[Location of interview: Mr. Taylor’s home, at his home, 6605 32nd Street NW, Washington, D.C.]
INTERVIEW 2, February 24, 1999
[The beginning of this interview was lost because record button was not fully pressed down.]
METZGER: We’ve talked about Earl Church playing with his fiddle in the movie house on H Street...
TAYLOR: Yes, Earl would be an early congregant to the crowd on the corner because he had to be at the movie. He would check in there, speak to the young men. Of course he was a stranger in town but that was the way he met young people; he’d talk awhile and then walk on down the street with his fiddle case, going to his evening job. He always said that the evening job paid him more than the mathematician’s job at the Coast and Geodetic Survey. He later bought a car, a very early automobile. I was young enough to just enjoy getting in a car and riding and we became pretty good friends. When I used to do my homework at the drugstore he would come look over my shoulder if I was doing arithmetic, but he would never offer any suggestions. But he was always interested in what I was doing.
I almost went to China as a result of my relationship with him. He was offered a position with a university in Peking [ Beijing] and he was serious about going. I guess I was about to enter high school. He talked to my father and said, “If you let Frank go with me, I’ll take him to Peking, he can go to high school in Peking.” My father laughed, you know. He was serious; he talked about this. But he got a lot of advice about going. Some of the demands that he was told to make was that he would be paid in advance, that he would be paid in gold, that he would this and that, and by the time he got all this lined up, well, they didn’t want him. He didn’t go. But it was one of those fleeting chances that might change your life. Well, he was an interesting man. As I say, he finally ended up on the faculty of Syracuse. He left Washington to help his father in Parish when his father was ill; he had a nice business there. Then he went on back to Syracuse and began to teach.
I was beginning to talk about the steel-plate engraver who worked for the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and lived on First Street NE, with his mother. I know he never married. He had a hobby that, wherever he was, if he heard something nice said about a person, he'd write to that person and tell them. He’d say he had been at this meeting or in this group and “your name came up and I thought you’d like to know the nice sentiments that were said about you.” Then he’d repeat what had been said about the person. Invariably he’d get a letter of acknowledgement back so he must have built up an autograph collection that was very great because he would write to members of the cabinet, justices to the court. He’d write to anyone whose name he heard talked about -- if it was nice. I thought that was an interesting hobby.
Another man was of Italian descent -- always very stylishly dressed in suits made abroad -- and he was a tile setter. He was a descendent of generations before of tile setters who settled around in Schott’s Alley and places like that. He was such a good tile setter that the State Department, whenever it was building an embassy anywhere, would insist that he come and do the decorative tile or lobby tile. And so he got all around the world. He would come back and join the crowd. We’d call him the Duke; he’d always look very nice. He’d tell us his experiences in this country or that country. It kind of widened our horizons...
METZGER: A geography lesson right there...
TAYLOR: But those were the kind of people who were in the crowd. Of course there were many others.
METZGER: And so… originally I had thought this crowd was 16- to 20-year-olds but it really went longer or it was 16 to 45 or something like that.
TAYLOR: I mentioned Henry P. Blair, who was president of the Board of Education for so long. He would always check in with that group. He’d come to see my father in the store. He would stop and see who was there, pass the time of day, kidding back and forth. He wouldn’t stay long but he would always check in and then come into the store, help close up the store sometimes with my father. They’d stand on the corner talking for a long time after the lights went out.
[END TAPE 2/SIDE A]
[TAPE 2/SIDE B]
As they got older and more sophisticated they actually rented rooms in a small hotel. Did I tell you that?
METZGER: Yes, the Renroc Club, which was great.
TAYLOR: Well, those were two people that I thought you might be interested in. On B Street, just near the Belmont House but a little to the west of that, were several people I knew. One was Colonel Colonna. He was a colonel in the Confederate Army and he was editor of a publication of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, that was his position. He had a family which included a wife and three daughters, and I think he had a son. He would come into my father’s drugstore once a year and buy brushes for all the women in his family. He and my father would sit down at a table and they would look at my Dad’s stock of brushes. My Dad would always repeat -- I can hear him repeating the story of bristles -- the best bristles came from China, that the Russians were the traders who brought them out of China, they went to England, and then they went to Vancouver where the brushes were made. He would go over the brushes and find one that he liked and if my Dad didn’t have four of those alike he would order three more. He wanted four brushes every year.
Then there was Mrs. Bright who lived at Third and Maryland Avenue. She was a very substantial person whose family employed African-Americans as house boys and house men and trained them. They would come to the store there dressed in their white coats. We would see them. They would identify and think about these young men working for them and if there were some whom they thought would do well at the university, they would help them go to the university. They’d pay the tuition, and maybe they’d work half-time and add a little wages for their work. But they did that for quite a number of years.
METZGER: Did they have a large house?
TAYLOR: Fairly large. It may still be standing -- the northwest corner of Third and Maryland. I recall it as a fairly large brick house with a rounded corner. Then further along to the west of B Street there was a Judge Foote. Judge Foote was a jurist of -- oh, I think it was the United States Claims Court or a jurist of a court of that kind. We didn’t see a whole lot of him. Once in a while he’d be in the store but we did see quite a bit of his chauffeur. One time I was working in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on one of my first jobs as a surveyor. When I came back from a field trip and went into the house and got dressed and came out, there was my father standing on the curb. He’d ridden up to Williamsport with Judge Foote’s chauffeur who was taking their big automobile back to his house in New York. The judge didn’t like the long drive but he sent his chauffeur. The chauffeur knew I was up there and asked my father if he’d like to come along; my father did. It was quite a surprise. That’s the way the neighborhood was -- everybody knew where everyone else was.... You’re supposed to be interviewing me.
METZGER: I know. The last time I was going to ask about people with the old houses and in talking about it you said people wanted to move up to a better street or bigger house. Which streets were considered better and what made it better?
TAYLOR: What I was particularly thinking of was that my mother, two of her brothers and her sister -- the four of them -- three of them lived in adjoining houses and then the house on C Street there at First Street. They were the children of my grandfather, the instrument maker. They lived there in a group. Then when Union Station was built and the tunnel was dug that went right up First Street. This wiped out my grandfather’s shop and residence. It lowered the grade and wiped out lawns. We were living in my mother’s house -- 327 First Street. The neighborhood was never the same after that, after the construction. The view across the street was a huge mud plain, that became a park, years later, but it was very ugly.
METZGER: And you probably got a lot of dirt in the house too.
TAYLOR: Yes, and the trains going through the tunnel would shake the pictures. My mother was always going around straightening pictures. The trains went right under us, practically. So for a number of reasons it became less desirable. So three families moved to the vicinity of Tenth and East Capitol, Tenth and Massachusetts. I may have mentioned those.
METZGER: You mentioned some.
TAYLOR: The house at 1000 East Capitol Street is still there -- a big house.
METZGER: It is. I actually have a picture.
TAYLOR: It belonged to my Uncle Stephen... I always remember it as a stone house...
METZGER: Yes, but it has a lot of brick.
TAYLOR: This window back here is a leaded window and my uncle used to sit there reading the paper…
METZGER: Was that the music room?
TAYLOR: No, the dining room. The dining room was huge; there was sort of an alcove in this window. I’d walk slowly by hoping he would see me. I was about nine or ten years old. If he did, he’d beckon me in. I’d come in the back way through the beautiful kitchen, butler’s pantry and all that. The dining room was somewhat like the dining room of the Heurich Mansion where the Historical Society is, all paneled in black wood, built-in sideboard, mirror and all that. We would sit there and he’d tell me what he was reading in the paper; once in a while he’d read me the funny paper or give it to me to read. He and I were great buddies. Later on, my family and I held him in high regard because he was the patriarch of his generation; he was the wealthiest and all that, he had a boat. So I became very friendly with him. He obtained my first position as a surveyor. As I said I was a rodman in Pennsylvania. I remember the interview. Had me come down to the Geological Survey, he was the chief engraver, the production man -- he saw that the copper plates were accurate and well done before they were printed. He told me when I came down to be interviewed -- I guess I was only 15 years old -- he said, “If they ask you if you’re 16, say yes, even if you’re not. Of course you’ll be 16 when you’re hired.” He told me about a man who wanted to do this with his son, one of his coworkers, a German, an engraver. When he was being interviewed the boy was answering questions, the father spoke up and said, “Pretty bright lad for 15 years old.” [laughter]
But I have nice memories of that house. As you mention it had a music room that was very pretty.
METZGER: So it was the front parlor, the music room, the dining room, the kitchen. I guess storage in the basement.
TAYLOR: I don’t know. I was never in the basement. But I can tell you that some home brew was made there during Prohibition. They all went in for that.
METZGER (showing picture of 909 Massachusetts Ave): Is this the house you moved to?
TAYLOR: Yes, that’s it. But the other one was red brick too. There were three there alike. I meant to tell you that I became very friendly with the family in the third house, that’s not in this picture. The young man’s name was Swem. His father was E.S. Swem. He was a minister and his church was on H Street, about Eighth [Street] NE. He broke a lot of rules. He advertised the church. He’d advertise that “You can come to my church and sit in your shirtsleeves. You can take off your coat; I’ll take off my coat.” I remember that -- remember him. He was a real solid person and I went around with his son. We went to several schools -- grade schools -- around in northeast: Hilton was one, Edmonds another, Peabody. We always looked forward to high school together. I was headed for Tech high school and he would like to go there too but his father made him go to Eastern.
METZGER: So it broke up the friendship...
TAYLOR: Later I visited him, he became a patent attorney for tobacco -- copyrights and patents for the tobacco industry. He was living in Brooklyn, working in New York, and I visited him one time. He took me to his office, rode in on the subway. We parted company. It was quite a blow but we did get to high school together.
That house [#909] had a beautiful basement -- an English basement. This one had a door out to the garden in the back. Sunlight came in the back. It was all brand new, a big slab of concrete for the basement floor. We had electric lights for the first time. As children we used to talk to each other, you know, if a burglar got into the basement, we’d turn on the lights and if he was down in the basement it would scare him. I remember that basement very well. I built my first soap box scooter in there. I’ll tell you about that later. There was a ritual. On Monday was washday. There was a big coal range that would be fired up. They boiled the clothes in those days in big containers called boilers -- big containers made just for that purpose. So the laundress would come early and stoked up the fire and got the water boiling for the laundry. It got so hot and they punched the laundry up and down in the boiling water. It was my mother’s chance to use the oven in that range that was only used one day a week. So she would have all the pots of beans -- she’d make up about three pots of beans in brown pots on Monday morning and at the end of the day she had three pots of lovely baked beans done for the week.
METZGER: So she just did this on the basement range, not the regular kitchen stove. I assume the kitchen was on the first floor or was it in the English basement?
TAYLOR: No on this house in the front there was a parlor. Past the parlor there was a reception room and the stairs went up three floors. Then the dining room was back of that and then the kitchen.
METZGER: The cellar had an extra stove that was used mostly for laundry and on the upper floors…?
TAYLOR: My father bought this house because my father’s sister had to separate from her husband -- he had a problem -- and she had three daughters about the same age as my brother, sister and I, almost the same age. She had very little to go on after their divorce so they lived on the third floor for quite a while. She went to pharmacy school and became a pharmacist and then was able to make it. They lived in many places after that. But that was the reason for the big house.
METZGER: So on the second floor, it was your parent’s bedroom, you and your brother shared a room and your sister’s bedroom...
TAYLOR: Yes. Soon after we moved in I had scarlet fever. In those days you were quarantined. This house was next to a vacant lot. The room that I was quarantined in, my poor mother had to stay in this room with me. She couldn’t mingle with the family either. Most of the furniture had been moved out. My mother’s sister [who] lived in Northwest would come and visit with her by standing in the vacant lot and talking up to the second-floor window.
So we lived on the first and second floor and my father’s sister’s family lived on the third floor. I can remember that the curtains soaked in water blocked off the stair well so they could get up to the third floor without being contaminated by me. Fortunately the house had a back stairs and they went down to the kitchen. The maid and the cook would cook for me and my mother, would walk up to the top, put it down, go back downstairs and then my mother would go out and get it.
METZGER: They quarantined also for measles and also mumps?
TAYLOR: I think so. I’m not sure about that. Mumps were very serious. But I don’t remember. We had a poster put on the door -- a green poster, “Quarantine”, to warn people who came into the house. Of course there were all these wet sheets blocking the stairwell so everyone was protected except my mother and me. My mother got so impatient. The inspector came from the Health Department and looked all over me for scale. If there was any scale I couldn’t be considered cured. My mother said -- she was kidding -- ”I’m going to pull all that scale off so the next time the inspector comes there won’t be any scale.” She never did, of course, but that was her threat. I remember that vividly.
METZGER: I guess you do. How old were you?
TAYLOR: About six. In 1909 we moved there and I was six. I remember “909 in 1909.”
METZGER: So it was right after you moved there that that happened.
TAYLOR: Yes, right after. Of course later, my aunt and her family moved out. You asked me to describe an English basement house and I forgot a few details. The house on First Street had another little “house” built on the back which had one toilet in it, no heat, nothing. You had to go outdoors and go in. That was so the workmen wouldn’t come in; the maids and cook, they used that.
METZGER: So if someone was out working they could use that and not come in -- or if the kids were out and were dirty, they could use that.
TAYLOR: I thought I’d better mention that.
METZGER: That’s interesting -- so close to the house. Did it have running water?
TAYLOR: Yes, it had an old-fashioned tank and I don’t know what they did in winter. It never seemed to freeze up. It was working year round as far as I know. It didn’t have any heat in it. I guess it was protected from the house.
METZGER (showing a picture of 908 Massachusetts Avenue NE): This is across the street from 909. You had said something about another of your uncles.
TAYLOR: Yes, my uncle Ernest [Kubel] was down by the church. The Leland Memorial church, it had the name cut in the stone. [Ingram Memorial Congregational, on the corner of Tenth and Massachusetts Avenue NE, now Capitol Hill Seventh-Day Adventist.] I don’t think the house is in this picture... It was a brownstone house [ed: actually brownstone and brick]. It had a brownstone porch with a brass rail -- a highly polished brass rail. This doesn’t look familiar to me; 908 was -- my uncle Ernest was an instrument maker as well. By that time he was working for the Geological Survey and he still had a little shop on Capitol Hill back of the house I was born in. Later those houses were all torn down and there was a big parking lot for the Senate staffers.
METZGER: We talked a little bit about the ball fields. Were there any special activities in winter? Did you go ice skating any place? Or sledding? Where was your favorite sledding hill?
TAYLOR: Well, Capitol Hill was fairly safe but the real sledding was on Second Street. You could start on East Capitol Street and go down a grade and then down a little steeper grade and you could go all the way to H Street.
METZGER: Really? Wow.
TAYLOR: A long, long coast. My grandfather, when he had the shop on First Street, he had his men make a -- what they sometimes called a pung -- a sled that was like a bench with running boards down each side. You straddled the bench with your feet on both sides. You were lined up behind each other. You’d steer -- it had a little sled attachment with steering. One of the instrument makers at the Smithsonian Institution when I went there had been an apprentice to my grandfather. He lived at 15th -- near 15th and H Street NE -- he came in every day and had breakfast and lunch with the family and then he’d go home to his dinner -- and that’s a little more than a mile walk -- and then he would come back in the evening to play with the older youngsters around. This sled was always mentioned. It was called a pung. They had a long coast -- but then they had to walk back up. That was fun in those days.
METZGER: You didn’t have to worry about cars particularly... no traffic. I guess the horses -- People were considerate enough when sleds were coming.
TAYLOR: The horses were slow enough you could steer around them… I remember the Little Sisters of the Poor down on H Street. I think I may have told you they came around to the drugstore.
METZGER: Yes. And what about summer? Did you go swimming anyplace?
TAYLOR: There were three pools down on the mall near the Washington Monument called the Municipal Swimming Pool.
METZGER: I’ve never heard of that.
TAYLOR: No, very few people have. There were two pools: one for children and one for adults. Then there was third pool for blacks that was behind a fence.
METZGER: All three of them or just the ones for blacks?
TAYLOR: Just the one for blacks. I guess it was considered impolite to watch them bathing.
METZGER: Who knows the inscrutable ways...
TAYLOR: I know. I would walk down there from Capitol Hill. Sometimes I’d just have my bathing suit and a towel; they had a locker. It was run by the city. It was there for a very long time, even after it was stopped being used because I had a friend who worked for the surveyor’s office of the District of Columbia. He and a small number of young men and young women in the office formed a little club and raised a little money and got permission to use that enclosed pool. And for quite a while -- we paid to have it cemented and the cracks in it fixed -- it didn’t cost us much. We paid to have it filled with water. We used it in the afternoons and evenings after work. We’d go there and sit around and talk and swim in this pool and look up at the monument. All this going on and nobody knowing we’re there.
METZGER: Was this in a direct line with the monument?
TAYLOR: It would have had to be east of 14th Street, on the flat part of the Mall. After the city outgrew that, they put a beach in the Tidal Basin.
METZGER: I’ve heard of that but I can’t picture it. I’ve not seen pictures.
TAYLOR: Well, there were bathhouses. When I went to high school the football team used to use those bathhouses to change uniforms. They practiced on one of the lots on the grounds somewhere off the Tidal Basin. That didn’t prove to be very good. The water was really contaminated. Later on, they didn’t maintain that very long. But it was nice, nice locker rooms, nice structure there. Then at times the Tidal Basin froze over and there were ice carnivals down there. Some lights were strung over the Tidal Basin, men would show up to sharpen skates; people would dig out their skates. Most people around here didn’t do much ice skating but in my father’s time they did. Some winters there would be two or three weeks that there would be safe ice on the Tidal Basin. It was a place to meet your buddies and friends and skate, spend a nice evening. But that isn’t Capitol Hill either.
METZGER: But it was the entertainment that people -- the things that people who lived on Capitol Hill did.
TAYLOR: So you have heard of the bathing beach?
METZGER: Yes, I have heard, but I keep trying to picture it as...
TAYLOR: Well, they were nice buildings...
METZGER: So Ohio Drive probably wasn’t there. I’ll have to look at some old maps to see where it was. Every time I look at the Tidal Basin, it looks so awful. There’s really no natural drainage.
TAYLOR: Do you know what the Tidal Basin is? Why it’s called the Tidal Basin? Well, this isn’t Capitol Hill history either but it’s Washington history. Southeast Washington -- the shore of southeast -- and Southwest Washington on the river was very marshy and swampy, very malarial. It was improved by building East Potomac Park that goes down and separates the river from the Washington channel. The Tidal Basin was designed to flush out the Washington Channel. It was so arranged that when the tide was high, they’d open the gates on the river and raise the level of the water in the Tidal Basin. Then they’d close those gates, when the tide changed they’d open the gates in the Washington harbor and flush out the Washington Channel -- wash it down the river. Otherwise it would be stagnant. I don’t know if they still do that or not but the Washington Channel is still there. But the Capitol Yacht Club used to be on the Washington Channel. That’s gone and I think it’s on the Anacostia River.
METZGER: You sort of mentioned Prohibition. I know that there were beer gardens around on Capitol Hill. What was that like?
TAYLOR: They were very nice. Actually my father, in my father’s writing about First Street, he remembers going to First Street to live as a boy and he says that First Street was an earth street with a cobblestone gutter. Roth’s Brewery was on the same block. And my mother used to talk about men from Roth’s Brewery rolling barrels up the street. They put resin or tar or something in the barrel and they’d roll them to coat the insides for the beer. She remembers rolling them up the sidewalk to spread the tar.
One of the nice beer gardens -- I’m not sure of the address, I think it was on E Street between Fourth and Fifth NE. It was called the Alhambra. I don’t know why it was called that. You know the topography in Washington -- all up and down, before the streets were graded. This was up on a bank, elevated above the street. It had a nice entrance way with the name painted above and flower vines painted behind the name. Inside there were piles of tables. I assume there was a brewery connected with it but I don’t know if that would have been Roth’s Brewery over there, but I don’t remember. Of course I never went to a beer garden as a kid. We always had beer at home, if we had it, but it was a very popular outdoor garden.
METZGER: So did they have food?
TAYLOR: Yes, you could get a sandwich… very much like Munich in recent years… always a lot of talk and loud chatter. You could hear it from the street. There was one of those on Seventh Street near the wharves but that was smaller. It was just the back of one of those small hotels but I remember that one. I guess these were dotted around the city. There were a number of breweries. Abner Brewery was a big one; of course, Heurich; Roth.
Abner Brewery kept open during Prohibition and they went into quality ginger ale. It was really quality ginger ale. The engineers who built ginger ale bottling plants in Canada were engaged to come down and change this brewery into a nice bottling plant. Ginger Ale was a sophisticated drink in those days. It was made with ginger and it didn’t have all the fruit juices they put into it to hide the taste of the bootleg whiskey. That came later. They ruined Ginger Ale. Ginger Ale was in bottles that had a rounded bottom so you couldn’t stand it up and the cork never dried up. You had to keep it lying down on its side. Abner Brewery went into this in a very scientific way but by that time people had gotten accustomed to drinking doctored ginger ale with their foul-tasting gin and so on. They couldn’t sell a good ginger ale because their taste had changed, so they sold it all in South America. It was very popular.
METZGER: So it was non-alcoholic but it was like an ale but with this ginger taste.
TAYLOR: Oh it was made with real ginger. I don’t know what they put in it now with all the fruit flavors but it was very dry, as they say, not sweet. It was a refreshing drink, a very good drink. I don’t know what happened to Abner Brewery.
METZGER: Was there a German cultural club?
TAYLOR: Yes, there were but everybody. Whenever you submit anything to the Historical Society they say, “Does it say anything about the German community?” Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that there wasn’t any German community in the sense of geography but there was a community of people who belonged to the German clubs -- the Saengerbund, a singing club; athletic club. They were written up most recently by the Rambler in the Star and a few others, John Claggett Proctor. He wrote them up a number of times. His magic was he wrote about what he could put a lot of names in. I knew him very well, John Clagget Proctor; he was an interesting man. I don’t think he lived on Capitol Hill. He had a print shop in the basement of the Smithsonian. It was a branch of the Government Printing Office. Our scientists had so many labels printed for the collections. Some of them were very tiny labels that went into alcohol specimens or attached to an insect tray. He printed up these and he also printed up the exhibition labels. He also wrote this column. He had a file case in his print shop which had a bunch of envelopes in it. One of them would say “cemeteries” or “library” and when any scrap of news came his way he’d just clip it and throw it in there. Then he’d go down and feel the envelopes and when he got a fat one he’d pull it out and write his Rambler column out of that. I think I remember cemeteries because he wrote about cemeteries several times. He actually speculated in cemetery lots. I never heard of anybody doing that, but he did. He was an interesting man, John Claggett Proctor.
METZGER: You didn’t participate in any of those clubs?
TAYLOR: No, they were gone, but my uncles did. My uncle [Stephen] was an excellent musician as well as an engraver. As an organist he was known as far away as New York. For a long time he directed choir at St. Aloysius, which is just off Capitol Hill on North Capitol Street. He had a very good choir there and he introduced trumpets and things like that and staged sound effects. He had a trumpeter blow the horn out the window so the sound would come in through the windows of the church. It would sound like it was coming from the sky.
He was a very, very inventive man. My mother directed choir, directed at St. Joseph’s. When the war came along and some of the men went to war she also took over the choir at St. Stephen’s.
METZGER: You’ve talked about Schott’s Alley a couple of times. You have a much different view of it than what I’ve read before. I’ve read that they were awful.
TAYLOR: That’s not true. I wasn’t supposed to go in Schott’s Alley as a kid but I walked by the entrance and I went into Jordan’s grocery store -- the Italian grocery store that went through to the alley (it was open on both ends). I think I said something about this in the article. But at any rate, I say they were exuberant rather than mean. There were two men who sort of kept things under control -- they were the Italian shoemaker who sat in a half-story-high bay window of a house in there. There were brick houses in this alley, nice ones. As you know, it became opened up and later became Schott’s Court. Congressmen and everyone else lived in those houses -- done over, of course. I don’t think they had running water in them at that time but there was a pump or faucet -- a hydrant I guess we called it in those days.
I found it an interesting alley. I used to ride in there later; as I grew up and delivered prescriptions -- ride in there at night, my white coat was like an armor of sorts. But the people who lived there -- they were all going up. I mentioned the man in the crowd who went to embassies setting tile. There were a number of tile businesses that came out of that alley, out onto the street. On C Street -- the Saladi family, I’m not sure of this but I think they became Columbia Tile, a big tile company. They had a lot of tile in their front yard. They came out of the alley -- some of them. Later on stuff being called an alley was called a court -- Schott’s Court. And this shoemaker was pretty much the mayor (he sort of kept control) and the second in command was an Irishman -- a very nice man, a very learned man. He was an insurance man. He sold what I recently read was fine print insurance. That’s being nasty about it. It was the kind of insurance that you collected every two weeks. And he and this shoemaker were close friends. Between them they knew everyone that went through there -- who was bound to get in trouble, get picked up for drunkenness, or something like that.
They never worried too much because Mr. Ford would go up to the precinct house and talk them out of jail or what or go before the juvenile court. I never called it rowdy; I called it exuberant. I never spent a lot of time there. There were some alleys that were pretty tough that you would not dare go in them.
[END TAPE 2/SIDE B]
Until I was about twenty-five years old and left Capitol Hill, I never lived anywhere on Capitol Hill that there weren’t African-Americans living on the block. They might be on the alley but some were living on the street. Some had very good incomes. As a matter of fact there might be two or three men in the family: a father and a grown son and maybe a cousin from the country. They’d all be working in the Navy Yard or someplace like that and with three salaries coming in they were well off. They got educations. In the block between Second and Third, Maryland Avenue and C Streets there was a black church. You could hear the singing. I don’t have any mental image of that church. There was a vacant lot that ran fairly high and then the alley was back of that and the houses back of that. The family that I just described -- they were on Second Street, with a notions store right there.
One of those men worked for my father as a porter. One time he said I should be ashamed of that old coat I was wearing -- the lining was torn. He said, “Your father should get you a better old coat.” He was wearing a better old coat. I can remember his being very critical of my wearing a shabby, old coat.
So there was nothing we did that was very uplifting to help that situation -- the racial situation. There was nothing we did really that harmed it, as far as I can tell.
Once in a while -- we never served blacks at the fountain and they didn’t expect to be, most of them. But once in a while one of them would come in and order a soda or something. I’m ashamed to admit this but we put it up in a paper cup -- not one of the regular soda glasses, but in a big paper cup. Make the soda, hand it to them. They’d usually walk outside and drink it, unless they were there to make a point. Sometimes they would stay and make the point. The laws of the District of Columbia actually required you to give them equal service.
METZGER: Oh, really? At that time?
TAYLOR: Nobody would enforce them but they were on the books. My father used to talk about this and he thought that the racial problem would finally be solved by assimilation, by intermarriage and so on. Everybody would be one group, but it never happened.
He taught at Howard a few times. He would go out and lecture at Howard. He was very fond of a pharmacist who was black. He had what then we called an ethical pharmacy -- just handled drugs and prescription orders, didn’t have a lot of cosmetics and all the rest of the stuff that even my Dad had. We called it an ethical pharmacy. My father was very fond of him; he used to stop by when he was out that way and talk with him. Of course, my father was on the Board of Pharmacy and everyone who would practice pharmacy had a certificate entitling him to practice always had my father’s signature on it. He was doing that. He was president of the Board for nearly 50 years.
METZGER: Oh, wow. That was a lot of signatures.
TAYLOR: That was interesting to me. My father always trusted me; I don’t know why but anything that sounded halfway reasonable to him, he would let me do. One time, three of us rode bikes to Ocean City, Maryland.
METZGER: Your brother and you?
TAYLOR: No, this was boys my age. In fact we had four but the fourth, his bike wasn’t up to it finally, so only three of us did it. My father would say, he knew we were going through certain towns and he’d say, “If you’re going through Salisbury, go in and speak to Doc So-and-so and tell him you’re Gus Taylor’s son and he’ll help you.” He even told me that about going to France when I was very young: “If you go to” -- I don’t know what it was, one of the bonding houses or investment banking houses -- ”if you ever need anything, go to one of them and have them wire me, they could look me up.” But he trusted us to ride to Ocean City. And my mother said, “I don’t want you going in to a hotel to get a room in Salisbury or St. Michaels in the clothes you were riding in. So you change your clothes before going in.” So we had to go into a cornfield and change our clothes and then ride in and get a room in a hotel. We stayed in Salisbury going over; we stayed in St. Michaels coming back.
METZGER: How long did it take to ride over?
TAYLOR: Just two days. We stayed a few days in Ocean City after we got there. We got there on the second day. We started early in the morning and rode to Annapolis then took the ferry over and spent the night in Salisbury and the next day we were in Ocean City. It was very embarrassing to me because later, when my daughter would be with us and we’d be getting gas, for instance, on the Eastern Shore, my daughter would say, “My Dad rode to Ocean City one time on a bicycle.” The man pumping gas would look at me like I was the cheapest person he’d ever heard of. [laughter]
METZGER: Maybe it was just admiration.
TAYLOR: No, it didn’t look like admiration to me. Why don’t we get back to Capitol Hill?
METZGER: That’s fine. When you were all out on the street, did you… Like my son and the children would all play together, racially. Was that the case?
TAYLOR: We came home after school which usually let out at three o’clock. We’d get out our bikes, if we hadn’t ridden our bikes to school, and start riding. The girls, some of the girls had bikes, and others would ride on the boys handlebars and things like that. Some of the boys would do tricks -- ride on the rear wheels, some would sit on the handlebars and pedal backwards. We did all those things. We’d be out there playing and then suppertime. We’d go in and wash up and change our clothes and have supper. And after supper we’d come out all slicked up and we’d sit on the curb and talk until it got dark. People would peel off, you know, they had to be home by dark. It was nice, boys and girls together, growing up together. We’d go to the movies, right in the neighborhood, the open air one I told you about. A lot of romances began right there.
METZGER: You mentioned the soapbox derby. You don’t see it much anymore.
TAYLOR: They gentrified it, you know. It got to be a sport with a lot of organization. But when it began, we had roller skates that were made in two parts that slipped so you could lengthen them as your shoes got larger. Of course, they would wear out. We’d always save them and use one to make one scooter. We’d just have a 2 x 4. We’d put the front wheels of the roller skate under the front end and the rear wheels of the skate on the back. We even kept the cuff on the skate so the 2 x 4 fitted into that. We made these in the basement -- get a 2 x 4 and make one. It’d be about four feet long. Then they became known as soapbox scooters. Of course we mounted a wooden box we got from the grocery store. The right size box was usually one the soap came in. So we had a soapbox for the front part and then the stick across that was carved for the handlebar. You’d put one foot on it and kick with the other foot. You could go pretty fast along the paved streets.
My brother always had to do something a little fancier. He was older and had a battery in his box and he had an electric light on it. He often told the story of the man who was being driven by in a big car with the chauffeur driving it -- you know, one of those big old cars at the time -- and he saw this soap box scooter with the electric light on it. He told his chauffeur, “Get out and see how that boy has an electric light on his scooter. If he has it on his scooter, we ought to be able to put an electric light on the car.” So the chauffeur had to get out and come over; my brother was very proud to show him the battery and light. Automobiles, in those days, mostly had kerosene lamps. There was also something called carbide lamps.
METZGER: I’ve heard of it but it doesn’t mean anything.
TAYLOR: I’ve forgotten the chemistry of it myself. You poured water into this can that had the carbide in it and generated a gas that came up so you really had a gas light. They made those in big units, actually, to light houses later on in suburban houses that were beyond the electricity. They could put one of these carbide gas generators in the basement.
TAYLOR: It wasn’t too smelly -- the ones we had worked for just one bike light.
METZGER: I guess that’s Union Carbide, isn’t it?
TAYLOR: My father always had bicycles for delivery. If it had a lamp on it, you could depend on it being stolen. If you had the bike long enough, you could depend on it being stolen also. So we made a light that we carried out of an ordinary candle. Take about a five-pound bag or two bags, one inside the other; punch a hole in the bottom; wrinkle up the bag so you could get a grip on it and put a candle down inside the bag you were holding and the grip you had on the bag. So you rode with one hand steering and one holding the candle burning in the bag. It was open at the top. It was bright enough for people to avoid you, wagons to avoid you. It was illegal -- if you were riding a bike without a light you could be arrested. Most of the time, we’d be delivering from the drugstore carrying one of these candle lights. You’d blow it out when you got back and light it up again the next time, and pretty soon it would be burned down and in time it would catch fire. Throw it away and make another one, you know.
METZGER: So how did you carry the objects you were delivering?
TAYLOR: Oh, if it were anything bulky we could do it in a newspaper bag -- a canvas bag. Usually we had a little tray on the front of the bicycle. I always had a bike because when my father’s bike was stolen, he would have to buy a new one. He’d give me the new one to ride and he would take the one I’d been riding and that would be the drug store bike because it was going to get stolen anyhow. So I always had a new bike. I wasn’t very proud of it because it was so heavy; he’d buy a utilitarian bike. Of course the boys who were the real leaders of the crowd on the street -- their bikes were speed bikes with very narrow rims on the wheels, called Pierce Arrows or something like that. They were real racers, real light. This one I rode was a good bike, was sturdy. It took me to Ocean City.
METZGER: How did you celebrate Christmas?
TAYLOR: Everything was done by the family. Everyone had his own house and his own Christmas tree. The entertainment was done by the family as a whole. I told somebody recently, if there was a birthday, no matter who it was, a child or adult or an ancient, there was a birthday party. You didn’t send out invitations or anything, you just knew there was going to be a birthday party because they talked about it on the telephone. They always made three cakes. They made a fig cake, which is white icing with a fig filling, layer cakes with fig filling, a caramel cake and a chocolate cake. That was always standard. One of those cakes had a dime in it. Some lucky kid would get a dime. If an adult ever found one, they’d always poke it back.
If we had thirteen at the table, my Aunt Lou wouldn’t sit at the table with thirteen. Se we’d peel off four kids and we’d sit at the card table. The conversation was always adult conversation. They never hid anything from the kids. They talked the way they talked and we learned a lot.
METZGER: They talked about politics?
TAYLOR: Mostly about family or about the business, about the boat. That reminds me that one of the features of Capitol Hill life was you could hear all the whistles from the boats, from the Navy Yard, from the turntable at Union Station yard. You heard whistles all the time; you knew what they were. Boat whistles -- we could tell what boat was leaving -- the Norfolk boat or the Baltimore boat. We’d be eating supper and the whistle would blow. Someone would say, there goes the Norfolk boat. And they blew whistles at the Navy Yard for a fire or something else. They had codes for those. Sometimes someone we knew from the Navy Yard would say, “That’s very close to where I work.” He never ran over to do anything about it. Whistles were a part of what you heard, particularly in the evening in the summertime. It was kind of reassuring to hear these -- that things were going on the way they ought to go on.
METZGER: Like church bells at a certain time.
TAYLOR: Yes, the same idea. We knew the whistles -- Norfolk boat, Baltimore boat, the excursion boats to Marshall Hall and Mount Vernon, one along the beach. We could identify them. You rode them often.
You could go up on the boat deck and talk to the sterns man. They always had a young man in uniform. He liked to be admired by the girls. They’d go up, weren’t supposed to, but they’d go up on the deck and talk to him. He’d tell them what a hard life he had, how dangerous. Then an older man would come along and chase them off the deck and scold the young man. The family two doors from the drug store -- the oldest son was a speed boat (we called them maniacs) -- speed boat maniac because there weren’t many speed boats and speed boats can go very fast.
METZGER: But it was all relative?
TAYLOR: He was going fast enough to circle a steam boat. You’d hear a boat coming up and -- that’s Maurice Robey. And then he’d go circling around the steamboat and wave at everybody and then go home. Life was lived -- a second family almost -- you knew people. I never went down town but that I expected to see somebody I knew and usually did.
One of the sights for a kid growing up on Capitol Hill -- if you walked down the Hill to go (if you had a cousin from the country, you know, and were showing off as kids will) -- we’d walk down the Capitol Hill and go on the street car, east line on Pennsylvania Avenue. We’d get out on the back platform with the conductor, if he let you stand there. I’d say, “Stand here and see those trees.” You’d look and see the trees that blotted out the Capitol. I’d say, “You stand here and keep watching and you’ll see the Capitol come up out of the ground.” And it did -- I mean, as you went west on Pennsylvania Avenue, you could see past the trees and the Capitol just coming up out of the ground. My cousin would say, “You’re fooling me; I know what it’s doing.” But kids all had ways of entertaining.
When I was working at the Smithsonian my Detroit cousins came. They were my mother’s and father’s generation and they had a daughter with them who was my age. I was about 19 then. I said, “Come down and I’ll take you to lunch some place, some nice place downtown, but I have to go by the department store and get argyle socks for Bob at home. I can’t come home without those. I’ll take you by the department store, take a long lunch hour.” She said she knew someone who had walked up the Washington monument. I said we could walk up if you’d like to, I had done it a couple of times too. So mother went shopping and we walked down to the monument. They were doing a little work inside of it and putting in memorial stones of some kind in the inside. We got up to the top and we were the only two people up there -- and the guard. He heard me talking about it, appreciating the view and all that. He came over and said hello. He pulled a matchbox out, one of those sliding matchboxes, out of his pocket. He said to my cousin, “Would you like a piece of the monument?” Where they had chiseled to put in a memorial stone on the inside, he had collected stones. She said she would love to have one. He gave her one of the stones. She was very proud of it and when she got home she told her mother she had a piece of the monument. Those were simpler days.
METZGER: Yes, they really were.
TAYLOR: I told you my father always told me about stepping over the monument. Did I tell you that story?
METZGER: Stepping over the monument?
TAYLOR: Yes, he told me it very seriously. “I’ve stepped over the top of the monument.”
METZGER: When it was the little point sitting on the ground?
TAYLOR: No. When they were finishing the monument the point was aluminum. Aluminum was a very expensive metal in those days. They had a yard where they were cutting stone and doing things like that. It had a little bench around it. They expected people to come and see what they were doing. For a long time the top of the monument stood there, every boy would say, “Can I come and step over the monument?” He’d go in, step over the top, and ever after that he could tell people that he’d stepped over the top of the monument.
METZGER: If they had really been thinking, they would have somebody stationed there with a camera and charged for a picture of this.
Where there any special occasions that used to be celebrated that aren’t now?
TAYLOR: One I’ve just written about for the history of my father. My father was eligible to be a SAR -- Son of the American Revolution. There was a Mrs. Stout who lived on A Street. I mentioned her son, Minor Stout, who was a poet, the last time. She was something of a wheel in the DAR. She learned from somebody that my father could be an SAR. He ducked that but put us up for grabs and my sister and I become CAR (Children of the American Revolution). So every time the DAR met here for convention we went to Mount Vernon with them. They laid a wreath on the tomb and all the ritual things. As CARs we did nothing but watch until it came time for us to plant a tree. CAR always planted a tree; I can’t remember where or kind of tree. That was always one occasion, something special. We loved the steamboat ride down.
METZGER: It’s the best way to go to Mt. Vernon, it’s true.
TAYLOR: We liked being there. The house was in really sad repair at the time. We could sit on the big porch and look out and see the water. I think it was the railing of the deer park at the time. We walked down to the tomb, very solemn. The rest of the time we would sit around and picnic on the lawn. And Minor Stout, as I said, was a poet, and once in a while he’d write a poem for the occasion. We would walk around and he’d recite his poem to the picnicking group and sometimes we’d get a nice handout of a piece of cake or something. Minor went to New York.
I wondered if you would call the Corcoran and see if they have any paintings by Dorsey Doniphan? He became a portrait painter in Washington and I think he was a good one. But we knew him when he was part of this crowd.
His mother had a boarding house between Second and First Street on Maryland Avenue. He was serious about becoming a painter, even when he was a young man. “What are you doing now? What are you painting now, Dorsey?” He was painting signboards. He would take any job that had to do with paint and brushes. He said he was going to know all there was to know about paint and brushes before he got serious about painting. I mean he had this all planned. He might be painting a steel tower someplace or a signboard. He became a relatively well-known painter in Washington. I wouldn’t be surprised, either way, whether they had him or didn’t, because portraits don’t go fast into museums. People keep them in the family. But they might have.
I know there was a man called Newton who had a variety store on Second Street between A and East Capitol on the east side. His name was Newton so, of course, he was called Figgy. Figgy ran a store there that supported him and his family and that was about it. He sold fruit; he sold various crackers in boxes. He also sold cigarettes. He would open a package and sell two cigarettes for a penny, ten for a nickel. The nickel package came with a coupon that was worth one cigarette. He would open the package and take out the coupon -- that he could redeem. That was what I remember about Fig Newton. I can’t even visualize him or his family. Right across the street practically was the livery stable that I mentioned in the story about the first automobile and my brother tying to get kerosene for the lantern. He was a nice man. He ran the livery stable. But, of course, when automobiles came along, if you didn’t want to leave your automobile on the street, you took it to the livery stable. They were still doing that when I was working in the survey, up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. We kept our Ford that we used in the livery stable.
METZGER: So there were horses, buggies and cars, all together.
TAYLOR: I remember I couldn’t crank a Model T when it was real cold and the proprietor would come over and crank it for me. I’d drive it out to pick up the topographer and we’d go off for a day’s survey. But that was the livery stable. I think the man’s name was Wendell, but I’d have to check this.
METZGER: What about the Fourth of July?
TAYLOR: Fourth of July we got up early to be the first to wake up everybody else!
METZGER: With firecrackers?
TAYLOR: Oh, yes, with firecrackers and all day long. I guess they were illegal, even then. We bought firecrackers from the Chinaman at the Chinese laundry. He sold firecrackers. They were very cheap. Sometimes we set off a whole pack at one time. We’d get cans. It’s a wonder we didn’t lose life and limb but I don’t remember any particular injuries. If we did, we treated them at the drugstore. It was all in the family.
I remember a little toy we made out of a big old door key that had a hollow stem. A ten-penny nail would fit in that hole. We’d tie a string around the nail and tie a string around the key and put the nail in and hold it by the string. We’d break off the head of sulfa matches into the hollow of the key, put the nail in, step off from the curb and hit it against the curb and it would go off like a cap pistol. BANG. I’ve never seen that. I thought I’d make one for the historical society some time.
We played stick games after school. Put a stick on the curb and then hit it with another stick and then you were supposed to go in some direction or distance. It would be marked off with chalk on the street. Everybody played that. Girls played with jacks and a ball on the sidewalk. Boys played mumblety-peg with pen knives.
Sometimes the crowd on the corner would get a little noisy. My father would walk to the door and just look out. Somebody would see him and say, “Doc Taylor is looking at us.” Then they’d just break up. One group might go to one of those triangle parks and sit down; three or four people would get out a knife and start playing mumblety-peg. That was when I was a little older. I didn’t hang around the crowd too much.
METZGER: You were in an odd position, I guess. Territorially it was yours and yet you...
TAYLOR: I can remember my brother when he was in high school; he was a star football player. His picture was all over the school -- he and three other players.
METZGER: Did he go to McKinley too?
TAYLOR: McKinley. He was on three consecutive championship teams; couldn’t play freshman. So this was four young men in their uniforms in one picture that must have been in five places. I can remember my brother sitting on those benches along one wall. He’d sit there with other high school players -- one from Business High School, one from Eastern High School, and so on. They would sit there and talk high school football all evening. Of course they were all enemies when they were playing but they were buddies when they were home. That was another little annex of the crowd. My father really didn’t approve very much of the crowd sitting on the bench because that was for his customers from the soda fountain. But he’d put up with them. When I came back from the opening of the city Post Office where I said there had been a gang fight, the first thing I saw was a young man stretched out on those benches with a bandage -- a bloody bandage on his head. I guess my father had dressed it for him.
METZGER: So the pharmacy acted like a first aid station instead of a doctor’s office?
TAYLOR: Oh, yes, it was, definitely. I remember many, many times holding a boy’s arm -- he had a bad cut or something and my father would be putting antiseptic powder on it with cotton and a bandage. My father would be standing with him. He’d say, “Take him to the doctor or take him to the hospital. I’ve done it and it’s good for today but you want to take him to the doctor or hospital and have it looked at.” He was careful about that. I don’t know how many times people came in with cinders in their eye. Of course, they came from the station and locomotives did pump a little cinder pollution into the air. They’d come in with the cinder and we’d take the cinder out of the eye. We had a roll of bathroom tissue or toilet paper. We’d tear off a sheet, fold it up so it was fairly stiff and then have them lick the end of it. And grab the eyelash and pull it up and run that around and it would come right out. We’d show them the cinder. Some of them would take the cinder. And then the squirrel bites. You don’t pet squirrels. A lot of people had never been that close to squirrels and would see them in the park and they’d have something to feed them. Then they’d get too close to them and try to pet them. If a squirrel ever bit you on the finger, he could bite right through the fingernail -- a hole would go all the way through. They would come in holding a hand. My father would wash it out, soak it in carbolic. , , , ,
METZGER: Carbolic acid?
TAYLOR: No, it was…
METZGER: They had the mercurochrome stuff… iodine…
TAYLOR: The iodine would come later. But I’m trying to think of a poison. The tablets were made in the shape of a coffin. You’d drop it in water and then soak your hand. Very cheap, very curative. But you had to show respect. You had to sign a poison book. Any time we sold poisons the customer had to sign the book. Nothing was ever done with that book... unless there had been an accident or suicide or accidental death. They might come see if they had signed the register. I guess if it was a real poison they had to tell what they were going to do with it. I don’t believe I ever saw that book looked at by an officer.
METZGER: I guess they’d only look at it if they were investigating something. So we really haven’t talked about the drug store at all. I have to come back for that.
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This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck