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Journal-News, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009

Minimum wage started at 25 cents an hour in 1938

(This column is the 36th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)

By Jim Blount

Twenty-five cents an hour would be a laughable wage today, but that was the minimum when the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed June 25, 1938, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Besides setting a 25-cent an hour federal minimum wage, the FLSA established a standard work week, time and a half pay for overtime and banned child labor.

FDR said the law would ensure a "minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being . . . without substantially curtailing employment."

It was the second time his administration had enacted a 25-cent minimum wage. It had been part of Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933, considered a major part of the Depression relief program. But the U. S. Supreme Court ruled NIRA unconstitutional.

The 25-cent minimum was effective Oct. 24, 1938. The FLSA mandated increases to 30 cents Oct. 24, 1939, and 40 cents Oct. 24, 1945. The hourly rate, types of workers covered and other details have changed more than two dozen times since 1938.

The act, according to a 1938 newspaper summary, applied to "all who produce goods going into interstate commerce or whose work . . . places a burden upon interstate commerce." It also prohibited hiring persons under age 16 in mining and manufacturing, and under 18 in hazardous jobs.

It declared the maximum work week at 44 hours Oct. 24, 1938, at 42 hours starting a year later and 40 hours in 1940. Anyone exceeding those hours was to be paid at a time and a half rate.  The Associated Press said the 44-hour limit would "clip a few hours from the work week of about 1.5 million men and women" and "fatten the pay envelopes to 750.000."

Violators faced a $10,000 fine, six months in jail, or both. Abused employees could recover twice the amount of wages they had been denied.

The quarter an hour 1938 rate, allowing for inflation, would be equivalent to about $3.65 today -- or about half the current minimum. Effective July 24, 2009, the federal minimum increased to $7.25 an hour.

What could 25 cents buy in October 1938? Journal-News advertisements offer some perspective.

In 1938, round steak was 22 cents a pound, sliced bacon 20 cents a pound, pork chops 18 cents a pound and cream cheese 15 cents a pound at the Chicago Market at High and Front streets. The A&P Market on High Street had two dozen oranges for 25 cents, 10 pounds of Idaho baking potatoes for 23 cents and 10 pounds of sugar for 47 cents.

A one-pound loaf of bread was eight cents at Wehr's Bakery on Court Street. The Elite on High Street advertised cakes at 49 cents, whole pies at 25 and 30 cents, donuts 25 cents a dozen and cookies 30 cents a dozen.

Radcliffe's Drug Store at Second and High had three tubes of toothpaste for 35 cents, 100 aspirin tablets for 19 cents and a 13-ounce bag of Hershey kisses for 23 cents.

Burg's on Main Street sold men's socks for 10 cents a pair, men's work shoes at $1.99 and men's dress shoes at $2.39 during an anniversary sale. Dodge Clothes on High Street had men's suits and topcoats for $15.75 and $18.75.

Women's apparel at Wilmurs ranged from a dollar for sweaters, skirts $1.77, pajamas 84 cents and pure silk hose 39 and 59 cents a pair to a variety of dresses $3.89 and wool coats $3.95.

Bedding at Wilmurs on High Street included sheets from 43 to 66 cents, blankets ranging from 79 cents to $1.49 and quilts $1.29, which could be paid on the store's popular lay-away plan. Lowenstein's Furniture on S. Third promoted a full-size mahogany post bed for $7.95.

Earl Zellner Automobiles on East Avenue introduced the 1939 Packard for $1,090 with a down payment of $350. Miller Brothers on Main Street said prices on Oldsmobile models started at $777. Inflation allowances would price the Packard today at about $15,900 and the Oldsmobile base at about $11,325.

Automotive items at the Goodyear Store at Monument and Market were 25 cents for a quart of anti-freeze, 57 cents for spark plugs and 89 cents for two gallons of motor oil. Gasoline ranged from 10 to 20 cents a gallon in 1938.

For entertainment, an Emerson table radio was $9.95 at the Walker Co. on Court Street.

Movie prices at the Paramount, Rialto and Palace theaters ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents for afternoon shows and 20 to 40 cents evenings with children 10 cents at all times.

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Journal-News, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009

Winter in 1915 required special care for area's few cars

By Jim Blount

Have you prepared your car for winter, including special precautions for preserving and protecting its tires, top and engine? If so, your efforts probably don't measure up to 1915 standards for the weather change.

That year a newspaper article noted that "every motorist should know that, unless he pays particular attention to the way he stores his car . . . or uses it during the winter months, he will incur a large repair expense bill." The article, published in the Republican-News in November 1915, was based on recommendations from a tire manufacturer.

"Those motorists who do not drive their cars during the winter months should be very careful to store the car properly," referring to a common practice during a period when garages weren't attached and when the few paved roads were within cities. Mud and ruts were commonplace in the rural areas of Butler County. Believed to be the first Butler County road outside a city to be paved was a short segment of Hamilton-Middletown Pike (later Ohio 4) north of Hamilton from the fairgrounds to Millikin Road. That project was completed in 1910

"The wheels should be jacked up and blocks set under the axles to prevent the car from slipping," the article advised. "When jacked up, the tires should be removed, washed carefully and, if the tread or side walls are cut, they should be repaired before storing."

Owners were reminded that "the winter months offer an excellent opportunity to get his car in good shape for the coming season."

"If the tires are in first-class condition they should be wrapped in dark paper, which will prevent light from getting to them, and then stored where there is no danger of freezing. Heat, light and cold," the article said, "are all enemies of rubber, and the motorist who does not take this precaution with his tire equipment will find that his tires have deteriorated during the winter months."

The recommended winter protection wasn't limited to preserving the tires. "The car should be gone over carefully and cleaned, grease taken out of the gears, they should be repacked and special care taken to drain the radiator. If this is not done," the warning continued, "there will be danger of freezing. Leave pet cocks under the radiator and engine open."

Most cars in 1915 had canvas tops that could be lowered. Four years later, in 1919, only 10 percent of the cars produced had permanent tops, called "closed cars." It was appropriate that the 1915 article included advice for caring for retractable car tops. "Another thing which you may not remember to do," the writer said, "is put up the top. If it remains down during the entire winter, it will set in creases," but "if it is stretched tight, it will keep in good shape.

"With the aid of these few suggestions you will be able to keep your car in first-class shape through the winter months, so that it will be in good serviceable shape when warm spring days dry up the roads and you are ready to use your automobile again."

The advice applied to only the few Butler County residents who owned cars in 1915.

Two years later -- in 1917 when the United States entered World War I -- there were an estimated 3,000 cars registered in the county, including about 1,750 in Hamilton. Car owners were a small percentage of the area's population, reported after the 1920 census as 87,025 in the county and 39,675 in Hamilton.

Also in 1917, roads made impassable by winter snow, the spring thaw and April showers also hampered auto dealers. A dealer announced that, "owing to the bad conditions of county roads," his employees wouldn't be able to make a round trip to a Detroit factory and return with new cars for local buyers.

Hamilton leaders didn't see a need for rules to govern automotive traffic until 1919 when Hamilton City Council authorized the safety director to draft regulations. They were effective in 1920 when traffic officers were added to the police department. The city's first parking restrictions began in 1922 and the first parking meters, 300 of them, were installed in downtown Hamilton in 1944.

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Journal-News, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

WPA emphasis shifted to national defense in 1939

(This column is the 37th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)

By Jim Blount

The outcome of the 1938 congressional election resulted in a series of changes in the Works Progress Administration. As the votes were counted, 3,939 Butler Countians were employed on local WPA projects with 88 percent working on construction.

Republicans gained eight Senate and 81 House seats and teamed with southern conservative Democrats in pressing for changes and cutbacks in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs. The WPA was their favorite target.

A minor alteration, initiated by the president, was changing the WPA's name. FDR placed WPA under the Federal Works Agency, part of a government reorganization plan, and changed its name from Works Progress Administration to Works Projects Administration "to stress tangible achievements rather than welfare." Changing the middle name from Progress to Projects had no impact on local workers paid by the WPA.

What mattered to the workers and local government leaders who had been relying on the WPA to fund various public improvements was a change in direction and purpose. Its mission was no longer restricted to providing Depression relief.

In June 1939, the WPA turned "almost overnight into a virtual adjunct of the military service and civil defense authorities. Defense work became the agency's prime focus," wrote Nick Taylor in his 2008 book, American-Made, The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work.

Local projects remained in the pipeline, subject to both congressional restrictions and the shift to defense necessities as Europe appeared headed into a war that could eventually involve the U. S..

"Changing WPA regulations have resulted in many cases in a delay of approval on city proposed improvements," the Journal-News reported in the summer of 1939. "Some projects have been submitted as many as six times before they received final consideration. In each case the project was submitted under the regulations in force at that time. Before they were studied for approval by WPA heads, a change in regulations would force their withdrawal and a new submission would be necessitated."

Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, igniting World War II in Europe and confirming the wisdom of transforming the WPA.

In May 1940, WPA employment in Butler County fell to 1,856 people as the local industrial work force expanded.

Congress, worried about spies and sabotage, required WPA workers to sign loyalty oaths, confirming they were citizens, loyal to the nation and weren't members of the communist party or a Nazi organization. Violators could be fined $2,000 and sent to prison for two years. By July 6, 1940, all WPA employees in the city and county had signed the oath, enabling them to collect their next pay checks.

To fill 30,000 Ohio defense jobs, it was announced that WPA workers were eligible for training in defense-related occupations. They were paid WPA wages while being schooled.

Congress enacted the draft in 1940, taking some men between the ages of 21 and 35 out of the local work force and off WPA job lists. By June 1941, there were only 1,031 on the work list, lowest in the six-year history of local WPA assistance. A federal edict ordered 400 cut from that number. Most of those released found jobs in local industry.

Dec. 4, 1941, FDR ordered the WPA to be phased out by June 30, 1943. That mandate had little meaning three days later when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the U. S. into the war.

A few local WPA employees were still working in the summer of 1942. Three workers canvassed rural Butler County for scrap metals. They were authorized to offer farmers immediate cash for scrap.

"The WPA injected more than $10 billion into an ailing economy and provided needy Americans with 13,686,000 person-years of employment," said Otis L. Graham Jr. and Meghan Robinson Wander in Franklin D. Roosevelt: His Life and Times, An Encyclopedic View.

Across the U. S., WPA workers improved 572,000 miles of rural roads, repaired 85,000 public building, built 78,000 new bridges and viaducts, laid 67,000 miles of city streets, 24,000 miles of sidewalks, created 8,000 parks, 350 airports and 40,000 buildings, plus sewage and water systems and riverbank reinforcements.

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Journal-News, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009

Hamilton beneficiary of Depression relief programs

(This column is the 38th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.) 

By Jim Blount

Federal relief programs brought many physical changes to Hamilton while providing thousands of unemployed city residents with jobs and wages during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is impossible to calculate the total federal dollars invested in Hamilton's makeover, or the number of previously unemployed people who benefited from what today is called federal stimulus money.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, several large construction projects were underway or about to start. The federal government had authorized $500,000 for a new post office, providing jobs from 1930 until its 1933 opening.

The First and Second national banks completed new downtown buildings in 1930 and 1931. A West Side firehouse was built in 1930. Also opening in 1931 were the YWCA, the Paramount Theater and Roosevelt Junior High. Traffic moved on the first section of Washington Boulevard in 1932. Wilson Junior High greeted its first students in 1934.

For those not sustained by the building boom, their hardships were evident by the winter of 1930-31. Help -- in the form of donations of food and clothing and volunteer services -- came from local sources, not from Washington. That changed after the March 4, 1933, inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Here's a summary of major local projects and funding sources after 1933:

Completion in 1934 of the partially built Crawford Run storm sewer through Peck's Addition to the river; $285,000 project, $209,000 from Civil Works Administration; employed up to 353 men.

The 2.5-mile North Third Street extension opened between Hamilton and New Miami in 1934; most of $600,000 cost paid by federal and state agencies.
Completion of water system improvements, 1933-34; started before the Depression; $241,221 in federal funds, $938,575 from city; new water treatment plant, reservoir and miles of distribution lines.

Vault doors for U. S. gold bullion depository at Fort Knox, Ky., completed in 1936 by the Mosler Safe Co., Hamilton.

Hamilton Municipal Building, 1935-36, cost $555,765 with 30 percent federal money.

Street improvements, started in 1935, $1.3 million from Works Progress Administration (WPA); paving, water and gas lines, sewers, gutters, curbs and sidewalks. Supplemented by $2,677 WPA and $735 city for street light standards, fire hydrants, stop signs, traffic signals, lane painting and parking signs.

WPA sewing center, 1935-41, hired up to 300 women. WPA housekeeping and nursery school also employed female workers. Eight men hired, 1936-38, to repair and rebind 25,000 school books. Funding not reported.

Erie Highway (now Ohio 4), three-mile, four-lane road built over route of Miami-Erie Canal, 1935-36; $406,501 from WPA, $5,400 from city; peak employment 1,500.

Main Street, seven blocks west of bridge, 1936, widening, repaving, sidewalks, sewers replaced, streetcar rails removed, new lighting; $132,834 WPA, $33,103 city; peak employment 300.

Schenck underpass (Dixie Hwy. and St. Clair Avenue, Ohio 4), 1936-37; eliminated deadly railroad grade crossing; $133,678 federal funds, no local money.
Installation of flashing warning lights at 23 rail crossings, the city's first; 1937, paid by railroads.

Rural electrification in county, first power provided in 1938; local cooperative formed in 1935; relied on $320,000 federal loan to be repaid from electric charges.

Removal of streetcar and interurban rails from city streets, 1933-41; several federal grants, including $167,000 WPA and $40,000 city in 1938 and $385,532 WPA and $80,000 city in 1940.

Hamilton traffic survey, 1938-39, $21,582 from WPA, 32 workers. WPA housing survey, 1941, checking housing availability for defense workers moving into the city; cost and employment not reported..

Hamilton unemployment is believed to have peaked above 5,000 in 1935 when 4,869 men and women were certified for WPA work By June 1941 -- six months before Pearl Harbor -- only 1,031 local residents qualified for WPA work assignments.

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