Growing Up in Royal Oak, Michigan: 1920-1936
My father, John Kerr Malinoski, painted his childhood growing up in Royal Oak as idyllic and at a time in the history of the United States, when one working class family, with humble roots, enjoyed some basic comforts as compared with the lives of their parents, who were homesteaders on a farm in Upper Michigan and worked in the lumber mills. My father was the first in his family to graduate from college.
Family Moves to Royal Oak
After eight years of marriage to my grandfather, George H. Malinoski, my grandmother, Mae Kerr, gave birth to twins on June 23, 1918 at Women’s Hospital in Detroit. My father’s sister did not survive. Accord to his baby book, Dad weighed only 3 pounds 10 ounces. 1918 was not a particularly good year to be born as the flu pandemic was sweeping across the United States and Europe with mortality running between 3 to 6%.
The family moved from Detroit to 412 Rhode Island Avenue. The population of Royal Oak was about 6,000 and growing, mostly because of the auto industry’s need for labor to work on the assembly lines. George, who had worked on his parent’s farm and then in the lumber mills, found employment at the Chrysler Plant and continued to work there until his retirement in the 1950s. My father told me his Dad was never laid off; during the Depression, George still worked part-time.
Mae was a homemaker, spending time quilting and embroidering; some of her work can be viewed on these posts, Appreciating the Needlework of our Grandmothers: Rethinking Four Issues and Part II.
An ice box stood on the back porch, and they would get a regular delivery of ice. They had deliveries from many other tradesmen, including butchers and milkmen. My father told me that the milkman’s horse would know where to stop for each house. In the summer, he and his cousins would sleep on the front porch. The family never locked their doors. When friends would stop in (in those days no one had announce they were coming over ahead of time), they would put on a pot of coffee. In winter, they had to shovel coal into the furnace in the basement.
My grandparents passed along six photo albums from this time so taking pictures was very important to them. Most of the photographs were taken with this Eastman Kodak, Pocket C, Premo, dated 1910.
The camera has an adjustable shutter and aperture. Glass frames were inserted into the back of the camera.
Furniture: High Chair and Wicker Rocker
Two pieces from my father’s childhood, high chair and rocker.
Union Elementary School
My father attended the local elementary school, where his cousin, Phoebe Kerr, was his teacher for one year.
Dad is sitting in the row on the right, second seat.
6th Grade Report Card
School Song Book
Sunday School Certificate
The News Outline
My father saved one example of this publication, which was a weekly current event lesson. Published in 1930 when Dad was in sixth grade, he must have paid the 5 cents to buy the “attractive cover.” Some of the titles in the publication include, Mexico’s New President, Pam-American Highway, Byrd Antarctic Expedition Returns and London Navel Conference.
Analyzing the article about Haiti provides some insight about the lessons children received about history, with a considerable amount of white-washing, no pun intended, of the facts. The opening statement is most telling:
Have you ever heard of a country in which almost all of the people are black, the officers of the government are black, and the army is made up of Negros?
The text raises the question: how did the Negros, who were not natives of America, come to control Haiti? The answer: “Negros were brought over from Africa to work on the great plantations of sugar cane.” From this description, students are given the impression that those wonderful plantations offered employment opportunities. No place in the article do the authors mention how the Africans were enslaved and then rebelled against their cruel oppressors. The article continues: “Their numbers multiplied greatly, but the Indians almost disappeared.” It is as if the Blacks were responsible for the Indian demise, when in actuality, diseases, especially smallpox, decimated their numbers. Columbus’s intent was to take wealth where ever he found it by any means. The Spanish forced the Indians to pay tribute: supplying rulers with “a hawks bell of gold” or 25 pounds of spun cotton every three months, and they would cut off their hands if they did not comply. The Spanish worked the Indians unmercifully as they labored in the fields and mines.
Book of Knowledge
The Book of Knowledge was a children’s set of Encyclopedias, first published by Grolier Publishing in 1890 and ended in 1963. My father’s set was published in 1926. These books were well illustrated with both black and white photographs and colored plates. The books have strong sections on poetry, literature and paintings.
The page above shows child workers in the tea plantations. After all these years, child labor is still with us today.
The Volume Library
Another book from my Dad’s collection, The Volume Library, was written for educators and published by the Educators Association. The text, which has many black and white illustrations, has some colored plates. The Volume Library covers a variety of subjects, including literature, history, geography, biography math, science, government and fine arts. A page from the text shows a “sample summer diet for children 7 to 12 years.” If that’s what children ate back then, seems like they benefited from nutritious food, especially with the emphasis on vegetables. Desserts consisted of ginger cookies, baked apple or custard.
In paging through the book, I found this poem by Jonathan Swift:
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bit ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind.
The family gave each greeting cards and must have felt very sentimental about them because they saved over 50. They exchanged cards for Valentine’s Day, Easter, graduation, Christmas, Mother’s Day and anniversaries.
Sleigh, sans Santa
The story goes that my father sent Santa on a parachute ride. Santa did not arrive safely, but the sleigh was passed down, remaining a centerpiece of our family holiday decorations. Because my father became an electronic engineer (story is at this link), it is not surprising that he conducted a few science experiments as a child.
Lionel Model Train
One Christmas, Dad’s parents purchased a model train set for him. Known as Standard Gauge or Wide Gauge, the train ran on a three-rail track about two inches wide. The train was one of the models produced by the Lionel Corporation, a major manufacturer of toy trains. Throughout the 1920s Lionel manufactured several sets of authentic locomotives and train cars with careful attention to detail, including some models with brass and nickel trim.
Buddy “L” toys were produced by the Moline Pressed Steel Company, started in 1910 by Fred A. Lundahl, who designed and produced the all-steel miniature truck Buddy L. The company also manufactured toy cars, fire engines, and construction equipment. When we were children, we used to straddle the truck, riding down our asphalt driveway, so the next generation also enjoyed the toy.
Royal Oak High School
Senior Year Book 1936
Throughout his life, Dad sang the melodies popular during his childhood. “Always”, written by Irving Berlin in 1925, was one of his favorites. My mother played the piano, and she and Dad would reminisce and sing “their song.”
Dad loved to sing The Whiffenpoof Song. There’s something very compelling about poor little lambs that have lost their way. Published in 1909, the song became a hit for Rudy Valle in 1927. The Whiffenpoofs are a cappella group from Yale.
Rudyard Kipling wrote the words, published in his poem, “Gentlemen Rankers” in 1892.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!
“Shine on, Harvest Moon” was one of a series of moon-related Tin Pan Alley songs from the 1900s. The song became a standard in popular music throughout the 20th century.
“I”ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Inka Dinka Doo,” “Git along Little Dogies,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and “Cool Water” were other favorites.
Dad proudly displays his first car, which he used to commute to Lawrence Institute of Technology, in Southfield, Michigan, about a ten-minute drive from his home. Before Dad had the car, he would hitchhike every day to college and never once had a bad experience. He graduated with honors in 1941 with a degree in electrical engineering. He moved to Philadelphia to work for the Philco Corporation; during the war, was part of a team developing radar systems. His mother passed away in 1936, and several years later his Dad remarried and retired to Florida.
So ends this story of one family from Royal Oak, their history preserved in the few items they saved and passed down, their photo albums and the stories they told, leaving a legacy to their grandchildren. As my father described his life back in the 1920s, their lives were generally happy, that they some freedom from economic toil, had time for camping and gathering with friends in a town that offered a sweet place to grow up.