Life in Seattle and Environs in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond -- as told by Margaret Reed

  • By Jyl Leininger
  • Posted 4/07/1999
  • Essay 2265

This People's History is an interview with Margaret Reed conducted by Jyl Leininger on April 7, 1999, in Seattle, Washington. Margaret Reed describes herself as an every-day individual. "Believe me, I am just an ordinary person that has lived an ordinary life -- having gone through school here, worked a little, then eventually married and raised a family." Her story is packed with the little nuggets that suggest the flavor of growing up in Seattle during the 1930s and 1940s.

Early Years

Margaret Reed was born in 1922. "My mother went to Swedish Hospital when she went into labor with me, but she later reported saying to herself, "What am I doing here when my mother is in Monroe? There's nobody here to take care of me." So she checked out of the hospital and she and her mother-in-law headed for Monroe, where I was born.

"Mom's family name is Sjostrom. They were born in Sweden, came to Minnesota, and then went on to Monroe where they owned a department store on Main Street. The family opened up their home to men who came from their hometown in Sweden. The idea was to help them until they got on their feet. They all ended up marrying my aunts! One of them eventually owned the bus station. They bought the house right next door to my Grandmother's big Victorian.

"The family associated mainly with family and other Swedish people. (As I grew up, I spent all my summers with the family in Monroe, enjoying things like Swedish pancakes, fried chicken and strawberry shortcake.) They also talked a lot about other members of the family, their circumstances and choices.

"Dad's side of the family was musical -- an entirely different environment from Mom's family. His mother was of English descent, and she and her husband, actually my father's step-parent, were in show business. They both sang and he produced and wrote productions.

"When Dad's mother and stepfather got out of show business, they went into real estate in Wallingford. They would live in homes, fix them up and sell them. When my mother met my dad in 1918, his parents were staying in a hotel down off of Westlake. In their home, there was piano playing and always singing. When Grandma set a table, she did it beautifully. She had lots of nice English things, and good taste, too. She always had a fire in the fireplace and candy in the candy dish.

"My father spent quite a bit of time living with his biological father, not with his singing and traveling mother. Dad's father had a lumber mill in Nagrom [near Black Diamond, in Southeastern King County]. The mill had Japanese workers, so Dad learned to speak Japanese. He taught me "bookkeeping Japanese," how to count to 10, and I still remember that! In later years, I'd go shopping with my father in the Japanese fish market at 8th and Olive, and when he'd speak Japanese, the petite Japanese owners would smile broadly and bow to us.

Mill Towns

"After they married in 1919, Mother and Dad moved to Maple Valley -- Hobart, which is southeast of Seattle, near Renton. Mother was 18; Dad was 21. You'd go through Issaquah to the sawmill and a few clusters of homes. The millpond was where they floated logs. I went to a country school there, in 1928-1929.

"Hobart's mill burned down, and the next mill my father briefly worked in was in the town of Selleck, southeast of Seattle near the Pierce County border. It was a little place with little tiny houses, I believe supplied by the mill. Everything was just sparse.

"It was the Depression, and Mom and Dad were still struggling, so they moved to Monroe to work for my uncle at the lunch counter in the bus depot. After a few months, they decided to go back to Seattle to look for work. They left me in Monroe, but took my brother, who was 10. In Monroe I had so many aunts and uncles and the family was close knit. I had a good time there. When Mom and Dad got settled in an apartment on Pike Street, about a block above Broadway, they came back for me in Monroe, and we all went to Seattle (in about 1931).

Growing Up During the Depression

"By that time my family came for me in Monroe, northeast of Bellevue. Mother started working as a waitress again, but Dad was unemployed for a while in 1931. Mom had waitressed before -- that's how she met Dad. Dad would come into the restaurant and order strong tea.

"Mom worked 6 days-a-week, making probably $14 a week. Dad started working at a mill in West Seattle at Seaboard Lumber and eventually rose to trimmer man there. He worked there until 1946. Between 1946 and 1951, Dad was the doorman at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, which is now the Westin Hotel. He wore a uniform like Benjamin Franklin, and with his theatrical background (from his mother), he was very good at it.

"These were still hard times. In those days they had shoemakers, and if you couldn't afford them, you put cardboard in your shoes. I remember my mom went to Kress's to get her hosiery repaired.

"You had these small mom-and-pop type grocery stores like Horrigan's in our neighborhood. There was a meat market down on Boren. Across 9th Avenue, there was a grocery store and a Chinese laundry. They'd iron those shirts on a flat surface with heavy irons they took off of a hot stove. There were quite a few Chinese laundries around. The downtown stores were Rhodes, McDougall and Southwick, the Bon Marche, and Frederick's.

"Our Pike Street apartment had a bed that would slide under the bathroom! You'd go up three steps to get into the bathroom. We probably had cots for my brother and me, who were about 9 and 11 at that time. We were going to Summit School on Union and Summit. But we moved from there to 1808 8th Avenue, right next to the bus depot on 8th and Stewart.

"I had to change schools when we moved. I went to Cascade, which is no longer there. It was down off of Fairview and Pontius and it was called the Cascade Grade School. There was one more move in that time, too, always looking for more room.

"The next move was in 1934 to the Lawton apartments on Union Street. Then in 1936 we moved to the Castle Crag Apartments, between Seneca and University on Terry Avenue. It is a U-shaped building of light brick. You could do the washing there, and they had mangles for ironing. The apartment didn't have a bedroom, but it did have a living room, a dining room and bathroom and a very small kitchen. There was a bed, like a Murphy bed, that swiveled around and folded into the closet.

"My parents moved again in 1938, when I was a sophomore in high school, this time to the Knickerbocker Apartments at 1022 Union between Terry and Boren. Each move represented a step up to a more spacious apartment. Now, we had a bedroom! We also had a large kitchen with eating space. I lived there from 1938 until I got married, in 1944.

"Most of our friends were from single parent families, living in apartments. My husband just had his dad. My best girlfriend and her mom lived in the Savoy Hotel on 2nd Avenue. Her mother cleaned office buildings at night. They later moved up on First Hill, near me. The families with two parents were generally living in houses. This was in '33, '34, '35, '36, '37.

When Money Was Tight

"There was nothing in the refrigerator when you got home from school, so we waited until dinner. We always ate meals together. But Mother and Dad would give us kids a dime for movies. We'd walk down to the Liberty Theater, on 1st Avenue near Pike, and watch cowboy shows. I think we'd get a nickel to get something to eat sometimes.

"In those days they had men go around and leave samples of food products. My brother would follow these people around and snatch all the samples!

"You didn't complain to your parents that you didn't have anything, because everyone was in the same boat. For school, Broadway High School, I had my navy blue pleated skirt, a middy blouse (that I would starch in Niagara Starch, wring out by hand and iron), and a tie. My mother got me a grey skirt and a blouse. So then I had another blouse! We had a little closet, and it was enough for four people.

"One day my father said, "Why don't we send out the laundry?" So we sent it to the Troy Laundry for a rough wash. We'd iron it ourselves.

"Street Kid" Fun

"There were no yards at the apartments we lived in, so we played in the street. My husband (a high school schoolmate) and I called ourselves "street kids." As an adolescent, my husband would go down to Madison Park -- that's where we spent most of our time as teenagers.

"There were ferries from Kirkland to Madison Park, and people would throw coins into the water. My husband and his friends would dive off the ferry dock and retrieve the money. We'd also go to Golden Gardens for bonfires. Sometimes we'd go to Lake Wilderness in Maple Valley or walk to Woodland Park. My brother and his friends played poker at home (our apartment) and basketball at the Y.

"You didn't go to the grocery store and buy soft drinks. You'd sit down at a soda fountain and order your drink. I remember going with my girlfriend and getting cherry Cokes. They were so sweet, after a while I switched to lemon!

Riding the Streetcar to Wallingford

"We had no car, so I would ride the streetcar. I'd ride it out to Wallingford to see my grandmother. As a kid, I'd often walk on Pike Street, and it had a lot of taverns. We were not afraid at all, but Dad's legacy to me when I'd go out was, "Don't you get in a car!"

"Now, my husband's father was a single man, always well dressed and was only in his late 30s. He was "available" and had a social life. The biggest thing in some people's life was getting a new car! My father-in-law was in that category.

First Love Lasts

"Broadway High School at Broadway and Pine had lots of Japanese students. We'd look up to those Asian students for their grades. They studied so hard and would go to Japanese school after regular school was over. My friend walked all the way from 2nd Avenue, up Seneca, to pick me up and go to school.

"My future husband went to the same high school and I had my eye on him. He was kind of shy, so I'd find out from my brother, a friend of his, where Tom was going to be. I knew what periodical he'd have to read for class, so I'd be there in the library when he was trying to read it and strike up a little conversation.

After school I watched him play ball in a vacant lot with my brother and his friends, so I made many trips to the grocery store for my mom, as the lot was between our apartment and the grocery store!

"I think others' conception was that Indians lived here like the last outpost. Seattle was not seen as a cosmopolitan city. Seattle didn't have nightlife. It was practically impossible to go out somewhere and have a drink. It was either a private club, such as the Press Club on 7th and Union Streets (they had a piano player) or low class taverns. There was nothing in between. The Olympic Hotel didn't sell drinks -- just wine and beer. Even after Prohibition, it was a very closed city.

Post High School: The War Years

"In 1940 I had just gotten out of high school and went to work. It was the rich kids up on Broadway who went to college. At this time, my mother was waitressing at the Boston Cafe at 1111 Third Avenue. The Telephone Company was just up on the corner. The cafe's owner was Mr. Zanides. (Most of the restaurant owners were Greek.)

"His wife worked at the phone company and she said I should take classes on a Comptomer, an adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing machine. So I did that and also did inventory at the Bon Marche. I had that job as part of my schooling. It was my first job.

"I got a job at the phone company doing toll accounting -- $17 a week, six days a week. The operators would have toll tickets and send all of these into the Telephone Company. We had to count them. You did this by putting them on a scale. I went to school to learn revenue accounting. In that job, I used a "Marchant," a machine you added on by pulling an arm.

"Another kind of office equipment I used when working at the Telephone Company was a teletypewriter, which was a form of telegraph. The message was typed on a keyboard, like a typewriter, which produced electronic impulses. The impulses caused the corresponding keys for the receiver to register and print a message. It was used to communicate with other telephone branches. It was a big deal back then and people gathered around when a message was received. They were impressed that I knew how to operate it.

"My husband went to UW [University of Washington], but he had no guidance. He decided he wanted to make some money, so he went to a vocational class and on to a job at Boeing. Then the war broke out. He enlisted in the navy within a month. His father went back into the Marines.

"We had lights out, shades down. Food got short. I still have my ration books for shoes, sugar, meat, and butter.

GIs and the Jitterbug

"We single girls would join the USO and go to dances for servicemen. We'd go to Fort Lawton or Fort Lewis. There was no drinking. They just wanted to have girls there for the guys to dance with before shipping out to Alaska. Once some girlfriends and I took a ferry to Vashon, and the young sailors we met gave us a lift back to town on their PT boat! When we went through the locks, we had to crouch down and hide. If anyone found out what they were doing, they would have been in a lot of trouble.

"There were roadhouses on the highways with huge dance floors. You could bring your own alcohol and get a set-up. Speaking of dancing, another place was the Spanish Castle, between Tacoma and Seattle on Highway 99. In Seattle during the war there was the Trianon Ballroom at 2nd or 3rd and Wall Street. You'd go there for big-name bands and jitter bugging.

"They had Swing Shift dances for swing shift workers. They would go from early dances and continue on to the swing shift dances.

After the War

"At that time, 155th Street was the end of the line, and Shoreline was all woods. They started to build houses right after the war. The houses were really thrown together because of the lack of materials. Immediately after the war, we lived with my husband's father and wife for a year, in West Seattle, but then we bought our place out in the suburbs.

"By 1946, we had a little baby and little house. There was no refrigerator; you had to sign up to get one. I had no stove, so I had 2 hot plates to cook on. I had no washing machine and was scrubbing clothes out in the unheated garage, putting them on a folding dryer or hanging them outdoors in the summer. Then we got an ice box. An iceman and a bakery man and a milkman would come down the street.

"When we could finally get a refrigerator, we made monthly payments on it. It was a really good refrigerator -- a Westinghouse. I only got rid of it about 4 years ago! We paid about $14 a month on the refrigerator, and my husband was making about $200 a month! I said, "If we ever make it to $300, we'll be rich!"

"The neighborhood had lots of little children. The kids were happy; there was not much traffic. They could play in the woods. We had no money, but we thought our existence was wonderful!

"My husband decided not to go back to Boeing, and he was looking for a job after the war, when a friend said they were hiring at the Railway Express office. So Tom took our Chevy with running boards (a '36 or a '39 that was nothing but trouble) and went downtown. He got the job and stayed for 30 years (1945-1975).

Freeways Were Fun!

"Eventually, traffic was getting so bad that Seattle needed a freeway. As they finished a section of freeway, you were allowed to drive on it. So we'd go the length of whatever they finished as an outing. I remember going up to Everett and back on the new Freeway. That was recreation!"

Post script

Margaret's parents moved to Grant's Pass, Oregon, in 1951 where her father got back into lumbering. They moved back to Seattle in 1956, and he later went to Fairbanks, Alaska and worked briefly at a lumber mill. When homesickness set in, they came back to Seattle once more, where her dad worked small jobs until he retired.

Margaret's husband, Tom, developed rheumatoid arthritis. Ultimately Tom got Alzheimer's Disease and had more medical problems. Margaret was his main caretaker for several years until he died in 1998. Margaret is retired and still lives in Shoreline. Her son is a businessman in Bellevue. Her daughter's family lives in Idaho.

I want to thank Margaret for sharing her memories and experiences with me. (Thanks, Margaret.)

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