Summary: Circumstances and expectations about retirement from both the well-to-do and not so well-to-do as documented in interviews done by authors in the Federal Writer's Project.
Narratives excerpted from: American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
Many businessmen or professionals had comfortable retirements, because many had both pensions and second careers they could engage in after retiring from their original career. Others that had pensions or property also seemed to be well-off in retirement. Retirement was not so nice for the working class.
Judge Sidney Saylor, judge, Charlotte, NC
After serving on the bench for a quarter of a century, it seemed the proper thing for a man of seventy to retire and give somebody else a chance. I was getting a little tired and I no longer needed the full salary. I am now retired on two-thirds of the regular pay for life and that is enough to supply my simple wants. Besides, I have saved up something all along from my salary. My life is well insured and I feel reasonably sure my wife and small family will never suffer want.
Like most retired men, I have dreamed of having me a farm and of spending my last days in otium cum dignitate, as my old Latin professor used to say. It might keep my weight down and improve my appetite and sleep to spend hours walking over my acres, but I'm afraid I'm getting too stout and lazy to enjoy that form of sport. Also, I have been accustomed to mingling with people daily for so many years that I'm afraid I'd miss these contacts. So I reckon I'll spend my declining years in a wheel chair being trundled along the busy thoroughfares of the city. A judge in a large Northern city who was still active on the bench at ninety said his vitality was due to the bad air he breathed in the courtroom. Perhaps the dust of city streets will preserve me.
Jacob Ernst, retired hardware store owner, Columbus, NE
Living a retired life at his home, 1871 Seventh Street, where he indulges to his heart's content in his hobby of plain and fancy wood-working, is Jacob Ernst. Many years ago Mr. Ernst represented the first ward as a member of the city council. In more recent years, after he had long since retired from active business, he served for 16 years as an assessor in Columbus.
David Morin, French Canadian business man, Old Town, MA
He went to work as the manager of a pool and billiard hall on Water Street, that was owned by his brothers Frank and Lawrence, where he remained until his ill health forced him to retire in 1936. He hasn't worked anywhere since, and as he is well off, he probably won't again.
Alexander Beaton, retired Army Colonel and attorney, Corsicana, TX
Major Beaton went to Taos, New Mexico, with three companies of the regiment and remained there, doing duty as acting adjutant of the battalion, until the end of the war, when he returned to Independence, Mo., with the entire regimental command, where with his fellow-soldiers he was, in the fall of 1848, honorably discharged from the service. He now draws a pension of $8.00 per month as a Mexican war veteran from the United States government.
[After retiring from the Army] he was employed in the County Clerk's office and was later appointed to fill the unexpired term of a former incumbent of the office of County Assessor and Collector of taxes and, while so engaged, industriously applied himself to the study of law. He was admitted to the bar in 1851, license being granted by Hon. O. M. Roberts, the presiding judge, afterwards Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, Governor of Texas, and later, senior law professor in the University of Texas. Major Beaton afterwards, for a period of over thirty years, engaged in the practice of the profession.
Major Beaton retired from active business and professional pursuits and moved to his residence, "Gem Hill," which overlooks the city of Corsicana and is one of the most exquisitely beautiful and well appointed country-seats in the South.
Mr. Coburn and Mr. MacCurrie, discussing retirement, Thomaston, CT
Mr. Coburn: "Sure, he likes it [speaking about his brother's new career in the Navy]. Why wouldn't he? He didn't have nothin' here but a WPA job. Now he's got somethin' with a future in it. A young fella stays in the Navy a few years and he can learn most anything he wantsta. They teach a lad a trade, you know, if he wansta learn one. And if he stays in the outfit for twenty years, he gets a nice little pension. Pretty nice to be able to retire on pension when you're only about forty or so."
Mr. MacCurrie: "Yes, you're right. There's Claude Thompson doon here. He gets a nice little sock from the government every month, and what he makes in the shop besides."Mr. Coburn: "Didn't he get retired for disability of some kind?
Mr. MacCurrie: "He went deaf. It was due to some kind of accident, I forget now just what it was. There was some kind of accident, I forget now just what it was. There was some kind of an explosion, and he rescued some of the sailors. He got a medal for heroism, or something o' the kind."
Mr. Coburn: "Well, in that case, he deserves a pension."
Frank Sowersby Gray, retired hardware executive, Jacksonville, FL
After delivering papers for the Florida Times-Union and working for a while helping my father in the shops of the Florida Railway and Navigation Company, which later became the Jacksonville, Tampa and W., being the beginning of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in a later merger, I obtained a position with the S. B. Hubbard Hardware Company as an office boy on June 1, 1878. I was in the employ of this firm for fifty-five years, becoming President of the company upon the death of Mr. Hubbard in 1903.
I retired for active service at the store, which I saw grow from a modest retail hardware establishment to a wholesale house with a territory covering several adjoining states and a swarm of hustling employees. But I have not retired altogether; I am still on the board of directors.
I was one of the founders in 1885 of the American Trust Company, later taken over by the Atlantic National Bank. I am still on the board of directors, also for another local bank, and have been one of the bond trustees of Duval County since 1890, including the St. Johns River bridge - too much responsibility for one of my age. I'll have to pass some of it to younger shoulders. And just look at this stack of unanswered letters! Six inches high. I have three secretaries at the store, but do not like to trouble them with my personal mail.
I still own a great part of this property on Len Turner Road, which I myself laid off years ago, and for thirty-five years have had a large farm there on Moncrief Creek near Dinsmore.
This house, where I have lived for fifty years, is in need of a new roof and other repairs, and the man who has attended to my property upkeep for fifteen years is sick. He might as well be dead, because he'll never get up again. Present day mechanics are unreliable ... just grab what money they can and take little interest in their work. I have three houses on the farm, too, that heed going over. Things like that are beginning to worry me - afraid I'm getting old."
Work? I love it. I have worked hard all my life. I have been through many discouraging situations and in tight places, but I always came through with flying colors, because I worked hard.
A.S. Rattan, retired doctor, Ft. Worth, TX
After we got here, I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I studied enough to get me a little business, then started out in Mason County in 1890. I turned out to be a saddle bags doctor. You know, carry all your stuff on a hoss and go from one ranch or farm to another. I was just as regular as the old circuit riding persons except when some contagious disease broke out.
I got to thinking maybe the grass grew a little greener out in the panhandle so I lit out for Channing and Hartley counties. I made me a route out there the same as I did before but it was too far between customers so I came back to Parker county for awhile, then I came into Fort Worth and went into the drug store business.
I've run drug stores all over Fort Worth since I came back. The two biggest ones were on Allen Avenue and another one on East Front Street.
I finally got too old to do much pill rolling so I retired and come out here to the Masonic Home. This is a mighty fine place for an old man to spend his last days.
Now, about being married, I've been married three times. I don't have any use for an old bachelor that's gone through life without helping take care of somebody. There happened to be 10 or 12 old bachelors together here the other day and I says, 'A man that never married or raised a family and took care of kids got no business being took care of in his old age. He oughta be done like we used to do an old stag, just drag him off into the head of an old holler and let him dry up'. Then I walked off and left them gaping. You know, when I'm not feeling my age so bad, I'm lots of fun. I'm all the time into some devilment like that.
Mrs. Laura Jones, widow of Civil War soldier, Palestine, TX
I live here with my great niece and her husband and they look after me. Of course the home belongs to me, but I receive a pension from the Civil War and have a small income from real estate and savings invested, but I need some one to be with me as I am getting pretty feeble, and can hardly get about in the house
John Sam Johnson, retired farmer in Huntersville, NC
Why, them welfare people laughed at me when I asked about getting old age pension. I have got as good a farm as there is in Mecklenburg County but that ain't got nothing to do with the price of eggs. I thought all old people who didn't have any help was supposed to get that pension. I ain't got but that one boy who is serving time. If he was here he wouldn't be no account to me for he's got T.B. He stayed over here in the County Hospital a long time and is in the Hospital now. I don't see what the law wants with a man laying up in the Hospital.
I got enough to live on--I have been advised to give my farm and everything away so I could draw the old age pension. If I was to do that I would be crazy--I'd wake up some morning and find myself in the asylum...I guess I'm better off without a wife. If she had stayed with me, she probably would have kept me from accumulating anything for my old age--as it is, I'll not have to be buried by the County, even if I am a Republican.
The Not So Well-To-Do
Mr. George R, unmarried retired factory worker, Thomaston, CT
Sure, got plenty of time to talk. Got more time than money. It's gettin' so, I don't know what to do with an my time any more. Can't see to read. Got cataracts on both eyes. I can just about see to walk. People tell me I'm goin' to git smacked by a car crossin' the street one of these days. Well, I tell 'em, 'twon't be much loss. Not much loss. You get as old as I be, and no family nor close relations, and you ain't got much to look forward to but passin' on to the next world.
Sure, I believe in it. Don't seem likely this here world is the best there is. Gits worse every year When I was your age, 'twasn't a bad place to live Wa'n't no wars goin' on, everybody was workin' that wanted to work, folks were satisfied to live quiet and peaceful. Wa'n't no radios blastin' you out of the house, wa'n't no cars killin' thirty thousand people every year. That's what changed everything -- your automobile. Your automobile is what ruined this country, more ways than one. Every little squirt that makes as much as fifteen dollars a week has to have an car. And that's where most the fifteen dollars goes -- into the car. Who gits all the money? Why, the big gas companies. Big gas companies git all the money. Goes right out of circulation.
Yes, I worked in the shop here 47 years. Retired me two years ago. They let a bunch of us old timers go all 'bout the same time. Give us a little pension, but that's goin' to stop pretty soon now. And when it does I don't know how I'm goin' to git along. I could git me in old age pension, if I wanted to sign my life insurance away. Woman from the state come here some time ago I says, 'Nothin' doin'', I says. 'Think I'm goin' to sign away my chance for a decent burial?' I says 'That's all I got to look forward to.' She says, 'Well, I wouldn't look at it that way.'
Don't know if I can come in on this Social Security or not. Seems to me I can, but I'll have to find out about it. I know they was takin' money out of my pay, down to the shop. Seems to me I ought to git somethin'.
Elvira Barbee, widow and laid-off factory worker, Concord, NH
"Mr. Barbee made good money working for the telephone company," Elvira says, "and we never wanted for a thing; we lived well and had just a plenty of everything." But when Elvira was thirty-two, Mr. Barbee died leaving her with $1500, three children to support and another one coming. The $1500 lasted several years, then Elvira went to work in the mill. "I wasn't raised to work in the mill, but I wasn't above doing it to support my children," she will tell you pertly.
When Marie [her oldest child] was about thirteen, Elvira managed to get the child into the magnificent Junior Orphanage at Tiffin, Ohio, and there she stayed for six years. Elvira says she worked and sacrificed to keep Marie there and she thought surely the girl would help with the family, but she was to be greatly disappointed. During the six years she had been away, Marie had forgotten what it was like to live on Mill hill. Elvira figures that "Marie got used to having steam heat, hardwood floors, and all such luxuries that I just couldn't give her. There was plenty of young men paid attention to her, but the wouldn't have nothing to do with the them. It looked like she thought she was too good for them."
Marie got a job at a small cafe, but she refused to help the family, was irritable and unhappy. This summer she went to stay with her aunt near Hamlet and she wrote her mother that she wasn't coming back home. Her aunt then helped her to get into the Hamlet Hospital for nurses training. Elvira believes that in time Marie will "come to her senses" and help with the family. "But it hurt me more than anything that's ever hit me," the woman repeats again and again, "I laid in the bed and cried for two weeks."
Next year Eugene, the oldest boy, will be sixteen and he will go into the mill to help support the family. Elvira is terribly proud of her children and she is ambitious for them. She will not let the two younger ones go to the mill grammar school although it is closer. They go to the school downtown. She sees to it, too, that they look as nice as any other children there. Her ten year old daughter, Helen, has a permanent and her nails are expertly polished by a neighbor. Helen is the pride of her mother's life. Besides being "primpy," she can cook, wash, and housekeep as good as a grown up.
Since Elvira was laid off from the mill several years ago, she has had a hard time supporting the children. She goes out as a practical nurse, but never often enough to bring in a steady income. Her principal income has been the $20 she receives every month from the State Mothers Aid fund, but this is not enough. She has tried to get work in the mill in spite of the fact that she "feels too nervous to stand mill work." She wants to get in the WPA sewing room.
Elvira and her three children live in three rooms of a Locke Hill house. They rent the rooms from the Walter sisters, and pay $4.00 a month, which is half of the rent and telephone bill. Elvira moved in to nurse Lottie Walter when she broke her pelvis bone, and she liked staying in the little house because rent was cheap. But for weeks now the Walter girls have been trying to put her out, they insult her and try to "pick a fuss." Elvira doesn't know where she can go; rent is so high in most places.
Mr. and Mrs. Snead, retired railroad shop employee, Jacksonville, FL
Mrs. Snead, with her husband, two sons, and a daughter, settled in the Lackawanna section of Jacksonville when the Atlantic Coast Line Railway shops were established in that locality where the men of the family secured work. Mr. Snead has retired, but the two sons are still employed in the shops, living on nearby Edison Avenue with their families in homes of their own, while the daughter, also married, lived two doors away at 570 Orgam Street. There are no sidewalks, so that it was necessary to walk down the shell paved street from Edison Avenue to the number 562.
Mrs. Snead is a well preserved woman of 70, and answered the knock at the door, the bell being out of order. She is rather stout, with blue eyes and reddish brown hair, and was dressed in a wine-colored print dress. She invited me in and glanced with pride around the living room of the small green bungalow home where touches of her handwork were in evidence in the crocheted lace on the edges of the curtains at the windows and the numerous cushions on the couch in the corner and the easy chairs.
A large pasteboard card by the outer door bore the penciled notice - "Fresh Eggs, 25 cents."
"Yes, we keep a few chickens," Mrs. Snead said. "My husband is bothered quite a bit with asthma, and it is good for me to be out in the open as much as possible. The big yard with the flowers with the flowers and chickens keep him occupied. He was rather disappointed that eggs were so plentiful this Easter time he could not obtain a higher price."
Anonymous Local Railroad Character, Seattle, WA
When it came retirement age, he faced it without any emotion; didn't seem to be either sorry or glad, nor to have any plans as to what to do with his new leisure. Like so many other railroad men, he only lasted a few months after his retirement. The regulations said he couldn't be a checker any more, and--well, he couldn't be anything else, so that was that.
Robert White, mill worker in Thomaston, CT
Yessir. Castin' [in the mills]? No I never did that. It's a hell of a job. The fires burn a man out. Lots of them get burnt out. That heat is no good for a man. You know Charley Buckland? He's burnt out. That man used to be as fleshy as I am, but look at him now. Skinny as a rail. He couldn't retire though. He got out of the castin' shop more than ten years ago, and I don't think he ever intended to work again in his life, but he couldn't stand idleness. He asked the Old Man to take him back. So the Old Man gave him a soft job in the packin' room. Retirement kills a man. They've pensioned 'em off, over there, but they never live long afterwards.
Old Abel Beardslee went like that. He was gettin' old, got so he was fallin' asleep at the work. You can't do that workin' on the rolls. The Old Man saw him noddin' a coupla times, and he finally persuaded him he ought to retire on a pension. Old Abel died before he was out a year. He'd of been alive yet, if they'd let him work. But of course if a man can't keep up with the work, and he might get hurt or something, he can't expect to stay there.
They're pretty good about it, the company is, they let a man stay on as long as possible. But they're far behind some of the others on their pensions in this country. Now I went back to Ireland on a trip with my old man in 1924. And over there, they got it fixed so that a man gets half of what he earns at the time he retires. If a man gets thirty dollars a week, his pension is fifteen. They should adjust it like that here.
Mr. MacCurrie, Thomaston, CT
I see they laid off the fellas over 65 years old on the WPA. They're supposed to be eligible for the old age pension. That's all right for some of them, but what aboot a mon like Harry Wakeley? He's got kids too young to work. Now's he goin' to get along on the old age pension? The government has got a lot of ticklish problems. You're goin' to see fireworks in this session of Congress.
They ought to make them pensions higher. They give me six dollars a week. I get a dollar for spendin' money. I don't give a dom myself, I wouldn't get any more anyway, but it's my landlady that suffers. She ought to get more. Why the town pays seven dollars a week to people that take care of the poor. Some of them fellas that can't work, they board around, and the town pays seven dollars a week for their keep.
They laid off some of the lads on the WPA durin' that last layoff was supposed to be drinkers. I guess some of them were. But when they went up to the Selectman for relief, he said he was goin' to have them all sent up to some county poor house. Said they were goin' to take all them fellas from all over the county and put 'em away like that. By God, I don't think they can do it. They can put 'em in Norwich, but they've got to prove they're inebriates, first.
Albert Beaujon, clockmaker, Thomaston, CT
Business got bad and I went to work in the clock shop. Now I'm seventy five years old and nobody wants as any more. I work on the WPA, but they wanta have me quit that. Say I'm gettin' too old. Say I oughta apply for old age pension. Seven bucks a week. My old lady's sixty.
She can't get any, unless they change the law. She says if they change the law, fine, get through, we'll get along okay if we both draw pensions, but otherwise how're we gonna do it?
I pay sixteen dollars rent. Then there's light and gas and fuel in the winter time. How'm I gonna do all that on seven bucks a week?
Mr. M., marble quarry worker, West Rutland, VT
Q. How does the [quarry company] pension work?
A. Well, they used to be retired from active service when they were about seventy-five. That was when the company paid the pensions. A few years ago the pension plan was set up and premiums paid about half by the company and half by the marble worker. Under this plan he could be retired at sixty-five. Many of the workers do not like to have this premium deducted from their wages and so do not belong to the pension plan. The payment on retirement is based on the average wage during the past ten years. If the workers are fired or quit they can withdraw the money they have paid into the pension fund.
Peter Odenwald, factory worker, Thomaston, CT
Funny how that business went to hell, ain't it? Well, it ain't no worse than a lot of others, right now at that. I worked down in Waterville, Burbecker and Rowland's for a good many years. Then the Beardsley and Wolcotts got ahold of it and they went under, and then this company from Massachusetts took it--they kind of rented the place--and it was all right for a while--and then they moved back to Fairhaven. And I got laid off and I ain't worked since. I coulda gone up there to work, but what the hell, I was only gettin' a couple days a week, and it woulda cost me seventy five or eighty bucks to move and after I got there I probably woulda got laid off again and then where the hell would I be? So I got this unemployment insurance for thirteen weeks, and in the meantime I had an application in for the old age pension and the week after I got my last check, the pension started comin'. Of course it's only seven bucks a week, but I can get by on it, if I'm careful. I wish I had a couple bucks more, and then it wouldn't be so close figgerin'. I don't want to be rich, I don't give a damn as long as I can get by. The only thing I'm afraid of is some day they'll do away with it. But there ain't no use worryin' about it, is there? Take it as it comes and don't worry about what's gonna happen, that's the way I always figgered.
Tom Nolan, homeless, jobless, Irish American horse truck driver, New York City, NY
Old Tom, for many years a New York City horse track driver but now jobless, homeless and living by his wits because there was no place for him in the trucking or any other industrial field since 'age' and the coming of motor tracks made him 'obsolete,' said:
"... no horse, and Old Jerry [his horse who had 'horse sense'] least of all, ever wasted his time worryin' about the 'future and frettin' about what would happen to him in the future like 'man sense' makes men do.
"For instance, ye can go around this block...or ye can sit out in the Square on a sunny day...or ye can go down to the Bowery, or to th' 'flop joints' or to the beer hang-outs and what do ye see?
"Ye see hundreds of men like meself -- and many of them unlike meself who have been 'big money shots' in their time and thought they were on top of the world, and who have spent the best part of their lives 'worryin' about th' future' -- schemin' and plannin', skimpin and savin' and often starvin' themselves, or even cheatin' their fellowmen' to get enough ahead so they would be sure not to starve -- or practically starve in the 'future.' And what the hell happened?
"The 'future' sneaked-up on them in spite of all their worryin' and schemin and so forth and smacked them in the eye for a row of garbage cans the same as it did me...and all their damned worryin' and frettin' had been for naught!
"Many times I have worried about me 'future' which is now me 'present' and got scared for fear I would not have a place to sleep or something to eat when the damn 'future' came...So, I would skimp meself, cut down on me tobaccy, wash me own shirts instead of lettin th' Chinaman do it -- even do without me beer... Once I saved up $19.00 and tucked it in me shoe, thinkin' I was on the way to bein' a 'capitalist' with me future well provided for... What happened? 'Twas then that them teeth that had been botherin' me bothered me a damned sight worse and, well, hell the dentist got the $19.00 and five dollars more out of me next two week's wages!
"'Twas always the same. But still, with me 'man sense' instead of me 'horse sense' I spent a good deal of time worryin' about the 'future.' Indeed, sometimes to such an extent that it all but spoiled me enjoyment of the 'present'. Often, remorse would overtake me if I drank an extra mug or two of beer and I would find meself thinkin' -- 'Tom Nolan, ye damned old fool, ye had better be savin' this money ye are squanderin' on beer and tuck it away so ye'll be havin' it in the 'future' when no doubt ye'll be needin' it worse than hell!'
"Yes, I would find meself thinkin' to meself like that and 'twould spoil the enjoyment of me beer... That was me 'man sense' workin'.
"But Jerry, now, with his 'horse sense' instead of 'man sense' like we have got -- Did he ever worry about th' 'future? He did not. When I put him in his stall at night, he knew he had earned what was comin' to him, and he knew also that he would get it and had no anxiety at all in his mind.
"He would go at his oats and his hay with a clear conscience and a good appetite -- with never a thought of losin' his job or his income or of anything else to upset his digestion and cause him remorsful dreams about what might happen to him in the 'future'...
"And when the 'future' came what happened to Jerry? He -- well, he, was a damned sight better off with never a minute lost in his life worrin' about the 'future' and which showed that he had good 'horse sense', that I was with all me damned worryin' about the 'future' of meself with me 'man sense' -- I'll be damned lads, if I understand it, or know which is better 'horse sense' or man sense, and so far I've found no one else who does understand it or know what its all about..."