Growing Up on Congo Street in the 1920s

The account below by Phyllis Jensen Marklin of being a child growing up in a little house on Congo Street, on the Sunnyside/Glen Park border, includes some fabulous details–the sort of domestic history that is all too often lost with the passage of time. She wrote it when she was in her sixties. Her daughter has graciously given me permission to reproduce it here, along with a photo that includes the family in front of their house at 511 Congo Street. 

Her parents Axel and Olga Jensen came originally from Arhus, Denmark, but lived in Canada for years before coming to San Francisco. Although not all the children stayed in the neighborhood, Phyllis’s brother Gordon made his home as an adult just a few blocks down Congo. Read that story here.

The Jensens in front of their house at 511 Congo Street, late 1920s. Photo courtesy Judith Simpson.
The Jensens in front of their house at 511 Congo Street, late 1920s. Photo courtesy Judith Simpson.

The Jensens on Congo Street

Our family moved to San Francisco from Winnipeg, Canada, arriving on May 6, 1922. Daddy would have been 35 years of age, Mom 30, Betty 13, Gordon, 11, Ella 8, myself 4, and Henry 8 1/2 months.

We were assisted in relocating here by some church, I believe. We no sooner arrived (I was told this later) than my Mom needed an operation on her breast which was abscessed. They had to cut a hole in one side and out the other. No antibiotics in those days. What a worry, with five children in a strange land.

Being only four at the time, I don’t recall anything. It was probably a few weeks later that we moved to 511 Congo Street. I believe my folks paid five hundred dollars for the place. It was much too small for seven people. Two small bedrooms, maybe nine feet by ten feet at the most, just large enough to hold a double bed pushed to the wall and a small dresser. The closets were about two feet by three feet with a curtain in front. There was a small living room and a smaller kitchen. No bathroom! Don’t ask me how we all kept clean. To go to the toilet, there was an “outhouse,” which was several yards from the house. In those days, they also kept a pot under the bed for during the night.

Lucky for us, the first Sunday my folks went to church, they met a close friend from Denmark who became our Uncle Ras (Einer Rasmussen). He was unmarried at the time and a good carpenter, so he was able to help my Dad add a room to the back of the house. It became the kitchen and the former kitchen became a bathroom. How long it took to add on, I don’t know.

We didn’t even have electricity. The street lights were lit by a man who came around each evening and lit the gas mantle on the pole. We never owned a refrigerator until we moved to 139 Mangels Avenue when I was twelve.

In the corner of the kitchen was built a “cooler,” which consisted of a few shelves exposed to the outside air, covered by a screen. Every time you opened the cabinet door to the cooler, the cold air rushed in. It also meant going to the store every day in order to have fresh food. The meat market was at least a mile and a half to two miles away. Everyone did a lot of walking in those days. Up and down very steep hills, I might add. We did not own a washing machine, so Mom washed clothes in a wash tub with a scrub board and then hung the clothes on a line outside.

Betty and Ella had the front bedroom, Mom and Dad had the back bedroom. Henry and Gordon slept on the “davenport” (sofa), which pulled out. It was in the living room. I don’t know where I slept before the “big” kitchen was built, but later, that is where my bed was. I slept on a leather couch with wooden arms on each end. So, the taller I became, the more I had to curl up! It was my bed from age four to twelve, and at age twelve, I was almost as tall as I am now (5’10”)!

In our “new” kitchen, we had an iron stove which was heated by burning wood or coal. It was connected to a water heater. That was where Mom cooked our meals, it was the heat for the house, and warmed the iron when the clothes needed ironing. When it was really cold in the winter, the stove lids were wrapped in newspaper and put at the foot of the bed to warm the feet.

At the time, 511 Congo Street was almost in the country. However, it was not long before other houses were being built, which meant they put in streets and sidewalks and electric lights also. After grading the streets, our house was left up in the air, so Dad, with help, built cement bulkheads, a path, and stairs, plus his own hand-made iron fence and archway. [He was a blacksmith by trade.] I believe it still stands today. [It no longer does in 2016.] He also dug out a garage under the house.

On my sixth birthday in 1924, a new family moved into one of the new houses next door. They had one daughter, Helen, age five. From then on, Helen and I played every day. Her mother, had small feet, and, mine being always large, I was able to wear her high heels when we played house. I liked that.

From the back of our houses all the way to Mount Davidson, where the cross is, there were open fields where we could roam at will. Each spring we could hardly wait for the wild flowers to bloom, and we got to know just where the first poppies would be, iris, baby blue eyes, buttercups, Indian paintbrush, etc. It was a game to have the first of any flower, so we would run from one hill to another to beat each other.

Part of the hills were planted with vegetable gardens kept by Italian gardeners. Many times we helped ourselves by pulling up turnips or carrots. We washed them in the rain water, which was in small pools in the rocks, and we ate them raw. We didn’t have to go home for lunch.

Helen’s mother sometimes would have friends over, and to get us out of the house, we were given twentyfive cents to buy candy. In those days you could get about ten pieces for one cent, so that was a lot of candy!

When I was about nine or ten, Helen’s family moved away. They moved downtown to a boarding house. She invited me to her birthday parties a couple of times after that, but I never knew any of her new friends, plus they were all richer and better dressed, so we grew apart.

Before they moved, they sold some of their belongings, and that was when Mom got her first washing machine from them. It had a copper bottom and a wringer on top. The clothes went through the wringer by hand to squeeze the water out. What class!

As the new streets were built, they were covered by nice smooth asphalt. So what a treat it was to get a new pair of roller skates for Christmas. Real ball-bearing wheels of steel. There were not many automobiles in those days, so we could skate all day.

We all fell in love with a new house that was built down around the corner at 139 Mangels Avenue. Price: $5000. We moved there in March of 1930. My sister Ella had just met John who worked for RCA and was going to be sent to Hawaii for two years. So they were married in July of 1930. Ella was 16 and John was 24. They left the same day, with all of us going to the boat to see them off.

The big depression had begun. Dad did not get a job for eight years. They were not happy times.

Mom did housework all of those years for 25 to 50 cents an hour. The bank allowed them to just pay the interest every month so we were able to keep our home.

Phyllis (Jensen) Marklin, about 1980

2 thoughts on “Growing Up on Congo Street in the 1920s”

  1. My Mother was Diane Beverly Jensen her sister was Jeanette Dorthy Jensen ( aka JD ) . Axel and Olga attended my HS graduation in 1973. My mother Diane met my father Fred Henry Mueller at Pinecrest one year , both the Jensens ( San Francisco ) and Mueller’s ( Oakland ) vacationed at Pinecrest . Diane had 3 children David Mueller , Tracy Mueller -Barber , Karen Mueller . My aunt JD married Joe McGinity and they had 3 children Michelle , Kristen , Sean . Diane got divorced and married Alex Smith . Mary Grammater Jensen had 2 brothers Rudy and Mitch , and a sister Despotina aka Dezi . Gordon died at while living at Rossmor , Mary died on the Big Island Hawaii where she lived next to her daughter JD . Very interesting to know about the house at 511 Congo . I wish I could have bought the house on Congo I loved that house as a kid . I forgot that Mary lived across the street , I asked her years after Gordons death what it was that attracted her to him and she said he was very nice and athletic and she loved his reddish hair .

    1. Thanks for sharing more family history. David. I have been learning about various of our local athletic stars, and Mitch Grammater was a boxer I understand, though a generation later than Frankie Campbell, another local, famously died in the ring in 1930.

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