52b-Serrapede Family in America: The Great Depression-$120 a month (Part 1b)


This posting concludes the topic we began in 52b-Serrapede Family in America: The Great Depression-$120 a month (part 1a).  In that posting we considered the nature of the work shoe shiners did and how much they may have earned.  When the posting concluded we made note of how the young American boys who did this work faced competition from the waves of immigrants coming from Europe at the start of the 20th century.  Many members of our immediate and extended family worked as boot blacks after arriving from Italy.

We now turn our attention to some of the ways bootblacks worked throughout Manhattan.  Then Uncle Sammy and I share our family stories and discussion at the conclusion of this posting.

Relationship Notes

Sam Serrapede was born in Agropoli, Campania, Salerno Italy.  He immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1920s.  In 1930 he married Josie Muro.  The newlyweds made their home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y.  Sam worked as a shoe shiner during the 1930s through the late 1940s.

Sam was the Father of:
*Emily Leatrice Serrapede
*Gerald (“Gerry”, Gennaro) Serrapede
*Sabbatino (Sammy) Serrapede

Sam was the maternal Grandfather of:  EmilyAnn Frances May

Bootblacks around New York City during the Great Depression

52b-shoeshiner bank 1

This shoe shiner waits for a customer on the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue in New York City.  He’s set up his station outside of the New York Savings Bank.  The sign above him contains a quote from Disraeli which says, “The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes.”

52b-shoeshiner bank 2

The shoe shiner outside the New York Savings bank got a customer.  He is located in a good spot next to the entrance of a subway station.  The set-up is very simple and would not cost much to keep up.  However, the customer getting his shoes shined would not be very comfortable since the chair is very small.  To have an edge over other shoe shiners in the area this man would have to have better supplies or a better technique.

52b-shoe shiner union square

This shoe shiner was working near Union Square, another busy area.  Judging by the background he may have been near the park.  Union Square is also in the vicinity of 14th Street and is close to a subway station making it an ideal place to attract customers.  This shoe shine station is more elaborate.  It might have attracted more customers than the one of the shoe shiner on 8th Avenue because the bench has a higher back and the awning provides some shade during a bright day.

A study of the photographs makes you realize that if these shoe shiners were working on their own their ability to earn a steady income was impacted by weather conditions.  Another down side to working outdoors was the vulnerability to pickpockets and thieves.  The shoe shine operation needed a steady location in order to cultivate relationships with clients.  How the matter of where the shoe shiner worked outdoors was not described in any of our readings.  It’s possible that the shoe shiner had to get permission to work outside of a business like New York Savings Bank.  There were most likely licensing requirements and fees to be paid.

An independent shoe shiner would also have operating costs for the upkeep of his stand and supplies.  The shoe shiners in these photos may have been working for a service that provided the station and the supplies.  Even so, working outdoors had its drawbacks.  Better locations would be indoors at such locations as Grand Central Station, the Staten Island Ferry Terminal or a local barber shop.

Our Family Stories

“Shining Shoes and Cleaning Barber Shops:  Emily’s childhood memories of her father’s jobs”

Sam worked two jobs during the 1930s.  In addition to shining shoes he also cleaned barber shops.  He worked 6 days a week and was out of the house more than 12 hours each day.

On Sundays Sam enjoyed an early morning walk or visits to his relatives.  In the afternoon his greatest enjoyment was a long nap after dinner.  So that he could focus all his attention on his job, Josie took over paying all the bills and budgeting the money.  Sam was not involved with balancing the check book or going to the bank to make deposits and withdrawals.  His entire purpose for waking up Monday through Saturday was to get to work, give his best to his job, and bring home all the wages to his Josie.

–as told by Emily L. Serrapede to her daughter, EmilyAnn

Discussion with Uncle Sammy, Sunday, January 24, 2016

Uncle Sammy confirmed Mom’s story.  He described Sam as the all around “go-fer” at the Barber Shop.  In addition to cleaning the shop and shining the shoes, he helped wherever he was needed. If he was asked to go somewhere for the store owner he’d “go-fer” it.  Sam continued in this work during the 1940s.  Uncle Sammy was born in 1943.

There was never any discussion about Sam’s salary in the presence of Uncle Sammy.  My Mom also had no idea how much money he made.  What Mom told me and what Uncle Sammy agrees with is that Sam left the budgeting, checkbook and bank account maintenance in Josie’s care. She also paid all the bills.

Sam only took a personal interest in record keeping once he got a job as a doorman during the 1950s.  He worked in a luxury high rise in Manhattan.  Each year he kept a tally of the tips the tenants gave him at Christmas.  This was kept in a little book at home.  He’d review the current Christmas with the previous years and take note of which tenants were generous or not.

In the next posting we’ll continue our look at life during the Great Depression.  We’ll focus on rent and the cost of food in Brooklyn through ads and articles in the Sunday, October 18th, 1931 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  This review will give us a good comparison of what the differences in living quarters were like for an immigrant vs. a middle class American family.

Resources and Credits

“Shoe shiner”

Frontispiece of the 1895 Henry T. Coates and Company edition of “Ragged Dick”
Date 1895
Source: This file was produced from a copy of the book owned by a contributor to Wikimedia Commons.
Author Watervale101
Public Domain

Ragged Dick

1930s film stars shined their shoes at Papa’s Place
Emanuel Carlo • Clifton, New Jersey

“Shoeshine Boy in 1930s Pomona, California”
Monday, March 23, 2015
Prune Picker

Published: March 21, 1981
The New York Times

Photos of Bootblacks

Photos of Bootblacks in New York City
Photogrammar is a site where public domain photos taken by the US Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information are available for download and use.  The photos date from 1935-1945 and depict life across the United States during this time period.

“Bootblack, Union Square, New York, New York
Photographer:  Arthur Rothstein
Created:  December 1937
Location: New York, New York, New York
Lot Number (Shooting Assignment): 1296
Call Number (Library of Congress):  LC-USF33-00267
URL:  http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997009239/PP

”Bootblack, Fourteenth Street and Eighth Avenue, New York, New York”
Photographer:  Arthur Rothstein
Created:  December 1937
Location:  New York, New York, New York
Lot Number (Shooting Assignment):  1296
Call Number (Library of Congress:  LC-USF33-T01-002678
URL:  http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997009241/PP

“Bootblack, corner Fourteenth Street and Eighth Avenue, New York, New York”
Photographer:  Arthur Rothstein
Created:  December 1937
Location: New York, New York, New York
Lot Number (Shooting Assignment):  1296
Call Number (Library of Congress):  LC-USF33-T01-002679
URL:  http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997009246/PP

Further Reading and Viewing

“About New York; all Feet On Deck, Forlorn”
by Dan Barry
The New York Times
May 15, 2004

Carmine Rizzo was the last roving shoe shiner to work on the Staten Island Ferry.  When he retired in 2004 the City of New York could not find anyone else to take over the position.

“I Remember the Shoeshine Man”
by Henry Jacobson

This very short film is packed with heartfelt emotions Jacobson feels as he remembers his days as a boy when he rode the Staten Island Ferry.  He still remembers Carmine Rizzo asking passengers if they wanted their shoes shined.

“Chatty Conductors and Ferry Shines”
Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (blog)
October 22, 2007





6 thoughts on “52b-Serrapede Family in America: The Great Depression-$120 a month (Part 1b)

  1. I am so enjoying these posts. My mother was born in 1930 and grew up in Brooklyn, so you are giving me a peak into her life. My grandfather was a milkman, not a shoe shiner, but also worked hard to survive with three children growing up in the Depression.

    There used to be shoe shiners all over NYC when I was younger and rows of them inside Grand Central. Do they still exist?

    • Amy, I’m so happy to know you have something of value to take away from our postings. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for your Grandfather, especially if he had to drive a horse drawn wagon on the delivery route. My Uncle and I have read many incidents where the horses got scared by kids who made loud noises while the driver made a delivery. Sometimes the horses ran for blocks before they were caught!

      The only shoe shiners I see are inside of shoe repair shops. Sometimes these repair shops are part of a chain here in the city like DRAGO. I do not see independent shoe shiners, though.

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