Sentimental Sunday: Anything f’Thanksgiving, Continued

Back in 2010, I expounded upon a long-ago Brooklyn custom in which kids went door-to-door on Thanksgiving, asking for treats. As I wrote then, I once suspected my Greenpoint-raised mom of making this up purely to mess with our childish minds.

But the custom was quite real, as readers have since noted. “Anything f’Thanksgiving” has generated some lovely comments. As they show, not only did this custom extend beyond the borders of Greenpoint, it remains a bright memory in the minds of former city children.

Most recently, Lola from Queens writes:

On Thanksgiving morning, the children dressed up in costumes to honor the people that they admired. No Hobos Allowed! My younger brother dressed up as a policeman. I dressed up as a fine lady, like my mother, so did my twin sister. One would say “Anything for Thanksgiving”? as you rang the door bell.

And here’s Judy from the Bronx:

Anything for Thanksgivin. Absolutely, We lived on 162nd Street in the Bronx in a 10 story building and we would dress up and go into the alleys and beg. People would throw pennies out of their windows. Some would wrap the pennies in bits of newspaper so they didn’t bounce all over the place. We also, filled socks with flour and tried to hit each other.

(Hey, Judy, a belated thanks for remembering the flour-filled socks. My mother HATED those as much as she liked the dressing up.)

Speaking of which, John from Greenpoint also recalls the socks, but as a Halloween high point:

We would fill womens’ old stockings with flour and hit each other with them..Lots of fun.

I think I’ll move on, so as not to give the youth of today any bright ideas. The point is, John and my mom might have differed on the socks part, but not on the fun.

Another, larger point to be made about Anything f’Thanksgiving:

For a lot of people, the terms “city” and “folk tradition” are incompatible. What an error this is, as the shared memories demonstrate so strongly. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all of you who reached out to explain and expand upon this custom and where it took place. What a beautiful example of the lost flavors and colors of city life, long ago.

[UPDATE: Helen in her comment below asks: Did kids dress up on both Halloween and Thanksgiving? My short answer: I'm not sure. The longer answer, according to my late Mom: Thanksgiving was when she dressed up and went door-to-door; Halloween was for mischief-making, such as chalking people's doors and clouting them with the infamous flour-filled socks. She did not specify whether one dressed up for the mischief making. So, please tell us, anyone who remembers -- did kids dress up on both days?]

And now, for all of us Anything f’Thanksgiving fans, Mr. Robert Martens has shared a remarkable treat — 1940s home movie footage taken by his grandfather, Gus, in College Point, Queens.

Be sure to read Mr. Martens’ accompanying description to his video, where he describes his family’s memories of the tradition in greater detail.  He thinks Anything f’Thanksgiving might have died out because city residents who had survived the Great Depression became understandably allergic to the idea of their children dressing up as beggars and seeking treats door to door. I think the ways mass media smoothed out and homogenized pop culture after World War II didn’t do the custom any favors, either.

But whatever your theory, it seems clear that the ragamuffins of Thanksgiving went away sometime in the 1950s, so this crystal-clear footage is now a precious reminder of lost era.

Happy trick-or-treating, whenever you do it.


This Makes Me So Happy …

A Google maps tour of old Red Hook, by Adrienne Onofri.

This map includes sites where lived Brooklynites who served in World War II, along with historic landmarks and just a lot of interesting information about how the neighborhood evolved. So wonderful that someone took the time to do this; it’s already answered a question or two I have about some Red Hook places.

Also, since it’s Wednesday (Hump Day) and all, I thought I’d give you something else that always makes me  so happy: the final scenes of the 1982 movie My Favorite Year. I never tire of the touching performance by Peter O’Toole as an over-the-hill matinee idol doing a guest turn on a live-television variety hour.

And my mother always said it was a spot-on portrait of early-1950s New York City.


Underground Ghosts

In looking for background on my recent Subway Song post, I was surprised to discover just how many abandoned subway dreams left their mark upon the landscape — and not just New York City’s landscape, either.

A lot of these cases originated in enthusiastic plans for expanding subways after the end of World War I. Then the transit dreams evaporated for varying reasons — changes in political leadership, economic woes during the Depression, the automobile boom of the post-World War II era.

But many remnants of the dreams linger in unfinished lines or never-opened stations. And they’re catnip to a new generation of urban explorers who love chasing “ghost subways” wherever they may be found. Some examples: Cincinnati, or Rochester, or Toronto, or Berlin.

For those of us in the metro-NYC area, here are some additional ghostly subway links:


Straphanger history, GIF-style

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have a lot of ancestral ties to Brooklyn. With this comes a long and honorable heritage of subway ridership.

And my oh, my, subway geeks will LOVE this animated map depicting the evolution of the New York City subway system.

It’s a terrific reminder of how something so synonymous with NYC was not always a part of city life.

(via Atrios)


Inheriting Headaches

As I once wrote, gifts and bequests can carry a double edge for the institutions which receive them.

Here is an interesting problem for the Brooklyn Museum, as reported today by the New York Times. A major bequest made in 1932 of nearly 1,000 fine paintings and artifacts seemed at first like a wonderful windfall, but is now, to some extent, a white elephant.

The huge collection was left to the museum by Col. Michael Friedsam, head of the legendary Altman department store and an associated philantrophic foundation.

First snag: About a fourth of the items were either forgeries or misattributions or basically not up to snuff in some way. So the museum wouldn’t mind selling the 229 pieces it no longer wants (but has to spend lots of money storing).

Second snag: Friedsam’s will specified that nothing could be disposed of without permission from the executors. And the last executor died in 1962.

Sounds like a job for a forensic genealogist. From the Times’ story by Patricia Cohen:

Noting that the will specified that the art should go to the colonel’s brother-in-law and two friends if the collection were not kept together, Judge Nora Anderson told the museum in December 2011 that it must search for these three men’s descendants before she would rule.

Nothing’s ever simple, right?


The 1940 Files: Immigrants in Greenpoint

Next up in my initial 1940 census snapshots are my maternal grandparents, who emigrated from Germany’s rural Upper Franconia district in the mid-1920s and settled in Greenpoint.

Names: John and Eva Rudroff

Relationship: Maternal grandparents

Background: After crossing  the Atlantic, John (1886-1969) and Eva (1895-1963) didn’t move around. They moved to 39 Sutton Street in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn shortly after they married in 1927, and that was it until Grandpa died in 1969. This was where they raised my mother and her twin brother. It was also the place from which Grandma Eva sent a care package after World War II to cousins in bombed-out Wurzburg, one of whom recited the exact address (with zip code) to me forty years later, by way of explaining just how memorable that package was to her as a little girl.

Curiosities:

• Did the 1940 census taker get the surname spelled right? In 1930, the enumerator listed it as “Rutkoff.”

• How did Grandpa’s employment and wage information stack up? Mom always said they were very lucky that he held on to a good job at Standard Oil of New York all through the Depression years.

Results:

• Yay for the 1940 enumerator, who spelled the name the same way my grandparents spelled it. OK, so my grandma was listed as “Eve,” not “Eva,” but whaddya gonna do.  Also consistent with other family records, my grandfather was a naturalized citizen (he became one in 1933); my grandmother was not (and never did become one).

• Grandpa and Grandma Rudroff had both completed eight grades of school, according to this census. My mother and her brother, now 12-year-old twins, had completed six, and I assume that they were in the seventh grade at the time the census was taken.

• As I expected, Grandpa’s job was “fireman, oil co.,” meaning he tended boilers at the Standard Oil of New York plant not far from where the family lived. During the week of March 24-30, 1940, he’d put in 32 hours, which was on the low side compared to some other entries on the page. (Most were in the range of 40 to 45 hours, although one factory watchman listed a whopping 84 hours.)

• Grandpa’s  yearly salary was $1,150, or about $17,680 in today’s dollars. Not bad, but definitely below the yearly average for the mid-1930s in New York City ($1,745, or $27,425 today). This squares with my mother’s description of her childhood as being free from anxiety over where the next meal was coming from, but without a lot of spare change for anything besides the necessities.

Takeaway: At first glance, I don’t see a lot of surprises here, but then, this is a pretty familiar part of the family story. However, I am having a lot of fun comparing the information on this entry to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Report, 100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending, the source for the New York City average salary figure listed above. If you’re curious about how far your family’s income might have stretched, check it out (at the link, you can download a .pdf file).

Next time: The mysterious distant cousin.


The 1940 Files: Grandparents Edition

Even without a Great Mystery to solve in the 1940 census, everyone has things they’re curious about. How does what we find stack up against what we were wondering? Over the next few days I’ll share some of my own comparisons.

As a starting point, I made a list of New York City relatives whose addresses were as close to sure bets as anything gets in genealogy. I then used Steve Morse and Joel Weintraub’s Unified 1940 Census E.D. Finder to find them in the 1940 census. The Unified Finder proved to be a thing of beauty, in my case. In under an hour I found E.D.s for all my candidates. (Only one false start, and it was my own fault – I transposed two digits on the street number.)

Enough of the preliminaries. Here’s case study No. 1.

Names: Raymond and Margaret Haigney

Relationship: Paternal grandparents

Background: This was to be my grandfather Raymond’s last census appearance. Raymond (born 1891) died of a heart attack seven months later at age 49, on 26 November 1940. This sad fact carries a genealogical benefit – the address on Raymond’s death certificate would almost certainly be where he lived when the census was taken. Raymond and Margaret both died before my parents met, and my father never talked much to us about his childhood. So anything in this census is potentially interesting.

Curiosities:

• What did my father’s family look like in this last snapshot with both parents alive?

• What was my father’s first name going to be in this census? (I know; it’s a long story.)

Results: Here are Raymond and Margaret, right where I supposed they’d be. Listed with them are eight of their ten surviving children, including my father. (Two of his older brothers were married and living in their own households by this time. Oh, and there is one person in that list who is still with us, which is why you can’t read that name.)

Names: Great news! My father has regained his baptismal name, Peter. In 1930, he was listed as Jerome, which happens to be his middle name, apparently because his mother had a serious issue with his first name. I told the story here. I am glad Dad got his first name back. I wonder what discussions were involved.

Money: Raymond worked as a health inspector for the city of New York, not bad for a guy who never was able to attend high school (see below).  His salary was $2,100 a year. Still, adjusted for inflation (using this nifty tool here), that would be $32,609.42 – not a ton of salary to raise eight kids on. I’m sure the money his two oldest daughters brought home came in handy.

Education:  Raymond had completed school through the seventh grade; his wife the sixth. Their oldest daughter, Catherine, completed eight grades and was working as a packer at “Beech-Nut”, probably the Beech-Nut factory at 148 39th Street in Brooklyn. Maybe she’d answered a Brooklyn Eagle ad like this one from January 1945:

The next sister, Dorothy, had graduated high school and was a clerk at a wholesale grocery. Most of the other kids, including my dad, were still in school. Dad’s older brother Joseph had completed two years of college (I think he was the first college student in the family), and was working as a “gov’t.” messenger. I’m assuming that Dad was in his junior year of high school, since the census said he had already completed two years.

After Dad’s father died, the family considered the obvious choice of having Dad leave high school and go to work like his older sisters. (As you can see from this census, there were a lot of younger kids still at home.) My mother said one of Dad’s teachers persuaded my grandmother to let Dad finish high school. But it must have been hard.

Takeaway: As I’ve said, I don’t have a lot to go on with my dad’s family. Dad himself died of a heart attack at age 59, before I really got serious about genealogy, so what he himself would have had to say about this period in his life, I can only guess.

I first heard the story of his almost dropping out of school from my mom, and my reaction was resentful: How could they? He was smart, he was hardworking. How unfair! If it hadn’t been for Dad’s teacher, a shortsighted decision might have put his life on a very different path.

But looking at the names and numbers from 1940, and knowing the event that’s about to hit them all in a few months, puts this story in a different perspective. Life can really deal out some tough choices sometimes. I don’t envy my grandmother the situation she faced.

Next time: The maternal grandparents!


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