Mrs. Marjorie Thompson was born in 1919, She lived in Braintree Mass. for most of her young life. She recalls the hardships her family went through during the Great Depression. When her father, like millions of other Americans, lost his job, her life suddenly changed.
Mrs. Thompson: My name is Marjorie Thompson, and I was born on June 28, 1919, on Peace Day of World War I. I was born in West Roxbury, at 4 March Way. The first child of a very dear loving husband and wife. I was treated very well. I had a sister two years later and a brother seven years later. We lived a probably normal happy life. Doing things with family, big families on each side. We went to Maine for the summer for vacations which is where my mother’s people came from, and we went to the Cape sometimes where nobody came from, except we loved the Cape because the water was warm. And I went to public school in Braintree. We moved from West Roxbury to Braintree. I went to public schools there. We had lived in a couple of houses before, but Elm Street, the Elm Street house was a very wonderful place. It was a rented property, but it probably had about two acres of land. It had a lovely house and an orchard, a fruit, an apple orchard, and it had a chicken coop, a place to raise chickens, and my dad who had been brought up on a farm in New Hampshire just loved it. He also worked in Boston and supported the family. Both he and my mother were graduates of the Bernett School of Business. Neither one of them had gone to college, but they were very bright, intelligent people, and wonderful parents.
As a 10 or 11 year old child, I was aware something was wrong in the economy, there was a big stock market crash in 1929, and people were jumping out of windows and that was pretty horrifying. Fortunately they don’t put windows that open in high rise buildings these days so we don’t see that. And then, mother and dad started sending us off to relatives like two dear aunts, my father’s two sisters who lived in Belmont. We would spend a couple of weeks there in the summer when we were on vacation. We realized that when we came back from visiting Aunt Greta and Aunt Ida that the house, we were leaving that house. And we were told that my dad had lost his job. So the arrangements were made for me to go to mother’s sister, Aunt Eloise, in Quincy where I went to school. I think I was in the seventh grade actually. And my sister, I’m actually not sure where she went, but my brother was young enough that he went to live with Aunt Ida and Aunt Greta. And our lives sort of unfolded. We did the same things over vacation, we went to Maine on vacation and my mother went back to business school and took a refresher course and found a job at the Metropolitan Coal Company in the credit department. And she supported us, 5 of us, on $25 or $30 a week she made. But, priced food was very reasonable. [Even though] butter was 29 cents a pound, we were reminded “go easy on the butter” because it was 29 cents a pound. But we always had good food, and we lived in different places in Braintree.
After mother started working, we all collected again in Braintree. I went to high school, my sister and I went to high school and when I completed my junior year in high school, a friend told me that her grandmother was sending her to Thayer Academy, which you probably know is a nice private school in Braintree. And I said that was wonderful, and she said, “well why don’t you come along?” And I said, “Ohh I don’t think, I don’t think my family could handle that.” And she said, “Well they give scholarships, why don’t you come and take the test?” So, I went with Kay, and we took the exam, and I did win a half a scholarship, tuition was 200 dollars a year and I won a hundred dollars. My parents were so delighted; they helped me get the rest of the money to go to Thayer Academy. Actually, it was the end of our sophomore year because I had junior and senior year at Thayer Academy. And that was really the highlight of my education. The place that I enjoyed the most and where I found teachers who would really take an interest in you, and if you had a challenge working out something, someone would be there to help you, it was fantastic. Never got that at my public school. That’s not saying that you couldn’t get it in public school, but I just didn’t happen to.
And, so at the end of my senior year, there was a discussion. This seems to be [more] about me than about the depression, but you can see how it was affecting my life. There was discussion of going to Radcliff College because Stacey Southworth, the head of Thayer at that time was very devoted to Harvard and Radcliff, and he said that he would help me get a scholarship. Well my mother wanted very much to do that, but she was carrying the load of supporting the five of us, and there was no other income, we didn’t have trust funds for anything like that. So she worked it out with me, that would I please go to business school, and many of my friends were going to Katherine Gibbs, so I did. She said “Would you please go to business school and then we’ll see what we can do,” but she said, “well read a lot, that’s the secret.” I love to read anyway. So I had my year at Katherine Gibbs. And meantime, my dad was having a really hard time finding employment. He’d get temp jobs. He was an accountant and very good at figures. It wasn’t until I was pretty well established in my first job, when I was in my early twenties, that he found a place in Braintree with a man who ran a stone and gravel company and owned the South Shore Country Club and had a miscellaneous assortment of things. My dad fit right in there nicely and we were all so happy. But you see that was a long time, that was about 10 years it took until he found permanent employment. Things seemed to go better from that time on.
My mother enjoyed her work at the Metropolitan Coal Company, and became assistant credit manager and when the credit manager became ill, she filled in for him for probably a year. Then he finally had to retire. She had done all of his work and she was very good with people on the phone, she had a talent, and so the president of the company came to her and asked her if she would train his nephew for the job of credit manager. So, my mother swallowed her pride and trained the nephew and left and found another job near her home but that was after you know, working about 15 years there. But that’s what happened to women in those days frequently.
How did the Depression affect my way of life? I love to be frugal, I’m not always, but some things I can save on very nicely. I’m not frugal about books, I buy books instead of getting them at the library, but I’ve stopped that now. I find it hard to adjust to my children’s way of looking at values, and that’s pretty common I guess. But I think everybody is going to learn a lot about being simplifying and cutting back and you can still be very happy. I have nice times with the family and friends and so forth.
Q: We have a bunch of questions…When you were a child, were you familiar with FDR?
Mrs. Thompson: Oh Franklin D’Eleanor Roosevelt, yes. I was familiar with him. I used to listen to his fireside chats and I thought he had some really good ideas, but my father couldn’t stand him. My father was a staunch Republican. And here this man was trying to help people like my dad who was out of work, but it’s that thing about being a Republican I think. But, I thought he was a remarkable man, but I think he stayed too long, he stayed a little bit too long. But, what he did in his first two terms was remarkable.
Q: Do you remember any of his plans to help end the Depression?
Mrs. Thompson: I should remember because my father I think benefited from one of them, but I can’t think what the name of it was. And what did it involve? I’ve forgotten. I think it was manual labor actually. But, my father was very athletic, and although he was a business man, he could do it when you needed the money he would do that. But I can’t think of what the name of the plan was.
Q: Do you remember Eleanor Roosevelt?
Mrs. Thompson: Ohhh I loved Eleanor Roosevelt, yes! I thought that she was a remarkable lady. And I loved her speeches and I thought she did great work, and really helped women a lot I think.
Q: Do you recall ever seeing a Hooverville of homeless people?
Mrs. Thompson: Vaguely. I remember reading in the newspaper about it, but I never saw an actual one. I don’t know whether they had them where I lived around Boston, but I suppose they had them everywhere.
Q: Do you remember what you did as a kid for fun? Like after school did you do anything?
Mrs. Thompson: After school activities? Yes we could do anything. I know that I used to-I was never a very athletic child, but I did softball and things like that because my dad would always get games going. I know that I always came home and made a cup of tea, I think I read a lot to tell you the truth because I loved reading. And then my sister and I, had a little business of making molasses pulled taffy. That was a way of, in the fall and the winter, of making, earning money. My mother encouraged us and bought us little white boxes to put it in. We sold it to friends and neighbors, and my mother used to ride in on the train from Braintree with a big bag of it to sell in her office. I think it was 25 cents a pound or something like that. And it was very good. It also came in mint flavor which was exceptionally good. We bought the molasses in big gallons. When we were getting ready for Christmas, to earn our Christmas money, everybody helped. Even dad would help at night after supper, and we would sing together “Home on the Range” and things like that.
Q: Did you grow your own food and can food?
Mrs. Thompson: My father always had a wonderful garden wherever we were. Some of it my mother did put up in preserves. When we lived on Elm Street, we had a gorgeous garden. Oh the corn that he grew I used to love that, I even had it cold in the morning for breakfast. It was so tasty. But we did preserve food, I think, I know. We also because we had the hen coop in the Grange, we had our own eggs and we had chicken every Sunday.
Q: Did your family own a car?
Mrs. Thompson: Yes, in 1927, two years before the collapse of the stock market, my maternal grandfather died, and my mother inherited a few shares of Necco stock. He worked for Necco Candy Company. They had a profit sharing system where employees got shares of the stock, and so she and her siblings all got Necco stock. It was sufficient for her to go buy an Oldsmobile, a 1927, Oldsmobile which she loved driving. She was a great driver. She drove us all over the place. We had it for 15 years I think, it was almost 20 years, and a high school kid bought it. It was still running, but it needed a lot of attention. Oh and because of that, Oldsmobile, we did get in to the museums and Benson’s animal farm up in New Hampshire. She would take us into the summer theatres too. It was a great little machine.
Q: Did you go to the movies ever?
Mrs. Thompson: Yes, we had a movie theater in Braintree, and we used to go on Friday nights. I think that was when the school kids would all go. I think there was a special rate or something. Don’t ask me what I saw because I couldn’t remember, except, I think. I know saw some Greta Garbo films, but I’ve forgotten the names of them.
Q: What kind of music did you enjoy?
Mrs. Thompson: I think I enjoyed popular music. You know I wasn’t exposed much to classical music, only occasionally. But, music was something I enjoyed, but I wasn’t crazy about it like some kids [were], they couldn’t live without it, I loved it and I would take the opportunity to listen whenever it sounded good to me, whenever I liked it.
Q: Did you ever listen to jazz?
Mrs. Thompson: Oh I liked jazz, yes. And also, my sister and I had dancing lessons. So…we had a lot of jazz in that. There is a photo in here about it, our jazz costumes. [Refers to a picture in her photo album] I did like jazz. You know, I’m not the best person to talk music. It isn’t that I don’t like music, I just never got hooked on it so to speak.
Q: So you danced?
Mrs. Thompson: Oh I love dancing. And, my mother saw that we got our dancing lessons. It was modern soft shoe, not hard toe lessons. Even though she was the only one supporting the family, she saw that we got to dancing school right in Braintree. And, I’m sure they made an accommodation for us, but that was, that was nice. Here we are, the pictures of a Russian dance. My sister did a solo Russian dance with a lot of beads on the costume. And she was very good. She was down there you know on her knees, and suddenly the beads let lose, she would roll on a bead and crash, but pick herself up again, and crash. The audience started clapping and she finished it, went right through to the end. But I think that was a privilege that we had those lessons because it does a lot I think for your grace and so forth. You’ve all had dancing lessons I’m sure.
Q: On an average day, what did you do?
Mrs. Thompson: Like a school day? I would get up in the morning and wait for my turn at the bathroom because there was only one bathroom and five of us, four of us getting off to school or work. I had always had a good breakfast, and sometimes I walked to school, and later on when I was older, I got picked up by friends to go to school. I loved school; I had a very good experience, especially my Thayer Academy experience. After school, we would sometimes get together and just hash over things, what we were doing. We didn’t have sports as much, or in our particular society, if we’d gone to private school we would have had sports, but the public school didn’t stress them as much in those days. But sometimes we would play tennis in a very casual way…One of the things we used to do in the late afternoon when my mother was working, and my dad was usually around, but our friends came home from school with us. Before they left, they always helped us prepare the vegetables for the dinner, they thought it was the neatest thing that they could peel the carrots and the potatoes and rinse the spinach, and so forth. So that when my mother came home, she was very well organized and had everything ready to go, it was all ready to put together, with whatever protein went with it. We sort of got a reputation for being the house where you could always help get the dinner ready.
Q: Did you always eat your meals as a family?
Mrs. Thompson: Yes we did and that was so nice, usually it was nice, if there was a problem that was hard to solve, then it wasn’t very nice. I miss that in my children’s generation. We ate together most of the time, and certainly I think it’s a lot better than it is today because children don’t have so many activities. Do you find that you eat with your parents?
Q: Most of the time, I usually have dinner with them, but breakfast we all eat at different times.
Mrs. Thompson: Oh I can understand that. I think we did too actually because we had different departure times.
Q: Did you make your own breakfast?
Mrs. Thompson: Yes. And my mother was very, she didn’t encourage cereal and oatmeal because her sisters-in-law grew up on those things, and they were very, although attractive, they were very heavy women and she didn’t want us to put on the pounds. But we always had eggs for breakfast if we wanted and in the winter time we’d have occasionally we’d have oatmeal but she stressed more the eggs and toast and orange juice and so forth.
Q: Did you ever have any adventures? Whenever.
Mrs. Thompson: You mean ones that I can disclose? (Laughing)
Mrs. Thompson: Let me see what I can call an adventure. I’m sure I must have had an adventure. It was a long time ago you know. I don’t think I ever had anything dangerous happen to me. No, at the moment I can’t really think of anything.
Q: What was community life like?
Mrs. Thompson: Community life? It wasn’t as much as it is now. I mean there wasn’t as much of it as there is now. Actually, I don’t think that my family participated too much. My mother might have, because she was a good writer and she could write articles for the newspaper and she wrote beautiful poetry and so forth. I can’t think of any group that we belonged to where we went to meetings. I mean my parents voted and I know we went to town hall with them when they voted when we were young and that sort of thing. But I can’t think of, oh I know, but this was World War II, I joined the women’s organization in the fire department and this is when they [needed] people to carry the spray cans around and the men were off to war so they needed that sort of thing. But unfortunately I wasn’t very good, you had to slide down the post in the fire department and I just couldn’t do it, I was the only one that couldn’t, it was embarrassing. Actually I was not very successful at that, but I can remember marching in a parade.
Q Is this your family? [referring to a picture in the album]
Mrs. Thompson: That’s my mother and dad and my sister and, is my baby brother in there?
Q: Yup. And is this the car that you were talking about? The Ozan?
Mrs. Thompson: That’s the car. The 1927 Ozan yeah.
Q: Oh. And this is the house on Elm Street?
Mrs. Thompson: No that is Elm Lawn Road. We lived there before we moved to Elm Street. But let me find the Elm Street house because that is such a [beautiful house].
Q: Did you have any chores at the house?
Mrs. Thompson: Yes, my mother, well one thing was helping prepare the vegetables for dinner which we got our friends to do. But she was very old, my mother, house keeping wasn’t her strong point. She was very creative, and she was always writing a short story or a poem. And she would send them into the Boston Post and they had a weekly contest and sometimes she won 10 dollars which was first prize and 5 dollars for second prize. And 10 dollars isn’t bad when you’re making 35 dollars a week, if you get an extra 10 dollars that was good.
Q: Do you remember sports of the era?
Mrs. Thompson: Sports yes. I remember, oh I didn’t participate very much in public school although I played softball. And but it wasn’t something I was really crazy about even though my dad was so into sports and played games outdoors with us. But at Thayer I had to play field hockey and I was small, and I didn’t like it at all. I ruined my lungs by running so fast and then I’d get where I wanted to be and some big gal would push me off. I was really not very good at sports, and I didn’t have as much fun there as many people did.
Q: How about major league sports? Did you watch baseball?
Mrs. Thompson: No, I left that up to my father and my husband; although I went to the games with them occasionally. My husband was very much into football and he had season tickets for the Harvard games always and we always went to those and that was fun. But I think I enjoyed the social part of it. Although I loved seeing someone catch a ball, make a touchdown that was very exciting.
Q: How did you meet your husband? Did you meet him during the Depression? Did you grow up with your husband?
Mrs. Thompson: No, I met him when I was working in Boston and I was living on Beacon Hill with a friend and we had rented an apartment, oh this was just for the summertime, we had rented this apartment the two of us. And the women who owned it went to Nantucket for the summer and she had told us that a friend of hers named Craig Thompson would be coming with a rug that he had been good enough to get cleaned for her and just to expect a call and let him deliver it. So Craig Thompson called one night and he came over, it was a hot summer night and we were in our bathing suits sipping something I’m not sure what, but he joined us and we had a lovely sort of a pre-dinner time, nobody suggested dinner but he left, and a few days later the telephone rang and it was Craig Thompson and he asked me if I would like to go out to dinner some night.
Q: Was that during the Depression, or after?
Mrs. Thompson: No that was nearer the World War II era. And he lived in Boston too at Trinity Place, and we started dating and he took me to the football games and other places that he frequented. And we dated for about two years, I think, and then we got married. And he wanted to build a house, so he built this house.
Q: Did he fight during the war?
Mrs. Thompson: No, he was an engineer and because of his engineer qualities he was needed here. But his dear father Stuart died in WWI although he was an engineer but they had that awful flu epidemic in WWI and he died just when Craig was just two years old. That’s a very sad part of the family history.
Q: Do you recall the first job that you got paid for? Your first job, looking for a job…
Mrs. Thompson: Now, at Catherine Gibbs they had a placement department and they were just very good, they sent me out on two or three interviews and they sent me to Paine Webber and Paine Webber hired me, and I didn’t have too much interviewing to do. I was 19 I think and the salary was 18 dollars a week and a year later it went to 20.
Q: What did you do with the money that you made?
Mrs. Thompson: Well I paid board at home and I had enough to take care of my train fare and I could buy clothing on the budget plan, there were stores in Boston like Kenedies that you could buy a business suit for three monthly installments and you didn’t pay interest on it. So I found that I could have a decent wardrobe by buying my clothes that way.
Q: Was your faith strong as a young person?
Mrs. Thompson: No, not as strong as it became as I got older. I was brought up-I was sent to Congregation Sunday School and my dad didn’t go to church except for weddings and funerals, he was turned off by religion, he was brought up in a strict Baptist family and they couldn’t play games or sports or anything after church on Sunday you had to go back to church in the afternoon. And my mother was an Episcopalian and they sort of sent us to Sunday School. It was a nice social experience but it wasn’t exactly a spiritual experience.
Q: Do you remember any of the great construction projects that Roosevelt implemented?
Mrs. Thompson: I’m sorry to say I don’t.
Q: Like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building…
Mrs. Thompson: You know I don’t. I can’t remember that at all.
Q: One famous event of the late 1930’s was the New York 1939 World’s Fair which was titled “The World of Tomorrow.” Do you remember this at all?
Mrs. Thompson: I did go to it actually. Three of my friends and I were working in Boston and had been friends for a long time and someone borrowed a car from the family, everybody didn’t have his own car in those days. And we went to that fair, we stayed in a boarding house, I think, the three of us. We had a lovely time. I think I remember something about the beginning of the microwave. It hadn’t been developed yet but there was something going on that led up to the microwave. And it was a nice time of year, June or something like that. It was a good experience, but I can’t remember the particulars.
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?
Mrs. Thompson: I recall the Hitler situation but the Japanese I’m a little blurry on although I knew vaguely that something was going on there. Yeah, that was a pretty horrifying thing the Hitler situation. I don’t think it affected my life in any particular way except it was nice to be living in the same world where it was going on.
Q: Is this your house on the Cape? [Again referring to pictures in the album]
Mrs. Thompson: Oh no, that is my grandfather’s house up in Maine, Pleasant Point it was called. And we used to go up there, although we never stayed at Pleasant Point, there were other places, other relatives we used to stay with.
Q: And then this was a birthday party? You rode a camel?
Mrs. Thompson: Oh no that’s the animal farm, Benson’s animal farm. It was just one of the places mother would take us to occasionally.
Q: Is this you dancing? Or is this Halloween?
Mrs. Thompson: That was a special performance that we did at the, it wasn’t the State House, but up there on the hill and I’ve forgotten what the occasion was. I had to dress as a colonial man and I was very unhappy.
Q: Did you celebrate Halloween when you were little?
Mrs. Thompson: Oh yes we did. We always carved pumpkins and we used to go around doing tricks and treats, it was a big deal. We still do it here, I mean we’re the ones who receive the callers.
Q: What did you typically do for your birthday?
Mrs. Thompson: It was always different I think. When I was young, mother loved to give parties. She gave birthday parties and she always had people in for bridge parties and family dinners and things like that. But my mother always had a wonderful party. And it wasn’t just the immediate friends that I had but anyone who lived near by who was the same age was included too, so we got to know more people that way.
Q: So is this you and your husband? [Back to the album]
Mrs. Thompson: No that’s a boyfriend. That’s one of my first boyfriends. My husband and I were married when we were in our early 30’s so we had met several people before we met each other.
Q: As you see it, how are kids different today than in your childhood era?
Mrs. Thompson: The whole spectrum how is it different? Faster. We miss a lot in not taking time to appreciate nature and each other, and it seems to be a very material, more, well I mean we had to have clothing and things for our homes and so forth, but the materialistic aspect of it is pretty gruesome. And when you get on the internet and try to buy something and these pictures come flashing through that you’re not the least bit interested in, and but they’re wanting to sell you more and more and more, I find it not good.
Q: Do you think we’re the same at all?
Mrs. Thompson: Basically they probably are, but they have to do things more swiftly. I think there seem to be more children who aren’t exposed to nature, you know to gardening and walks through the woods and things like that.
Q: Was this a wedding that you went to? [The album agai]
Mrs. Thompson: Oh that was a wedding of a friend of mine who went to California, but I didn’t go to that wedding, it was too far for me to go at that time.
Q: And then was this the house on Elm street?
Mrs. Thompson: No that’s Sherbert Road, but you’ve got to find Elm Street, Elm Street was the house with the garden and the hens and the orchard.
Q: Was it this one?
Mrs. Thompson: No that was Tenney road. That’s the house that my parents bought, the only house that they ever bought, the last house that they owned, and it was right near Thayer Academy.
Q: Ok, we have one more question. Today we’ve been hearing about the bad economy and the stock market has dropped. Do you think we’ve learned our lesson from the Depression at all?
Mrs. Thompson: I think some people have but not everybody will learn the lesson I’m afraid. There’s something about greed that we haven’t worked out of the system yet and I think it will take a while and when people stop being greedy. I don’t think these things will happen so often. I mean that’s part of it probably not all of it.
This is the house on Elm Street. It had a big barn also that was not in the view there but it’s separate from the house and in it was an old car, one of the original cars that was designed and it belonged to the owner of the property, but we could play in it, I remember how we used to , it was very dusty but we used to have a lot of fun in that car. But mostly I remember the garden and the apples from the orchard, and there were grapes there were grape vines too, it was a fabulous place.
Thank you so much.