buried treasure: schlesinger’s 1930s

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (2000) A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Though I don’t have time to finish this 530-page first volume of memoirs by the historian and Kennedy advisor, it is good enough to save for later. Schlesinger is a great summarizer of his times and their texts and communities, at least the elite communities. The paean to the years in the Yard that is obligatory for all Harvard men is divided into “Harvard College: What I Did,” “Harvard College: What I Enjoyed,” and “Harvard College: What I Learned.” The first of these chapters begins with the following technical description (108-112), which I have cut for length and palatability; although keen to distance himself from contemporary attitudes to “Negroes” and Jews, Schlesinger is less modern on gender and sexual orientation.

Let me recall superficialities of life in the Thirties. Daily routines were more complicated then. When we went to bed at night, we had to wind our watches; the battery-powered watch was still to come. When we dressed in the morning, some began by putting on BVDs, a form of one-piece underwear now extinct; the more advanced turned to shorts and undershirts, though, after seeing Clark Gable in It Happened One Night in 1934 most of us discarded the undershirt …

When we bought a suit, two pairs of pants came with the jacket and vest. After putting on pants (no khakis or jeans), we had to button our flies; the zipper did not appear till the late Thirties … Garters still held up socks, and we had to lace our shoes; the loafer or moccasin was not yet acceptable …

When we wanted sandwiches, we had to use a knife to slice the bread; sliced bread was still in the future. When we went outdoors, we put on hats – gray felt in winter, soft panama in summer. Hatless John Kennedy killed the hat craze in 1960, much to the chagrin of his powerful supporter in New York, Alex Rose, the head of the Hatters Union and boss of the Liberal party. On cold days in the year 2000 I wear a cap; in the Thirties the cap was strictly a proletarian taste …

When we had writing to do, we filled fountain pens from inkwells; the ball-point pen was still to come. The word processor was beyond imagining, even by Verne or Wells … [University dormitories had maids and dining halls had waitresses.- 113]

Telephone calls cost a nickel. (A depression joke: President Hoover asked Andrew Mellon, his secretary of the treasury, for the loan of a nickel to call a friend. Mellon replied, “Here’s a dime, call up all your friends.”) If we had letters to mail, we used a two-cent stamp, which we had to lick before affixing to the envelope. There were two deliveries a day in residential areas, more in business districts. A letter posted in Boston before five in the afternoon was delivered in New York before nine the next morning. If the message was urgent, we paid ten cents for special delivery. If the urgency was extreme, Western Union or Postal Telegraph would deliver messages to the door at all hours of day or night.

When it rained, we carried only black umbrellas. When we traveled, redcaps were available to carry excess luggage; suitcases in those days had no wheels. When we were sick, doctors paid house calls. There was no penicillin for them to prescribe. People smoked all the time. Movie houses had balconies.

Newspapers cost two cents, and there were still afternoon papers. On Sunday the 
New York Times cost ten cents. Novels cost two dollars and a half; nonfiction, three dollars; afternoon movies a quarter; plays in the evening up to $4.40. A haircut was fifty cents; cigarettes, fifteen cents a pack. Five-and-ten-cent stores – Woolworth’s, Kresge’s – sold things for five and ten cents. Those of us whose pecuniary reflexes were formed in the Thirties are perennially outraged by the prices demanded in the twenty-first century. “I simply cannot afford to live, it daily seems to me,” writes John Updike, “as I size up 1999 prices in the dollars of 1939.”

For more expensive purchases, we used cash or charge accounts. Although Edward Bellamy had invented the credit card half a century before in
Looking Backward, capitalism would not catch up with his socialism in this respect till the Fifties. We had no television, no air conditioning, no electric blankets …

When we drove, we shifted gears and lowered windows by hand. Automobiles had a choke and running boards but no seat belts or directional signals; you stuck out an arm to alert the car behind you to a slowdown or a turn. Flashy people had cars with rumble seats. Flashier ones had convertibles. Gasoline cost eleven cents a gallon, and station attendants rushed to fill the tank, check oil and water, wipe the windshield – and provide free road maps.

Our drinking tastes tended towards sweetness: old-fashioneds, Manhattans, Stingers, Tom Collinses, and the Sloe Gin Fizz … Ed James and I used to serve a drink made of gin, grapefruit juice and grenadine – it sounds horrid in retrospect. Drugs? We had heard of marijuana as an addiction of jazz musicians …

Manners were more formal. Older men, even close and devoted friends, often addressed each other by last names. Few men, except for Grover Cleveland Alexander and the House of David baseball team, wore beards. Long hair, crew cuts, sideburns were little seen. Social kissing between men and women, now so common, was rare, at least in academic circles … Divorce, in Boston anyway, was still a scandal. When Charles P. Curtis was divorced, he resigned from the Harvard Corporation; when Kenneth Murdock was divorced, he resigned as master of Leverett House.

“Swell,” a beatific Twenties word denoting special enthusiasm (equivalent, for example, to “terrific” in the Sixties), lingered a bit in the Thirties, especially in Hollywood musicals (”Go out there and be so swell you’ll make me hate you,” Bebe Daniels, the star, to Ruby Keeler, her replacement, in 42nd Street). The Thirties came up with no beatific word of its own, not being a notably beatific decade.

And no one in the Thirties ever said, “Have a nice day.”

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