Thursday, May 31, 2012

Great American Road Trip, circa 1936: Part 1

In the box of photos and documents I went through last week, I found several clues as to the years Genevieve was teaching, which helps me narrow down the year my grandparents got married. (I know that when she got married, she had to resign her teaching position for "someone who needed it," as she always said.) From the last post, I know she was teaching in Evansville in 1929. I found her high school diploma, her original diploma from the Whitewater Normal School, and also a second diploma from Whitewater that they awarded her in 1938, presumably after she had completed enough continuing education or fulfilled enough teaching years to earn a full four-year degree? So sometime between 1938 and 1948, when my dad was born, she met and married my grandfather.

But before that, on summer break in 1936, she went on what I can only assume was a pretty amazing road trip. She and Corinne, along with two other teacher friends, decided to use part of their three months off to make a road trip from Wisconsin to New York City. Think about that for a moment. It was the middle of the Great Depression. Throughout the country, people were out of work and wandering the country aimlessly in search of employment, but traditional tourist travel was significantly curtailed. Those who were still economically sound enough to travel preferred to do so on the decade's new streamliner trains. It was 20 years before the invention of the interstate system would make the Great American Road Trip the vacation of choice for the middle class. Roads were two-lane, often poorly kept up due to Depression cutbacks, and flat tires were a frequent problem. Cars themselves were heavy, physically demanding to drive (before the invention of power brakes and power steering, it took real strength to drive a car.) It was only six years after the first commercial car radio was invented, and it's unlikely that Gen and Corinne's expedition had one for that long trip. It was three years before the earliest air conditioners were installed in cars, and twenty years before air conditioning was widely available. The trip was undoubtedly too hot or too cold, bumpy, long and at times, monotonous. And they were limited to at most three drivers, because Genevieve lived her whole life without getting a driver's license or learning to drive. And yet, from the photos I uncovered last weekend, they look like they had a ball.

Somewhere in the Midwest. Corinne is second from left, Genevieve is on the right. I assume that's the car they took. Anyone have a guess as to year/make/model?

They drove through Chicago, across Indiana, Ohio. They stopped in Toledo to visit a friend named Max. (Whose friend he was, or how she knew him remains a mystery.)

The road trippers visiting a friend named Max in Toledo.

While in Ohio visiting Max, it looks like they stayed in quaint little cabins.

Max with the teacher friends.

Gen and Corinne in front of the cabin they likely shared.

Once they left Ohio, their itinerary gets a little hazy. They definitely took the southern route through Cleveland and Pennsylvania in one direction, and the northern route, through Niagara Falls, in the other. But I can't tell yet if they went north first and south home or vice versa. It's purely a hunch, but I suspect they took the southerly route on the way out east. While in Pennsylvania, they stopped at something called Baker Caverns in Pennsylvania, which advertises itself as being "7 miles south of Chambersburg." (I have the tourist brochure, but haven't gotten it scanned yet. Since I will be visiting Chambersburg for the first time in about a month for my friend Emily's wedding, I took particular interest in it.)

And then... New York City.
Genevieve bought this souvenir guide for 25 cents. It is full of black and white photos of historic sites.

Judging by the photos from this part of the trip, they were having too much fun sightseeing to take many photos. And the ones they did take just have generic city scenes in the background.

New York City, 1936

Possibly the place they stayed in New York City?

There's a snapshot in the bunch of an older lady on the street that I'm thinking might be an early street fashion shot?

Watch out, Sartorialist. My grandma beat you to the punch by 70 years.

Though there aren't many snapshots from New York City, there are plenty of brochures, souvenirs and guides, so I imagine they painted the town. They were there the week of June 21st to June 27th, 1936.

Cover of a brochure guide to everything that was happening in New York the week they were there.

Plays that were up at that time include a comedy called "Boy Meets Girl" that was getting a lot of publicity and the drama, "The Children's Hour." There was one musical showing that week and it was "On Your Toes." (For those who may be interested, I scanned the whole brochure and posted it on Flickr.) Movies that were showing included Sins of Man ("Fine character study of Tyrolean bell-ringer whose ambitions for his sons are unrealized,") Trouble for Two (with Robert Montgomery and Ros Russell,) and Dancing Pirate ("Rollicking tale of Spanish California - all Technicolor dancing musical.") Stores they may have visited included: Abercrombie and Fitch Co., Bergdorf-Goodman, Gimbels, Henri Bendel Inc., Macy's, Putnam Book Shop, Saks-Fifth Avenue and Saks-34th Street, and Stern Bros., among others. (Shopping columnist Viriginia S. Zelius writes, "It's Lanvin's Basque cardigan at Bonwit Teller's. Like a man's sports jacket - the type of jacket for which you'd expect to pay at least half again as much. You can wear it with your sports dresses, or over your culottes.")

Taxi fare at the time was 20 cents for the first 1/4-mile and 5 cents for each additional 3/4-mile. At the time, there were only four main subway lines. They were known as the Eighth Ave. line, the Lexington Ave. line, the Broadway-7th Ave. line, and the B.M.T. subway express from Brooklyn, which went over the Manhattan Bridge. There were also still four elevated railway lines. (Interesting note: If you were a very wealthy person and could afford to fly, there were seven small airfields serving New York City at that time. A trip to Miami on Eastern Airlines would take you 8 hours, and you'd stop in Washington, DC, Raleigh, Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville and Atlanta.) Finally, there were four Gray Line sightseeing bus tours operating at the time: New York, Chinatown, Harlem night life and a day trip to West Point.

Speaking of sightseeing, next time I'll show you some great photos of their trip to Niagara Falls!

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