Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It Was Ironing Day, the Day the Census Taker Came

The census taker came to the home of my parents, Lee and Audrey Doyle, on Tuesday, April 16th, 1940. On Monday he'd been to her grandparents' home one street away and to the homes of neighbors on the opposite side of Furnace Street. Today, Tuesday, he worked his way up the north side of Furnace Street, finally arriving at their home in the half-double they rented from the Frymans.

Yesterday Mom had done the wash. I wasn't there but I know it's a fact as sure as I know what color my eyes are. For as many years as I knew her - nearly 50 - Mom did the wash every Monday. Small load, large load, many loads, few loads. Always. Monday was the day she did the wash no matter what.

She'd been married not yet two years in April, 1940, and was the mother of an 11-month-old baby boy. Scrubbing diapers by hand on a scrub board in a laundry tub, wringing them out by hand, and hanging them to dry was not easy work but it was part of the routine of her life now. (Not that her rough, sometimes-raw hands appreciated the task.) There was no hanging the clothes outside to dry on Monday: it was only about 50 degrees and partly cloudy. Not a good drying day. She'd no doubt noticed the newspaper ads for electric washing machines but on Dad's salary of $1540.00/year, there just weren't funds to buy a washer, at least not yet. She would carry on doing it by hand (what choice did she have?) and some day - some day - she would have a washing machine.

As sure as Monday was wash day, Tuesday was ironing day. She'd already made breakfast for her little family and herself, played with the baby and then put him down for his nap. Now she was getting ready to iron. She'd sprinkled the clothes yesterday afternoon so they’d be damp all the way through. She set up the ironing board, plugged in the iron, and waited for it to heat. It was like magic to watch the iron glide over wrinkles, leaving behind fabric as smooth (if not as shiny) as glass. Handkerchiefs, boxer shorts, skirts, dresses, pants, and shirts. Every piece, smooth and wrinkle-free. It wasn't easy, especially the shirts with all their details, but at least it wasn't a hot day. And baby was taking his nap. It was a peaceful time to iron and think.

Mom was an inveterate reader of newspapers throughout her life and, after the advent of TV, almost religiously watched the evening news. She was interested in the events of the world outside the environment of her little family, home, and Mineral Ridge. As she ironed that Tuesday in 1940, she no doubt thought about world events. For weeks news of the war raging in Europe had been splashed across The Youngstown Vindicator’s front pages. The headlines were upsetting.

Attack on Scandinavia Probably Just a Prelude to Real German Blitzkrieg

And the war news wasn’t on just the front pages these days. More than a few pages of every issue were filled with articles about the war in Europe. You couldn't escape news of the war. Some recent headlines deep in the center pages of the newspapers read:
  • Nazis Claim British Ship Is Sent Down
  • Says Belgium Stays Neutral
  • Germans Fire Upon Swedes
  • Chamberlain Says Nazis 'Shut Gates of Mercy'
  • Says Allies Force Hitler To Fight War Their Way. Lippman Finds German Conquests Have Removed Buffers Between Reich and Foes” by Walter Lippman
  • French Plane Shot Down In Battle over Belgium
  • German Troops Push Ahead In Southeastern Oslo Region. Norwegians Fleeing into Sweden. Report Food Situation Is Extremely Serious
What was this world coming to? War was a terrible thing but she hoped it would stay in Europe and not touch America’s shores. She hoped America wouldn’t have to be involved at all. What she really hoped was an end to war in the world.

And then Mr. George L. Bell came to the door to take the census. Good. It would take her mind off worrisome news. On her way to answer the door she realized the baby was awake and needed her attention. Thank goodness Lee was home: he could answer the census taker's questions.

Dad was employed as a fire man (one who stoked the fires) at a steel mill, The Niles Rolling Mill. No doubt he worked turns and would be headed out for a 4-to-midnight shift a little later in the afternoon. While Mom was concerned about family, home, and world events, Dad’s concerns were probably directed toward providing a good living for his little family, keeping them safe, and doing a good job at work. He’d come from the farm in Pennsylvania almost 7 years ago with nearly nothing to his name. Now he had a wife and son, was renting a decent home, and was providing for the needs of his family. Work was hard and they weren’t on top of the world yet, but life wasn’t bad. They’d do okay if they were careful and watched their pennies.

Dad was very private about financial matters. So private that Mom never knew how much he earned during the years he worked. That day in 1940 he answered the census taker's questions but was the answer about his income positively, accurately truthful? If so, we know that he earned $1540.00 annually, an amount equal to about $23,677.00 in 2010. There’s no doubt they were on a tight budget at $128.33 per month. Rent was $18.00/month. There were income taxes, food and clothing; gasoline and auto repairs; water, coal, and electricity to pay for. Not to mention that they were trying to save for a down payment on a house. It helped that Dad was a handyman. By doing repairs and upkeep on the car himself they could keep expenses down.

They ate dinner not long after the census taker left. Mom was careful about the food she purchased and prepared, making sure that each meal offered a balanced diet. She was a thrifty shopper and found the best deals. Dad preferred meat and potatoes for dinner every day, prepared one way or another. Mom did her best with the food budget she had but it wasn’t always easy. With only one car she couldn’t always get to the stores with the least expensive prices. Of course she canned and preserved food during the summer months. It was a skill she’d learned from her mother. Tonight's dinner was roast pork with boiled potatoes, fresh carrots and celery, applesauce, and beets. Maybe tomorrow they could get by with pork and beans.

Dad left for work and Mom spent some time playing with her little son. After a light evening meal and more play, she put him to bed. With the radio on in the background, she stitched repairs on some clothes and let her mind wander back over the day. She hadn’t accomplished a lot but it was enough. The ironing was finished, some mending was done, and she'd dusted and swept and cleaned the house. She'd made meals for her little family and spent time with her husband and son. She’d get a good night’s sleep -- if she could just not think about the war in Europe. What would the world be like and where would she and her family be in 1950 when the census taker came around again?
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This post is a contribution to Carnival of Genealogy, 1940! The Carnival is hosted by Jasia at Creative Gene and will be published some time during the first week of May. Thanks for hosting, Jasia!



  1. A very interesting perspective, Nancy! I love hearing everyday stories, thanks for sharing.

  2. Nancy, what a great piece. You included everything and it was all so interesting. I feel like I know your mom!

  3. A very enjoyable piece. I found myself pulled right into the story.

  4. A beautiful piece, Nancy, and so much fun to read! You are such a natural at writing social history. I can just see your mother scrubbing her laundry on the washboard. The newspaper clippings and headlines are neat, too. You really captured your parents' lives at the time. Love it!

  5. I love this! What a great view into a day in the life of your mother.

    Dee at Shakin' the Family Tree

  6. Very nice. Now I'm wondering what was happening in my homes the day the census taker came by.

  7. What a great perspective on the day the census taker came to your mom's house. I love it! I especially like picturing your mom in the midst of ironing. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Great piece, well written, a story well told, I felt like I was in your parents home.

  9. This was very insightful and interesting! I felt like I got to know Grandma a little better!

  10. Thank you all for your lovely comments. I was surprised at how easy it was to imagine myself in their home.

  11. Brenna, it's possible that Gramma was less a worrier then than later in life -- but I doubt it.

  12. Nancy - This is a lovely piece. Your details about laundry day add so much to the story. I felt like I was there with you.

  13. Thank you, Cynthia. I appreciate your kind comment.

  14. I skipped over here from Sepia Saturday. Great presentation of life in those times.

    1. Thanks, Helen. I do enjoy trying to jump into the times and environments of my ancestors.


I appreciate your comments and look forward to reading what you have to say. Thanks for stopping by.

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