Earl M. Lasker: Weaver, nurse, husband Alexandria Andrews

Earl M. Lasker was a 40-year-old man interviewed in 1939 as a part of the Federal Writers' Project created by the New Deal. His struggles to keep his family afloat during the Great Depression are detailed in the following biography, which will address the low mill wages and mounting hospital bills that Lasker and many other survivors of the Depression experienced.

The hardships and triumphs of earl m. lasker

Left: A man works at a cotton mill in Greensboro, Georgia, which most likely resembles the mill that Earl and his wife worked at together for a short time. Right: This photo features a hospital and first-aid station in Maryland. Earl worked as a hospital orderly and later as a male nurse at Johns Hopkins hospital.

Early Years

Earl M. Lasker was born on the cusp of a new millennium in 1899 in a state not specified, and he did not mention his childhood save for his one-year attendance in high school. However, despite this educational setback, Lasker's dutiful performance as a hospital orderly in Virginia as a young man earned him the opportunity to be trained as a male nurse, which would prove later to be life-saving.

Married couple spends leisure time together in living room.


Lasker met Ada Moses when he was 27 through a matrimonial newspaper (an early version of Craigslist for singles) and married her the day he arrived in her hometown of Newton, N.C.. Shortly after taking a job as a weaver at the local cotton mill where she worked, his new bride developed an illness that Lasker referred to as "hiccoughs." He sent Ada to week-long treatments at a reputable hospital out of town, but periods of good health were short-lived. Lasker's meager salary in addition to overwhelming hospital bills forced the couple to move in with Ada's parents. When they finally saved enough money to rent their own home, Ada suffered another relapse, and they had to foreclose on their new property in order to pay for treatment. In between bouts of illness, Ada bore her husband a boy and a girl. When Ada's condition worsened to the point where she was bedridden, doctors sent her home with little more than two weeks to live. It was at this critical moment that Lasker decided to take matters into his own hands and use his nursing training to heal his ailing wife.

This photo shows an operation, much like the one Ada received, at a private hospital in 1939.


The hospital sent Ada home delirious from pain medication and with a festering bedsore on her back. Lasker quickly got to work using common, household items to stave off the pain and heal the sore. He gave his wife whiskey in the place of morphine and used salt and soda to make a homemade salve. Kind neighbors gave the family food as Ada's wound healed. Lasker sent her back to the hospital one final time where she had two tumors and a cyst removed, and at the time of the interview she had been consistently healthy for two years. Nevertheless, Lasker said they would be paying hospital bills for years and years to come.

Societal shortcomings of the great depression

Poverty-Stricken citizens line up to receive free food from soup kitchens.

The Difficult Lives of Millworkers

Millions of Americans were unemployed during the Great Depression, which led those who did have a job to accept meager pay and bad conditions because they were afraid to be unemployed. Lasker had to continuously take time off of the mill to tend to his sick wife, but even if he and Ada both worked full time, it was highly unlikely that they could jointly accrue enough money to pull themselves above the poverty line. However, their troubles were not solitary; following the conclusion of World War I, "Mill officials greeted the armistice with a rollback of workers' wages" (Hall 265). Salaries continued to decrease well into the Great Depression. There were plenty of mills in need of employees, but owners sought to increase profit by reducing pay. Mill hands saw "themselves as a people apart, exploited by men with interests opposed to their own and denied opportunities for progress" (Hall 282). As did so many others, Lasker lost his home several times and had to accept charitable food donations in order to survive.

Healthcare Disaster

The inescapable poverty that permeated through the nation during the Great Depression made it nearly impossible to have access to quality healthcare, which meant that much of Lasker's life was spent taking care of his wife and paying her medical bills. This took an extreme financial toll on the household because of his low and inconsistent income. Although Ada eventually recovered from her sickness, “large increases in the mortality rate occurred from cancer and other malignant tumors," because doctors lacked the resources to properly treat these serious conditions ("Medicine and Health" para. 2). Not surprisingly, "a study...by the US Public Health Service in 1933 found that lower-income population groups experienced higher incidences of disabling illnesses," which can be attributed to poor living conditions, diet, and hygiene (Hoffman 6). The removal of an income coupled with expensive hospital bills caused many families to fall into hopeless debt just like the Laskers’.

why was earl m. Lasker interviewed?

Federal Writers' Project in N.C.

By sending interviewers to gather the life stories of regular people such as Lasker, the Federal Writers' project provided jobs fit for white collar workers and produced a record of what life was like during that time period. The Federal Writers' Project in North Carolina "had three objectives: to provide jobs for the unemployed, to rehabilitate workers by helping them to maintain and improve their skills, and to produce publications of lasting merit as a contribution to the culture of the state and local communities" ("Federal Writers' Project" para. 1). The agency achieved its goal with the establishment of the Life Histories Collection, albeit not without some issues.

Orignial transcribed life history of earl M. Lasker

Potential Problems with Life Histories

While life histories are certainly useful resources when examining lifestyles of the Great Depression, the interviewers designated with the task of transcribing life histories were not extensively trained. Therefore, they could have easily transmitted bias or altered the stories in order to increase their entertainment value. Rapport, a writer for the FWP, theorized that interviewers may have identified themselves as "potential fiction writers" and exercised their craft instead of sticking to what was said during the interview (14). Although it is impossible to know how accurately the facts of Lasker's interview were communicated, his transcript is entirely in quotations, which suggests at least some degree of authenticity.

Disclaimer: The original life history document discussed in this article used aliases, but because the author could not locate any information on Earl M. Lasker and others mentioned in the text, real names are used.

Works cited

Deal (interviewer): I'm a Good Nurse, Folder 355 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hall, Jacquelyn D., et al. "Cotton Mill People: Work, Community, and Protest in the Textile South, 1880-1940." The American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 2, Apr. 1986, pp. 245-286. JSTOR, https://jstor.org/stable/1858134. Accessed 6 February 2017.

Hill, Michael. "Federal Writers' Project." Encyclopedia of North Carolina, edited by William S.Powell, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, https://ncpedia.org/federal-writers-project. Accessed 4 February 2017.

Hoffman, Beatrix R. Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States Since 1930. E-book ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. EBSCOhost, https://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzQ3OTA4Ml9fQU41?sid=bc273e34-c779-4bf6-ab3a-f57008017e80@sessionmgr103&vid=0&format=EB&lpid=lp_1&rid=0. Accessed 4 February 2017.

"Medicine and Health in the 1930s: Overview." DISCovering U.S. History, Gale Cengage Learning, 2003, http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/suic/ReferenceDetailsPage/DocumentToolsPortletWindow?displayGroupName=Reference&action=2&catId=&documentId=GALE%7CEJ2104240125&source=Bookmark&u=clea26856&jsid=03daf8c763e8a9c67c8e7d3a4a970777. Accessed 9 February 2017.

Rapport, Leonard. "How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers." The Oral History Review, vol. 7, 1979, pp. 6-17. JSTOR, https://jstor.org/stable/3675185. Accessed 6 February 2017.

images cited

Image #1. Delano, Jack. At the Mary-Lelia Cotton Mill in Greensboro, Georgia. 1941. Library of Congress,. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998009510/PP.

Image #2. Delano, Jack. At the Mary-Lelia Cotton Mill in Greensboro, Georgia. 1941. Library of Congress,. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998009513/PP.

Image #3. Mydans, Carl. Hospital and First Aid Station. Berwyn, Maryland. 1936. Library of Congress,. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997000897/PP.

Image #4. Mydans, Carl. Family in Their New Home. Penderlea Homesteads. 1936. Library of Congress,. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998020294/PP.

Image #5. Rothstein, Arthur. Operation, Herrin Hospital (Private), Herrin Illinois. 1939. Library of Congress,. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997010452/PP.

Image #6. "The Great Depression Photo Galleries: Soup Kitchens and Breadlines." History, A&E Television Networks, http://history.com/topics/great-depression/pictures/soup-kitchens-and-breadlines/police-handing-food-out.

Image #7. Folder 355: "I'm a Good Nurse." Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill. Personal Photo by Author 2017.

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