HISTORY: The times - and jobs folks used to hold - have changed!
During my interviewing of people for these historical articles in THE BEE, I have been intrigued about the various occupations that people once held. Once I came across a senior citizen who had worked as a lighthouse attendant on the Oregon Coast. Now why would someone want such a lonely job?
And then there was a co-worker of mine, when I was behind the counter at the Post Office, whose dad had worked repairing wooden fruit boxes for the fruit orchards in the Hood River Valley in the 1930's. How would it look on your resumé, if you revealed that you'd fixed wooden fruit crates for a living?
Researching these historical articles usually includes a trip to the Multnomah Library's downtown branch; and, with the current pandemic, access there is limited. But, using the City Directories at the Central Library, I can find out how many shoe repair shops there were in Sellwood in the 1920s or 1930s. Or, I can learn the names and addresses of every pharmacy operating along Milwaukie Avenue in Westmoreland, as well their owners, in the 1950s and 1960s.
During one of my visits downtown last year, as I was searching through the 1906 Portland Business Directory to tally the various meat markets of Sellwood, I came across some unusual services. These were businesses and services that were at one time in high demand, but today are obsolete.
One of the advertisements that particularly caught my attention featured the sketch of a small boy, dressed in a blue round cap and a blue jacket uniform with large brass buttons. He had a friendly and engaging smile on his face â€“ and the text below his picture was advertising, "messenger boy for hire".
Messenger boys and telegram boys were used to relay messages from one person or business to another â€“ a common task in the mid-to-late 19th Century. At that time, telegrams ("messages sent by wire") were the only form of fast and reliable communication in the United States. They were much faster even than sending a letter by Pony Express across the American wilderness â€“ a famous and iconic enterprise that, in actuality, only lasted a year and a half! And packages sent by ship traveled from the Eastern Seaboard to the West Coast; and even sailing through the Panama Canal might mean upwards to two or three weeks between shipment and delivery.Boys between the age of thirteen and eighteen were hired for a minimal fee to dodge and run through dangerous downtown traffic to deliver important messages. They were especially busy conveying transactions between big companies, transporting banking correspondence, and delivering paper telegrams to and from the local train station, where telegraph offices were usually located.
These young messenger boys worked long hours â€“ ten to twelve hours daily, often well in to the night â€“ delivering messages on foot or by bicycle. Sometimes they had to travel through unsavory parts of town, such as the red-light district, and streets full of rowdy taverns. Few child labor laws were yet on the books to protect children from working in such a job. Also, factories were in need of workers of any age, and often they hired children to run their machines.
It wasn't until Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards in 1938 that children were protected from such practices. Can you image your father or grandparents suggesting you get a part time job as a messenger boy? And yet, that was not uncommon in those days; children were expected to contribute to the income of the family when they were able.
The Western Union Telegraph Company was founded in 1851, and almost every small town and big city had a telegraph office available for families who wanted to send a message to friends and relatives. Telephones didn't start to enter homes and businesses until the early Twentieth Century â€“ and then, few working-class people could afford them.
The telegraph was especially an important factor in business transactions, or when people needed to "cable money" across the country.
In the early Twentieth Century supplies, goods, and freight were still hauled by horses and wagons, and elite people used carriages and buggies when riding to town for a day of shopping and socializing, or to visit neighbors miles away. Although most four-wheeled wagons were manufactured on the East Coast and delivered to the western states by ship, Portland had a number of factories and warehouses that built sturdy wagons, as well as hansom cabs and carriages, for the public to buy.
Manufacturing a wagon or carriage was a long process, requiring from ten to twenty workers to complete a vehicle by hand with hammer and nails. Once the box frame was done, other specialists were called upon to finish the product. Wheelwrights were brought in to place hand-crafted wheels on the wagon; carriage trimmers installed the interiors of coaches, which usually included leather seats with springs, fancy curtains to keep the dust out, and decorative materials.
Department stores, like Meier and Frank, and Olds, Wortman and King â€“ along with smaller merchants â€“ often bought specialized delivery vans to transport furniture and other orders to customers around the Portland area. These four-wheeled, horse-drawn delivery vans required a finishing painter to varnish the outside of the van in various colors, and a sign-maker would paint the company's logo on both sides of the vehicle â€“ not only to identify, but to advertise, the business owning it.
In addition, blacksmiths were called in to install the iron parts needed to complete a carriage, chaise, or delivery wagon. Blacksmiths performed a variety of services besides just pounding out horseshoes and shoeing horses, which itself was an all-day job.
Blacksmiths were once so essential that every town or city had a blacksmith shop located nearby. Blacksmith forges were located at frequent intervals; they were often found near business that needed their services quickly, such as horse stables, hay and feed stores, and markets that delivered goods by horse and wagon every day.
If a harness broke during travel, or if a horse came up limping after a long day of delivering groceries for Welch's Market on 17th Avenue in Sellwood, blacksmith Arthur Vorpahl was ready to solve Welch's dilemma. Vorpahl, who settled in Sellwood in the 1900's, operated in a wooden shiplap building right next door to Welch's store and stables. For a quarter century the sound of the metal hammer striking an anvil inside his blacksmith shop could be heard every morning, after Vorpahl opened his shop for the day. His son Herman followed in his fathers' footsteps â€“ but, in his case, he had considerable business repairing the metal parts on the new horseless carriages which were replacing horses for transportation.
Another blacksmith in Sellwood was J. A. Fields, who operated his shop just a few blocks south of Welch's Market, near Marion Street; he picked up trade from the wagons and horse teams that traveled 17th Avenue on their way to or from the busy town of Milwaukie.
By the start of the 1950's, most blacksmiths had hung up their horseshoes and moved on to more profitable careers. Metal work by forge and fire was still in some demand, though, as high-end clientele were on the lookout for craftsmen who could create ornate metal gates, fences, and artwork for their gardens and grounds, and decorative pieces for inside the house â€“ and John Fyre, a Westmoreland resident, still occasionally meets this need with his blacksmithing, even today.
Smoking cigars was a pleasure enjoyed by businessmen who gathered at Country Clubs and in private reading rooms â€“ and cigars were enjoyed, as well, by millwrights, streetcar workers, railroad conductors â€“ and especially Eastern Europeans, who emigrated to America and brought many of the vices they enjoyed with them.
Brewing beer and making cigars were skills characterizing many Germans when they arrived in America from their homeland, to work on our railroads and in our factories. So it turned out that cigar factories became common along Portland streets in certain areas. Most cigar factories were merely small family businesses, run by the head of a household. Family members and friends were then hired on as employees, since many of them were already familiar with the art of rolling a cigar.
Portland had between fifty and sixty cigar factories, over a century ago; the most prestigious cigar shops were downtown, but the Eastern Europeans who lived on the east side of the Willamette or in North Portland could also find a cigar store â€“ and in them, a good affordable cigar â€“ within a few blocks of their home.
Southeast Portland's Brooklyn neighborhood â€“ a working-class area located near the Brooklyn Railroad Yard, the streetcar barns, and the Inman, Poulson Lumber Mill â€“ had four to five cigar factories of its own.Matt Lang operated a cigar factory which he called "The Brooklyn" from the front of his house. Facing the streetcar line that ran along S.E. Milwaukie Avenue, his storefront was just north of Powell Boulevard, and it was a popular place with the Italians, Germans, Greeks, Norwegians, and Swedes who lived in the neighborhood. His family lived in the back of the store near Lake Brooklyn, and when he wasn't selling or smoking his own cigars, Matt spent his weekends fishing in the lake â€“ which once existed just west of Milwaukie Avenue, fed by the water of the Willamette River.Lang ran a successful cigar business for over forty years; but eventually the wide appeal of cigar smoking waned, and by the 1950s few cigar factories could be found in the city. The skills of choosing the right type of tobacco leaf, and trimming the leaves to a desired length, were no longer needed â€“ the remaining cigar smokers were quite satisfied with store-bought cheap cigars, made quickly by machines. A traditionalist who rolled cigars by hand couldn't compete with that, and the family members who worked together to learn the cigar-rolling techniques that had been handed down from generation to generation had to find a new vocation.Another local job that has disappeared (and some would say that it's a good thing!) involved leather tanning. The Pfeiffer Brothers Tannery in Sellwood was an early presence in that community. When the Sellwood Real Estate Company began first offering lots for sale in the town of Sellwood in 1882, officials of the company wanted land along the waterfront to be reserved exclusively for industrial, not residential, use.Among the first to build there were the Eastside Lumber Mill, the Oregon Door and Window Factory, the Oregon Box Factory, and for a short time the Sellwood Furniture Company. And it wasn't long before the Peiffer Brothers also set up operation along the Sellwood waterfront; their tannery was situated where Marion Street intersects Grand Avenue, and they intended to make leather. Leather was essential at the turn of the 20th Century. It was used in the manufacturing of harnesses, riding saddles, shoes, and boots, along with drive belts for machinery, and many other products. The manufacture of leather was a lengthy and complicated business, and involved hard work: Workers had to carefully scrape the flesh from raw animal hides, using a "fleshing beam" to eliminate all traces of fat and flesh. From there, the hides were transferred to large tubs where they soaked for several days in a caustic lime solution to remove the fur. After flushing the hide in clean water, usually drawn from the Willamette River, the hide was pickled or tanned by steeping it in a strong solution of ground oak or hemlock bark, and hung outside to dry â€“ and for everyone nearby to smell!
This was definitely not a job for the faint of heart, and the owners of the tannery decided to set up their tannery far up river in Sellwood, well away from downtown Portland's City Counselors, who they feared might have raised a stink about the stink the tannery was raising.
Next door to the tannery was yet another business with jobs that have pretty much disappeared today â€“ at the Bissinger Wool Pullery.
Working at the Bissinger Wool Pullery wasn't any more romantic a trade than tanning was. Mutton was a delicacy that most butchers made sure they had on hand for their customers â€“ and to save the wool the butcher would have discarded, and to make use of it for blankets and clothing, "wool pulleries" were established.
Unlike "clipped wool" sheared from live sheep, a wool pullery removed wool from a dead sheep, before or after the meat was prepared at the local butcher shop. Sellwood real estate agents probably had a hard time selling property in the blocks surrounding the Peiffer Tannery and the Bissinger Wool Pullery, so they were no doubt relieved when such busineses moved away.
In an October 2017 issue of the Gresham Outlook, a sister publication to THE BEE, reporter Zane Sparling noted that Samuel Bissinger had eventually relocated his wool pullery to Troutdale. It may have seemed a business coup for that small community â€“ for a while.One occupation of the past that still occupies us today â€“ but in somewhat different form â€“ is recycling.Long before "recycling" became the practice it is today, Southeast Portland residents were reluctant to throw anything away â€“ they "reused" everything. Few people felt they could afford to use and then simply discard things. Products were expensive! And if something was no longer used, you just still kept it; you never threw it away.
As part of this, clothes were handed down from one sibling to another as they were outgrown, and outdated furniture or household items were stored in the attic. If you broke your umbrella in a Portland windstorm, you didn't throw it away â€“ you had it repaired! The Rose City had eight umbrella makers and repairers in the early 1900s, and Sellwood had its own umbrella maker on 13th Avenue. Who does that anymore?Today, most of us are once again used to the idea of re-using resources â€“ but we call it recycling, and discards are collected in a bin to be taken away for some form of reuse, instead being stored in an attic. Aluminum beverage cans and bottles are turned in for a returned deposit, paper products and tin cans are deposited in a recycling bin to be picked up on garbage day, and unwanted clothing and furniture can be donated to a local charity.
Speaking of garbage â€“ widespread garbage collection had yet to begin as late as the early 1900s, so you either hauled your own garbage to the city dump, or waited for a scavenger to come around. "Professional scavenger" is another one of those occupations you don't see much of anymore â€“ although there does seem to be a lot of amateur activity of that sort these days on garbage day.
So that is our exploration of some of the jobs that once were a necessity, but have now disappeared. The list of such jobs is much longer than we have room here for; but a few more that I have heard of or have seen in vintage movies include boot black, drummer, bell hanger, elevator operator, railroad porter, bowling alley pin setter, movie usher and usherette, and typewriter sales and repair.
But enough for now. See you next month with a new and different exploration of Inner Southeast Portland's earlier days!
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