, Derry, New Hampshire

January 2, 2014

Column: Things were quite different back in 1937

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — It’s the start of a new year; a time when most folks tend to look toward the future and think of how I/we/they can make things different. As your historian, I tend to look the other way and study how things are different today from how they were in the past. A good example happened recently when I was looking through some Manchester newspapers in pursuit of the obituary for Dr. Mary Danforth. While skimming through page after page I came across a few news articles in June 1937 newspapers which pointed out some interesting differences between then and now.

On one page, I was rather taken aback to see a photograph of a classroom full of elementary students giving the straight arm Nazi salute. This photo was not from Germany but was taken in a New Hampshire school. Why were these local pre-teens giving what looked like a Sieg Heil salute? Was there a chapter of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund operating in the Granite State?

Quickly, I discovered that what was really going on in the picture was defiantly not un-American. The photo caption explained that our fresh-faced sons and daughters were taking part in a nationwide Flag Day celebration. On that day -- and at exactly the same exact time -- millions of kids across America recited the Pledge of Allegiance. It seems that from 1892 to 1942 pledging allegiance to the American flag consisted of extending the right arm straight out toward the flag. At the start of the pledge everyone would have the palm of their hand facing down; at the end of the pledge they would turn their hand so that it was palm-up. On Dec. 22, 1942, the salute was modified in the American Flag Code so that it consists only of putting the hand over the heart, thus removing any resemblance to the honors rendered to Hitler.

On another page, I found that the Massachusetts police in 1937 were arresting lots of male swimmers for immodesty. Quickly, I had horrible visions of my now deceased Bay State uncles streaking nude across the sands of Revere Beach 76 years ago. Fortunately, it proved not to be the case. It seems that in the Bay State back then the law required that males had to wear both shirts and swim trunks while swimming at beaches like Crane’s, Nantasket or Lynn. In addition, the statutes required that all males had to wear a robe when walking to and from the beaches. The Massachusetts police superintendent in June 1937 told a reporter that most people supported the law and “those hairy-chested fellows don’t present such a pretty picture.”

In another newspaper, I read that the Derry School Board announced that they would once again begin to hire only unmarried women teachers. This was a policy that had been started at the beginning of the Great Depression. The idea behind this seemingly strange rule was based on Derry’s economic conditions during the 1930s. The town fathers in their wisdom decided that because there were fewer jobs in Derry, it would be better to try to spread out the employment opportunities. The town would henceforth hire only single women teachers because they had to support themselves. Our town’s leaders believed that married women teachers could live off their husband’s income.

In 1935, the School Board members changed their minds and started to again hire married women teachers. This policy change was brought about by Derry’s economy heading toward rock bottom. It was said that Derry was the worst Depression-hit town in the state with an unemployment rate of over 30 percent; our sprawling shoe factories and many of our stores were boarded up and closed. With so many out of work, one-quarter of all the families in Derry were forced to go on welfare. The schools now began to once again hire married women teachers because most of their husbands were unemployed; their wives’ teaching salary would now likely be the sole income for their family. Our selectmen sent a telegram to Washington begging for help; pleading for the government to give Derry’s unemployed jobs by creating make-work projects.

By June 1937, the economy had somewhat improved. The unemployment picture was still bad but Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, such as the WPA, CCC and REA, made it better. Many local workers were now employed in projects like erecting Derry’s new post office, constructing the picnic and swimming beach at Hood Park, cleaning the Forest Hill Cemetery and building the Danforth traffic circle. The School Board went back again to hiring only single female teachers. This policy continued until World War II when, with so many women working at “Rosie the Riveter” type jobs, it was hard to find single ladies to teach.

Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.