the proper way to dress in those days.
Today the younger generations have no understanding of what it is for people to walk three or four miles to save the nickel they charged for bus fare! Mother would walk clear across the city of New York to save those nickels, as would Dad, and as we children did when going to the Zoo, mother holding one by the hand, and the two other children holding on, as she was a swift walker. It was like flying part of the time. We walked to Central Park from 42nd Street, certainly? We walked to all the museums too, such as the Museum of Natural History.
We did not have a car for some of those years, and when we did, it was a one car family and only Dad drove. I do not ever remember going to New York in the family car, although we drove to P New York and New Haven, Connecticut, every couple of months