Summary: Reminiscences of the Great Depression by a factory worker

Henry Boucher, French Canadian mill worker, Woonsocket, MA

Narratives from: American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940.

Reminiscence of the Great Depression

“After the honeymoon we returned to our jobs, I to the mill and Alice to her job in the Rubber shop where she made $24 a week. After we had settled down I became ambitious for the first time in my life. We talked it over and figured out a budget by which we could save $20 every week. We planned to save this amount every week for the next twenty years, by which time we would be worth $20,000. Then we intended to buy a farm and spend the rest of our life in peace and quiet, never again to worry about a job, slack times, or the necessity to answer the mill bell. It was a beautiful dream and we tried to make it a reality. On the second anniversary of our marriage we had $2,500 in the bank, $500 more than we had planned on. We were living in a comfortable and modern home in a residential district. The furniture was paid for and we did not owe a cent to anyone. We were also the proud possessors of a Ford car that was nearly paid for.

“That night we were very happy and proud of what we had accomplished in the two years since our marriage. Our friends gathered at our home and we held a party. It was a gay party. Some of the time was spent in singing old songs and telling stories, then all gathered around and started telling of the hardships that each of us went through in our childhood — how we had to wear our older brother’s cast-off clothing that was go faded and patched that you could not tell what the original color was; how each of us longed for Sunday, as that was the only day on which we had meat for dinner. The life that we had lived as children was, in 1924, laughable, for all of us knew that conditions could never be like that again. How could we foresee the future? Everyone at the party was well clothed, well nourished, happy, willing to work for what they desired and were working at good pay. Each one was planning to possess more of the necessities and the luxuries of life. One wanted an electric refrigerator, another a new car, some were saving so that they might purchase a home or a business.

“During our third year of married life in 1925, a son was born to us. He was named Henry in honor of my father-in-law. A few months previous to the birth of our son, my wife gave up her job in the factory, but as I had had a promotion to ‘warp-starter’ and was making $50 a week we were able to continue saving $20 every week. The next year we became the parents of a daughter, whom we named Marie. From this time on I was unable to save $20 a week but put in the bank some money every payday. After the birth of our second son, Homer, in 1927, my wife became ill and needed medical attention. Because of this I was unable to save any money, for the Doctor’s bills used up whatever surplus money we had.

“In 1928 work in the mills began to slacken and I was laid off. After being out of work for two months I secured employment in the Saranac mill as a weaver. At this job I received $40 a week, but I believed that in a short time I would again find employment as warp-starter. The next year conditions were worse and I was without work for three months. My wife and I were not worried about the future, as we believed that the mills would be slack for only a short period, as they were in 1921. So we lived on what I made and did not touch the $3,500 that we had in the bank. I was without work for six months in 1930 and we were forced to use some of the money that we had saved. But I was in a better position than most of my friends who were buying houses and were unable to meet their payments. My brother Peter was caught in this condition and as the bank was going to foreclose on his house I loaned him $500. I knew that he, a cutter in the Rubber Shop, making $70 a week, would be able to repay me as soon as his work picked up. Then without warning the Rubber Shop closed down and moved out of the city, throwing 1,500 people out of work. The next year, 1931, the bottom dropped out of everything and we were forced to use up most of our savings. In only one way, was I fortunate, and that was that I had no more Doctor’s bills to pay, as my wife was well again. The bank foreclosed on my brother’s house and my $500 was gone. My father died in July and after the funeral my mother came to live with me. She did not live long after my father but died in October, 1931. As neither my father nor mother believed in life insurance, all of their children contributed to the cost of the funerals. I was unable to find work and spent the entire year hanging around the streets. By the end of 1931 my bank balance was less than $500 and going down rapidly.

“In September, 1932 I reached the end of my resources. I was desperate, with a wife and three children to support I was unable to find work of any kind. All of my friends were in the same predicament. Finally I had to go on relief, and what a relief that was! I shall always remember my experience while trying to get relief from the city. I went down to City Hall and registered at the Poor Department. After looking me up they gave me a pass to obtain food. But in order to receive the food I had to stand in line on Main Street with every passerby staring at me.

“One day I stood in a line that blocked one side of Main Street for four hours before I received a small bag of flour and two pounds of dried peas. Of course my family was unable to live on what I received from the Poor Department so I was continually moving to cheaper tenements until at last I was living in a basement on Social Street. The same type of tenement that I was born in. The home that I had taken such pride in was broken up and the fine furniture that my wife and I had worked for we had to sell to second-hand furniture dealers. It is not correct to say that I sold the furniture because the money that I received for it was so little that it was almost equivalent to giving it away. But my children had to have food and clothing. The rent had to be paid and coal to be bought.

“There was a soup kitchen on Social Street and my son would go down there with a pail and bring home some soup. This helped out the small amount of food that I received from the Poor Department and kept my family from actual starvation. My family was very poor when I was a child and when work in the mills was slack we would not have much to eat but in Woonsocket never before was it necessary for anyone to have to go to a public Soup kitchen in order not to starve.

“In 1934 I obtained employment as a weaver in the Montrose mill. I worked steady the whole year except for a few weeks when the mill was closed by a strike. But working conditions had changed. They were as different as day and night from the working conditions of the 1920 to 1930 period. The pay had been greatly reduced and the amount of work per man had been increased. I had been making $40 a week as a weaver operating two looms. Now I am operating six looms on the same material and only making $24 a week. I am lucky that I am working on fine worsted cloth because in some mills on coarser cloth, the weavers now operate from eight to twenty-four looms for $24 a week. Apparently the only thing that a textile worker can rely upon in these times is that the mill owner will never suffer lower profits as long as he can transfer the burden upon his employees.

“In 1935 I was again laid off and the money that I had made in 1934 was soon used up, then back to the relief I went. Since that time I have worked about six months in each year, and being unable to support my family when I an not working, I usually spend the rest of the year on the relief. The last place that I worked was in the Montrose as a weaver, in the Spring of 1938. I worked here for four months but I knew that it would not last forever.

“One morning I left my house and as I entered the weave shop I could sense the tension that seemed to be in the air. The looms clattered, the men moved about. The belts and pulleys whirred. A typical weave room interior. But on this Friday morning there was something lacking. No one was talking, there was no laughter. Joseph Boyce, who worked next to me, did not raise his head from his work to call a greeting, nor did he ask me how I intended to spend the weekend, as he was wont to do. Everyone was silently working, busy with their thoughts. For about a week past there had been rumors that the work in the mill was getting slack. Only three days ago six spinners were laid off and the rumor was that eight weavers would lose their jobs this afternoon. I was, in length of service, one of the youngest weavers in the mill and I believed that I would be one of the first to be laid off. But there was nothing sure about it. Sometimes an old hand, whom the boss disliked was laid off and a newcomer kept. This uncertainty kept every weaver under a strain until they knew just who was to get the bounce. So they continued to work hard and silently until lunch time, for this was one day that no one wanted to make a mistake and have the foreman’s attention called to him. While eating lunch the weavers could talk of nothing but who was to be laid off. While the newcomers believed that they would be the first to go, many of the old-timers remembered how they had spoiled yards of cloth and how displeased the boss had been with them. They wondered if he would remember the many times that he had bawled them out and take revenge by letting them go. So in this frame of mind the weavers started the afternoon shift.

“This afternoon the foreman of the weave room did not walk around the room as he was accustomed to do, and it was nearly the close of the afternoon before he stepped from his office. Instantly, the eyes of all the weavers were upon him, watching where he was going, and each man hoping that the foreman would not come to him with the sad news. I saw the foreman turn to a weaver and start talking to him. They talked for a few minutes while everyone in the room watched. The foreman then turned away and approached another weaver. The first weaver spread his arms out wide in a gesture and everyone then knew that the foreman was laying off help. All eyes then turned to the foreman, watching to see who was being laid off. I watched the slow progress of the foreman as he went from man to man, telling them the bad news. He was now at the next loom and I prayed that I might be spared. But it was not to be, for the foreman slowly walked over to me and said, ‘You know what I have to say. I have a list of men who are to be laid off and your name is on it. They are laying off in every room of the mill and if more work don’t come in the rest of the weavers will be out next week. This is no reflection upon your work, which has been good; and I’ll be glad to hire you back just as soon as the work picks up.’ I replied, ‘Well, I guess all the fellows here are in the same boat that I’m in. All of us are broke. This will mean plenty of hardship for my family. After eating good for the past five months, the first few meals of that relief canned Corn beef is going to be hell for the kids. But thanks for your offer to rehire me when the work picks up. I’ll certainly be glad to get back to work.’ The foreman then returned to his office and the weavers gathered into a group asking each other what the boss said to them. The men who were laid off now that the tension had been broken, began to joke and one said, ‘Will Johnny Ryan, the Director of Public Aid be glad to see me? Like hell he will. The last time I was on relief I had to haunt him in order to get any commodities. Every time he turned around I would be at his elbow asking for something.’ Another said, ‘This loafing is all right in some ways but I’ll always blame the last lay off for the twins my wife had.’ I said, ‘I wonder how long I’ll have to wait for my unemployment compensation checks. The last time I had to wait ten weeks before I got the first one and then the amount was wrong.’ And so for a few minutes they joked and talked of the future. They then returned to work.

“My mind was not on my looms. I was thinking of the greatly lowered standard of living that my family would have to endure while I was out of work. I thought of my new radio that I was paying one dollar a week on. That would soon be taken back by the dealer. And then there was the dreadful ordeal of informing my wife and children that I had been laid off. I knew that there would be no handiness or laughter in my home this night. How could I support my family on the six or seven dollars a week that I would receive from a relief? How long would I be without work this time? I stood there thinking these gloomy thoughts, not caring how my looms ran. What did I care now if a ‘smash’ or dropped thread was made in the cloth? Let some one else worry about that. At bell time I made a bundle of my overalls and silently slipped out of the mill. I started walking home wishing that the road was twice as long so that I would not have to face my family so soon.

“When I reached home my wife saw by the sorrowful look upon my face that something had gone wrong and she asked, ‘What is the matter Henry?’ I replied, ‘The same old thing. I’m laid off and don’t know when I’ll go back.’ Across my wife’s face an expression of fear flashed but she quickly rallied and said. “Well, you can’t help that, so stop looking as though you were at your own wake. We have been on relief before and we’re still alive so sit down and eat your supper. You’ll feel better then.” I sat down at the table but could eat very little. All this time the children, seated around the table, had been listening to the conversation and looking at me with wide staring eyes. Only too well did they know what this meant, less food, no new clothes, no money to go to the movies, peeking through the window curtains when someone knocked upon the door, to see if it was a bill collector, moving to a less desirable tenement in short, misery for everyone in the family. After supper I was unable to stand the silence and gloom that seemed to settle over the house so I put on my coat and said, ‘Alice, I’m going down to the corner for a minute.’ My wife, knowing full well where I was going said, ‘Make sure you come home sober.’ So, leaving the house I hurriedly walked to ‘Fats’ saloon. In there, men would be talking upon every subject. There would also be jokes and laughter and for a few hours I could forget that my next pay would be the last one that I would receive for a long time.

“The next day I applied for my unemployment compensation and because of waiting for these cheeks I was unable to go on the relief for two months. By this time I was completely broke, so for the next few months we struggled along on the six dollars a week that I received from the relief. But week by week we were going deeper in debt for rent, electricity, and many other small bills. One morning a Deputy Sheriff handed me an eviction notice and departed. And there I sat, in the kitchen, alone, forlorn and in despair. It was the morning of November 25, just one month before Christmas, and in my hand I held the notice from the court to evacuate the tenement that I occupied. This was not the first eviction notice that I had ever received. During the past ten years, the deputy Sheriffs had worn a path to my door delivering eviction notices, writs of attachment and liens on my pay. How could I break the news to my wife, when she returned from a visit to a neighbor’s house? Where could we go? When you are on relief and only receive six dollars a week it is impossible to support a family and pay rent. The landlords did not care to rent a tenement to families on relief as they could not be sure of their rent. So most of them were demanding their rent in advance. If I could find a tenement, where could I borrow the three dollars for the first week’s rent? What a Christmas was in store for my children! As I sat there alone with my thoughts the door opened and my wife walked in. Without talking I handed her the eviction notice. She knew what it was. She had seen many of them since 1930. Silently she laid it down and started to prepare dinner, each of us wondering where we could find a tenement.

“A knock on the door. We looked at each other. What more trouble was coming to us? Good news had been absent from our lives for more than ten years. My wife slowly and listlessly walked to the door and opened it.

There stood Adrian Bonin, with a broad smile upon his face and he said, ‘O boy, Henry, I have thees fine news for you. De boss wants for you to come to work tomorrow morning. Thees mill she’s get the big order. We’ll work all winter.’

“The next morning I was at the mill gates an hour before bell time. There I found all of my fellow workers and I joined in their conversation. Each asked the other what they had been doing during the lay off and what were they going to do with their first pay? There were predictions, laughingly made that ‘Fat’s’ saloon would do a rushing business on pay night. But under all this gay jesting everyone of us knew that when the order was finished in a few months, we would again be laid off, to a tramp the streets while we collected our unemployment compensation checks and then back on relief we would have to go until the mill started running full time again. We had gone through this routine many times in the past ten years and each one of us knew that he would go through it many times in the future.