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Local History, Local Ingenuity in the Depression

A young brother-and-sister duo rebounded from unemployment during the Great Depression.

In 1939, even with the worst years of the Depression behind them, Americans had to rely on ingenuity to find jobs. With the unemployment rate above 17 percent that year, a South Orange brother and sister put themselves to work and hired a handful of helpers besides.

The Newark Sunday Call reports that a new firm, At Your Service, “Builds doghouse or writes a poem.” Mary Jackson, 21, and her brother, Charles, 20, of Clark Street, were both the brains and the muscle of At Your Service, which debuted in March 1939.

The firm was headed by Charlie, President, while Mary served as Secretary-Treasurer. Job responsibilities for both included exercising horses, planning parties, painting miniatures on ivory, typing, writing a poem “for your sweetheart,” and building doghouses. The newspaper reports that the Jackson firm had “caused something of a sensation” around the neighborhood, and their mother, Natalie L’Hommedieu Jackson, a painter, described herself as “a bit bewildered.”

The L’Hommedieu family was well known to South Orange, of course, which may have helped publicize the brother-sister venture. Natalie L’Hommedieu Jackson’s father, Sylvester L’Hommedieu was described as a “large landowner” in town, and their home was at 416 Hillside Terrace. Natalie’s own wedding received top billing in The New York Times Social Notes of Oct. 9, 1909. The younger Jacksons’ father was Pearsall Bradhurst Jackson, originally from New York City, a Wall Street broker. The family was related to the Woodhouses, who lived at “Rexleigh,” or 163 Ridgewood Road.

Mary Jackson explained the genesis of the business. “You see … there didn’t seem to be any made-to-order careers lying around, so Charlie and I decided to carve out one of our own.” She and her brother distributed leaflets through their West Montrose neighborhood. According to Mary, “Business has boomed.” The brother and sister duo were called upon to mind teething babies, fix a collapsed bed, and drive two 16-year-old girls home from a party.

Charlie Jackson was a graduate of Carteret Academy in Orange, and Mary graduated from Miss Beard’s School, also in Orange and a forerunner of Morristown-Beard School. Work they weren’t able to do themselves was turned over to “specialists,” mostly school friends, whose talents were more specific. Miss M. M. Tracy, for example, specialized in “purchase of theatre tickets,” and John A. F. Willis served as the “Princeton representative of the firm.”

Financial records or further details of the company are lost to history, and it’s likely that World War II changed the employment prospects of the Jacksons. Still, their drive and their company motto—“You name it—we do it”—are a worthwhile reminder that challenging times can bring forth creative solutions.

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