This photo is an example of 1919 clothing styles.
by Margaurette Criscione
On July 1, 1919, before the start of WW2, Lucy Brown was born to her parents, John and Emily Brown, in the small town of Medford, New York. At that time there were few neighbors nearby and the closest market was 20 miles away. The market was not as it is today full of all the most non-essential fast foods and frozen snacks but a wooden floored building that offered local fruits, vegetable, meats and the catch of the day from the nearby waters.
The major roadways were two lane roads that didn't broaden until they reached the city limits of Queens. The Brown family was accustomed an independent way of life since they had lived in their small Cape style house long before the market and roadways came to be. Electric and indoor plumbings were modernizations considered luxuries that they had worked to afford by the time Lucy began school in 1924. Lucy was an only child. Her interests brought her closer to her father than her mother, although, she loved them both the same. And when she wasn't in their company there were many children from neighboring farm families provided hours of companionship.
Her first pet was a small pony named Rosie that she learned to ride at the same time she learned to walk. Her father would ride her up and down the long driveway to fetch the mail each day. By the time Lucy was four she could do it herself. In the winters, when the snow would be up to Lucy's waist, Rosie was there to pull her around on a wooden sleigh her father had made for her in his workshop out back.
John Brown was a carpenter by trade. He had learned from his own father and was depended upon by all the locals for everything from hanging a door to building a shed to crafting a cradle. It was rare to find John relaxing but he always made time to spend Sundays with his family. Emily was a homemaker with a talent for making quilts. She was never seen without her satchel that contained her scraps and sewing things along with whatever her latest quilting project was. Emily held classes for locals to teach the craft for extra money and sold her completed quilts at fairs that were held closer to Queens twice a year where she would ask higher prices than she could ever get locally.
Lucy never enjoyed quilting. She was an outdoor girl. No matter how Emily tried to entice her to sit still and learn the craft Lucy would find a way to slip away to climb a tree or ride her beloved Rosie. Lucy found it much more interesting to swing a hammer in the shed with her father than to baste batting with her mother. To find a happy medium her father designed dollhouses that Lucy would build and then spend time with her mother who would decorate it with natural decorations like dried flowers and seeds they collected on long walks. Emily enjoyed making miniature quilts and curtains for each room. It was a happy arrangement.
As Lucy progressed in school where she was not the best student she made friends that have stayed with her through her lifetime. Each of them were good at one subject and they would tutor each other to make sure each got the best grades possible. Although there were some nearby colleges it was still at the earliest times when woman chose that future instead of homemaking.
About the time of third grade Lucy realized that she had a talent for organizing and motivating her classmates. The local school was comprised of about 160 children and Lucy's group ranged from 6 to 12 year olds, who were grouped together in one large classroom for three grades with the same instructors, Mrs. Beckwith, her teacher and Miss Ross, the assistant. By that last year many of the children had become so familiar with Mrs. Beckwith that they had become less obedient knowing they would not have to face her in fourth grade. Perhaps it was Lucy's sensitivity to Mrs. Beckwith's feelings, or her independent nature, or her years of ordering Rosie from place to place, but their unruliness bothered Lucy.
One particular day around Christmastime the other students were particularly disruptive. Mrs. Beckwith had left the room to get the principal to restore order and Lucy stepped onto a table in the front of the room and dropped a stack of books onto the floor. The children immediately stopped their misbehavior and turned their attention to Lucy. The sense of control and command was a feeling Lucy realized she truly enjoyed. Before she could test her powers further Mrs. Beckwith returned with Mr. Young, the principal who resumed supervision of the class. Although she didn't know it then, while the other kids called her "Bossy Lucy", the mold was cast that very day for Lucy's future as a commander in World War II in 1945, twenty-five years after she was born.
When Lucy was about 10 she came upon some reading material that was donated to her school for the library. There were some magazines, one was Life magazine and the other now forgotten. Each had a young girl in a uniform on the cover. They were girl guides as they were called then, now known as girl scouts. Lucy was allowed to borrow the magazines. By the time she arrived home she decided this was something for her. It was just the opportunity her mother was looking for to share time with Lucy and she offered to organize a group. Lucy preferred calling it a troop. Emily Brown would lead the girls in their activities to earn their proficiency badges at their meetings each week. It wasn't quite what Lucy had expected. Most of the badges were for homemaking and craft skills.
By the end of a few months Lucy told her mother that this wasn't what she expected and wanted to quit. Emily Brown insisted it would be unfair to the other girls who had made the commitment and to herself for she didn't want to lead the group without Lucy. By the next meeting her mother had found a way to keep the group together and keep Lucy involved. Knowing Lucy had been taken by the pictures of the uniformed girls in the magazine, Emily Brown created patterns for the uniforms for all the girls to sew. Because of the Depression, many girls couldn't afford the ready-made uniforms. This was one of the only times Lucy willingly picked up a needle and thread.
Between 1929 and 1933, during the depression, Lucy's family fared better than many other families on Long Island. Lucy's family already raised their own chickens, pigs and ducks. They gardened and canned their crops of vegetables and fruits, skills abandoned by many they knew who had moved towards the city and more modernization. After losing their jobs many city dwellers moved east where there was more growing space and resorted back to basic survival techniques of farming to keep food on their table and affordable living quarters.
The Browns created a barter system with some of these families. Her father being a master carpenter had work when many factory and shop owners didn't. John Brown built animal coops for the livestock and the families would give back a percentage of the harvests for John and Emily to resell. Emily received fabrics from families whose finer millineries like tablecloths and curtains were valueless and would make clothes for their children. With the rest she would create finer quilts that she continued to sell to those that could still afford them up west.
During this time Lucy enjoyed organizing relief efforts along with her parents. Her Girl Scout troop had grown to more than 10 girls and together they collected used clothes, created homemade toys and delivered canned goods in a small wagon pulled by Rosie. Her turning point in the Girl Scouts was when she received a copy of the Scouting for Girls Handbook. Her parents had presented it to her upon completion of her third year in scouting on her thirteenth birthday. She couldn't have picked a finer gift for herself. Lucy read it cover to cover. It gave instructions on mapmaking, first aid and marching according to U.S. Infantry drill regulations. At this point in her life many of her girlfriends were daydreaming about boyfriends and marriage and had begun to drift away. Lucy didn't seem to mind. She was hard at work completing requirements for proficiency badges to cover her uniform and to eventually earn the highest award possible, the Golden Eaglet.
Paul Miller, a local boy who had a crush on Lucy kept her involved with the local social happenings like picnics and sleigh riding. He would call on Lucy to join him when otherwise she might have let such things right by without notice. Lucy laughed when she recalled how Paul, to win her heart, would gladly collect other boys so she could practice training and ordering them to march. Her mother had long given up trying to groom Lucy into a proper young lady and eventually chose to deliver lemonade and water to Lucy's "troops" after a hard days workout.
Rather than lose popularity, Lucy gained it when her girlfriends would come by the marching field and sit on the side and admire and cheer for the boys who marched best. There were many times when Lucy would call upon Paul to be her model for first aid practice and as a second pair of hands when she had to learn to tie knots or practice her signaling skills.
Although Lucy's desire to get married wasn't as strong as her friends, Paul found his way into her heart. They were about 15 and it happened after she received one particular proficiency badge, for something she can't recall anymore, but could never forget their first kiss in the excitement of her accomplishment. It had distracted her focus on her scouting, and it was one of the few times she can remember considering becoming a homemaker like the other girls she was friends with. Lucy decided it was about time that she began to dedicate more time to treating Paul as a boyfriend and not like an enlisted man.
By the summer of 1936, things began to stir up in Europe. Reports had begun to arrive about Hitler's invasions of other countries and his treatment of the Jews.
People still trying to recover from the Depression didn't give this news the attention they should have. In a nearby town, Yaphank, rumors circulated about Camp Siegfried, a camp to promote Hitlerism in this country. Nobody could prove it because it was promoted as a summer place for youngsters and a weekend campground for adults. By 1937, Lucy and Paul had begun to plan their future together for when school ended.
Paul's family owned fishing boats. He planned to take over one of the boats for the summers when school ended and attend the university to study law the rest of the year. Lucy could not commit to their future plans since she had never expected to do anything but join the service as soon as she was old enough. Her parents had planned and saved for Lucy's future, seeing from an early age she would probably do something unconventional. Lucy graduated high school June of 1937 and, finally, received her Golden Eaglet award. In light of Lucy's dedication to such an uncommon achievement, the presentation of the Golden Eaglet medal was done at the same time she received her diploma in front of the entire graduation audience. In a flood of emotions, Lucy realized that this was what she had been waiting for and it renewed her lifelong desire to join the military. Paul surprised her with a proposal of marriage after the graduation ceremony.
Lucy knew it would be at least a few months before she would be ready to enlist and in a whirlwind of emotions accepted and planned to work things out when Paul began school in the fall. As luck would have it, Lucy's father suffered a bad fall, late in the summer of 1937 and broke his back. He was bedridden for months, until late spring 1938 when he began to leave the house with the help of a walking cage Lucy designed for him. It was similar to the kind used today by persons recovering from ambulatory problems after her graduation.
It was impossible for John to maintain his customers while he was laid up and, although Lucy was familiar with his craft, she was helpless to fill in during his illness. The money they had accumulated began to run out and Lucy decided to take a local job as a secretary at Grumman in Calverton. She found out quickly that it was not something she was good at or that she wanted to be but she did her best. It was there she would hear rumors behind the scenes about the advancing problems in Europe involving Hitler's actions. Most of the local people were just beginning to recover from their Depression hardships and paid little attention to the signs, but in an aircraft plant it was hard not to notice the excitement as talk of increased work and more money for those who did it circulated.
Lucy had been working for almost a year when Paul suggested they should pick a wedding date. Her father was doing much better and kidded he was good enough to walk her down the isle. In spite of becoming comfortable in her job and wanting to be close to her family, now that they might need her, Lucy's conscience wouldn't allow herself to pick a date. Paul had almost completed 2 years of college and had plans to complete the next 4 years but it was going to be in another part of the country and he had hoped Lucy would go with him as his wife. By early 1940, he accepted her reluctance and suggested they end the engagement.
This was an excerpt from an article of the same title.
© Margaurette Criscione
Margaurette Criscione is an accomplished writer from Medford, New York, with articles published in:
Cricket Magazine Group
The High Option
At the time this story was originally published, Margaurette was working on a fiction novel about Montauk, NY.