Christmas at the West Mountain Sanitarium
In the 1930s
As I researched Voices in the Sanitorium, I spent many hours poring over old newspapers. What an adventure each edition of The Scranton Republican and The Scranton Times became! The most mentions of the hospital on West Mountain always happened during the months of November and December. That’s because there was such an outpouring of empathy and goodwill toward the patients battling tuberculosis during the holiday season. Truly I am proud of that generation of citizens of northeastern Pennsylvania — especially as you consider that they not only gathered up gifts, but many brave and generous folks also delivered gifts and entertainment personally — despite there being no accessible cure for TB and such widespread fear of contracting it.
The popular music of the 1930s was heavy on the brass instruments. Vocalists were accompanied by a small orchestra. Hence, entertainment arrived via the busload during the holiday season, which started before Thanksgiving and continued through the New Year. In just one evening of entertainment, Clarence Alimina’s Ramblers played modern and old time dance tunes, several soloists affiliated with the 40 & 8 Posts of the American Legion performed, and a Hawaiian trio serenaded the patients. That same evening, a comedy sketch called “An Old Country Wedding” was performed by ladies auxiliary members. I found dozens of articles regarding nightly entertainment on West Mountain. I imagine the patients welcomed a chance to take their minds off their illness and not being with their families.
The top Christmas songs of the 30s ranged from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” #1 and “Silent Night” #2 to songs that I don’t even think of as Christmas music — “The Way You Look Tonight” #9 and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” #10 (https://www.underthechristmastree.co.uk/10-christmas-number-ones-from-the-1930s/) You can hear some of them here in this collection of Christmas classics from the 1930s. There are some great magazine covers showcased in this video as well. https://youtu.be/YckptFK4BOw
Speaking of magazine covers, the sanitarium patients were constantly given hand-me-down books, newspapers, and magazines. During the Christmas giving, patients were given an abundance of new and used books.
I also discovered that both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of the community created scrapbooks for the children of the sanitarium. It was still a hobby of many during that era to save colorful photos and graphics cut out of magazines, and to collect more from flyers and advertisements. They also added greeting cards to their scrapbooks. These scrapbooks were quite a gift — hours of collecting, cutting, and pasting, not to mention the cost of the scrapbooks themselves.
Keep in mind that the Great Depression started in 1929. Yet, generous support of the hospital on West Mountain continued throughout the thirties. When there was a scarcity of new toys to donate to the school children with tuberculosis, and the “poor kiddies” throughout the Scranton area, there were numerous callouts for older and broken toys to be dropped off at Weston Field on Providence Road. The woodworking class of teens would repair the dolls, miniature vehicles, building blocks, and other playthings most likely manufactured in the 1910s and 1920s. They even picked up toys that donors weren’t able to deliver.
(Check out https://www.thepeoplehistory.com/20stoys.html to see some advertised toys in the 1920s.)
The Kiwanis also collected new and used toys. Members met at the Glidden Paint Store on Wyoming Avenue and spent evenings repairing and repainting toys. They distributed over 4,000 toys to area hospitals and 150 families in need. They drove the steep road up to the tuberculosis hospital to make deliveries to the twenty-nine children in residence.
It wasn’t only the consumptive children who were treated like royalty. Veterans of “The Great War” were given cash, candy, greeting cards, and best of all, cigarettes by an organization called American War Mothers.
(I still cannot get over the constant supply of Lucky Strikes that were even given to the children in the sanitorium in the 1930s — Luckies were the preferred brand of physicians.)
Until I researched for Voices, I never realized that it was the Christmas seals produced by the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis the supported sanitoriums and sanitariums — and that provided funding for the x-rays, especially before counties and states started funding these ventures with tax money. This link from the Postal Museum tells you about the history of the Christmas seal campaigns: https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/america%E2%80%99s-mailing-industry-industry-segments-nonprofit-organizations/the-american-lung
Celebrities helped raise awareness, as you can see here with Babe Ruth helping with a campaign. Patients themselves were asked to help promote the seals with their families and friends. And hospitals weren’t above using recovering children to beg for community support with the yearly Christmas campaigns.
The 1931 Christmas Seal portrayed a family traveling through the snow in a horse and carriage. As I studied the life of Dick Smith, a patient on West Mountain in 1931, who spent every moment he could writing lyrics and entering writing contests to support his hospital stay and his wife, I wondered if this seal influenced him at all. Did he wonder why the illustrator hadn’t drawn a sleigh instead of a carriage? Or why there was a bugler alerting others on the road of their travels instead of the typical sleigh bells?
Reading through the lyrics of Smith’s most famous song “Winter Wonderland” which was already becoming famous before he died in 1935, I can see many other ties to the West Mountain Sanitarium.
Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? — The 1931 Christmas Seals absence of sleigh bells? Were there bells on sleighs that made their way up West Mountain?
In the lane, snow is glistening — The sanitorium roads are still lovely when it snows. The angle of the sun on West Mountain and the fact that there were few trees there in the 30s — one wonders if the snow was blinding at times.
A beautiful sight –– The view from West Mountain after a snowfall is incredible.
We’re happy tonight — Dick’s wife became a nurse at the sanitarium to spend as much time as possible with her ill husband.
Walking in a winter wonderland — Ambulant patients were encouraged to spend time outdoors.
Gone away is the bluebird
Here to stay is a new bird — Bird watching is one of the commonly mentioned joys of sanitarium stays throughout the world
To sing a love song — Dick and his wife were newlyweds.
While we stroll along
Walking in a winter wonderland
In the meadow, we can build a snowman — Not only did some sanitarium children play outdoors, but children from Scranton would hike up the mountain to play on sanitarium property which was like a gigantic park.
We’ll pretend that he is Parson Brown — Pastors were regular visitors at the Sanitarium as they came calling on congregants. Scranton reverands also took turns speaking on Sundays and holidays.
He’ll say, are you married?
We’ll say, no man
But you can do the job when you’re in town
Later on, we’ll conspire
As we dream by the fire There was a huge, lovely fireplace in the sanitarium — its one of the last standing structures in the hospital ruins today.
To face unafraid
The plans that we’ve made — Those who knew Richard B. Smith spoke of his humor, courage and zest for life despite battling tuberculosis.
Walking in a winter wonderland
It has been an honor and a privilege to share the history of a place that helped many people recover in a time when antibiotics were not commonly used to treat TB. The West Mountain Sanitorium was a place where people could fellowship with others facing similar battles. They could enjoy a simple lifestyle surrounded with nature’s loveliness and get away from the smog of industry that hovered down in the valley. I hope you will find Voices in the Sanitorium a tribute to the courage of the patients and workers who spent time on West Mountain.