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Deaf and Unemployed in Dubuque: The DiMarcos Remember the Great Depression

by David Shannon

The New Deal launched a series of federal employment programs, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which not only provided jobs but also initiated many important studies of the depressionĚs human toll. One such study, published by the WPA Division of Research in 1939, included transcripts of interviews by WPA workers with Dubuque, Iowa, families. The DiMarcos interview revealed that the disabled faced a double challenge during the depression: finding employment while competing for scarce jobs with the able-bodied. The DiMarcos, a deaf couple with a small child, recall in their own words (because they were deaf they had to write responses to the WPA interviewer’s questions), the struggles they endured during six years of unemployment.

Mr. DiMarco 37

Mrs. DiMarco 33

Shirley 3

Interviewing completed January 4, 1938

Mr. and Mrs. DiMarco are both stone-deaf. Bernard DiMarco, having been deaf since he was 2 years old, does not speak at all. Mrs. DiMarco, who had learned to talk before she gradually lost her hearing as the result of an injury when she was 8 years old, speaks a little now, in a harsh toneless voice, but for the most part she depends on talking with her hands.

Since neither of the DiMarcos can read lips, conversation with those who cannot talk with their hands must be written. Mrs. DiMarco is very articulate, she responds quickly and readily, and writes with facility and clarity; her spelling and punctuation are somewhat erratic, but her vocabulary is varied enough, and her phrasings are sometimes picturesque. She is friendly, eager, intelligent, quick to catch the meaning of gestures and facial expressions, which she watches intently. She is slight and pale; one leg is slightly twisted; her chin is pimply, and her eyelids red and raw behind her eyeglasses.

Mr. DiMarco is exceedingly dark, with a mop of black hair and a black stubbled chin. He does not write so fluently as does Mrs. DiMarco, and, being less articulate and less aggressive, prefers to let Mrs. DiMarco, who “knows better” than he what to say, do the talking for the family. He writes answers to questions about his employment only painfully, with many pauses for erasing, scratching his head, and asking Mrs. DiMarco what to say or how to spell certain words. He, too, is slight and not very husky, and he must find his glasses and put them on before he can read or write at all.

Mr. and Mrs. DiMarco have a strong feeling of identification with the deaf; they distinctly feel that they belong to a group set apart, and they do not comprehend general problems except in relation to the deaf. Unemployment to them does not imply a problem faced by millions of the hearing; it is the special problem of the deaf. Their own problems have of course been intensified by their physical handicap, and the DiMarcos do not dissociate any of their difficulties from the deafness which has been always with them. What recreation they have is, naturally enough, shared only with other deaf persons. When they have sought jobs, they have hunted out plants where other deaf persons were already employed, not only because the manager who had hired one deaf person would be most likely to hire another but also because they wanted to associate with other deaf people. When they consider leaving Dubuque to look for work elsewhere, they think in terms of the numbers of deaf persons living in various other towns, once again not simply because there may be more jobs open to the deaf where the deaf have congregated but also because they want to join the already established clubs for the deaf.

The DiMarcos are intensely conscious of prejudice against the deaf.

Neighbors, landladies, employers, relief workers, persons to whom they have gone in the vain search for jobs have often, the DiMarcos feel, been unfriendly and unsympathetic, or at least indifferent, because they “do not care for the deaf.”

The DiMarcos are now living in a moderately well-furnished three-room apartment, the second floor of a brick house in a semiresidential district of the downtown area. When the Stevenson plant closed late in 1931, Mr. DiMarco lost the job of disc sanding which he had held for almost 10 years, except for occasional layoffs. During the past 6 years, he has had no regular work; for such odd jobs as he has done he has usually not been paid in cash. Steady work on WPA projects during the past 2 years is as near as he has come to regular employment. Job-seeking is complicated by his deafness, and he sees little chance of finding any regular full-time work, aside from WPA, in Dubuque.

The DiMarcos have a 3-year-old daughter, a blue-eyed, tow-headed youngster, bright and well-trained. They are exceedingly fond of Shirley, but they try not to spoil her. Already, they are planning for her future, and hoping to be able to send her to business school. They are anxious always to learn from those who can hear Shirley’s prattle whether she “talks good” and are delighted when her remarks are quoted to them. Mrs. DiMarco tries to talk to Shirley so that she can learn to pronounce words plainly; and she also asks the neighbors to talk to her.

Bernard DiMarco was born in Italy in 1900. He writes spontaneously, near the end of an interview, “I am naturalized. I came to U.S.A. in 1902 been in U.S. for 35 years.” His father, according to Mrs. DiMarco, “ran away from the Italian frontier. He didn’t like the army and guard life so came here and took out naturalization papers—then after he earned enough sent for Bernard and his mother and sister.”On the boat, crossing from Italy, the 2-year-old Bernard contracted spinal meningitis, which presumably caused his deafness. On reaching New York, he and his mother and sister had to remain in quarantine for 3 months before they could join his father, a coal miner in southern Illinois. The family managed well for a time, and Bernard was sent to a school for the deaf in Jacksonville, III. But in 1910 the father was killed in a mine accident.

Bernard remained in school, working part-time in the shoe shop, until he was 17, when he left to help support his mother and three younger brothers, two of whom were deaf.

After he left school, and before he came to Dubuque, Mr. DiMarco had a succession of jobs, none of them lasting longer than 1 year, and none very well paid or involving much skill or responsibility. He summarizes his employment history thus: “In Spring Valley, III. I worked at the Overall factory for about 1 year, 1918–1919—pick overalls after the girls sewed and tie bundles then carry & sort & bale them & weigh and address them. I quit because the girls often went on strike so I got a job at the Roofing Co at Ottawa, Ill—do the work at the tile yard. They shut down after about 1 year so I came back to Spring Valley where my Home is, worked at the Overall factory for some 6 months. Then they shut down. I got a job at Wright store & do the cleaning & Polishing stoves. After about 6 months they laid me off so I got a job at Ottawa again stayed for 3 months so I quit in 1922 & came to Dubuque. I forgot to tell you—I worked at trunk factory in Spring Valley, Ill., for 8 months nailed the boxes & trimmed & painted them (wardrobes). When Harding was President I was out of work for 1 year.”

Mrs. DiMarco states that Bernard came to Dubuque in the hope of getting work with the Stevenson Radio and Phonograph Company.“He heard of a lot of deaf working there and was lonesome alone down home so came to see if he could get on too and he did.” In Mr. DiMarco’s words,“When I was working at Ottawa, III., I read in Chicago paper about it Stevenson’s so I wrote to my friend who worked there and asked him if I could work —He wrote and told me to come right away so I quit & came to Dubuque & met him & led me to a house to board. The next morning he took me to Stevensons & told me to see Mr. Smith, who was hiring men & women so I asked him about work. Smith is a good man & hired all deaf men to work. There were about more than 20 deaf men before I came. There were about 85 deaf people in Dubuque while working there. Now there are about 18 people here. Some of them Dead. At first I asked Smith if I could paint or Varnish. He said Filled so he put me in where I disc Sanded.”

Mrs. DiMarco is proud of Mr. DiMarco’s being “the best Disc Sander they had.... They could not get the men to work on it so asked him to work or try it and he got so adept at it they couldn’t go without him.” Before coming to Stevenson’s, Mr. DiMarco had never done any wood work. He preferred this job to any of the earlier ones, and found it much the best paid. When he put in overtime, he sometimes earned as much as $85 within a 2-week-pay period, but “Most of times over $50 — 2 weeks.”Shortly before her marriage Mrs. DiMarco had come to Dubuque to work with Bernard at Stevenson’s. She has been crippled since she “was 8 years old, that resulted in my deafness. The lameness first started from what we aren’t sure but think I stepped on a rusty nail and blood poison set in. Then for about 5 years I was alternately in Hospital & out—I couldn’t walk for 2 years—after about the 2 years I was able to get around & go back to school again.” Mrs. DiMarco attended public schools before going to a school for the deaf in Chicago, where she remained for 2 years. “I only went through 8th [grade] as my parents were poor and had a large family. They couldn’t afford it.”

The winter after Mrs. DiMarco had left the school for the deaf, she was asked to return to take the place of the kindergarten teacher, who had resigned in midterm. "Mother was ill when school closed and I stayed at home all summer. Then about the time school reopened no doubt I would of gone back but my left limb began bothering me again.... I was in the hospital at Freeport, III. for 5 mo. Then they brought me home but it was 2 or 3 years before it healed up.... I had to go back to Hospital. Some friends took me to Rockford, III. to a (I think it was National Fraternity Society of the Deaf) picnic, it was there I met Mr. DiMarco & he kept at me until he finally got me to come to Dubuque. He got me a job at Stevensons & I worked there one summer [the summer of 1929].A sewing machine was the first of the DiMarcos' purchases after their marriage. As Mrs. DiMarco “loves to sew,” she had told Mr. DiMarco that she couldn’t get along without a machine. Besides buying furniture, Mr. DiMarco soon after his marriage had taken out an insurance policy which had no cash surrender value in 1931, and so was allowed to lapse. “Also we had started to save in National Bank but it closed in Jan. [1932]. We lost on that, had $5 left not bad but I wished I had that $5 to pay the gas & rent then.” "The plant closed first in 1929. We did not get any help for 6 mo. We went to his mothers then to my mothers trying to find another job but nothing doing. Then the plant reopened & sent for him. It worked until December then shut again for several months.“ During one of these layoff periods, Mrs. DiMarco is not sure which, ”he went home and got a better Job Cement factory but when Stevensons reopened they sent for him. He didn’t go back so the boss went down after him. I only wish he hadn’t maybe he’d have a job now as Stevensons shut down & the Cement factory didn’t but they won’t take him back now.“Mrs. DiMarco does not remember just when the first application for relief was made. “It was after we were put out of the first place after Stevensons shut down anyway. The St. Vincent Depaul Society helped us for 3 or 4 mo. before that anyway. I think it began in 1930 that they first started helping us. Mr. Edwards offered us three small rooms of his. He says the relief did not pay him regularly & they claim they did so after 2 or 3 years they had an argument and they came over and told me to move out of his place so I did. We got these rooms then. Mrs. Baker our landlady here has put us out several times & changed her mind. She tells us we must go this spring but she may change her mind, she says she wants well to do people here not ones like us who if we lost our job couldn’t pay. Seems we are kicked around like a foot ball. There was a period just before the W.P.A. started we got behind with the rent but we made it up after W.P.A. started. Before that period they paid the Rent regularly for us, then they made a change of every other mo. Of course with no way to earn it we couldn’t pay the other month, that’s how we fell behind.”

In the meantime, while the family was dependent on the weekly grocery order of a little more than $2, supplemented by occasional grants of surplus commodities, the DiMarcos had been sinking deeper and deeper in debt. Mrs. DiMarco “should say we were in Debt about $350 or So. There is probably about $50 yet unpaid. Some of them let Bernard work some off during his unemployment, or we made exchanges and etc. We kept pegging away & got most of it Cancelled somehow.”

Exchanges were “mostly by mutual interests. We’d meet them or Bernard (He is restless and can’t stay quiet long) would go out prowling around & meet them & they’d ask him to lend a hand they’d take so much off, etc. I don’t remember clearly just what all he did do. This seems like a dark cave or something we’d been walking through. I dont know how we managed yet but we cut down on the electric & water bills & everything & kept them at a minimum. He did any & everything he could think of to earn a little.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. DiMarco tried to find work, but in Mrs. DiMarco’s words “they don’t seem interested in a deaf man won’t listen to us. I’ve been in the Candy Factory & Halls trying to get on also and they won’t talk just shake their head as if I were a freak. I wish I could make them understand we have to live like others. I don’t work out much I can’t seem to find anything I can stand as I’m not overly strong but if I could l’d sure take it. I did sewing for people for awhile to earn a little when we had rent & things to pay every month & were on relief with nothing else on. I sometimes help people clean house, if I can find anyone who will take me. The last two or three years I haven’t done anything as I had Shirley to keep.”

On the CWA airport project, Mr. DiMarco earned $15 a week “digging.” When this work ended, he was given employment of“2 or 3 days a week on a sewer job for the city.” A former city manager, in Mrs. DiMarco’s opinion, “never liked us deaf. He come upon Bernard working once & spoke to Bernard. Bernard told him he was deaf & he wanted him sent home but the men on the job stood up for Bernard & he remained.”On WPA projects Mr. DiMarco has been paid $12 a week. This is Mr. DiMarco’s story of his employment during the depression: “At Eagle Point Park — just help the men do the work trucking, wheeling crushed Rock & cement for almost more than 2 1/2 years till last Dec. 17—we transferred to Riverside Park—building fires and raking Brushes. Relief work before W.P.A.—in quarry before Relief work.” For the relief work he was paid only in grocery orders.

He prefers WPA to relief work and to direct relief, but does not give his reasons for the preference. He has tried to find employment other than on WPA, but “can’t get—lots of men idle here. I make a little money by selling cartons, magazines & papers to buy clothes & groceries & pay cash on meat.” The Riverside Park project keeps him busy only 3 days in the week. According to Mrs. DiMarco, “He is always out looking for any odd jobs that will turn up on his off days. Watches for a chance to peddle circulars for the stores or get empty cartons for people shipping things. It don’t pay much but every little helps out.”Perhaps if Mr. DiMarco had had more education, he might be in a better position to find work now, especially “if he had had a chance to learn a special trade.” "But it’s awfully hard on us deaf — as they don’t seem to care for a deaf person when they can get one who can hear. I would like to see him take a course in barbering or something so he could go into business himself. I’d like to learn power machine operating too maybe it would help me in some clothing factory. Not here in Dubuque as Halls don’t care for Deaf but maybe in Davenport or some other town."

Mrs. DiMarco is confident of her husband’s ability to do a job well, especially in view of his experience at the Stevenson plant. “I’m sure if someone would only be interested enough to try him out they would find him a good steady worker also. We can’t seem to find a person who will give him a trial. Some deaf here haven’t such good records. I think that injures the reputation of the rest of us. There are all kinds of deaf just like hearing people.” . . .

. . . Mr. DiMarco formerly belonged to a club for deaf men, but “they decided to discontinue it as there isn’t enough deaf here any more. There are about 15 deaf people here. We get together as much as we can. They are all unemployed also except for 2 or 3. Two are well off and the other has pull with relatives & they give her a job. I don’t have any relatives here to help us so it was harder on us than most.”

. . . From time to time, the DiMarcos have thought of leaving Dubuque in the hope of finding work in some more friendly town.“There don’t seem much else for us to do but leave sometime no future for us here that I can see. Mr. speaks some of going to Dixon Illinois where some of my people live & try the Cement Co or Milk Co or some of those large places. We would become affiliated with Rockford deaf if we did — Around 80 there now. Davenport might be a place also—I have a sister who moved there —we thought of going down sometime & trying. There are 35 or 40 deaf there. Seems odd when we used to have more than them to have them above us now.”

The DiMarcos' preoccupation with the problems of the deaf is evident in their responses to questions relating to general problems, just as in any discussion of Mr. DiMarco’s employment, chances of getting work now, experiences during the depression, or recreation. In answer to a question as to whether Mr. DiMarco has thought about what may have caused so much unemployment, or what should be done to reduce unemployment, he writes, “I am thinking about moving out & look for better job Illinois. I get jobs easily but hardly in Iowa. In Iowa they begin not to hire any deaf men to work because of Insurance. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa there were about more than 15 deaf men but now about 5 men left. They wont hire any more.” As an elaboration of his comment, Mrs. DiMarco writes,“The Deaf find it difficult to get jobs because factories have insurance & refuse to insure the deaf in their employ.”

Mrs. DiMarco’s own answer to a question as to whether the DiMarcos have thought about what should be done for the unemployed or to minimize unemployment was as follows: “We read what the deaf think. The National Association for the Deaf think the deaf are as good risk in insurance as the hearing and I know they should not be prejudiced against us if only we could make them understand that our other senses are sharper because we can’t hear and we are mostly all able to hold our own with the hearing in nearly every job we care to tackle. We don’t waste time in talking like the hearing or get interested in something else like they do because we have to use our hands if we do & that would injure the work so we keep doggedly on. Any of Bernard’s bosses will tell you he can hold his own.” She adds, “I am glad to help you in any way we can & the deaf in General if it will interest anyone in them God knows we need it. Do you suppose we ought to stay on here in Dubuque or try to get away. I don’t know whether we’d be any better off somewhere else or not. If only I knew where there was a steady job.”

The DiMarcos' hopes for the future are centered in Shirley. Mrs. DiMarco is planning to teach her by the same methods used in kindergarten classes in the Chicago school for the deaf. “I want her to go through High School and if possible some kind of Business school. I’m afraid we won’t be able to but we are already trying to fix it. We make her put all the pennies anyone gives her in a little bank & bank it. I also insured her—25¢ a week. Hard to pay but if anything should happen—” The DiMarcos now carry no insurance except the small policy for Shirley. “They ask too high premiums on a deaf person & he would pay out double the mortuary sum so we decided against it. There are some Societies for the deaf we’d rather join if we felt we could pay them but I’d hate to join up now unless I was certain I could keep them paid up & we would be taking an awful risk with no permanent job and not being sure of ourselves now.”

Mrs. DiMarco takes pride in keeping her home looking neat and attractive. On one occasion she wrote, “I don’t think I told you the other times you was here that we have an account for clothing and other necessities. I just got my new curtains, my old ones were in shreds. When this is paid I hope we can get some new rugs.” The WPA pay checks have been "a godsend."

Source: David Shannon, The Great Depression (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960), pp. 163–171

See Also:The Bum as Con Artist: An Undercover Account of the Great Depression
"The Depression has Changed People's Outlook": The Beuschers Remember the Great Depression in Dubuque, Iowa
Losing the Business: The Donners Recall the Great Depression