The Way Things Were
Driving through four lanes of rush hour traffic with parked cars on either side of Washington Road, making it feel like a tight squeeze, it’s hard to imagine a time when the streetcar line ran right through the center of Uptown Mt. Lebanon.
Violet Newbould Cumpston, Castle Shannon Boulevard, remembers the early days of Mt. Lebanon with a clarity surprising for her 101-year-old gaze. To get to work from her family’s home on Becks Run Road she would take the 53 Carrick streetcar, then transfer to the 38 Mt. Lebanon streetcar at the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel before being dropped off right on Washington Road.
“Streetcar tokens were three for a quarter, if you can believe that,” Cumpston says. Each trip, including transfers, cost one token.
Cumpston was one of two “floor girls” hired to work at the G.C. Murphy’s Co. five and dime store during its opening days in Mt. Lebanon during the late 1930s. This was at the tail end of the Depression, and the discount store business was booming. By the time World War II began, the company had 181 stores in 11 states.
The G.C. Murphy building at 680-682 Washington Road was most likely designed by Harold Ellsworth Crosby, the in-house architect for the chain. The building, which now houses the magisterial district offices and a Massage Envy franchise on the street level, has the sharp Art Deco lines indicative of his style.
Murphy’s was set up as a cross between an old-fashioned general store and an early department store, with a salesgirl at each counter and one floor girl to oversee each floor. Mt. Lebanon’s store had two floors, with the stockroom on the second floor. Then there were stockboys, the assistant manager and the manager.
Cumpston got her job in Mt. Lebanon by happenstance and with a bit of gumption. She was a part-time sales girl at the Murphy’s in Mount Oliver, her first job out of high school after turning 18 in 1936. The pay was 25 cents an hour, with an eventual raise to 30 cents an hour.
“I was standing at my counter,” she says. “The manager from Mt. Lebanon was there. He said, ‘All I need is a floor girl for the basement.’ And me, who never opened my mouth said, ‘Oh, I can handle that.’”
She said her own manager “didn’t know me from Adam,” but he was quick to agree and so she got promoted. “I got a dollar a day more for being the floor girl.”
The job title was misleading. Essentially Cumpston was the customer service manager for half of the store. Everyone wore uniforms—sales girls were in maroon dresses with white collars and cuffs trimmed in maroon and the two floor girls had the same style of dress in black. “I made the change for the sales girls and took care of all the money. And all the complaints too,” she says with a laugh.
It’s clear why Cumpston got the job. Once she passed the assistant manager, Mr. Sorensen, on the stairs and he told her he’d heard some uncomplimentary things said about her. Quick-witted, she responded, “Oh, that’s nothing. You should hear what they said about you!”
Sorensen laughed and told her, “Don’t worry about it; we don’t need their business.”
Besides managing the money and the difficult customers, she also learned to sort and identify miniscule hardware pieces, cut and sell blinds, and ensure the staff followed the rules.
“We used to get baby dresses in. There were two prices. One was 59 cents and one was a dollar. Some of the 59-cent ones were so pretty they put a dollar on them,” she explains. “That was a no-no. They’re not supposed to do that. It was against the rules.”
There were many rules for working at G.C. Murphy’s in the early days, not least of which was that female employees had to be single. Once you were married, the company would politely ask you to leave.
Some women concealed their marriages to stay longer, but not Cumpston. She was engaged to her then-fiancé Charles, whom she married in October, 1940, and he would come pick her up after work some days in his Ford Model A automobile.
Working in Mt. Lebanon had its perks, which Cumpston knew well. Her father, Joe Newbould, was a well-known milkman in the municipality during the 1920s. He delivered all of the milk for Rieck-McJunkin Dairy, and she and her siblings had grown up touring the expanding neighborhoods of Mt. Lebanon on his daily route. “We always thought Mt. Lebanon was a real high-class place,” she says. Though some back then, she says, called it “a city of mortgaged fur coats and automobiles.”
“Married women were supposed to stay home and take care of their kids,” Cumpston says. “You had to accept it; there was nothing you could do.”
The Isaly’s at 700 Washington Road is now the Steel City Ballroom. In the 1930s Cumpston would take her lunch break from Murphy’s there. “It was 15 cents for a bowl of chili,” she says.
Toni McGrath, who grew up on Hazel Drive, remembers when the fire station was on the first floor of the municipal building, and the police were in the basement, an arrangement that lasted until the Public Safety Center was completed in 2003.
McGrath loved to watch the fire trucks returning to the station. “The neatest thing was to be up there when they would have to back it in,” she says. It was almost magical the way those firemen did it.”
McGrath grew up in the home her parents bought in 1939. Today the house is owned by the fourth generation of her family. She has fond memories of the 1950s and 1960s in Mt. Lebanon.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up,” McGrath says. “That’s a time when people had large families and there were just kids everywhere.”
Some of her favorite haunts as a teenager were Gardners record store with its free listening room at 636 Washington Road, now Little Tokyo, and Mandell’s Drug store at 727 Washington Road, now The Fabric Place. Mandell’s had a soda fountain with a soda jerk making concoctions for customers. “We’d go in there and just have a good time,” she says. “We’d buy cherry sodas for a nickel.”
Richard Goldstein, Lawncroft Avenue, remembers the drug store soda fountains well, as his first job was a soda jerk.
“I made chocolate sodas for the governor of Pennsylvania and the mayor of Pittsburgh,” he says. He worked for Schiller’s Pharmacy in Shadyside while he put himself through pharmacy school at the University of Pittsburgh.
Born in Shadyside, Goldstein moved to Mt. Lebanon in 1967 when he bought his first drug store at 319 Castle Shannon Boulevard, Mt. Lebanon Pharmacy. Goldstein bought a Volkswagen Beetle for deliveries for $1,815. Then he hired some enterprising high school seniors to work for him.
“The first thing I did was throw out the soda fountain,” he says. “Baby boomer kids mobbed the place.” Times were changing by the late 1960s, and soda fountains were a thing of the past. Instead he offered cosmetics and pre-packaged ice cream.
In 1978 his pharmacy moved into the old Mandell’s on Washington Road. He covered up the original Carrerra glass and added an awning. It remained a pharmacy until 1991 when Goldstein retired from the drug store business and went into hospital pharmacy.
The Fabric Place, which has the space now, recently updated its exterior, removing the awning and brick facade in favor of a clean white porcelain look. Once again it resembles the look of the original Mandell’s Pharmacy from 1939.