This is a story about my father’s mother, much of it in her own words. My grandmother, born Hedwig Massar, seen above at age 16, was born in 1900 in Germany. Her family emigrated to the United States in 1905. She never liked the name Hedwig, and around age 14 started calling herself Harriett. She met my grandfather, George Klein, some time around 1919-1920 we think, and they were married in 1921.
Growing up, I didn’t feel as close to my father’s parents as I did to my mother’s family, who we spent more time with, but I knew they loved me and enjoyed visiting me. Recently my cousin, Jody Andreatch, has been putting together a huge photo album/scrapbook for the Massar and Klein families, and looking through it got me more interested in that part of my family history. Among the documents included were pages from a 1981 book, “Grandma’s Story,” one of those books children or grandchildren can give their grandmother that has questions and places to write personal answers. It was given to Grandma Klein around 1981 by Jody, and I found her answers fascinating. They paint a picture of a childhood mostly in Queens, NYC in the early years of the last century, a time that seems like ancient history even to me, and I’m pretty old myself.
The questions and answers in the book are scattershot across time and topics, but I decided to put Harriett’s answers together to make a more complete narrative, combining some, adding small bits of connecting material where necessary, and putting my own comments in where warranted. This is mainly of interest to her family, but I thought some readers of this blog might also enjoy it. Here we go. Sections in italics are by me, the rest is nearly all in Harriett’s own words.
GRANDMA KLEIN’S STORY
I was born at home in Edigheim, Germany on November 5, 1900 at six o’clock in the morning. I was 6 pounds 2 ounces with green eyes and blond hair. My full name was Hedwig Massar, named after my mother’s sister. I didn’t like my name so I changed it to Harriett after I got out of school. I learned to walk when I was one year old, I was two years old when I talked. I looked like my mother.
I did not know or ever see my great-grandparents. I don’t remember my grandparents well. They stayed in Germany. I remember a few things about my grandmother. She was always selling bread. They had a bake shop. I also remember the walnut tree my grandfather had in his back yard. I sat under that tree and ate walnuts till I got sick and threw up. Then I got a licking. We were always with them for Thanksgiving until we came to America in 1905.
Most of the Massar family, 1911. Top row: Son William, daughter Emma, mother Barbara, daughter Frieda, Daughter Pauline, daughter Henrietta, father Ludwig. Front row: son Louis, daughter Hedwig (Harriett). Daughter Catherine was born three years later.
My mother was Barbara Fruth Massar, born May 24, 1876 in Germany. My father was Ludwig (Louis) Massar born June 28, 1873 in (Germany) France. I was third oldest. I had five sisters and two brothers. There were eight children: William (Wilhelm), Emma, myself (Harriett/Hedwig), Louis (Ludwig), Henrietta, Frieda, Pauline and Catherine.
(For her father’s birthplace, Harriett first wrote Germany, then crossed it out and wrote France. All the legal documents I’ve found have him born in Edigheim, Germany, but his name is French in origin, so it’s possible he was born in France.)
I remember we had a nice house in Ohio. We lived in Ohio for two years and then we moved to Virginia. We had to cross the Ohio River by ferry. I was about eight at the time. We moved to New Jersey for one year, then to New York. We lived in apartments for a while. Then my parents bought a beautiful two-family house in a nice place called Ridgewood, Queens, New York. I grew up there.
(I can only imagine what the journey to America was like for this family who had probably never been far from their home town in Germany. Harriett mentions living in Virginia, but West Virginia was right across the Ohio River from where they settled, in Pomeroy, Ohio, so I think they were in West Virginia then, but their father was still working in Ohio. That’s my guess. The family lived in apartments from at least 1910 to early 1915. I have addresses for two different ones in those years. By 1918 they were living in the two-family house described here. Perhaps it was bought in late 1915.)
We had six girls and two boys, so we shared bedrooms. In mine there were two full-size beds and two in a bed, so there were four in our room. We had two fireplaces in our home, one in the dining room, one in the living room. That was all the heat we had in our house other than the kitchen stove. There were stairs going to the attic and roof, so I would sit up there and sew doll clothes. That was the way we got away from the others. My only toy was a doll. I used to dress her and make clothes for her.
We lived across the street from a firehouse. We were always watching when they went out to a fire. They had horses to pull the fire truck.
(I found a firehouse near the north end of Forest Avenue, where the family lived in 1910, don’t know if that’s the one mentioned here. There might have been others then. We don’t know where on Forest Avenue the family lived. There are no present-day firehouses near the other places in Ridgewood the family lived.)
To keep things cold we had iceboxes. A man came and brought a big piece of ice every day or every other day. We bought food every day so it was fresh. We had gaslight or kerosene lamps. I was about fourteen years old when they started to put electric in the new houses in Ridgewood, Queens.
We all had to clean our room and hang up our clothes. The older ones scrubbed floors and cleaned windows. We all had our own things to do on Saturdays. We had to be finished by noon. It made me mad when my younger brother Louis wouldn’t do his share of work on a Saturday morning. My father worked till noon on Saturday and then came home.
We had a nice yard and a garden house that was always cool. We also had a nice big room in the basement. We had to rest after lunch. Mother never let us out in the hot sun in the summer. Mother taught us girls embroidery.
I was a good roller skater. We all played hockey. The cops roped off the street. We all had a good time. This was when I was about ten years old. Then as I grew older we went to a roller rink. We played hopscotch and what they called shiniger. There was a boys’ team and a girls’ team. I got hit in the eye and had to go to the doctor. That was the end of my playing shiniger.
(I have found no reference to shiniger, but “shinny” is a nickname for street hockey. Shinny is probably derived from shiniger or vice versa.)
One time I got a spanking for making my sister Henrietta laugh. She had the mumps and it hurt her to laugh. She started to cry.
We had a piano I could play, and I took lessons. One day I told my teacher not to come any more. My mother never knew why.
I had a little fox terrier. She was white with black pawses. I called her Whitie. One day she got lost and I never found her again. I cried for a week.
I had two girlfriends. We walked home from school together, but we never had many secrets. We didn’t have time to flit around. We always had to go right home and do some work. I had to help my mother. I made all my dresses by the time I was twelve years old. My mother was a good seamstress. She taught me. I have been sewing ever since.
We walked to school, five city blocks. It was fun. We all met at one corner. We all had our own friends. Going to and from school I was always with my brother. None of the boys ever teased me. One boy was very sweet. He carried my books from school. We had no sports for girls in our school. At night we would go skating on our street. We all had to be in by 8:30, then we had to do our homework. We were given a lot of homework and sometimes it took an hour to get it done plus a half hour of studying. I only stayed home from school when I was sick and never played hooky. I liked school.
Recent photo of The Seneca School, P.S. 88, found online. It’s about five blocks from two of the places the family lived in Ridgewood. I’ve also found Henrietta Massar listed as a student there in 1915, so that’s where they went to school, though Harriett would have left school by then.)
For Valentine’s Day one boy gave me a box of candy. I was about ten years old. He was a little older. His name was William Kahn. I think he was Jewish. He was a nice kid. I don’t remember having anything at school. We never sent cards. They were not popular at that time.
I had one boyfriend when I was about twelve years old. We would go roller skating every night. Then he moved away and I never saw him again. We were in the seventh grade. His name was William Brierington. (not sure of spelling, hard to read)
Saturday we went to the movies. They were the silent movies. We enjoyed them. We also got 3¢ to buy candy. That was the only candy we got for the week. On Sunday we had ice cream.
I never learned to swim. We went to Coney Island a few times in the summer. I rode the trains and trolley cars. We had no car. There weren’t many cars at that time. On the Fourth of July we all went to Forest Hills Park in Queens. They had fireworks. My mother always went with us. We would take a lunch and play ball until it was time for the fireworks.
We didn’t go on vacations. There were too many of us. My father never got a vacation from work. That was not the thing at the time. My longest trip was to Bound Brook, NJ. I thought I went to the end of the world. I liked staying home on my vacation. My mother made us do needlework and I liked that. We had a nice place in our yard my father built for us, a garden house. My mother never let us go in the sun too much. She said it was bad, that we would get sunstroke.
We always went to the circus. We also went to carnivals whenever my mother took us. She never let us go alone, we were too young. After we were grown up we went with our friends.
We didn’t dress up for Halloween. They didn’t give anything to the kids then. At Thanksgiving we only went out to our friends in the morning. We had to be home for dinner at noon. My mother always had her Thanksgiving dinner at 12 sharp.
At Christmas we never got too much. There were too many of us. Each one got the thing they wanted most. Mine was a white muff and fur piece for my neck. I was about eleven years old. Another time I got Mary Jane pumps and a white hat for Easter. I thought if I asked for it at Christmas I would have it for Easter. One year I wanted a gold bracelet. My oldest brother Bill made sure I got it. He bought it himself! He was working at the time. One year my older sister Emma and I each got a pair of black silk stockings. I was about fifteen years old.
We hung our stockings on the fireplace the week before Christmas. Old Saint Nick filled them with candy and nuts. We got our presents on Christmas Eve after a big meal. My mother was baking for a week for Christmas. We made candy. What fun we had! My mother was home, she never went to work, so she had time to bake and make all kinds of things for Christmas.
We never stayed up later than 9 o’clock except on New Years Eve when we were up till 1 o’clock. My mother always had friends over then. She had many friends.
We always went sleigh riding. The pond where all the kids went ice-skating was too far. My mother wouldn’t let us go there, but we had fun in the snow and snowball fights, the boys against the girls. The boys always won.
I went to school in Queens. I only went to eighth grade. We didn’t have a high school in our area. We had to pay to go to one in Brooklyn, and that was too far to walk. We would have had to take a trolley and that cost money, too. So my mother just couldn’t see us going there.
I liked school very much. I had a good report card. It was always A’s and B’s, nothing worse. I was good in arithmetic and history and fairly good in spelling. I was fourteen when I got out of school. After I was home for a while I went to business school in New York City all day for six months. I did good. I learned to use a Comptometer, all arithmetic.
I only had one birthday party. I was sixteen and out of school, and my friends were the same age. Some of my mother’s friends had sons our age, and they were there. We had a nice time. At that time the boys had a clubhouse in some empty store. They fixed it up and polished the floor so we could dance. We always had a good time. The boys were different then, they didn’t drink beer, only soda. One of the boys would take us home.
My first real dates, I was sixteen years old. The boy was a big blond kid, also sixteen. He always brought two of his friends with him. We went dancing on a Saturday night at one of the nightclubs. They only served us soda. We were not old enough for beer.
I was eighteen years old when we moved to Possumtown, New Jersey. I didn’t like it. There was nothing to do but go to work. All my friends were in New York where I had a nice boyfriend. I lost all my old friends.
(In another place, Harriett says she was twenty when they moved to New Jersey. This is more likely, as they were in Queens for the 1920 census. The “nice boyfriend” could have been her future husband, George Klein! Possumtown is a section of Piscataway Township, NJ.)
I went fishing and crabbing with my brother, he had a nice boat with my brother-in-law. We got stuck on a sandbar. I was so scared I never went with them again. I was about 18 years old.
I went on a train trip with my fiancé George to Port Jervis, NY. We went to see a friend. That was the country for me. We only stayed one night. That was enough. I liked the city and working in New York. I lived there until I was twenty years old. Then we came down to New Jersey.
George and I got married and went back to New York. We were there two years. Then we came back to New Jersey and lived in Dunellen and Plainfield ever since. I had my brother and my youngest sister Catherine live with me for a short time. I also had my sister Frieda with me for a short time.
I was married about ten years before my husband George got his first car. I was scared to death to go up a hill in it, but I got used to it.
That ends Harriett’s story in her own words. We don’t know how George and Harriett met, but it seems likely it was in Queens or perhaps wherever she was working in the years leading up to 1920, which could have been Queens, Brooklyn or Manhattan. We have one postcard from George Klein to Harriett Massar dated June 11, 1920. It’s from George in Woodcliff Lake, NJ, where he was visiting his parents, to Harriett at 710 Fresh Pond Road, Brooklyn, but actually in Ridgewood, Queens. (Mail to that area was handled by the Brooklyn post office.) The brief message reads:
Received your letter. You can’t imagine how happy I was to hear from you. Will see you Sunday at 4 or 4:30.
It could be my imagination, but I think Harriett’s letter might have been about George’s proposal of marriage, but that’s just a guess.
Harriett gave birth to their first child, my father, George Charles Klein, in 1924. He was born in Brooklyn. By 1927, the time of this photo, they had moved back to New Jersey, settling in the Dunellen-Plainfield area, where they lived the rest of their married lives. They also had a daughter, Grace (Jody’s mother) and a son, Ricky.
My grandfather died in 1978, not long after my own father. My grandmother continued to live at the same place until the 1990s. After that she lived briefly with her sister Catherine, then with her daughter Grace, and as she neared her 100th year, she needed more help than the family could give her and was regretfully placed in a good nursing home nearby.
Here she is at her 100th birthday party with family (I’m in the back). Her short term memory was gone, but she still liked to tell stories about her childhood. We remember her fondly. She died two months short of her 101st birthday in 2001.
Thanks to Jody Andreatch and Alex Jay for research help.