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CHILDHOOD IN CAMDEN
by
John C. Harden

Historic Camden County, NJ SealBeing born in 1924, my first lasting memories date to around 1929. I lived in Camden, NJ, which was up until then was a reasonably prosperous blue collar city. It was home to Campbell Soup, RCA, Victor, Eberhardt Pen and New York Ship Building, among other prominent US companies of that day. However, 1929 was the beginning of the end of prosperity in Camden.

The population of Camden then was largely White Immigrants from Russia, The Balkans and Ireland who came to this country looking for jobs. Many of them landed in Philadelphia and crossed the river for the industries in Camden. My family was from Ireland. I lived with my grandfather, my mother (divorced), my step-grandmother, and at various times, uncles, aunts and cousins who needed a temporary roof over their heads.

battleship at dry dock on the Delaware RiverBut we never went hungry. My grandfather was the real breadwinner, working as a ship's carpenter at the shipyard. Many of the largest ocean liners were built there, and I can remember standing next to them as they towered far above us when they were launched from dry dock into the Delaware River. Some of our largest battleships, which saw service in World War II, were also built there. The only interruptions to steady employment for my grandfather were strikes, one lasting for 33 weeks and another for 17 weeks in the depression years of the early 1930's.

My mother did "piece" work at RCA until my step-grandmother died. Then she took over running the house for as many family members as were living there at the time.

My life as a boy centered around games played mostly in the streets: roller skate hockey, stickball and touch football, among others. There were no organized sports. Church activities also occupied much of the time. My family were all musical and sang in the church choir. I was virtually disowned, as I could not carry a tune.

We didn't have, nor did most of our neighbors have cars (there were still many horsedrawn wagons to deliver milk, fresh vegetables, etc.) or electric refrigeration (50lb. blocks of ice were delivered to the house several times a week). Heat was by coal which had to be shoveled from the bin into the furnace. It often went out during the night. Obviously, there was no air conditioning. A few times on especially hot nights one of our friends who did have a car drove us to Atlantic City to try to keep cool.

I remember the opening of the first supermarket, claimed to be the first in the US. It was several miles from our house, but my mother and I lugged the heavy bags from the store to our house in order to save a few cents over the costs at the corner grocery.

Ben Franklin BridgeUntil 1926 there was no bridge linking Camden to Philadelphia. All traffic went by ferries, which were run by railroads, as they too had no bridge connection. Then, what is now known as the Ben Franklin Bridge was opened between the two cities. The first day, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic, and I was wheeled across the bridge to Philadelphia by my mother. The round trip to Philadelphia from our house was almost 10 miles. We then shopped in Philadelphia's department stores: Wanamakers, Strawbridge & Clothiers, Lits, Gimbels, and Snellenbergs. Effectively, Camden was finished as a place for shopping even though most people still didn't have cars. Buses were the main form of transport. Except for the wartime economy of World War II, Camden was on a steady decline as a city, which seems to continue to the present.

I left Camden for Plainfield, NJ in 1937. Plainfield then was justly known as the Queen City. My mother remarried at that time. This was my first introduction to having a car in the family, along with electric refrigeration. I spent my four high school years at Plainfield High School, graduating in 1941. I was in New York City as an accounting clerk for an insurance company (the forerunner of today's Chubb Corporation located on Rt. 78 in Warren). 1941 ended right after Pearl Harbor, and before I was old enough to be drafted, I enlisted in the Us Army Air Force and became a bombardier on a B-29, flying 31 missions over Japan. This takes me beyond 1941 but seems a fitting closing for my youthful years.

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