Mary Alphen

Mrs. Alphen describes how she had fun as a girl

Mrs. Alphen on the lessons we should learn from the Depression

Mrs. Mary Alphen was in her teens during the Depression years of the 1930’s.  She lived in Brighton, Massachusetts.  The Depression did not greatly affect her growing up because she was sheltered by her parents, so she remembers her childhood fondly as a time mostly without the deprivation experienced by some others.  She remembers doing a lot of homework and going to school as a child.  Later, she went to business school and worked as a secretary for Boston City Hospital.

Interviewer: This is Sarah Shackleton and Elizabeth Bowman, and we are interviewing Mrs. Alphen on May 14, 2008 for the Wayland High School History Project.

Interviewer: Please state your name.

Mrs. Alphen: Mary Alphen.

Interviewer: How old were you in 1929?

Mrs. Alphen: In 1929 I was eleven.

Interviewer: Where did you live during the Depression years?

Mrs. Alphen: I lived in Brighton, Massachusetts.

Interviewer: What were your parents’ names, and what did they do for work when you were small?

Mrs. Alphen: My father’s name was Luis Nicholas and my mother was Miguela, and what did they do? My mother stayed at home and my father worked at the Hood Rubber Company in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Interviewer: What did he do there?

Mrs. Alphen: What did he do there? Something with the manufacturing of boots.

Interviewer: How many brothers and sisters did you have?

Mrs. Alphen: I had two brothers and one sister.

Interviewer: Were they older than you, or younger?

Mrs. Alphen: My brothers were both older and my sister was younger.

Interviewer: How was your mother’s role as a homemaker impacted by the Depression, if at all?

Mrs. Alphen: She was a stay-at-home mom. She did everything. She did the cooking, the laundry, cleaning the house, taking care of the children.

Interviewer: And was that impacted in any way during the Depression, the way she worked around the house?

Mrs. Alphen: Not that I really was able to notice, because she was at home all the time anyway. So she just stayed at home, she didn’t work at any time. But she was always busy in the house doing something.

Interviewer: What did you eat as a child, just in general? Did you eat any pre-made foods or was it all homemade?

Mrs. Alphen: Everything was homemade, everything. I can remember my mother even making pasta. You know now they have machines, but not then. Everything she did was by hand. She made the dough and rolled it out, and then with a knife, or whatever, cut it up, everything by hand. I don’t think there were any prepared foods back then. I’m sure there weren’t.

Interviewer: When you went down to the store what kinds of things did you want to buy, and how much did these things usually cost?

Mrs. Alphen: What kinds of things? Meats, bread, milk, eggs. Actually we had a deliveryman who delivered milk and eggs, now that I think of it.  He came regularly and would leave the milk, and we’d leave the empty bottles for him. But at the store it was mostly groceries, you know, fresh fruits and vegetables. As a matter of fact… there was a man who came around in a cart every week, and he carried fresh fruits and vegetables in the cart, and he would stop in front of a house, and neighbors in that area would go out to his wagon, I guess it was, and pick out the fruits and vegetables they wanted, right out of his wagon, and pay him in cash. Everything was cash.

Interviewer: And did he continue to do that throughout the Depression?

Mrs. Alphen: As far as I can recall, yes.

Interviewer: How much was the produce during that time?

Mrs. Alphen: That I would have no idea, because I didn’t have to pay for them myself, so I have no idea. But I know it wasn’t much. The prices were very, very low according to today’s standards. Very low.

Interviewer: Did you grow and can goods back then?

Mrs. Alphen: My mother did put up things… She canned, I know she canned tomatoes for spaghetti sauce. What else did she can? I think she canned peppers…

Interviewer: Did your family own a car?

Mrs. Alphen: No, we did not own a car… When we lived in this house where I grew up, I have to go back and think, my oldest brother was married before we moved to the second house in Brighton, and before he was married he bought a car and I remember his car. He had to crank it in the front. There was a long thing that he stuck in the front of the car and he had to crank it to get the motor going. So I remember that as a car, but my father didn’t have one. This was my brother’s.

Interviewer: So how would your family get places? How would you get to school?

Mrs. Alphen: By streetcar. The trolley cars, they called them then.

Interviewer: Was that easy, or did you have to walk to a stop to get there?

Mrs. Alphen: We had to walk to a stop. Until my brother got married, we lived in a two family house that my father owned, and from there we walked to elementary school. I can remember sometimes, during the winter when we had severe snowstorms, my father would go out and actually shovel a pathway along the sidewalk because, you know, we were really young then—we were going to elementary school—and we were small kids. He would shovel the walk up to the main street so we could make it, but we had to walk. Now, before my brother got married, my father bought a four family house and left the two family for my brother to live in. So back in 1929, and in the Depression years, we were living in a four family house, and to get to a streetcar was really walking down the street. It was quite a long street but just down the street, the car stop was there, so it wasn’t too long of a walk to the streetcar.

Interviewer: What were your earliest memories of the hard times of the 1930s?

Mrs. Alphen: …I don’t know. I think I was sheltered, you know really, because my mother and father took care of things. I didn’t suffer, so I can’t really remember that things were bad for me. Except for probably, my father didn’t work probably full time like he used to. But I can’t remember wanting for anything.

Interviewer: How did you spend most of your time as a kid in this era?

Mrs. Alphen: …Doing homework (laughs). My father was a great believer in education and actually, in those days, we went to school from nine to twelve, I believe it was. And then we walked home again for lunch and my mother would have lunch all ready for us. And then we would walk back to school until I think it was maybe 3:30 in the afternoon. And then, probably have a quick snack and get going with homework. My father made sure that we took care of homework…

Interviewer: Was there anything you did for fun?

Mrs. Alphen: Oh for fun? Yeah, for fun we played out in the yard. We had a big backyard, and we would make our own fun. We would have stores, and we would make, out of mud pies, we would make things that were part of the store. We would play ball in the backyard, set up our own bases and everything, Do it ourselves. In the front we had hopscotch because we had a cement sidewalk, so we had hopscotch. For other kinds of things, we would go to Norembega Park, which doesn’t mean a thing to you (laughs). But that was the big entertainment park where they had Ferris wheels and Dodgem and, I don’t remember the names, but all kinds of rides. And to get there we would go on the, what was then, an open-air trolley in the summertime, because this was in the summer that we did those things. And they actually had open-air trolley cars. Have you ever seen them, pictures of them?

Interviewer: I don’t think so.

Mrs. Alphen: Oh that was so much fun (laughs). I mean, actually open. I mean there was a roof on top, but the sides were all open. It was great fun. What other things did we do? We went sledding…

Interviewer: Did you ever go to the circus?

Mrs. Alphen: Yes, I went to the circus in Boston. That was always a big, big treat. Especially the elephants. Barnum and Bailey. That’s what I remember, Barnum and Bailey Circus. And we went to the movies. In Brighton we had one theatre; that was The Egyptian Theatre. And they called it The Egyptian because the front of it was made in Egyptian design, and we had silent movies. I don’t know what year it was, but I can remember going to the movies as a kid, and when sound came out. And that was a big, big, big deal.

Interviewer: So do you remember any of the movies you saw when you were a kid?

Mrs. Alphen: I remember Jeanette McDonald and Raymond, I can’t think of his last name now. I remember because of the singing in it…

Interviewer: And what were the radio shows like?

Mrs. Alphen: …They were nice family things. I can remember…they had a lot of westerns.

Interviewer: Like the Lone Ranger?

Mrs. Alphen: The Lone Ranger! We made sure we watched it at a certain time. I can remember the radio. The radio was a radio that you set on the table… I remember when we had a radio just before my brother was married. And the radio was a big thing. And we had a side porch at the two family house and I remember in the summertime my brother would take the radio out on the porch and turn it on loud so the neighbors could hear it. It was a big deal! (laughs) … [The radio shows] were so good that, even though you couldn’t see them—you heard them on the radio—you could picture them. They were just so realistic. I don’t remember the names of them, but they had some really good shows.

Interviewer: What kind of music did you enjoy?

Mrs. Alphen: What kind of music did I enjoy? I like romantic music. That’s why I think I liked that Jeanette McDonald (laughs). Just nice, soft music. We didn’t have any of that music that they have today. No rock and roll (laughs).

Interviewer: Do you remember some of the popular sports of the era?

Mrs. Alphen: Sports? Baseball, because that’s one of the things we played out in the yard. That’s what I remember most of all. Although in school, we did play things like soccer… I wasn’t too much into sports (laughs)…

Interviewer: A lot of people say that in those days most kids had heroes. Did you have a hero when you were a kid?

Mrs. Alphen: Did I have a hero? Frank Sinatra wasn’t during the Depression was he? I know he wasn’t a hero but I was crazy about Frank Sinatra (laughs). And we would go to the movies in Boston to see Frank Sinatra.

Interviewer: So on an average day, what would you do? Did you have any adventures as a kid?

Mrs. Alphen: Adventures? Oh I imagine I did… Most of all we would go visiting. I can remember my mother taking my sister and myself, because my brother wasn’t interested, and visiting neighbors who lived nearby. We would walk over; we didn’t have a car. And we would walk and visit with them. And I know one of our neighbors had twelve children, and we loved to go in there. They had a piano, a player piano, and they had rolls that you would put into a certain section in the piano and turn it on and it would play. The roll would roll around. Have you seen those?

Interviewer: I think so, yeah.

Mrs. Alphen: And we loved to go there and just use their player piano…

Interviewer: Do you think the community was tighter back then than it is now?

Mrs. Alphen: Oh it was very close… We did also, I can remember now, visit neighbors on Sundays. We had quite a few cousins who lived in Newton. And we would walk down the street and take the streetcar. And the streetcar took us to what was called the car barn in Watertown; the streetcar ran from Watertown to Park Street in Boston. So, in Watertown we would have to change and get onto another streetcar to go to Newton. And when we went on a Sunday, we didn’t just visit cousins at one house; we went to three or four different places because we had a lot of cousins there, so it was just to visit them, and go one place, stay maybe half an hour, and then go to another place, and do things like that. And children then were trained so that, I can remember, if the lady of the house offered us something like soda pop, or a cookie or something, and we would always say “no, thank you”. We were told by our parents to always say “no thank you”. And we would say yes only if our parents said “ok, it’s alright to take it” (laughs). You know they don’t do that today. Today they’ll go in and help themselves to the refrigerator, which I think is good, but not then.  We couldn’t do it (laughs).

Interviewer: What was school like back then?

Mrs. Alphen: What was school like? I enjoyed school… It was okay. We had good teachers. I remember one teacher we had, and I even remember her name—Mrs. Chadwick. We had to sit at the desks with our hands folded in our lap. We could not rest on the desk. We had to sit with out shoulders back, and she insisted. And, I mean, everybody did it. We just had to sit like this (sits upright with shoulders back) in our chairs. And she was very, very strict, but she was a great teacher.

Interviewer: What chores or responsibilities did you have growing up?

Mrs. Alphen: What responsibility? Responsibilities like at home?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Mrs. Alphen: To make sure we spent plenty of time on the homework to get it all done (laughs). You know, we weren’t asked really to do a lot of other things because my father was so keen on that. And…that was our responsibility. Oh, and keep our room clean. We did have to keep our room clean.

Interviewer: Do you recall your first job that you had for pay?

Mrs. Alphen: Oh yes, I do (laughs).

Interviewer: What was it like and what did you do?

Mrs. Alphen: So you’re skipping over high school and stuff (laughs). Because in high school, I took a college course, intending to become a teacher. But, because of the Depression, people were saying, “You shouldn’t go into teaching,” “nobody has jobs,” and that sort of thing. This is what I remember about the Depression that, you know, affected me. And people were saying, you know, “there aren’t jobs for teachers. They—the teachers who are teaching—aren’t getting much money.” And I decided instead to go into business. So from high school I went to a business school instead. To become a secretary.  So I went to a secretarial school. Just as I was completing the course…I took a Civil Service Exam. And I did score very high (laughs). I was in the nineties. So I almost immediately got a call to a job at the Boston City Hospital, which I accepted because, you know, at that time, getting a job was really critical. So I accepted a job as secretary in the all-patient department of the Boston City Hospital. That was my job.

Interviewer: What did you do with the money that you made?

Mrs. Alphen: With the money that I made, my parents had me put it into a savings account. They didn’t take any of the money. Now growing up I never had a—what is it that kids get today?

Interviewer: A credit card?… Allowances?

Mrs. Alphen: Allowances! We didn’t get allowances. When we wanted something when we were kids we would ask. Like, for instance, when we wanted to go to the movies, we didn’t have an allowance, so we couldn’t, you know, just say, “I’m going to the movies.” You know, we would ask my father. And of course it cost only ten cents. So my brother, my sister and I, we would get ten cents each to go to the movies. I lost the question (laughs). Oh, what I did with the money. So when I worked my parents had me put the money into a savings account.

Interviewer: Were any members of your family affected by the Great Depression?

Mrs. Alphen: Well, I know my father was home more than he used to be. And I think it was just that his hours were shortened. But as far as feeling, you know, lacking anything, I never felt that I lacked anything. Of course, being a four family house, and we lived in one apartment, there were three apartments that were rented. Now, I do know, however, that apparently since times were bad, I especially remember one tenant who worked for the Boston Edison Company. And apparently he either, I don’t know, was cut back or whatever. But he couldn’t pay the rent. And he asked my father about it, and I remember my father reducing the rent for him because of the hard times for him.

Interviewer: Was your faith strong as a young person?

Mrs. Alphen: Oh very strong. Very strong. Yes. We were, and still are, Catholic. And here again, for Sunday school—we went to Sunday school every Sunday—we went to nine o’clock mass in the morning. After mass we went to a building—I forget what they called it, but it was right across the street from the church—and we had classes for an hour. We were taught by the nuns. We really had nuns then. With the black robe and all. And they taught us religion for an hour. We went home, we had dinner. My mother would have dinner at twelve o’clock. At two o’clock we had to be back at the church for Sunday school. In the morning was religion by the nuns, in the afternoon at two o’clock every Sunday we had Catechism class.

Interviewer: Do you remember Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency?

Mrs. Alphen: …Oh Franklin Roosevelt. I remember my father thinking that Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest person on earth. He came and he saved the country. Oh, he spoke so highly of him.

Interviewer: Do you remember the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt? And what she was like?

Mrs. Alphen: Yes, I do. I remember reading about her, and admiring her very, very much. Yes, I can picture, you know, both of them—both President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt—very, very much admired. My family thought the world of them. They were great.

Interviewer: Do you remember seeing a Hooverville?… When you were a kid, do you remember seeing like a group of people in a lot of poverty?

Mrs. Alphen: Oh. No, I really can’t say that, I’m trying to think, not that I really can remember. You know, now if I see something on TV, and I see those things, but not that I can remember as a kid. No.

Interviewer: Do you remember any of Roosevelt’s plans to help end the Depression?

Mrs. Alphen: …I remember, yes, they had something like WPA, I think it was. Yes, and a lot of people went to work for the WPA. Now, my father wasn’t involved because he, he was with the Hood Rubber Company. But yes, I remember the WPA. A lot of people went to work for them. And I think there was a camp, too, if I can remember. Could it have been CCC camp? Yea, CCC camp. I don’t know whether that was for the younger people.

Interviewer: Yep, I think it was for the young boys.

Mrs. Alphen: I can remember those things existing. But I don’t have any, you know, close association with them myself. But I do remember them existing, and I remember that they were very, very welcomed and well thought-up. Very much appreciated. They were a big help for a lot of people.

Interviewer: Did your parents think that Roosevelt’s New Deal was a good program?

Mrs. Alphen: Oh, they thought it was wonderful (laughs)! My mother didn’t say much about it, but my father did. He thought it was great. Yeah, he thought it was wonderful.

Interviewer: Were any of your family or friends part of the New Deal program?

Mrs. Alphen: …Not that I know of.

Interviewer: Do you remember any of the great construction projects of the period?

Mrs. Alphen: The projects? Maybe if I knew the names of them I might remember.

Interviewer: Like the Empire State Building or the Golden Gate Bridge?

Mrs. Alphen: I can remember later…but not while they were being built.

Interviewer: One famous event of the late 1930’s was the New York 1939 world’s fair, which was titled the World of Tomorrow. How do you remember this famous fair, if at all?

Mrs. Alphen: I remember it only through my husband, who was at that fair. And only what he told me of it… I know that he remembered it.

Interviewer: So, while the country was in the Depression, do you recall learning about Hitler’s rise in Germany or the Japanese military advances in Asia?

Mrs. Alphen: …So, you’re talking about before the war?

Interviewer: Yeah, before the US went into it did you remember hearing about it?

Mrs. Alphen: Oh, yes I remember hearing about those things. But I especially remember on the day that the war was declared on December seventh, I think it was. Or eighth. Because I remember I was at a dance that day. It was a Sunday. And I remember being at a dance, and we were just horror stricken when the announcement was made. But before that, yeah, I remember a lot of publicity about that.

Interviewer: During the New Deal did you ever listen to any of FDR’s fireside chats?

Mrs. Alphen: Oh, the fireside chats, yes. Yes, we listened to those all the time. All the time. We never missed those. It was very important that we listened to those.

Interviewer: Do you remember what they were like, or do you remember any specific ones at all?

Mrs. Alphen: No, I can’t remember what the chats were. I can remember just how reassuring it was listening to President Roosevelt. Everything about what he had to say just made everyone feel good. Very, very reassuring. Very good. You know, everything was upbeat about what he had to say. And of course very solemn too about what was happening. I can remember that much.

Interviewer: …Do you think that we’re still affected at all by the Great Depression?

Mrs. Alphen: I wouldn’t think so.

Interviewer: Do you think you live your life a little bit differently because you went through the Depression?

Mrs. Alphen: …No, I wouldn’t say so, no.

Interviewer: So, as you see it, how are kids different today than in your childhood era?

Mrs. Alphen: How are they different today? Well, I guess like that example where anyone would offer us something and we wouldn’t take it. We would say “no thank you.” We were very obedient, I mean, not to say how goody-goody I was or anything like that, but kids in general. It seems that they respected their parents more. Kids today are more outgoing and I think they have to be. I think that’s good. You know, they’ll speak up, they’re more aware of things because we have television. How are they different? I think they’re a lot different. They have their own cell phones, they have their own computers, they’re in touch constantly with everybody, they get their own cars when they’re seventeen. They’re altogether different…

Interviewer: Would you say kids are the same in any way?

Mrs. Alphen: That they’re the same? They’re more worldly wise. They’re the same good kids (laughs)…

Interviewer: We’ve been hearing a lot about how badly the economy is doing these days. Oil prices are at record levels, food prices are way up, inflation is up, unemployment is up, war costs are close to a trillion dollars, international debt is over seven trillion dollars. What are the lessons of the Great Depression for us today, do you think?

Mrs. Alphen: That’s a great question (laughs). Boy, if anyone really knew the answer to that (laughs). I don’t know, but we spend too much. It’s a shame because this money should be put towards education. It’s a question you have to stop and really, really think about, but I think there’s too much waste today. There’s too much money spent in the wrong places. We spend too much for sports heroes, for movie stars. As a result, people can’t afford to go to the games, they can’t afford to go to the theatre. You know, seventy-five dollars for one ticket? Two people go, a hundred and fifty dollars? It’s too much. I mean, things are way out of line, I think, today…and the kids going to college can’t afford fifty-thousand dollars a year to go to a private college. That’s way out of line. And today they’re even having difficulty getting loans. The banks are stricter about giving college loans. And I think all the young men and women in this country should be able to go to college, should be able to go to the state colleges free of charge. And at the private schools, pay something that’s reasonable.

Interviewer: Thank you so much.

Mrs. Alphen: Oh, you’re very welcome.

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