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My visit to the Jasper County Historical Museum

Published: Thursday, July 3, 2014 10:23 a.m. CDT

Personally, what I know about the 1930’s is from what I’ve read, or as depicted on television or what I was taught in school; and of course, now, by what I’ve learned from the Jasper County Historical Museum.  

The 1930’s House at the museum is a replica of a once-inhabited home.  Every item in the house is representative of the design, manufacture and style of the 1930’s.  The project was partially supported by a grant from the Historical Resource Development Program of the State Historical Society of Iowa.  The display was designed, built and decorated by Hans Brosig, Harold Tiedje, Herman Deaton, Robert Nelson, Bob Stanley, Pete Swank, Lyle Gatch, Myrna Guthrie, Mary Ellen Christen and Darlene Brosig.  The original collectors for the 1930’s house were Roseva Rucker and Beverly Cross.

Life in the 1930’s Iowa was hard and uncertain.  During the first three years of the decade, individual incomes dropped 48 percent.  A fourth of Iowa workers were out of work, badly housed and clothed, and poorly fed.  The remaining three quarters who did have jobs, clung to them with a fierce work ethic and tried to maintain “life as usual.”

In Newton, a few new houses continued to be constructed.  For common folk, the new houses were very plain and built on a small scale.  Furnishings were stripped down, smaller and with less embellishment for both economic and artistic reasons.  For those who could afford them, grand new appliances and furnishings were readily available.  

For the luckily employed, despite short money issues, life in the 1930’s in Jasper County went on almost as usual.  There was a strong sense of community.  Most people had faith that the bad times would pass, that America was still great and that virtue and hard work would eventually bring just rewards.  Actually, this even sounds familiar today in Newton and Jasper County.  

Lifestyle in the 1930’s House…the display is designed and furnished for a hypothetical couple, about 35 years old, who reside in Newton, Iowa.  I am going to name them Jack and Jill so I don’t have to continue calling them ‘the couple’.  They have one child who I’ll call Little Johnny; and because of the hard times, they are not considering having another child in the immediate future.  Imagine Jack as one of the lucky who has regular employment.  He is a good, steady employee and works six days a week.  His wages have been cut twice in the last three years.  Jack used to play golf and still owns a set of old clubs, but has neither the time nor the money for golf fees.  I would like to know what the golf fee difference is from 1930’s to 2014; I guess that’s a little research project for me.

Jack and Jill dream of building another bedroom on their house.  However, the $19 monthly house payment to the bank (a fourth of their income) is almost more than they can manage.  

Jill stays at home and has plenty to do with washing, ironing, cleaning and cooking.  She takes pride in being a good housekeeper and cook.  She raises a large garden and cans 250 quarts of food every summer; but worries about food spoiling.  Just like we’ve all seen on TV, during weekdays Jill wears cotton print house dresses and aprons; and on Sundays she wears her good blue crepe dress and black hat with small veil.  Jack has a navy pin-striped suit for church, funerals and family reunions.  Jack’s shirts were well ironed and stiff with boiled starch.  Back to 2014…When was the last time you’ve seen a man wear a suit to a family reunion?  

For entertainment, Jill plays bridge once a month with seven other ladies.  When it is her turn to host, she serves dessert at card tables laid with embroidered linen cloths and set with yellow glass dishes, purchased one at a time from Hough’s Variety Store; supplemented with almost-matching free dishes from cereal boxes.  I have to admit, I have and know lots of other ladies that have china and other dishes purchased through a program Hy-Vee had back in the 1970’s.  Sort of the same concept as the dishes from cereal boxes.  I’d like to see this type of program again; hint, hint!

Jack and Jill have a telephone, and this is a luxury – about their only indulgence.  It is one of only two on the block and neighbors are welcome to use it.  They also have a radio which is so important to them that they do not consider it a luxury.  Along with 30 million other Americans, including President Roosevelt, they tune into Amos and Andy every evening from seven to seven-fifteen.  In the morning, Jill listens to serial dramas:  “Can this girl from a mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?” the announcer asks at the beginning of Our Gal Sunday.  They hear the dying Lou Gehrig say that he is the luckiest man on earth, and listen to Edward VIII of England renounce his throne for the woman he loves.  The radio describes the Hindenburg disaster (I saw the movie…); and the ravings of Hitler are broadcast.  Kate Smith sings When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain; and they listen intently to H.V. Kaltenborn’s reports on the fading days of peace in Europe and are strengthened by Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. 

They go to the movies at least once a week; tickets are a quarter and the theater is air-conditioned!  Often they go on Wednesday which is Bank Night at the Capital.  Once they won $15 at Bank Night which they promptly applied to their bill at Drs. Wood & Fellows.

On Saturday nights Jack and Jill go to town.  First they buy the week’s groceries; then Jill goes to the Reliable Department Store to look at the hats and dresses as Jack heads for the garages to study the new cars.  They meet at Roswell and have Cherry Cokes.  They walk around the square once, then sit in their Model A. Ford parked in front of Woolworths and watch the crowds of people in town for Saturday night.

Sunday morning is for church and then home where Jill has a chicken ready to fry.  Later they drive to her parent’s farm south of town.  Gas is cheap at just 17 cents a gallon (sorry, I can’t even fathom this).  They enjoy their Sunday drives, but one of the back tires is poor and Jack frets about replacing it.  The relatives are discouraged about farm prices and the drought, but are pleased that the REA may soon bring electricity to their farm.  Jill is saving nickels and pennies in a fruit jar to buy her mother an electric fan when electricity comes to the family farm.

Life is worrisome for Jack, Jill and Little Johnny.  One never knows if the job is secure, but friends and relatives are close and supportive.  Social rules and morality are well defined, but sometimes restrictive.  Jack and Jill are not free spirits; they are responsible, careful persons, concerned with standards and very cautious with their lives and resources.

To me, life in the 1930’s may have been simpler in nature but made more difficult by the times.  We tend to think with all of our technology, abundance of food, ease of travel and the rest of the things we take for granted in the 21st century, we’d never go back to a life like Jack and Jill.  But, let’s be honest, from what you’ve just read, there are some similarities; and maybe, just maybe, some of the aspects of the 1930’s are more appealing than what we’d like to admit.  Check out the display at the Jasper County Historical Museum and see if you agree.

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