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
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