Ralph Jacobson was born in1914 and grew up in the west end of Boston in the 1920s and ‘30s. He grew up in a poor family with only his mother to take care of him and his two sisters. His parents were divorced, which was very unusual at that time. He went to MIT for chemical engineering. After he graduated, he worked to develop chemical weapons for the war.
This is Jillian Zieff and Becky Paresky, and we are interviewing Mr. Jacobson on May 18th, 2009 for the Wayland High School History Project.
Q: Please state your name.
Mr. Jacobson: My name? Ralph L. Jacobson.
Q: How old were you in 1929?
Mr. Jacobson: In 1929 I would have been 15 years old.
Q: Where did you live during the Depression years?
Mr. Jacobson: I lived in the west end of Boston.
Q: What were your parent’s names and what did they do for work when you were small?
Mr. Jacobson: Well, my mother’s name was Rae and my fathers name was Alexander Jacobson. My mother was a housekeeper and homemaker, and my father had a dry goods store.
Q: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
Mr. Jacobson: Two sisters, no brothers.
Q: How was your mother’s role as a homemaker impacted by the Depression, if at all?
Mr. Jacobson: My mother was divorced by then, and she went to work. She had to work to support my two sisters and me.
Q: What did you eat as a child? Did you eat any pre-made foods or was it all homemade?
Mr. Jacobson: Homemade.
Q: When you went down to the store what kinds of things did you buy and how much did it cost?
Mr. Jacobson: We didn’t buy very much. We were very poor. We didn’t buy very much. We just bought what was necessary. And what is cost, I don’t remember. Milk, I think, cost maybe a quarter for a quart, bread was about the same, a quarter a loaf. I don’t remember. I didn’t have too much spending money to spend.
Q: Did you grow and can foods back then?
Mr. Jacobson: No, my mother was working; she didn’t have too much time to do that.
Q: What did your mother do for a job?
Mr. Jacobson: She was a stitcher.
Q: So she was a seamstress?
Mr. Jacobson: A seamstress, yeah. She made neckties and she made men’s leather
jackets for Sears Roebuck.
Q: Did your family own a car?
Mr. Jacobson: No.
Q: Did you own a horse?
Mr. Jacobson: We didn’t own anything. We were very poor.
Q: How would compare the typical clothing then to today?
Mr. Jacobson: Typical clothing? Pretty much the same, I would say. What do you call typical? We wore pants, we wore sweaters, we wore shirts, and we wore shoes.
Q: Were there zippers?
Mr. Jacobson: No, the pants were buttoned.
Q: What were your earliest memories of the hard times in the 1930’s?
Mr. Jacobson: I tell you, all the time were hard times, actually. In the 1930’s we walked everywhere, we didn’t have enough money to afford a streetcar. I walked to school from the first grade to the fourth year in college. I walked.
Q: You didn’t pay for college, did you?
Mr. Jacobson: Partly, yeah. The third year I had a hard time because things were very bad at home, very bad. I wanted to leave school for a year to help my mother out, but she wouldn’t hear of it. It wasn’t easy.
Q: But didn’t you enlist to pay for part of your education?
Mr. Jacobson: Oh, I was involved in the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps), that’s right. I got paid per class. Every class I went to I got paid ten dollars, or whatever they paid, and for each drill period they paid, and then we went to camp for two weeks, and
they paid for that. We got a uniform allowance.
Q: But that’s how you got through school?
Mr. Jacobson: That and scholarships, and working part time, and there was some government organization where the students did work for the professors. They got paid for that. I was translating German, for one of the professors there, German articles. I got paid by the hour, and I made some money that way. I played in a little orchestras, a three piece band, I played weekends and I could make a few dollars that way. Catch as catch can.
Q: How did you spend most of your time as a child in this era?
Mr. Jacobson: During the Depression, I had friends, we played softball, we played out in the Boston Common, we did swimming in the Charles River, and we would go skating on the Frog pond. We just filled the days. I had friends there. Of course, we had no cars, so we walked or used the streetcar. We did things that kids do: hang around, talk, play cards.
Q: Did you ever go to the circus or to carnivals?
Mr. Jacobson: No.
Q: What were the movies like?
Mr. Jacobson: Well, they were black film. There was no sound. We would go on Saturday’s, they had a special rate for kids, it was about ten cents or something like that, and one kid would sit on the seat and the other kid would kneel on the floor before him so they had twice as many kids in a certain field. We would see double feature pictures. We’d see two pictures at the movies. It cost about a quarter to get in.
Q: What were the radio shows like?
Mr. Jacobson: Well, just talk and music, as I recall. There wasn’t very much. Actually, when I was a little kid, there was no radio. The radios didn’t come in until later. Much like the are today, just music and talk.
Q: What kind of music did you enjoy?
Mr. Jacobson: Classical.
Q: Do you remember sports of this era?
Mr. Jacobson: I told you, we played ball, we played softball, and we played touch football. I broke my arm on Thanksgiving Day, my poor mother, she had dinner ready and I was in the hospital. And we went skating, roller skating.
Q: Did they have any professional sports? Like the Red Sox?
Mr. Jacobson: Oh yeah, there were the Red Sox, but I couldn’t afford to go to any professional games.
Q: Did you have a hero?
Mr. Jacobson: Did I have a hero? Ted Williams.
Mr. Jacobson: He was a great ball player, a great hitter.
Q: On an average day what did you do?
Mr. Jacobson: On an average day, we just hung around like kids do today. Only in those days we didn’t have the drugs and all the other temptations that they have now. We just hung around, talking, taking a walk around the Charles River basin. We used to call it the four bridges over Harvard Bridge and down around the Charles basin. We’d go out for an ice cream or something, or we’d go rent a boat and go rowing on the Charles River. About four of us would rent a boat, we’d put in a quarter a piece and we’d have the boat for an hour or so. We’d just go swimming in the Charles River. They had tennis courts too; we could play a little tennis. It was whatever was available, and cheap.
Q: What was your first job?
Mr. Jacobson: I was on active duty in my 20’s. Before the military, I was working as a chemist for the Eastern Gas and Fuel. That was my first real job, steady job.
Q: How do you recall Franklin Roosevelt?
Mr. Jacobson: He was a great, a great president. He served three terms, and he was a paraplegic, but you would never know it. He was very warm, and friendly. He was a very good speaker on the radio. He was a great president.
Q: What about Eleanor Roosevelt?
Mr. Jacobson: She was very into all kinds of charity work. She was very well-liked.
Q: Where you involved in any of the “New Deal” organizations?
Mr. Jacobson: No.
Q: What about the 1939 Worlds fair?
Mr. Jacobson: Was that in New York? I couldn’t go. I had no money. I never went there.
I was working then. As a matter of fact, I was out of the state of Massachusetts only once when I went to camp in Maryland, in college. Before that I wasn’t out of the state of Massachusetts. Quite different today.
Q: Was anyone you knew part of the organizations?
Mr. Jacobson: No.
Q: Did you think it was a good plan anyways?
Mr. Jacobson: Was what a good plan?
Q: The New Deal and all the organizations?
Mr. Jacobson: Oh, yes. I thought so, sure I did.
Q: In your third year of college you said that things were tough, what was going on?
Mr. Jacobson: My mother was the sole source of income for the family. I had two sisters and my father contributed nothing, so my mother had to work, and I guess the work was tight or slow or she wasn’t getting enough work, and money was tight. I though I’d better get out and give her a hand, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Times were tough.
Q: What about your sisters? How did their lives play out?
Mr. Jacobson: My oldest sister got married. She had one daughter. My youngest sister never got married; she was a sales girl at first. When the Second World War came she got a job at the arson in Watertown and took to it like a duck takes to water. She really became quite well know throughout the country as a chemist; she made the who’s who of American women. She was very smart. Edna was a well known chemist. She offered an honorary PHD from some college out in the Midwest, but she turned it down. She was very good, so she did well but she’s got althzheimers now and she’s in the Hebrew Rehab.
Q: What happened to your dad?
Mr. Jacobson: My father, what happened to him? He died.
Q: Did you ever talk to him?
Mr. Jacobson: I would see my father maybe every other week I would go out. He was living in Roxbury with his brother, and I’d go out to visit him every other week or so, to spend a little time with him.
Q: Financially was he doing any better off than your mother?
Mr. Jacobson: No, he did poorly.
Q: What did he do for work?
Mr. Jacobson: Well, I told you he had his own store, on Cambridge Street. A dry goods store. They widened Cambridge street, and wiped out all the stores on one side of the street to make the street the wider, so he lost the store. He moved around the corner where there was no traffic at all and he was doing terribly there, and then he moved to another street, and he eventually went bankrupt.
Q: It must have been very unusual for a couple to get divorced.
Mr. Jacobson: It was. I was very sensitive about it too. Of all my friends I was the only one who had no father living at home. It was very unusual, but my mother was an unusual woman.
Q: How did you get milk? Did you go to the supermarket to get it?
Mr. Jacobson: Milk? There were no super markets then. We got it at the grocery store. And for a while we had milk delivered to our doorstep.
Q: By a horse and buggy?
Mr. Jacobson: Yeah.
Q: What year were you married?
Mr. Jacobson: What year was I married? I was married in 1947. Cheryl was born in 1948, Keith in 1950.
Q: So you didn’t get married really young?
Mr. Jacobson: I was in my early 30’s.
Q: For that day that was not young.
Mr. Jacobson: Because I was away in the military for five years.
Q: And where did they send you?
Mr. Jacobson: Where did they send me? England, I was in England for about 15 months.
Then I came back and went to Colorado Springs to go with the second air force. And for some reason or other they wanted me in Washington, so I ended along Washington D.C.
Q: What did you do?
Mr. Jacobson: I was in chemical warfare. Gas, smoke, and chemicals.
Q: So you made smoke?
Mr. Jacobson: Yeah, we did a lot with incendiary bombs. We bombed Tokyo. We bombed Germany. We set a lot of fires. And then the atomic bomb came along and we went out of the picture.
Q: Did you ever actually go out when bombs were being dropped?
Mr. Jacobson: No, I was in an office. I didn’t fly.
Q: What was college like?
Mr. Jacobson: It was okay. I walked to school everyday. And I had nice friends there, when we graduated we remained friends
Q: Where did you go to college?
Mr. Jacobson: MIT
Q: Was it really hard to get in then?
Mr. Jacobson: Not for me. I just applied, I got very good marks on my college board exams. Hundred in algebra, 98 in trigonometry, so I got a scholarship.
Q: So they had SATs even then?
Mr. Jacobson: Well it was college board exams, it was standardized.
Q: Did your sister get to go to college too?
Mr. Jacobson: No, Edna got this job at the Watertown arsenal in a laboratory and she used to do very well. But in order to advance herself she had to take more chemistry courses. So she took courses at Boston College and at BU too.
Q: So women were going to school?
Mr. Jacobson: She didn’t take the whole course, just the ones she needed to get advanced in her field.
Q: So were women going to universities then?
Mr. Jacobson: Yeah, I would say so. When I went to school, I was in chemical engineering, in my class there were three women. Today, over half the classes are women, so they are taking over. I would say this is the century of the woman. Look, we almost had a woman president. We’ll have one.
Q: How much the federal government involved in your daily life? How much did you know about it?
Mr. Jacobson: The federal government was only involved so far as I knew in the [New Deal] programs. I translated German for one of the professors at school, that was federal work, they would pay me, but not that much. Maybe five dollars an hour. So they were involved to that extent. Or I was in the ROTC, I was in that program, but that was it.
Q: What about the Media?
Mr. Jacobson: Nothing much to do with the media.
Q: What kind of articles would you see daily?
Mr. Jacobson: I can’t remember, not much different from what you see today. People are the same, have the same weaknesses. Human nature hasn’t changed much.
Q: What did you do to take money in?
Mr. Jacobson: I would play the piano in an orchestra. I wanted to be a newsboy, all my friends were. They were all working. You had to apply, and you got this special button. So I got my button, to sell newspapers. A friend of mine wanted to barrow it for the weekend, said he would take very good care of it. So I let him use my little button, and he took it away. That was the closest I came, to being a newsboy. I worked part-time for my father at the store, at the cash register or something. Oh, my piano teacher got me a job to play for allocution classes. I played some diddly-diddly, while they recited poetry and that sort of thing on Saturday mornings.
Q: Did your sisters work?
Mr. Jacobson: Yeah, my sister Edna worked. My sister Lillian worked as a biologist for the Hood Hill company for a while. And Edna was a salesgirl, bookeeper, and when the war came she got a job at the Watertown Arsenal. Yeah, she made a real something out of herself, very proud of her. I was supposed to be the chemist, she did me. They were very smart. I think my oldest sister was the smartest of the crew. All A’s in school.
Q: What school did you go to?
Mr. Jacobson: I went to English Latin School on Tremont street. I walked to school every day, up over Beacon Hill, down across the commons and to Tremont street.
Q: Were the streets paved?
Mr. Jacobson: Yeah the streets were paved. But some of the streets were cobblestone. I had one experience. My father rented a cottage up near Revere Beach one summer, and he had to take the furniture and clothing to the cottage so I came with him along for the ride. He had rented a horse and wagon, and there is a street in Boston called Hanover street, and at the time it was all cobblestone. So we came to Hanover street and the horse and wagon, and Hanover street if very steep and at the end of Hanover street and you take the ferry over to Revere, and the horse on the cobblestone, something happened. He went down on his haunches and he was sliding down on the cobblestones. His front feet straight out, sitting on his rear end, sliding down Hanover street on the cobblestones. I got very frightened, I was very young maybe six years old or so. So I jumped off the wagon. I didn’t see this but someone told me, the wheels were just about to go over my legs and luckily someone over on the side came over and pulled me out of the way. So Hanover street wasn’t paved, but most of the streets were.
Q: Do you ever recall seeing any homeless people in Boston?
Mr. Jacobson: Of course, of course. Yes indeed.
Q: Where there a lot?
Mr. Jacobson: A lot is a very indeterminate number. I was approached more then once by a homeless person for dollar for a cup of coffee, or something. Often. Often, they would be sleeping on the streets.
Q: Did they set up camps?
Mr. Jacobson: No. A lot of homeless people used to sleep in the Commons.
Q: What about sports in the media?
Mr. Jacobson: Just about the same as today. Baseball, basketball, hockey.
Q: How did your mother afford to give you piano lessons?
Mr. Jacobson: I don’t know. I also took drum lessons for a while, my father thought I had a future playing the drums. But she managed, I never asked. I went to conservatory. I don’t know how she did it.
Q: How many hours a day did your mother work?
Mr. Jacobson: I’d say probably 10.
Q: Every day?
Mr. Jacobson: Not on Sunday, I don’t know about Saturday. She was an exceptional woman. She was a little bit of a thing. About 5 feet tall and 100 pounds.
Q: Did you have an icebox?
Mr. Jacobson: Oh yes, an icebox. Of course we had no electric refrigerators. And we always lived on the top floor, three flights up, because that was the cheapest rent. So we always lived on the top floor. The people who sold ice would give you a card, 25, 35, 45, and you would put the card in the window with the price you wanted worth of ice. And he would look up and see what you wanted and he would go and cut out a piece, a big block of ice. Put it on your shoulder and carry it upstairs. Then of course we would put the ice on top, and it would run down to a pan underneath.
Q: How many rooms in your apartment?
Mr. Jacobson: Before or after the divorce?
Mr. Jacobson: Well my younger sister slept with my mother, and for a while I slept with my father, so we had maybe two bedrooms and a sofa in the living room. A kitchen. It was small, tight quarters. In fact when I was real young, six or seven years old maybe, the bathroom was outside the apartment. The apartments, one bath no shower.
Q: Like an outhouse?
Mr. Jacobson: It was a room, just big enough for a hopper and a bathtub, that was it.
We didn’t have central heat or running water. If you wanted to take a bath there was a gas meter in the bathroom you would put a quarter in and it would start something or other so you could have hot water.
Q: Did your mother make all your clothes?
Mr. Jacobson: No, that was all purchased. But it was a big day when you got a new pair of shoes. Tom McCann, you could buy a new pair of shoes for $7.77. And boy, when you got a new pair of shoes your friends would go ‘woah!’ That was a big day when you got a new pair of shoes. When you got a new jacket or something, that was a big day.
Q: How often did you buy new clothes?
Mr. Jacobson: As I needed them, I was easy on my clothes.
Q: Did you wear the same thing every day?
Mr. Jacobson: I probably wore the same shoes everyday, I only had one pair of shoes. No, I changed my clothes very often. But we didn’t have a clothes washing machine or a drier. My mother would scrub the clothes by hand. In fact when I went to work and Eastern Gas and Fuel after I graduated from college, one of the men there asked me what I did with my clothes when I was through wearing them, he said he wanted them, I said I would give them to him. I kept them in such good condition.
Q: Did you live at home during college?
Mr. Jacobson: Of course.
Q: Where did you live when you got out of college?
Mr. Jacobson: At home. I lived at home until I went into the airforce. I lived at home for at least five more years, until I was 31. Then I met Bee and married her.
Q: How did you meet her?
Mr. Jacobson: I met her at a friend’s wedding. My best friends wedding. My friend Alan Yafa, and my wife was a friend of Mickey’s, the woman he was marrying. Love at first sight.