100-Year-Old Storyteller: Interview With Helen Geiszler—Part 5

Thanks to the Great Depression, instead of studying the business course in her junior year in high school, Helen Geiszler was becoming a seasoned veteran of the workforce.  By her late teens, she had worked as a house cleaner, a baked goods seller at a butcher shop, a grocery store cashier, and a cashier at G.C. Murphy’s.  Some jobs were part-time; all were low paying.  Essentially all wages went toward her family’s mortgage as was the case with her parents and oldest brother.

“And then one day I walked in Murphy’s on Market Street in Wilkinsburg.”  A friend who was working there suggested that Helen speak to the manager on the spot.  “I went up, and he said, ‘How would you like to start right now?’  Well,  I said,  ‘I’m due at East Liberty at 5:00.  I couldn’t just not show up. I don’t do that sort of thing.’  He said, ‘I’ll take care of East Liberty.  I’ll get in touch with them right away.  You go downstairs, and they’ll show you what to do.’  He put me on men and boys’ counters, and I was in charge of two counters full time.  $13 a week.  I was really happy.”

 

This is a similar G.C. Murphy once located in downtown Pittsburgh.  It was built between 1900 and 1930.

 

Helen was fortunate because, according to Wikipedia, G. C. Murphy stores performed better than any other retail chain during the Great Depression.  The company never laid off employees during the Depression, but they did have to eliminate overtime pay and dock employees for absences.

 

1930—Laketon Rd., Wilkinsburg, PA
The downward spiral continued across the country.  Unemployment rose 25%.  Helen was lucky to have any job.  She tells of a Wilkinsburg store owner who helped alleviate the problem of clothing.  “Her daughter was older than me, but she was about my size.  And she asked my mother if I could use dresses or shoes that she was discarding. My mother said,  ‘Oh, yeah, she’d be tickled pink to get them.’  She gave me a bunch of dresses and shoes, and I was in 7th heaven.  My mother was good with a sewing machine.  I couldn’t sew a stitch if I had to. She had to remodel all those dresses because they were too big for me.  That’s what I wore—hand-me-down dresses.”

 

“A lot of people today have no idea what that depression was like.  We ate fried mush.  Another meal was fried potatoes, and that was it.  My mother baked her own bread.  I said, ‘You should get welfare.  There’s people around here who get welfare that have more than we have, I betcha.’  I think she went down.  She said,  ‘I’ll just see if they’ll give me a sack of flour every couple of weeks for the bread I make.”

 

Though their thoughts and efforts were on economic survival, often consuming them, Helen and Edwin and friends were teenagers, after all, and needed a little fun to soothe the anxiety.  They needed their “toys” more than ever.

 

vintage Victrola“The boys had a train set later on; that was when we were in the new house. We went sled riding went it snowed.  We had 2 hills; there was a back hill and a front hill.” And if stress became overwhelming,  you could always wind up the Victrola and listen to Rudy Vallee and His Connnecticut Yankees like the girl in this photo may have been doing.  Photo courtesy of Don O’Brien   License

 

Edwin, nicknamed Bud, still harbored his building penchant. “My brother Bud made a row boat—an oversized row boat.  He made the boat all by himself down in our basement; that’s after we built the new house.  Dad went down one night and looked at it, and he said, ‘Yeah, but you’re not thinking how you’re going to get that out the door.’  Bud—he had the cutest grin—he looked at Dad with that grin and he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry.  I’ll get it out the door. I haven’t forgotten that.’  He built it in pieces and then took them out the door  and put it together out in the yard.”

 

Helen continued with a related story: “A girlfriend of mine lived with us for three years  because she couldn’t get along with her dad.  She was there at that time during the Depression.  We wanted to go swimming, so I said, ‘Let’s go out, Bea, and swim for a while.’ We couldn’t afford a swimming pool, so we used to go to the island in the Allegheny River  [near Tarentum, PA], and we called it ‘Depression Beach.’  I can’t remember how we got there because we didn’t have a car.”

“We were all sitting on the beach–the three boys [Helen’s brothers] and Bea and I.  The guys had the boat out at times and then would bring it back, and they were all resting.  They were all falling asleep, and Bea and I were sitting there talking.  I said, ‘Let’s take the boat out.’   I can’t swim a stroke, and I had never rowed a boat before   . . . and Bea hadn’t either.  Bea said, ‘Helen, you’re going to get in trouble.’  And I said, ‘I know, but let’s take it out anyway.'”

“And we did. A big barge came up the river and was making these big waves, and I said, ‘We got to get in those waves.  We rowed out there and got in those waves.  And the guys wakened up, and Bud’s yelling his head off.  ‘Get in here! Get in here!  You can’t swim a stroke.’

 

Helen  halted her story and  laughed. “Finally, then, we decided to go in, and boy did he give it to me.  ‘I’m telling Mom and Dad, and boy, you’re going to get it.’  And when we got home, did I get it.”

 

When you have virtually no discretionary income, you and your friends must get creative in entertaining yourselves.  Fortunately, Helen had her friends Flo and Eleanor to while away her free time. “We three ran around together all the time. Those girls liked to play the piano.  Their older sister Grace played for Kresge’s, one of the five and tens downtown.  They had a music counter, and she’d be the clerk behind that, and when somebody would want to hear the new sheet music, she’d play it for them.”
                                   Here is a former Kresge’s of the Pittsburgh area.
old Kresge's store in Pittsburgh area
“We used to walk to Laketon and Montier Streets to get the old Verona street car.  We  went to downtown [Pittsburgh] and stopped to see her.  Then we’d all get together up there and sing our heads off.  We sang, sang, sang, sang!

 

What other inexpensive pastimes did teenagers enjoy in Wilkinsburg?  “When we were teenagers, that’s when we started looking at the boys.  And then when we got older, we started going to Bowmans.  Bowmans had a dance hall at Penn and Wood on the third floor above the First National Bank.  We’d have to save up to get a quarter to go to the dance, and the car fare was only  a nickel.  One night a week for an hour they’d instruct you how to dance—ballroom dance.  We would go in circles and you’d march around and walk around and then we’d meet in the middle of the floor.  After that, you’d be on your own.  They loved to dance and I loved to dance, and, boy, that was our forte.”

 

 “That’s how I met my first boyfriend.  And he wanted to get married.  I was only 17.”

 

“But then we started going to McDougal’s in East Liberty.  They had a dance studio that was very popular.  They put up with no nonsense.  The one owner would walk through the crowd the whole night long, and then nobody ever got away with anything.  No liquor, no food.  They sold nothing.  Dance was all you did.  And that used to be a weekly outing.  We all loved to dance.”

 

“I remember one snowy night in the winter when we went dancing.  We were dancing, and we weren’t paying attention to the weather.  All of a sudden, a fella comes up to me and says, ‘A little blonde girl with a pink dress on—I’m looking for her.’  And he looks at me and he said, ‘You look like that.  You’re wanted on the phone.’  Oh my gosh!  I got scared.  It was my mother, and she said, ‘Did you look out lately? It’s been snowing ever since you left.  I don’t know how you’re going to get home.'”

 

“I got the girls together, and they said, ‘Oh, boy, we’d better get going.’  The last street car for Wilkinsburg always left at 12:00.  Well, we wouldn’t leave the dance early to get it, and  we would always miss it, so we’d have to walk to Wilkinsburg.  ‘How are we going to walk in snow in these high heels?'”

 

“The one girl says,  ‘This fella is from out around there. Let me ask him if there’s any chance that he could drive us home.   We’ll collect what we can and pay him.’  So she went and asked him, and he had a boyfriend, and he said yeah, they’d take us home.”   The poor guy never realized what it was like.  It was terrible.  He got up to Turner School and said,  ‘Girls, I don’t think I can make it.’  We said,  ‘That’s okay; we can make it from here.'”

 

“We got out then, and we paid him what we had.  It wasn’t much, believe me.  We walked,  soaking wet.”  She laughed and added,  “but it didn’t stop us from going again.  But today you couldn’t ask a stranger like that.  In those days we were walking these streets at 1:00 in the morning.  Nobody ever bothered us.  Nobody ever stopped the car.”

 

I guess that if all else failed as entertainment, teenagers could knock over outhouses, like my Dad and his friends did as a prank, or at least that’s the way the story goes.  My dad, you may remember, was 22 days younger than Helen and lived on the same street.

 

PA boys in 1929
My dad, in the middle, poses with friends in 1929 around the time of the stock market crash.  He was 14.

 

 

 

Most historians agree that the longest and deepest depression of the twentieth century finally ended with the advent of World War II.  “Mom and Dad always apologized to my older brother and I because we had to leave school early and then couldn’t get work anyway.  So, what are you going to do?  That whole depression was something else.  But we had lots of love at home.”

 

And that is what got Helen through the worst of it.  Family . . . and good friends.  Though their teenage years were assailed by the Great Depression, they still were not robbed of the typical toys and joys that accompanied the years between childhood and adulthood:  Swimming and rowing a homemade boat in the river, riding the trolley to meet downtown,  dancing at the local dance hall, experiencing first love . . . .

 

Helen could continue to regale us with personal  stories during World War II, but considering that my blog is called “Toys of Childhood Past,”  I believe I will close the book on Helen Geiszler’s childhood here.  I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Helen for sharing the late 1910’s through early 1930’s with me and my readers.  Her anecdotes and insights have been as instructive to me as any book on the subject.  Personally, I find her first-hand accounts of life of that era priceless.

 

Epilogue: I feel compelled to mention that in 1938, when the depression was easing, Bud and Roy, ages 25 and 20 respectively, pitched in to buy their first car—a used Chevy!

 

100-year-old friendHelen got married and has one daughter.  During World War II, she was a ledger clerk but spent the majority of her adult working life as a middle school secretary until retiring in 1979.

 

Out of respect for their privacy, I have changed the names of those mentioned during the interview.

To read about Helen’s childhood years, check out the first four posts in the series:

Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4

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Karen Gennari is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven. The paperback and e-book can be purchased online at eLectio Publishing, Amazon, or Barnesandnoble.com.