I was going back over some census records recently (this is a good practice – if you’re anything like me, the first time you look at a record you’re so overwhelmed by the excitement of it that you miss half the details). My family tree is pretty bare compared to a lot of my friends’ genealogies, but they have the luxury of descending from richer stock, while I am mostly the product of poor, 19th century immigrants (the tenements in New York City are known for a lot of things, but record retention is not one of them). Since I’m limited in my ability to build backwards, I spend a lot of time fixating on and fleshing out the members of my family tree that I do know. It’s kind of nice, in a way, to get to know my ancestors as people. That’s really what this blog is about, sharing my ancestors’ stories.
You might recall that last time I posted (forever and a day ago, it seems), it was about my great grandfather, Frank Erlanger. I think a lot about Frank (almost as much as I think about his grandfathers, the Civil War vets). He is such an enigma to me, what with the name changing and various other details that family members have graced me with (perhaps subjects for future posts?). It was his census records that I was perusing for more information.
One thing I’ve always known about my dad’s family is that they were never particularly wealthy. The Germans came in the 1850s and the Irish even later and, like I said, the tenements in New York City were known for a lot of things, not many of them positive.
What I’m trying to get at, I guess, (and being very long winded about) is that when I looked at the professions column on the censuses, I expected to see what I already knew about Frank: that he had worked as a janitor in a school. It’s the same as when I look at occupations on my mom’s side of the family (who’s opportunities were a bit more plentiful, way down in Brooklyn) and expect to see lawyers and politicians. My mom’s family has been in this country longer than my dad’s and so their foundation is a little sturdier. They’ve had more time to adapt, I suppose.
Anyway, what I didn’t expect to find in the census is what I actually got:
In 1920, Frank (still Sussman) was 18 and a runner for a stock company.
In 1925, he was a bank runner, which I imagine was pretty similar to his job in 1920 (and in fact, it might have been the same job, just a difference in semantics between the census takers). By 1930, Frank was a clerk for a brokerage office, of which I wish I knew the name.
As we all know, though, the 1930s weren’t really a good time for most industry, let alone banks/stocks. And, I suppose, there’s a reason why no one in the family had ever thought to bring up (if they had ever even known) that Frank worked in a brokerage office at some point in his life. Frank seemed to be on the cusp of a promising career in 1930, so what happened?
Three words: The Great Depression.
Like so many others after the stock market crashed, Frank was probably laid off from his job. As a father and husband with mouths to feed, he was probably forced to take any job he could get, regardless of previous aspirations. It makes me sad to think his life was so hard. I think about it a lot, maybe more than I should, but I suppose that is the price you pay for caring about the dead as if they are living.
I know one of my dad’s relatives has a picture of Frank at the school where he worked. I’d love to see it one day.