Interviewee: Rose Welsh Whitty Interviewer: Cherie Snyder Interview: July 31, 1981 Transcribers: Jane Antheil, Philadelphia University (9/15/2009), Wendy Moody (2010)
Born in East Falls, Rose gives a detailed account of working at Dobson Mills. She also describes her house on Sunnyside, St. Bridget School, and local stores.
CS: We’ll start off if you want to tell me your name and when you were born.
RW: My name was Rose V. Welsh – my marriage name is Whitty. I was born July 27, 1899. Is that alright?
CS: That’s fine. So, you just had a birthday.
RW: Yesterday, no, on the 27th
CS: So how old does that make you?
CS: 82 years old. How long have you lived in East Falls?
RW: All my life. My mother before me. She was born in 1868 on Laboratory Hill – Powers & Weightman’s estate. My grandfather lived here from 1828. He came from County Mayo, Ireland
CS: And that’s how the family came?
RW: They were all born and lived in East Falls.
CS: What brought your grandparents here? Was it work?
CS: What kind of work were they doing?
RW: Well he was in Powers & Weightman’s and I suppose he did something prior to that. He came 16 years old. My grandmother was 15 when she came.
CS: Were they married at the time?
RW: No, they married here, in Philadelphia. My mother’s people lived here for years and years. And they all had large families.
CS: Were you trying to remember something?
RW: I’m trying to think what I say next.
CS: That’s ok. I just didn’t want to cut you off. Did you say you were born on Laboratory Hill?
RW: My mother was born on Laboratory Hill in 1868. I was born on James Street which is now Stanton Street, on July 27, 1899.
CS: Now that’s not considered Laboratory Hill, right?
RW: No, it’s a street. Laboratory Hill was demolished and the Projects is over there –Falls of Schuylkill Project.
CS: Were they the homes of people who worked for the Weightman family?
RW: Yes, the chemical plant, and they had a school there for the children. And she started first grade there, but then she went down to the old yellow school house. [sounds like something was skipped here] and he was a railroad engineer. West Falls on the Reading Railroad. And they had 7 children, I am the second youngest and I am the last living member of the family.
CS: Oh really? So all your brothers and sisters…
RW: All brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents, and only one cousin living, she’s 87. And, I have one niece living. I only had one niece. I had a nephew, but he died. But she’s living in Florida. And, my nephew died in Iowa. So, as I said that leaves me the last living member. There are lots and lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are still some of them in the Falls. My mother’s name was McHale – Rose McHale. My father’s was James Welsh. My father was born on the street-Sunnyside Avenue—3522, in 1860, and he was married out of that house. My mother was living on Stanton Street with her father directly opposite the new school –the old school entrance – Stanton, now. We always called it Jimmy Street for James Street.
CS: Why did they change the name, I’m just curious?
RW: I don’t know, they did that to a lot of streets in Philadelphia. Now Ainslie Street back here used to be Spencer, er ah, ah, Fairview Avenue. And Calumet Street used to be Spencer Street.
CS: In your life time?
RW: In my lifetime. When I was a child, I used to go visit my uncle who lived there and this James Street and Spencer Street were after a man in that book, James Spencer, when they were early settlers here. And then, ah a lot of the streets have been changed. Arnold Street used to be Elizabeth Street, I think. A lot of them have been changed in modern times, you know. And then, let’s see, I went to school at St. Bridget’s.
CS: Now, were you, to go back a little, were you born in your father’s home here on…?
RW: I was born in my father’s home on Stanton Street.
CS: On Stanton Street?
RW: My grandfather also owned a home on Stanton Street. Right across from the old school main entrance. I was the only one born on Stanton Street, some were born on Calumet and my youngest sister was born on New Queen Street, 3556.
CS: Now how did you get over to this house?
RW: My father died in 1902, and then the year after, my mother bought this house, 3513 Sunnyside. And in 1944 I bought this house.
CS: No wonder you’ve been here so long.
[missing section here]
RW: But he comes to visit me every year and in the spring in the spring and winter he comes alone. So, he’s just been here in June.
CS: How old did you say this house was?
RW: It was built in 1874. There were eight of them. That’s what my deed reads. They were all built at the same time. My mother was born in 1868 and she was 6 years old when she saw these houses for the first time. A girlfriend, a schoolmate, bought 3515 and she ran over to see the new house and then years later, we bought 3513.
CS: Did she ever say how much they sold for then?
RW: Why they were built for $2500 in 1874. And she paid $1900 for hers, but it was in very bad condition and she had to remodel and do a lot of work to it in the same way I have done a lot of work, all new plumbing work.
CS: Did they, were they built with plumbing?
RW: Well, they had no bathrooms, and they had no heaters. They had holes –there were chimneys here- holes in the bedrooms if you want heat in the summer, I mean, winter when somebody was sick and ah, it was 1918 people began to remodel them and put bathrooms in off the back bedroom and put heaters in.
CS: Why around 1918 was it about then that they started to remodel?
RW: They didn’t have the money to do so.
CS: But after the war…
RW: After the war they, they had bought Liberty Bonds during the war and after the war they cashed them in and remodeled their homes. Most of them did that. I know my mother did. We bought Liberty Bonds and after the war in 1918, she started remodeling. She had all this broken out and open the staircase upstairs. She fixed the stairs and she had the heat put in and a bathroom put in and electricity –all in 1918. No one had electricity. We had gas. Prior to that we had oil lamps. Our streets used to be cobble streets.
CS: I didn’t know that.
RW: And they paved over them.
CS: About when did that happen that they paved…
RW: Not so long ago, since I’ve been in this house and I came in it in 1944. I remember the day they paved over there. They coated all over with black tar and in a day or so I remember all the kids from the neighborhood were out there with their bicycles and everything because it was so smooth.
CS: I bet after those cobblestones it was great.
RW: But, ah, that’s just since 1944.
CS: I ah, something came to mind, this wasn’t it, but maybe it will come back to me. When do you first remember locking your doors, when you thought you had to keep your doors locked?
RW: We used to go to Cape May every summer, and we had, and I still have, shutters all over these houses. They’re solid shutters on the first floor and slat shutters –moveable- on the second floor and no shutters on the third floor. And when we went to Cape May for many years, all my mother did was shut those slat shutters on the second floor and turn them down and opened the window about that high. Of course we locked the doors. We always locked our doors.
CS: Even when you were home.
RW: Oh, no, they were always open.
CS: Do you do that now?
RW: I lock mine. When we’d go to the store, there would be screen doors on, but I can’t remember when we started locking them, ‘til this violence started. Every place I go, I lock the doors. I do leave the windows open when I just run next door. We lock everything now at night. I lock everything up when I go sit on my porch. Is my voice carrying?
CS: Fine, it picked up beautifully.
RW: I can’t remember what we were talking about. All that you heard about the men coming around selling the crabs and all, I remember all that.
CS: The street vendors, but that’s not what you called them, you had another name. The hucksters.
RW: The hucksters. That was the men that came selling produce and on Friday they sold fish. And the grocers and all the storekeepers would go down there to the wharf at 2 o’clock in the morning for all their products and fish and everything. And then a couple – three or four families – had a huckster business l and they came around right to your door, in front of your door, and you would run out – you knew the time they were coming. And the grocers would come to your house in the morning and take your order and bring in back – maybe in less than an hour sometimes. And the grocers and the businessmen used to have a picnic at Willow Grove once a year and we would go on trolley cars. And we’d go out to Willow Grove and the families would take their family basket with them and then during the day, at certain hours, they’d distribute free food, like ice cream and lemonade. And then we got so many tickets to ride the amusements donated by the businessmen.
CS: Here in East Falls.
RW: In East Falls, yes. And ah, the stores all closed on Wednesday around here.
CS: All day?
RW: All day Wednesday. That was for them to go and order. I think they closed all day but I might be mistaken on that. They would go down and order all their stuff from the wholesale houses. Nothing was delivered to stores, only bread, later on bread was delivered. Nearly all opened by 5 o’clock in the morning.
CS: The stores did?
RW: Yeah, cause my mother, the mill started at 6 o’clock and mothers would go out and get buns and breads when the stores opened. There were all kinds of stores. This Conrad Street every store you see now was owned or rented and there would be maybe the same kind of business in the same square, the same block.
CS: You mean they would cluster certain businesses?
Yeah. We had fish houses, oyster houses, dry goods stores on Conrad Street and we had ice cream stores right across the street, all kinds of stores and down on Cresson Street there were stores. See, Tilden Street and Vaux Street those places were all woods. And they had big farms all around here.
CS: Well, when did that start to change on Conrad Street with all the stores?
RW: When the supermarket started. The first supermarket around here was the Acme. And it was down at Ridge and Midvale. And we used to walk down there.
CS: Is that where the Acme was?
RW: Yeah, it was down…
CS: Is it where there is a grocer there.
RW: Across from the firehouse. There was a drugstore there, last time I was down there.
CS: But that’s where the Acme used to be? When was that, in the 50’s?
RW: A lot earlier than that. When I was a child about ten years old. In 1910.
CS: I didn’t even know Acme was around then.
RW: When Acme was down there, when I used to go down over the railroad and there was a hill right after Midvale Avenue and we’d go down Midvale to Ridge Avenue, the corner, and they gave you crown (?) stamps with everything you got and then they would have all these special sales you know and the people would flock down when the specials were on. So eventually some of the grocers had to go out of business.
CS: So that was kind of the beginning when you’d see some of the stores…
RW: But they had the Acme down there for a long, long time, then they closed that and opened one over here at Bowman Street and Conrad.
CS: An Acme?
RW: An Acme Market and they had an A&P right over here where the politician is now.
RW: O’Donnell. That was an A&P for a long time.
CS: So A&P’s and Acme’s must have been a lot smaller than they are today.
RW: Oh, they were, yeah. Then they had an A&P up at Tilden and Vaux
CS: I never heard that before.
RW: And then they went out of business and the Coldwell boys had it for a long time. I don’t know who has it now; I never go up that way. And, we had all kinds of stores around here. We had a fish store right across the street, we had a bakery in the next store, and at different times we had a fish store at the bottom of that street, and before that there had been a feed store for horses. Hay and feed all kinds of food. We had a grocery store at the bottom of this street and a grocery at the bottom of ? and a grocery store at the bottom of New Queen Street. Different people took them over, you know. We had a butcher store here. We had one at Bowman Street. We had a grocery store diagonal with the butcher. We had lots of them, and they’d be open at night. They were all open at night and they were open early in the morning until 9 and 10 o’clock some nights. And plumbers, we had good plumbers. A lot of the plumbing work around here was laid by Mr. O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien who used to be on Ridge Avenue , and Mr. Weir who used to be on Indian Queen Lane and Mr. Forster who used to be at Ridge and Calumet.
CS: So a lot of local workers.
RW: As you’d go along you’d see names on the vents in front of these houses.
CS: I wanted to ask you, this is switching the subject, but where did you go to school?
RW: St. Bridget’s
CS: You went to St. Bridget’s.
RW: I graduated from there.
CS: From the time you first went to school you went to St. Bridget’s?
RW: Um hum. We all did. Seven, six of us.
CS: Now is the school that you went to still there?
RW: Still the same school. The gray stone school. Then they built the new school and my son entered that….he was born in ’37. I forget when that was built, but it had just opened when he went into the 7th grade from the old school. Just went 2 grades there.
CS: What’s your most vivid memory going to school when you were a child?
RW: Well, I loved studying. I liked to study. I used to stay up ‘til 12 o’clock at night studying. And I liked the nuns. They were very nice to us and very polite. We were very polite at that time, too. And, we had a stage on the first floor. We used to have concerts over there. Then later they needed more room for children and they turned it into a classroom for the first grade. But, I can remember that stage there. And later on, many years after, the church used to have shows there and we’d go over. It was mostly adults in the chairs. Then later on when our old church was turned into a music hall, we used to have our affairs over there on Stanton Street. Course that’s been demolished since; there’s a playground there now.
But I loved school. I got seven certificates for daily attendance and the reason I didn’t get one the first year was I was sick for about a week or so, so I lost that. And my son got the eight for his attendance.
CS: Does that mean perfect attendance?
RW: Yeah, never late and never absent.
RW: And I liked it because we had to study and I loved studying and I wasn’t pushed in any way. You just had to study. Course the ones who didn’t study, they didn’t go ahead. We didn’t advance them. They didn’t go half. We didn’t get semi-annual examinations. Only once a year in June. So, you had to study pretty hard to pass that one examination in June.
CS: Can you just describe for me what a typical day was like at school from the time you’d get up and get off to school?
RW: Well, we went to school and when we went to school we said a prayer, the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and then we started on our schooling – our lessons and we had, I can’t recall just what our periods were during the day, but we had arithmetic, and English, and spelling. We had like four periods a day morning and afternoon. But I just can’t recall.
Then at Christmas time, Friday afternoon, we used to be allowed to make our Christmas presents. We listened to stories while we were sewing and making our Christmas presents. We could go around to the stores and could get ribbon like was on the bolt and we’d make pin cushions, we get scraps from home and we’d make pin cushions for the folks at home, my mother and sister. And then that time was when they wore hats and we’d make hat pin holders. We’d go to the drugstore and get a vial about that long and we’d twist ribbon around it and make like a rosette at the top and a hanger on it. And hang on the side of the bureau for your hat pins.
CS: So those were made.
RW: We made them in school. We’d make them a couple weeks before Christmas. And everything was made out of what—we had to go and get things for almost nothing, you know. Children didn’t have money like they have now. And then we would make something out of cardboard, as long as it was a Christmas present.
And then we had spelling bees, you know. And the captain, you know, she would pick her good spellers. She would pick them and then Sister would give us a word to spell, like on the side you would line up. And if she would miss it she would ask someone on the other side. No, she would ask the next one, and if she knew it, she would move up. And it was a race between my cousin and myself –which could stay first and second. (laughter) And, ah, then at the end of the year, the spellers were awarded something. So many spellers were awarded something.
Then while we were making Christmas presents, there’d be a girl reading us a Christmas story.
CS: Were your classes with boys?
RW: No, we were all girls when I went. And, it was a long time when my son went, too that they mixed them.
CS: That was different from the public school.
RW: Boys and girls went to the public school together.
CS: But at the Catholic School you were separated.
RW: We were separated.
CS: And did you have to pay to go to Catholic school?
RW: Oh, no. We didn’t have to pay. We were paying the City taxes. We didn’t have to pay to go to our own school. And that lasted for a long, long time. And we used to have what we called a school collection, I think, and they gave 25 cents a week for repairs. And when my boy went to Roman Catholic High School we never had to pay, only $15 a year. And some people doubted it, but it was. When he went it was $15 a year. And then from that on, things went up. Everything had to be repaired. And I was surprised when he came home and said “I have to have $15 tomorrow” and I said “What for?”
He said “School.” But when I was going to high school – I didn’t go to high school – but when my class went to high school they didn’t have to pay anything that I knew of. I went to business college.
CS: Now when did you finish at St. Bridget, then?
CS: And how old would you have been?
RW: I was 15 years old because we didn’t start till we were 7.
CS: And at that point you went to business college?
RW: No. I left in June, 1914 and my sister worked in the mill and she got me a job– most all the girls worked in the mill – because most of them couldn’t afford to go to high school – it was only two years then.
CS: What do you mean they couldn’t afford it – did they have to pay to go?
RW: No, they didn’t have to pay but they had to pay carfare. It was 5 cents but they couldn’t afford… They had to go to work to help the family. But the ones who had fathers – like my father, an engineer on the railroad – why they could pay and go to high school although a lot of them didn’t go. One of them that I knew, her mother had a business, a grocery store, she didn’t go to high school. She went to work in the butcher store as a cashier. But most of the girls couldn’t wait until they got in the mill. And when I went, I worked 15 months there, and it was like in school because all the girls I went to school with, excepting those few that went to high school. Well they only went two years to high school in those years. So I would work 15 months in the mill and I was 10 months in the business college and I graduated the same time they did and I got a job before they did. And I got twice as much as they did.
CS: Now what job did you get?
RW: I got a job as bookkeeper and stenographer in Dobson’s Mill on Scott’s Lane. I got worked in as plush mill in velvet and plushers – I worked in the velvet department and it was a nice job and I didn’t want to leave it to go to business college.
CS: Why did you?
RW: I liked it. And I liked working with the girls I went to school with. It was just like school, you know. And I came out…
CS: Why did you go to business college if you…What made you do that?
RW: My brother. My sister-in-law was a bookkeeping-stenographer and she said she thought it was a shame I was in the mill and she thought I should go to business college. So they paid for my business college education – my brother. See, there were still four of us at home, two boys had been married, and there were still four of us at home. We had had 7 but one died. So they thought I should go to business college and that’s how I come to go to business college. And when I first went it was quite different from St. Bridget School – there were girls and boys mixed and there were…
CS: What business college did you go to?
RW: Strayer’s. It was at 8th and Chestnut. And they – I took Pittman shorthand revised by Mr. Strayer and his brother – he had a college in Washington. And they shortened it so that we took, like, we had a lot of reporter’s word signs instead of long Pittman, see. But I also included court reporting word signs but I never used that. I would forget now, I guess. I know all my word signs, yeah, I often do dictation over the radio.
CS: Oh, that’s a good way to keep in practice!
RW: I keep up, I keep up. And I know all my bookkeeping. I run my house on a bookkeeping system.
CS: Good for you! That’s great.
RW: I never wanted to lose it in case I ever had to go to work, but I haven’t worked for 44 years. I left for the birth of my oldest son.
CS: You left work as a bookkeeper?
RW: When I was with Dobson. I worked there from October 1916 till February 1937. Counting the other time, I put 21 ½ years in.
CS: How did you get the job as the bookkeeper once you graduated from business college?
RW: Well the Strayer’s ran an employment office I worked in Mr. Strayer’s office and they guaranteed you a job. When I graduated in September, I worked in Mr. Strayer’s office as his stenographer-bookkeeper and I worked there for a month to get the experience and then I went out there to Dobson’s – Scott’s Lane.
CS: Did you just hear about the job?
RW: No, they called up. No, I didn’t hear about the job. See, all the firms would call Strayer’s Employment Agency. He had his own employment agency because he guaranteed you a job. And he would hold you in his office working so you that you could go right out and start working but it didn’t cost… (tape pauses here)
Of course it was quite different – I used to go along Conrad Street here over to Scott’s Lane and down Scott’s Lane – there’s how I used to go. But then when they started liquidating after the Great Depression, they rented the offices out – the buildings rather – and they moved us over to the carpet mall which was a mansion – an old mansion – the picture is in that book.
CS: Do you remember whose mansion it was?
RW: It’s in that book. I forget the name of it just offhand. And Mr. Dobson used that for an office. And I was there from about 1931 till 1937 in that department.
CS: Now was that when – since the Depression, is that when the mill started to…
RW: To liquidate. And they first started to sell all the machinery and all the material they had there.
CS: Were there any people still working there?
RW: Yes, there were people still working there when I left but there was only one man in the office and he was a CPA. And I was a jack-of-all-trades – telephone operator then, cost clerk, made out the payroll and everything. Once you worked for Dobson you did everything. But you see after 1929 business got slack and I didn’t have too much work to do so I really was – I didn’t get in until 9 and I left at-11. And I didn’t go back until 12 or 12:30 and I left at 5. I didn’t have the detailed work. And then they started leasing the buildings, as I said, and then they started selling them. As they emptied the buildings, they started selling them. And they wanted to sell them as a unit – the whole thing – the ones on Scott’s Lane and the ones on Crawford Street but they just didn’t get their price. And I guess the women – James had 5 daughters – and John had one – and John was dead by this time and James was dead too. So they liquidated and as the mills emptied I believe, I don’t know, but I believe somebody bought what was left.
But there are all kinds of businesses down there – I call it my alma mater. I pass down on Sundays on the bus –and come out Henry Avenue on the church bus and I’ll say “There goes my old alma mater!” (laughter). But it was a nice place. I had a nice position. Everyone was nice to me. I was practically my own boss. And I got vacations and when they liquidated I even got a couple weeks vacation of housecleaning! And I got my regular vacation. And when my mother was ill, I’d come home anytime – She’d just pick up the phone and I’d come right home.
CS: Why was that? Because the Dobsons were generous? Or they were fond of you?
RW: Well the Dobsons were already dead.
CS: I see. So you’re talking about when the mills were liquidating, you had a little more freedom.
RW: Yeah, I had a little more time.
CS: Now can you tell me what were the Dobsons like – the two Dobsons?
RW: Well, John Dobson when I went there – he was sort of senile. And he didn’t come in much – once in a while he would come in. But Mr. James Dobson, he came in every day in the morning and by that time he had a car. He didn’t always have an automobile. He would come up the hill on Crawford Street there, where the public school was, he would come up to – there was a hill on his property that would lead out to the railroad crossing. He walked to Bowman Street where the old railway station was and take the train down to the main office which was at 809 Chestnut Street.
CS: Oh, they had an office in town?
RW: Oh yes. We had an office where, oh, everything was done. There was an estate (?) of John Dobson’s located there too. See John Dobson owned all that property along the railroad. He owned a lot of property around here. But there was a combination. John Dobson was on the next floor and James – John and James – on the second floor from the street, the other was on the third floor – they conducted their business. Later it was mostly horseracing.
CS: Whose business was horseracing?
RW: John Dobson’s estate. His estate. You see his daughter, Mrs. Riddle, was a great horsewoman. She owned that Man-O-War horse that won so much money. And then her daughter married Mr. Jeffries. You’ll see his name in the papers now – Walter M. Jeffries – and he was a great horseman, see. They were all horsemen. And, as I said, Mrs. John Dobson had the one daughter and James had five. And two, like the father, two brothers married two sisters, the Scofield sisters.
CS: That’s what the Dobsons had done, right? Did you say that James and John…
RW: Had married the two Scofield girls. They worked for Mr. Scofield when they come to this country and then they met their future wives in the mill – their wives worked in the mill too – and they married these two girls. James married Mary Ann and John married Sarah. Then James had these five daughters and, just like their father, two daughters married two brothers. Two Dobson girls married two Norris brothers. Mrs. Richard and Mrs. John Norris. They married two Norris’ – Richard and John. They were a very fine family. As I said, John didn’t come in – after I went there in 1916, I only saw him a few times because he became senile. Then James did later on, but once in a while his chauffeur would bring him down. But John walked over. And he just lived around the corner on Allegheny.
And, Mrs. Altemus, she was a lovely woman. I knew them personally because they used to come down to the mill once in a while. And I knew Mrs. Riddle personally.
CS: They used to come down to the mill meaning…
RW: Bessie Dobson Altemus. She came down mainly during the First World War. She came down; she used to be dressed in white. A dress and a big white hat. In the summer she wore nothing but white. In the winter she wore black. A velvet dress with a long string pearls. And her hair became pure white. She was a beautiful woman. And they were all tall women except in the youngest girl, Florence, who married a lawyer from New York, Arthur Spencer. And she was a good sized woman but they were exceptionally tall.
CS: Was Mr. Dobson tall?
RW: No. John and James were – John Dobson was taller than James. James was a small man. In my eyes he looked small because I’m small. But on the other hand he was a very fine man. Now lots has been said about how mean he was – that is quite true. I know of one man who was going to be fired because he was out in politics. But he didn’t fire this man; this man quit before he was fired. (laughter).
CS: So people said he was mean…
RW: But, anyway, like if any children were around his property – he never had fences around his property – down to the playground was his property, and where the steel mill is. And I think it was comprised of 31 acres. And they wanted to try to get the public school to build a school down there but they wouldn’t do it because it was too near the railroad for children. And then the steel mill bought so many acres of ground down there. And he never had a fence around his property. He said nobody had a right on his property. And if anybody got hurt that was their own fault. And, of course, in those days people didn’t sue. They were afraid of losing their jobs. So there were a couple of men down there – one had his arm taken off and one had… – he worked in the carpenter shop and it was cut right off. They just signed that he would work with them and he would give them a life-long job. Well the mill liquidated, went out of business, and they were out of luck. But I must say, for myself, he was a very pleasant man. I took his dictation every morning when he come in, whatever he had, and he was a very pleasant man to us. He was up in years at that time; he could always crack a joke to somebody. Sometimes when I walked in, why, like one day I had a buzzer. That office had a door – our other offices didn’t. But when he would come in, they would close the door to talk privately, see? And I had this little buzzer in there and one push was for me. And two pushes were somebody else and so on. So one day it pushed and I grabbed my book and I started in but I knocked anyhow on the door before I went in and they said “Come in.” I come in and they all looked at me. There was this son-in-law – this Mr. Spencer, Mr. Dobson and the manager and the general manager there and the assistant general manager. And they looked at me and I was dumbfounded when they looked at me because the boss would always say “Sit down” – I’d have my favorite seat to sit down besides his desk and Mr. Dobson would sit beside him and he would dictate to me. And for a minute I didn’t know what to do. No-one spoke, they just looked at me in surprise. So the general manager – he must have sensed what was wrong and he said to me “What’s the matter, Miss Welsh?” And I said, “Well my buzzer rang.” And he said “Well we didn’t ring it.” (laughter) And I was embarrassed! I said “You didn’t ring it? I said, “Well it rang real loud.” So after a while the boss looked over the buzzer. Just then Mr. Dobson leaned back on his chair and with his head pushed the buzzer!”
CS: They wondered why you came in!
RW: The general manager said “Mr. Dobson, you called the girls!” “Miss Welsh” he said “I didn’t call her – I didn’t push no buzzer.” He said “You did with the back of your head!” Well Mr. (James) Dobson almost went off the chair laughing. And that’s how pleasant he was with us. He always had something nice to say.
One time he leaned down and I used to wear my hair – I always twist it in a roll – it looks like bob when I go out – but I always wore it in a roll in the back – I had extra long hair – black hair. And he put his hand on my head going out one day and he said “You have a beautiful head, little girl. Take care of it.” And I never had my hair bobbed – I’ve never been to the hairdresser only ten times in my life – and each time I had a bob was for my son’s wedding, that was 18 years ago and other times for something special. But we got a good laugh out of that, you know and so I’d always wait and I’d say to the boss “Push it twice when Mr. Dobson is here. Push it twice and I’ll know what to do – let someone else run in!” Then it was really funny, but he was a nice old man to me.
And when he come down sometimes he’d bring his wife with him, really lovely. And she was a nice – she was so small, and she used to wear a little bonnet tied under her – all in black she dressed and she had – she was up in years and she’d have a fine dress on, black trimmed with lace and all, and this little bonnet set up upon her head. And she had peaches and cream complexion. Beautiful little woman! And I would go out – I would sit in the car with her while they were inside and then she would ask me, you know, she’d ask me different little things about the mill because she never got down and got in the mill. They never took her down.
But, as I was saying, during-the First World War, Mrs. Altemus came down and she went – one time she brought a British soldier – he was an officer – I can’t recall what it was – and she was all in this white. And we had a platform built out in a little court for her to stand on and to talk and she introduced this officer. And then she had another American officer with her and he spoke to us all and we were all out there listening to him. Then after it was all over she said: ”Now we’re out for Liberty Bonds”. And she says “Who will be the first one to take it?” So some man stepped forward, you know, and he said he would be the first one to take it. She said “I’m not taking your name just now” but she said “Our assistant is here, Miss Welsh, and she’s going to come through the mill and you be sure to treat her right and give her a bond.” So, of course, I was well-known living here and most everybody from the Falls worked there, so you’d be surprised the bonds I got that day. And then there were so many more of them, I had to go back two or three days more to get them. And then it was taken out of their pay.
By the end of the time the war was over they had bonds to do whatever they – of course they could draw them after the war was over, you know. But that’s how many people got remodeling their homes from the bonds they bought in the First World War – and other things – paying their debts and all. You know some families had to double up; they were losing their homes and children were going with their parents. And you could buy homes very reasonably… men were building them and foreclosing on them, and anybody who had money could buy the houses.
But I must say I was glad I ever went back to work. And I got numerous people work down there. Then when they closed, you know, I was sitting there in the office nearly all day by myself, and we had different men used to come in and I’d be sitting there and one day a man came in and I thought: “I recognize that man” when he came in. It was then all those years since I had seen this person but I was trying to recall who this man was. And when I worked in the mill, I worked under this man. And he was a very fine man. And he lived in this town. When I said I was leaving, he said to me – now he was all over the whole velvet department – “Now why are you leaving?” And I told him. And he said “Oh, I’m glad you are. Getting a better education.” So I hadn’t seen that man for years – he had a mill of his own in Kensington – but when this man came in and I was really coming off on my lunch hour I thought: ”Oh, his face is familiar’. And when I went back, here was a note to make a bill out this man for some looms he had bought and a check. And as soon as I looked at his name, I said “Gee, that’s the same man. I wish I could have seen him, to tell him I was back in the same place!” I thought he would be interested, you know. But I hadn’t seen him; I guess he’s dead now.
CS: What was his name?
RW: Tom Murphy. Thomas Murphy. He was a fine boss too. He was boss over the whole velvet department. And I’ll tell you one time when I was in the mill I was given his pay by mistake.
CS: Oh, that would have been nice!
RW: I was given his pay by mistake. And they came around with long boxes – about that long and about that high to hold the pay envelope. We paid cash then – all cash. When my pay was handed out, you had a check about that long to hand with your name on it and you got your pay. And I took it and I walked back to where I belonged never looking at it. And when I go down and open it up, it had on it “Thomas Murphy” – it was his pay envelope. I didn’t give that to anyone. I held it. Of course he came in at a certain hour and when he came in, I walked up to him and I said “Mr. Murphy, I think this belongs to you.” But I didn’t tell anybody I had that pay. And he was very, very nice to me at all times but after that he was so glad that I was getting out of the mills. And I can remember that. But no-one to this day – I think you’re the first one I have told that too. Now I guess everybody will know!
CS: Now everybody!
RW: I liked it there. It was really home to me. But there’s so much you could tell about it. But I guess, maybe, I don’t know, sometimes I know he was mean but not to me. And I always had to speak up to people.
CS: What happened at the mill at Christmastime? Did he have any special for you or for his people who worked there?
RW: Nothing. For the office we always got Christmas presents. And when I was married they gave me beautiful silverware, both the firm and the family. I have a lot of silverware I got. And they were very nice to me – my mother – before I married she was very sick – she was in Jefferson Hospital. And they were very nice to me. I could just drop work whenever I felt like and go down to that hospital. If my sister got a call that she wasn’t feeling good, I could drop by work and go right down to the hospital and stay with her and then if she wasn’t well the next day I didn’t have to go in, I could go right down the hospital. That all counts. And then Mrs. Altemus knew my husband – he also worked at the main office – that’s where I met him. And Mrs. Altemus and Mrs. Jeffries they all knew him. They’d go down to the office. They knew him as well as they knew me. But see they knew my family – my parents and my grandparents before me. All were in the Falls. They knew everybody’s parents. My mother never worked in the mill but my father did. He started 9 years old and he started on a little stool to get up to where the machine was going. And my grandfather taught the Dobsons to do things. He was a boss carter (carder?) up at the stone mill up at the Wissahickon Creek. When the Scofield girls came here, he taught them certain things and then when he was down the mill – he was a boss carder there – and then later his son was in the spinning room. It’s a very extensive trade – I mean it has a lot of detail to it. They took me out – anything I would ask about, they would take me right out and show me – how it was made – it would come in sheered from the sheep’s back and it would be in oil that the sheep had picked up no matter where he went in his body (indecipherable) and then they would send it what they called the scouring room. And they had washing tubs and they were, like, half a circle. And they would put that in – they would first send it to what they called pickering house or burr room or something and they would pick all those stickers and everything off
CS: Is that where the little children worked? Did I hear that somewhere? They put little children in there?
RW: No, not in the pickering house. They put little children – my father – worked in the spinning room. I don’t know where…anyway, this machine, the first machine would take all the stickers out – anything they picked up in their wool. And then this other machine would wash it and it would come out beautiful. Like silk. You could take it like that and squeeze it.
And then it would go into a carding room – that’s what my grandfather had been – boss carder – and it would be put on a carding machine which would separate it into little pieces.
And they would come down and go on spools and then it would take it to the spinning room where the machines would go back and forth and would spin and twist it, twist it into certain grades, like thick or light, you know, the threads.
And then it would be taken from there to the winding room where the girls would wind it on the spools.
And then from the winding room it would be put into bobbins – steel bobbins – about that long. I’m talking particularly now about velvet. And they were like steel bobbins and they would run back and forth. And then there was a beam, which was a cylinder about this high, and threads were running around that – they called them beamers, the woman who did that. And then they were like on the bottom and then you churdled (?) you had toppers called the filling and the bottom called the warp and the threads would come in like this from the warp, and the shuttle went across with the filling. I had some beautiful velvet upstairs that they wove.
CS: Oh, really?
RW: Yes. When we stopped working, why we could take anything we wanted and I took some velvet, see, and some upholstery stuff, I took. We had our sale room was in New York and that all came back. We sold a lot of it. Then there were a lot of odds and ends left in velvet. Beautiful velvet. It was hat velvet and dress velvet. And the dress velvet was all panne velvet – that was pressed (?) real…
CS: Is that ever the velvet the Mrs.Dobson – that Bessie Altemus wore?
RW: Yeah. The back of that was silk. The back here was silk and the face was silk too. Of course that panne velvet was beautiful. I have a dress upstairs of it but it’s put away. My sister had made it for me before I started to sew myself. I had a little jacket with buttons down here.
CS: Made out of material from the mill?
RW: Yeah. And they wore long skirts down here then. I…invited to get (indecipherable) down there on Scott’s Lane. Through his knowledge (John Dobson) of textiles, he was – of course he was a citizen. He was made an officer in the Union Army, John. And James I guess too. That was before my time. Later in years they kept up blankets, but then they made clothing blankets for men and women’s suiting – overcoat material – and they made suiting – men and women’s suiting – pin striped suiting – that was a great go. And then they made coats – lumberjacket cloth – plaids and for woman they made fake fur – teddy bear cloth, you know for teddy bears? And cerical (?), black cerical (?), they made that. And they made plushes.
And not only did they have these mills down here, they had other mills besides what’s in the Falls. They had the Somerset (that was named after a town in England), out at 8th and Somerset Streets in Kensington. And they had a men’s/woman’s suiting out in Germantown – that was called the Bradford Mills, a town in England. And then they had a place in Kensington called fleece-lined underwear, like they used to wear and I think you can buy men’s sport jackets with that, for sports, you know, to absorb perspiration. And they had a yarn mill up in Manayunk; it was called Mt. Vernon Mill, that was called. I don’t know if they had a Mt. Vernon in England, but we had a Mt. Vernon here. And they had an interest in the Imperial Woolen Company and the Dobsons’ women – it was run by their brother down in Manayunk. Imperial Woolen Company. And they had an interest in that. And they were also very fine men. I knew two of them coming in the office.
CS: We’re almost at the end of the tape, and I had one question I also wanted to ask you about the Dobsons. Did Mr. James, who was there, or was it John…which one did you say was around more?
RW: James. He lived longer than John.
CS: James, he’s the one. Did he have any special quirks, or odd things that he did? Any special habits?
RW: Not in my time. He just would come in and he would stay about an hour and a half and get everything that had come up in the day before. And all matters would be brought up to him and letters he wanted to answer personally, we could answer those. And at times he wouldn’t even sign them. You know, he’d leave them and sign them part of his name, see.
But John, John, yes, he had one thing. When I first went there, there was an old swivel chair there and it must have been out in the weather because it looked like weather-beaten. And if you touch it, it went this way, you know. So nobody touched it. There was a new girl in the office. Brand new desk and a chair – the typewriter would go down –I pulled it up and down like my sewing machine and then they had a nice chair for it. And I also had another flat old table that was there that I used to work the bookkeeping. So I always wondered what this chair was sitting there in the corner. So one day I asked, you know. “Oh don’t touch that chair” – he was still coming in at that time, you know. “That’s a $50,000 chair.” And I said “$50,000? I’d throw that out” to the boss. “I’d throw it out. It’s so old.” And he said “Oh, no. Do you want to hear the story about it?” I said yes. He said “Well there was a firm that owned Mr. John Dobson $50,000. And he couldn’t get nothing out of him! So he went down there and he grabbed that chair and he said “I’m going to get me $50,000 worth!” So that’s why they term it the $50,000 chair. So after Mr. Dobson died, perhaps it went in the junkyard, I guess. It went out of the office because they were afraid someone would sit on it! But nobody… it was pushed back in the corner and somebody might accidently pick it out. That was real funny. I wish he had told me that joke himself – a joke on him – but he, James, was a real nice man. I think he changed as he got older. It was a shame they did away with the mill but no one wanted it. See after he died the woman didn’t want to keep it.
CS: It must have been hard on the people…
RW: ……work you know. And I would go down and there would be men there who had been there a long time. And I did get several people work through men that were coming in and buying the machinery or buying something, you know, or leasing the buildings. And I did get a few people in that way. But I used to feel sorry because people would come into the office and walk all the way from Kensington looking for work.
CS: Oh! All the way from Kensington!
RW: All the way from Kensington looking for work! And when they couldn’t get any here, they’d walk all the way up to Manayunk and the same thing up in Manayunk. They couldn’t get work.
CS: And this was during the Depression.
RW: And they were selling candy. I’d buy candy off them; I was sick at my stomach. And they were selling – they used to go, years ago, from door-to-door selling notions, you know. Peddlers, they called them. And they’d come in there with a big basket of stuff and I’d say -”Come on, I’ll take you out in the mill, the men that were still there, and see if somebody wants something. And I’d go out and he’d stand at the door…
END OF TAPE