John and Mary Forte
John Forte was born in 1923. His father immigrated from southern Italy and met his mother soon after arriving in Providence, Rhode Island. He and his two sisters grew up in a big family community, their aunt, uncle, and cousins all shared the same big house. Mr. Forte remembers the Hurricane of 1938, which hit Providence particularly hard, and going to the 1939 World’s Fair. Between the income from his father’s barber shop, his mother’s job as a seamstress, and the extra food his uncle’s job selling produce brought in, the Forte family survived the Depression without much trouble.
Mary Forte was born in 1924. She and her older sister, the daughters of two Italian immigrants, grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. Mary and Flora were the first in their family to graduate from high school, and Mrs. Forte never missed a single day in all her four years at Mt. Pleasant High School. Although the Depression was detrimental to many families at the time, Mrs. Forte says she never felt deprived of anything growing up. Their family had a large garden where they grew most of their food and they were able to keep a car throughout the 30’s.
This is Leah Jacques and Meghan Kelley. We are interviewing Mr. and Mrs. Forte on May 11, 2008. This is for the Wayland High School History Project.
Q: Please state your names.
Mrs. Forte: My name is Mary Forte.
Mr. Forte: I am John Forte.
Q: How old were you in 1929?
Mrs. Forte: I was born in 1924 so I was five years old.
Mr. Forte: I was six years old.
Q: Where did you live during the Depression years?
Mrs. Forte: We both lived in Providence, Rhode Island.
Q: Did you know each other?
Mrs. Forte: No we didn’t, we didn’t meet until after high school.
Q: What were your parents’ names, and what did they do?
Mrs. Forte: My mother’s name was Tessie, and my father’s name was Antonio, but they called him Tony.
Mr. Forte: My mother’s name was Mary. My father’s name was Daniel. My mother was a seamstress; she stayed at home and sewed many dresses, wedding gowns. My father was a barber.
Q: Did she make your clothes?
Mr. Forte: She made Mary’s wedding gown, and I had two sisters and she made a lot of their clothes.
Q: How many siblings did you have?
Mrs. Forte: I just have one older sister, and we are only eleven months apart. My mother dressed us as if we were twins.
Mr. Forte: I have two sisters, one two years older, and on two years younger than I am. We all lived together in a great big house with our cousins.
Q: How was your mother’s role as a homemaker impacted by the Depression?
Mrs. Forte: She didn’t make us think there was a depression because we never heard them complain about money being tight or food. My father had a garden and all the vegetables were grown in the garden. My mother made food with whatever we had and they were all delicious. So we thought everything was great and nothing was wrong. She knew how to make something out of nothing. And she would preserve so in the wintertime she would make meals out of what was preserved.
Mr. Forte: Well in our great big house my mother’s sister lived on the first floor, and they had five children. And as far as getting by in the Depression my aunt’s husband was in the produce business, and he’d go around selling fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood, and also work down at the farmers market. And as a youngster I would get up and go with them, we would get up at four o’clock in the morning and go buy vegetables from the farmers. Then we would resell them and deliver them around the neighborhood. So any leftovers we would take home and they would be for our family. So there was always plenty to eat. They knew what to do with leftovers.
Q: Did you guys ever have to give away food? Was there ever a point in time where people (in your community) couldn’t buy food?
Mrs. Forte: I think everyone in our area was more or less in the same boat. We didn’t really hear of any bad hardships in our area, we were all able to manage.
Mr. Forte: I know there was a time in the 29-30’s where people couldn’t work, and my father was a barber, and haircuts at that time were 25 cents. People couldn’t afford to pay for them, and they would bring in vegetables, from the garden, for their haircuts.
Mrs. Forte: I think you said chickens one time.
Mr. Forte: (laughter). It sounds crazy now, but we knew he had a good day if dad brought home a chicken.
Q: What did you eat as a child? Was it all home made?
Mrs. Forte: Mostly all home made lot of pasta, and pizza. My mother would make her own dough to make pizza. We’d go blueberry picking, and she’d make a pie, and preserve some blueberries and make another pie in the winter. We had apple trees and pear trees in our garden. Preserve all of what we didn’t eat.
Q: So most of was what you got from your own yard.
Mrs. Forte: Yes.
Q: Was there a market or a corner store around?
Mrs. Forte: Corner store.
Q: What kinds of things did you buy there, and how much did they cost?
Mrs. Forte: Well, they used to have penny candy in little bins. They had mary-janes and orange slices.
Mr. Forte: We would look forward to a weekend, a Saturday night, and if we were all good we could get ice cream. Ice cream was five cents a cone. My six cousins and I would look forward to hanging out on the big porch and eating ice cream.
Q: Did your family have a car?
Mr. Forte: My family didn’t have a car.
Mrs. Forte: We had a car.
Q: How do you think it impacted you?
Mrs. Forte: Well, we felt pretty good because the majority of our neighbors did not have a car. Having a car we were able to go to the beach more often. During the Depression my father would have two weeks off from work, and we would go to the beach.
Mr. Forte: They were rich. We didn’t have a car, we didn’t have a telephone.
Q: Do you think things would have been different if you had a car?
Mr. Forte: I don’t think so. We had a lot of friends, and we all walked to school. It was quite a distance from where we lived to Mt. Pleasant High… two or three miles.
Mrs. Forte: Cold weather too, I would come to school with icicles on my eyelids.
Mr. Forte: Mary never missed a day of high school…perfect attendance.
Q: Do you remember how much gas was back then?
Mr. Forte: Oh, ten cents a gallon.
Q: How would you compare the clothing warn then to today?
Mrs. Forte: Well we were covered more. [Laughter] No two piece bathing suits. We had wool bathing suits as a child, very itchy.
Q: What were your earliest memories of hard times?
Mrs. Forte: Well we didn’t consider them hard times, because we didn’t know any better. Our parents didn’t make us feel like we were being deprived of anything. Like at Christmas we would get one nice toy and that would be it, not like toys today.
Mr. Forte: A lot of our toys were homemade. You know, we would make barrels into airplanes to play in the yard with.
Mrs. Forte: We would use our imagination a lot. I remember in our attic, and I took a cardboard box and made keys to make a keyboard and pretend to be a secretary. Then when I was older, I became a secretary.
Q: So what did you do when you got a little older?
Mrs. Forte: I remember indoor roller-skating, with the wooden roller skates, the old fashion kind. Every Sunday our parents took us to the movies in downtown Providence. We would look forward to that, before we went in we would stop in the candy store, so that was a big treat.
Q: Did you ever go to the circus or to carnivals?
Mrs. Forte: Yes I remember my parents took us to the circus, and carnivals were real common in those days.
Mr. Forte: Yeah my father would bring us every year to the circus, and we really enjoyed it.
Q: Do you remember what circus it was?
Mr. Forte: Barnum & Bailey’s.
Mrs. Forte: Yes, it was underneath a huge tent.
Q: Do you remember which movies you liked?
Mrs. Forte: I loved Gone with the Wind. Loved Clark Gable, he was my idol.
Mr. Forte: Well in our time they would have continuous chapter movies. Every week it would continue, we would go every week. At that time the movies was like ten cents a carload, and my father was a barber so he would display times for the movies in his shop, and would get free passes. So it wouldn’t cost anything. A lot of the time at the movies they would give you dishes and cups, we had a whole set of dishware from the movies.
Q: Do you remember listening to radio shows?
Mrs. Forte: I don’t think we even had a radio. We didn’t get a radio until I was about 15 years old. We didn’t have a telephone until I was about 17.
Mr. Forte: At that time telephones were two-party, four-party, so it was tough to get on a line.
Q: Did you guys play sports?
Mr. Forte: Oh I played a lot of sports as a kid, football, baseball. Then when I got older I did a little track in high school. We had a lot of cousins so we played around with them. We would all get together and the women would cook, and all the kids would play football.
Mrs. Forte: I wasn’t involved in sports that much.
Q: What about professional sports?
Mr. Forte: Oh yeah, I always loved the Red Sox.
Q: Do you remember what kind of music you liked?
Mr. Forte: Bing Crosby. That’s all I really remember
Q: Describe your average day.
Mrs. Forte: Well I didn’t work until I was 16, but when we came home from school my mom had chores to keep us busy. I remember one of my chores was to sweep the back stairs.
Mr. Forte: Yes my mother had chores for us too, washing the floors; I was always busy with something.
Mrs. Forte: We would go to school, come home, do our homework, do some chores, but we didn’t have T.V. like you kids do today. So we would find other pastimes like reading.
Mr. Forte: We would stay around the house. We had a lot of friends, all in the same neighborhood, and we would hang out on our porches and just visit each other. There were big open porches that opened up the neighborhood.
Q: So your community was very close.
Mr. Forte: Oh yes very close. You knew everybody, if somebody got sick you would know about it.
Mrs. Forte: And they would help one another.
Q: What was school like?
Mr. Forte: Well I took college courses, even though I had no intentions of going to college because it was so expensive. At that time URI was 90 dollars a semester.
Q: What was your first job, and how much did you get paid?
Mr. Forte: My first job was textile finishing and I got paid 40 cents an hour.
Mrs. Forte: My first job was when I was 16 and I worked in a five and ten cent store. I don’t remember how much I got but it probably wasn’t much at all, probably 25 cents an hour. I know when I got my first job as a secretary; I only made 13 dollars a week.
Mr. Forte: And we saved that.
Q: What did you do with the money you made? Did you spend it on movies, going out, etc?
Mrs. Forte: I think I used to give it to my mother, and then whatever we needed she would give it to us. And even when I worked we would give my mother pay, but she saved it for us, so when I got married she had a little bank account for us. So that turned out nice.
Mr. Forte: Yeah, I turned my money in also. And my mother had a bank account for me, and if I needed any spending money, I would get it. But all of us, my sisters, and me turned in our money.
Q: So, none of your family members were really affected by the Great Depression?
Mrs. Forte: I really don’t think so.
Mr. Forte: Not really, we always found a way.
Q: Do you have recollections of people that you knew who were affected by it? Or were you sheltered from it?
Mr. Forte: Well, there was an incident in the 30’s, when it was real bad, people were unemployed, and I remember my mother and her sister used to walk down to Neville and Providence, and they had to go to the bank, and at this time in order to earn money people would sell apples on the corners for five cents, and my mother and her sister went into the bank, and while they were in the bank my cousin and I would look in the window to keep an eye on them, and this fellow that was selling apples, I guess he felt sorry for us, he came over and gave us an apple a piece, and when our parents came out we told them about it, so they went over and gave him a nickel. That seems to remain with me- how nice people were.
Q: Were you guys religious growing up? Did you used to go to church?
Mrs. Forte: Yes, we used to go to church every Sunday.
Q: Do you think you became any more reliant on your religion when the Great Depression came?
Mrs. Forte: No, I don’t really think so because it didn’t seem to affect us.
Mr. Forte: But we went to church every week.
Q: Do you remember FDR?
Mrs. Forte: Oh yes, I though he was great. He was a wonderful speaker, and encouraged you, and he gave you a lot of faith that everything was going to be okay, and he started the WPA.
Mr. Forte: Yea, he had people working on sidewalks and stuff in different areas.
Mrs. Forte: And he got people to work, he gave them jobs.
Q: Do your remember seeing that around? Seeing the different programs he started?
Mr. Forte: Yea, it was all over the place.
Mrs. Forte: Oh yea, he definitely made an impact. I think he was good, he was excellent.
Q: What about Eleanor?
Mrs. Forte: She was a very smart woman, but I don’t think they got along too good. (laughs)
Q: Do you remember ever seeing any “Hoovervilles,” as they called them, you know, the homeless groups?
Mrs. Forte: No we didn’t, not that I know of.
Mr. Forte: Well, I seen a few of them because when I first started working with aerodynamics for Brown, we were situated in an area called Marino Flats which was a big, open park, and we needed the water from the park to cool the air for the wind tunnels, but the cool area was saturated with homeless people. They had tents, and different things like that- that was an area that had a lot of homeless people.
Q: Do you remember the police having to get involved with them? Or did they just leave them alone?
Mr. Forte: No, I don’t remember them interfering. We would see [the homeless people when we were]
Mrs. Forte: Were they looking for food or something?
Mr. Forte: Well, I don’t remember, I just remember the people, and they didn’t give us any problems.
Q: So, FDR’s programs, like the CCC, the AAA, and the WPA, what do you remember about them?
Mrs. Forte: Well, like I was saying, I definitely remember the WPA- that got people to work, and get a salary.
Q: Did you know anybody, like friends or family, that part of the New Deal programs?
Mr. Forte: No, I don’t think we had anybody in the programs.
Mrs. Forte: No, I don’t think so.
Mr. Forte: But I remember the programs, and they were good for a lot of people. But I don’t think we
Mrs. Forte: Well, it didn’t affect my father, because when the work started again he went back to working full time- he was able to do that.
Q: What did your parents think of FDR’s programs, and the New Deal?
Mrs. Forte: I think they thought it was a good idea.
Q: Do you remember any of the really big construction projects like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire
Mr. Forte: Oh yea, I remember them building [the Hoover Dam.] In fact we visited the Hoover Dam.
Mrs. Forte: Yea, about four or five years ago. But as a youngster I didn’t realize that they did that. Not until we went on a tour of the Hoover Dam did I learn that that was one of the projects, which I thought was great.
Q: Do you guys remember the 1938 Hurricane?
Mrs. Forte: Oh yes, I remember that.
Mr. Forte: Yea, we were in school.
Mrs. Forte: Yea, that was my last year in junior high school, and I remember my mother coming because it was windy, and rainy, but they didn’t know it was a hurricane, we didn’t know it was a hurricane, and she came to meet us from school with they umbrellas, and as we got home the wind got worse, and we went to stay in the hallway, and then the next day we heard all about this story about a big hurricane, and we didn’t know what a hurricane was- it was the first time. And a lot of people lost their lives and homes. I know one of my cousins had a beautiful home down near the beach, and it was completely destroyed.
Mr. Forte: Yea, we were coming out of Mt. Pleasant, and my cousin had a convertible, and it was rainy and windy. But as far as physical damage goes, we didn’t have any damage to the house. But in the following days, with friends of ours, we walked all around downtown, and looked around, and saw all the damage along the water.
Mrs. Forte: Yea, downtown Providence was devastated.
Mr. Forte: We helped clean up a lot of areas; people needed help cleaning up their yards, and things like that.
Q: Was there a lot of flooding?
Mr. Forte: Oh yea, it was fantastic.
Mrs. Forte: Unbelievable.
Q: Do you remember the New York, 1939 Worlds Fair?
Mr. Forte: I went to that, the 39 Worlds Fair.
Q: What do you remember about it?
Mr. Forte: Well, I remember the big fair and it’s still there, I think, and it was a nice Worlds Fair. GE had a nice display; they had a lot of modern refrigerators, and stuff. They would have houses set up with different kitchens, how they would be looking for the future.
Q: But what was the World’s Fair? What kind of things did they have in it?
Mr. Forte: Well, they showed all the different things they were anticipating for the future; new appliances as far as GE went, and other companies I can’t remember.
Mrs. Forte: Hot Point?
Mr. Forte: Yea, there was Hot Point. And naturally [the fair] had a lot of rides for children.
Mrs. Forte: I remember the fireworks, they were beautiful. Spectacular
Mr. Forte: Oh, the fireworks at night were gorgeous. And part of the World’s Fair is still up there, the 39, its still in New York, they kept part of it.
Q: Do you remember hearing about Hitler’s rise in Germany, and the Japanese military advances?
Mrs. Forte: Oh yea, we remember that. Because my parents come from Italy they remember Mussolini,
Q: Did that affect the way you thought about things, with World War II coming?
Mr. Forte: Well, there was a lot of uncertainty because it was new to everybody, and with uprisings like that you never know what the results are going to be, and we thought [Hitler] was a pretty dangerous person at that time, and he actually then did kill a lot of Jews and people. It was quite an era.
Q: Do you think we are still affected by the Great Depression today?
Mrs. Forte: I don’t think so, because the generation today doesn’t worry about money at all (laughs.) If they want something, they’ll get it. We had to wait. We were taught that we had to wait until we had the money before we could buy something.
Q: No credit cards? (Laughs)
Mr. Forte: No; no such thing as credit cards.
Q: How do you see kids differently than yourself? How are kids different today?
Mrs. Forte: Well, you have so much more of an advantage then we ever, ever did. And you’re exposed to so much more. And you’re so much smarter than we are, than we were, what we ever will be, because you are exposed to so much.
Q: How do you think we’re the same?
Mrs. Forte: How you’re the same? Well, I imagine you have the same feelings, and the same thoughts, and the same fears. I know Kennis (granddaughter) worries about her exams, and I used to worry about my exams, and get sick over them. That’s why I never missed school!
Kennis: Tell them about how your father wouldn’t let you date
Mrs. Forte: Oh yea, well my father wasn’t strict, but he used to say, ‘I want you girls to get your high school education,’ because he never had one, ‘and after that if you want to go out with boys or date, that’s fine.’ But prior to that, we couldn’t do it. We had to make sure we graduated first; he didn’t want us getting involved with boys.
Q: Did you ever sneak around him, or no?
Mrs. Forte: No, we never did. Our parents said something, and we listened. We never contradicted them, whatever they said, it was ‘okay ma, okay dad.’
Q: So, there has been a lot of talk about how the economy is doing poorly these days, with oil prices going up, and food prices going up. Do you think any of the lessons from the Depression could help us today?
Mrs. Forte: Well, I don’t know how it could relate to you people, since you don’t know what it was like, but you always got to try to save something for the future. My husband always used to say, …“Whatever you make, it’s not all yours.”
Mr. Forte: What you earn, is not really all yours. You always owe somebody some money. You receive a pay, and part of that pay is not yours.
Mrs. Forte: So, you cannot spend it.
Mr. Forte: So, you can’t depend on a complete pay, you always owe some people money. And you should always put some aside, so you can pay your bills.
Mrs. Forte: But you’ve got to realize you can’t always spend, spend, spend. You have to save something. You never know what can happen; save something for a rainy day.
Mr. Forte: Well, the Depression today really is a mixture of a lot of things.
Mrs. Forte: Well, they don’t call it a depression, now it’s the economy they say.
Mr. Forte: They don’t want to use the word “depression,” but the worth of the dollar, the price of gasoline, the price of food, and we have gold inflation, and silver, and people really don’t know which way to go. There’s so much to be considered.
Mrs. Forte: Well, hopefully we do not get a really bad depression. Because especially when you have something, and then you don’t have it, you miss it. But if you don’t have it, you don’t know what you’re missing… When you have something, you can’t do without, so then you appreciate what you have.