Sunday, August 05, 2007

Lifestyles in the 30's-50's...

Writing long pieces for this blog is kind of like wetting your pants in a blue serge suit.

It gives you a nice warm feeling and nobody really notices.

This one is highly personal and pretty long so I wouldn't blame you if you have better things to do. But maybe some of the geezers who drop in will be able to relate.

I've searching my memory banks-which are "banked" pretty high over 74 plus years-for some comparisons in life styles and work ethics in those days before all the changes wrought over the past 30-40 years by our changing cultural climate and the welter of liberal organizations like the ACLU started making things "all better" for everybody.

I'd better start by saying that this piece is not meant to imply that there's anything very special about me or my growing up years. Lots of kids in the thirties and forties grew up pretty much as I did, working at odd jobs, part or full time, to earn their spending money.

I think youngsters went to work a lot earlier in life back then and they developed better work ethics as a result.

Maybe it's because they didn't have as much handed to them as today's generation or perhaps their parents were more strict about making them earn their own way for spending money. I'm not sure, but I do know that you seldom see 10-12 year olds with paper routes or delivering groceries any more, except in small town Americana.

So this is to draw some kind of comparison with today's average kid life.

Do many kids do this kind of stuff anymore? Was it better or worse then?

As background, after my mother's death from pneumonia when I was five years old and with my father at sea in the Merchant Marines most of the time, I was brought up by my grandmother, a real study in enterprise and work ethics.

My grandmother's husband ran off with another woman when their children,including my mother Virginia were very small. To make matters worse, shortly after he left for parts unknown the rental house they were living in and all their earthly possessions burned to the ground.

She was left with, essentially--nothing.

With the help of the church, they at least had food and a place to live until she could find a job.

There wasn't much in the way of welfare or unemployment compensation back then and my grandmother had to tough it out on her own. Not so easy, since she never learned to read or write. Nor did she ever learn to drive a car and couldn't even do basic arithmetic.

The one skill she possessed-and it was her saving grace-was her ability to sew.

After many attempts to find some work, she finally packed up her sewing samples and took a bus to talk to the people at a local department store.

She knew the store sold a lot of the higher priced fabrics that affluent residents used to decorate their homes. But at the time they were farming their slip cover and drapery work out to an out of town company and, as it turned out, weren't really happy with the quality of the work they were receiving.

After talking to a few people, she was introduced to the store owner and she persuaded him to hire her to do the work inside the store for less money and better quality.

You can imagine how much my grandmother was paid for this kind of piece work in the 30's but at least it was a job and she had pretty much written the job description herself.

Because of her abilities, her high standards and the fine work she turned out, she became a favorite among the home decorators and the affluent clients the store dealt with.

Eventually two of the decorators talked her into setting up her own shop to do both the store's work and theirs and even offered to loan her some money to get started.

They helped her rent a house and to buy a couple of sewing machines. I remember it as a large, but somewhat dilapidated house.

Like most people in those times, my grandmother had little tolerance for being in debt and once she was on her feet, she made a generous donation to the church that had fed and sheltered her family. She also did everything she could to pay back the note she had signed as quickly as possible.

She hired a helper in the sewing room and started renting out all the rooms in the house except her own, the children's rooms, the living and dining room and the kitchen. This left her two single rooms and one small apartment that she could look to for income, along with her sewing work.

Her business grew steadily as word of talents got around and, with help from the rental income, she was able to pay back the debt in a couple of years and plan a move to an even larger place with more rooms to rent and expand her shop.

She eventually moved to a very large house that she rented from a local lawyer who had built a grand home in one of the ritzier sections of town. Again she converted most of the rooms to rental units and within a few years she was able to make the necessary down payment and begin to pay off the house.

This was the house that I spent most of my growing up years in; for the first few years in a small bedroom that adjoined the work shop.

I remember many nights going to sleep with the hum of my grandmother's sewing machine in the background. It seemed to me that she never really stopped working since she was usually back at her sewing machine when I got up the next morning.

Along with her sewing ability, my grandmother had a very strong work ethic and a fierce pride in the work she turned out.

I remember one night in particular when I woke up after midnight to the sound of sobbing in the work room behind me. When I opened the door, I found my grandmother standing in the middle of several pairs of draperies that had been done that day by her helpers . She was ripping out all the seams and crying as she did it because she knew she would be up for the rest of the night, redoing most of the work that was turned out that day.

On another night I heard her crying in pain, running water and opening and shutting cabinets in the small bathroom nearby. She had run a sewing machine needle all the way through her finger and was trying to remove it without wanting to bother anybody to ask anyone for help.

My wife, who worked with my grandmother in the shop for a while, will tell you that she couldn't tolerate a crooked seam or a slipcover or set of draperies that was off by as much as a quarter inch.

When she died she had paid off her own large and immaculately kept home in a very nice section of town, a large workroom that employed 7 or 8 workers, a fully furnished garage apartment and the kind of fine furniture and accessories sold by the tonier furniture places.

Because my grandmother could neither read nor write, during her entire working career she had to rely on a trusted member of her Sunday School class to do all her bookkeeping and her written correspondence.

Curiously, even through my grandmother couldn't do the simplest arithmetic, she could calculate precisely how a bolt of cloth had to be cut to keep the waste to a minimum, and the slipcovers she fashioned fit the furniture like a glove.

I've come to believe that the key to financial success in this country is as basic as just 3 qualities--

1. The ability to do something (anything) well 2. A strong work ethic and 3. High standards.

My grandmother possessed them all in abundance along with those extra qualities that define true entrepreneurs- initiative, risk taking and a strong drive for independence.

With that kind of mind set, I'm sure you would know that, other than a small weekly allowance, she never indulged me the way most parents do nowadays. If I wanted more money, the solution was simple.

Go out and earn it......

I still haven' t quite figured out how I managed to persuade Dinah to marry me. She was one of most popular teen agers in our community, has a singing voice with a range, a quality and a volume that will send chills up your spine, attended college on a voice scholarship, won our city's beauty/talent contest and placed in the "Miss Georgia" contest. Beyond that she's one of the most loving, caring people I've ever known.

Dinah's father and mother were both wonderful people-the real salt of the earth kind that made this country great.

Bill was a WW11 veteran and American Legion post commander, a railroad engineer and part owner of a automobile electrical repair shop. He was handy with just about every tool Decker ever made and did much of a total remodeling job on their house himself with some help from his friends.

He was Jeff Chandler handsome, had a keen sense of humor and a gentle, loving way about him. I remember him helping me out so many times in the early years of our marriage-once by rebuilding the engine on my old second hand 1964 Buick when Dinah and I couldn't afford to have it done.

Any picture of Mable will tell you where Dinah got her "Miss Georgia" looks.

Mable was a strong Christian and a very loving, but no nonsense mother. With Mable as the primary driving force, the entire Fuller family were faithful members of Faith Baptist Church, attending church regularly-once or twice on Sundays and again at Wednesday night prayer meeting.

While doing all the things good mothers have to do to raise 3 kids the right way, Mable also worked as a seamstress in the local hosiery mill.

As a sign of the times Mable managed it without using a child care center or having any of them end up doing drugs or holding wild house parties while she was away.

Bill was a deacon in the church and took up any possible slack Mable may have left in getting the kids dressed and on the way to services. As head of the table he also enforced the Fuller family rule - no one starts eating until the food is blessed.

Mable also wrote the handbook on thrift. I remember that when she was living with us,I'd often find little Tupperware jars with perhaps one serving( or less) of English peas in them; a single piece of leftover bread, carefully wrapped and placed back in the breadbox. "Little tads" as she said, add up.

In her last years, when Mable had to have help balancing her checkbook, I knew I had danged well better reconcile it to the last penny or she would literally lose sleep over it. I also have a touching memory of her fretting over whether her payment for the water bill would get there on time since it wasn't mailed when she planned.

I tried to reassure her by saying "Mable I just know the manager of the Water Works is sitting up nights right now, wondering whether Mable Fuller's check is on the way or not". She didn't think it was very funny and I eventually had to call them and assure her that it got there on time.

In her own growing up years,Dinah worked a part time job at Silver's 10 cent store,even had her own radio show " Dinah Sings" -sponsored by Stewart's Drive In, as I remember. Her brothers worked summers for their uncle Earl in the local cotton mill.

Although I earned some occasional spending money by raking the yard, running errands and such much earlier in life, my own first "real job"was at about age 9 or 10.

About "going out and earning it".....

Peanut Vendor

I don't think I was all that eager to work at the time. I just knew that the quarter a week allowance that I got from my grandmother didn't stretch very far. A couple of milk shakes and poof!..nothing left for Baby Ruths, Brick Bats or anything else.

My first boss was on old black gentleman known as "Monk". His peanut sales crew would gather on the courthouse lawn early on Saturday mornings to pick up their peach baskets filled with small brown bags of parched peanuts.

Monk didn't have use of his legs and his family would unload him from the car and place him on a small wagon bed with wheels, low enough for him to get around by pushing on the sidewalk with his hands. I remember that he wore a long black leather apron and he piled all his money in his lap.

He would sit for hours shuffling his change around, fondling it, picking it up in batches and letting it pour through his fingers, over and over; sometimes rolling his head around and chanting in some strange dialect that no one understood.

Monk sold his peanuts to passersby for a dime a bag. Our deal, as distributors, was that we paid only a nickel a bag but we couldn't sell them anywhere in a one block radius of the main store-meaning Monk.

All transactions were cash on the barrel head so I had to save my allowance for a couple of weeks to get up enough money to buy my first lot-a peach basket filled with 20 to 25 bags of peanuts that cost over a dollar and was worth $2.00 to $2.50 retail.

I walked to the courthouse from home early every Saturday morning, sometimes bare footed by choice, about a six block walk. I remember that on my first day, I hung around the movie house entrance across the street a bit too long for Monk since I was encroaching on his territory. I was only able to sell a bag or two before he started yelling and waving me on.

I stuck mainly to the downtown area so I wouldn't have to walk too far for a refill if I sold out. Most of my sales came on the street but I'd also duck into the 10 cent stores, hotel lobbys, and other buildings where sales were usually pretty good until the manager usually ran me out.

I'd usually be back at Monk's for my second basket before noon. By mid afternoon, I would be sold out again or down to only a bag or two and it would be time to close out the books, pocket my profits and head home.

My average profit nearly always ended up at around 6-7 cents a bag. Sometimes I'd get a nickel or dime tip but I also sold a few bags to friends at "cost".

$2.50 to $3 profit for a 6-8 hour day's work doesn't sound like much now but it would buy a lot of milk shakes, cap guns and wax lips in 1942.

Two main recollections......

When sales were slow downtown, sometimes I'd head to the railroad yards under the viaduct that crossed over them for several blocks. If I caught it at break time, the train men would be outside playing their own version of horse shoes--tossing large washers that slid in the dirt toward cups buried in the ground. I could usually sell out then and head home early.

But the big sales bonanzas would come when I could catch a troop train stopping at the station on 6th Ave. When that happened I would not only sell out of peanuts, some times the soldiers would hang out of the window and throw money to me to run down to Doc's Pharmacy, about a block away, for ice cream-small cups with a cardboard lid packaged by the local dairy.

I remember that one time I got back to the station too late and the train was pulling out.So I was stuck :+) with about a dozen cups of ice cream.

Magazine salesman

Around the same time I took a job selling GRIT newspapers and Liberty Magazine in the neighborhood.

I remember that everybody would gather on the lawn of somebody's house where card tables had been laid out with all kinds of sales paraphernalia, Dixie cups filled with Kool-Aid, jelly beans and cookies. Colorful balloons floated over the tables.

Armed with my canned story about working my way for a vacation trip to Panama City I knocked on doors, sold subscriptions and some of the single copies I was carrying around. We always had a little party after the selling was over and the sales manager paid everyone in cash-usually a dollar or two-but I never did figure out what I had to do to get the vacation.

Newspaper Route

When I finally turned 12 I was old enough to have a newspaper route-AND a bicycle!-that I helped pay for with my peanut and magazine money. I remember that it was chestnut red with the large white letters SCHWINN in script on the sides of it. And it was absolutely gorgeous!

Since I wanted my afternoons off after school, I chose to take a morning route and delivered newspaper over about a 20 block radius.

I would ride my Schwinn to the newspaper's loading dock about 5:00 a.m. and would usually be finished by 6:30 or 7:00, in plenty of time to stop off for a couple of Krystal hamburgers before school. That is, if the papers weren't late.

The Krystal was one of my favorite stops. It was a small, hole in the wall kind of place but it was always sparkling clean, done in black and white tiles and the aroma of sizzling hamburgers would hit you at the door. The hamburgers were a nickel for years and I remember complaining when they went up to 7 cents. I've been a Krystal fan all my life and seek them out wherever Dinah and I go but, honestly, they just don't taste the same anymore.

I still remember my district sales manager,a red-haired gentleman named Mr. Dudley and the unforgettable smell of the stereotype mats he would pass out to cover our newspapers if it was raining. Mr. Dudley would always have some kind of deal going for selling new subscribers. Tickets to the movies, stamps worth a dime apiece that you'd keep in little books until you got enough to turn in for a War bond. And sometimes even bubble gum.

Bubble gum was really scarce in the war years and that was a real turn-on. I remember getting word once that a popular local restaurant had gotten in a supply of Orbit gum and I peddled about 2 miles early one Saturday morning to stand in line for a pack.

For most of the year, it would still be dark when I finished my paper route but I never worried about being kidnapped or mugged or anything-EXCEPT!-when I delivered to one of the toughest neighborhoods in town literally "on the wrong side of the tracks" and hugging the river banks.

The houses were mostly shacks and I remember that often lights were on and people would be arguing and carrying on and I'd sometimes ride past a drunk passed out near the dirt path that connected the houses. Boarding houses were another scary area when I'd have to go inside and up the stairs to leave the paper in front of a particular door. You know- old houses, creaking boards, eerie silence, all the scary visions that a 12 year old mind could conjure up.

Sometimes, when I had spooked myself into a real scare, I'd tell myself that I would be all right when I reached the corner of Broad and 9th St.

Why? Because, as the sign clearly stated, the building housed the offices of the Equitable Life Assurance Co. And Equitable Life Assurance Co. was the sponsor of one of my favorite radio programs "This is your FBI!" that came on every Sunday night.

So Equitable Life Assurance Co. and the FBI were sort of one and the same to me. And it was easy to imagine that the whole building was teeming with FBI agents that would help me out if I just knocked on the glass doors.

Saturday was collection day, the day I got the money I'd earned by collecting enough to pay my bill and pocket the profits. I made pretty good money but I also learned some hard business lessons along the way-dealing with people who thought nothing of beating a 12 year old kid out the money they owed him; others that I would have to return to time after time, before or after school, to try and catch at home so I could collect.

I can't tell you how many times I heard the words "He ain't here", whether "he" was there or not. In that regard, I just loved those people I never had to dun-the monthlies and annuals that just mailed their check to the newspaper on time and I got credit on my bill. Sometimes I'd see them in the yard when I passed by on Saturdays and I always slowed down and waved. God bless 'em!

When my route continued to grow, I made my first hire, recruiting a friend to help me collect and fill in a few mornings for me.

Bobby was a great helper but, in the heat of the hiring process, I made the mistake of telling him I'd also furnish him chocolate milks on collection day. That alone set me back 30 or 40 cents every Saturday since I never told him there was any kind of chocolate milk limit.

Grocery Delivery Boy

I worked a couple of afternoons a week part time for Wilson's Grocery on lower 5th Ave. and sometimes for B&A grocery a few blocks away. It wasn't a hard job and involved mostly standing around until they got a call for delivery.As best I remember I was paid something like 10 cents an hour plus a quarter for anything I delivered. The main thing I didn't like about the job was that I had to put a wire basket on my bike. It really messed up the smooth, streamlined look.

I also didn't like the fact that sometimes the same order took two or three trips but I still only got the quarter. I usually got tips, though, particularly after a two or three tripper. So I guess it evened out.

To be continued......

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