Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/Nora Oates

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Nora Oates was a tourist house manager living in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mary Pearl Brown interviewed her for the Federal Writer's Project on June 23, 1939.

Nora Isabelle Oates
BornJune 24, 1886
Concord, Cabaruss County, North Carolina
DiedMay 06, 1961
Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
OccupationTourist House Manager


Early Life[edit]

Nora Isabelle Oates was born on June 24, 1886 at Cotton Mill Hill in Concord, North Carolina. When Oates turned 10 years, old she went to work in the cotton mill as a doffer. A doffer makes sure that new spindles are placed on wool or cotton spinning machines. By the time she was 14 she had been promoted to the weave room. When Oates was 15 she met and married Mitchell Oates. [1]


Mitchell had poor health, so Oates had to work a lot in order to provide enough money for her family. Shortly after they were married, Oates had a baby boy, but after 18 months the child died. Due to his increasingly poor health and the poor working conditions at the cotton mills, her husband had to stop working at the mill. In 1914, he began a new job as a motorman at a streetcar company in Charlotte, North Carolina. Oates started selling corsets for a local business.. Her husband’s health continued to worsen and he stopped working at the streetcar company. Owing to this and the onset of the Great Depression, Oates had to sell her house. She rented a large house and opened it up to tourists and boarders, which were quite common at the time.[1]

On August 22, 1938, Mitchell died.[2] The city began making roadway renovations in front of Oates’s tourist houses, which hurt her business. Oates fell into debt and had to move to a smaller house. Again, she opened her house to tourist and boarders. Debt was still Oates’s main concern for many years. She regularly borrowed more despite already being in debt. She continued to live in Charlotte as a tourist house manager. She adopted a daughter, who became a beauty shop manager.[1] On May 6, 1961 Oates died and was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Charlotte.[3]

Social Issues[edit]

Streetcars in the United States[edit]

In the late 1800s, cities began installing horse drawn streetcars as a form of public transportation for residents. The growth of the railroad system over the past century and the rapid urbanization that was taking place as people moved from the country to cities fueled the expansion of the streetcar. By the 1880s, the first electric streetcars were being built across the country. Streetcar companies provided a source of labor for many Americans.[4]

However, by the 1920s the automobile was beginning to displace the streetcar as the primary way to travel around the city. The onset of the Great Depression worsened this situation because many streetcar companies went out of business.[5] By the end of World War II most streetcar construction had stopped. Many cities even removed streetcar systems that had been built in earlier decades. However, some cities like San Francisco and New Orleans still maintain their streetcar systems.[4]

Tourist Houses during the Great Depression[edit]

The Great Depression led many Americans to travel away from their homes. Many suffered financially by losing their jobs or homes while others had to sacrifice their possessions in order to survive and support their families. To make a living, many people opened their homes to travelers or boarders, turning their homes into tourist or boarding houses.[6] Additionally, during this period many people were traveling around the country looking for work. President Roosevelt’s various New Deal public works projects drew people from all regions by providing a source of work. Opening one’s home to travelers or boarders could be an important source of additional money.[7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Nora I. Oates interviewed by Mary Pearl Brown, June 23, 1939, Federal Writer’s Project, Wilson Library Archives, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ancestry.com. 2012. “Mitchell May Oates”. http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?viewrecord=1&r=an&db=FindAGraveUS&indiv=try&h=107461728
  3. Ancestry.com. 2012. “Nora Isabelle Oates.” http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?viewrecord=1&r=an&db=FindAGraveUS&indiv=try&h=47768853
  4. 4.0 4.1 “Streetcar” 2014. Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. http://www.britannica.com/technology/streetcar
  5. Walter, Turner. 2009. “Development of Streetcar Systems in North Carolina.” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. http://www.cmhpf.org/development%20of%20streetcar%20systems.htm
  6. Dennis, Bryson. 2004 "Family and Home, Impact of the Great Depression on." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. Ed. Robert S. McElvaine. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. 310-315.
  7. Amy, Greenberg. 2009. “Review of The Boarding house in Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of Social History. Oxford University Press