Friday, January 8, 2010
Esther DeGray grew up in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. She was teenager when she kept this scrapbook from about 1915 to about 1919. Esther saved things. There are party invitations and theater programs, and newspaper clippings. There is the stub of a cigarette that I think belonged to her sweetheart. These things tell us a lot about what life was like for a young lady growing up in Chicopee at that time, but more specifically, what it was like for a middle class young lady.
Esther represents something new in America at that time, the new emerging middle class. In some ways Esther represented her family’s American dream.
She was educated, sent to a convent school in Quebec, kind of a finishing school. There is a notice here that her room and board for one term were $134, a great deal of money. She went to the Springfield Conservatory of Music and learned to play violin and piano. She attended classical music concerts. Though she lived just down the street from the brick workers’ housing of this factory town, Esther was not expected to work in a factory (though her sister Beatrice did work for a time in the office at the Fisk, which was later known as the Uniroyal tire manufacturing plant, a major employer in town), nor perhaps was she expected to marry a factory worker. She married a doctor.
The family had originally come from Quebec, and her father Joseph grew up in poverty in New York State. His father died in the Civil War when Joseph was still a boy. He hired himself to a nearby farmer, and that began a long career in business. Joseph DeGray eventually came to Chicopee, as so many people did in the late 1800s because of the enormous opportunities here.
Esther’s scrapbook is not a diary or a journal, so we don’t know all the details of her life, though she does write little notes beside many of the things she’s got in here. Under a picture of Al Jolson, probably from a theater program or a rotogravure section of the newspaper, she writes “He’s a dear.” Al Jolson some of you probably know was extremely popular at this period, a major star of vaudeville, silent films, and the new phonograph records.
“Enjoyed this concert ever so much,” she wrote in the margin on the page.
What we know about Esther and about Chicopee Falls at this time we can read between the lines of all the things she saved. She’s got dance cards with the names of the boys she danced with filled in. On one of them, she danced a fox trot with a fellow named Don to a song called “Wicki Wacki Woo.” I hope she was chaperoned, it sounds like a wild evening. She’s got party invitations and party favors. A napkin from the old Jensen’s candy store and tea shop in Springfield. (Jensen’s also had a Hartford store, some of you may recall.) She loved the theater and she loved vaudeville.
She went to see Corse Payton’s stock company at the Court Square Theatre in August of 1915. $1.50 for orchestra seats. The show as a drama called “Madame X.” (We covered Corse Payton in my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog here.)
In pencil in top Esther writes, “Went with Agnes. Cried a lot.”
The scrapbook also contains a program for the old Poli’s Palace on Worthington Street in Springfield, a vaudeville theater run by Sylvester Poli. For more on the Poli’s Palace, have a look at this post from my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog.
As we can guess from these programs and parties Esther lived a fairly pleasant and active social life. Her family was prominent, lived comfortably, and were able to afford to send her away to school. Esther was the youngest of Joseph DeGray’s six children. There was some probably some 18 years difference between her elder brother Alva and her, so we might expect that Esther’s childhood was even more comfortable, even more genteel than Alva’s was.
Esther did play occasionally for parties and weddings for money (she received the princely sum of $2 for one gig), and just before her marriage is listed in the city directory as a music teacher, but I don’t think we need assume she needed to support herself. It was more likely a genteel activity for an educated young woman, who was being educated not necessarily to be a career woman, but to be the wife of an educated man.
One line went:
“I stood and guarded o’er him while the bullets rained all day,
Until the stretcher bearers came and took my pal away.”
This was in August 1918 and Dr. Metivier was in Georgia at the time, so he was not involved in any battle. This scene came from his poetic imagination.
That her fiancé was in the Army was certainly a connection to the war in Europe that probably gave her some anxiety, but for Esther, World War I seems to be more about the whist party her mother gave in 1917 to benefit the Red Cross only a few weeks after America entered the war. It was about little paper flags stuck into party favors, and perhaps newsreels she saw at the movies. She was far removed from it.
But we do see in the scrapbook that Esther couldn’t be shielded from tragedy at home. There is a newspaper clipping about a teacher of hers at the Springfield Music Conservatory who was leaving her position because of failing health, and going to New Zealand where she had spent some time in her younger years. A few pages later, there is another newspaper clipping on the death of this teacher in New Zealand. She was in her early 40s. It’s likely that this woman knew she was going to die, but we don’t know if Esther knew that. Probably not.
There is a piece of paper tucked into the scrapbook, a list of names handwritten in pencil. This is a list of friends Esther intended to invite to a party. One of the names is Ernest Lemieux. A few pages later in the scrapbook, we see a newspaper clipping about Ernest. He died skating on the Chicopee River by the Oxford Country Club January 1916, and Esther notes that it was a shock.
There are clippings about the fire that destroyed the old Chicopee High School. Invitations to the Chicopee High Senior Promenade in 1916. Do students today going their prom even know that it stands for promenade?
There is a note written in October 1916 that she took back to her academy in Quebec, from Esther’s doctor here, testifying that Esther has not been in contact with poliomyelitis. Do students today even know what polio is or how frightening the word was back then? (Have a look here for a discussion on how polio was treated in film at my Another Old Movie Blog.)
The scrapbook gives lots of clues and images of Chicopee Falls, of Chicopee’s French-Canadian community, of a privileged young girl whose whole world was comprised of a few streets, yet traveled outside the U.S. to go to school, and who was aware of events happening on the other side of the world.
Esther’s brother Alva also celebrated a wedding anniversary with a reception at home for his friends, and Esther played the violin.
It was a world before radio. In the scrapbook there is a sliver of an ivory piano key. Before radio, any home that could afford one had a piano, and a phonograph. Many people, even poor people, played musical instruments. In the 1914 Springfield directory, there are close to 200 music teachers listed.
Dr. Metivier and Esther were married probably about 1920. He set up his practice on Broadway in Chicopee Falls, and they lived in a house on Court Street, only a few streets away from the house where she lived as a child. Esther lived here for the rest of her life. After her husband died in 1942, she remained here as a widow, sometimes teaching music. She died in 1972.
We can see what a high point it was for the DeGray family, and for a lot of middle class families at that time, when we consider that things were probably never as easy for the generations that followed. Esther’s children would have grown up during the Depression and would have been young adults during World War II. Her son Richard served in the Army and received the Purple Heart. We can assume he faced conflicts in his war that Esther and her husband never faced in World War I.
Perhaps even her grandchildren would not have lived so sheltered and privileged a life. They would have been Baby Boomers, and we though we often think of Baby Boomers as being the most spoiled and privileged generation up to that time, and in many respects they were, even many of them had jobs when they were teenagers, and when they married, many of them discovered they couldn’t get by on one income, that both spouses had to work. Today we sometimes hear about the shrinking of the middle class.
Scrapbooking is a very popular hobby now. Craft stores have entire sections devoted to scrapbooking. Maybe some of you keep scrapbooks, probably a lot more fancy than Esther’s. She just stuck every napkin and party favor and raffle ticket she found in there.
But, someday your souvenirs are going to be somebody else’s historical artifacts.