Born in 1925, Frank Antonell experienced the effects of the Great Depression at full force. His father was laid off, and his family had to work together to make ends meet. Even in this terrible financial crisis, Mr. Antonell managed to make the best of the situation during his childhood, constructing toys from pieces he found at the dump and finding joy in everyday life.
Q: Please state your name.
Mr. Antonell: Frank Antonell.
Q: How old were you in 1929?
Mr. Antonell: 1929, I was four years old.
Q: Where did you live during the Depression years?
Mr. Antonell: In the Bronx, the Bronx New York.
Q: What are your parents’ names, and what did they do for work when you were small?
Mr. Antonell: My father’s name was Lenard, my mother’s name was Mary, and my father was an insurance agent back in those days, and my mother was a housewife; and that was just before the Depression.
Q: Did your father lose his job during the Depression?
Mr. Antonell: Yes, he did lose his job.
Q: How many brother and sisters did you have?
Mr. Antonell: I have an older brother and an older sister. They both passed away.
Q: How was your mother’s role as a homemaker impacted by the Depression?
Mr. Antonell: Well my father had lost his job and things were getting pretty bad, and she got a job, a home type of a job and back in those days the people that had money, they used to dress very fancy and they used to use ostrich feathers in their hats, and my mother use to coil ostrich feathers and she’d get paid by the piece; and she used to take home these big flat feathers and she’d coil them up into shapes, the shapes that they wanted, and she used these in those fashionable ladies’ hats; that’s the people that had the money back in those days, you know?
Q: What did you eat as a child?
Mr. Antonell: Oh basically, we ate, general food, I mean my mother used to, we had Friday, I mean Saturday we always had hamburger and beans sometimes fried potato and she used to make a lot of soup, and, you know, eggs and we used to have eggs, and when you could get meat, we had meat that you could get, in the store. It was expensive, so you used to buy the cheapest cut of meat we could find because we had five in the family so it was hard to feed.
Q: Did you have a garden growing up, did your mom grow or can anything?
Mr. Antonell: Yes, we had a garden, on the side of the house. We had a nice sized garden. We used to grow tomatoes, peas, string beans, carrots, beets and we also had the … lettuce; we grew a lot of lettuce. We also were very fortunate that we had a peach tree and there used to be tremendous amounts of peaches on this tree and when we were kids we would play around with this; grab a peach and eat the peach off the tree, and then for the winter time she would take these large jars and she would can the peaches. She used to also make her own bread, pasta.
Mr. Antonell: Oh yeah, my mother used to say, she used to get a large bag of flour, and she would say “as long as I got that bag of flour, nobody’s going to starve in this house.” She’d make everything from it, you know?
Q: Did you eat and canned food from the store at all?
Mr. Antonell: Ah, yes, we had some canned food, but my mother didn’t believe too much in canned food. She always used to try to make whatever she could make.
Q: Like spam?
Mr. Antonell: No, spam only came through in the war, there was no spam food before that, but in the stores they had peas, you know… but we were able to get a lot of these things from our garden, so we were fortunate to do that, you know?
Q: When you went down to the store, what sorts of things did you buy? And how much did they cost?
Mr. Antonell: Well, you could get a quart of milk for 6 cents, a loaf of bread for about 6 or 8 cents, depending on what kind you got, an um butter. Back in those days you sued to buy the butter loose, you would go into the store and ask them for a quarter pound of butter, or a half a pound of butter, or a pound of butter and they would cut it out of the tub; and same way with sugar. Sugar, you would go into the store if you want a pound of sugar, or two pounds, they had them in bags and later on when I was a little older and I worked at a store, I used to do that. I used to cut the butter, and I used to cut in these big tubs, large tubs, we would take the butter out of the tub and turn it upside down sort of on this wax paper, and we had this, like a wire cutter and we would pull it through, about um, I’d say about an inch and a half layers. We’d pull it through like that, then we’d put it back in the tub, and then when someone wanted a half a pound of butter, a pound of butter; actually we felt pretty good, to be able to cut very close out of there a half a pound, we’d pull it out and we’d put it on the wax paper and fold it up.
The sugar was the same way. With the sugar, I used to have to, we used to get these 100 pound bags of the sugar, when I was in the store as a kid and I would have to, in between serving on the counter, I would, with people coming in or delivering orders, I would fill these bags up with a pounds of sugar, or two pounds of sugar, or five pounds; you know, most people bought two or three pounds, back in the day even five pounds you would only see at a bank or something like that.
The eggs were the same way, and the eggs back in the day came in these big crates and my job was to, back in those days, the area had a lot of several Jewish, and people and they use to like candle eggs. You know what a candle egg is? It’s a little bit like a can, with a round hole in it like that, there’d be a light in the back of it, like that, and you would take the egg and you would put it on there and if you saw a spot in there you would put it on one side, and if you didn’t see a spot, that would be the other side, and the Jewish people wanted without any spots. If the spot was in there, you know when you open the egg, you see a little white in there, well, Jewish people didn’t want that in there, so we’d have one side for the Jewish people, and one side for the Christians, you might say.
Once in a while, later on we were able to get a pair of, we used to call them dungarees, but you call them jeans now. So that was a big thing, if I could get a pair of dungarees, and they were probably cost, like maybe about a dollar, a dollar fifty, something like that; that was a lot of money we thought, you know? But we used to save; I’d save up my money from the store to buy stuff like that.
Q: How often did you get new clothes?
Mr. Antonell: Whenever my brother got new clothes they, they always bought the clothes for my brother, because then he would hand them down to me. I always got the hand-me-downs. I don’t think I ever had a new pair of anything. Always had the hand-me-downs from my brother, you know?
Q: What are your earliest memories of the hard times of the 1930’s?
Mr. Antonell: The only memories I think, I think the thing that hit me the hardest was when, my father lost his job, I remember my mother crying. That was a pretty rough time, and then, then we started to see that you couldn’t buy anything, we didn’t have any money to buy anything. I never had an allowance when I was a kid, never had an allowance; but I used to do chores around the house. Back in those days we had an ice box, we didn’t have refrigerators then, and the ice we had, he’d come down with a horse and wagon, something like that, he would ask for 10 cents of ice, that’s a big chunk of ice, and my mother would put it in the ice box and she used to put paper on it, she would say it melts slower with the paper on it. Then we used to put down on the bottom, underneath there was a water pan, and we would empty this out every day; I used to get a penny to do that, and take out the garbage, you know, stuff like that. That’s where I would, my, any money I had, by doing those chores.
Q: What chores did you have, besides the water?
Mr. Antonell: Oh the other chore I hated to do was weeding the garden, that was a…I hated to do that. Weed the garden, that was a chore, and there wasn’t too many things, we didn’t have too many things to have, we didn’t have any toys, we used to make our own toys. We’d have the big orange crates I was telling you about, we’d take the orange crate and nail it down on top of a 2 by 4, maybe 4 feet long, and we used to have a pair of old skates, we used to go down to the dump and find stuff like that, we’d get a pair of old skates, and we’d take them apart and we’d have the front wheels on the front, and the back wheels on the back, and we’d put two handles on top, and we used that as a scooter, we used to go down the street on the scooter with that, then we used to sell after hours school, and also Sundays before I had a job down at the store, we used to sell on the side of the Evening Post, and we never got money for that, we used to get hockey sticks and stuff like that they’d offer you. They didn’t pay any money. You got those gifts type of things, you know? So we used to do that, played hockey in the streets with a piece of black coal, we never saw a hockey puck in our life until we got older, we would always use coal.
Q: What other things did you do for fun as a kid?
Mr. Antonell: Prince Valiant was just coming out in the newspaper. So we used to go to the dump and get these slaps of wood and carve them into the shape of a sword and get a garbage can cover and fight with these things like prince Valiant. We had a lot of fun doing that. We also played kick the can and stick ball in the street. But my dad had to pay for all the windows we used to break with baseballs. I was a very good stick ball player when I was young.
Q: What was your school situation growing up?
Mr. Antonell: Well, we had elementary schools in the area. My mom walked me to school, and would pick me up at 3. She didn’t have to pick me up though, because I knew how to get back from her driving me back and forth. The main school was this big red building, but then we had this annex building, which was wooden. We had a flow of students back then, forty per class. We would come in the morning to school and make a fire to stay warm, and we also had to wait to use our pens because the ink would be frozen. We didn’t have regular pens back in the day. We moved into a bigger school at one point in the summer. Boy, New York had beautiful weather. We had to bring all the supplies from the old school and march about a mile to put them in the new school. We got assigned a classroom. We thought it was great, because we were all moving into a brand new school.
Q: Did you ever go to the circus or the carnival as a kid?
Mr. Antonell: Back then they had these little circuses that would come around. Every so often the circus would come to the Bronx. They had this one big ball field where they set up all the tents. I remember going to one.
Q: Did you got to the New York 1939 World Fair?
Mr. Antonell: Yes. I went to the World Fair with my brother. It took us a nickel a piece to get in. I went to this one place where I see this screen that I’m on, and I got really scared. I had no idea what was going on. So, this gentlemen comes over and asks me and my brother, “where are you gentlemen from?” And I’m looking at myself in the screen still scared, and I started to pull back, but the gentlemen kept saying “stay here, stay here!” We were on television! I had no idea what it was because I had never seen television before. So, me and my brother were on television when we were kids.
Q: What were the movies like?
Mr. Antonell: The movies back in those days were great. They were ten cents to get in. My mother used to take my brother and me on Saturdays to this one theater. It took us three trolley cars to get there. We would get there for the 10 am show. In the theater they would give you a dish to eat. Nowadays they call it the Depression glass. The show would normally start off with a cartoon and then a news reel. Then they showed the movie. When the movie was over or during a break, they would turn the lights on and give each member of the audience a Charlie root, which was a round cardboard with a little cake on the bottom and cream on the top. All of that would be free in the theater. We would have that and my mother would have sandwiches for us and some kind of drink. After we ate, the light went back off and we would see another movie. We would spend the whole day at the movies. We thought that was great.
Q: What did you think of sports as a kid?
Mr. Antonell: Well, there weren’t really any pro sports when I was a kid. The biggest thing about football was the college teams. They were bigger then the pros. Baseball of course was always there. We loved the Yankees and hated Boston. I remember years later, I was part of the Church’s band. I played the flute. So, we were invited to the football game. And do you know the name of that football team?
Mr. Antonell: The New York Yankees. That’s right we had a Yankees for football and baseball. We used to play at the Yankee football game at halftime. We’d march around and play. Then for entertainment they had this famous player Kinstrong. He was the team’s kicker. He was very strong. He was also the quarterback or halfback. Back in those days the quarterback was nothing. He just called the numbers. The biggest football player was the fullback. He did everything. Halfbacks were blockers only. So we would play these tunes as Kinstrong kicked the ball over the goal post. The odd thing back then was that we didn’t have hash marks. Wherever the ball was downed was where they would play from. If you were tackled, let’s say two or five yards, that was where the ball was. Sometimes the ball would be way on the other side, so things would be out of kilt a lot of the time. It was a whole new game from today because plays were going on the wrong side of the ball.
Q: Who were some of your heroes growing up?
Mr. Antonell: Well, Lindberg was pretty famous; and it just so happened when I worked in the Pan dam building, I would ride on the elevator several times with him, believe it or not. He was a big hero back then. Some of the football player that were on the college team were famous. There weren’t too many big name people back then. I remember Rockefeller, the first senior. He used to give out dimes. Everyone who he met he would give out a dime. Back in those days dimes were pretty good, and he would have pockets full of dimes to give to people. He died at 99 years old. He was the first Rockefeller.
Q: Were you a big fan of the Yankees?
Mr. Antonell: Yes, I was a big fan of the Yankees. I never saw Babe Ruth because we didn’t have a television, but I used to hear him on the radio, hitting homeruns. Later on I got to see players like Joe DiMaggio at Yankee stadium. We used to go there during school and they would give recession for ten cents.
Q: Beside sports, what else did you listen to on the radio?
Mr. Antonell: The big thing was Buck Rogers, The Shadow, The H-Bar row Rangers and the Lone Ranger. He was quite big back then too.
Q: What was the community life like in your neighborhood?
Mr. Antonell: Well, I think I was fortunate back then because I lived in the good areas of the Bronx. It was like Wayland, very green. We used to play stickball in the streets. We lived near streets that didn’t have many cars going through. We had the Cadet Corps, and we would go on these band competitions. We always won first place believe it or not. The trophies we won were unbelievable.
Mr. Antonell: We had a uniform. We were changing from Juniors to Seniors, and Juniors had different uniforms from Seniors. In between years we had no uniforms, so the guy in charge told us that we were going to wear dark pants, a white shirt and a black tie. So, we took a bus to the competition. And when we got off the bus, we saw all the other teams in their nice uniforms, and us four guys, we had nothing. We beat them anyway! 1st place! When we went home the priests would stop the bus at hot dog stands on the way, and they would give all of us on the bus a hot dog and a soda. We thought it was the greatest thing ever. That was great pay we thought.
Q: Were members of your family affected by the Great Depression?
Mr. Antonell: Well, my mother and father were. My father had to try and find a job. When Roosevelt just became president he made this organization called the WPA, which helped give my father a job. He also worked on construction in the parks, and helped build beach houses. My mother did work on the millinery line, which dealt with feathers, things like that. So, our family got by doing things like that.
Q: What do you remember about the WPA and the other organizations Roosevelt made?
Mr. Antonell: Well, the WPA did a lot of good things, but people used to laugh at it. But when you think back about it, they show pictures sometimes of WPA, guys working, leaning on shovels. But the media of course only took pictures of bad things, like WPA guys lounging around taking a break. However, the one thing the WPA did have was an honest program. They gave lots of job to people from bureaus. The workers made lots of famous paintings during that time. I remember this one fellow who didn’t live too far off from my mother. He was a great mural painter. In the church hall where me and the cadets played, he had painted these panels of famous athletes. They were unbelievable, huge. They were about eight feet wide and ten feet tall. He would paint the athletes in motion, whether it was throwing a ball or swinging a bat. There was also the CCC. They did work in the forest and things of that nature. Young adults of the organization would wear uniforms. I don’t think they got paid, but they got room board and stuff like that.
Q: What did your parents think of Roosevelt?
Mr. Antonell: They liked Roosevelt. Everybody sort of liked Roosevelt because he put new hope in everybody.
Q: Did your parents like FDR’s New Deal program?
Mr. Antonell: Yea, I think that was the start of the recovery, the “New Deal”. He created the WPA. There was also the NRA, the National Recovery Act. They helped bring the country back together again during the Depression.
Q: And your dad was able to get a job through the WPA?
Mr. Antonell: Yea, he was able to do that.
Q: Were any of your family and friends part of the New Deal programs?
Mr. Antonell: There were several people on the WPA that I knew.
Q: Do you recall seeing a “Hooverville”, which is a place with people living in lots of tents?
Mr. Antonell: No. I had heard about them, but I had never seen one.
Q: Do you remember the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt?
Mr. Antonell: Yes.
Q: What did you think of her?
Mr. Antonell: Well, I think she was ahead of her time back then because she used to do a lot of traveling and visiting lots of people. During the war she would visit the soldiers. I think she was the first president’s wife to get around, I would say. I had never heard much of previous first ladies.
Q: Do you remember any of the big construction projects, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building?
Mr. Antonell: Yes, the Empire State Building. My two uncles worked on that as plumbers. I still have the plumbing wrench my uncle had when he worked on the Empire State Building. He gave it to me. I still keep it as souvenir. I remember that building went up so fast, and that it cost about ten million dollars to build. Imagine that! I did watch them build the White Stone Bridge. It was built specifically for the 1939 World’s Fair. Before that, they had a ferry. I lived at the end of the Bronx, which was called Clausen Point. The Clausen Point Ferry used to take you across Low Gallon Sal a lot, over to a point at White Stone. From there we could see the White Stone Bridge. I used to go across the bridge on my bicycle. It used to cost ten cents to cross. Now you’d get killed going on that bridge with a bike.
Q: How do you think kids view life differently then kids did back in your day?
Mr. Antonell: I think the kids in my day, we didn’t really expect much. We made our own toys and did our own thing in our free time. We didn’t really have any money back then, so we didn’t think much about material goods. Now, kids have too many things. You walk into their room, toys are everywhere. Kids are buying really expensive things like Ipods. These days they say those things are only “ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents”, well for us nine dollars and ninety-nine cents was a fortune. It’s a whole different way to think about things. My wife and I, to this day still think of money differently than your parents do. We still have that “Depression” in us. We can’t just go out and spend money like you guys do, because we still conserve things like bread. She (Mr. Antonell’s wife) is worse than I am.
Q: Would you say the country is still affected by the Great Depression today?
Mr. Antonell: I don’t think it is. The only people I think about that are affected by the Depression, are the people that actually experienced it. You can’t really know it until you’ve been through it. We’re going through a period right now that’s tough. But, back in those days people had food stamps to live off on and they had what they called soup kitchens. People would go around the block to wait in line to get food to eat. I think the whole idea of that period is fading away. One thing that reminds me of the food kitchens is that when I was in the service and went overseas to places like England and France, there was no food. People were starving. I remember the kids used to follow us around with buckets. In the service, you get the food in pans, and when you finish you put your scraps in one bucket and in another you would clean and rinse everything. The kids would pick food out of the scrap buckets that we had used. Even ones that had coffee in them, kids would take home to eat. Times can be really bad. I’ve seen a lot of bad times in my day and I still remember most of those things.
Q: How do you think the Depression now is similar to the one you experienced?
Mr. Antonell: Well, I think that the people today are waiting for it to recover. I was four years old when the Depression started and fifteen years old when the Depression ended. That was about eleven years! We’re only one or two years into this current depression, so who knows where it’s going. From being four years old to fifteen during a depression is scary.
Q: Do you remember anything about the rise of Hitler?
Mr. Antonell: Yes. When Hitler first started, the United States had a German boom. When you would go to the movies they would show a news reel with Hitler and a line of troops. Constantly they showed Hitler with a bunch of German soldiers. He took back the Czar, which was taken away from Germany in the previous war and he started to move into all these little countries and take them over, just like that. The British had a pact with Poland, that if they were taken over, the British would help them out. And that’s how the war started, England going into Poland and taking a beating from the Germans.