An Ordinary Life

Ken Cutler

MY GRANDFATHER FALLS into the category of folks who are “not long remembered.” He died more than 75 years ago. None of his children or their spouses is alive. The one grandchild alive at the time of his death was only a few months old. It’s safe to say his memory has been all but erased, and yet his story offers a glimpse into what working life was like in the first half of the 1900s.

Emil Cutler was born in 1887, the second son of farmers who lived in rural Maryland. His older brother, Willitts, had been born two years before. A sister, Lorena, was born in 1889, but died from dysentery—attributed to eating a green apple—just before her first birthday. In 1891, another sister, Beatrice, was born to complete the family. In the family letters I have, there isn’t a lot of information about my grandfather’s early years. For high school, he went to the Tome School for Boys, a prestigious boarding school in nearby Port Deposit, Maryland. There, he took the “commercial course,” graduating in 1907.

After graduation, he wasn’t sure what career to pursue. He made an inquiry with the U.S. Marines, seeking information about how to join as an officer. Another career he considered was forestry—he looked into enrolling in the Biltmore Forest School. Eventually, he landed a sales job and moved to Philadelphia. From there, he relocated to Camden, New Jersey, and helped his parents start a fruit jelly company, Cutler and Cutler. His parents took care of production at their Maryland farm, while he was instrumental in procuring supplies, such as jars and labels.

In 1912 and 1913, while living in Camden, he received a lot of letters and invitations from a mysterious Aunt Lucy, who lived in nearby Philadelphia. Lucy, a young single lady, had an active social calendar and was very interested in the details of Emil’s life: “How are you now? I am still in the Lace Department at John Wanamaker’s. No one has been kind enough to ask your poor old aunt to marry them so I am still very much here. But I thought that you would probably be on the way (to marriage) as you meet so many nice girls, eh? ‘Fess up.”

Lucy was pleased to introduce him to other young ladies, and occasionally he was asked to escort her to an event. She invited him to various activities that included a Valentine’s party, surprise birthday parties, music shows, assorted dinner gatherings and even her dancing class.

A letter from Emil’s sister Beatrice, written in late 1913 from Oriental, North Carolina, requests that he send her a photo of himself because the “people down here want to see my peoples’ pictures.” Her affection is evident in her closing: “Now, Emil, write soon. With love, I am your sincere Sister Beatrice.”

In 1914, Emil began taking night classes in accounting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. During the three years he attended night school, he was employed by companies such as Alexander Brothers Leather Belting and Haverford Cycle Co.

Emil Cutler Sr. and Jr.

That brings us to 1917—a significant year in Emil’s life. In January, he married Esther, and he also graduated from Wharton that year. The following year again brought big changes. In February, Emil and Esther’s first child—my father—was born. He was named after my grandfather. Tragedy struck in October when Emil’s older brother Willitts took ill, becoming a casualty of 1918’s great influenza pandemic. Willitts left behind a young widow and two children.

After two years marked by significant changes, Emil settled into a routine. He held a steady job with Ace Motor Corp. in Philadelphia. Another son was born. The family moved to nearby Moorestown, New Jersey, in 1919. A few years later, Emil’s parents also relocated to Moorestown. They’d lost their Maryland farm after Emil’s father cosigned a loan for a friend.

Five years into his career at Ace, the company ran into hard times. Emil needed a new job and wrote a letter to Irving Collins, then the president of a local chain of lumber and hardware stores headquartered in Moorestown. From the draft of his letter:

“I have been thinking that possibly you could use a man of my experience and caliber in your organization. I am 35 years of age, married, a graduate of high school and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. For the past five years I have been auditor for the Ace Motor Corporation [in] Philadelphia. This business was closed out through receivership and they are now ready to make the final distribution to the creditors.”

He continued: “In this position I supervised the accounting work and for about two years looked after the treasurer’s duties in the absence of the treasurer. When the business went into receivership, I was made auditor for the federal receivers…. I am willing to accept a moderate salary to start and would be pleased to call at your convenience to talk the matter over.”

Although my grandfather had fibbed a bit about his age—he was actually 37, not 35—his letter quickly got the attention of Collins: “I am very much interested in your letter of Oct. 28, and would like to have an audience with you. I will be in the Moorestown office Friday and Saturday mornings until 10 o’ clock.”

Emil secured a position as an accountant at J.S. Collins & Son, and spent the rest of his career there. Many years later, my father—another accounting graduate from Wharton night school—would join the same company. For a time, Dad worked side-by-side with my grandfather.

When my dad, who was nicknamed “June” as shorthand for “Junior,” was eight, Emil took him for a week-long trip to the Jersey Shore. He wrote a letter back to “Wifey and Boys” from Stone Harbor, reporting that “June’s appetite was not so good Sunday and Monday, but he surely is making up for it now.” The two of them finished a pound and a half of steak for lunch that day.

He goes on: “The only time he spends in the apartment is while he sleeps at night and about 15 or 20 minutes for each meal. Soon as he gets his dessert he is gone. He has made friends with a boy about his age who lives in one of the houses in back of the apartment. The boy has a collie named ‘King Tut’ and the three play together…. June says he wants to stay for a month.”

My father remembered his dad as being quiet, honest and “not… aggressive.” He also thought his dad might have been a little stingy—he didn’t help my father pay for his college education. But there may have been good reasons for my grandfather’s penny-pinching.

Life got more demanding for Emil as time went on. When the Great Depression came, he was able to keep his job. In 1930, his earnings from Collins were $3,880, equal to some $72,000 in today’s dollars. By 1934, his pay was down to $2,600. He had other challenges on the home front.

Two of his five sons had significant developmental disabilities. He also faced health difficulties. In his 40s, he started experiencing symptoms attributed to diabetes. He had to avoid carbohydrates and ended up eating a lot of bran muffins. By his late 50s, his vision was very poor.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have a happy marriage. Esther grew resentful of Emil, blaming him for giving her two “retarded” children. When he developed diabetes, it just meant more work for her. At one point, she told him she should never have married him. When my dad—the favored son—was older, she would take him on trips to the Jersey Shore, leaving her husband behind.

On the last day of 1948, Emil had a heart attack. My father was 30 at the time and living with his parents. When he found his father, Dad felt pain in his own chest, as if he too were going to have a heart attack. He was told to get a doctor, and actually ended up getting two doctors to come to the house. There was nothing they could do. Emil was dead at age 61. It was the most traumatic day of my father’s life.

When I was young, it never dawned on me that most people have two sets of grandparents. I only knew my mother’s parents. My dad’s father had been dead 14 years by the time I was born. His mother, Esther, lived a mile away from our house, but I never met her. She had a history of being nasty to my mom. After a disturbing incident that threatened the safety of one of my infant sisters, Esther was never again allowed to be in contact with any of her grandchildren. She passed away when I was eight. I had no idea she’d died and certainly didn’t attend the funeral, if there even was one.

Emil lived an ordinary life for his era, the kind of story that’s easily lost to the sands of time. Although no one is left who could share memories of Emil, a cache of century-old documents permits his story to be told afresh. I’m thankful those papers have been preserved for my generation.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Follow Ken on X @Nuke_Ken and check out his earlier articles.

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