Celebrating Centenarian Ruth Smith Bussmann
by Cate Murway
“Happy 100th Birthday to my dear mother who is an inspiration to all and a living model of the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.”
Patricia Lynn [Bussmann] “Pat” Buchanan
Ruth Bertha [Smith] Bussmann was born in Philadelphia in 1917 [America’s entry into WW1] to Anna Martha [Flubacher] and George Eugene Smith who was born in Romania, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time.
Philadelphia was a multi-lingual, multi-cultural city of immigrants, the nation's third-largest city and home to 1.5 million people. No facet of city life was untouched by the war and its effects. Sixty percent of Philadelphians were either foreign-born or first-generation Americans.
Ruth’s father had traveled by himself to America to meet up with his older brother who was a mechanic. He and his five brothers and one sister had grown up on a small rural Romanian farm.
Ruth was born the same year as President John F. Kennedy, Jazz Singer Ella Fitzgerald, Pop Singer Dean Martin and actors Zsa Zsa Gabor and Desi Arnaz.
In 1917, The New York Times cost two cents. The hamburger bun was invented by a fry cook named Walter Anderson, who co-founded White Castle, feeding customers sacks of 5-cent small burgers.
The average US hourly wage was 22 cents an hour. The toggle light switch was the major tech invention.
The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
George took a job in a bakery and a fellow worker introduced him to his future wife, Anna. “My father spoke German and very little English but my mom spoke German.”
The Smith family soon included two daughters, Ruth and her late younger sister, Esther.
Ruth attended Clara Barton Jr. High in Philadelphia [demolished in the late 1970s] and then pursued further education as a Trojan at the 4-story brick Olney High built in 1929.
She played the piano and took singing lessons at school. There had been a piano in their home as their mother played.
“I sang in Church in the choir. Now my voice is a different level that doesn’t agree with the piano. I like Gospel music.”
Her sister Esther played tennis and competed on the school gymnastics team.
She walked “quite a distance” to school, in “snow, rain”. Yes, and UPHILL…. both ways!
Publication: The Philadelphia Inquirer Friday, October 15, 1920
CANDY MAKERS, exp. all around candy maker on penny specialties preferred: one who can produce: good wages; steady work.
George Smith worked as a quality candy maker and confectionery decorator before he and a partner opened a candy factory on “D” & Indiana Streets that they lost during the depression. He later found employment at the Frankford Candy Company, decorating cakes and the scenes for the Panoramic Easter Eggs. Ruth oftentimes accompanied her father. “I went all the time but he would rather have me home. I distracted him from what he was doing.”
In the face of the suffering caused by the Great Depression, the family remained a source of strength for most Americans. Perhaps the biggest middle-class fear was loss of the family home. “We lost everything in the depression. We lost our house and the “little bungalow place” in Wildwood. We moved in with my maternal Grandmom and Grandpop on Second Street.”
Effects of the Depression on the family structure included combining households to aid needy relatives. They carried on with life as close to normal as they could but “all four of us stayed in one room. It was tough! We had string beans and carrots and potatoes all the time.” Meat could be stretched to last. “If we had beef, we had, stew, stew and more stew.” The economic bad times had affected the lifestyles of all but the very wealthy, resulting in crowded quarters and tensions.
Although several hundred thousand businesses went under, some two million endured, providing products and services. Her grandfather built rotary hosiery machines that made stockings. “My dad went to work with him and he went to Cuba to set up the machines. He was paid with silver dollars. That was a long time ago.”
Ruth went to work at a candy factory when she was 16 to “try and help”.
Assistance and kindness towards others was the hallmark of families during those years.
Ruth’s family has been and still is involved in many aspects of art. The most adequately skilled centenarian, to "cut corners", often sewed clothing at home. She also embroidered and knit and crocheted and her Uncle Arcadi embroidered clothing and appliqués and beaded work in Montreal.
She made clothes for her daughter’s beautiful, collectable ‘Mary Hoyer Doll Made in USA’.
Her son, Joseph George [wife, Marie] creates stained glass crafts as well as her daughter, Pat.
Pat’s husband, Bill was a building construction teacher and he helped Pat and Kim White, both members of the Mosaic Society of Philadelphia, with layouts and framework for their Bristol Borough community Grundy Clock mosaic project. Their son, Ian also started his college career as an Art major at Kutztown University, and their daughter, Leanna, RN is a photographer who creates chalkboard artwork for weddings and parties.
What had her life been like growing up in Philadelphia?
She was given the characteristic pageboy haircut from a comic strip created in 1902. “I had a Buster Brown haircut. I hated that hair! We always wore dresses and saddle shoes.”
There were no department stores. “We shopped in single stores. The ‘dress man’ came and brought my mother dresses, sheets and towels.”
Ruth remembers listening to Detective stories and news broadcasts on the “little square thing” radio that needed ear phones. “It was static-y.” The stories provided an exciting escape, a window to adventure, comedy, music, romance, and news. She enjoyed reading the American children's novels “Bobbsey Twins” and she also liked mysteries and adventure.
“I read “Gone with the Wind” and saw the film. I liked the book better. I liked to imagine.”
Her mother made the best meat loaf, mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes dinner. She was “not too much on desserts but made a dark brown ‘war cake’; no eggs, no butter, with a cup of boiled raisins”.
They had “coal and Harbison milk and Freihofer's Bakery bread delivered.”
She and her friends took the trolley to Willow Grove Amusement Park that operated for eighty years from 1896 until the 1975 season. “The scenic rides, the roller coasters were my favorite.”
Ruth was still enjoying roller coasters and she even parasailed when she was 96 years old.
Her favorite ride ever was the “free-fall” Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Disney World.
“I can get out all my frustrations and scream at the top of my lungs.”
She apparently has always been one to seek unconquered heights!
Anna and George were very strict with their girls. “No music, no dancing, no movies or playing cards.”
Clean living will bring unlimited rewards. Ruth projects a strong affinity for harmony and balance.
Ruth saw her very first movie after she was married.
“The first film I saw was a Mickey Mouse cartoon!”
Mickey officially debuted in the short film Steamboat Willie , one of the first sound cartoons.
Pierino Ronald "Perry" Como [1912-2001] and Howard Andrew “Andy” Williams [1927-2012] became Ruth’s favorite singers.
“As strict as my parents were, they were fun loving. They would run and play with us at the beach.”
Ruth wore a swimsuit down to her knees. “We were pretty covered up. My dad’s bathing suit was made of wool.” Bathing costumes, as they were called, were thick and heavy.
Functionality in swimwear was apparently not as important as fashion.
Ruth met Joseph Egan Bussmann on a blind date, upon the suggestion of her cousin.
Joe was a bus driver for PRT [Philadelphia Rapid Transit]. In 1940, PRT was officially reorganized into [PTC] Philadelphia Transportation Company, the predecessor to Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority [SEPTA]. “I fell for his blue eyes.”
He drove the “double deck” buses and “I rode on the top. It was fun to go up there.”
Veteran Joe was a machinist mate in the US Navy in WWII on USS Hugh W. Hadley, an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, aka “The Champion Kamikaze Killer”. “Both his eardrums were broken.”
The destroyer USS Hugh W. Hadley made naval history when it shot down 23 Japanese planes in one hour and 40 minutes during a mass kamikaze attack on May 11, 1945.The ship and crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, 121 Purple Hearts and 20 other individual medals.
BUSSMANN, JOSEPH E. MM3/c 244-81-10
They were married at her home in June 1936 and honeymooned in Atlantic City for 3 days.
“We walked the boards and took in the sights. Ocean City is my favorite now.”
The first president for whom she voted was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States. FDR’s Presidential term [he was elected to an unprecedented fourth term in office] was March 4, 1933 until his death April 12, 1945.
From 1935 to 1936 the median family income was $1,160. An upper-middle-class family's income began at about $2,500. A way to maintain the standard of living was to have a second income in the household so Ruth worked in the Plantation Candy Company, a manufacturer of fine confections and she also packed products in the very successful Elmo cosmetics factory in Holmesburg. Its dry rouges, lipsticks and face powders were outselling such well-known brands as Helena Rubinstein, Bourjois and even Elizabeth Arden.
Ruth is a proven entrepreneur. While her husband was in the service, she and her sister opened the “Ivy Card Shop” on 5th Street in Philadelphia. “It was a small shop. We had some gifts, knickknacks and Hallmark cards, of course. I could have my son with me. There was an apartment upstairs.”
The cards cost ten or fifteen cents and the stamps were three or five cents.
“My husband didn’t like the business. He wanted no part of it.”
After they sold the shop, they bought a home in NE Philadelphia.
Her first car was a two-tone tan, two-door Oldsmobile. “I chose that car. I loved it with all my heart.”
She learned to drive on the Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park.
“I took my first test there but I didn’t pass. The back wheels were spinning like mad. I didn’t pass that hill.” George did not want her to drive.
When both of their children were in school, she worked at the Mayfair Card & Gift Shop in the evening before taking a position at the Girard Bank as a teller. “I always did like numbers. Math; I liked Math.”
Her 58-year -old husband passed away in 1972 and Ruth continued working at the bank for 23 years.
“I would open new accounts, take loan applications. I even processed loan applications.”
It was time to retire.
She sold her home on Decatur Street to her granddaughter. “So when I go to see her, I say, ‘I’m going home’.”
“I am so blessed to have had her by my side my entire life. She is one of the most caring, thoughtful, kind, generous and loving person you could ever meet! Everyone that meets her is amazed. When asked what's her secret? Her answer is, "Don't let grass grow under you feet!" stated granddaughter, Amy Bussmann-Schickling.
Ruth moved in with her daughter Pat and her son-in-law, William John Buchanan about 4 years ago.
“I think the town is just lovely. It’s so beautiful here. I love it”, she said about Bristol. “You have to feel great.” She enjoys time with her 4 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren…. with one more on the way!
Pat shared, “My mom has a deep religious conviction. She has rarely missed a Sunday at Church and she attends Bible Studies.”
Ruth celebrated her 100th birthday several times. “The group from the Villas at Riverview community had a cake and balloons for her birthday”, shared Pat.
Then Robert Strasser treated her to dinner at his King George II Inn. “I had crab cakes”, and “he even gave me a gift card.”
Additionally, Pat rented the Moose Lodge for an ice cream and cake celebration and then “we had a family dinner party back at home.” Lamb chops are her favorite food but her family prefers “Rindsrouladen”, a German version of the French roulade, typically thin slices of beef wrapped around a pickle spear, bacon, and onion. Her favorite color is blue.
“Almost any shade of blue. Mostly everyone wore blue to the party.”
She has taken two trips back to Romania with her father and her family.
“He took me to the house he grew up in.” It was a small cottage with a second floor and small piece of ground for vegetables and some chickens. No plumbing. There was an outhouse. That was in 1973.
Olympia, my father’s sister still lived in that house.” Ruth’s paternal grandfather had been a tanner in Romania.
Ruth’s words of wisdom for everyone?
“Go to school. Get a good education. Think about what kind of work you’d like to do and be ready for it.
Be content. Be very happy. Be content with your life. Keep busy.”
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Mayfair Magic ….. a long time ago…..