Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Philip Cohen
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Philip Cohen was a peddler living in Chapel Hill. He was married with three children. In 1938, Cohen was interviewed by Leonard Rapport through the Federal Writer’s Program. He was 47 years old at the time.
Cohen’s father was a Russian Jew who immigrated to the US in the late nineteenth century. He owned a store in Philadelphia at first, but lost it and became a peddler. Cohen was born in Philadelphia, and had one brother and one sister. When Cohen was six, he lost his arm in an accident while playing in the railroad yards. Later that year, his father died. Cohen stayed in school for seven more years before he began to sell newspapers. Cohen’s family then moved to Baltimore in 1909.
Cohen had many different jobs throughout his life, including working a newsstand on a boat and owning a store. When work was scarce in Baltimore, Cohen moved to Chapel Hill, NC on his cousin’s recommendation and opened a store selling men’s clothing. After this, Cohen decided to open a delicatessen in Athens, Georgia. He only lasted four months in this business, and sent his wife and kids back to Chapel Hill. He began peddling in November 1934. He traveled all over the state selling wares, but then cut his territory to a 50-mile radius of Chapel Hill so that he could return home nightly.
Cohen met his wife, Sara, in Wales on a trip to visit his uncle in 1924. She lived in a small town in Wales, called Brynmawr. They were married in September of 1924 and returned to the US in February 1925 where they had one girl and two boys. At the time of the interview, their daughter was thirteen, and their sons were ten and eight. Cohen’s daughter was involved in Girl Scouts in the local community, and until the year before his interview, his wife was a Girl Scout leader. They planned to sign the boys up for Boy Scouts when the time came as well. They were also involved in the synagogue, sending their children to Sunday School every week in Durham. Cohen and his wife both supported Roosevelt and were Democrats.
Community Involvement during the Great Depression
During the Great Depression, involvement with community organizations like Girl Scouts increased due to citizens’ increased spare time, and the necessity of inexpensive ways to fill this open time. These organizations provided a solution by emphasizing the importance of hobbies. They did this by seeking to “expand their efforts to involve entire communities in the hobby movement”. Cohen and his family took part in Girl Scouts, as did many families of the Great Depression era. Joining these organizations was desirable to these families due to the emphasis on wholesome ways to spend empty time, so hobbies and community organizations became a big part of family life.
Peddlers and Jobs during the Great Depression
The ever-changing job market had a large impact in the Cohen’s lives. Peddlers like Cohen were an important part of life in the Great Depression. Before stores could provide for every want, peddlers could supply many different necessary wares. Cohen had switched jobs many times before beginning to peddle wares, as his father had done. He did reasonably well as a peddler as he sold a variety of different wares, and there was always a demand for certain things peddlers could provide, such as food and household supplies. Peddlers would travel from town to town with wagons full of wares, and townspeople could gather to trade wares as well as information in the marketplace. Peddlers provided a place to get necessary goods as well as a community gathering. Most peddlers worked places such as garages, markets, colleges, and warehouses, as they were full of people. Cohen found that the best season to peddler was from September to December, as during the summer, the markets and colleges would close. Peddlers were a large part of the work force during the Great Depression, as other, more stable jobs were hard to find.
Federal Writers’ Project
The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) ran nationally from 1935-1939, after which it continued to run through state funding until 1943. It was created to provide jobs for writers when work was scarce. However, there are issues with the historical reliability of the writings produced through the FWP. As part of this program, writers interviewed people all over America. The aim of interviews was to “broaden the definition of who and what was American”. Therefore, writers aimed to interview poor Americans to bring forward stories that weren’t often represented. This interview may have been skewed to reflect that, emphasizing Cohen’s poverty.
Through this program, Leonard Rapport, an archivist at the National Archives, interviewed Cohen in 1938. Because Rapport was an esteemed archivist, the life history of Philip Cohen appears to be accurate, though there are a few issues. In the life history, Rapport provides extra descriptions that may be embellishments. He adds sentimental details that may not have happened, such as Cohen and his wife sitting quietly together, reminiscing over the past, “occasionally exclaiming as some half-forgotten event is brought to mind”. This is problematic for the reliability of the interview, if Rapport added details to make the story more pleasant. Another issue of historical production is the lack of a written out interview. In several other life histories from the FWP, writers formatted the papers as typed interviews and responses. This way, the reader can see the questions and how the author and subject interact; instead, Rapport chose to write the account as a story. As a result, it is hard to tell what questions Rapport asked, and if he lead Cohen in certain directions, influencing the life history. These details are important in discerning if the life history is accurate.
- Cohen, Philip. “Philip Cohen, Peddler”. Federal Writers’ Program. December 1, 1938. Digital.
- Gelber, Steven. “A Job You Can’t Lose: Work and Hobbies in the Great Depression”. Vol. 24, No. 4 (1991). Pg. 741-766. Oxford University Press. November 16, 2013. pg. 742.
- Gelber, Steven. “A Job You Can’t Lose: Work and Hobbies in the Great Depression”. Vol. 24, No. 4 (1991). Pg. 741-766. Oxford University Press. November 16, 2013. pg. 749.
- Wilbanks, Robert. Gadsden, Alabama: Stories of the Great Depression. Great Britian: Arcadia Publishing, 2000. Digital. pg. 35.
- Pickett , Carmelita. "Federal Writers' Project." Encyclopedia of African American Society. Ed. Gerald D. Jaynes. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2005. 320-21. SAGE knowledge. Web. November 16, 2013. para. 1-2.
- Hirsch, Jerrod. Portait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writer’s Project. University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Digital. pg. 19.
- Schudel, Matt. “Leonard A. Rapport, 95; Archivist and Author” Washington Post. April 12, 2008. Digital. November 16, 2013. para. 2.
- Cohen, Philip. “Philip Cohen, Peddler”. Federal Writers’ Program. December 1, 1938. Digital. pg. 9352.