My Great Grandfather’s Memoir: Life In The Early 1900s
I have been so excited about this, and I figured since most of you are interested in the same kind of stuff that I’m interested in, you might enjoy it as well.
So I’ll share.
My grandmother sent me a memoir that my great grandfather wrote before he died. And I have relished every word.
I wish so badly that he were alive today, that I might ask him the dozens of questions rolling over in my mind. Although I do have memories of my great grandpa Thomas, he died when I was only 6 years old.
I remember he was quite the prankster. He had one of those tin jars made to look like a jar of candy, with a cloth “snake” that would spring out when the lid was taken off the jar. When we were small children, he loved to innocently offer us a piece of candy, and then startle us with the jumping snake! Although we caught on after the first scare, he still enjoyed his shenanigans. It makes me smile today to think of him laughing at his own practical jokes.
I am so grateful that he took the time to sit down and share some of his favorite memories while he was still able to do so. And I love that his memoir is typed… on a typewriter! I also love that he uses words that we don’t hear nowadays. It’s a good ten pages long, so I won’t write the entire thing here, but I do want to share a good portion of it. So grab a snack and settle in.
A short intro first…
My gr. grandpa Thomas was born in October of 1904, in Pittsburgh, PA. His father was born here to Irish immigrants. His mother was born in Germany, and died before my gr. grandpa Thomas could remember her. When his mother died, Thomas and his baby sister were boarded to various families. He doesn’t remember his sister either, as she also died while he was very young. He was told that the family taking care of his sister was “Shanty Irish”, and that she had died from neglect.
(Okay, so just imagine the following in an old typewriter font. And kindly overlook any misspellings… it was a lot to copy!)
My Father remarried about the time I was five years old. (This time to an American born Irish lady.) I remember throwing rocks at their carriage when they departed on their honeymoon. I was mad because they didn’t take me along. Living with my stepmother wasn’t too pleasant, especially after she had her first child. She was very young and did not know much about children of my age.
Her family had all the farm animals the Irish were accustomed to having in the early days. I was introduced to chores at a very early age.
I started school in the second grade, thanks to my Aunt Jennie. Although I was a good student academically, my deportment was terrible. I remember during the fourth grade, we staged what could have been the first student strike. I was expelled. I had the best display in the parade (a team of horses hitched to a hay wagon with a large sign stating our grievances). My father didn’t take too kindly to my actions. I was enrolled in a parochial school. At first the nuns treated me very kindly. I was invited to the convent and given cookies, etc. Soon they figured I was incorrigible and all the pleasantries stopped. They resorted to the strap.
Most of my young life I lived in the suburbs of the city of Pittsburgh. At that time it was a great place to live. There were rivers, locks, and dams. The paddle wheel steamers pushed long strings of barges ahead of them. They transported coal, iron ore, sand, and gravel. We spent a lot of time watching the boats go through the locks.
Some times in the summer the water going over the dam was barely an inch deep but the dam would provide deep water when the runoff slackened. I would paddle my canoe to the brink of the dam as if I would go over onto the rocks below, but then put the paddle down to prevent the canoe from going over. The locks master would be frantic and shout all kinds of cuss words at me.
Most of us kids were fine swimmers and we had a great time in summer. Although I was forbidden to swim in the river, I spent most of my time doing just that. We never wore bathing suits. That would have been unheard of and we didn’t have them anyway. My step-uncle gave me the canoe. I had a great time riding the rollers behind the steamboats. I used to take my younger half-brother with me. Recently he told me he was scared to death. He couldn’t swim.
The sewage in the rivers was something else, even babies’ bodies would float along with the excrement from humans, etc. (abortions I expect.) Our favorite swimming place was off an island about a quarter mile away from the bank where the water was clean. We would swim through the sewage to get to the island. There was a cave where we left our clothing. Usually someone would have a bar of soap. After being exposed to the sewage we were immune to most diseases.
Our home was on top of a hill overlooking the river. Along side of the river was a large railroad yard. The locomotives were steam engines. Diesels weren’t invented. I played in the rail yards and became acquainted with the engineers and firemen, and would ride the freight trains. I was permitted to fire the boiler and ring the bell, etc.
Having the railroad nearby had other advantages. There was always plenty of material to build a shanty where we could hang out during the winter. We would borrow a small coal burning stove from a parked caboose, lanterns, etc., even the coal we burned to keep warm came from the railroad. This was a continuing thing. When the railroad discovered we had borrowed their equipment, the railroad bulls would take back their property and burn our shanty down. Then we would start all over again.
In the summer the farmers would ship melons, grapes, and other perishables on consignment to the produce markets in the eastern cities. For some reason– probably glutted market- these things wouldn’t be accepted. Then the ice in the refrigerated cars would melt and they would open the doors on the cars. When finally the railroad was certain they couldn’t make delivery, the people would help themselves. We would glut ourselves on watermelon. The farmers would lose their crop. There were no government subsidies. This was when the people were allowed to control their own destinies.
Every neighborhood had its gangs. There were the Sharpsbergers, the Laurenceville gang, and the Morningside gang. I belonged to the Morningside gang. We hung out at a corner near a bridge crossing the Allegheny river. For no reason other than to be doing something, we had fights with the opposing gangs. When I went to Sharpsberg, I walked down the middle of the street so I couldn’t be too easily attacked by a Sharpsberger.
There was a city dump or earth fill, as they would call it today. We would frequent the dump looking for metals, glass, etc., that we could peddle to the junk dealers.
We celebrated all of the National holidays with a lot of enthusiasm. There were very few automobiles. Only the wealthy could afford one. On Independence day we would decorate our bikes with red, white, and blue bunting. Everyone would picnic in the parks. They would have a band concert in the afternoon. Then at night, there would be a spectacular fire works display. In those days there was no restrictions on the type of fireworks one could have. It was even permissible or at least tolerated to cause window shattering explosions by igniting beer barrels containing carbide gas, homemade black powder cannons, etc. Of course this was before there were environmental groups and other government agencies to interfere. Then there was no income tax to support these “do-gooders.”
I looked forward to all the holiday celebrating; the birth of Washington, Lincoln, and the other great Americans. They were celebrated on their birthdates and not on some other date as set by our knot heads in Washington.
Halloween was the greatest. We started our pranks about a week before Halloween. One night would be chalking windows with soap, etc. Then there would be garbage night when we would dump all the garbage cans in the neighborhood. Then we would take off gates, swap porch swings, and dump over the outhouses, and take apart and reassemble wagons on the tops of barns, etc. It isn’t any wonder that they have established Juvenile Detention Homes. After some of the tricks we played, it was shameful to ask for treats.
A lot of people in our neighborhood were superstitious. When we needed a place to gather during the long, cold winter days all we had to do was haunt a vacant house. Then nobody would rent or buy it. This was done by lowering a Chinese lantern at night from the roof to the ground, ect. and making all kinds of odd screeching and moaning noises. It wouldn’t be long before the rumor would circulate that the house was haunted. Some of the stories gathered oomph with the telling. It would be told about balls of fire floating from the windows. Then someone would remember that some one had died there or had been buried from there and the house would be haunted for sure. This didn’t always work. Sometimes, at the first disturbance, the owner would appear with a shotgun or the police would be called in.
Christmas was probably the best day of all. It started with the whole family attending Mass. Our parish was named Saint Raphael. My father was very religious. After church we opened our presents. Nothing was made of plastic, thank Heaven! The stuff hadn’t been invented. We had new warm clothing that should have come with the onslaught of winter but appreciated none the less, also such things as new sleds, skis, skates, etc. Then there was the candy and other sweets. My step-mother was a very good cook. We had steam pudding with brandy sauce and a dinner you couldn’t forget. My Father belonged to clubs and fraternal organizations and they all had entertainment for us kids.
There was no television. We entertained ourselves with various games– mostly self contrived. Some of our games could be used by kids of today, such as socky ball, cat and dog, etc.. Socky ball was a ball game played with three or more players. The bat was a fence picket; the ball a Bull Durham tobacco sack stuffed with rags.
About that time, radio came into being. The first broadcast was over KDKA, a Westinghouse effort. I was fortunate as I had an uncle who was an electrical engineer. He taught me many things including how to build a radio receiver. He was one of the original radio hams. He built and operated a Morse code wireless. Needless to say, I listened to the first broadcast. It was a preacher talking.
There were no buses. Very few people owned cars. Street cars on rails were used and the tracks ran through every part of the city. One might have to walk a block to the street car but it was a much better transportation system than we now have. Progress in reverse.
The fire engines were drawn by horses. I used to go to the firehouse and ride the horses around the lot. They needed to be exercised daily. The horses were trained so that when the alarm would ring they came from their stalls and took a position by the fire wagon. The harness was suspended above so it could be easily dropped on their backs. The pumper was run by a steam engine and had a large boiler. The fire was all set and was ignited just before they left the fire house. It usually would have a head of steam by the time they reached the fire.
Our house was heated by a central heating system, consisting of a coal-burning furnace in the basement. All the bedrooms had coal-burning fireplaces. It was lighted by gas lights with mantles, some upright; others drop type. when electricity became available the house was wired to the old gas fixtures. We didn’t put too much confidence in the new system. Electric washers, refrigerators, and other appliances took a long time coming into vogue.
Once a few of us decided to bedevil the streetcar a little more so we tied a cable to the back of the streetcar and then attached it to the front porches of about five adjoining houses on the street. The object was to stop the streetcar on its climb up the hill. The plan backfired a little bit for the streetcar didn’t stop and all the porches went flying off the houses and trailed the streetcar up the hill. One of the houses was the home of one of the boys and his father was a streetcar conductor.
I was very mechanically inclined and understood the workings of gasoline engines, etc. During my early teens I was always in demand to restore a motor to working condition. In those days when you bought a car it came from the factory in most cases. The people didn’t turn in their used cars. they were relegated to the hen house or the barn. Old cars could be had for the asking. Of course you would have to clean off the chicken droppings. Old cars seemed to be their favorite roosting place. I was the proud owner of a red Cadillac. It had a low front seat and a seat high in the back. The motor was under the backseat. The cranks was inserted through the running board on the side. They didn’t have self starters or batteries either, when that car was built. It was given to me by an Indian herb doctor. The crank handle didn’t come with it. We had to push it to start the engine. If I had that thing today, it would be priceless.
When a wedding took place, the services were usually conducted at the bride’s home. It was the custom for kids to gather with pots and pans or any other contraption that would make noise. The noise would continue until the bridal party threw out a handful of pennies. Then we would scramble for the pennies. At one wedding they threw out hot pennies. To get even, we stole their wedding cake.
Funerals were always from the deceased’s home. The parlor in those days was used only for occasions such as funerals, weddings, or some other festive occasion. The Irish believe in having a wake to send the dearly departed to his maker in the best of spirits. There was plenty of whiskey drinking, all kinds of food, and a bang-up party. All this, of course, was to cheer up those left behind. I could only attend the wakes of close neighbors or family. it wasn’t proper for juveniles to take part in these affairs but everyone that only had a faint acquaintance with the deceased was there to imbibe.
The homes in our neighborhood were scattered out over a three or four mile area with many vacant areas and farms. The people were mostly of Irish and Italian descent. Most of their parents and grandparents had been born in their native lands. the young people grew up and were married to those they had known all their lives. The Italians married the Irish and vice versa.
We didn’t have a Catholic church nearby until about 1912 or 1913. A young priest arrived. He was Irish. He started by having Mass in his home. Soon a church was built. Then a school and convent. Father Gallagher was the only priest in the parish and he knew all of the parishoners. When one didn’t attend Mass on Sunday, he would call on him on Monday to see if they were ill.
The family doctor would come to the home when anyone needed medical care and he usually prepared a medication from the contents of his black bag. All the babies were born at home with very little need for expert medical care. There were very few fatalities and those that happened were the way nature intended. Most of our medical needs were taken care of by our parents. They always seemed to have a potion for all the various ills. A lot of our pains in those days were called “growing pains.” You grow out of them or the doctor was called at the last moment.
There were no chain or self-help stores. The clerk or owner of the store would fill the orders. Everyone carried a basket to the store. they didn’t use paper bags as they do today. Only the necessary items were wrapped in paper. The butcher shop was never in the grocery store. It was located nearby. We had to depend upon blocks of ice to refrigerate our perishables. The butcher always had a stock yard. He would slaughter the animals as needed. He also prepared all of the hot dogs, sliced lunch meat, etc. and smoked all the hams and bacon. If you have never eaten a real smoke cured ham, you have missed a rare treat. If you selected some cut of meat, he would bring from the cooler that section of meat and cut for you. There was no precut meat.
Very few people bought chickens, eggs, or butter as almost everyone had their own.
I always had many ways to earn money. When I was 12, I drove delivery wagons for the butcher, feed stores, etc. The H.J. Heinz pickle factory was located across the river (they are still there). They had their own bottle and jar factory. There were always jobs available to kids ages 13 and up. They made all of their bottles with child labor. They closed the factory down after summer vacation.
Another way to earn money was by selling junk to the junk dealer. We knew all of the places to gather the expensive types of metal such as copper, brass, babbit, etc. My favorite gathering place was in the street car barn. I could help myself to worn out brake shoes. They were made of babbit and worn trolley wheels made of bronze. They always brought a good price per pound. In the winters I shoveled snow from side walks for a fee.
When I was 14, I decided to find out what the rest of the country looked like and I made my first trip west. When school vacation time came, I decided to use some of my railroad experience so I rode freight trains as far as Ohio. This took quite a while as one doesn’t know how far a freight train will go or to where. On one occasion I was in a freight car that was pushed on to a siding. it was closed from the outside. Finally a railroad employee working in the yard heard my cries and opened the car. I could have stayed there for weeks and died in the empty freight car. From then on I would ride the coaltender on passenger trains, usually at night. This way I could ride on schedule. My first trip took me to Denver, Colorado, where I stayed for the summer. Denver was considerably different from Pittsburgh. There was no smog. One could see the mountains for miles in any direction. I arrived back home two weeks late for school. I was a real celebrity upon my return, except for the reception I got at home. You see, I left without telling anyone.
One would think from all of my pranks, mischief, and escapades in general that all I did was get into trouble– not so. I had many chores to do, such as milking the cow, feeding the chickens, and cleaning the hen house and barn. There was always grass to cut, fences to paint, etc. We did not have gasoline mowers.
My folks preserved most of our food for the long winter months. I remember stirring the ketchup that was cooked outdoors in a large round copper kettle. It sat on a tripod that was banded around the kettle. A wood fire underneath. It had to be stirred constantly to keep it from scorching. This went on for hours until the heat evaporated the stuff down to the thickness of ketchup.
It was also my job to go to the grocery store to haul home the groceries. Once a week, usually on Saturday, my stepmother would go to the market. This required a street car ride to the city. The market was located downtown Pittsburgh. You could buy anything and everything edible there.
In the fall there was about 3 tons of coal to move into the basement. This I hauled by buckets. Most houses had an excavated basement. The delivery man could dump the coal into a chute into the coal bin. Our house had a street level basement.
Elderberries grew everywhere in great quantities. We always had a barrel of wine. It was my job to pick most of the berries. I also knew every weed that was edible and everything that grew wild that one could eat. Some of them I have read about since and they are considered to be poison, such as May apples, the fruit that grows on May flowers and a berry that grows on a bush. We called it a hozzle berry. I have eaten both of them in great amounts. I ate everything from birch bark to locust blossoms. They are delicious.
In the spring after the house was shut up all winter to keep out the cold, there was general house cleaning. The carpets were taken outside and hung over the clothes line where we beat out all the dust. We used a wire beater. It was shaped like a snow shoe and had a wooden handle. It seemed that the dust would never all come out. they didn’t use wall-to-wall carpets in those days and they didn’t have electric vacuum cleaners.
Every Monday was wash day. We had all of the so-called modern washing machines. The early models were hand-powered. Then they came out with one that was water powered, that is if you had sufficient water pressure. They all required the use of separate washtubs for rinsing. The wet clothes were put through a ringer, also hand powered. most of the houses I lived in had bath tubs but the wash tub also did duty in some homes as a bath tub. It was necessary to take a bath every Saturday whether you needed it or not. I always had to help with the wash even if it meant staying out of school.
After I was fourteen, I worked for several different steel mills. One of them made bolts and nuts. Another I worked for manufactured overhead cranes. These jobs had night and day shifts. You would work two weeks days; then two weeks nights. The hours were from 6am to 6pm and from 6pm to 6am, twelve hours each day.
I left school when I finished the eighth grade. I decided to learn to be an electrician. I worked for a company that supplied and repaired electrical equipment for the coal mines. This job paid $8.00 a week, 10 hour days. It was interesting work as I had a chance to go miles down in the coal mines. I tired of this job and decided to work for my Father. He had a cabinet shop and office furniture repair business. I learned more from my Dad than I ever could have learned in a vocational school.
I absolutely LOVED reading this. Wow. So much has changed!! Something that particularly stands out to me is how much ingenuity and what strong work ethic the boys had back then. I think of 14 year old boys nowadays and most of them would have a temper tantrum if they were asked to do chores or get a job!!
Oh, and I love his attitude toward government. His little quips made me laugh. Definitely a reflection of my own sentiments!
Sure wish I had my Great Grandpa Thomas here to share all of his homesteading know-how. I think he’d be proud of what his great granddaughter is trying to do. As he said, progress in reverse.