At age 91, Mr. Anthony Alessi lives alone in Wayland, Massachusetts. In this interview he remembers what life was like during the Great Depression. He recalls that his family was not impacted as devastatingly as many others, but he does mention that they were always cautious of what they spent money on. He gives us an inside view life of a typical eleven-year-old boy during the Great Depression.
Q: Please state your name.
Mr. Alessi: Anthony Alessi.
Q: How old were you in 1929?
Mr. Alessi: I was eleven.
Q: Where did you live during the Depression years?
Mr. Alessi: I lived in Brooklyn, New York, in a tenement flat.
Q: What were your parents’ names and what did they do for work when you were small?
Mr. Alessi: Well, my father’s name was Joseph and my mother’s name was Jenny. My father, I guess you would call him, a machine operator; He used to stamp out metal parts. I remember one time when he brought home a large serving spoon that he had made and my mother, well initially I think she worked in a garment factory, at a sewing machine and they called them sweatshops then and later on, especially during the Depression, I think that she took in work at home and sewing ties. We kids helped putting them together; I remember ironing men’s ties.
Q: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Mr. Alessi: I had a brother and a sister and they were twins. They were four years younger than I.
Q: How was your mother’s role as a homemaker impacted by the Depression, if it was impacted at all?
Mr. Alessi: Well it was, I suppose, a little hard and that nobody had much money, so we had to be careful what we spent money on. Of course, food was a big expense, so it’s a problem that all mothers still have today.
Q: What did you eat as a child? Were they homemade foods or pre-made foods?
Mr. Alessi: Well, food was mostly cooked at home. We never went out to a restaurant or
I guess the only things that we bought outside were hotdogs from a street vender.
Q: When you went down to the store, what kinds of things did you buy and how much did they cost?
Mr. Alessi: Well, a lot of things cost a penny. When we went to buy candy, we would buy a penny’s worth of candy.
Q: Did you grow and can goods back then?
Mr. Alessi: Oh, we had can goods of course, but my mother would make tomato sauce, which we buy a big quart of that tomatoes and cook them and then, well, boil the sauce down some and then put it in pans and put it out on the fire escape to dry in the sun, which would take a number of days and then it would be put into jars and saved and used as needed.
Q: Did you ever sell those jars or did you just keep them for your family? Did you sell them at a market?
Mr. Alessi: No. Yeah, they were for your own use. Everybody did it.
Q: Did your family own a car and if so, how did it impact your family life?
Mr. Alessi: Oh, no. My brother got the first car and that was in, I think, 1947. I didn’t get a car until 1949. But one of my uncles had a car, so it was a great big Cadillac and we would take our family and his family and we would go driving into the country and that was fun. I always got to sit next to the driver.
Q: How would you compare the typical clothing then to today?
Mr. Alessi: The clothing, well, I guess there’s always a difference in style, but we had to be much more careful of clothing. Laundry was done at home in a washtub and a scrubbing board and, so I probably wore a shirt two days in a row before it was changed. So we didn’t have many clothing and I probably had one suit and an extra pair of pants and that was it.
Q: What are your earliest memories of the hard times of the 1930’s?
Mr. Alessi: Well, my recollections are complicated by the fact that we actually owned the tenement house that we lived in with my uncle and aunt. We had an apartment each, but there were two stores below, a candy store and a dollar contestation and when the candy storeowner gave up and decided to move out, my father took over. Well, we bought the merchandise for $250 and that was a big deal and we were in the candy store business. So, a lot of my time was spent in the store, serving customers and so, it was a little complicated.
Q: What did you do for fun, when you were little?
Mr. Alessi: Oh, I played ball. I played ball whenever I could. Playing ball meant using a five cent, rubber ball or a tennis ball and we played games, using the sidewalk squares for a card or we would go around the corner and play stick ball or in the side street or on that same street, there was a building, that had a stone ledge about almost a foot high at the bottom and we would hit the ball, throw the ball at the angle and it would bounce up in the air and try to get the two big people trying to defend and they would try to catch it and if they didn’t catch it, they would go for a hit. So, I spent an awful lot of time playing ball.
Q: Did you ever go to the circus or to carnivals?
Mr. Alessi: Well, what we had locally or at least in the Italian neighborhood. I mean the neighborhood, I lived in was a mixed neighborhood, but some of my relatives lived and actually, I was born in an Italian neighborhood about half a mile or three quarters of a mile away and they would have festivals where venders would come in and be selling various goodies and candies and games. So, we had things like that.
Q: What were the movies like and the radio shows?
Mr. Alessi: The movies, well, I got to go to movies a lot because being the owner of the candy store, we would put these signs for the week’s features of the nearest theater in our store window and we would get passes. So, I would go to the movies every week and that was fun. So, I got to see a lot of movies. Of course, the earliest movies were without sound. I remember there being a piano player and he was playing music appropriate to what was going on in the screen and there were open-air movies too, which were fun in the summertime.
Q: Did you live in Boston or New York or what town did you live in?
Mr. Alessi: For the first twenty-two years of my live, I lived in Brooklyn and then I got my first job and moved out of town.
Q: What kind of music did you enjoy?
Mr. Alessi: Well, one thing was opera because my father used to go to the opera a lot before he got married and my aunt had a phonograph and she had a bunch of opera records, which we used to play and we also had jazz records, which I enjoyed and still do to this day.
Q: Many say that in those days that kids had heroes, did you have a hero, who was it and why?
Mr. Alessi: Oh, I don’t know. I suppose one of my heroes would have been the cowboys, we saw in the movies.
Q: On an average day, what did you do? Did you ever have adventures?
Mr. Alessi: Yeah, I suppose I did. One thing, I remember doing is, about one block away is a railroad line, which wasn’t very active but it had freighters and occasionally, there would be freight car parked on it. We would go and climb on top of the freight car and that was fun and scary too because you know, you were walking on a narrow walk at the center of the train car and we would walk on the rails.
Q: What was your community like back then?
Mr. Alessi: Well, as I said, it was a mixed community; we had Italians, Irish, some German, and Austrian. I remember, we had one Jewish family in the neighborhood.
Q: Did everyone get along?
Mr. Alessi: Yeah, it was a good neighborhood, it was peaceful and kids were all over the place, playing in the street, the sidewalks.
Q: What was school like?
Mr. Alessi: I liked school and I guess I did pretty well. It was easy for me and I enjoyed it and I guess I got my love of reading from going to school.
Q: What chores did you have when you were growing up?
Mr. Alessi: Well, the store was one of them; the other was just being there, serving customers and trying to help my father cope with whatever forms he had to fill out and because he never went to school, so he taught himself to do simple arithmetic and he could keep books, but he couldn’t read or write.
Q: Did your store stay open during the Depression or did you have to close it?
Mr. Alessi: We stayed opened.
Q: Did business decline a lot?
Mr. Alessi: Yes, well, I remember one winter day, it was you know pretty cold and my father would open the store around six o’clock and in the winter, we would close, maybe, nine, ten o’clock. In the summer, it would be midnight, like one day, the total receipts for sixteen hours of work was five dollars. That’s not profit, that’s receipts. We had five dollars worth of sales, so that shows you how bad it could be.
Q: Do you recall the first job you had for pay? What was it like and what did you do with the money, you made?
Mr. Alessi: I graduated, well, I got my master’s degree in June and in July, and I was hired by the bureau of the sensors in Washington, D.C. So, in the Depression, you took whatever job came along. I mean I applied for all kinds of jobs, some of which I probably wouldn’t have been very good at. But, so, I accepted this job and it would be the first time, I would have left home and but fortunately a neighbor cross the street had gone down a few months before and got a similar job. So, I had someone to check in with and he got me started. So that was with the bureau of sensors. I was paid $14,040 a year, which was $28 a week, which was very good pay. I know, I tried to get an engineering job in Washington, a utility offered me a job at $18 a week.
Q: Did you save that money?
Mr. Alessi: I probably did. I probably sent some money home.
Q: Were any of your family members affected by the Depression?
Mr. Alessi: Well, I guess, we all were and going into college, I had no choice of college. I went to City College because it was free and my grades were high enough, so, I could get in and I think to get in, you had to have an average grade of 80% and so not everybody got in. So I was lucky, it was no tuition and I had won a $400 state region’s scholarship, which paid me $50 a semester and out of that I bought my books.
Q: Do you have any recollections of people in tough circumstances? How did that affect you?
Mr. Alessi: Oh, well, I suppose, I mean even though we were poor, we weren’t starving. But there were people, who would go hungry and I think I mentioned that there were people on street corners selling apples at five cents a piece and there was a government program to help people get along.
Q: Do you remember the name of the program or any of the government programs?
Mr. Alessi: No, I don’t know what that one was called, but there were things like the Works Progress Administration, that provided some jobs and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Q: What did you think of Franklin D. Roosevelt?
Mr. Alessi: I thought he was great and he kind of rallied the people to cope with the Depression. Of course, he tried various things, some of which were not successful and some were. But, we didn’t get out of the Depression until the preparation for World War II began, which would have been 1938, 1939.
Q: Do you remember the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt? What was she like?
Mr. Alessi: Yeah, cause I used to read her columns. She used to have a column in the paper, every day and it was worthwhile reading. So, she was a remarkable woman and I have only lately started to appreciate her.
Q: Do you recall seeing any ‘Hoovervilles’ or homeless people?
Mr. Alessi: Homeless? No, I mean we would read about people being evicted, but you know when you’re a kid, you don’t follow up on these things.
Q: Did your parents think FDR’s New Deal was a good program?
Mr. Alessi: Yes, I mean anything to help to try to get us out of the Depression would have been supported.
Q: Did you know anyone who was in the New Deal program?
Mr. Alessi: No, although, we were all affected by it.
Q: Do you remember any of the great construction projects of the period? Like, Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mr. Alessi: I remember reading about them.
Q: Like the Empire State Building?
Mr. Alessi: Well, I remember when it was built and I finally got to go up to the top.
Q: Did you remember the World Fair in 1939, in New York?
Mr. Alessi: Oh, yes, I went there. Yeah, that was fun and that was nearby cause it was in Queens and so, I probably only lived five, seven miles away.
Q: What was that like? Like what types of exhibits?
Mr. Alessi: Well, there were a lot of exhibits, like the General Motors had an exhibit and General Electric and all the big companies though. It was all the latest inventions things cause these companies are trying advertise what they make and various countries had exhibits to show what they did. So, it was interesting and a lot of fun and a lot of walking.
Q: While the country was in the Depression do you recall learning about Hitler’s rise in Germany or the Japanese military advances in Asia?
Mr. Alessi: Well, I guess, I read about them. But it probably didn’t mean too much until it got pretty close to the outbreak of the war. Let’s see, I would have been twenty-two years old, so at the time, I wasn’t even home.
Q: Do you think we are still affected by the Great Depression?
Mr. Alessi: Well, I think I am and that I am not a big spender. I try to conserve and save things that you can use again. So, I think that has a lasting affect on individuals and of course, we’re starting to repeat the cycle again, though it isn’t anywhere as bad as, at least not yet.
Q: Do you think that we have learned anything from the Depression?
Mr. Alessi: Probably not. Well, I guess we might have learned that some things work and some don’t and there’s doubt to even these big billions and trillions, we’re spending aren’t going to do any good, but we will have to wait and see.
Q: As you see it, how are kids different today than in your childhood era?
Mr. Alessi: Well, I think that kids play is more structured, they’re doing so many things and we were left on our own to amuse ourselves and we’d play ball, but kids now have to go to soccer and hockey or what else.
Q: Do you think that kids are over structured now? Is it too much?
Mr. Alessi: Yea, I think so cause they are always being transported here and there. We just went outside and that was it or the worst, we would go to a playground or a half a mile away and play ball there and we would do that as we got older.
Q: Do you think there are any similarities between kids today and back then?
Mr. Alessi: Well, kids will always be kids and they all go through the same growing up phases. Kids have much more to play with, I mean if we had a five-cent ball, that was our big toy and almost none of us had bicycles, like there was one kid on the block that had a bicycle, nobody else learned how to ride. I never learned how to ride a bicycle.
Q: We’ve been hearing a lot about how badly the economy is doing these days. The stock market dropped dramatically, food prices are way up, inflation is up, unemployment is up, war costs are close to a trillion dollars, and our national debt is over nine trillion dollars. What are the lessons of the Great Depression for us today? Have we learned these lessons?
Mr. Alessi: Well, the lesson is we probably haven’t learned much cause the stock market wasn’t very much regulated then and I guess it wasn’t now because all these fancy securities that nobody understands or could even find out how much their worth. So, in a sense, we’re did the same thing, we didn’t learn anything.
Q: Are there any things that you really liked to do back then? Like any activities, I guess, besides playing ball?
Mr. Alessi: Well, I mentioned that playing ball on the streets, which we did a lot of.
Q: You said that you read a lot? Do you have a favorite book?
Mr. Alessi: I didn’t have a favorite book. But when I got old enough, I could go to the library and I took out my first library card and I always got a lot of books at the library, particularly, during the summer, when they didn’t have school and so, the library was a good place for me to go to. It was about a half a mile away, but it was on my street, I’d just go straight to it. We did a lot of walking, I had one aunt, who lived about a mile east and another aunt that lived about another mile west. So, on some days, we would visit both on the same day, you know, one after the other. So, we did a lot of walking and as we got older, my brother and I would go by ourselves, but with my mother and so, we visited relatives often. Some more than others and these aunts are both east and west, they had children that were older, so I would go around and I would start reading their school books cause you know, they had books on astronomy and you know, things that were pretty interesting. One of my aunts, her son was, became a doctor, so we used to go to him for medical advice and his sister was going to college, so I would read some of her college books. So, it was fun visiting the relatives, talking to them.
Q: So, Tony, when did your parents come over to this country?
Mr. Alessi: My father came over, probably in the very early 1900, he was eleven years old. His parents had died, somebody sent him to his older sister, who had married here and my mother came when she was eighteen and the whole family was suppose to come over. Her father had been over here four times. He was a baker and eventually, he owned his own bakery in Manhattan and he went back to Italy for the last time and he was going to bring his wife and a youngest daughter, but his wife got sick, so he never got over here. So, I have an aunt or did have an aunt, who lived in Sicily and I visited them in 1958. So, that was very interesting.
Q: So, your dad when he was eleven, you said came over here by himself?
Mr. Alessi: Yep. Well, he might have had towns’ people with him at the same time. And my father, I remember one story that you might find interesting, he was still pretty young. He got a job in a barbershop, cleaning up, I mean in those days, they had special tools, and they had to clean those out. One of the other people, young people who worked with him was Jimmy Durante.
Q: Who is that?
Mr. Alessi: Well, he is dead now, but he was a, I think a great comedian and he always wore a hat and he did song and dance. He is, you can see him in the old movies. He was in musicals, than the movies.
Q: Did your family follow a certain religion?
Mr. Alessi: Well, we were Catholics, yes, and we had a number of churches near us and there were churches all over the place. You walk in any direction and then you would run into a church.
Q: Was your religion affected at all by the Depression? Did you go to church more or anything?
Mr. Alessi: I don’t think so, it probably affected our contributions, which would have been pretty small anyways. I mean a quarter would have been a big deal then. Yeah, if you look at the inflation, it would take at least fourteen dollars to buy what I could have bought for one dollar, when I was a kid. Yeah, it’s something you might want to consider doing research on as a school subject.
Q: So, what was the most noticeable difference for you, in your whole life or in your family life between and before the Depression and after the Depression or before the Depression and during? Was there one thing that changed dramatically?
Mr. Alessi: Well, cause what happens is one is growing up and one is changing. I left home before the Depression ended and then I got a job as a, well, I got a big job after the senses job, which I was only in there for six months. Oh, by the way, the work I did at the sensors was reviewing the agricultural sensors. Here I was a city boy checking on the returns that the sensor takers had filled out and we were checking them for errors and making corrections or some things were omitted. If the sensor taker had put down the farmer at thirty acres of corn, then didn’t even show any yield for the corns, we would fill in so many bushels per an acre. So, that was interesting and I got a job with the navy at the Northford shipyard in Portsmith, Virginia. So there I was working with the stability and the safety of ships and we would do an experiment to calculate the center of gravity and how safe the ship would be, if its load in a certain different standard ways. So I learned another, I became a navel architect, so one had to be very flexible and then after that, I joined the plastics laboratory at Princeton University. That was something new to me too, so I learned about plastic.
Q: Did you just research plastic?
Mr. Alessi: Yeah, I was trying to build a better plastic for Fort Monmouth; it was for the electric center for the government at that time. From there, I got a job in Philadelphia, with a quarter master core again as a specialist in plastics, I got transferred to Washington and then a year or so later, I got transferred to Natick labs. I worked on body armor and helmets and then my work got transferred to Watertown also and there I worked on vehicle armor. So, I got into a variety of things, but it was fun, I enjoyed it, I was learning all the time and there were challenges.
Q: Did you ever work in the White House in Washington?
Mr. Alessi: No, I would be near it. I saw one of the presidents, Roosevelt’s inauguration, I guess it was 1940, there wasn’t much of a crowd there and I could. My friends and I were on the street opposite the Capital, we were that close. Without trying and no passes or anything, just walk there and I was present when President Roosevelt was at the opening ceremony for Washington, was it Washington? Yeah, it was Washington international airport, yeah, just walked over. We walked over behind the stands and came around in front. You couldn’t do that today anymore.
Q: How long have you lived here in Wayland?
Mr. Alessi: I came in 1954 and we bought this house in 1955 and I have been here sixty years.
Q: So, you’ve seen a lot of change?
Mr. Alessi: Actually, I don’t see it as much change because it’s so gradual. I mean when I came there were probably, eight thousand people and we have what, thirteen thousand, so the open spaces are filling in, and that’s the biggest change. We have usual arguments about schools and taxes and that doesn’t change.