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Su Lum: Slumming

Su Lum
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Last week I wrote about logging on to http://www.1940census.gov and finding my family and me at the old house we lived in, in Boonton, N.J., where my mother continued to live until her death at age 99.

I had found our listings on page 30 of 32 in the first of seven districts, rushing along as fast as I could from street to street until I found Vreeland Avenue and hit pay dirt.

A friend of mine managed to print out a copy of my family’s page for me, and I thought that was the end of it, but it seems that I cannot let well enough alone. A couple of days passed, and then I thought I should check on pages 31 and 32 of my district, and next thing I knew, I started checking out other districts as well.



My third- and fourth-grade teachers were one of my first finds. They were sisters to whom we referred as “the nice Miss Myers” (fourth grade) and “the mean Miss Myers” (third grade), the latter falling into the category of a holy terror. They lived, according to the census, with their widowed father, had graduated only from high school and earned $1,700 each at their teaching jobs – that comes to about $35 per week, so they were lucky to have two salaries to draw upon.

Whoa! I thought we were poor, but my father, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, earned more than twice as much: $4,000 per year, $83 per week to support a family of five. The school superintendent earned the same amount as my father, as did a New York Times editor.



Those in the $5,000-plus range (as high as the scale went) identified themselves as executives, comptrollers and managers of large companies. They were few and far between, and I began to suspect that answering the salary question was actually optional because several local doctors and lawyers had a slash mark on their salary lines.

Very few women worked out of the home, but there was a lot more work to do in the home back then. My mother sewed all our clothes; frozen food hadn’t come on the market, so we had a huge garden and canned everything edible; the laundry was done with primitive wringer washing machines and hung out to dry on the line.

Boonton was a factory town – most of the adults made it through eighth grade, but few attended college. Factory workers earned about $1,700; postal carriers, $2,600; hairdressers, $1,500. Everything was much, much cheaper in those days, but no one except the uber rich lived high on the hog. Families had one car (if that) and one radio – we couldn’t miss Jack Benny or “The Fred Allen Show.”

Property values ranged from $7,000 to 10,000 and rents from $30 to $45 per month.

I looked up the Plane Street area, where black people lived in segragation and near squalor. “Servants” earned $450 per year, construction workers $606 (about $12 per week). Clarice Cornish was on the census. Classie, as we called her, was our housecleaner for many years when I was growing up. She came a couple of days a week and shocked me out of my shoes when she told me that none of the tenements on Plane Street had toilets – they had to go in buckets and empty them into the nearby river. She had several clients and worked like a dog every day – her annual income was $468.

I came to despise the census takers with scribbly handwriting and sloppy entries. I wonder how much they earned for this temporary job. The man (they were all men) who covered district 2 was an angel who printed everything clearly and would probably be surprised how much joy he gave me 71 years later.


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