Working to Get Home

Night shift work

Night shift work

This month (January), I took a seasonal position with the IRS working the night shift: Monday through Friday, 4:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Ordinarily, I would have viewed such a work schedule as a real imposition. This past summer, though, my aunt shared with me several letters that my grandmother, Delia Jane (Feister) Irvine, had written during World War II. Grandma worked a night shift at a defense plant in Northern California. While Grandpa was working, too, he wasn’t earning enough money to get the family back home to Western New York. Grandma, a young woman with four children under the age of 8, took up the slack with one goal in mind: to get home.

Jack and Delia Irvine were married on Jan. 21, 1937; he was 22 and she was 19 years old. Grandpa came from a Catholic family in Bradford (McKean County), PA, and Grandma was born to a Protestant couple in Olean (Cattaraugus County), NY. Grandpa was a machinist, like his father and grandfather before him. As the young couple started off  married life, the country was still struggling its way out of the Great Depression. Their first child, Barbara, was born in early fall. Grandpa must not have been able to find machinery work in the small city of Olean, because in the 1937 city directory he was working as a salesman.

Jack & Delia - 1940 US Censis

Jack & Delia – 1940 US Census – Line 15

A few years later, at the time of the 1940 U.S. Census, Jack and his young family had moved about 100 miles north to the town of Penfield, NY (just outside Rochester), where he’d found a machinist position with the Gleason Corporation. But the family was barely making it: he was earning only $43 a month. At a time when the average monthly income was $144, I have to wonder how he managed to support his wife and child? To add further stress, another child was on the way.

By 1943, Jack & Delia had moved from Penfield to Webster, about 5 miles away and further out from the city, which meant a longer commute to work for Grandpa. The family had grown to 6 with the births of Mary (1940), Carole (1942) and John (1943). Jack then had a large family to support and must have been desperate to find good-paying work.

Jack Irvine with kids - 1944

Jack Irvine with the kids in 1944 – (l-r) Carole, Mary, John & Barbara

The War was raging across the globe and defense jobs in California were plentiful. No doubt, wartime movies like this one were very compelling (be sure to watch the brief movie after clicking the page link!). So, in the early summer of 1944, Jack packed the family up and headed to California where he hoped to put his machinist skills to use in defense work.

It was probably hard to convince my grandmother to go. The youngest of four children, Grandma had always been very close to her mother and would find the separation difficult. But her new baby, John, had been severely ill nearly his entire first year of life. John would benefit from the warmth and sunshine that California had to offer. When they departed for the 2600+ mile trip to California, Jack & Delia took with them only the children and a few changes of clothing for everyone. Their household goods were to be shipped after.

Grandma's letters to her mother, 1945

Grandma’s letters to her mother, 1945

As soon as she got to California, Grandma began sending letters home to her mother, sisters and friends. The letters offer a glimpse into a time that was, no doubt, both an adventure and a trial. One thing is clear, though: there is nothing Grandma wanted more than to GO BACK HOME!

Carole, Mary, Barbara & John in San Pablo, 1945

Carole, Mary, Barbara & John in San Pablo, 1945

When Jack & Delia arrived in California, he was 29 years old and she was 26. The children were: Barbara (7), Mary (4), Carole (2) and John (1). The took a small apartment-size place at the El Portal Housing Park in San Pablo.

The homes were barracks-style places thrown up in a hurry to accommodate the tens of thousands of new residents who had swarmed to the area from all over the country to work in the shipyards. The nearest city was Richmond, about 5 miles from San Pablo. Though her letters don’t state specifically where she and grandpa worked, presumably they worked at one of the four Richmond Shipyards.

When they first arrived, Grandpa worked a  4 p.m. to midnight shift while Grandma stayed home to care for the children. The earliest letter we have from Grandma to her mother is 9 pages of 8½” x 11″ lined notebook paper, written front and back, covering the three week period from July 10 – 31, 1944. In the letter, she mentions the Port Chicago disaster:

"Portchicago2" by Mare Island Navy Yard

“Portchicago2” by Mare Island Navy Yard

“I suppose you read in the paper about the ammunition dump that exploded. They said it was the worst disaster around here or in the country I guess. It was twenty miles from here. We heard it plenty. I sure was scared. After the second explosion, there were two, the house rocked and the wind sailed through. The first thing I thought about was an earthquake, but I guess they don’t have them much anymore. I guess it was pretty terrible. So many lived lost and the town of Port Chicago all blown to bits. Windows were smashed for miles around.”


In San Pablo, CA, 1944-1945

In San Pablo, CA, 1944-1945

After several months, Jack switched to a day shift and Delia took up a night shift, becoming another “Rosie the Riveter.” She didn’t work in ships or airplanes though, she worked in a munitions plant grinding down hand grenades. That she had the courage to work around munitions with the Port Chicago horror only a few months previous makes her one tough woman in my mind!

Grandma worked the night shift, at times 9-hour days, six days a week and occasionally on a Sunday. They paid her $1.02/hour. They found a neighbor to stay with the children during the short two hours between the time that she left home and Grandpa returned from work.

Though women have always worked “outside home,” in those days, for women in my Grandma’s family to take a job was still frowned upon. When she donned a pair of overalls and headed off to work outside the home for the first time in her life, she was well aware of what her family back home would think of it, as she expresses in a letter to her mother:

“Now here’s something else. I know how you felt when Hattie was working, I thought it was terrible, too. But sometimes Mother we have to do things regardless of what anyone thinks. I’ve got a job. If I don’t work we never will have enough money to get home. We just get along on what Jack makes and if the war should end tomorrow we wouldn’t even have enough money to make the trip … Say another prayer for me Mother that I’ll be able to save a lot of money quick so I can get home to you quickly. That’s the only reason I’m doing it, so I can get home to you all.”

Rosie the Riveter - "In my spare time ... "

Rosie the Riveter – “In my spare time … “

Though she describes work at the plant as “easy,” she still had work at home, too. Day times, before heading to the plant, Grandma writes of doing laundry with a scrub board (because the laundromat charged .10¢ per pound), of taking the kids to the clinic for checkups, running errands to the store for groceries and the post office, and staying up into the early morning hours to bake bread for the next days’ meals.

Ever since WWII, women have juggled work and home. But advances in technology and our general standard of living has risen considerably. We don’t have it near as tough as they did!

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