Florence and Edith
Florence and Edith are sisters who grew up during the Great Depression. They lived in a triple-decker home with their parents, in a neighborhood with many other families. In this interview we can see how their lives were greatly affected by the Great Depression. We can also follow the lives of typical teens during a depression.
Q: What is your name and how old were you in 1929 when the Depression first hit?
Edith: My name is Edith.
Q: And how old were you in 1929?
Edith: I was 2 years old.
Q: And what’s your name?
Florence: I wasn’t born yet and my name is Florence.
Q: [Do you have any memories of how your childhood was affected by growing up during the depression?]
Edith: At age two, I had my tonsils taken out on the kitchen table. That’s it. People just had tonsils done at home. And mine was done on the kitchen table.
Q: Was it cheaper? [Did you have it done on your table] because people couldn’t afford it?
Edith: Absolutely, I think it only cost $35.
Florence: Dad took out his last money in the bank to pay for the tonsils to come out.
Edith: You have to remember that everything we did was done with cash. There was no such thing as credit cards. If you didn’t have the money you didn’t pay for it. If you had to have your tonsils out you had to take the money out of the bank.
Q: Did you have to work at a young age to help out?
Edith: Well I never worked to help out. I worked at age 16 because I wanted to work. I was an artist, so I worked in an art store selling art supplies. I would work all day, for like $3.98.
Q: Was that a good amount [of money compared to other people salaries]?
Edith: Well yeah, I was working for about four dollars an hour and my girlfriends were working for about two dollars-and fifty cents an hour at Jordan’s and Filene’s. Those were the department stores. So at the end of the day, I would have enough money to buy a really beautiful sable water color brush. But you know if you made twenty-eight dollars a week in those days that’s [average].
Florence: When I had my tonsils out I was about eight.
Q: Were you in the same situation [as Edith’s]?
Florence: Yes, I also got them out on the kitchen table.
Q: So if you didn’t have the money people couldn’t get them out?
Florence: Absolutely. There wasn’t any Blue Cross-Blue Shield or none of that. People just paid for whatever they could.
Florence: We had to go to the dentist, and you had to get a dental certificate every year. The dentist had to check your teeth and make sure everything was taken care of. They were terrible, but as long as you had that dental certificate, you had to bring it into school, and you passed it in, and the teachers would check it all the time, everybody had to have a dental certificate.
Q: What if you couldn’t afford a dentist?
Florence: I don’t know.
Edith: There was no way to go if you didn’t have the money. And there was no credit, and the hospitals by the way, in the days before medicare, let me tell you, people who were really sick could go to the hospital and be taken care of. The hospitals would do it. Well because they were being paid for everything, they didn’t have to go through an HMO, they didn’t have to get Medicare or medicade or even Blue Cross-Blue Shield, they didn’t have that. So people who were really destitute and had nothing would just go to the hospital and get taken care of.
Florence: I remember [my husband] telling me he had to have hay fever shots and he used to go to the BI because it might have been free or really inexpensive. Oh you know, you could go to foresight, it was a dental part of Tufts and they had a clinic where you could go if you needed dental work. The schools would set it up so you could go there and not pay anything, you could have your teeth taken care of.
Q: Do you remember people stealing?
Edith: Things were not crazy like they are today.
Florence: I don’t remember that at all. Not at all.
Q: So no one got desperate enough to start stealing?
Edith: I don’t remember anything like that. I just remember life was very simple.
Q: Do you ever remember friends having more than you did and being envious of them?
Edith: My friends and I were all on the same level. Do you want to know what we did when we wanted to have fun? We played hopscotch, jump rope. This was a big part of our life, a big part.
Florence: First of all, we lived in the city in triple deckers.
Q: Is that how most people lived?
Florence: Yeah, well how we did anyways.
Edith: Tons of people lived in the city and tons of people played on the streets just like we did. We didn’t have a backyard or play yard or whatever it is, we played jump rope, it was like every single day: hopscotch, balls, you know, you play the game “Hey my name is Alice, my husband’s name is Albert, we come from America and we sell apples.” We went through that, we played pick-up-sticks constantly. We played Jacks; we played that all the time. We played Monopoly, we were even knitting, and doing the things on the spools, and making a rug.
Florence: We played Monopoly daily.
Edith: Checkers, remember checkers?
Florence: Oh yeah, Chinese checkers.
Edith: I want to tell you about banking. People would save money, cash, pennies or dollars or whatever, out of their earnings and go to the bank regularly and deposit their money personally in what they called a bank book. And then about every few months you would go to the bank with this book and they would give you interest. The interest, believe it or not, wasn’t so bad. It’s not like today where nobody makes anything. Three-percent in those days was a lot of money; two-percent was a tremendous amount of money. I remember going to the bank.
Florence: I remember saving all the time.
Edith: I remember going with Mama all the time, whenever you needed some money you would go the bank and get it. We didn’t have checks; we didn’t have checks until later on.
Q: Did you have cash hanging around your house or was everything in the bank?
Edith: Everything was done with cash. Look, my father worked and came home with money. And that’s what [Mama] used. It wasn’t until later on when we started to get checkbooks that things changed. There were no credit cards, so everything was done more simply.
Edith: I don’t know when the telephone came into everybody’s home, but when it arrived in our home you had a choice of a two party line or a four party line. The four party line meant that three other houses had the same phone, and the same as with the two party line. The two party line was yours and somebody else’s that you don’t even know. So that when you get on the phone and go “Oh, I’m going to call Florence” you get on the phone and somebody’s already on the phone you say “Oh I’m sorry” and you wait until they get off the phone and you call them. Isn’t that amazing?
Q: You don’t even know them?
Edith: No, but we were lucky we just had a two party line. The four party line was much cheaper.
Florence: We had a neighbor upstairs who didn’t have a phone.
Edith: Yeah people didn’t have phones, so they would come down and borrow yours.
Florence: So every time she would go through our phone and we’d get a call for her.
Q: So you’d have to call up to her?
Florence: We would have to call up to her. And out of the goodness of my mother’s heart she let her use [our] phone.
Florence: There were some people who had to put money in for hot water.
Edith: We didn’t have that.
Florence: Also, the house was heated by coal and not oil. And everyday you have to go downstairs and put coal into the furnace.
Edith: You’d have to shovel it in.
Florence: So there would be enough coal to heat the house.
Edith: And when you ran out, you’d call the coal people and they’d deliver more.
Florence: You’d have to do it yourself.
Edith: We had a doll between us, one rubber doll. And that doll lasted for years and that was the only doll we ever had. I used to paint the eyes blue, and the hair brown. I constantly painted this poor doll. It was just a little rubber doll, cute this big [motions with hands] and some of the kids were getting dolls that could, you know, urinate. But we had this doll the legs and the arms were sort of stuck into it so there was actually an opening between the body and the legs. We used to force water into it to try to pull the leg away from the body, so that the water would come out. You have no idea how little kids had in those days. We never had tons of toys.
Q: Were there some kids who had lots of things?
Florence: My father took me to visit his customers’ kids, who lived in Newton at the time. We lived in Dorchester and she had a cradle that was this big [arms spread as wide as they go], and you wound it up and it played music, so there was definitely someone earning a lot more money than my father.
Q: So you were living in an area where everyone was in the same situation, so you never really felt it?
Florence: Where we lived 90% of the people had come from Europe and the parents were not American born, and they became citizens, and learned English immediately. So there were people who were a step above, or a few steps above that had money, but not where we lived. We lived with workers, our fathers were laborers. Actually, my father remodeled homes. And another one would be a painter, who went out and painted homes, they were not college educated.
Q: Did most people go on to college?
Florence: The children, all the children went to college.
Q: How much was college in those days?
Florence: $375 for a year at BU, that was just for a commuting student. We didn’t live at the dorms, there were some, but very few. There was one dorm in my building, maybe ten or fifteen rooms. Every one of my friends commuted to school.
Edith: This is a difference between me and [Florence]. In my friends, I’m the only one who went to college. I’m the only one who had advanced education.
Q: So what did they do? Did they start working or did they get married?
Edith: Yes, they all started working immediately after high school
Q: What kind of jobs did they take?
Florence: At the high school you had two tracks: the college track, and the commercial track. If you went into commercial and you were a woman—we went to an all girls school because that’s what they were in Boston at the time—you’d study book-keeping and shorthand, typing, and you’d go out and be a secretary. And so, [Edith’s] friends for the most part went into commercial, in fact, [Edith] did too at first.
Q: What about eating out, did you not eat out as much because of the Depression?
Edith: Hardly at all, I don’t remember eating out.
Florence: I remember my father coming home and saying “We’re going out to eat” one Sunday, I was so excited.
Edith: You know how all you kids always stop off and have something to eat with your friends? There was no such thing as that.
Florence: We used to get ice cream; we would get an ice cream cone for a nickel.
Edith: The most fun we had was going to a drugstore and having an ice cream out of a tin dish, not a cone, because then you really felt very elegant.
Q: So what was the transportation, walking or biking or what?
Edith: There was a lot of public transportation. Living in the city is different from living out where you are.
Florence: There was only one car to a family. Women did not work.
Q: Did they drive?
Florence: I did not know any women that drove during the Depression era.
Edith: As a matter of fact, most men did not even have a car.
Q: So there were no luxuries? No extra transportation or clothes?
Florence: We’re talking about where we were growing up. We weren’t poor, but we had everything.
Edith: Plenty to eat.
Florence: Food was number one of my mother’s list, we had clothing, and we had shelter. Our father drove a car. He worked hard; he brought home a good salary.
Q: Do you remember being aware of poor people?
Florence: No, because we lived in this area, and we were all exactly the same. Everyone had the same things, we all lived in triple deckers, and maybe your father had a car. But as for what kind of car? It didn’t matter, as long as it had four wheels and a steering wheel we were happy. It was very different from being in Wayland.
Edith: I have to say, life was wonderful.
Florence: I was just going to say that, we never felt deprived. I never felt like we really needed anything.
Edith: We didn’t have any of the pressures you kids have today. We all dressed exactly the same, in the simplest clothes: a sweater, brown and white oxfords, socks, and a skirt. That was it. I mean it was just a great life. It’s much more complicated today.
Q: What did you do when you went on dates?
Edith: On Saturdays or Sunday afternoons you’d go to the movies. And there would be two features, and in between the two features there would be a documentary and the news. You got a lot for your ten cents, and two cents tax.
Florence: Life was much simpler, we as girls used to go and watch the boys play ball.
Edith: Do you guys go to the library or buy books?
Q: People buy books.
Edith: We never bought a book, and we went to the library once a week. We got a bunch of books, we read them, and then brought them back to the library, and then got another bunch.
Q: Did you read a lot?
Edith: Oh yes, reading was big, big time.
Florence: I remember it was either Monday’s or Tuesday’s, and my friends and I would walk over to the library, a ten or fifteen minute walk. There were no libraries in the school.
Florence: The movies were more your life than anything because there was no T.V
Florence: So there would be movie magazines that would come out.
Q: Did you guys have big celebrities and famous actors that everyone was obsessed with?
Q: Did they live glamorous lives?
Florence: Yes they did. The movie stars lived glamorous lives. In those days, we didn’t know anything except for glamour, beautiful clothing, beautiful homes, beautiful stars.
Q: So you guys did know about rich people?
Edith: We knew all about it through photo-play magazine.
Florence: That’s what I was saying, we had the movie magazines that came out, we couldn’t wait to get them.
Q: You guys always used to talk about penny candy.
Edith: Penny candy was a big thing.
Florence: When I was in elementary school there was a little penny candy store on the way to school and you stopped in there everyday, and it actually was a penny. You’d get a little box this size [motions with her hands] filled with fake cigarettes, they’d be peppermint.
Q: So you never saw change hanging around on the streets?
Florence: If you saw a penny, you picked it up.
Q: These days we see change all over the place, and if it’s a penny no one bends to pick it up.
Florence: Believe me; you picked up a penny because a penny bought something. We used to get chocolate sherbet for two cents.
Q: How did you guys get this money, did you have an allowance?
Florence: Kids did, but my father did not believe in an allowance. He said “If you want something you come and ask me for it” and I said “But Daddy I want an allowance, everybody has an allowance,” and he’d say “You don’t need an allowance,” so I always wanted it, but he would never do it.
Edith: I got to tell you, it was really a great life.
Florence: The fact that we never felt deprived, ever.
Q: So you were happy?
Florence: We were happy, we never felt like we wanted anything. See, we’d have one thing and we’d love it to death. Just love it. It was the greatest thing we could have.
Edith: We found it within ourselves to have a lot of fun. We never spent money to do anything. It was a different life, and it was a really good life.