Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Catherine Ehrmann, July 15, 1982

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:07 - Beginning to work at age 14

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Partial Transcript: So you say you started work at the age of 14?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says she began working at the age of 14 because she didn't like school and wanted to work. She started at $2.50 a week working making photo frames, then in 1916 moved to Stetson’s after learning it offered $3.00 a week. She then talks about the different jobs she worked at Stetson's. She started as a thread trimmer and later moved to the “Cage,” the name for the factory area where ribbons were stored. She cut ribbons for hats, before the hats moved to the trimmers.

Keywords: "The cage"; Careers; Continuation schools; Hat ribbons; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; Ribbon cutters; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson’s Hat Factory; Trimmers; Work

Subjects: Child labor.; Childhood; Employment

00:03:08 - Work at Stetson’s Hat Factory during World War I

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Partial Transcript: And then the war came along. By that time, I was 18, so I got an opportunity to run--operate a machine.

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that by the time the First World War was in full swing, she was 18 years old and Stetson's permitted her to operate a machine to do "stitch and cross" – a method that hid where stitches started and stopped on a hat rim. Stetson's took on a government contract producing military hats toward the end of the war. Stetson's had extra material that the government did not take back, so Stetson sold the material to its employees. She mentions that John B. Stetson, Jr. married a countess, who collected supplies for overseas during the war.

[Her details in this matter may not be not accurate, as genealogical records show that it is John B. Stetson Sr.'s wife, Elizabeth who married a Portuguese count in 1908 following Stetson's death in 1906.]

Keywords: Careers; Government; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; John B. Stetson, Jr.; Machine operators; Overseas hats; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson’s Hat Factory; WWI; Work; World War I

Subjects: Child labor.; Childhood; Employment; World War, 1914-1918

00:05:07 - "A Nice Place to Work"--Stetson's corporate paternalism

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Partial Transcript: Stetson's was a nice place to work. They were very considerate.

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann describes how Stetson was a nice place to work, offering programs such as required exercise classes, and allowing employees do as they pleased during the slack season, until enacting a policy of working only three days a week to save money. She recalls having her three children at the Stetson Hospital. She quit Stetson’s at age 21 when she married, but stayed friends with the women she worked with. Stetson’s gave Christmas gifts to employees; women received candy and a gift certificate for leather gloves at Strawbridge and Clothier, while men received a turkey. She also remembers teaching in the Stetson Sunday School.

Keywords: Careers; Corporate paternalism; Crochet; Exercise programs; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; Labor unions; Piecework; Slack season; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson Hospital; Stetson Sunday School; Stetson's Hat Company; Strawbridge & Clothier; Work

Subjects: Employment

00:08:07 - Stetson Christmas parties

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Partial Transcript: Did you attend some of the Stetson Christmas parties then?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that the Stetson Christmas parties were a nice gathering, with no drinking. In her time, there were no vocal groups or speeches by the president; she recalls a blind organist from Germantown who made the trip every year by himself, who played the organ. She says the Philadelphia Orchestra played in the auditorium once. Ehrmann also says that the auditorium was used for Sunday school, showing religious movies, and meetings for the officers.

Keywords: Careers; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; Philadelphia Orchestra; Religious movies; Stetson Christmas Party; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson Sunday school; Stetson auditorium; Stetson's Hat Company; Work

Subjects: Employment

00:10:40 - Immigrating from Hungary to the United States

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Partial Transcript: You say that your parents came over from--

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann explains that that her family emigrated from Hungary. Her father was a wagon builder who learned his trade in his home country, then came to America for a better life. Her father was well-educated in that line of work, and obtained a higher-paying job immediately because of his advanced skill set. When cars began to gain popularity, he began to work on cars. Her father could not speak English but got by working for an Irish man.

Keywords: Germantown Avenue and York Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); Hungarian immigrants; Wagon building

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Employment; Immigrants

00:12:16 - Family finances

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Partial Transcript: And he was your strict, old-world--

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann’s father, like other Old World fathers, was strict and “the boss” of the family. She says that she had three brothers who died in infancy, leaving her and two other sisters. She and her sister turned over their pay to their parents, keeping a quarter per week in spending money. The Ehrmann family was never without work, and her older sister worked at a hosiery mill at 9th and Columbia Avenue. When asked about family finances, she says that her parents never told her what they had, and she continued to practice this policy with her own children. Her father was frugal and saved money, building a home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, after retirement.

Keywords: Careers; Cherry Hill (N.J.); Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Family finances; Homeownership; Infant mortality; Jobs; Money; Parental authority; Salary; Spending money; Work

Subjects: Employment; Families.; Immigrants

00:15:54 - Working and schooling at Stetson Hat Company

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Partial Transcript: Can you tell me what your impressions were of Stets--of the whole fac--hat factory when you were a young girl?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann recalls that Stetson’s took care of its workers, with an infirmary. She remembers her first day of work as a 14-year-old as exciting yet tiring; she had to stand all day cutting threads. Once she operated a machine; she could opt to sit on a high stool or stand the whole time. Other girls also quit school to work because there were no child labor laws, with many starting at age 12, although the law mandated that children attend continuation school for two hours one day a week. Stetson had their own teacher in the factory, so the girls could fulfill their schooling requirement without leaving work. Stetson also allowed their workers a 15-minute break in the afternoon, which she says was uncommon, and a 45-minute lunch period, during which she went home.

Keywords: Careers; Child labor; Continuation schools; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; John B. Stetson, Jr.; John B. Stetson, Sr.; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson's Hat Company; Work

Subjects: Child labor; Childhood; Education; Employment

00:19:43 - German language barrier

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Partial Transcript: And my father never went into learning to speak English 'cause he could speak German with the people.

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that her father did not learn to speak English for a long time because the people at his work spoke German. Ehrmann herself only spoke German to him, too. The rest of her family learned and spoke English outside of the house, especially her mother because she had to do all of the shopping. When her father was 60, he was finally reading an English paper.

Keywords: English language; German language; Language acquisition

Subjects: Education; Families.; Immigrants; Language and languages.

00:20:43 - Slack season adjustments at Stetson

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Partial Transcript: D--were there young boys who worked at Stetson, too?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that there were not as many young boys working at Stetson as there were girls. Before she started working there, employees gave tours of the hat-making process during the slack season. During the summer, employees made hats for the winter season. During the slack season, Stetson kept the workers on salary, and Ehrmann describes how she and other workers used to sit and crochet. Before World War I, Stetson's brought in efficiency men to improve the factory's efficiency, implementing a three day workweek.

Keywords: Careers; Efficiency men; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; Salary management; Slack season; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson's Hat Company; Work

Subjects: Child labor; Childhood; Employment

00:22:56 - Stetson reputation and the start of unions

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Partial Transcript: What was the, um--have you any idea of what the reputations of the Stetson's was--

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that the reputation of Stetson was wonderful. If people heard that you worked at Stetson, it was notable and worth acknowledging. She mentions that she thinks unions ruin businesses, and she is thankful that she left Stetson before the union came in. One of her friends who worked there when the union got in expressed her distaste and said that the company was not the same when this occurred.

Keywords: Careers; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson's Hat Company; Work

Subjects: Employment; Labor disputes; Labor movement; Labor unions

00:25:00 - Union & management relations at the toy factory

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Partial Transcript: I worked in a toy place for 20 years, I was--before I retired.

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann explains that she worked a job at a toy factor until the 1960s. She worked there for 20 years, stating that the bosses treated her differently when the union entered. She also says that the union knew nothing about toys, but still told the company how to run the business. She even was out on strike twice, one time out of work for four months. After too many fights between the employer and union, eventually the place went bankrupt.

Keywords: Careers; Jobs; Labor strikes; Pensions; Toy Company; Work

Subjects: Employment; Labor disputes; Labor movement; Labor unions

00:26:20 - Famous hat wearers

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Partial Transcript: Do you remember any of the, uh, famous cowboy stars or--

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann does not recall any specific movie stars’ names, but she recalled the beauty of the hats Stetson made for them. Each year the stars would send the hats to get re-blocked, cleaned, and adorned with new ribbons. She also does not recall Tom Mix coming to town and being let off of work for his arrival, but instead mentions that they got a day off of work the day the war ended when there was a parade of Broad Street.

Keywords: Broad Street parade; Careers; Cowboy hats; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson's Hat Company; Tom Mix; Western movies; Work; World War I

Subjects: Employment; World War, 1914-1918

00:27:34 - World War I and anti-German sentiments

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Partial Transcript: Do you remember when the war broke out?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann shares that when World War I broke out she and her family were returning from a trip to Europe, where they still had property. She describes her experience, as an 11-year-old, when the first war broke out. She says they never experienced any anti-Hungarian feelings, but does remember that schools stopped teaching the German language. She shares how her father wanted her boyfriend to learn how to speak German because he was of German heritage.

Keywords: Anti-German sentiment; Anti-Hungarian sentiment; German language; German-Hungarians; Hungary; World War I

Subjects: Education; Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants; Language and languages.; World War, 1914-1918

00:29:45 - Marriage beliefs and citizenship struggles

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Partial Transcript: Did you meet your husband at, at Stetson?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that she did not meet her husband at Stetson, but met him through his sister because they were neighbors. Her father would not talk to him, but she married him anyway, having a marriage of 52 years. Her father wanted her to marry her “own kind," someone who he could converse and share similar opinions with, although she strongly believed in marrying for love. He had arranged her sister’s marriage, and the couple never got along. She says her sister often wanted to go back to Europe, but her father was satisfied with his quality of life in Philadelphia, despite not learning English until he was 60 year old. Ehrmann then details her father’s experiences becoming an American citizen, losing his papers while visiting Europe and having to start the process again. When she married an American citizen in 1922, she still had to get citizenship papers, because the law did not grant citizenship through marriage. She recounts her experience with parties and dancing, saying that parties were always held in homes, and no one went out.

Keywords: Arranged marriages; Ehrmann family; Marriage to Americans

Subjects: Citizenship; Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Hungarian Americans.; Immigrants; Marriage; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.; Recreation

00:34:57 - Ehrmann’s husband, the neighborhood near Stetson, and her father’s first car

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Partial Transcript: What did your husband do?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann's husband was a tool and dye maker who began work at a machine shop around the corner from the Stetson Hat Factory at the age of 14 after his father died, in order to provide for his mother and four other siblings. He attended night school and correspondence school, and he worked himself up from machinist to tool and dye maker. She then talks about the number of factories in the Kensington neighborhood near her home at 5th and Diamond, noting that people wanted to live near where they worked. She recalls that her father bought his first car for $300 and notes his terrible driving. She then mentions her husband’s drinking but says she will not talk about it on tape.

Keywords: 5th Street and Diamond Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Alcoholism; Correspondence schools; Germantown Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); Kensington (Philadelphia neighborhood); Machinists; Model T; Night schools; Tool and dye makers

Subjects: Education; Employment; Families.; Marriage; Neighborhoods; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.

00:38:00 - Stetson Sunday school, sewing class, and movies

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Partial Transcript: Did--getting back to Stetson, did people--how--I'm, I'm interested in how important a part the factory played in the lives of the people in the neighborhood.

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that the Stetson factory was very clean and the floors were spotless. She says that she went to the Stetson Sunday School as a kid because her father told her "you're better in church than on the street." Ehrmann then talks about going to a Stetson-owned movie theater that showed westerns in an old church at Germantown and Columbia Avenue for two cents and that Stetson also provided sewing classes in the building next door.

Keywords: Careers; Community life; Corporate paternalism; Germantown Ave and Columbia Ave, now Cecil B. Moore Ave (Philadelphia, Pa.); Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson's Hat Company; Sunday school; Western movies; Work

Subjects: Employment; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.; Recreation; Religion

00:41:24 - Stetson's School

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Partial Transcript: Where did you go to school?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann talks about going to school at 4th and Montgomery at the elementary school by Stetson's until 4th grade, and then went to a school near 4th and Dauphin Street through 7th grade. She says most of the boys quit school to work after 7th grade. Her sister wanted to continue school and become a nurse, but her father would not let her. She worked in hosiery factory and then later worked at Stetson’s until she got married. She shares that after she quit school at age 14, she stayed home helping her sick mother from January to September, before starting work at Stetson.

Keywords: 4th Street and Dauphin Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); 4th Street and Montgomery Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); Careers; Jobs; John B. Stetson Company; Stetson Hat Company; Stetson Hat Company school; Stetson's Hat Company; Work

Subjects: Child labor; Education; Employment; Families.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:46:08 - The Great Depression

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Partial Transcript: How did that affect your family?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that although the Great Depression didn’t affect her father, it impacted her own family, as she and her husband took out a second mortgage on their home, withdrawing $12 at a time in order to make ends meet. Her husband lost his job and went on unemployment and started drinking, so she went back to work in order to support the family. When many of her friends and neighbors went on government relief, she refused to do so. She couldn’t pay the $200 in property taxes on their house, so her house was sold at sheriff’s sale. A portion of her son’s Navy income paid rent for her house until she bought another.

Keywords: Alcoholism; Bank savings; Finances; Great Depression; Home ownership; Money; Mortgages; Unemployment

Subjects: Depressions--1929; Employment; Families.

00:53:01 - Quality of life, past and present

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Partial Transcript: How--let me ask you one final question. How would you say the, the quality of life compares between today and, and when you were a young woman?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that she believes that life was better in her time, mentioning how her grandson has no future ahead of him. In her time, people just went on no matter how hard life got. People just continued to live their lives, not missing a beat, whereas today, people want immediate success. In her time, trudging on was a better way to live because she learned to appreciate and manage things better. She also says she never went without food or clothing because of her father’s steady job.

Keywords: Frugality; Parental authority; Public transportation

Subjects: Employment; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:55:05 - Impressions of various sections of Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: One final question: Did you ever go down to South Philadelphia when you were young?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann recalls going shopping on South 9th Street, although if her parents knew she went at night, they would have “killed me,” describing the Italian neighborhood as rough. She mentions that her son married an Italian girl, and that they have a different way of life. She doesn’t remember any African-American sections of Philadelphia, saying that she did not venture outside Columbia and Diamond and 5th to 2nd Streets. After she married, she moved to around 6th and Allegheny. Her first visit to Center City was to Wanamaker’s Department Store to pick up samples when she hoped to get a job learning dressmaking, but afterward, her father told her she was not to run around downtown. Ehrmann says her mother told her before passing away that the biggest mistake of her life was allowing her husband to know she was afraid of him. Ehrmann quotes her husband with a chuckle: “If I ever get like your father, hit me over the head with a frying pan.” After she married, she and her husband went to see minstrel shows on Market Street with other couples. She says that on a nice night, they could walk all the way from Market to Diamond.

Keywords: 6th Street and Allegheny Ave (Philadelphia, Pa.); 9th Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); African Americans; Columbia Ave (Philadelphia, Pa.); Diamond Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Downtown Philadelphia; Italian Americans; Lehigh Avenue (Philadelphia, Pa.); Market Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Minstrels; Parental authority; Public transportation; South Philadelphia

Subjects: Families.; Hungarian Americans.; Immigrants; Marriage; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.; Recreation

01:01:24 - Repressed lives, then and now

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Partial Transcript: I always enjoyed life.

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann says that she always enjoyed her life, but she admits many people were and are still depressed. She complains of people buying things all the time even though they claim there are no jobs, they continually buy more and more. She also states that people during her youth were much more quiet and repressed, while everyone speaks out more now. She says she always spoke out, causing her father to disown her in his will.

Keywords: Consumer economy; Consumerism; Repressed lives

Subjects: Families.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social life and customs.

01:03:12 - Voting and city politics / Citizenship issues

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Partial Transcript: Did you, um, did you vote?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann claims that she voted in each election because her husband made her. She says that she voted nonpartisan until her children came home from the service, when she started voting Republican. She was never that interested in politics. She notes that her mother never became an American citizen. Ehrmann says that having to go through the citizenship process at age 11 was ridiculous, with the government asking her silly questions about her father’s work and what he did with his furniture during his trip back to Europe. She says the process took a long time.

Keywords: Nonpartisan; Republican Party; Voting

Subjects: Citizenship; Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants; Politics and government; Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- )

01:05:51 - Childhood diseases, diphtheria, quarantine, and the influenza epidemic of 1918

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Partial Transcript: You know what kind of house we lived in?

Segment Synopsis: Ehrmann lived in a "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" (trinity) row house with her family. One brother died while they lived in Europe, another one died of the measles at nine months old, and the last one died of diphtheria at age four. Her younger sister had diphtheria when Ehrmann was 18, and she was required to stay home from Stetson’s for six weeks. Her father was allowed to keep working because woodwork "didn’t carry disease." She recalls both diphtheria and measles were very prevalent, and they expected her sister to die. She was not supposed to be near her sister but used to sneak upstairs and read stories to her. Around 1918, many people had influenza, and her family had to take care of her cousins. Ehrmann says that there was a lot of fear, with the cemeteries stacked with coffins. Some believed that drinking whiskey would prevent contraction of the flu.

Keywords: Childhood mortality; Diphtheria; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost house; Illnesses; Influenza Epidemic of 1918; Measles; Quarantine; Sickness; Trinity row houses

Subjects: Diseases.; Families.; Health.; Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919