Uncle Sammy and I have decided to simplify how we address our immediate family members in this and forthcoming blog postings. To avoid confusing readers we will be using their first names. Since the both of us are working on this blog it can become confusing if I say “My Mom Emily Leatrice told me…” and then Uncle Sammy’s contributions are phrased, “My Sister (Emily) did….”
At the start of each posting we’ll put a key describing our relationships to the people named in the posting. This will help the narrative be easier to read.
In this posting is featured:
*Sam Serrapede: Husband of Josie and father of Emily Leatrice, Gerald and Sammy. EmilyAnn’s maternal Grandfather.
Our Family Stories, A New Feature in Our Family History Postings
This section will follow the research and any documentation presented in a posting and precedes the section where Uncle Sammy and I discuss and compare the results of our research with the stories and memories passed down in our family.
At the end of each family story will be given the source of the story and which one of us is now retelling it.
You may wonder how we can have so many stories and anecdotes to share. Everything that happened in the lives of the Serrapede and Muro families became an opportunity to learn something. During family gatherings or phone calls or casual visits, lessons learned were always shared from the experiences had in everyday life. Since these lessons were often repeated to us they became part of our inner library to reference when it was time to think something through.
My Mom started this process with me when I was 4 or 5 years old. She was not one to bring up the stories on her own. I learned to seek her out. By being patient and asking questions Mom began to assume the role of an expert story teller as she taught me lessons in life by this means. In telling the stories of her family she’d leave off and pick-up on telling them at different times. Mom would question me if I remembered what she told me previously before continuing the story. In time I knew them as well, and sometimes better, than my schoolwork. I was able to relate to her entire family without any difficulty because I knew all the intricacies of the relationships.
Uncle Sammy did not experience the telling of family stories in the manner I did. He heard them during the times everyone gathered together for a special event. Mostly his stories which we’ll share here are based on his own experiences.
Josie Muro Serrapede left us a collection of over 250 photos of the family which span the years from the late 1920s through the 1960s. The rest of the photos from the 1970s onward consist of Josie’s photos and ones given to her by relatives, my parents or me. The photos that make up the Josie Muro Serrapede Collection are rich in detail. As we study them we learn:
• The photographs of the family taken outside the apartments they live in help us identify the economic level of the community. It was the section of Dyker Heights between 11th, 12th and 13th Avenues in the 60 Streets. Here many hard working Italian immigrants lived. The community was a combination of working class and modestly middle class residents.
• The family never looked hungry or gaunt.
• Their clothing was well cared for.
• Emily had many toys.
• There were many studio portraits of Emily and her baby brother Gerald.
• The Serrapede family shared happy times with their neighbors.
• There were many photos exchanged between Sam and his sister Philomena.
We will make use of these photos in future postings.
The photos show us that the basic needs were being met for housing, clothing and socialization. Josie was very resourceful and a good cook so the family could be assured of something to eat at each meal. For the reader the question arises as to how much money Sam made as a bootblack and if his salary alone supported the family. There was not much information available about the average salary of a bootblack during the Great Depression. We did learn a little about the history and have thought about some of the reasons why our immigrant ancestors might have found the work appealing.
For a married couple starting out $120 a month was considered a bare minimum to live on with a little left over for savings. We’ll detail the sources of that info along with the budget in the next posting. For this one we came away with the impression that if a bootblack worked hard enough and was resourceful he could get by. Sam and Josie knew the Carnicelli family on 65th Street in Dyker Heights. Joseph Carnicelli worked as a bootblack according to the 1930 and 1940 Federal Census records. He was able to save enough money to become co-owner in a multi-family dwelling. We still are amazed how the first generation managed to achieve so much even on a small salary.
The Shoe Shine Boy
In Western countries the profession of a shoe shiner or bootblack has been looked down upon. In developing countries it is still the main source of income in some families. Young boys get started in this line of work as a way to supplement or provide income in the family when the father is too ill to work. In the U.K. a positive attitude is growing towards the shoe shiner. Those who work in London’s financial district are knowledgeable about local events and willing to provide advice. The clients look forward to the conversation as much as the shoe shine!
Front piece from a “Ragged Dick” story.
The role of the shoe shine boy was the subject of a popular novel “Ragged Dick” by Horatio Alger. The story depicted the rise of a young shoe shiner into the ranks of the middle class through honesty, hard work and sincerity. The story was set in the late 19th century in New York City. The front plate of one Ragged Dick book shows a luggage boy, two shoe shiners and a newsboy. The book was published in 1895. In a few years, Italian immigrant men would be among the adults competing with the boys for these jobs.
The Cost of a Shine
The cost of a shoe shine varied slightly. The type of shoe and the location where the shoe shiner worked affected the price. A blogger called “Prune Picker” wrote about how much he made when shining shoes in Pomona, California during 1930. A regular pair of shoes cost 10 cents. Two toned shoes cost 25 cents to shine.
Emanuel Carlo lived in Clifton, New Jersey during the 1930s. When his father became unemployed he bought a small pre-fabricated structure and opened a magazine stand. Emanuel worked there as a shoe shine boy after school. The newsstand was located near a theatre so many stars of the day came by for a shine. Emanuel got 25 cents for each pair of shoes he shined plus the actors and actresses bought extra magazines and sodas for their friends back in the theatre. Emanuel said everyone treated him very kindly and he enjoyed the interaction with his customers.
In New York City, Jim’s Shoe Repairing and Hat Renovating Shop charged 15 cents for a shine in 1932. If a shine plus some time for a little conversation takes about 10 minutes then a shoe shiner could have made 90 cents an hour in 1932. Whether the shoe shiners were paid by the hour or got a percentage of the fee we do not know. No information on what tips a shoe shiner got is available either. If a shoe shiner was only paid a percentage of the amount made on each shine it may have been better to work independently. When we saw some photos of shoe shiners working outdoors in New York City the pros and cons of going solo came to the fore.
(to be continued)
Note: All sources used to create this posting are credited at the end of this 3 part series.