Clinton Hill in the 1930s

by Steven Eli Schanes


The "Clinton Hill" section of Newark in which I was raised consisted of two and three-story detached homes. Each had two or three families. The buildings were set back from the sidewalk, with a short concrete walk diving two small lawn areas. Each had a three or four step set of stairs in front and small covered entry way, all of which was called "the stoop". Each had two separate front doors, side-by-side, one for the downstairs family and the other for those living on the second and third floors.

The stoop was a very important part of life. Except on bad weather or cold days, it was here that the residents gathered at night. In the hot-humid summer evenings, when there was little or no breeze, rather than retreating to wet-feeling beds, we stayed up late, sitting on the porch. There was always something to talk about or to call out about to the neighboring stoops. Our night sky was totally full of stars- you could easily pick out the various constellations such as the Big and Little Dippers, the North Star and the Milky Way. The street lights were only set at the end of each block, so that our night vision was unobstructed. We talked about the news, the latest sporting event, and we played word games. When radio began to broadcast baseball games and prize fights, these became the focus of late evening conversation after the event ended.

The various nationality and racial groups moved through Newark in waves, starting at the lower southern geographical areas and then moving North. By the time I was born, the Protestant English and Northern European people who lived in Newark in the 1800s had moved North to Irvington and the Oranges. The Vailsburg section, where we lived during my baby days, was now largely Irish Catholic. Clinton Avenue divided the Clinton Hill section, where I grew up, between the Jews and the Irish. The Irish kids went to parochial school, we went to the public school (Bergen Street School). There was almost complete separation. I suppose you could call these racial neighborhoods "ghettos", in that as I grew up, I very rarely came in contact with anyone who wasn't Jewish. However, these neighborhoods were not like the picture of New York City's "huddled masses", living in crowded tenement houses. The houses were well-kept, the streets were wide and tree-lined. Many streets had tree and lawn strips running length-wise, separating the two-way traffic. These strips ended at every side street, leaving a large paved space that was good for skating or playing various ball games.

Our homes had electricity. Usually there was just one wall outlet or a hanging lamp in any room. We ran electric wires from the one outlet to the various lamps and appliances- such as toasters. To protect against overloading and fires, each house was wired with fuses which "blew" if too many lights and other things were on the same line. To save money, people would insert copper pennies in front of the fuses. That eliminated the electrical stoppages, but led to a good number of disasters.

We had steam heat, provided by a coal furnace in the cellar. My father taught me how to manage the fire- and I loved shoveling in the coal, shaking the hot pile so that the ashes would fall through to the bottom, and shoveling the ashes into a can. My father would carry the can out to be picked up by the garbage men. One of the things you had to do was to check a water gauge and let in water, to make sure that there was enough water inside the furnace to make the steam- if the level got too low, the furnace might burn up.

I remember our first electric refrigerator. It was a big white box, with a large metal coil on top. It replaced our ice box, a wooden box with two doors, one for the food, the other for the block of ice. Underneath, there was a pan for the melted water, which had to be emptied regularly.

The iceman would come every second or third day, carrying a large block of ice on his back. He had a piece of canvas in which he wrapped the ice, which he slung over his shoulder. He carried the ice up the back stairs to the second or third floors. His coming was a big event in our young lives. His wagon was drawn by a large brown horse. The back was open and the ice was stacked in large blocks. He would leap up onto the back of the wagon, pull out an ice pick which had been stuck into the wood of the wagon, and then hack at the big ice block to cut out the proper size for that house. He made ten-cent blocks and twenty-five cent blocks. I enjoyed watching the ice crack and create interior seams as we worked. And when the iceman left the wagon with a block of ice, we would lean up and take slivers of ice to suck on. The slivers were covered with sawdust, but that never bothered us.

I don't know when the iceman changed from a horse to a gas-powered vehicle. When he did, he had a power ice-shaping gadget which made his work much easier- and which threw off smaller ice slivers for our benefit. However, the slivers were now in a fenced-off area and some brave soul had to jump up into the wagon to get handfuls for us.

Most of the service people had horse drawn wagons- the milk man, the bread man, the laundry man, the man who sharpened knives and scissors, sounding a loud clang as he rode along, the man who hawked fruits and vegetables, shouting his various wares and prices. The housewives would come out to his wagon to haggle and buy. There was a man who sold "notions"- something like a moving drugstore- carrying a portable box and going from door-to-door.

There was the life insurance man- who came in a car every week, dressed in a black business suit. He carried a large book- I think it was called a "debit book- in which he recorded the amount he received from each payee. The only way people could afford life insurance was by making small payments. As an example, when I was thirteen, my parents signed up for a $500 life insurance policy which became fully paid-up in fifteen years. They made small weekly payments, which was not easy for them to do, and when I was 28, they presented me with the $500 check. By then, inflation had seriously eroded the value of the dollar, and the $500 went just for the first coat of paint on our house.

I remember trying to make a crystal radio work. You wore ear pieces attached to a needle, which you poked at a small piece of some mineral, hoping to hear something- a voice or music. However, even receiving static was exciting. Radio was at an early stage- most reception was poor. The Buchbinders (our landlords at 132 Osborne Terrace) bought a very modern radio which had a green light that supposedly told them when they were at the closest point on the radio dial for the best reception from a station. We had only AM; FM first came in sometime in the 1940s. A dial was exactly that, there were no push buttons. Having a radio in your car was a special luxury.

Only a comparatively few people had cars. The most popular for kids were the coupes which had rumble seats- back open-air seats that opened by pulling up on a back handle. And we loved to jump on the running boards-narrow platforms along the cars' doors- and hold on to the car for a short ride. There was no automatic drive, air-conditioning, or most of the present-day conveniences. There was little thought about safety- no seat belts- or pollution. The streets were narrow; it was hard to pass another car. And the highways were two-lane at most, many of them not fully paved.

The major city transportation was provided by trolley cars, which rode on metal tracks and were powered by electric overhead wires. As kids, we loved the trolleys, especially in the warm seasons, since they had open-air sections. However, the trolleys tracks were usually along the center of the street and this meant that it was difficult for cars to pass, especially along narrow streets, so traffic moved slowly.

It would be impossible for me to list all of the products, systems and services that are common in the year 2000, but which were not in existence in the 1930s. Just in the house, we did not have air conditioning, electric heating and cooking, television, computers, garage door openers, microwaves, electric or battery-operated calculators, plastic, FM radio, stereo and CD players, push-button telephones, etc. In fact, non-breakable dishware only became generally available in the late 1940s (The first dishes, called Melmac, were colored light brown or light purple, and over time picked up stains.)

My earliest telephone had no dial you picked up the received and spoke into a separate microphone, giving the operator the telephone number. Like most people, we had a "party-line" telephone- sharing the service with a number of other users, for a lower charge. Often times, you would not know who was listening to your telephone conversation. Of course, eavesdropping was great fun for kids. Later in the 1930s, the telephones came with rotary dials, which were fun to play with.

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©Steven E. Schanes 2002
August 24, 2000

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