Now that we are studying the 1930's in our modern history studies, we can begin to collect some oral history from my children's grandparents for they were alive during this time period. Collecting oral history can be a very engaging study and can help to make history come alive.
Collecting oral history not only demands that you listen carefully, but also that you ask the right questions. You need to narrow your focus to a single subject and have lots of questions ready in advance that you are prepared to ask. You can film the interview or you can just take notes. If you are getting just, "no" or "yes" answers, you will need to ask them to explain what they mean, give examples or elaborate in some way. You also must be flexible and be able to go with the flow of the interview, even if it takes unexpected turns. It is good to record the interview just exactly as it was said because the rhythm of the sentences and the word choices not only give you good clues to the past, but also give an intimate flavor to the piece. You want to make sure that you do not add your own interpretations to the piece and diminish its accuracy as a historical piece.
Some good topics to start with...
What was school like?
How was the kitchen different then than it is now?
What were your favorite foods? How were they prepared?
What games did you play? What songs did you know and like?
Where were you when (fill in the blank) happened?
What memories or special events can you think of?
Here are some examples of this type of interview. I have not included the questions, but have written it just as one section.
Interviews with Grandmother Proctor
Family and Home
My name is Doris Proctor; everybody calls me Dee. I was born in Jacksonville, Florida My father was a cabinet maker -he put in office doors and made fixtures on contract. He traveled from place to place putting them in. You know in the old days when you used to go to a bank or something and they had little wooden windows and counters.
My mother was an invalid and I had no brothers or sisters and she was pretty much confined at least to the house, during all my life. So it made it a pretty quiet home. He went bankrupt in '29 when a lot of other people did and came up to Washington to go to work for the government. He worked for the Public Library system, taking care of the furnishings and so forth in the whole system. He was sort of like the head of everything. So, I guess that's one of the reasons I was a reader -that was the thing I did to amuse myself and comfort myself from not having any other recreation or family life.
I don't know much really to tell. We traveled quite a bit. My father loved to travel and with the government, you know, you always had lots of leaves so we always did travel a great deal. On weekends we usually took trips through the countryside and he loved to buy land. We were always going to land auctions and anytime he saw a "For Sale" sign, it seemed like he had to stop. That was the thing he did; going around looking for land. He had little spots, little pieces of land all over, little pieces of land which you could pick up for practically nothing in the Depression years You could buy a piece of land for $300 in those days
My dad's appearance, well if anybody's seen my husband, you're looking -That must be why I married him -because they look a lot alike...barrel chest, muscular man, just like my husband is, and gentle, the same as my husband is. Roy is my father's name -of course I called him Dad. I wouldn't dare call him by his first name. I don't think anybody did in those days, like they do today.
We always had help in the house and that's one reason I never learned how to do any kind of housework. We always had a nurse. In fact, we had as many as three help persons in the house. My mother had a... I guess you would call him a butler, because that is what he had been in her home place. She lived on a farm or plantation, whatever you call it, in North Carolina and when they needed help, they hired some of the people who had been on the plantation for years. So, I never did much of anything in the house; it was always done for me. We had somebody to take care of my mother, somebody to take care of the house, somebody to take care of me. I had my clothes laid out in the morning. I guess, in that respect, I was pretty spoiled.
It was very difficult for me because the house was so quiet because my mother required it to be quiet. If I played the radio, it had to be so that it couldn't be heard except right where I was. And that was another thing, I enjoyed the stories and all on the radio, but they'd always have to be quiet. I was always active outside the house. I had a sandpile and I would make little towns and so forth and I'd have little trains; it was just the biggest kick to me. And sometimes the kids would come by and we'd go out and maybe go roller skating or bicycle riding or climbing trees or whatever...
From about the time I was twelve, I went to private school, and I enjoyed the private school; in fact it was my idea to go. A big part of our lives was going to school. I remember I played a mean triangle, and being bad meant like chewing gum, it wasn't like they have it today, you know, with guns in the schools. I remember that most of the classrooms were large and two sides of the classroom would be just tall windows, and then one would be where the teacher's large desk would be with the blackboard in the back. There would be what we called a cloakroom on one side which had an entrance and an exit. That is where you kept your boots and your coat and things that you didn't keep inside your desk. And I just remembered... the playground had a hard surface and I still have a little scar from that. The teachers had eyes in the back of their heads and you tried to figure out how they could see with their eyes to the blackboard.
I would like to mention that since my father worked for the library, reading was a big part of my life because he would bring me books. At the beginning of the summer season, he'd bring one of those big baskets that they give to the schools with about a hundred books in it, so I was sort of like a one-a-day book reader. I liked The Wizard of Oz, the Oz books.
I used to go to the movies every Saturday, fifteen cents, that's what we paid in Washington For that fifteen cents, you got a triple feature, two cartoons, and Pete Smith's comedy. So, that was...you are talking five hours...you could stay all day if you wanted to.
I was a kid in the thirties, so I remember "kick the can" and Shirley Temple dolls, that's what we used to have.
When I was very little, like about four or five, I remember the ice man would come, I guess about two times a week. You'd put your card in the window. There was a little diamond-shaped card and we'd turn the card around according to how many pounds of ice you wanted. You either wanted 10 pounds or 25 pounds or turned it completely over if you didn't want any. You always needed ice, though. In the summer, of course, you needed it more than in the winter. In the early times of my life, he did come with a horse and wagon and later he came in a truck. So, that is how we kept things cool until I was about 8 and then we got a refrigerator and that was the end of that marvelous experience! And, in the winter, sometimes you used to put things in the window, like milk and things, just in a little box in the window. That's just something that stuck in my mind, the ice man and the ice box.
Then there was the milkman I remember when you got up in the morning and the milk came in a little bottle with the little extra top to it, you know, the cream would be sitting there. And if it was real cold weather, the cream would be sitting up about an inch or an inch and a half with a little paper cap on top.
I was thinking about the department stores that didn't have cashiers. All around the edge of the building they'd have like a balcony and the people would be up there who'd be taking care of the money. And the person, the sales person, who'd take your money would put it in this sort of vacuum thing. It'd go way up there and then back it's come with your change. It's been years since I have seen that.
And the department store elevators had those little folding things, those gold colored folding doors that closed back and forth. It'd go "ding, ding" and whenever it hit the floor, it would go "BLUNK!" Your stomach was always a half a floor behind!
I used to go to the pool at the Ambassador Hotel when I was a teenager. Streetcar tokens were three for a quarter.
Remember that mittens used to be tied to your jacket sleeve? Everybody had to wear hair ribbons and they had to match your socks...those little bobby socks. And we had the "fascinator." It's a long scarf that you wrapped around your head and whipped it around by throwing it over your shoulder.
We thought we were so funny...instead of having our initials or our name on Valentines, we would put the number, the number of the alphabet to sign our Valentines and we thought we were being so smart, like nobody knew anything. By fourth grade we knew better.
Halloween parties and apple bobbing. In the water, spinning around and around, you'd get your face all wet! How about the marshmallow in the middle of a long string and two people, one at each end take the strings in their mouths and they just start chewing!
The Fourth of July and cherry bombs put under a can would make an exploding sound.
At Christmas we had our personal stocking, we hung our personal stocking.
We didn't always go to the doctor for everything, we took care of our own health problems.
In the Essex, a touring car, they had a little vase you could put flowers in. A glass vase to put the flowers in, came with the car. And there was a little jump seat you could pull down.
- Pursuing The Past, Eugene Provenzo, Jr., Asterie Proveno and Peter Zorn, Jr.