We heard a lot about the misery of the Great Depression that
marked the 1930s across America, and no less in the Johnstown area. But that period in history wasn't all bad. It was true that work was scarce and money hard to come by, especially for many of the large families that marked the day. Not many folks could brag that they “ate high off the hog” in those days, but one way or another, they ate.
Perhaps it takes the worst of times to bring out the best in people, but with all of the shortages it was a time that drew many people closer. Neighbors shared what little they bad, often exchanging items from their small gardens - a cabbage for green beans, some carrots for tomatoes.
If a family was really up against it, it wasn't unusual for neighbors to shave their own meager fare to provide a bit of food for that family. When a new mother could not provide enough milk for her baby, it wasn't uncommon for a neighbor woman to wet-nurse the infant. Children didn't question the need to work, taking odd jobs and errands for nickels and dimes that went into the family cookie jar to help keep the family going. Nor was it unusual for older boys to take to boxing, willing to take a battering in hopes of taking home the $10 winner's purse, and dreaming of making a good showing in order to move up to the “big money,” maybe $25 or even $50 for a victory
They were the days of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that provided small pay for hard work on roads, parks and other public projects.
PHOTO BY RUSSELL HEFFLEYDuring the Depression years, movies were a big source of entertainment. In 1933 Johnstown had 11 movie houses. Also popular in those days was the Nemo theatre (at left) The Main Street nightclub offered, among other entertainment, burlesque shows and some of the country's most well-known big band groups.
In short, the Depression was a time that pulled people together, taught them to sacrifice and prepared them for the grim days to come in the early 1940s, when America went to war. It wasn't hard to give up things you weren't used to having. In Johnstown, the City Directory for 1933 listed 296 retail grocers in the city and East Conemaugh, and that didn't include butcher shops and meat markets. Most were small, family-owned stores that drew from their own neighborhood. For many Johnstowners, the neighborhood grocery offered a means for survival in very trying times. Many extended credit to regular customers, who paid their bills when they got money - if they got money. Many couldn't pay.
The compassion of many of these grocers wouldn't allow them to see friends and neighbors go without food, even though they were pretty hardup themselves. Some lost their businesses. By 1941, the number of retail grocers had dropped to 238 - a decrease of almost 20 percent.
It wasn't that prices were high during the Depression. Many people simply had no money to buy even the most inexpensive items.
In 1931, Cupp Food Stores sold canning peaches for 89 cents a bushel, 3 pounds of sweet potatoes for 14 cents, bananas for 19 cents a dozen and porterhouse steak for 19 cents a pound. At the A&P Stores, 8 O'Clock Coffee was 19 cents a pound, lebanon bologna was 17 cents and so was hamburger and longhorn cheese.
S.H. DeRoy and Co. advertised eyeglasses in white gold-filled frames for $7.50, including the examination, and you could pay 50 cents a week. Dr. Finkelstein, who advertised “lady attendants,” would pull your teeth for 50 cents each and make false teeth for $10 a plate.
Glosser Bros. Store sold girls' wash dresses for as low as 46 cents, men's dress shirts for 45 cents, children's school shoes for 79 cents, full-fashion silk hose for 59 cents and “very nice” toilet paper for 4 cents a roll.
Penn Furniture offered three rooms of furniture for $235. The Geis Store offered a 4-piece bedroom suite for $76.50 and threw in a free room-size rug. At Gately & Fitzgerald Furniture Co., you could get a new coal or gas range for $59.50, 5-piece breakfast sets for $29.75 and complete 5 piece curtains for 55 cents.
By 1936, food was still cheap compared to today's prices. American Stores sold coffee for 17 cents a pound, 6 pounds of bananas or a dozen oranges for a quarter, 25 pounds of sugar for $1.23, 24 pounds of flour for 90 cents and chuck roasts for 12 cents. Glosser's market had hams for 25 cents a pound, sausage for 20 cents, sirloin or porterhouse steak for 25 cents and pigs' feet for a dime.
At Better Tires Sales Co., new tires sold for as low as $3.95. Whiskey at the State Stores was $1.25 to $1.50 a full quart, and at Burkes Auto Store a new radiator for your Model A Ford set you back $5.95.
Levy's sporting goods sold baseball gloves for 95 cents to $3.95, and bats for a buck, a dozen for $10. DeRoy's advertised blue-white diamond engagement rings for $25, with a free 18-carat gold wedding band thrown in, or solid gold birthstone rings for $3.95.
Dr. Finkelstein was still charging 50 cents to pull a tooth, but dentures were up to $14.50 and $22.50 a plate. Woolfe & Reynolds had men's suits for $25 and shoes for $3.95 to $9.
Penn Traffic Co. threw in a 32-piece dinner set with a gas range for $79.50, and offered an electric washing machine for $49.50, or a 10-piece dining room set for $159.
By 1939, Economy Stores were selling 10 cans of milk for 55 cents, coffee for 17 cents, sweet potatoes for 5 cents a pound, two heads of lettuce for 15 cents and cheese for 19 cents. Glosser's market advertised 2 loaves of bread for 9 cents, 2 pounds of butter for 52 cents, 2 packs of cigarettes for 27 cents, 25 pounds of sugar for $1.13 and sliced bacon for 25 to 37 cents a pound.
A 10-diamond pair of bridal rings cost $29.75 at Rothstein's and men's Florsheim shoes were $7.85 at Peerless Shoe Store on Main Street. Penn Traffic had men's spring topcoats for $12.85 and ladies dresses for 95 cents for house dresses, $2.85 for more dressy attire - or a muskrat fur coat for $85.
Canadian Fur Co. had fur coats as low as $55.
During the Depression years, movies were a big source of entertainment In 1933, Johnstown had 11 movie houses. They included the Cambria, Grand, Majestic, New Park, State and Strand, all on Main Street, Dale, on Bedford Street, Ideal and Victoria in Moxham; Rialto in Morrellville; and the National on Broad Street, plus the Penn in East Conemaugh. By 1937, the National had become the Hollywood, and the Victoria was renamed Rivoli. The Embassy was added on Main Street and the Laurel in upper Morrellville, but the Grand was no more.
A sampling of the 1931 movies shown in Johnstown includes “Merely Mary Ann” with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell; “Night Nurse” with Ben Lyon and Joan Blondell; “The Phantom of Paris” with Leila Hyams and Lewis Stone; and “The Star Witness” with Walter Huston.
Sylvia Sidney, Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda shared top billing in “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in 1936. Among other movies shown that year were “Modern Times” with Charlie Chaplin; “Colleen” with an all-star cast including Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Jack Oakie; “Big Shakedown” with Bette Davis and Ricardo Cortez; “Desire” with Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper; and “A Connecticut Yankee” starring Will Rogers and Myrna Loy.
Early in 1939, the Cambria showed “Honolulu” with Eleanor Powell, Robert Young, George Burns and Grade Allen. A few of the others shown here that year were “Devil's Island” with Boris Karloff; “The Dawn Patrol” with Errol Flynn; “They Made Me a Criminal” with Claude Rains and Ann Sheridan; “Huckleberry Finn” with Mickey Rooney; and “Sweethearts” starring Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald.
Some of those oldies may still show up as TV movies.
How do we judge the Depression years?. It was something most people would not want to live through again, but something that helped to draw people of various ethnic backgrounds closer and mold the Johnstown spirit
And despite the woeful tales of the Depression that some older Johnstowners tell, the 1930s also were “the good old days” many of us seem to cherish.
Bill Jones is the retired senior writer for The Tribune-Democrat.
About today's special section
Today's special section, The Thirties, grew from an April 2 news. story “Census gives glimpse of life during 1930s.” Many of our readers, especially those who lived during the '30s, responded with brief comments through letters, phone calls or e-mails.. The story had revived of those trying but wonderful years between two world wars, of a Depression and of a horrific flood. years that unquestionably played a huge role in shaping the Johnstown region's future. We then asked our readers to share their stories, which are included today.
We hope our senior citizens enjoy a stroll down memory lane while our readers get a better idea of what their parents and grandparents mean when they talk about the “good old days”
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