Working in Oregon: The Blue Collar Adolescence of Linus Pauling

The Pauling family, 1916.

The Pauling family, 1916.

Interviewer: Have you in the past, or do you now smoke?

LP: When I was about your age or younger, I thought that it was proper, something wrong if I didn’t smoke cigarettes; so I smoked a few cigarettes.  But fortunately I was so poor that I didn’t have money enough to buy them, so I got through the danger period as a result of poverty.  It was a fortunate thing; I might well have developed this drug addiction, as the fellows call it.

-“Aging and Death,” April 8, 1960.

As a famed scientist, activist, and Nobel laureate, Linus Pauling had the opportunity to travel all over the world, acting as guest to some of the 20th century’s most distinguished intellectuals. Despite spending much of his adult life as a world traveler, jetting from one laboratory to the next, we here at the Pauling Blog like to think that he reserved a special place in his heart for Oregon. Born and raised an Oregonian, Pauling met and overcame many of the hurdles of adolescence here in our green state. For Pauling, memories of his education and work always seemed to mark his time in the beaver state. Today, we’d like to honor the famously industrious chemist with a look at his role as a blue collar worker and member of the Oregon labor force.

After the death of Linus’ father, Herman, in 1910, the Pauling family fell on hard times. Belle, Linus’ mother, sold Herman’s drugstore in Portland and purchased a home with the proceeds. There, she opened a boardinghouse and used the income from renters to support her family. Unfortunately, the boardinghouse didn’t bring in enough money and Linus, the man of the house, was sent to work.

When Pauling turned thirteen, his mother purchased a bicycle for him so that he could work as a delivery boy. He found jobs delivering milk, newspapers, and even special delivery packages for the postal service. While the delivery work did offer Pauling a chance to tour Portland and gave him plenty of exercise, it was dull and, by and large, he resented it. By now, he had discovered an interest in the sciences and the deliveries kept him away from his homemade laboratory. On top of it all, he wasn’t allowed to keep his earnings but was instead compelled to hand them over to Belle.

In the summer of 1914, the Pauling family took a vacation. Belle suffered from pernicious anemia, which kept her bedridden much of the time. In order to help alleviate the symptoms, her doctor suggested a trip to the Oregon coast, where she could get away from the stress of the boardinghouse and benefit from the sea air. Unfortunately for Linus, the summer at the coast was not to be one of uninterrupted relaxation. Upon arrival at their vacationing spot, young Pauling was sent out in search of employment. He soon found a job at a local bowling alley and spent his summer setting pins for other tourists.

After returning to Portland in the fall of 1914, Pauling was again required to find a job. This time, he was hired on at a local movie theater where he worked as a projectionist, switching out reels and monitoring the film. Pauling, who was too poor to attend the cinema as a paying customer, enjoyed the work because he was able to watch all the newest films. Unfortunately, work as a projectionist soon lost its novelty. Moreover, the Paulings were sliding further into debt and Linus was expected to contribute increasing amounts to the household income.

Salary and expenditures data, January 1920.

Salary and expenditures data, January 1920.

By this time, Pauling had aspirations of becoming a corporate chemist. It was well known that companies across the nation were paying high salaries to trained chemists capable of developing saleable products. In a fit of ambition, Pauling and his friend, Lloyd Simon, decided to put their own knowledge of the sciences to work:  the two teenagers opened a photo developing business, purchasing expired materials at bargain prices from a local supplier. Next, the two boys began going door-to-door in search of clients. A few kindly shop owners in the neighborhood agreed to send their business to the two young entrepreneurs. Unfortunately for the boys, prosperity was not to be achieved so easily. Between their lack of experience and the poor quality of the materials they had purchased, the developed photos were unusable. The business venture was a disaster and, even worse, both boys had sunk most of their own savings into it. Linus was poorer than ever.

In 1917, frustrated with his high school administrators, Pauling dropped out. He had earned enough credits to attend Oregon Agricultural College, so he decided to work instead of continue on with his high school education. For the remainder of the winter and spring, he worked odd jobs, including a brief stint at People’s Market and then Apple’s Meat Market, making eight dollars a week. Both stores were floundering though, and Pauling was soon laid off due to lack of business.

Desperate to earn money for school in the fall, Pauling took a job as an apprentice machinist under Mr. Schwiezerhoft, owner of the Pacific Scale & Supply Co. Pauling began work at $40.00 per month. He quickly proved to be a capable worker and, at the end of his first week, was given a five dollar per month raise. By the end of the month, he was making $50.00. Over the course of the summer, Schwiezerhoft began relying more and more on Pauling’s skills. The salary raises continued and, by late August, Pauling was earning $100 per month – approximately $1600 dollars in today’s economy.  Schwiezerhoft did his best to convince Pauling to stay with the company rather than venturing off to Oregon Agricultural College. He even went so far as to offer Pauling a 50% salary increase. Alas, despite the promise of a living wage and his mother’s pleas, Pauling chose to leave for OAC at the end of the summer.

Linus puts his finely honed wood-chopping skills to use. 1927.

Linus puts his finely honed wood-chopping skills to use. 1927.

By the time Pauling reached Corvallis, he was almost broke. His family had absorbed most of his earnings, and supplies and living expenses had eaten up the rest. In order to cover the cost of room and board, Pauling took on employment with OAC. He was assigned a long series of odd jobs including janitorial work, chopping wood, and butchering meat for a girls’ dormitory. The work was dull, hard, and time consuming. To make matters worse, Pauling only made $0.25 an hour and worked one-hundred hours each month. In a 1960 letter from Pauling to his son, Peter, he hints at the difficulty of this time.

I have decided that I have a little neurosis resembling the one that affected W. C. Fields. He had had such a hard time in his youth that after he got old and rich he still had trouble to keep from worrying about money. I have decided that the bad three months that I had just after my seventeenth birthday, when I was doing pretty hard physical work but not getting enough to eat because of lack of money still bothers me to some extent. Of course, Mama and I had some trouble during the first couple of years after we were married, but nothing quite so bad as this earlier three months for me.

It is easy to see how Pauling may have been dogged by his early money woes. During his freshman year in Corvallis, he was in almost constant transition between boarding houses, never having enough cash to make rent. His time was consumed by school and work without much opportunity for sleep, and he was perpetually hungry. For the rest of his life he would possess a small, irrational fear of returning to that poverty.

During the summer of 1918, Pauling was employed at a Tillamook shipyard where he worked on the construction of a 4,000-ton ship. The work was labor intensive, but Pauling earned enough to meet his living expenses. At the beginning of the following school year, he was hired on with the chemistry department as a stockroom employee, charged with maintaining inventories of supplies and mixing compounds for student use. The work was easy and allowed him to interact with members of the chemistry department, something that would prove valuable later on.

Linus Pauling working as a pavement tester. 1926.

Linus Pauling working as a pavement tester. 1922.

Pauling’s chemistry skills again came into play during the summer of 1919. Instead of returning to the shipyards, he found a position as a pavement tester with the Oregon Department of Transportation. For three months, he and his fellow workers travelled through Oregon, repairing and building new roads. Pauling’s job was to analyze the quality of the pavement being applied, making sure that the material would hold together under heavy use. Despite months of sleeping outdoors and spending his days with a group of rough, experienced, blue-collar laborers, Pauling never lost his academic persona. In true Pauling fashion, during the evenings while the other workers gambled and told stories, he studied chemistry and physics.

Though Pauling made good money working as a pavement tester, Belle was getting desperate. The boardinghouse wasn’t bringing in enough cash and Belle’s debts, including her medical expenses, were becoming unmanageable. In an attempt to make Linus responsible for providing for the family, she forbade him from returning to OAC for the 1919-1920 school year. Out of options, Pauling decided to keep his job with the Department of Transportation. Fortunately, his luck was about to turn.

In the late autumn of 1919, Pauling received a telegram from the OAC chemistry department. A member of their faculty was unable to teach during the following term and they needed a replacement. Pauling was offered a full-time position as an assistant professor of chemistry. Though it meant a $25 per month pay cut, Pauling accepted immediately. That winter, he taught Quantitative Analysis to eighty freshmen. The department was so pleased with his work that he was assigned two more classes for the following term.

That summer, he returned to his pavement testing job and in the fall, he took up a position as assistant to Samuel H. Graf, the school’s professor of mechanics. The job paid well enough that Pauling was able to meet all of his living expenses and send the remainder back to his mother. During the summer of 1922, he again worked with the road crew, zig-zagging across Oregon. By now, he had established seniority and was bringing in good money. And in the process, he had become a sort of kid brother to the rest of the crew, who admired his intelligence and seemed to enjoy his company.

Pauling returned to OAC in 1922 as a senior. At first, he started back as Graf’s assistant but was soon approached with a better offer. The chemistry staff was once again in need of another professor, and asked that Pauling teach Chemistry for Home Economics Majors. Pauling accepted and it was here, in the winter of 1923, that he met his future wife Ava Helen Miller.

That spring, Linus graduated. The next few years would be lean, with he and Ava Helen carefully monitoring their spending. But before long Pauling would find himself to be a successful and, in time, wealthy individual. Even so, as evidenced by his letter to Peter, the memory of hunger and the stress of poverty would always be with him.

For more information about Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal or check out our Oregon 150 series.

Oregon 150

5 Responses

  1. […] sort of challenge to him. This was fortunate, because he needed every minute of his free time to work his various jobs, and also to feed his ever-growing appetite for chemistry, which he had developed around the same […]

  2. […] out over the summers of his undergraduate years at Oregon Agricultural College. A theme that had shadowed much of his young adult life – problems with finances – would continue to follow him into his graduate studies. The […]

  3. […] Wilson Darling for the first time. He spent the next day on the Oregon coast, seeking out former vacation and employment spots in Seaside and Tillamook, and then drove to Corvallis for a few days before attending his class […]

  4. […] to do a number of chores for the boardinghouse and eventually compelled to seek outside employment. As would happen again to Pauling later in life, the wages from their jobs were completely utilized by Belle to supplement the family […]

  5. […] on, Linus’s childhood was certainly informed, if not dominated, by the continual need to contribute to the household income. His mother’s only asset of consequence was the family home, which she boarded out on a […]

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