We Baby Boomers enjoy waxing nostalgic about such simple childhood pleasures as shooting marbles and listening to 45’s on our RCA Victor. We reminisce about ordering a Big Boy from a car hop and adjusting the rabbit ears on our black and white TV just in time for Have Gun Will Travel. Well, move over, Boomers, and make way for Helen Geiszler. At 100 years old, she’s been there and done that . . . and considerably more.
Born in 1914 during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and the start of World War I, and a teenager during the Great Depression, Helen has many a tale to tell. Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down to lunch with Helen to discuss her childhood and the toys that were popular in the 1910’s and 1920’s. I was pleasantly surprised to get more than I had bargained for.
The path that Helen and I took to discover a personal connection was quite circuitous. Eight years ago, I joined a Pittsburgh choir, where I met a singer named Pat. Pat and I got to talking one day, and, to our amazement, we learned that when we were children, we lived a mere half mile from each other. I lived on Crab Hollow Road in Penn Hills; she lived on Laketon Road in Wilkinsburg, the same road that my dad had grown up on thirty years before.
Even more astonishing is that the day I met Pat’s father Roy, I discovered that he too had grown up on Laketon Road, the same as my dad’s family, in the 1910’s and 1920’s. In fact, Roy had delivered their newspaper every day for years.
Through Roy, I met his sister Helen, who remembered my dad although she never knew him well. It turns out that she and my dad had been born only 22 days apart in November 1914. I lost my dad in 1992, so it was a special treat for me to hear of the days of his childhood in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania.
Helen and her niece Pat
Before directly discussing Helen’s childhood and the popular toys of the time, I would like to present some background on life in Wilkinsburg in the first decades of the twentieth century. The borough of Wilkinsburg was once a part of the city of Pittsburgh but separated from it in 1871. From what I can surmise through my research, postcard photos from the Allegheny County PAGenWeb Archives, and Helen herself, in the 1910’s and 1920’s, there was a bustling “downtown,” centered around Penn Avenue and Wood Street. Below is a 1910 photo of Penn Avenue, contributed by Ellis Michaels to the Archives, showing the business district with horse drawn carriages and street car tracks supplying the main methods of transportation.
Close to the center of town were lovely residential areas such as the ones shown here, also contributed by Ellis Michaels to the GenWeb Archives.
However, regarding the outskirts of town, including Laketon Road, Helen tells a different story. “There were farms and cow pastures. Laketon was just an old dirt road, and we never had any sidewalks.”
Like many areas of Pittsburgh, rolling hills abounded in the Laketon Road area of Wilkinsburg, which is evident in this photo taken from the Geiszler’s backyard garden.
There were four children in Helen’s family—three boys and Helen. Edwin, nicknamed Bud, was the oldest, followed by Helen, Roy, and Bob. “My father worked at Switch and Signal. He worked on motors that they used on railroad signals. Most were coal miners.”
Helen, nicknamed Sis, and her brother Bud circa 1917
Photo labeled “on the hill back of our house”
I asked Helen if they were a middle class family. “Oh, no, we were very poor. I think we were as low as we could get. The problem was my father never drove. We never had a car. Not too many had cars in those days.” In 1918, when Helen was four years old, only one in thirteen families owned a car, the Ford Model T being the overwhelming favorite.
The 1920 Ford Model T, the first affordable automobile for the middle class
unchanged photo by Vicki & Chuck Rogers
Helen lamented that her family had to order their groceries from Laird’s Store. “Mary Katz would come around every day and take people’s grocery orders. They couldn’t sell like the chains did. Mary came and took our order, and then they’d deliver it. That’s where we had to deal all the time because we had no car, and we couldn’t go carrying groceries. And you had to pay plenty for the groceries and delivery.”
“Never money for this, never money for that. Even when my dad was sick, he wouldn’t stay home from work. He used to get hay fever so badly, and the tears would run down his cheeks. His eyes would water so from that, and he just looked terrible, but he would not stay home from work.”
“We lived in a three-room ‘shack’—not three bedrooms—three rooms: a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom. We had no running water, no heat. The others [in the neighborhood] had it. We had to go outside to pump water. We had a coal stove in the kitchen, and that we had to do all the cooking and baking on.” Most homes at that time were supplied with gas or electric stoves.
“We had a little gas heater in the living room, and that was it as far as heat was concerned. I slept in my parents’ bedroom, and there wasn’t a bit of heat in there. My mother heated up a brick and wrapped it in a little hunk of blanket and put it at my feet. Well, one night, the smell of smoke wakened my dad, and here she had gotten that brick too hot that night, and there was a hole burned through my covers on my bed. If he hadn’t smelled that, that old shack might have been ashes. This ‘little old shack,’ we called it. My parents must have gotten married without a cent to their name.”
The telephone was a hot new commodity in the 1910’s, but Helen’s family did not own one. As a matter of fact, according to Helen, “The Braggs were the only ones that had a telephone. The rest of us couldn’t afford it. Mrs. Bragg would take calls for everybody. She’d go out the back door, and she’d stand there and—my mother’s name was Louise—and she’d say, ‘Lou-ieeese, come to the phone!’ She was a nice lady, a very nice lady.”
a Western Electric 1920’s telephone
unchanged photo by Joe Haupt
I would love to hear from other centenarians with stories to tell about their childhood. What was life like in your neck of the woods in the 1910’s and 1920’s?
Out of respect for their privacy, I have changed the names of those mentioned during the interview.
The interview continues with my next post, 100-Year-Old Storyteller: Interview With Helen Geiszler Part 2, in which Helen and I discuss her childhood play and toys of the 1910’s and 1920’s.
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.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.