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Friday, 05 February 2010

The Depression Coat

By Nancy Leitz

In 1932, our family was living in Yeadon, Pennsylvania and hard times were upon us. Many of our friends in our little "twin house" neighborhood were out of work and anything we could do to improve our situation was done.

I don't really remember a great deal about this because I was four years old and as many other people do, I can recall only the things that were very important to me at that time, like going to South Philadelphia with my Dad to all the Irish wakes the two of us attended. (See Oh! You're John's Girl to understand this phenomenon.)

What I do remember is that we lived in a nice middle class neighborhood in St. Louis Parish and our life was a mixture of trying to "make it" both materially and spiritually. The very same can be said of our neighbors. We were a fairly tight-knit group, according to my mother, despite the fact that we included many different ethnic groups and so many diverse religions that it was hard for mother to remember when we discussed the coat incident many years later.

What happened was this: My brother Jack was 10 years oldin 1932, and mother took him to Gimbels Department Store at 8th and Market in Philadelphia for a new winter coat. He was measured and fitted for a beautiful caramel-colored and beautifully made camel hair coat with six brown leather buttons down the front. It was splendid because, being the first born, nothing was too good for our Jack.

So, the first Sunday after the big purchase, Jack strutted down the aisle at the nine o'clock mass at St. Louis. Jack didn't attend the parish school because he had started at the public school before St. Louis was founded so, to one and all at that mass, it was a real occasion because here was a "Public" attending Mass in a very expensive coat and doing exactly what he wanted to do, which was to attract attention.

He made certain that he waited in the communion line as long as he could so that there was no parishioner in that church who did not know that Jack McGarvey had a splendid camel hair coat.

Now it is 1934, and the coat no longer fits Jack. Times are tougher than before and pride goes out the window as our neighbor asks my mother if she would loan the coat to her family so that her daughter, Dolores, would have a nice warm coat for that winter. Of course, Mother agrees and even offers to set the wonderful brown leather buttons over to the "girls' side.” This was done and Dolores wore the coat to the Yeadon Presbyterian Church that winter. I'll never know how she felt about that.

Skip ahead to 1936, and my brother, Bob (My Brother the Pope) in now in line for the coat. The buttons are returned to the boys' side by Dolores' mom, but the brown leather buttons are getting a bit shabby so it is decided to replace them with brown "bone" buttons that are not half as nice as the leather ones.

Bob is so busy donning his pope suit and conducting funerals for all the animals who died and needed services, he doesn't really notice but by this time, I'm sure the neighbors do. Yes, I'm certain that they noticed. Nothing got past them in those days. No Television, no money, no car. Yeah, they noticed!

Well, that dreaded day in 1938 arrived. As the leaves started to fall in October and a chill was in the air, I arrived home from school one day to find my mother unwrapping THE coat from the cocoon it had been stored in for the las  year and a half. I was shocked to see itbecause I had secretly prayed a novena that she would forget about the coat and I was counting on the Lord answering my prayers.

But, there it was - the camel hair coat just as I and the all the rest of the people who lived in our small town remembered. I suppose my mother had prayed harder or had a more compelling reason to want the coat to have survived the moths so that I could wear it that winter. She had probably made two novenas.

About a week was spent "rehabbing" the coat. Mother bought new buttons at Mrs. Day's Notions Store and took the coat with her so that the new thread she bought at the same time would exactly match the caramel color of the coat.

I watched as she snipped the old buttons off and prepared to sew up the old button holes and make new ones on the girls' side. Oh, how I despised that coat and wanted nothing more than to have disappear forever so I would be spared the embarrassment of having to wear it to church. I just knew that the whole town was waiting with bated breath for me to appear in the "neighborhood" coat as I had come to think of it, so they could tease me about wearing a boys coat.

I don't know if they had teased Dolores about it, but I doubted it because she did not go to St. Louis and that is where I had to wear it and that is where practically the whole town went to church and that made all the difference.

Well, the first really cold Sunday came around and the coat was on the hanger just waiting for me to put it on for mass. I stalled and stalled and finally could not put it off any longer. I had to wear the dreaded coat. I struggled into it and buttoned the bone buttons, then turned and looked in the hall mirror at myself.

I can still remember that reflection today. Not the coat as much as the little girl with the big tears rolling down her cheeks who had six long blocks to walk to St. Louis and was thinking about how many people she would meet who KNEW it was a boys' coat she was wearing.

Somehow I got through that long trip to church and back, tears streaming all the way and speaking to no one although several tried to speak to me. I was too mortified and ran as fast as I could to get home.

I stumbled in the door and found my Mother just hanging up the telephone. She had found out that I had been crying and now she actually saw how distressed I was. She helped me off with the coat and took it away to the closet. To this day I have never seen that coat again.

Shortly after that, we took the trolley car to the city and went to Gimbels. Mother bought me a lovely blue coat with a darker blue velvet collar. As I rode home with the coat in a big box on the seat next to me, I vowed to think of some way to repay her. I did that by wearing the blue coat far beyond the time that it actually fit me. By the time I gave it up the sleeves were very short and my dress had began to show below the hemline of the coat. I had taken very good care of it, though, and we put it away.

A few years later, it looked wonderful on my sister, Jed...

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Your title "The Depression Coat" could be taken two ways couldn't it? What a tale you have told and one to which any younger child can relate. I lived in my older sister's hand-me-down clothes and spent many walks to and from church or school in tears hearing "Oh wasn't that your sister's?" Great story Nancy. Thanks for sharing.

Another great story Nancy. For many of my younger years I was the only girl with older and younger brothers. I was fortunate not to hand-me-downs. By the time my sister arrived my cast-offs were well gone.

When Elly came along she already had four female cousins. The youngsters grew out of their clothes very quickly so the bundles were packed up and passed along the line. We made a game of opening the parcel from 'Swops'! They all loved to see those parcels arrive... maybe six new dresses and skirts at a time. I now look back at one photo from a birthday party for the next girl along the line. My eldest niece told me she remembered wearing all of the outfits in that photo. Thanks for the memory.

Great story.What I remember is never having any 'fancy' clothes. The clothes I wore to school were the same clothes I wore on 'special' occasions. I wonder though if there is some repressed memory of having to wear hand-me-downs, not from siblings as there was only me and my brother. To this day I hate to wear anything that belonged to someone else. The exception is for some of my late father's flannel shirts (most of which I bought him) and my late mother's tops (we were the same size). I feel like I'm wearing hugs.

Wonderful story. Comment to Grannymar, regarding, "I feel like I'm wearing hugs." My granddaughter, when she was about five, was watching her mother sort through clothes to hand down to little sister. She picked up one garment and hugged it and said, "This still has all my love in it."

Your story is so full of the Depression era and the way we all 'made do' that it took me back in my memory. I was an only child until my mother remarried when I was ten so I didn't have to wear hand-me-downs, but some of the clothes my mother selected for me were horrible in my eyes. I remember crying because I hated the practical jump suit (I guess they were called overalls then) that she made me wear when I went out to play
I think I made her more miserable with my tears than she made me.

Great and funny story, Nancy, as usual.

I just love this post Nancy. I never wore any hand-me-downs...I only had an older brother; but we pass things along in the family when we have new babies. I love the thought of that...especially handmade things.

It made me laugh to see how many times the buttons had to be changed on the coat. This post was funny and touching, like so many of yours Nancy.... ~Joy

What a wonderful touching story. Of course part of the reason why is because I didn't have to wear that camel hair coat. You tell the story so well - the feelings and emotions of that time. Thank you.

Hi Madonna. It was Estelle who said, I feel like I'm wearing hugs. For some reason my name didn't get printed in color so I understand the confusion.
I love what your granddaughter said.
Sometimes little kids, in their innocence say the most profound things.

Great great story Nancy. I was the eldest but often got gorgeous clothes from emigrant younger aunts -"from America" which made me feel so grownup.
My brothers, on the other hand, had to live in the cut-down to fit old suits of my father and to this day shudder with the horror of it all and would never wear anything 'used'.
I on the other hand love thrift shops.


Nancy, you have such a gift for pulling me right into your marvelous stories.
I remember how distraught I felt having to wear hand me downs or something "new" from Lit Brothers department store basement. I also remember my older brother taking me to South Philadelphia where he bought me a six-button bennie? (I think that’s what we called it) red winter coat.
Thanks for the story and the memories!

I loved hand-me-downs from my sister and my cousins because my mother made gorgeous clothes for us from remnants, and my cousins sent us "sloppy Joes" and angora sweaters--things we couldn't have afforded otherwise. And I still buy almost everything at thrift shops, but I do remember the thrill of almost the only thing "bought" for me, when I was in my teens: a brown winter coat, and I got to choose it myself at a real store!

Hello all,

I spent more than an hour writing each of you a thank you for your comments and then the computer just took all that print away to the place where computers put stuff where you will never find it.

Sorry. I really appreciate your comments and want each of you to know that.

When I was a young girl, I was fortunate enough to have had all my winter coats made for me by my grandmother. She surprised us every other year with a handmade coat of her own preference and design, usually with a leather purse--also handmade--to match. All the grandkids--all 18 of us--got this gift. What an incredible woman she was. Thanks for giving me the inspiration to think of her today.

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