Life in the ’20s and ’30s
Life in the ’20s and ’30s in Northampton, Coplay, Cementon, Catasauqua and our neighboring communities involved many of our families working in the cement, steel and silk industries. In Northampton, many residents were employed at the Atlas Portland Cement Company.
When Bill Heberling was a young man, his father said he should “dress up because he was going for a job.” They walked out to the Atlas and sat in the employment office. Coplay, Whitehall and Lehigh Cement were hiring in 1922.
Mr. Preston Everett looked at young Heberling and said, “If you’re as good as your father, we’ll give you a job.”
He started in the Atlas bag factory, the present Northampton Banquet & Event Center. His job was to tie cloth cement bags. The boys tied 6,000 bags a day at the rate of 50 cents per thousand bags. Their goal was to earn $3 a day, quite a payday. Some days, the boys delayed eating, so they could meet the quota.
In those days, the cement plants paid in cash. At the Atlas, thousands of employees were paid from a pay car, a railroad car that moved through the plant. Employees would line up at the car, show their brass checks with a number and receive payment in a brown envelope.
Most boys took the money home and gave the cash to their parents. If your parents gave you $2, you were a millionaire. Boys were hired at age 14. The workweek was six nine-hour days with one day at the Central Building, which was called a continuation school. There, English and American history were taught to the students. Many young men were sons of immigrant parents.
The ’20s were a prosperous era in the United States, but lifestyles changed drastically with the Great Depression. Massive unemployment saw millions of able-bodied young men and women on the unemployment rolls.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) attempted to provide jobs for Americans. Mr. Heberling’s father worked for the agency. Most jobs were manual labor. His crew constructed the cement rock walls around the Atlas quarry on Route 329. Mr. Heberling had been earning $110 a month at the Atlas, which he called “big money.” His son worked part time in a shoe factory at $4 a day.
A neighbor was hired by the Howertown Dairy to deliver milk for $12 a week. The workday started at 4 a.m. and ended when all the milk was delivered to homes. Our younger readers probably never experienced milk on their steps at 6 a.m. each morning.
Milk was bottled in glass bottles, and most purchases were on credit. Milk sold for 8 cents a quart. The work day was 12 hours a day, but there was another problem: The driver also was responsible for collecting the milk bills, which was very difficult. If they didn’t collect the money, it was deducted from their salary. One can only imagine the challenges of the job.
Another federal agency was the Progress Works Administration (PWA), which was headed by a name forgotten in history, Honest Harold Eckes. Mr. Eckes, who served as secretary of interior longer than anyone in history, was known for accountability and frugality. He was probably the most efficient government official in our history!
One local project was the Wild Creek Dam, the current Bethlehem Water Authority. Bill Heberling and the Shellock boys from Northampton worked on the dam. Pay was $4 a day to pick rocks out of the ground for the dam breast. They paid 50 cents a day to be transported to the site. And so it was during the Great Depression!
We’ll be somewhere in two weeks!