In 1930, the San Diego yellow pages were as yellow as an egg yolk, the white pages listed the occupation of every customer, and the modern Woodmen of America met every Wednesday at Germania Hall. Girls wore regulation middy skirts to San Diego High and women still lived in the age of the hat. It was the decade of the turban, the toque, the snood, and poverty.
Women who had to work for hat money, glove money, and rent could give permanent waves, learn to use the comptometer at Dickinson Secretarial School, or type for Miss Deardorf at 1839 Altura Place. In March of 1930, the household at 3968 Alabama sought “a lady to care for children, go home nights.” The La Jolla Chocolate Shop needed an experienced waitress, the Bishop’s School sought an unencumbered maid with sewing abilities, and a beauty shop on El Cajon Avenue was hiring first-class marcellers and finger-wavers.
Elsewhere in the San Diego Union, the Wicarius Hat and Dress Shop advertised angora wool berets in all light colors for $3. Evelyn Woodman probably wouldn’t have noticed the ad, being almost 13 and a tomboy, but her mother might have seen the plea to Come Early Monday and the larger, more impressive ad for the Marston Company department store, in which the City of Paris advised mannish sharkskin suits as the first spring choice for women. At Marston’s, the Smart Companion Blouses in silk crepe or satin ($6.50 and $10) had hand-finished jabots and cape collars. Above the hand-finished jabots and $60 sharkskin suits a woman was supposed to wear $15 hats in a Wide Variety of Smart Brim Treatments. The hats were called pokes and cloches. Besides ordinary felt and straw, they were made of mysterious, expensive-sounding materials you hardly knew how to pronounce: linen soíe, baku, and balibuntal. And of course you had to buy strap slippers or high Cuban heels or three-eyelet oxfords with boulevard heels. Then purses and gloves and stockings. It all added up and up.
Evelyn Woodman’s mother had been a widow for a long time by March of 1930. She’d had Evelyn, her only child, in National City on May 30, 1917. Four years later, her husband died, and she was left without a penny. Her sister in St. Louis wrote to say that she couldn’t send any money, but she could take them both in, so Mrs. Woodman and her daughter moved east to St. Louis, where Mrs. Woodman’s melancholy was finally diagnosed as tuberculosis, and she was sent to a farm in the country to rest.
It was another death that brought them back to San Diego — this time the death of a child. Another of Mrs. Woodman’s sisters lost her baby in San Diego and wrote a letter that said, “I have to have you.” Evelyn was nine when they returned, old enough to join the Girl Scouts in 1927. She learned to swim at the YWCA when she was ten.
“My mother worked for a steamship line whose office was on a pier down at the foot of Broadway,” Evelyn says. She can’t recall the exact salary for taking shorthand and writing letters in those days, but she does know that in 1935, when people felt the deepest effects of the Depression, she was married herself and counting pennies. Bread was 5 cents a loaf and ground beef was 15 cents a pound. “In other words,” she says, “I was able to get along on a budget as a housewife on $20 a week and save money at the same time.”
Her mother must also have been good at saving money, because “besides being a single head of household of one child, she was able to afford the hats and gloves. I even remember she had a fox fur neck scarf that still hangs in the closet. And her clothes, they were purchased. They were not handmade.”
Marston’s, Evelyn says, was the major department store downtown, and it had the most elegant things. Marston’s had been selling dry goods in downtown San Diego since 1878. When George W. Marston opened his new store on Fifth Avenue and F Street in 1881, the sewing silks and White sewing machines and bolts of cloth were lit with gas lamps. It wasn’t just the store that took Marston’s name, but the entire block.
If, on a March day in the midst of the Depression, Evelyn’s mother had stretched out a finger in the Marston’s shoe department to touch Cuban heels and strap slippers, she would have touched “suntan,” “tropical tan,” and “nautical blue.” Had she needed underfashions, she might have gone upstairs two flights to see, among the rayon bloomers and the step-ins and the slips, the “unusually pliable” Carter Mouldette. The Mouldette wasn’t underwear but a “foundation garment” that fit like a stocking from armpit to thigh and gave you the clean-cut lines you needed for the Bond Street look. Four dollars for that.
Though her mother did have store-bought clothes, her mother’s two sisters had it easier. One had a husband working on North Island and the other’s was executive secretary to Claus Spreckels. This aunt, Evelyn says, “received some clothes from Mrs. Spreckels, so she really was a fashion plate.”
Evelyn herself didn’t care much about clothes. “I was an athlete,” she says. In 1930, when Evelyn was in junior high, anklets came into fashion, “and, oh my goodness, was there a fuss about that,” she says. “The parents just didn’t approve of that at all. The school counselors didn’t. But finally fashion took power over concern and we got to wear anklets.” Five years later, Marston’s was selling lisle anklets in a Host of Spring Colors for 28 cents a pair.
Until she graduated in 1935, Evelyn wore the prescribed uniform to Hoover High: middy tops and dark skirts in the winter, pastel dresses in the summer. When she went to a special service at Trinity Methodist Episcopal, she may have worn kid leather gloves and a hat, but she isn’t sure. What she remembers instead is playing in the city softball league in the early ’30s, when her teams were sponsored by Kerrigan Jewelers and Conkling’s Bakery. They played home games at Central Playground and the girls wore shorts “down at least to the knee.”