At age fifteen, Mary Regan experienced the Great Depression first hand. She worked many different jobs including a floral shop, a pork factory, and the usual housewife role. She vividly recalls FDR’s New Deal plans, specifically the Works Progress Administration, which helped her husband find a job. She also remembers when she first received a washing machine, which made laundry much easier. Mrs. Regan now lives in Maine and believes that we can survive in this economy if we don’t buy things we don’t need, just like during the Depression, without credit cards and checkbooks.
Q: Please state your name.
Mrs. Regan: Mary Regan
Q: How old were you in 1929?
Mrs. Regan: 15 years old.
Q: Where did you live during the Depression years?
Mrs. Regan: In Somerville and East Cambridge.
Q: Did you have an occupation during the Depression?
Mrs. Regan: Yes I did.
Q: And what was that?
Mrs. Regan: I worked at a floral shop in Boston and I made Christmas wreaths and I got 5 dollars a week for doing that, working from 8-5. We were not allowed to talk, and we were not allowed to chew gum, and I was rebellious so my girlfriend and I were not good for each other. We kept talking and chewing gum and the floral lady at the time, she came up to us and said, “Stop talking. Are you chewing gum?” So anyway, we just kept it up, we were really fresh. We just kept it up, and she said, “You’re going to find a surprise in your envelope come Saturday. And, so we say, “We’re not going to get fired, we quit!” That’s what we did; we quit. Then, not too long after that I got another job working for the JP Squires, a pork factory in East Cambridge. And, I was packing hot dogs in 5 and 10 pound boxes.
Q: How old were you when you got both of the jobs?
Mrs. Regan: Let’s see, I must have been 17.
Q: Were you married during the Depression?
Mrs. Regan: I did get married during the Depression. I got married; I eloped.
Q: Did your husband have a job?
Mrs. Regan: Not when we got married. He had a job before we got married but he got laid off. He was a shipper for the same company that I worked for. And, well, he got laid off and we got married because everything was all prepared. Even though we eloped, I got married in the Catholic Church because I was supposed to get married on a certain date, but we got married a week later, or three or four days later because neither parents wanted us to get married. But we did, and we survived it.
Q: You wrote something here about Roosevelt’s WPA…
Mrs. Regan: Yeah that’s when my husband was looking for a job, and President Roosevelt initiated the WPA, and I’m not quite sure but I think it was Working Peoples Association (Works Progress Administration). Okay, so, my husband used to go with the other people to try to get a job, and everyday they would say “no more jobs, no more jobs,” and they would hire one or two people. So, one day they wanted to know if anybody knew how to survey and my husband put his hand up, and his friend said, “If you can do it I can do it.” So he put his hand up. They figured they had a little something in school that they could bluff their way through it, and so he got the job to be a surveyor, the two of them, Mike and he. Both of them got the job and they worked there until the job was finished. And then after that he just did odds and ends, and it was wintertime and he was shoveling the snow for the town. They didn’t have trucks that did it; they had people that did the shoveling, so that’s what he did.
Q: During the Depression what did you eat? Did you have premade foods or was it all home made?
Mrs. Regan: I cooked myself.
Q: So what was the usual breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
Mrs. Regan: For breakfast we’d have coffee and toast, milk and toast. We didn’t have the cereal that we have today like Cheerios and stuff like that. We didn’t have that. We had toast. That’s what we had for breakfast. And then we had probably a sandwich at noontime because if we were working we took a sandwich with us, and then at nighttime we’d have whatever I cooked. And, it would be sometimes green vegetables. We were great for vegetables. My father had a pushcart and on that he sold vegetables and fruit and fish, and so whatever was left over at the end of the day we would cook because it wouldn’t last until the next day. We ate very well because of his pushcart business.
Q: So if you were to go down to the store what kinds of things would you buy and how much did it cost?
Mrs. Regan: When I went to the store I would get milk and we used powdered milk a lot, we’d take a gallon of real milk and powdered milk and mix them together so we would get two gallons out of one gallon. So we did that, and the oleo. We had oleo and it’s like margarine. It looked like lard but we had a little tablet in the margarine and we would break that and mix it all up so it would look like butter, so we had that. And those are the things that I would buy, like the margarine and the milk that I would get at the store, the stuff that my father didn’t sell.
Q: How much did it cost?
Mrs. Regan: I don’t remember how much we paid for oleo, but the milk was cheap, and the bread was cheap. We bought bread, I didn’t make bread, and it was about 5 cents.
Q: How long would one loaf last you?
Mrs. Regan: Not too long, I’d have to get quite a few of them because my family was growing.
Q: Did you have appliances? Like a toaster to cook your toast or did you just cook it in the oven?
Mrs. Regan: No, we put it on top of the stove. I had a black top stove, and I would put my bread on top of the stove until it got brown and then flip it, and that’s how we made toast if we wanted toast, but if we didn’t we just ate it as plain bread. No I didn’t have a toaster.
Q: How much did clothing cost? Did you buy your clothes?
Mrs. Regan: Well I have a story to go with that. When I was working at the floral shop, where I was doing the wreaths getting 5 dollars a week, we had gone into the stores waiting to get our train to go home. And so we walked into this store, and there was this dress that I loved so I bought it. I had my paycheck, and I bought it. So I went home with the dress and showed it to my mother, and she made me bring it back. But my mother made most of my clothes. She made everything from my underwear to my outside clothes; coats and pants for the boys and my husband. She worked at home during the Depression, but she had the company send stuff to her house to sew on the sewing machine.
Q: Did you grow and can foods back then?
Mrs. Regan: Not during the Depression. But during WWII I did a lot of canning. And my brother at that time had a store, and he would get me bushels of tomatoes. And I would can those because we use a lot of tomatoes to make sauce and stuff like that.
Q: Did your family own a car?
Mrs. Regan: No.
Q: How would you compare the typical clothing then to today?
Mrs. Regan: It was very modest compared to today’s clothing. The girls didn’t wear pants. It was long after that they started wearing pants.
Q: So what kind of clothing did you own?
Mrs. Regan: I had a blouse and a skirt. The skirt was brown tweed, and the blouse was a plain white blouse. Every couple of days I would wash my blouse and wear it again, but I would wear the same skirt. I don’t remember what I wore when I didn’t wear that blouse, but I must have worn something!
Q: And what about shoes?
Mrs. Regan: I only had one pair of shoes. We all did, all the boys and me. We all had one pair of shoes. We’d get a new pair of shoes at Easter time. And I was telling your father that I got a pair of shoes at Easter time, and I wore them to bed. I didn’t have them on my feet, but I brought them to bed with me, they were so pretty! You had to buy sturdy shoes. And when we would go in to buy the shoes, it would be my brothers and I, and I think it was 4 boys at the time, and he would give us a break, but I don’t know how much. But he would give us a break because we were buying so many shoes at one time, and being the depression.
Q: What are your earliest memories of the hard times in the 1930’s?
Mrs. Regan: When we didn’t have money. My mother in law lived downstairs and I lived in a three-room apartment, you know with this kind of ceiling. And I had four children up there, and I gave up the parlor to make it a bedroom, so all the boys would be in that room. And I had two cribs, one at the foot of my bed and one on the side of my bed. One was a small one and one was a real size crib. And, we didn’t have money so I was going to have my gas shut off because we didn’t have any money to pay the bill, and my mother in law came upstairs and she was not in favor of me having children because I was so young. And every year I was having a baby and she was not in favor it of. So, she was not very kind at that point, and she sent one of the kids that lived on the street to my mother’s house to see if my mother could help pay the gas bill. So, evidently between the two of them, they paid the gas bill because we had the gas. If we didn’t have gas we wouldn’t be able to cook because I just had a little three-burner gas stove.
Q: How did you spend most of your time?
Mrs. Regan: Playing out in the street. We played with the kids in the neighborhood, different kinds of games. We played hide and seek, and hop scotch, and we played jump rope a lot.
Q: So you were having kids during the Depression, what did they do for fun?
Mrs. Regan: They just kind of entertained themselves. They were all small, so they kind of entertained themselves. I remember Jonny in particular. He had a little truck that they still have today, and he would go, “go, go, go, go, go, back, back, back, back, back” (etc.) And I was wondering what he was doing. They would play on the floor in the other room, so I went in and I was standing at the door to see what he was really doing, and that’s what he was doing, playing with his car… he still does.
Q: What were the movies like back then? And radio shows?
Mrs. Regan: Well I think that more than anything we listened to stuff on the radios. I went to the movies with my friend with my friend, and we used to save the nickel bottles. It cost 10 cents to go see the show, so I would save 10 cents out of these bottles (you had to pay for the bottles to buy milk), so I would save 10 cents. And once a week she and I would go to the show while my husband and her husband took care of the kids.
Q: What kind of movies did you see?
Mrs. Regan: It was real funny ones like Abbott and Costello, things like that. It was all something like that. But, we didn’t go every week, only if we had the dime to go. But, it was always a funny movie; it wasn’t tragic. Oh, and cowboys and Jean Autry. He had a horse and he always had a girl. And they would always say at the end of the movie that he would kiss the horse. It was funny movies; we didn’t go if it was going to be a murder or something. Just something so we could enjoy a few minutes away from the kids.
Q: What kind of music did you listen to?
Mrs. Regan: I like to listen to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como; I like those guys. They called them ‘the crooners’ at the time. And when I was saying these names my son-in-law said, “Gram, they’re all dead!”
Q: Do you remember sports from this era? What was your favorite and why?
Mrs. Regan: Mine was baseball, and I never got to play it because my teacher was taking us to the ballpark to practice for a ball game, you know the classes. So, we had just gotten there and we were all huddled around the teacher and she was getting the teams together, and my father showed up. He grabbed my hand and said, “Get home.” So, my teacher said, “What’s the matter,” and he said, “Girls don’t play baseball, they go home and work, and help their mother!” So, that was that. That was the end of my career as a baseball player! But I like the different sports, my boys were involved in football, and basketball, and softball. Tommy was pretty good at softball. And my brother Rocky boxed.
Q: Did you have any adventures that you remember from the Depression?
Mrs. Regan: After supper we would play with the kids, and all the kids in the neighborhood, and we would sit on the curb. And we lived right across from the jailhouse and so we would sing to the prisoners. It was quiet at night so we would belt it right out. And once in a while you would see a guard go by to look to see what was going on out there, but that’s what we did, we sang to the prisoners. One song in particular was “are you lonesome tonight.” At some point a prisoner was in jail and he had something to do with a girl Lauraine, because he landed in jail because of her. But I don’t know the story, but they had a song, so I would sing that song. So instead of “are you lonesome tonight do you miss me tonight,” I would say, “do you miss her tonight?” So that’s what we did at night, we just kept busy playing ball and playing with the kids, and falling asleep.
Q: What was community life like then?
Mrs. Regan: It was wonderful, compared to today when you don’t know who your neighbor is. We knew all our neighbors and they knew us, and everybody took care of each other. It was a great neighborhood, and the population was Italian and Portuguese.
Q: What were the schools like?
Mrs. Regan: Well I don’t know how to compare them to any other schools. But when I went they were great. The teachers were good; there weren’t any mean teachers. There was one teacher though who was very strict; she was the assistant principal. And I sat in the very last seat in the classroom, and I had an inkwell and I had taken off my chain. And I was playing with the inkwell while she was questioning the class. And she was asking questions and I was playing with this thing here, but I was listening to her. And she asked me to answer a question, and I did! I answered it right! She said, “Stop playing with that trinket!”
Q: Did most people in your neighborhood finish high school?
Mrs. Regan: No, some of the boys did but not the girls. A lot of the girls just went out to work.
Q: Were members of your family affected by the Great Depression? And if so, how?
Mrs. Regan: I think the only one that was affected in my family was my husband because my father was working with his push cart so they didn’t feel that crunched-that other people were feeling. So I would say no, we weren’t affected that much by the Depression.
Q: Were any of your brothers?
Mrs. Regan: None of my brothers. My brothers all did very well.
Q: Do you have any other stories of people that you were friends with that were greatly affected? Were any of your neighbors badly affected?
Mrs. Regan: All that I could think of is that we all took care of each other. If we cooked a plate of macaroni, we’d send over some to this lady who wasn’t feeling good. So we’d bring her something happy! As far as I know, because I was young too, I don’t think they were affected by the depression as bad as some people that really lost their house, couldn’t pay their rent and had to really be out in the street. None of our neighborhood was like that.
Q: Was it on the radio at night? Did you hear about all the gloom or how bad it was for anybody else?
Mrs. Regan: I couldn’t tell you because we didn’t play the radio at night. Tuesday was my day for radio. There was a day I had clothes and I would listen to programs on the radio: songs, and whatever program was on.
Q: Dad used to tell you what was going on on the radio, and you leaned heavily on his opinions regarding politics.
Mrs. Regan: Well that’s politics!
Q: How do you recall Franklin D. Roosevelt?
Mrs. Regan: I just think he was a great guy and he did a great thing when he started that WPA business that my husband got a job out of.
Q: So, you remember FDR’s plans to help end the Great Depression like the WPA?
Mrs. Regan: I remember that one, that’s about the only one I remember.
Q: Do you remember the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt?
Mrs. Regan: No, I just knew of her. I was told that she was a great help to her husband.
Q: Did your parents think that FDR’s New Deal was a good program?
Mrs. Regan: Well yes because we got a job out of it!
Q: Were any other of your family members or friends a part of the New Deal program besides your husband?
Mrs. Regan: I’m going to say yes. When the snow was on the ground, when they had us shovel snow, everybody would go out. Everybody would get job. I don’t remember how much they got for it but, they had to keep the railroad tracks clean. So I think everybody got some work out of it.
Q: Do you remember any great construction projects of the period like the Golden Gate Bridge, the empire state building, or the Hoover Dam?
Mrs. Regan: No, I don’t remember them.
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 famous fair?
Mrs. Regan: I just remember hearing about it, that’s all.
Q: Did you have an electric clothes washer?
Mrs. Regan: We did, my mother got an electric washing machine, and it was the kind with the ringer. She gave it to me because I was doing a lot of washing with the babies, diapers, and all of that. I had a soap stone sink. One side was not deep and the other side was real deep. So, I soak my clothes in that side. (This is before I got the washing machine.) As I would get my washboard, I would scrub them and then put them over there. And when these were all done, I would fill it with water and rinse my clothes and hang them up.
Q: So it sounds like doing laundry was an all day event.
Mrs. Regan: Yeah!
Q: Did you have a specific day where you did laundry every week or just when you needed it?
Mrs. Regan: I washed clothes every day because I had babies and I had diapers.
Q: So do you recall learning about Hitler’s rise in Germany or hearing abut it at all in the radio?
Mrs. Regan: No, I don’t remember.
Kathryn’s Grandmother: We kids used to go outside and we had to burn the trash. It wasn’t like today where things are recycled and you watch out for the environment. We would go out and burn the trash and turn a box upside down and call it Hitler’s house.
Mrs. Regan: Yeah but that’s in World War II.
Q: When you went to the movie, didn’t they have newsreels?
Mrs. Regan: I only went to the movies once in a while!
Q: As you see it, how are kids different today than in your childhood era?
Mrs. Regan: All I can say is that they were more respectful. They respected the elderly. Not only your parents. They respected any person in the neighborhood that was elderly.
Q: How are we the same?
Mrs. Regan: I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that one.
Q: We’ve been hearing a lot about how badly the economy is doing these days. The stock market dropped dramatically, food prices are way up, inflation is up, unemployment is up, war costs are close to a trillion dollars, and our national debt is over nine trillion dollars. What are the lessons of the Great Depression for us today? Have we learned these lessons? Is there anything that you can share about the way you handled the Depression that we should pay more attention to?
Mrs. Regan: All I can say is that if we didn’t have the money, we didn’t buy it. Whereas today, they have the cards and the checks. If you are writing with a check, it doesn’t seem that it matters if you have the money or not! In those days, I didn’t have a check book. I didn’t have a bank book either. So, if we didn’t have the money, we didn’t buy it! If we needed something, we went without. But as they say, I had my family behind me too. They were always there ready to help, no matter what.
Q: I remember you telling me about patching the shoes.
Mrs. Regan: Yeah, we put cardboard in the shoes so you wouldn’t have the holes in the shoes.
Q: So they would last longer?
Mrs. Regan: Yeah.
Q: And put rubber patches on the clothes?
Mrs. Regan: Yeah.
Q: Handed down all the clothes. You made clothes, altered clothes?
Mrs. Regan: Yeah.
Q: What about the kids, with just normal bumps and bruises and cuts and scrapes? Did you rush to the doctor or hospital?
Mrs. Regan: Oh no! Everything was taken care of at home. We’d wash it off.
Q: Did you ever have any big injuries that you had to go to the doctor for? Between you or your kids or your husband?
Mrs. Regan: When my family was all grown up, one of my sons – the truck fell on him. But he was lucky it didn’t touch his body too much, so he just got a sore back out of it. He went under there to fix something, and the truck shifted. When it did, luckily those things that were holding the truck up held it up, but not high enough. So, he wasn’t crushed. He was pinned under there, but he wasn’t crushed. So that was the only real bad that happened.
Q: Did you deliver your babies in the hospital or at home?
Mrs. Regan: I had Barbara and Tommy in the hospital, and then all of the rest of them were at home. I had one still-born and one miscarriage. When I moved to Cochituate, I had to go to the doctor. They wouldn’t take me at home.
Q: So you did have some babies at home?
Mrs. Regan: Oh yeah. I had Mary, Bobby, Kathryn, Johnny. That’s it, the rest of them were born in the hospital. It cost $15 to go to the hospital to have a baby. But if I did it at home, it wouldn’t cost so much. So I had the babies at home. But then when we moved to Cochituate, the doctor didn’t want to come down here and take care of me, so I had to go to the hospital.
Q: You didn’t want to come up with 15 bucks, huh?
Mrs. Regan: Yeah, I think it was 35 by the time Mary was born.
Q: I know you touched on groceries, but what did it cost during the 30’s for groceries?
Mrs. Regan: I would probably spend $50 a week. If I went down to my brother’s store, I would buy everything that I needed when I was there. But during the week I had to buy bread and milk. We had a baker and a milkman. My bill was so high with the milkman that he was afraid I would pay it off and stop to pay milk.
Q: Did you tell them about how we had cows for milk and goats for milk?
Mrs. Regan: Yeah, we had a cow. We had a goat.
Q: And chickens for eggs and soup?
Mrs. Regan: We had chicken. We had a donkey. We had dogs. We had turkeys.
Q: So did you get milk from the cow?
Mrs. Regan: Yes, we did. Tommy used to milk the cow before he went to school. He would have to go out and milk the cow because I was afraid of the cow.
Q: You don’t get a lot of milk from one cow, do you?
Mrs. Regan: Well, we had a lot of milk.
Q: Did you buy feed or did you let them feed on the ground? Were they grass fed cows or did you buy food for them?
Mrs. Regan: We had to buy feed, but of course they got a lot of hay/grass too. Where the church is now, [St. Zepherin’s church] the parking lot was in, that was all fields. I got stung by 13 yellow jackets.
Q: We had pigs, ma.
Mrs. Regan: Yes we had pigs. When I moved to Cochituate, I was so lonesome for the city because it was just country. In front of us were trees, and in back of us were the apple orchard and two houses. My husband came home with this little pig, and he put it in the back yard. It was almost that I had started to live again because I was really so heartbroken leaving the city. No friends, nothing. I was young and everybody around me were old people.
Mrs. Regan: Oh, we had a donkey and a goat.
Mrs. Regan: The donkey would go across route 30 and the goat would follow him. Then when a car came, he would jump on his back, and be riding the donkey.