Vancouver’s Junkmen of the Thirties

Jewish Museum & Archives of B.C. L.25110 – Harry Halpern some time after he’d left the occupation of junkman. ca 1960.

This is an atypical VAIW post. It consists largely of an extended verbatim quotation from a long-forgotten West End Vancouver newspaper, called the West End Breeze. The subject of the quote is the junkmen of the 1930s who, with horse and wagon, went through the back lanes of the West End collecting and buying junk for the purpose of selling it to junk dealers. These junkmen were, in fact, early recyclers in the city.

The Breeze was a weekly community newspaper, edited by former Vancouver Sun reporter Myrtle Patterson Gregory (1898-1981) and published in 1932-33. Vancouver collector Neil Whaley has the only known copy of the paper, a bound edition from Gregory’s family. He has graciously made his copy of this article available for use on VAIW.

Myrtle Patterson Gregory started the Breeze as a way to work from home while raising two children. The book Women Who Made The News, by Marjorie Lang, says that Gregory was reputed to be the highest paid female reporter in Canada in the 1920s — at $25 a week. When the Sun started Edith Adams Cottage, Myrtle headed it with a staff of university-trained home economists.

”Any Joonk?” Call Europe-Born Junkmen Who Ride West End Lanes Day After Day

“Any oldt clothe’, any oldt shoe’, any oldt bottl’ — Any Joonk? –“

Vibrant foreign voices from Russia, Poland, Germany — sing-song this cry of wares-to-buy along our West End lanes to an accompaniment of scraping wagon wheels and plod-plodding of horses’ hoofs – minor notes in the rich symphony of West End life and so familiar that we lend to them only a subconscious ear, overlooking entirely the possibilities for human interest. Human interest in sordid “junk”? Human interest, even drama!

“Ja, this garten,” a German junkman said longingly one Spring day as he looked at table and chairs under a blossoming tree. “Ja, this garten, it iss like mein home in Bavaria. Meine frau and my little girl are there. I work to bring them here . . . .two years I work . . . . but now,” a despairing shrug, “hard times.”

Depression hits even the junkmen. Not so many bottles. People are not entertaining so lavishly. Not so many old shoes or old clothes — people are wearing them, not selling them. Even things which in the old days they were glad to have carried away for nothing, they are trying to sell to the junkman for as many pennies as possible.

Ben Gold refuses to be downcast. You’ve heard him in the lanes. He cries his “Any old junk?” call as do the others, but three or four times every block he breaks into a curious chant — “Doo, doo, doo-doo, doo-do-o-o!” (After four years, the words are still unintelligible to this writer).

“Gold, he like fon,” explains one of his contemporaries. “He get tired of same old call, so he put “You Hoo Hoo Hoo” after it — for fon.”

Not two or three junkmen, but ten or more, ply their trade through the West End lanes. Imagine never seeing the West End streets except where they intercept the lanes, briefly. Riding all day on a high wagon seat through lanes — eight miles of lanes a day. Four times towards the Park, and four times east towards Granville. Lunches, wrapped in brown paper, are eaten along the way. On short winter days, a red lantern beside the driver’s seat is lighted for the last couple of miles.

Every junkman, or practically so, owns his own horse and wagon. Harry Halperin [Halpern], on the West End “beat” for 2 years, drives “Baby,” who has been traveling though our lanes for 4 years. “Maggie” is another old faithful. On fine days, junkmen and horse start very early in the morning to make their daily round — for the early birds get the best junk!

Any old clothes? A junkman will buy a good suit for $5 and he will sell it for $7.50 at his special market. He pays 1c a pound for rags. Any old shoes? They are worth 50c a pair to the junkman, allowing him to make a small margin of profit. Any old bottles? Fifteen cents for a dozen is the standard price offered to private vendors in the West End and the junkman will re-sell them to the International Junk Company on Main Street, allowing himself a percentage. Earnings of the junkman average about $3 a day, although they may range from a few cents on a poor day to $10 on a lucky day when women are selling their husbands’ old suits.

Bottles are thus started on their return trip to breweries, wineries and manufacturing concerns. Rags become “wipes,” “shoddy” and material for making into fine papers, wallpaper and roofing. Iron goes back to the foundry, and other metals are gathered up for re-smeltering. Rubber can be re-used. So can farmers’ sacks. The junkman is the important link in the reclaiming of these materials.

Among the best known of the junkmen, in addition to Ben Gold and Harry Halperin [Halpern], are M. Hammer, Jerry [Joe?] Sapoznick, E. Schwartz, T. Jacobson, Ben Baltman, F. Kurtz, S. Kurtz, A. Fagan.

Heat does not deter them from the daily grind . . . . nor wet weather.

“Rain?” asked one younger man with expressive hands, “What does eet matter? We mus’ mak’ de leeving!”

West End Breeze. July 8, 1932

Most of the men listed in the article were of Jewish ancestry. There were a couple of non-Jewish gents. Jacobson was probably from a Slavic country (possibly Finland). But, judging from the death certificates I was able to find, most of the others were “Hebrews”. Benjamin Gold (1884-1949) spent 20 years as as a “junk dealer”. He came from Russia. Joe (I couldn’t find any indication of a Jerry) Sapoznick (1897-1973) was also from Russia. The other three junkmen for whom I was able to find death notices were all from Poland. Max Hammer died in 1947 at age 91. Benny Baltman (1879-1955) lived to 75. And Harry Halpern (not Halperin) (1902-1980) lived until he was 78.

This need hardly be said, perhaps, but none of these junkmen lived in the West End in 1932. They lived, principally on Powell, Union, and Jackson streets. In other words, they lived in the East End and worked in the West End.

I was thrilled to find the photo of Harry Halpern shown above at the Jewish Museum & Archives site. And also the following blurb about his early life, published in the Vancouver Sun in the year of his death:

Harry Halpern was born in Poland in 1902, worked as a butcher, then came to Canada in 1930.

” . . . . I saw an old man driving a horse and a wagon. And I said to him, “What are you doing for a living?” He said “I buy shmatas“. That means rags in Jewish, old clothes. He knew I noticed he was Jewish, and I was Jewish. I said, “Listen, can you take me in your wagon, and show me the town?” He said, “Oh I don’t want partners.” I said, “I don’t want to be a partner, just show me the town. I’ll sit with you in the wagon and you go around.” He said, “Okay. But I promise you I’m not going to give you nothing.”

I went with him to Twelfth Avenue, to the lane. And you know what he did? The first thing he said was “Junk! Rags! Bottles!”

I said, “You’ve got to do that?”

He said, “Well, if I’m not going to do that, nobody will know I’m a junkman.”

Mein Gott, I said to myself, I’ve come to Vancouver to do things like that!”

Vancouver Sun. 4 January 1980 (Halpern’s was one of the Sun’s “Voices from the East End”).
(Note: This quotation is from the first few minutes of Harry Halpern’s contribution to the Jewish Museum & Archives Oral History Project. For Halpern’s full interview, contact the Jewish Museum & Archives of BC.)

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1 Response to Vancouver’s Junkmen of the Thirties

  1. Peter Findlay says:

    Wow, more great childhood memories! I grew up on West 15th Ave and my dad was a garage mechanic and old car collector. There were always numerous vehicles (wrecks?) in our back yard and somehow dad kept finding creative ways to do a few renos and pack a few more in.

    In the 60s the “the junk man” would patrol the lanes in an old pickup with a large bell mounted on the roof of the cab. A gentle “Ding … ding” would signal his presence to anyone who had junk to share. Then he’d get near our place … “DINGDINGDINGDINGDING” and the truck would slow to a crawl, even though he probably knew there was no way my dad was going to part with anything – there was no junk in our yard! The sound of the junk man is firmly implanted on my brain.

    In the 80s I started teaching in the Main St. area and spent much time in the neighbourhood. A visit to Harry’s Ace furniture shop was always fascinating. The longer you looked , the more you found neat things tucked away in the piles of goods he’d accumulated. I was sorry to see it close some years later.

    Thanks for another great post!

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