It may be hard to imagine a time when an education at Pitt cost $75 a semester, or when ballpoint pens were called "revolutionary," or even -- for some of us -- when cars were perpetually coated with dust from steel mills. Thanks to a Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission grant, a tireless librarian and an Olympus digital audio recorder, these memories are now immortalized on the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Web site.
Senior librarian Barry Chad, of the library's Pennsylvania Department, looks somewhat eccentric with his frazzled white hair, oversized glasses, and black tie printed with red roses. Over a span of two years, Chad made 107 phone calls and visited more than 40 homes, some of them during off hours, to conduct face-to-face interviews with Western Pennsylvanians of diverse backgrounds -- black and white, male and female, ages from 30s to 90s. The result, posted as transcriptions this past August, is 42 oral histories the public can access online as PDF files.
"For a lot of the people I interviewed, the core of their lives were in the 1930s, '40s and '50s," said Chad. "The Great Depression and World War II were life-changing events for them -- when you don't have a lot of money, when you have to rely on your family and friends, when your boyfriend or husband is overseas and you have to cling to religious faith ..."
Chad's favorite story is from VN. (For privacy, each interviewee is identified only by initials.) VN told Chad how, in the '40s, she got paid the "magnificent" sum of $22 a week to work at Gimbel's Downtown in the music department, where they sold sheet music. Customers came in and asked what the music sounded like, and VN played it for them on the piano: Every lunchtime there'd be a whole bunch of people there. Every day they'd come in, and we'd sing, and have a wonderful time. It was like a party every day ... And I thought I had the world by the tail.
Chad describes World War II America as a different place, where community was a reality, not just a possibility. Many of his interviewees were nostalgic for that sense. "Pittsburgh has always been a city of neighborhoods," he says. "People saw there was an abiding relationship of abiding neighbors."
There are other stories, too: about the calls of street vendors offering to mend umbrellas, and the patter of childhood jump-rope rhymes; about collecting mash (the nutritious by-product of the brewing process) from the breweries on Troy Hill; about life as a survivor of Nazi persecution, life in the Carpatho-Rusyn community, the clip-clop of horses pulling hucksters' wagons; and more.
Chad, 60, feels he has one foot in the past and one in the modern world. He is comfortable with scanning and digitalizing, but also understands a time when women didn't go Downtown without donning their white gloves.
"I hope people think about their own lives, and reflect on their own histories, and consider the pace at which society is moving technologically, economically," he says. "All these are drastic changes, and stuff gets lost. This project is just a small attempt to save some of the past."
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's oral histories are available at www.carnegielibrary.org/research/pittsburgh/oralhistory/