My Grandfather's Memories of Newark

by Jim DuPlessis

The following is a combined and edited transcript of two tapes I received in 1985 from my grandfather, Bernard Louis DuPlessis (1904-1992) who lived in Newark from 1906 to 1933. If anyone has any further information, especially about the history of the Newark Star and the Typographers Union there, please email me at:
Jim DuPlessis, Camden, S.C., Nov. 29, 2000

Our neighborhoods

When I was a kid ... there was an Irish section in the Ironbound; there was a Polish section; there was a decidedly German area, a couple of them actually. They were your principal immigrant groups and then later the Italians. As the generations prospered they got away from that kinfolk thing and they moved into other areas and mixed up with each other. But that was the big fact of life in the 19-teens, the 1890s and the 1880s You stayed pretty much with your own people.

We had a nice neighborhood where I lived from 1912, when I was 8 years old until I got married. Actually, the one before that wasn't too bad. My folks had come from Syracuse and they didn't know their way around and we lived in a little two-family house on Astor Street when we first got there, when I was 2 1/2 years old [mid-1906], then we moved into a three-family, also on Astor Street, until 1912.

[The] very first house we moved to in 1912 [was] at 206 Custer. Later we moved to 350 Chadwick Avenue during World War I into a flat -- a nice one. When the war was over, my mother and father bought a house at 223 Custer and I was married out of that house [in 1930]. Custer Avenue was a nice block. We had some men who good, white-collar jobs -- salesmen -- but there were a lot of men who have disappeared as far as their occupation. They were skilled mechanics, men who had learned a trade as an apprentice and then had worked at it and as grown men were respected for what they did. Toolmakers, die-makers, machinists, or men like my father at the newspaper operating one of those Merganthaler [Linotype] machines.

Now, where did we shop?

We had neighborhood areas where we did our day-to-day shopping. One feature -- this was the big cities in the East certainly -- was the little pop-and-mom variety stores. They carried underwear, clothing, stockings, thread, materials, and things like that. And as I said earlier, for vegetables you went to a vegetable store, for meat we went to the butcher, and for staple groceries we went usually to the chain stores. Now the big department stores were downtown and they did a tremendous business. We had Haynes[sp?], which is still in existence, Bambergers and co, still in existence. Both of them have a lot of stores throughout the state now. And others that are gone Kresky's, and Gerks, and a few like that. They mostly catered to a something less than the people that Haynes and Bambergers catered to.

What did the streets sound like and smell like?

I was trying to remember. Of course, when I was a little kid there weren't many automobiles, but there were an awful lot of horses. At night there would be a wagon go around -- a water wagon -- that would wash the streets. The streets were humped so that the water would flow to the curb and down into the sewers. There were street cleaners. I mentioned the Alice Austen pictures; there's one striking picture in that book, American Album, of a street cleaner talking to a helmeted cop. He's got his little wagon that he pushed around that looks like a garbage can on wheels. Almost exactly like that. And he's got a shovel and a broom. What he did -- as you can guess - is get rid of most of the horse droppings. And at night the street would be clean and they would start up fresh again the next morning. And, of course, the sound was what? Well, jitney horns and claxons, and things like that.

I'll always remember as a kid our street in front of our house at the end of the Fourth of July. It was covered with little bits of red paper from one side of the street to the other -- from firecrackers that had been set off. That was a big thing then. Of course, they were campaigning against it in that day too and eventually the celebration of the Fourth of July via firecrackers was a thing of the past.

The Civil War was still a big factor in American life when I was a youngster. There was the annual Memorial Day parades with the Civil War veterans, now pretty well along in years, in carriages and occasionally some of them would march on foot in the parades. When I moved in 1912, I met an old gentleman on the next block who had been wounded at Antietam, that's Sharpsburg to the Southern people. He showed me the wound. It looked to me -- and I can still see it -- like a big tumor right in the crook of his left arm. He had a lot of books on the Civil War. They were Harper's Weekly and they were drawings, they weren't photographs. And I ate those books up. You think of it That was less than 50 years after the end of the Civil War. My father 20 years before had been in the National Guard and his captain had fought in the Civil War, so it was still a strong tie-in to those years.

You asked me what we ate back in the good old days.

Of course, we didn't have the frozen foods then. We did have canned goods, and of course fresh vegetables and meats. But you had a butcher where you bought meat and a vegetable store where you bought vegetables. ...But when our supermarkets came after World War II, that pretty well disappeared. In fact, to a large extent even before then. But the chain grocery where I worked just handled almost entirely packaged food.

I'm trying to think what we had for breakfast as a kid. We weren't much for eggs. I know we had oatmeal for breakfast in the wintertime. I guess we had cornflakes or some glorified version of them in the warmer weather. There was always plenty of milk to drink, and we had toast. There was sort of a four-sided thing you could put on the gas stove I guess. It would toast the bread, then you had to change sides on it. It toasted only one side at a time. I can dimly remember a big, black, highly polished anthracite coal stove, but it was probably in the very first house we moved to in 1912, at 206 Custer. I never went hungry. I say that advisedly I had a fellow I worked with and his father was in the construction business and he would tell me about the times they went hungry when work was scarce.

My father belonged to a union. He had a steady job. His job was protected from vicarious firing and that sort of thing. In other words, it was a contract. While he didn't make a great deal of money, and of course he didn't drink -- he was a teetotaler -- so the money was brought home faithfully every Friday. Incidentally, when I worked -- almost to the time I got married -- I brought my money home. My mother doled out what I needed. I never thought it was a bad arrangement.

[Summer of 1917]

It was a very bigoted area at the time as far as the Catholics were concerned. The ads in the papers for help always began 'wanted young man, white, Protestant' and then stated the other requirements. The Catholics had a much more difficult time getting a job. And then of course there were organized groups who made a fetish of anti-Catholic actions, speeches and so on. So we didn't have it too easy. You pretty much mixed with your own kind.

The very first job that I ever had ... I caddied for a man and he apparently liked me. He had a jobbing business in New York where he sold to retailers socks, as I remember. He had this showroom with trestle tables full of boxes in which he displayed his stuff. Did very well I'm sure. As I said, I caddied for him, and I did hear him make a remark about 'priest-lovers' and all that sort of thing, but I didn't pay any attention to it. Now the guy must have liked me or he wouldn't have given me a job. I was only 13 and we needed it. World War I had just started, the cost of living had gone up and my father's income hadn't and we could have used the income from my job. Anyway, on Wednesday of the week I worked there, the bookkeeper came up and asked me what my religion was and I told her I was Catholic. On Saturday, she brought out my check and said 'we won't need you any further.' So I had a date with my mother. We were going to have lunch and some kind of little celebration, so that sort of put a quietus on that.

The next day almost I got a job with the Heller File Works in north Newark. They made industrial-type files, I mean rasps. My job was to stand in front of an emory wheel with the seconds, the ones that had imperfections, and rasp off the name of the manufacturer so they could sell them as seconds without the manufacturer's name on it. That was my job for the rest of that summer. My mother never knew actually what I did because it was a tough one. I had to go all the way across town by car. I worked five hours, a half hour for lunch, and then five more hours. Ten-hour days. So, that was an introduction.

Then I got a job for two years working as a grocery clerk after school. We had chain stores then, but they sold over the counter. You waited on people. If they asked you for a pound of sugar, you brought them a package with a pound of sugar in it and put it on the counter. They had special wrapping paper and you'd write in pencil -- heavy pencil -- the price of each item and add it up in your own head. I got good at addition that way. And then you'd wrap it up neatly. And there was a little wooden handle that you'd put on the package. You'd tie it with twine. It was a very neat package to carry out. And people carried their own groceries that way. Nothing was sold really in bulk, except for some cookies possibly. In fact, they did sell cookies in bulk. And things like sugar and [flour], we prepackaged in the store... weighed it up and sold one-pound packages in bags. And butter, and lard, and cheese and margarine. It was an interesting experience. I enjoyed it. You visited with everybody in the neighborhood.

I just walked to the parochial school. It was just right up the hill. Went to church in that parish [I believe it was St. Charles Church at Custer and Peshine avenues]. My father was an usher in the 11 o'clock mass. He used to love to go -- he and I -- to the high mass because he liked the singing, and I did too.

In my day the parochial schools were so much superior to the public schools that nobody even hardly remarked on it. It was a foregone conclusion. Anyone would tell you, Catholic or Protestant, would tell the Catholic schools were way beyond the public schools in quality. That's changed. Public schools have gone up and we've lost vocations, and so we don't have the quality of teachers and education we had way back then. I had wonderful teachers. In particular, I had one nun for that last two years that taught me enough English that I didn't crack a book for two years -- I mean in English grammar -- when I went on to St. Benedict's.

Then I went to St. Benedict's prep from 1917 to 1921 and got there by trolley car. I took the Clifton Avenue car to Springfield Avenue and then I got off and took the Springfield car to High Street and ran up the hill. I don't think I ever heard the first bell. I don't think I was late that often, but I was late more often than I should have been. I hated to get up mornings. That was the hardest thing in the world for me. I used to take my shoes and walk them across the floor next to the bed so I could pretend to my mother I was up and about and moving around. I can't believe that, but I did. When I got married, my mother said one thing she wouldn't miss was getting me up in the morning for work or school, or whatever the occasion was.

Anyway, I commuted to school -- as we all did -- by trolley car. That was your means of getting around. ... The trolley cars were certainly a convenience. They started out as horse cars. ..... In Newark we had a trolley line that didn't use the brakes that the railroads and the other trolley cars had graduated to -- air brakes. They had a great, big long brass handle. They were little trolley cars -- just four wheels -- bounced up and down. That was the Mulberry Street line. So in the summer you had these trolley cars they substituted open-air trolleys, that is the sides were open. You sat in aisles facing the motorman, in other words you were parallel to the width of the cars, these seats. You had to crawl over people to get in and out. But they were much better than the closed cars.

Then the jitneys, as they called them, after World War I, these cheap motor buses to carry passengers started up. A lot of them were started by war veterans. Of course, the trolley companies objected and went to court on it and so on, but the courts were sympathetic to these veterans running these little jitney lines. Eventually, the trolley lines took them over and eventually the trolley cars were a thing of the past. They had a short life, really. The very first electric trolley was in Richmond, Va., in the 1880s. By the 1950s, they were pretty well gone -- certainly by the 1960s.

There were also inter-urban trolley cars. Upper New Jersey didn't have much They just had a line from Newark to Trenton, really just a regular trolley car painted differently. But in upper New York State between Albany and Buffalo they [had] various inter-urban [trollies] with tremendous, big cars. I thought they were beautiful. I got to ride on them one time, maybe twice. They ran, for example, from ... Syracuse to Utica. Syracuse to Rochester. They said at one time you ... could go almost cross country ... by taking inter-urban trolleys. Of course, you'd have to be transferring pretty frequently and it would wear you out. But that's the extent to which there were trolley cars across the country. But that era's gone and we're dependent on the automobile for almost every field of transportation, or the airplane.

I also commuted in college. That was a grind. I had to take the trolley car down to the Hudson and Manhattan tubes, and get on that special commuter train between Newark and downtown New York and also mid-town New York. I went to school in the Greenwich Village section, New York University. So I had to find time to study either on the train or odd places and times. I always had a job of some kind or another.

My first trip to New York City [as a child] we took a train to Hoboken, Delaware- Lockawon-Winston [written as it sounds] -- it wasn't very far, a commuter train -- and then got on a ferry boat and got off at [Number?] Desbrosses street. It was not troublesome at all. It was a pleasant trip and nobody was rushed or anything. You got on the train, you got on the ferry boat, and then you walked pretty much -- that's when I saw the last of the horse-drawn trolley cars.


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