Saturday, July 25, 2009


The news today is far more depressing to me than the thoughts of the past and the years of the Great Depression. The 2009 Congress wants the Government to take over our lives in every aspect and to tell us a better way to do things, but in order to do that they must destroy a good part of what we have now. My message to them is: Balderdash! You don't create wealth by taking it from those who are wealthy and giving it to those who are poor. You create wealth by offering those who have it some incentives to develop new projects and employ people to build them, and those who begin earning money will spend it for their own needs.

If you teach a man how to plant crops, he will have food to feed himself and then, some to sell to his neighbors. In the meantime, his neighbor is busy making pottery for the farmer to cook or store food in. Those were the type of lessons that I learned when I was young, and they pertain to today's world just as much as they did before and during the Great Depression.

To understand things better about those days in the Great Depression, let's first do some arithmetic, using only ten fingers (and ten toes if need be). Chewing gum,Wrigleys, was five cents a pack for five sticks of gum. A pound of sickel pears cost a nickel. Milk was nine cents a quart, fresh from the farmer and sold out of a large can at the local bakery. We walked there with a two quart pail, and at times bought fresh buns or rolls fresh out of the oven. Chris, the baker's daughter worked behind the counter from the time she was nine or ten years old. A loaf of bread was a dime as well. It was nice being around Chris when she was outside, as she always smelled of that baked bread, and to us it was better than perfume. When she was 16 and 17, that bakery smell and her other attributes made her quite attractive. Stanley Podwyszynski, a kid with ears that stuck out at a sharp agnle from his head, like jar handles, would sing to her as a group of us walked in the park on a summer night. (He joined the Army in 1941, but I'll bet they never put him in the front lines, as the enemy could line up his sights on those ears.)

In 1931, Dad earned $64 every two weeks for 80 hours work or 75 cents an hour, handling ticket sales at the Electric Ferries in Weehawken, New Jersey. I cannot say for certain, but this was probably a nickel to a quarter an hour more than many jobs paid.

Gas, I think, was about six or seven cents, but I do remember that in 1939, when we were going to High School, it was nine cents a gallon.

We had Five and Dime stores, and it was surprising what a nickel or dime would buy you, almost everything you needed in the kitchen and all the small items in the home.

Newspapers were three cents. The Post Office charged 2 cents to send a letter. A post-card could be mailed for a penny. It was easy to keep track of things when so much of life was in nickels and dimes. Kids earned nickels and dimes by doing errands for neighbors, by standing outside of a grocery store with a wagon and loading up someone's groceries and walking home with them. This was opportunity to us. We may not have thought of it that way, but we were learning daily lessons about work and responsibility. Then Archie hired me to come inside the store and wrap packages of groceries, and suddenly I was earning ten cents an hour. Archie wrapped and tied the neatest packages in town, then put a handle on the package for the man or woman to carry it home, and under his supervision I learned how to do the same. Years later I wrapped five thousand ten thousand dollar paintings with the same pride Archie took in his work on a dollar or two worth of groceries at the National Grocery Store in North Bergen, New Jersey.

We earned additional nickels and dimes and even quarters by mowing lawns, weeding gardens, cutting hedges, shoveling snow from driveways, odd jobs, all done with hand tools (who ever saw an electric or gas powered tool in those days?). Small lawns, medium sized lawns, and even large estates, all done by pushing around a hand-mower. You didn't see many fat kids around town in those days, believe me. Work? It was really work then, hard work too. We sweated freely and didn't have a can of spray to clear away the odor. You did that with soap and a washcloth in the bathroom sink. We were preparing ourselves for the future, our future.

But then, we did not know that, and to us kids a dime meant that we could go to the movie matinee on Saturday morning, two movies, a cartoon, the news, and a Buck Jones (on his white horse) cowboy serial. Buck always taught us too, like a moralty show, the virtues of honesty and loyalty. He taught us how to get the girl too, but we didn't always learn that too well. He wore a white ten gallon Stetson and all the bad guys wore black. Sometimes a neighbor would give a kid two large empty soda bottles and they were worth a nickel each when returned to the grocery store, so that could be a box of popcorn or an ice cream cone. A smaller coke bottle was worth two cents. We Knew how to add things up, how ten pennies could get you into the theatre as well as a dime.

Perhaps we did not have it as bad as some of the others, because Dad had managed to find a steady job and it was one where they had a steady work force because it was a crucial link between New York and New Jersey, the Electric Ferries Co. with boats crossing the Hudson River every half hour. Perhaps that would have meant that we were somewhere in the lower middle-class. Poor, but not too poor. This meant that if you tripped and spilled that two-quart bucket of milk, you got one Hell of a scolding when you went crying home with an empty bucket.

But the Daily News and Daily Mirror had pictures of the lines of men outside any factory that put out a sign, Men Wanted. There could be a hundred or two hundred men lined up for those two or three or four jobs, men with families who were short of food. Every guy had a newspaper sticking out of his pocket, with the pages for jobs, with the ones he could do, circled. Hot sun, summer rain, winter snow, the lines were always the same, as they bore those discomforts in order to find work.

We were avid newspaper readers as kids, as Dad brought home three or four papers a day, left behind by riders on the Ferry Boats. News kids on the docks sold papers to passengers as they boarded, kids twelve to fifteen years old, helping to supporttheir families. Shoeshine boys were always around too, helping to make some guy more presentable for a job interview, or a floor salesman in a department store neat and presentable. A nickel a shine, and how those kids prided themselves on the shine they'd give you. They too, were salesmen, often Master Salesmen. It wasn't jive talk; it was sincere, and then, at the end, a little bit of spit on the toes of your shoes and that extra cloth snapping down and across a few more times. That was quality, that was the best shine you ever got in your life!

And, that, to many, was the difference between food on the table at night or go to bed hungry. It was the same for the newsboys hawking papers on the corners in New York, or the old women selling flowers or apples. (con't. from here tomorrow)

Friday, July 24, 2009

MEMORIES OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION - CHAP. V Before the Great Depression, my father had a successful business. I cannot give all the details, because I was too young to understand them, but he opened his own music business at one point. He had managed the Record Departments in a couple of major department stores, and had enough faith in his own abilities to go out on his own. It was in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and he featured Victor recordings and the hand-wound machines to play them on. The store was located in the "negro" area, and the type of music he sold catered to their tastes. When the Depression hit, his business fell off dramatically and eventually he had to close it. Newspaper headlines often cause panic, and in all depressions I am convinced that the over-exuberance of the nation's press makes things severely worse. There never is a calm and rational voice among them to mitigate the circumstances, but only shrill headlines that maximize the impact. Rational people sit back and assess the situation; irrational people make sudden and unwise choices that affect everyone, including those who are rational and trying not to contribute to these media induced paranoias.

Perhaps, at times, we'd be better off if the press suspended publishing Business News for a week or two, in order to see what actually was happening, instead of being the carriers of the virus and spreading it. It is a thought that is not without merit.

At the time, my grandfather, also a hard worker, was doing alright too, with most of his money invested in a building that was leased by the U.S. Government for use as a Post Office. That seemed safe too, right? No, the Government decided to build a Post Office themselves and moved out of the building, which was not a good thing to happen to your major investment during a Depression. Such are the Vagaries of Life. When you think that you're all set, having planned well for the future, a ball comes through your front window and disturbs your peace and quiet. Thank goodness that my grandparents owned their own home in Philadelphia at the time, as that kept a roof over their heads during the lean years as well as a favorite refuge for their grandchildren during summer vacations.

Earlier on he and grandmother had owned a restaurant, which was said to have been successful. The origin of their business might have been that he sailed as a cook on trans-Altantic steamships. Dad's early memories are of his father packing a satchel, being gone for weeks at a time, then returning home and opening his satchel and handing money to grandmother, suggesting a seagoing period where you sign on, make a trip, then pay off at the end of the voyage. In 1926 he was working as a cook on the Governor's yacht in New Jersey (see photo), and again, this suggests prior experience as a ship's cook.

The accompanying photo of Dad, taken on a sales trip to Pittsburgh, shows a well-dressed confident young salesman, probably taken around 1927, when he was 26 years of age. It was taken on a hotel balcony. He'd been married about three years and had two young sons, and soon to have a daughter. He didn't know it, but the Great Depression lay in front of him and some tough years ahead, but his confidence and self-reliance shown here was to be a big help to him when hard-times came along, although it was to be sorely tested time and again throughout the coming years.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

There's a reason behind giving you an insight into the family history before getting to the story of how we survived The Great Depression, and that is to show that many people were well prepared for it because they had been taught from an early age how to work, and work meant survival. In other words, they were prepared for such upheavals. Uncle Harry, whom I have mentioned, as a well trained technician as a lens grinder in the optical trade, also had other abilities and seemed to always be employed throughout those years. In fact, right in the middle of it, in 1935, he took his savings, borrowed other money from friends and family, and opened his own business in Hew Haven, Connecticut, an optical shop where you could take your prescription for glasses and he'd grind the lenses, sell you the fames as well, and fit them to your face. He employed from three to five people, sponsored a weekly radio show, giving his nieces and nephew a chance to act, and was quite successful and lived in a nice home in an upper-class neighborhood. His business continued on until his death, and, in fact, after he died my father, who had also obtained his Optician's license, continued the business until his retirement.

This is a good example of why I say that opportunity was not dead because of the Depression, it was simply not available to everyone because they either didn't have skills to sell or if they had them, they didn't know how to market them. Uncle Harry obviously did. This may sound simplistic to some, but I saw it time and time again in those years, and young as I was I recognized it. As an example, one neighbor, an Italian named Steve Cerra, opened a barber shop half a block away on the main street. He spoke English with a strong Italian accent, but he built up a stead clientele and continued there during the thirties, saving his money, and one day had enough to buy a nice home in another town on the south Jersey shore, where he opened another shop and continued to earn and save. He never had trouble feeding his family and he saved enough money to send both his son and daughter through college. It was an immigrant's dream, America, the land of opportunity and open to all.

Another neighbor had an ice cream parlor and it was successful all through the Depression. In fact, at one point when our finances were in a precarious position, mother went to work for him and she became his most valued employee because of her pleasantness with his lunchtime customers.

Small businesses were the backbone of the country in those days. A butcher shop usually had two or three employees. The local hat shop had one or two. The garages employed three or four mechanics. Many men opened filling stations and each also had a garage and mechanics. The local farmers displayed their fruits and vegetables in the back of small trucks and drove up and down the streets, delivering freshly picked items right to your door. There were vegetable stores, with displays of fruit on stands out front. Dress shops had two or three employees. There was seldom a vacancy in the stores, as someone always wanted to go into business for themselves, a typewriter repair shop, a shoe-maker, an Italian grocery, a German grocery, a baker (German in our area), and all of them usually had their children behind the counter, learning how to handle the business and treat customers.

Many men, with lots of free time on their hands, tinkered and came up with inventions, then sold them out of their garages. Others took jobs they might not have considered before the Depression, but that often opened new vistas to them, opportunity was there if you sought it out. This was free enterprise. After all, this was America.

We read about the coal miners who were out of work, the farmers in the Dust Bowl who lost their land, the auto workers in Detroit who were laid off, the people living in tenaments in New York who were evicted because they could not pay the rent, it was all there in both story and photo in the newspapers and magazines, so we knew what was going on. The coal miners? They had it rough, but I never did think that God created a man and said that he could only work in a mine. Or that he should not travel a hundred miles or two to find a new type of employment. The farmers in the dust bowl suffered enormous privations and thousands of them migrated in pitiful condition to the west coast, to California. Along the way some people would not even give them a glass of water for their children. They suffered, but many built new foundations in their adopted state. Walter Knott, who would build Knott's Berry Farm, was one of them, but he came up with a new berry, the Boysenberry, and from there came the beginnings of his fortune. (Read the story of Knott's Beery Farm; it is as exciting to me today as the first time I read it.)

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Young boys in those days often turned to a trade because their families lacked the funds to provide them with a college education. They prepared early, and so Dad, somehow at around twelve years of age (in 1913), obtained a job in a music store and by age 16, he was on the road selling the latest records and also machines to play them, known as Victrolas, for a major company. These phonographs were hand wound and played records that were about 1/4" thick, using steel needles, which seemed to wear down rapidly and had to be changed regularly. At 16 he was considered mature enough to travel from Connecticut to Texas, to open up that new territory for Victor Talking Machine, a big responsibility for a young man. He became the manager of the music department in the largest department store in Ohio in his early twenties.

My uncle Harry, also at around 12 years of age, became an apprentice in an optical shop and learned how to grind lenses for glasses. later, he was able to get a job with Bausch & Lomb, in New York, the largest optical company in the country, having learned his profession well. This is an illustration of how people thought in those days, and then, eventually, he founded his own business and continued as an opticion for the rest of his life. Child Labor, can be as beneficial for some (or many) as it can, for others, seem detrimental.

There never is a lack of opportunity, but there is a decided lack of people who understand what opportunity is.

Both Howard and Harry, while in their early teens, were preparing for their future, not lolling around on the beach or sailing on Long Island Sound. They had developed a work ethic at an early age and neither one of them lost that edge during their lifetime. It persists in our family to this day, thank the Lord.

Dad was born in 1901, and uncle Harry in 1904. Their sister Helen, I believe, in 1907. They were raised as Catholics, and I still have Dad's Missal, with his name in gold letters on the cover; it is in German. Both of his parents were born in Germany, so they were German immigrants to this country and they not only had to learn the language, which they did fluently, but they had to fashion a life for themselves in a new country. Not only that, they had to live through World War I years, when German immigrants often felt the effects of discrimination, and when German accents, once detected, might cause problems as well.

My cousin relates how Grosvater (Grandfather in German) sold his farm when the Klu Klux Klan singled him out in the late 20s because of his German accent, and paraded past his farm home in New Jersy, white Klan outfits, torches and all. He moved to Philadelphia from there. The Klan operated in many states and they were not only white supremists, but held other grievances as well, such as an anti-immigrant attitude, Germans in one area, Irish in another, Polish in yet another. If you believe in Darwin's theory, Survival of the Fittest, then you should have some understanding of these attitudes, if only a smidgen.