52c-Serrapede Family in America-1930s: $120 a month (Part 2c)-Conclusion

Introduction

This posting completes the series on our review of the average monthly salary of a worker and how families in this income group lived.  The previous postings were:

52c-Serrapede Family in America-1930s: $120 a month (Part 2a)

52c-Serrapede Family in America-1930s: $120 a month (Part 2b)

The discussion Uncle Sammy and I had about this topic follows in the next section.  All resources used for this series are also included.

Discussion with Uncle Sammy, Sunday, January 31, 2016 11-11:50 a.m.

Mom never spoke about her parents buying health or life insurance. Uncle Sammy confirmed this. So as far as the 1931 budget for $120-130 a month went, the $7 in Barbara Jane’s budget for insurance would go elsewhere in the Serrapede household. Josie became a member of the ILGWU in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Sam entered the local Building Worker’s Union sometime in the 1950s after he got a job as a doorman at a luxury high-rise in Manhattan. Uncle Sammy remembers that any insurance policies Josie and Sam had were all provided through their union jobs. This includes health insurance and life insurance. They did not buy insurance on the individual market.

Josie and Sam had only one credit account and that was at Sam’s Grocery Store on 11th Avenue at the corner of 66th Street. Sam of the grocery store was not related to our Sam. Josie paid Sam the grocer $10 a week towards her purchases. Anything exceeding that amount was posted to her house account. If she spent less a credit was posted. At the end of the year, the remaining amount owed was paid out of the tips Sam collected at Christmas from the tenants of the building where he worked. Uncle Sammy said the tenants were generous since they liked Sam very much. Paying off the balance owed Sam the grocer was never difficult.

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52c-Serrapede Family in America-1930s: $120 a month (Part 2a)

Special Note and Update 11-26-2017

The attempts to understand the 1930s life style given here are not a recreation of the way Josie managed Sam’s salary.  Uncle Sammy and I could not find exact information on what a housewife spent on food each week.  So I tried creating a scenario where we selected the fresh foods Sam liked best.  Then in Part 2 of this posting I created a menu plan for two to three days.  This exercise was very challenging.  I learned that growing up and coming of age during the Post-WWII economic boom did not prepare me to think as people did during the Great Depression.  It is one thing to have an intellectual understanding that life was difficult and quite another to try to take on the mindset of an era and approach a problem with the restrictions  that were in place at that time.  Josie and Sam never  provided great detail about the hardships of the Great Depression.  Most of the family stories they passed on emphasized working together during times of hardship.

I thank Amy of Brotmanblog: A Family Journey for asking the right questions that led me to create this needed clarification for the posting.

Introduction

Uncle Sammy and I never heard stories about the Great Depression that focused on extremes of poverty and hunger. Josie, Sam and members of the extended family spoke about how hard everyone had to work to keep their jobs. Family stories emphasized how relatives and paesanos helped each other with everything from providing a few slices of bread, to getting a job and even an introduction to a suitable marriage partner. We learned that the times were worrisome. We also learned what actions people took to remedy their situations. The emphasis was on solving the problem and working with the opportunity that came one’s way. There wasn’t any prolonged analysis of a job offer. The outlook was bluntly put, “No work, no food, no rent.”

Money was never explicitly spoken of so we do not have a point of reference in terms of what Sam’s yearly salary in the 1930s was. Once we locate a 1930 Federal Census entry for Josie and Sam that will change but so far we have not retrieved one at Ancestry. We have the memories Josie and Sam’s daughter Emily shared about the apartments where they lived when she was growing up. These provided a starting point.

I sat down and listed the characteristics of those apartments before preparing this posting. I also thought about the kinds of meals Josie would have made each day. I then went to the 1931 issues of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle to check out the costs of food and rent. The classified ads for rental apartments and the column with food prices gave me some idea of how much things cost. Living on $120 a month was very difficult. We do not know what the monthly budget for the Serrapede family really was but we can say for sure they worked very hard and were very resourceful during the Great Depression. Their daughter Emily grew up feeling loved. She never realized how difficult the times were until she was about 8 or 9 years old. 

Relationship Notes

In this posting we focus on Josie Muro Serrapede. She was the wife of Sam Serrapede, mother of Emily Leatrice, Gerald and Sammy. Josie was EmilyAnn’s maternal Grandmother.

The Family Stories are not dated because they were not recorded during a planned session. These come from conversations throughout the years that recurred many times

$120 a month: a budget for a very thrifty household

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Budget for $130 a month submitted by a reader to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 2, 1931.

In the Spring of 1931 advice columnist Helen Worth of The Brooklyn Eagle asked her readers how they would allocate money for necessities a budget of $120 a month. The request was made on behalf of a reader named Elsa who was about to get married.

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

Introduction

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

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.”

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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.

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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.

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

Relationship Notes

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.

Introduction

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!

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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.

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52a-Serrapede Family in America: The Great Depression, Part 2

(This posting is a continuation of 52a-Serrapede Family in America: The Great Depression, Part 1)

Discussion with Uncle Sammy on Sunday, January 24, 2016

Topic:  What do you associate with the 1930s?

EmilyAnn:  First, I think of what happened on the day the Stock Market Crashed in 1929.  Mom told me that some investors were so shocked or ruined that they soon committed suicide.  Dad always said that as bad as things were that should never have happened.  People live through tough times by drawing closer to each other. Mom and Dad repeatedly emphasized this. With this in mind I wondered how people coped.

My parents and grandparents often told me that the movies offered a great escape.  I think of the Endicott Theatre that was located on 13th Avenue and 70th Street.  Mom and Dad shared many of their memories with me about their happy times at the Saturday afternoon matinees.  One of Mom’s favorite series of films came out towards the end of the 1930s.  She was a fan of Mickey Rooney and the “Andy Hardy” films he made.  Mom thought he was cute.  I couldn’t understand the appeal because as a child I knew Mickey Rooney as an older actor.  When I saw the photos of him as a teenage star I quickly understood how Mom, as a 6 or 7 year old girl, could develop a crush on him.

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Opening credit for Mickey Rooney from 1939 film, “Babes in Arms.”

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51-Serrapede Family in America April 18, 1931: It’s a girl! (Part 2)

(This posting is a continuation of 51-Serrapede Family in America April 18, 1931: It’s a girl! in which we considered the day Emily L. Serrapede was born and some of the issues she faced growing up as an Italian-American.  In this posting the discussion expands to experiences Uncle Sammy and I had.)

The Detail in the Birth Certificate that might point to an answer

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Close-up of the birth certificate.

I think I found a clue to Emily’s sensitivity regarding her ethnicity. Looking at her birth certificate I found the following: Color or Race-It. The It. means Italian.

Southern Italians were considered a race unto themselves. This was not in a good way. They were seen as incapable of joining the mainstream. An article from a 1914 edition of “The World’s Work” expresses sentiments held at that time about why this was so. It came down to this: Southern Italians were non-Caucasians. Therefore, the thinking went, they’ll never make it into the mainstream. In the 1910s the sentiment against Southern Italians was very negative. Their admission to this country was thought to have a detrimental effect on society. Census records list Italians as members of the Caucasian race but outside of their immigrant community the treatment was not always considerate or kind. When I was a child I was told by outsiders that we were “Wops” because our Grandparents were all here illegally. “Wop” meant “without passport.” Recently I’ve read it also could mean “White on paper.” Meaning for things like the census records Southern Italians were entered as Caucasian or White but in reality they were treated as “others”.

To what degree Emily experienced negative treatment I do not know. She never told me of any events in her life that would be a contributing factor to the strong show of emotions I witnessed when I did things like ask to get my ears pierced or why she wouldn’t teach me how to speak Italian as good as she did.

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51-Serrapede Family in America April 18, 1931: It’s a girl! (Part 1)

Introduction: Events around Brooklyn on April 18, 1931

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Close-up of page 1 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle edition for April 18, 1931.

Weather forecast for April 18th-19th, 1931 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

On Friday, April 18th, 1931 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s weather report stated that “at 8 a.m. the temperature in New York City was 52 degrees.” A milder day was ahead on Sunday, April 19th.

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Short news items from page 1 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Page one combined headline stories such as a crisis in Nicaragua and a movement by Catalonia to separate from Spain with many short news items that were not the stuff of headline news. They provided bits of information readers could discuss with their neighbors or co-workers. In Florida, Conkey P. Whitehead was being sued by a woman claiming breach of promise. Jack Guzik, a business manager for Chicago gangster Al Capone, pleaded guilty in Federal Court to income tax evasion. And in Brooklyn, New York restaurant owner Patrick White was taken to Greenpoint Hospital after a former employee punched him in the jaw.

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Mrs. John Krall of Queens is pictured with her three sets of twins on the day her youngest ones were baptized.

Page 2 featured a photo of Mrs. John Krall and her three sets of twins. Her latest pair was baptized on April 18th. Mrs. Krall had three other children not included in the photo. She lived in Middle Village, Queens. We know a family in Bath Beach, Brooklyn who were also celebrating a happy day on April 18, 1931. Sam and Josie Serrapede welcomed their first child, a girl, into the world. This baby girl’s birth never made it to the newspapers but in our family history it was big news.

The baby Josie and Sam named Emily Leatrice grew up to be Sammy’s big sister and my Mom. Her birth certificate provides many details that enable us to create a snap shot of what life was like at the time she was born.

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