Dorothy Sarvay was born in 1927 and rasied in Syracuse, New York. She
lived in her home with her sister, her father who was a doctor and her mother. She
attended Cornell University and majored in home economics and child development.
She received her masters in education from Syracuse University. She ended up
becoming SUNY Cortland’s Nursery School and Kindergarten Supervisor. Dorothy
currently lives on West Court Street right here in Cortland. She and her husband
who has passed, have five children and eight grandchildren. During our interview w
discussed issues, during the Great Depression and WW1 and WW2,that affected her
and her family.
Whitney Forde: Today is Thursday November 13, 2008 and I’m here with Dorothy
Sarvay who is currently a resident here in Cortland New York. She will tell us about
growing up during the time of the Depression and how she personally was affected
by this time in history. Dorothy do you think you could begin by telling us about
Dorothy Sarvay: Well I grew up in Syracuse, and my father was a doctor and in the
1930’s, the time of the depression, there was no health insurance. He was a member
of Blue Cross Blue Shields but that was during the early 40’s and that was during the
war when they got that started and many people couldn’t pay bills because of the
depression and in those days doctors made house calls and he would be going all
over the city on house calls and most of his patients had ‘mom and pop’ grocery
stores so he would shop and that is how they would pay their bills. So really my
mother never went to the grocery store and sometimes she would call across town
to a grocer who would deliver who was paying off a bill and might call him on the
phone and place an order and I can remember my father one time saying to her
“don’t ever give mike an order less then $5.00” because it cost money for him to
deliver. But then when things got a little better and prices went up a bit, he said
“always be sure your spending at least $10.00.” Now think of that today, I mean one
grocery bag can be $25.00.”
WF: Right, very true.
DS: It really was quite different.
WF: How many kids were in your family that your parents had to provide for?
DS: Well at that time, I had a sister. And so there were really just four of us. The
depression did hit professional people pretty hard. Because you didn’t have
retirement and he had his own office and own secretary and he didn’t have a nurse,
dentist’s offices had a nurse. He would make house calls daily around town not
every patient everyday, even on weekends and holidays, we would spend
Thanksgiving, at my Grandfathers and that was an hour and a half drive.
WF: Would you say that the depression impacted you more as a kid, or through out
DS: Well once we got into the war things began to boom again, and turn around
granted your men were gone but the factories were doing prettywell. They didn’t
build cars but they turned into war machines like tanks and jeeps but there were
WF: During this time what was your profession?
DS: I was a teacher. As a child I wasn’t aware of the fact that there was a depression
going on, my parents did not complain about it in front of us. And I have heard on TV
that people were saying you don’t have to scare your children so to speak about this
financial crisis. But see if a job was gone then yes they would know that during the
depression but we didn’t make much of it. I do remember two instances of my
acquaintanceswhose fathers died, actually committed suicide.
WF: Because it was so overwhelming?
DS: But of course I didn’t know much about that. They didn’t talk about that in
frontof me until I was grown up later. Those two particular families really lost
everything. But I didn’t know that growing up. In those days we had two cars, my
Grandmother was widowed and she had a car and she didn’t drive so she gave that
to our family and in those days you could license a car for 6 months. So her car was
bigger then ours and newer so we used that in the summer time. And then in the
winter my father would get the other one out and we got through the depression in
that way for many years. Then as the war began to loom he began to realize that two
cars were really getting old so he turned them in and got a new car. And that worked
WF: How were gas prices back then, do you recall?
DS: No, that didn’t affect me, I’m sure they were very low I never really asked but I
didn’t care about that. I looked back and realized that a women would come a couple
of times a year, maybe not that much I don’t know, and she came with big boxes like
this (demonstrates approximate size with hands) and the had dresses, children’s
things, and that’s how my mother shopped. She was a patient and that was her way
of earning during the depression and paying off a medical bill. She would hold up
the dresses and we would try them on rather then going into the store. My mother
did shop but in that instance, the woman was paying off her medical bill.
WF: What would you say was the women’s roll during this time, were they still kept
in the kitchen so to speak?
DS: My mother did stay at home, she was nurse and she did go back when my father
died in 1944. She did go back but then of course that was after the war we were out
of the depression, post war really. Looking back, I’ve never really thought about this
question, I don’t remember growing up where any of the children, any of my friends
at least, where their mothers worked.
WF: They were basically all at home?
DS: Yes they were all at home. The men were out of jobs.
WF: Would you say that back when the men were over seas, the women worked in
DS: Oh yeah, women were back then. Rosie the Riveter, I mean that changed
women’s roll but there were teachers, we did havea neighbor who was a teacher but
her children were older then I so I don’t know when they were little what she did. I
do remember my mother saying, during WW1 her mother went back to teach,
during WW1, her mother went to teach. They lived in Seneca Falls and her father
had a furniture business so he was gone all day but my Grandmother didn’t want my
Grandfather to know that she had gone back and I guess it was quite a while she
would go to school up the street about two blocks and it was a long time before he
knew she had gone back to work. Being a teacher was for young girls, maiden ladies
and it wasn’t the thing to do, for your wife to go back to work but she wanted to do
it. And weather there was a shortage or not I don’t know.
WF: That is so interesting.
DS: Yes, that was kind of interesting.
WF: So, her point of hiding from him was because that wasn’t appropriate during
DS: Yes, that’s right I think that’s right not like today. And not like during WW2, I
mean women ran the factories. During the depression, I do remember people
knocking on doors, mostly men and my mother would fix a plate and they would sit
on the back step, and the same thing at my Grandmothers house, I mean it was true.
And they had men who would do odd jobs and be a handy man to get by, to get
money. I remember my father would be out in the garden or in the cellar or
something he enjoyed doing that sort of thingsomething other then medicine. I do
remember we had an electrician who was a cousin who tried to give someone a job
he knew, like family, in order to help the out.
WF: Later on after the depression the war came, and how did thataffect you
DS: Well, we used to have help in the household even during the depression we had
a live in maid and the phone had to be covered. You didn’t have answering service
so the phone had to be covered 24 hours a day so my mother was out doing
whatever so someone had to be there for that phone and when the war ended they
got answering services and the telephone companies changed. I don’t know how
they did that but they figure those things out so we had an answering service that
we could call and I don’t know how that works (laughing) I don’t know about that
stuff. That’s when it all began and communication greatly changed.
WF: Well I'm sure this highly impacted and benefited your family.
DS: That’s right. And of course everything was rationed, I mean gas was rationed.
And doctors had special dispensation. My father was extremely careful. We did a lot
less traveling then other people because he didn’t want people thinking he was
abusing his privilege, so in many ways we stayed home more then other people.
Everybody stayed the same, I mean just last night I was out with friends at the
Contemporary and we got talking about things and we were talking about how we
didn’t have plastic. We didn’t have plastic wrap, bread was wrapped in wax paper
and you saved that wax paper and you re used it, so we got laughing about that last
night, you saved string, I mean anything you could re use. I suppose ecologically, its
as though we were helping things then compared to now! Even gum, well I’m not a
gum person anymore but every stick was wrapped in tin foil and we saved all of
that. When you would get a big ball of tin foil you would turn it in. Soda was in
bottles, not there was much soda anyway but Coke, Gingerale that sort of thing,
everything was in a glass bottle. I don’t remember that we had to recycle glass,
different then today but during the war everything was rationed. Sugar, butter, and
you would get little tokens and turn them in. And when I went off to college I took
those things with me.
WF: Where did you attend college?
DS: I went to Cornell and while I was there rationing, well things began to go back to
normal. But shoes everything was handed down. (Unclear-recorded sentence)
Stockings, we didn’t have nylon yet so they were made out of silk but that came to
an end because the silk was coming from Japan, and china and we were at war. We
had these horrible stockings, I mean they were awful (laughs) they tried making
patterns and oh they were awful! That didn’t impact me because we didn’t wear
them as early, but we had the high socks.
WF: Being that we are currently in somewhat of a depression and are seeing
economic problems now, do you see some comparison from the depression then to
DS: Right, well you see I wasn’t around for the twenties, I was born in 1927 but that
of course was boom time which is really what we’ve had until recently. So I suspect
that it was quite a blow, and I think it’s quite a blow to a lot of people today. I don’
think we have gone through all of it quite yet. I think people really feel the blow,
there has got to be people without jobs.
WF: So you do see comparisons?
DS: Oh absolutely. They were talking this morning about job loss and right here in
Cortland, Marietta Packaging, who makes the little packages for hotels, shampoo
and what not. Right down here, and about two nights ago they let off 130 people,
and in a small town like this, that’s quite and impact. I think Best Western is where
you can find them and you’ll see the label on the bottom of those shampoos. That’s a
lot of people in Cortland that were impacted and it is going to show, I don’t see any
other way. There are some companies in Syracuse and Rochester that are
manufacturing parts for automobiles, and they are in trouble, they are laying people
WF: In a specific way is our economy affecting you presently?
DS: Sure, I have a fixed income. And this house I don’t owe on it, I’ve been here 44
years so I certainly can stay here cheaper, but I'm not doing everything I might, I
talked to a women last night who had a car that was eight years old and was think of
buying a new one but now she’s not, so I think people are settling with what they
have. Of course then, my car is three plus years and everything’s good. It’s a Honda
and I have no problems with it. I think everybody is cutting back a little bit.
WF: Now you have children and grandchildren?
DS: I do.
WF: Do you see the economy affecting them at all in their future?
DS: I’m sure that it will, I have one Granddaughter in college and her father is an ER
Doc he’s going to have a job. I wonder what she’ll have however, and I’m sure you
feel that way too, I don’t know what your majors going to be (laughs) I have another
Granddaughter who will graduate from High School this year, and she’s thinking of
nursing and I certainly feel that the health field is going to be ok I think that they
won’t make as much money but I think they will definitely have jobs. I think within
health care there are so many jobs, weather it be administration or long-term care,
there are jobs there. I have a son-in-law in communications and he has his own
business, and when you have your own business I think your working hard anyway.
I have a son with ITT out in Colorado Springs and his branch in the company is in
government security, hopefully he’s ok. He probably is in today’s miserable world
(laughs). He does not have any children and his wife is in insurance so they are ok
there is only the two of them and I do think everything’s going to be all right. I have
another son out in Scottsdale doing management;he’s been with them for a few
years. Who knows what will happen. My daughter, she is a teacher, not teaching at
the moment. (Recordingunclear) I have another son with Nike out in Oregon, I think
Nike will be ok; they are a big company he’s been with them for quite awhile so I
think they will be ok.
WF: Well I hope everyone is ok! (Laughs)
DS: I think education is the answer, stay with it (laughs) finish. I think places like
community college are doing a great job; they are going to be in demand because
people are going to have to go back to them to retrain. get their associates degree.
WF: Well if there is nothing else that you would like to add, I think we can wrap this
DS: I do have faith in America, and I think we can come out of it.
WF: Thank you very much for your time, you were a huge help.
DS: Well I had fun! Thank you.