Frequent MyInwood contributer Herb Maruska grew up in Inwood. His memories of post World War II Inwood are as detailed as they are fascinating.
This time around Herb takes us into the kitchens, basement and furnace of his childhood home located in 157-159 Vermilyea. He calls this piece “Coal and Soap.”
Thanks Herb for this peek into a life before many of the modern conveniences we now take for granted.
Coal and Soap
Written by Herb Maruska:
The apartment house at 157-159 Vermilyea Avenue was built in 1910, so coal was originally used for heating the building. Although in the years following the Second World War, many buildings in the neighborhood slowly converted to oil heat, Mrs. Lichtenstein, the owner of the building, did not want to spend the money necessary for conversion to oil. So even in the 1960’s, the building continued to rely on coal.
The coal was delivered from the Weber-Bunke-Lange Coal Yard on the Harlem River at 203rd Street. The coal was brought to the yard in barges, and dumped into a huge pile of coal on the shore. Coal was delivered to various apartment houses in coal trucks. When the truck arrived at 157 Vermilyea Avenue, it needed to come up on the sidewalk so that the coal could be dumped into the coal bin in the basement using a slide. The first apartment on the ground floor on the left side of the building served as the coal bin.
On the day when the delivery of coal was scheduled, Harry “Wujeku” Konopka (Wujeku means uncle in Polish), the super, would line up garbage cans in the street to prevent a car from being parked where the coal truck needed to cross over the sidewalk. When the truck was in place, he would open the front widow of the apartment and the coal chute would be set at the back of the truck, ranging through the window. Then the truck driver would raise the hopper and let the coal slide into the basement.
The coal then needed to be moved through the building to the furnace. A wheelbarrow was employed for this task. Konopka would use a shovel to fill the wheelbarrow with coal, and then he had to maneuver the load though the hallways back to the furnace. This was not an easy job for an elderly man, but he persevered. He would then open the heavy front door of the large cast iron furnace, and pitch the new load of coal into the flames.
Coal was not the only fuel that was burnt in the furnace at 157 Vermilyea Avenue. All of the garbage that tenants sent to the basement in the dumbwaiter cabinet was also burned. Remember that the functioning dumbwaiter was located in the back end of the hallway, near the rear apartments, and you just loaded your bags of trash and pulled the rope to send the trash downstairs. Wujeku would unload each bag and critically examine the contents, looking for small valuable items such as alarm clocks and food scraps for his guard dogs. But then, what was he supposed to do with the undesirable garbage? Why, he dumped it all into the furnace! The garbage served to supplement the meager coal rations which Mrs. Lichtenstein purchased from Weber-Bunke-Lange.
Burning garbage is actually quite unpleasant. Typically the supply consisted of many copies of the New York Daily News. The pages would all catch fire in the furnace, but then the strong current of hot air would lift the flaming pages up through the chimney. Yesterday’s Daily News pages, all blackened around the edges, would then flutter slowly back down to the ground in our courtyard. But if there was a gust of wind at just the right moment, a page or two would drift into our apartment through an open window. My father would not read the Daily News: he was too intellectual. He read the New York Times. But as a kid, I enjoyed being able to read the simpler stories in the Daily News which were delivered a day late through our kitchen window.
Old burnt newspapers weren’t the only effluent from the coal furnace which wafted through the kitchen window. We also got coal tar. Naturally the ancient coal furnace had no scrubber system. Whatever chemicals were generated from burning the filthy coal just went up the chimney. Coal is not a clean source of heat. It contains all sorts of junk, including pieces of ferns and dead dinosaurs. So when the coal was being burnt, black smoke puffed out of the chimney. The chemicals quickly cooled in the atmosphere and forming tiny black droplets of tar, which sank back to earth, much like the Daily News pages. This coal tar would slowly but surely make its way in through our kitchen window. A coating of black slime would be deposited on the window frame, the window sill, and on Aunt Vera’s plants. These evergreen plants came originally from Dr. Manisoff’s house downtown, where Vera worked as a housemaid when she originally arrived from Slovakia.
After awhile, the green leaves of Aunt Vera’s plants would turn black and get slimy from the coal tar. The kitchen window region needed a thorough cleaning to remove the residue of coal tar. But first, how did the coal tar residue get inside the apartment?
From somewhere back in the 1800’s until around 1950, homes were supplied with coal gas to provide lighting, heat, and cooking gas. The process for turning solid chunks of coal into gas was originally developed in Germany around 1780. Basically, in the processing plant they burn coal while spraying water onto the fire. You get the following basic chemical reaction:
C + H2O -> CO + H2
This reaction reads: C (coal) + H2O (water) yields CO (carbon monoxide) and H2 (hydrogen). The carbon monoxide and hydrogen mixture was then funneled into a pipe and sent to an enormous gas storage tank. The gas storage tank which was located on Fordham Landing Road and Cedar Avenue just across the Harlem River from Inwood is shown below. Carbon monoxide is extremely toxic. At a concentration of 1% in the air in a room, a single breath is instantly fatal. At a concentration of 4% in room air, hydrogen can detonate. Good grief! And this deadly gas mixture was routed from the cast iron storage tank into all of the apartments in the neighborhood. What if the stove leaked? How did we survive?
The answer to survival in case there was a deadly gas leak from the kitchen stove was to keep the kitchen window open at all times. Summer or winter, rain or shine, our kitchen window was always open.
You see, both carbon monoxide and hydrogen are lighter than air, so the gas molecules would tend to rise up and float out the window. Some birds might inhale the fumes and fall out of the sky, but at least we were all safe. But since the kitchen window was always open to allow the carbon monoxide to exude from the house through the window, this open window also provided an ingress for coal tar emanating from the chimney. A dangerous health trade-off! But coal tar, like the tar from cigarettes, leads to a slow death later in the future, while carbon monoxide promised instant death. So my parents chose to leave the window open.
So how was my poor mother, Emma Maruska, supposed to clean the slimy dark coal tar off her window frame, and especially off the leaves of her Sister Vera’s plants which were living in our apartment. This task required Grandma’s Lye Soap. Julia “Ciotka” Konopka provided facilities for manufacturing Grandma’s Lye Soap in the basement of 157 Vermilyea Avenue. The Lye Soap was created in a large steel vat which had been produced originally by Wujeku. The vat was square, maybe four feet by four feet in area, and maybe with sides two or three inches high. To make lye soap, you needed lye and lard.
Women from the Old Country tended to fry most of the meat which they prepared for the family dinner. So, for example, pork chops would be fried in a pan on a top burner of the stove, with the pan filled with gobs of Crisco. The heat was produced by burning the coal gas.
Afterwards, a prudent lady like Emma would pour the molten lard, flavored with pork fat, into an empty jar. Of course, Julia Konopka and a few other ladies in the building would also save all of their used cooking fat in little jars. When there were sufficient jars of used fat, they were taken down to the basement. Julia provided cans of Draino, which is lye. The fat and the lye, along with some water, were all loaded into the Grandma’s Lye Soap vat. Julia Konopka had a secret recipe from Poland so she knew the exact ratios of the components which were needed. All of the ingredients were carefully stirred together with a large wooden spoon. The vat was placed on four old red bricks and heat was supplied from below. The soap was brewed for several days. Finally it became a smooth yellow mass, spread evenly throughout the vat. Now the heat was removed, and the lye soap was allowed to cool. Afterwards Ciotka took a large carving knife and sawed the soap into convenient pieces, about two inches wide, and four inches long. The soap bricks were stored on a shelf. Then Emma could come down to the basement and get a bar of lye soap, which in addition to cleaning tar off the kitchen window, was useful for cleaning pots and pans, and doing the laundry in the kitchen sink.
Grandma’s Lye Soap was popular throughout the land. In fact, in 1952 Johnny Standley made a hit record about Grandma’s Lye Soap which spent two weeks at number one on the Billboard Pop Music Survey:
It’s in the Book
By: Johnny Standley
Do you remember grandma’s lye soap
Good for everything in the home?
And the secret was in the scrubbing
It wouldn’t suds and couldn’t foam
Then let us all sing right out of grandma’s lye soap
Used for, used for everything on the place
For pots and kettles, the dirty dishes
And for your hands and for your face
Little Herman and brother Thurman
Had an aversion to washing their ears
Grandma scrubbed them with the lye soap
And they haven’t heard a word in years
Then let us all sing right out of grandma’s lye soap
Sing all out, all over the place
The pots and kettles, the dirty dishes
And for your hands and also for your face.
Mrs. O’Malley, out in the valley
Suffered from ulcers, I understand
She swallowed a cake of grandma’s lye soap
Has the cleanest ulcers in the land
Then let us all sing right out of grandma’s lye soap
Sing right out, all over the place
The pots oh, the pots and pans, oh the dirty dishes
And for the hands and for your face.
There was I, eight years old, roaming around Inwood Hill Park, warbling this delightful song. I especially liked the part about Herman and Thurman getting their ears washed with lye soap. No, my mom never washed my ears with the stuff!
Thanks again Herb. I think we’ll all have this song stuck in our heads for some time to come.
If you’d like to read more about Herb and his Inwood childhood, click here.