Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Icebox Battle, a Story from 1930 or so…

An Iceman, 1929, and an Electric Regrigerator, 1928

An Iceman, 1929, and an Electric Regrigerator, 1928

The story that follows came from my father. I’m not sure when it happened, but late 1920s or early 1930s seems likely. If – IF –it happened as he said….

By the time I was born, my Aunt Dorothy wasn’t speaking to either of her brothers.  She didn’t approve of the woman my Uncle Mel had married – although (or perhaps because) both women worked for the same company and sometimes sat across the desk from each other. And, after the Icebox Battle, she wasn’t speaking to her brother Harris, either.

Aunt Gertrude, Uncle Harris and their son, 1921

Aunt Gertrude, Uncle Harris and their son, 1921

Harris, her elder brother, was married and had two children whom she adored. gerry mimi742

In fact, the Icebox incident that ended so badly took place at a family gathering at his house.

Harris was married to my Aunt Gertrude, who had sailed to America from Finland (according to family legend) after just missing the Titanic and switching to a different ship.

Aunt Gertrude in 1917

Aunt Gertrude in 1917

My Aunt Gertrude once saved me from a terrible accident while I was staying at her house. After playing outside on a cold winter day, I came into the kitchen where she was cooking dinner, and stood with my back to the stove to warm up. The gas burner set one of my braids on fire. Gertrude leaped out of her chair and clapped both of her bare hands over my flaming hair, so fast that I had no time to be frightened or hurt. Of course, we had to cut both braids short to make tham match, so there was no hiding the accident from my mother…. But I enjoyed that visit; Gertrude was a skilled weaver, and, as she worked on a large linen tablecloth, I could hear the “thump, THUMP!” all the way out in the back yard.

Their house had a living room that opened into the dining room through a wide archway. I think I remember that the sofa was placed a few feet in front of that opening. There was plenty of room to walk around either end. When no formal dinners were planned, Gertrude set up her loom in the dining room, which was the only room big enough to hold it.

But on the night of the Icebox Battle, the dining room was being used for a dinner party, with Harris and Gertrude, Dorothy and her husband, my mother and father, and possibly my grandmother and a great aunt or two.

Aunt Dorothy, in the 1920s

Aunt Dorothy, in the 1920s

Like my mother and father, Dorothy and her husband both had jobs. They were childless; Dorothy was married to a career Army man, and they lived on the Presidio, in officer’s housing. So Dorothy had more disposable income than her brother and his wife, and she could afford to be “modern.”That night she made the mistake of bragging that she had just bought an electric refrigerator. She was going on about the convenience of not having to empty the ice-melt pan every day, and not having to have blocks of ice delivered regularly by the iceman – when silence fell. mel redwood ice delivery cropped

Dorothy had forgotten that her uncle owned the Redwood City Ice House, that both of her brothers had been icemen, and that Harris still worked there. The dinner she had just eaten was paid for by his Ice House job.

Dorothy was small, but she had a temper. So did Gertrude, who asked how dared she buy a refrigerator! Didn’t she realize she was “taking food out of the mouths of her brother’s children? What if everybody got rid of their icebox and stopped buying ice?”

Dorothy said times were changing, and you had to keep up with progress. She may have added something about old-fashioned people from Finland….

Gertrude said – well, I don’t know what she said, but one of my aunts got her face slapped, and got her own face slapped in return. I’m not sure which of my aunts threw the first punch. One of my aunts gave her sister-in-law a black eye, after which, according to my father, the hostess landed a return punch that sent Dorothy flying right over the back of the sofa, “ass over teakettle!” (I’m quoting. My father rarely used that kind of language in front of me, so it was memorable.)

Poor Uncle Harris. He hadn’t had a chance to say a word, but somehow Dorothy decided it was all his fault.

General Electric Refrigerator Ad, Ladies' Home Journal, Jan. 1936

General Electric Refrigerator Ad, Ladies’ Home Journal, Jan. 1936

NOTE: As I said at the beginning, this story was my father’s explanation of the start of a family feud. However, Dorothy did love her niece and nephew, and this photo from the late 1930s shows them all gathered around the table, with Harris sitting at the head, Gertrude standing behind him, and Dorothy at the far left of photo.dinner party739 Did they make up temporarily for the sake of the children? Or, if this was the disastrous dinner, then Dorothy waited till 1937 or ’38 to buy a refrigerator. The “handwriting on the wall” of the Ice House  – its approaching fate – should have been pretty visible by then!

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under 1920s, 1930s, Tales I Was Told, Vintage Ads, Vintage Photographs

The Iceman Cometh, and Goeth, and Leaveth a Trail of Water on the Floor

Redwood City Icehouse, delivery wagon. Notice the man on right holding a block of ice in ice tongs.

Redwood City Icehouse, delivery wagon. Notice the man on right holding a block of ice in ice tongs.

In the 1950s, my grandmother used the words “Icebox” and “Refrigerator” interchangeably. Married in the 1890s, she’d had an icebox for several decades longer than she’d had an electric refrigerator in her kitchen. My parents also said “the icebox” fairly often. My husband, whose parents grew up on small farms in Texas, claims he never heard anyone say “refrigerator” until he met me. Some of the upper-class girls in his high school in the 1960s said “fridge.” He thought it was short for Frigidaire, a brand name electric refrigerator.

Icebox, Montgomery Ward Catalog, 1894-95. Hinged flap at bottom.

Icebox, Montgomery Ward Catalog, 1894-95. Hinged flap at bottom.

I was surprised to see that the Montgomery Ward catalog called this icebox a refrigerator in 1894; to my folks, a “refrigerator” was an electric appliance.

The Icebox

As I recall, from seeing one at a rural cabin, the icebox usually had thick wooden doors – for insulation. In the basic model there were two compartments, lined with rust-proof metal; the bottom one held the food and the top one held a block of ice – as much as 40 lbs. Being a solid block, rather than cubes, it took several days to melt completely  – I have no idea how the housewife dealt with all that meltwater. It collected in a pan inconveniently located on the floor, behind that hinged flap at the bottom, and she had get down on her knees and empty it daily to be sure it never overflowed.

When I asked my Grandma about “icebox” and “refrigerator,” she explained that, if you had an icebox,  the iceman brought a fresh block of ice to your house on a regular basis. What she recalled was the mess.

The Iceman

Iceman Delivering Ice, from an ad, 1929

Iceman Delivering Ice, from an ad, 1929

The Iceman was supposed to come to your back door (if you had one) and take the shortest route to the kitchen – or back porch, if that was where the icebox was. He carried the block of ice with ice tongs, and he usually had a pad of folded burlap sacking on his shoulder, so he could rest the ice there; the sacking was supposed to absorb the drips from the melting ice – a real problem with summer deliveries. But sometimes a lazy iceman came to the front door, carried the ice at his side instead of on his shoulder, and left a trail of water all the way through the house – and then walked through it on his way back to the delivery truck! That’s what stuck in Grandma’s memory. It must have taken a determined iceman to do that in her house, because her family, the Lipps,  owned the Ice Company!union ice motor truck robert lipp cropped

The Iceman Cometh

If you’re interested in Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Iceman Cometh, I do have a few things to say about it – but, since I don’t want to encourage plagiarism, I’ll say them in as casual and indirect a format as I can. (The old adage applies: If you steal from one writer, that’s plagiarism. If you steal from many writers, that’s research.)

The title of the play is a reference to an off-color joke which would probably have been familiar to most of O’Neill’s audience. It begins, “A husband comes home from work early on a hot day. He hollers upstairs to his wife, ‘Has the iceman come yet?’ “. . .

When reading or staging a play by O’Neill, it’s very important to pay attention to his references to poetry, songs, jokes, catch-phrases, and popular culture in general. If O’Neill mentions a popular song, it’s usually worth looking up all the lyrics. With the internet, there’s no reason not to! In Ah, Wilderness! For example, there are many such references. An audience of O’Neill’s contemporaries probably got them all; now we have to have program notes written by a dramaturg.

Popular Culture and the Iceman

In The Iceman Cometh the central character, Hickey, is a salesman. Telling jokes was part of the salesman’s stock in trade. Jokes about traveling salesmen were very common. (No pun intended.) Most played off the idea that door-to-door salesmen frequently found themselves in sexually tempting situations – they were often alone in the house with women they could flirt with, while the menfolks were away.

So was the iceman.

Ad for the Herrick Outside Icebox, June 1924

Ad for the Herrick Outside Icebox, June 1924

This ad for an icebox that can be serviced (ahem) from the outside of the house would appeal to women who were tired of mopping up the trail of dripping water that ran through the hall and living room to their kitchens every time the iceman came.

I suspect it also would have appealed to jealous husbands. (Notice how handsome this iceman is.)

The Iceman as Metaphor

By using the archaic – and biblical — verb form “cometh” instead of “comes,” O’Neill set his audience up for a double meaning, warning that a variation on the old joke was in play. (Speaking of “archaic,” did you hear about the archeologist whose wife wanted to get him a really special birthday cake?  She had the bakery write “Happy Birthday” in ancient Greek . Her husband was delighted, but when his guests tried to eat the cake, it tasted awful. “Well,” said the archeologist, “That just goes to show that we can’t have archaic and eat it, too.”) “Cometh” is a hint that the metaphorical Iceman, Death, is just offstage, waiting in the wings. Eventually he makes his entrance. No joke.

If you’re still waiting for the punchline of that joke O’Neill referred to, here it is:

“The wife hollers back, ‘No, but he’s breathing hard!’ ”

If you’ve seen or read The Iceman Cometh, you’ll understand how it all cometh together….

5 Comments

Filed under 1900 to 1919, 1920s, 1930s, Vintage Ads, Vintage Photographs