Gearing up for back to school in 1944 — By Tom Glover, Times of Trenton columnist
Back to school! Mom usually waited until the last few summer days before she shopped for back-to-school clothes. I remember one year back there during World War II when she and I went shopping. C’mon back with me to early September 1944.
Kids don’t think much about money, only the amount necessary to buy an ice cream cone, candy or other frivolous merchandise. In retrospect, as I look back on those years of slim pickings, I get a strange feeling of remorse. Both Mom and Pop did without many things so that we could return to school in a presentable manner.
Mr. Schnur had a 5- and 10-cent type store at Hamilton and Olden Avenue. It was really more of a department store. He carried a line of “cancellation shoes” that were considerably less expensive than most stores. These were factory rejects with minor defects in stitching or the leather that cost much less than Thom McAnn, Father and Son and other upscale footware.
Many of us in the neighborhood walked around in lesser known but less expensive shoes. They may have squeaked a bit at first and caused blisters on the heel, but they looked good, and once they wore in they were quite acceptable.
So on a warm Saturday morning in late August or early September, my mom and I were on our way to Schnur’s, after which we would go “uptown.” We crossed over Liberty Street and headed toward Hamilton, passing St. Anthony’s and George Giberson’s store, and finally we arrived at Schnur’s on Hamilton and South Olden. Mr. Schnur had his storefront laid out much like Kresge’s and Woolworth’s. He had a big red sign with his name in gold letters, very similar to Tracy’s 5- and 10-cent store across the street.
I walked in ahead of Mom and headed straight for the “high tops,” which were on display right near the shoe counter. Like most of my neighborhood buddies, I longed for a pair. They were lace-up type boots which came all the way up to the upper calf just below the knee. I picked up a black pair on display and took a closer look. It was beautiful! Even the laces were made of leather. The heel and soles were made of thick black rubber with nifty treads. There was a pouch with a pen knife on the right side, with a silver snap. Oh boy, did I want those boots! I remember my older brother Len had a pair when he was a member of our local Troop 9 Boy Scouts. The red-and-white price tag blazed with the price: “SCHNUR’S SPECIAL … $8.95!”
Mom was over near the dress shoes, carefully looking for a pair for my sister. She put a pair in black patent leather on the counter. I was just going to ask her for those great boots when Mr. Schnur came over to us. “Can I help you, Missus?” he asked. He was a tall man, and he looked down at me and winked. His hair was full and bushy, and he had a yellow tape measure draped around his neck. “Yes, Mr. Schnur,” Mom answered, “I need shoes for my son here. I have already picked out a pair for my daughter; she’s easy to fit … But with the way this boy is growing, I have a hard time keeping up with his size.”
Mr. Schnur pulled up a little stool with a sloping surface and a foot-measuring device and motioned to me to sit down. “Would you take off your shoe, little man?” he asked with a true salesman’s smile. I sat down and took off my shoe, hoping that he wouldn’t see the hole in my sock. He took the measurement and stood up to get a few sample pairs of shoes. “We have a sale on socks today, missus, three pair for 39 cents. They’re first quality and I have pretty good selection,” he said. “You’re just in time. They arrived yesterday.” Mom picked out three pair.
Mr. Schnur showed me his stock of shoes, and I picked out a pair with crepe soles. Crepe soles were also very popular with kids back in the 1940s. The tan-colored soft rubber soles were softer and more pliable than conventional rubber or leather soles. Next to “high tops,” crepes were the “in” thing. Of course, I would much rather have had the high tops, but Mom found it quite difficult to part with even the $4.98 she had to pay for my shoes, let alone the outrageous price of $8.95 for the high tops.
We left Schnur’s and waited at the bus stop at Hamilton and Olden. We were on our way to downtown Trenton to the Metropole clothing store, where I would pick out a brown “slack suit,” a very lightweight item with a short-sleeved shirt and matching slacks, much like the leisure suits that I and many other would wear some 30 years later.
Today, the kids go to school in casual wear that we would never dream of wearing back then. The uniform of the day for a boy was a pair of slacks, or the aforementioned slack suit, a shirt and a tie. The girls wore skirts, blouses, and dresses. We wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of what we called “sneaks” or “sneakers.” What a difference a generation or two makes!
We’ll make another trip to downtown Trenton in the future. See you then.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in The Times of Trenton on September 5, 2013, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Times of Trenton and Tom Glover. The original story can be found here: http://www.nj.com/times-opinion/index.ssf/2013/09/glover_gearing_up_for_back_to.html
Tom Glover is a columnist for The Trenton Times, archivist for the city of Hamilton, New Jersey, and publishes the blog “Hamilton Scrapbook–Tom Glover’s Hamilton.” You can view his blog here: http://glover320.blogspot.com/
We want to hear from you! Do you have a comment or a great back-to-school story? E-mail it to us at email@example.com.