Sunday, September 24, 2017

The '20s May Have Roared for Most, But Not for Sarah and Will

Art in the Roaring '20s style
The 1920s were roaring! The decade was a time “when economic growth, technological change, and the loosening of social codes encouraged a lively and uninhibited youth culture centered around the automobile, jazz music, and bootleg liquor.” *

Today, almost a century later, we associate the Roaring '20s with women in fringed “flapper” garb, men in Model T Fords, and crowds drinking prohibited alcoholic beverages in illegal bars called speakeasies. Before the Wall Street Crash of 1929 , the decade was a time of rapid industrial growth, advances in technology, and increases in productivity, sales, and salaries. Consumers were buying more goods and services. Businesses were expanding. For most people, times were good.

Apparently, those good times didn’t filter down to the family of William Levi and Sarah Eva Howe Salyers of Carrollton, Kentucky. Letters saved in Sarah’s scrapbooks reveal that things weren’t quite as “roaring” at their house. One poignant letter is this one from Will to Sarah. Will, who traveled regionally selling Moore Brothers stoves and furnaces to retailers, wrote from the Hotel Tutwiler in Birmingham on Jan. 18, 1925:
First page of a letter from William L. Salyers to his wife Sarah, Jan. 18, 1925
Dear Sarah,
Your special delivery letter came up to my room (via bell boy) at ten o’clock this morning. Glad to hear everybody is all right and hope David is getting over his cold.
[I am unable to decipher the next few lines except for an occasional word or phrase, such as “I don’t want to have to pay for all ?? if I can keep from doing it as we have had trouble with all the ??” ]  Also got the money order which was “very welcome.” I often feel like I am a failure to the extent that somehow or other I can’t make money enough for our wants and needs. I can sell goods all right but guess something was left out of my make up so I can’t sell enough. One thing that I think handicaps me in the “tough times” I have gone through. It is alright to say that a stretch of “hard times” is good for a man, but it takes its “toll” and there is “something” missing that can’t be replaced. Today like all Sundays is the hardest day of the week. It poured down rain all day yesterday and has been raining all day today. I would judge that there are 200 [unreadable; apparently a reference to traveling salesmen/businessmen] here in the hotel, and the cigar woman (not girl as she looks 45) says our tempers are not improved by having to stay in.  . . .
This is one of many letters Will wrote from the road. From those letters, I’ve learned that he often ran short of cash during his business trips and had to ask Sarah to send money to tide him over. Did he not plan ahead, or did he spend too extravagantly? Did Sarah hang onto enough cash for just such times, or did she appeal for loans from her more prosperous parents or siblings? The letters offer no clue. It appears that Sarah always followed up by sending money orders. While I have not found her letter in response to Will’s dark mood of Jan. 18, 1925, I like to think she wrote reassurances to bolster his self-confidence.

Will and Sarah’s eldest child, Bob, was a student at the University of Kentucky in 1925, which could explain, in part, the family’s financial stress. Bob, too, was feeling a financial pinch and doing what he could to help. In September 1925 he wrote to his mother: “I bought a pair of pants from a boy for $1 and I think with a little alteration they will make a good pair of school or work pants for Jim.” Bob’s brother Jim was 15 and living at home at that time.

Bob was looking for a job in Lexington: “I went to see my man [apparently a prospective employer] and he said it would be in October before he would need me, but that if business did not pick up he would not need anyone at all. All the table waiting jobs are full up, so I don’t know what to do. I’ll talk it over with Dad."
Excerpt of letter from Robert King Salyers to his mother Sarah Eva Howe Salyers, September 1925

In 1925 the Wall Street Crash was still four years in the future, but comments in these and other letters seem to foreshadow it. I’m eager to explore later scrapbooks, hoping to discover how this family fared during the Depression years.

* American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. S.v. "The roaring 20s." Retrieved Sept. 23, 2017 from

1 comment:

ScotSue said...

A poignant letter from William, that, as you say, raises so many questions on his despondent mood and his management of money. All very intriguin. Personal letters give us such insight into our ancestor's characters.