53a-Serrapede Family in America Early-Mid 1930s-Father and Daughter

Relationship Note

Emily Leatrice was the daughter of Sam and Josie Serrapede, sister to Gerald and Sammy and Mom of EmilyAnn.  She was born at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, NY on April 18, 1931.

Introduction

The family stories shared in this posting come from a combination of brief entries my Mom made to her “Our Baby Book” and the many discussions we had about them.  The entries were a type of shorthand she used to recall the memory or cluster of memories she wanted to share with me.  I listened carefully so that I could feel and see the scenes along with her.  Then I committed as much as I could to memory.  We discussed the stories so often that soon a narrative began to flow.  Stories she’d told me in my childhood now expanded to include the more recent ones entering the narrative.  In time I could recall the memories and experiences she shared with me just as if I’d been there when they happened.

We began this process over many lovely weekends.  We got up very early for breakfast and lingered over cups of herbal tea and hot cereal.   I was never sure how I would write everything into a narrative form.  These sessions took place in the mid-1990s.  The Internet, blogging, and episodic storytelling were things I had no idea would one day facilitate their expression.

Mom’s earliest entries and the stories she told me focused on how much her Dad, Sam, loved her and how much patience he had with her as she grew older.  Here are two stories which show the interaction between them.

In order to keep the narrative from becoming confusing to non-family members, I refer to my Mom and Grandparents by their first names.

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52d-Station Break: Shopping Lists and Rented Rooms in “Dime a dance”

Special Note

This is our last posting before going on winter break.  We’ll stop in during the next two weeks to exchange holiday greetings with our WordPress friends.  Regular posting will resume around the second week of January 2017.

Introduction

Uncle Sammy and I did not plan to post about a Pre-Code 1930s film as part of our family history.  The scenes from “Dime a dance” complemented the discussion we were having about how much food and rent cost during the 1930s.  The difficulties of a young couple struggling on $160 a month in this film resonated after our research on this topic.  We hope you will enjoy the synopsis of this film along with some screen shots from the movie.

Synopsis of “Dime a dance” (1931)

In “Dime a dance” Barbara O’Neill (Barbara Stanwyck) is a young, single woman working as a taxi dancer.  She is in love with Eddie Miller (Monroe Owsley) whom she meets at the boarding house where they live.  Eddie comes across as a shy, sensitive guy who just needs a break in life.  There is another contender for Barbara’s affections.  Suave, wealthy businessman Bradley Carlton (Ricardo Cortez) is struck by Barbara’s honesty and independence.  Despite the gifts and tips he gives her at the dance hall Barbara remains unmoved.

Barbara marries Eddie after he makes her leave her job.  Life does not go well as he constantly needs money.  Less than a year into their marriage, the couple is in debt and Barbara learns Eddie is not the man she thought he was.  In her troubles she turns to Bradley for help.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story since I think it’s worth checking out this Pre-Code film.  A very young Barbara Stanwyck gives a good performance.  She’s still developing her style but you’ll see the actress of substance she was to become shortly before the end of the film.

What is a taxi dancer?

The term taxi dancer is a descriptive way to define the relationship of the dancer to the patron of a dance palace.  Patrons bought tickets for ten cents each dance.  The dancer took one ticket for one dance.  In a way, it is like going into a taxi cab.  Once the drive starts, the meter is on for the rest of the trip.  To continue on with the same partner for another dance, the patron has to have another ticket.  This gave rise to the phrase “dime a dance girl” to describe the women who worked as taxi dancers.

Taxi dancers lived a very precarious existence.  They were paid a nickel off of every ten cent ticket they took in.  Assuming a dancer took 5 minutes for one dance, she could make 60 cents an hour.  There had to be break time in-between so I’d estimate that in total the dancer could make $4.00 more or less per day.  For a 6 day week her total would be about $20-24.  The dancer would have to be very resilient and focused so that she maintained a steady clientele.  Without them her daily take could fluctuate too much.

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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 2b)

Introduction

This posting is a continuation of 52c-Serrapede Family in America-1930s: $120 a month (Part 2a)

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.

$10 a week for food: Trying to recreate a 1931 Menu Plan for one evening and the next day

Here is my attempt to recreate a 1931 shopping list Josie might have made. It consists of items she did not have on hand. The fixings for the eggplant parmigiana such as the tomato sauce and the mozzarella, would be left over from the weekend meal. I have not added in what baby food cost because that information was not available. I will explain why I included bananas in the section for our family stories.

Monday night dinner

  • Eggplant Parmigiana
  • Italian Bread
  • Side serving of macaroni cooked fresh

Tuesday

Breakfast

  • 2 scrambled eggs (1 each)
  • buttered toast
  • coffee
  • 1/2 grapefruit each

Lunch

  • Leftover eggplant parmigiana made into sandwiches on Italian bread.
  • Grapes for dessert

Dinner

  • Veal Chops
  • Spinach or broccoli
  • Cantaloupe for dessert

Shopping List for Items Needed

2 eggplants at 10 cents each……..$ .20
loaf of bread ……………….. …………..$ .10
1 dozen eggs (Grade B) …………….$ .34
1 lb. veal chops …………………………$ .34
1 lb. spinach………………………………$ .07
1 lb. grapes ………………………………$ .12
1 grapefruits ……………………………$ .08
1 small cantaloupe………………….$ .12
6 bananas ……………………………….$ .20

Total                                           $3.14

Although the total is $3.14 the makings of other meals are here. Josie often made frittatas (Italian style omelettes). Any left over veal chops would be made within a day or two. Still, staying within a total budget of $40 a month for food would be a challenge. One way to achieve that would be to eliminate the fresh fruits and reduce the amount of meat bought. An increase in carbs and fats would provide the energy needed to get to work and throughout the day. The long term effects of such a diet would show in old age and in the poor health of the children.

Josie and Sam did not eat like that. Sam was very fussy about what he ate and Josie had to make everything from scratch. Good, fresh food was always emphasized in the Serrapede family. The only thing I can think of is Josie met her food budget by reducing what she spent on things like clothes for herself and Sam. Since she was a skilled seamstress the $12 a month allocated for clothing, clothing maintenance and laundry could be reduced. The extra money would be applied to the food budget.

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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!

 52b-ragged dick
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 1

Introduction

Josie Muro married Sam Serrapede on March 2, 1930. Their daughter Emily Leatrice was born on April 18, 1931. At some point after Emily’s birth the family moved from Bath Beach, Brooklyn to Dyker Heights. To better understand what their lives were like during the Great Depression, we are going to take a look at the everyday life of the 1930s using articles from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the postings after this one. Our goal is to see how family stories match up to the events reported in the news of the day. There is great benefit to using the newspapers of the time period under review: we get to “hear” the voices of the era. Since the publications of any time period lack the kind of filters a contemporary author might put in, we have a more direct contact with the past and the mindset of that time. We are also going to use reading material from current sources that provide additional information and insight into what we find in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and our family stories.

What comes to mind when you hear the words, “The 1930s” or “The Great Depression of the 1930s”? Be honest as you think on this question. Uncle Sammy and I will share our thoughts after this brief overview on events leading up to the Great Depression.

Overview on what caused the Great Depression

The Roaring ‘20s are commonly thought to have been an era of great prosperity. They are depicted in movies as times when women and men mingled more freely than previous generations. Money was easy to come by and everyone had a good time. But that is what has come down in popular culture. The income inequalities and differences between the haves and have-nots were masked by the low unemployment rate throughout the decade.

There was hardship among farmers who lost their overseas markets at the end of WWI. Bad weather, drought and dust storms also affected the ability of the farmers to make a living. Food prices declined adding to the hardships they had to sustain. Continue reading