Born in 1918, Jean Pratt, a youthful and energetic women, was eleven years old while living in Cohasset, Massachusetts when the Great Depression began. While living on the picturesque South Shore, the Pratt family didn’t experience many hardships like the majority of families during the Depression. Instead, Mrs. Pratt states that she had a very fortunate childhood, where her normal day would be spent swimming in the ocean, creating plays with her friends in the barn, or going out to the town with her numerous boyfriends. Mrs. Pratt was first introduced to the struggles of the Great Depression when she got married and saw the struggles that her husband’s father had gone through from losing his job. Mrs. Pratt provides a truly unique look on the Great Depression through the eyes of a fortunate beach town girl.
This is Olivia Johnson and Lucas Holmes and we are interviewing Mrs. Pratt on May 14th, 2008 for the Wayland High School History Project.
Q: Please state your name.
Mrs. Pratt: Jean Katherine Bate Pratt.
Q: How old were you in 1929?
Mrs. Pratt: Eleven.
Q: Where did you live during the Depression years?
Mrs. Pratt: I lived in Cohasset, which is on the South Shore between Hingham and Scituate. It’s the most beautiful town in the world, and rocks and ocean and woods, and I lived near the woods. And I swam in the ocean every day, except in the winter.
Q: What were your parent’s names and what did they do for work when you were small?
Mrs. Pratt: Well, my father’s name was John Bates, and he was born in Cohasset. He was a leather salesman. He sold leather to one of the biggest shoe manufacturers in Boston: Thomas—Tom McCain, Tom McCann. And my mother’s name was Ester Stevens Bates and she was born in Boston, but lived in Cohasset from the time she was a baby.
Q: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Mrs. Pratt: I have one sister whose two years younger and a brother who is ten years younger.
Q: How was your mother’s role as a homemaker impacted by the Depression, if at all?
Mrs. Pratt: She— My Mother did not ever work, that I know of. She left her [Inaudible] in college, and I always thought that she would have known more facts of life than she ever told me, but I guess mothers can’t tell [Inaudible]. She was a homemaker, but in those days even some of the less wealthy people had someone who came in and washed dishes and washed clothes, but my mother did all the cooking. Always saw everything we did.
Q: What did you eat as a child? Did you eat any pre-made food or was it all homemade?
Mrs. Pratt: It was all homemade. We had a – my father’s brother had a farm, so we had eggs and goat’s milk and fruits and vegetables from there, but my mother didn’t— I can’t remember that she ever canned much, but maybe she did. We ate things like, as a really little kid, we’d have crackers and milk for supper or toast with warm milk on it. Anyway, my mother made a salad dressing and custards and we’d have dinner on Sunday with some kind of roast or chicken, usually chicken, and vegetables; nothing spicy. My mother made cake, so we did have cake, and cookies, and donuts.
Q: When you went down to the store, what kinds of things did you want to buy and how much did it cost?
Mrs. Pratt: Well I don’t remember. I did not do any shopping when I was a kid. But I was married in 1939 and of course that was still Depression or the end of 39, but then in 1940, we lived, my husband and I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, and we spent 5 dollars a week for groceries which would include butter and bread and eggs and milk and probably cereal because I don’t think I did much cooking, we didn’t live in the places where— the places we lived we washed the clothing and the dishes in the bath tub.
Q: Did your family own a car and if so, how did it impact your family life?
Mrs. Pratt: We had a car. My mother drove a Model-T Ford when I was born, I guess, in 1918;’20 anyway. And when I was 16, I learned to drive and our family had a Nashthat they said was as heavy— probably heavier than any SUV today. And I learned to drive—a friend of mine who was 16, taught me how to drive, my uncle started. And I drove lots of places around, but as a kid, I guess my mother would pick me up when I would, mostly when I rode a bike or walked.
Q: How would you compare typical clothing than to today?
Mrs. Pratt: I sure wish I had those pictures… But when I was in the 6th and 7th grades I can remember having surge. They weren’t really bloomers, but they did have plastic above the knees. And I was so proud; my best friend had green ones, not navy. And I had green ones. I think I wore dresses to school and socks and saddle shoes.
Q: What are your earliest memories of the hard times of the 1930’s?
Mrs. Pratt: Probably when I met—when I knew my husband’s family. He lived in Cohasset. He was one of eight children. And his father broke his back because he was a furniture mover and he saved somebody’s piano, instead of himself. [Laughs] And then he was elected highway surveyor, which would pay little money, and so the first— somebody’s going to come interview me about politics next week [Laughs]—so I knew he was elected in the family, it depended on maybe five hundred dollars a year, or maybe, I don’t think it was even a thousand. But his children, as they got out of high school, all went to work in grocery stores or something or whatever they could get, and had to contribute to the family money. And they had a garden, chickens, and a cow, and so I knew how tough it was, especially when his father was not reelected the next year, so he didn’t have that income. So I guess that’s when I first knew. Although, yeah, I guess that’s when I really realized and that was in 1933, when I was 12 or 13.
Q: How did you spend most of your time as a kid in this era? What did you do for fun? What games did you play?
Mrs. Pratt: We played lots of outdoors games. We played hide and seek in the hayfields, we played badminton, we went skating, and we went roller skating because Cohasset in Nantasket, where they have Paragon Park, and I did roller skate there sometimes. We bicycled and we walked, we went in the woods and tried to get lost, and we knew the woods so well it was hard to get lost. [Laughs] And then I had, when I was in about the 6th or 7th grade, I had a boyfriend who was very imaginative; he became a theater director many many years later. But he would read books about travel and then sketch out a play and we’d try to put on a play in his barn. We loved that. Climb trees, and if we were really daring climb down the roofs of houses that were closed for the winter.
Q: Did you ever go to the circus or to carnivals?
Mrs. Pratt: Yeah, there were bands and concerts and fireworks and we went to those. I think I know my grandmother took me to a circus once in Boston; she also took me to a play in Boston once that mostly we were just around town.
Q: What were the movies like?
Mrs. Pratt: Well I don’t remember…I think they were all pretty romantic. And I went to lots and lots of them because I kept a diary, when I was in, from 1931 until today.[Gasps] And I was reading some of my 1930 diaries, and it seemed that I went to the movies every week, but I can’t remember how I got there. But there was a train that went from Cohasset to Boston. To buy any clothes and also because my mother had aunts in Boston in the area where we’d often go to Boston and see movies at the big theaters there, Arcio and them met and that was when you saw,they had comedy, but that’s where you’d find what was going on in the world— [Inaudible]news. But I think most of the movies I went to were the romantic kind. I don’t remember any…
Q: Do you remember the radio shows?
Mrs. Pratt: Yes, my grandfather had a radio when I was quite young, he lived next door and I would go over there and listen to Amos and Andy and Fibber McGee and Molly. Did you ever hear of those? Oh well Fibber McGee had a closet and if he opened the door everything fell out. And Amos and Andy were quite two men who portrayed two black taxi drivers.
Q: What kind of music did you like to listen to?
Mrs. Pratt: Well, I played the piano and I liked Beethoven and Chopin. My mother played the piano, and I also played the Organ, and my mother played the organ. My grandmother played the carillon, like this. Let’s see, well, my mother could play jazz, I never could and I wanted to, that was what I really wanted, and I just could not get the rhythm—I could get the beat but I couldn’t play it. I guess that was the greatest disappointment of my life—one of mine…Couldn’t play jazz.[Laughs]
Q: Many say that in those days most kids had heroes. Did you have a hero? Who was s/he and why?
Mrs.Pratt: Well, I don’t think I had a hero; not a movie person, but I had, my diary is full of both girlfriends and boyfriends—or I hoped would be boyfriends—[Laughs]. And I met them and what we did, and how I wish I could have spent more time with them, and they were very dear and I had a lot of wonderful times.
Q: What was an average day for you like?
Mrs.Pratt: Well I got up and got myself dressed. Made my breakfast, I walked to school; I always walked because I lived in three different houses—I was born in one and when I was one year old we moved to a rented house and then my parents built a house, which was next door to my grandparents and the school was, well not as far from here out to Route 27. So I could hear the bell ring and run. [Laughs] And even now I have dreams where I’m running to school and I’m always late. [Laughs] And we had to go through the basement door. The boys had an entrance on one side and the girls on the other.
Q: Do you have any adventures that you would like to tell us about?
Mrs.Pratt: Well the first trip I ever took, I guess, was when my Uncle had a new Buick and that was probably in 1934, when I was 16. Was I 16? Well I wasn’t quite 16 when I went there, because I was much younger because I was only 10 or 11 when we drove up to New Hampshire and that was pretty exciting, but then my mother, when I graduated from high school, took me on a trip, and that was in 1936, to Valley Forge in Pennsylvannia, and Philadelphia. And we took a boat from Fall River to New York City.
Q: What was community life like then?
Mrs.Pratt: Well my father was on the school committee, and he always went to town meetings. It was a tiny town at that time; it was about 4,000 people, so you knew everybody. You knew who was poor and who was rich, and we had lots of rich people because, there was a summer resort for people who lived in Boston and had money. And so that was another reason that townspeople had work because the summer people we hired them as greens keepers and chauffeurs and maids even.
Q: What was school like?
Mrs.Pratt: Oh, school… [Laughs] School was okay. I can’t remember kindergarten; I can remember the kindergarten teachers so I must have gone. I remember my first grade teacher was Mrs. Fox and she was an old bitty and she kept me after school once because I chewed my fingernails or did something like that. [Laughs] When I used to go from school, I would go to my grandmother’s for lunch and my grandmother made money, but she made lunch for school teachers and I would go with the school teachers over there for lunch. And in the afternoon I played, and then I would have supper, and at night I would go out and play some more. Those were my days. And I can tell you more about school if you want. Did you happen to have a slam book? Oh, in junior high we’d have a slam book and passed it around and everybody would write the worst thing they could think about somebody else. [Gasps/laughs] Then when I was in high school, I was the brightest one in the school, which didn’t mean I was very bright because I learned and I wrote and we’d learn topics, instead of reading the narrative and putting it in our own words, we’d just learn the topics. But I did a great deal of reading in high school, in history, which I liked.
Q: What chores or responsibilities did you have growing up?
Mrs. Pratt: Not many, because my mother did not want any help. She did not want me in the kitchen and we had Grace who came in and did the washing. And the most trouble I got into was when I was nasty to Grace. I didn’t like her very much.
Q: Do you think these were impacted by the fact it was the Depression?
Mrs. Pratt: Well, no, I think my life would have been the same in Cohasset because it was such a beautiful town and such a… I mean you didn’t need to be taken places and at that time I don’t know if you lived in Boston, if you went to special classes or things. We had dancing school, which went from the time I was 6 or 7 until I was a teenager. We had plays—we put on plays and one time I played in the valiant, opposite the principal of the high school, and my mother would sometimes help, there was one friend of hers who was a theatre person and she couldn’t find any work and so she gave elocution lessons, and so my mother had me do that, but my father said I’d provide this beautiful place for you to live. Teach yourself to swim, teach yourself to… And we didn’t have a boat. There was a yacht club, I never went there. I never learned to sail a boat. I lived in the water.
Q: Do you remember your first job that you had for pay?
Mrs. Pratt: The first one I had I think was working for my uncle who had a chicken farm by then. And I used to handle the eggs, and when I could drive, when I was 16, I would sometimes deliver eggs to the backdoor of the customers. And then another job I had there was a woman who had a little dress shop, which was quite nice, and I guess she sold gifts too, but I worked there some afternoons.
Q: What did you do with the money that you made?
Mrs. Pratt: Well, from the time I was… probably six or seven I had a bank book and I had a first allowance. I don’t know but I think it was ten cents and I was required to put five cents in the savings bank each week.
Q: Were members of your family affected by the Great Depression?
Mrs. Pratt: Um, well I think so in the sense that they knew so many people who were… not well off, and of course we knew a lot of people who were rich, because of the town. But, I don’t think that… I mean a couple of people my mother knew, a couple of men commited suicide because of the Depression. One of the big families in Cohasset at the time was Barron, and he’s the one who started Dow Jones and Barron’s weekly, and then his granddaughters inherited his house and they were very generous to the town, and their father was one of the men who committed suicide during the Depression.
Q: Do you have any recollections of people in tough circumstances?
Mrs. Pratt: Well I sort of said, because I knew my best friend who we called Honey, and I used to go to her house a lot and knew all her brothers and sisters and what they struggled with. And I mean lots of my friends they lived very very frugally. Yes, I had one time- several of the musicians in eighth grade and high school, early high school – we had a little group and we used to go to one of the fellas house where they had a wonderful piano, but there was never any heat, they couldn’t afford any heat – it was freezing – and it’s hard to play the piano in the cold
Q: Was your faith strong as a young person? Were you religious?
Mrs. Pratt: Not really, I went to Episcopal church and I was baptized and confirmed and taught sunday school to a bunch of boys and I don’t know how I ever survived that [Laughs], but I remember trying to teach them about Jesus. But the only time I felt religious was when I went with my Dad when his mother died, and I was ten and I remember it was important to him, but I used to think ….. that was a very special time for me because I could be with my Dad. Um, my mother sang, was a soloist in the choir, so I went to hear her, but I don’t remember …. but by that time I was quite low church, and then after that when I married … Oh – well we had lots of church socials, dances and socials and got together for plays and discussions and …. that was real fun and we combined with the Christian Endeavor at the Congregational church so that was a way of …. but we didn’t socialize much with the Roman Catholics because they didn’t want to … well no, they were not allowed to – it was much more strict than I think it is now.
Q: How do you recall Franklin D. Roosevelt?
Mrs. Pratt: Um, well my family was Republican of course - it was a real Republican town at the time, and they were not- they were not pleased with the New Deal – they just thought they were – I don’t know what they thought really – but I didn’t think much of him for that reason, but for the first time I voted must have been in Raleigh, North Carolina – I voted for Wilkie I think – Did he run? No, you don’t remember the president? – well I can’t remember, but my husband, after he lost several girlfriends in this Christian Endeavor because he wasn’t religious enough, he gave it up entirely! [Laughs] That was before he was my husband. [Laughs] So we didn’t ever go to church until we moved to Wayland in 1954, But now I’m a very strong Unitarian.
Q: How do you remember the first lady?
Mrs. Pratt: Eleanor?
Q: Eleanor, sorry.
Mrs. Pratt: Well, I used to read My Day and I guess I was, we were sort of programmed to laugh at her, which is sad because since then I’ve felt a tremendous respect for her, and we were -I was very naive I’m sure.
Q: Do you recall ever seeing a Hooverville of homeless people?
Mrs. Pratt: A Hooverville? No I don’t think so – I’m sure there were people in Cohasset who had very meager homes but I don’t remember any special homes.
Q: Do you remember any of FDR’s plans to help the Depression?
Mrs. Pratt: Oh yeah, I remember them, because when I went to college we learned about it the first year in college which began in September 1936 – I went to Middlebury and we had Contemporary Civilization which really opened my mind and my eyes to what the world was, and I have kept the notes from that class, and I remember reading them a few years ago or looking at them- but I can’t find them now. I lived on Cole Road – Do you know Davelin Road? It’s on your way to the high school, just before you get to the high school there’s Davelin, and then there’s Old Farm… so we lived on Cole which went off Davelin- for 50 years and what was I going to tell you … I don’t remember [Laughs]…. something about – well I was telling you about Middlebury – anyway but that was when I grew up – before that I was a spoiled kid and after that when I was at Middlebury … oh, the reason I mentioned the move … that was because that was three years ago when I moved here, so things were in boxes – but I won’t get them out.
Q: Were any of your family and friends part of the New Deal program?
Mrs. Pratt: I don’t…No I don’t think so – but I did know what they are … the CCC and then the writing program which was terrific and at one time I was going to keep the books from the TA theatre and history writings…I do have North Carolina, where I lived, and probably Massachusetts.
Q: Do you remember any of the great construction projects like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam?
Mrs. Pratt: No I didn’t see those until 1960. No no, I saw the Golden Gate bridge in 1945, when the UN had its first meeting in San Francisco and I remember going and seeing the building and all the flags and seeing the Golden Gate bridge.
Q: One of the famous events of the 1930’s was the New York 1939 World’s Fair, which was titled as the World of Tomorrow – how do you remember this famous event?
Mrs. Pratt: I remember that, because my boyfriend at the time went to it – he went to what’s now UMass in Amherst and one of his professors took him to it, but I didn’t go, so I knew it through John.
Q: While our country was in the Depression do you recall anything about Hitler’s rise in Germany, or the Japanese military advances?
Mrs. Pratt: In my diary in the early 30’s every once in a while I would write “the situation in Europe is getting worse” or I wrote at one point that “the Japanese have invaded China, and that’s horrible” – so that was before I went to college, so I did have just an inkling, and if you look at that civics, that history book, you will see that was the Depression and so I did know about Roosevelt because I had to write a theme about him here …. so this was nineteen … OK, I was in 12th grade so that would have been thirty five, thirty six- so I did know what was happening and there is one little place here where I wrote – there is quite a lot there but what we learned at school – ah this ….the problems – those were important, I got that far. You see – I’ll read them to you: “In the first column below, name without any assistance what seem to be the 10 outstanding problems of today in American life”, and so 1, I said farm; 2, unemployment; 3, financial; 4, flood control; and 5, soil erosion.
But that’s why the CCC and the …. helped, I wish I had done more because then I could have answered all your questions! [Laughs]
Q: Do you think we are still affected by the Depression at all?
Mrs. Pratt: Well some of us remember – because I remember rationing – but the rationing was due to the war not to … no that came after … no we were real careful about how we spent money; everyone was; things didn’t cost very much but to go to the movies was 25 cents maybe, I think they had movies in the local town hall which were probably only10 cents for kids- then we went to another town or Boston for movies -but that was the main out of home, and playing with your friends that you did for entertainment – watching movies.
Q: Were there drive-in theaters?
Mrs. Pratt: No
Q: Do you remember anything about the Hurricane of 1938?
Mrs. Pratt: Yes, I remember a lot about it.
Q: Were you affected directly?
Mrs. Pratt: Well I was at school in [Inaudible] and came home to Cohasset on the train and my mother actually met me at the station and she said – this is a terrible northeaster. Somehow we got home but she went out again and met my father and the tree- the cedar tree in front of the house fell on the …. not veranda …. but little vestibule …. but up in Amherst was much much worse and uh, so John, that’s my husband later, had all kinds of pictures of Amherst and Holyoke and that was where they lost a lot of soil..erosion, because of the high winds and rains and everything had fallen down, but he walked between falling trees and got where he had to go.
I can remember waves so big seeing them on the seawall in Scituate and I think that was one of the three times in my life that I remember distinctly being scared to death because this wave was coming and I’d never seen one so big, and it was going to come over the wall and take me in, and so I ran and I escaped.
Q: As you see it how are children different than in your childhood era?
Mrs. Pratt: Oh the children- it’s completely different! – it’s completely different from when my daughters grew up on Cole Road – they were free as birds just like I was, and that was in the fifties so you made your own fun; you used your imagination; there were all kinds of things – I loved the story my daughter had when she was in, say the 3rd or 4th grade -her best friend was a boy and she used to come over and John, Joanna’s father would have some idea, so he’d help them get things together and Scott said “Boy, we’re quite a team, you’ve got the stuff but I’ve got the brains!”
Q: How are we the same?
Mrs. Pratt: How am I the same?
Q: How are children today the same?
Mrs. Pratt: I have two grandchildren who are 24 and 20 – one’s through college the other’s a student. They live in Washington DC, so life would be different than in Wayland in the 50’s or Cohasset in the 30’s – so their mother paid lots more attention to them – and had had to – to make sure they got to school, whereas even in the 50’s-we lived in the country outside of Washington – and they didn’t have kindergarden – she was 1st grade and she would walk and it was twice as far as from here to 27, by herself, out to a busy country road and stand there with the kids and I would never know till she came home if she got to school, and yet I didn’t worry – well I worried because there was a boy who wanted to beat her up- and she came home several times because he threatened her, but today you wouldn’t worry about the boy; you’d worry about somebody in a car scooping up your little one. But, our daughters rode on the school bus, I guess they had school buses in Cohasset for the kids who lived more than a couple of miles from school and so …. One thing when I was in 3rd grade the teacher used to send me about half a mile to the post office to get her mail – out of grade three so that’s how you could just be so free – so it was entirely different, and I think it’s sad in a way that probably you went to all kinds of classes from the time you can remember!
Q: What are the lessons of the Great Depression for us today?
Mrs. Pratt: To be savers; I mean just save a little bit – and to listen; I don’t know – maybe we didn’t listen – but one of the important things to do is to listen so that you can know what other people are thinking and maybe you can counter it -or not.
Q: Do you think we’ve learned any of these lessons?
Mrs. Pratt: Oh I hope so! Well, the money, well, no, because of the credit availability -saving is not-I mean you didn’t have any money unless you saved it, and I think people are beginning to realize that – at least I hear that or I read it.
Q: Well that’s the end of our interview.