Category Archives: 1950s

Fourth of July Parade and Rodeo, Long Ago in Redwood City

Fourth of July Parade float, Redwood City, around 1960.

Fourth of July Parade float, Redwood City, around 1960.

Around 1950, when I was very young, the Redwood City Fourth of July Parade and Rodeo was a very big deal. For one thing, the rodeo and carnival, where we went on rides, won bowls full of guppies or live baby ducks, ate corn dogs and cotton candy, and occasionally escaped the ever-watchful eyes of our parents, were the highlight of every summer.

For another, the parade floats were not designed by professional float designers and covered with exotic flowers and seeds that we had never heard of. The floats were thought up and built by their sponsors, often fraternal organizations or small businesses.

Float celebrating the Pulgas Water Temple, around 1960.

Float celebrating the Pulgas Water Temple, around 1958 – 62.

Redwood City had plenty of benevolent and fraternal organizations:  the Lions, the Elks, the Moose, the Foresters, the Masonic Groups, and the Odd Fellows are just the ones I remember.

Float built by  Redwood City Foresters of America branch, around 1948 or 1949.

Float built by Redwood City Foresters of America branch, around 1948 or 1949.

I can date this float, loosely, because I am the little girl in the center, wearing cowboy boots. The young woman behind me was a local beauty queen. This float used rolls and rolls of aluminum foil — which was very “modern” and was no longer needed for the war effort.

"Cowgirls" riding on the Foresters' float. Redwood City, around 1949.

“Cowgirls” riding on the Foresters’ float. Redwood City, around 1949.

There were marching bands (the sound of bass drums thrillingly vibrating in my stomach as they passed.) There were baton twirlers and platoons of horses. The Sheriff’s posse rode, and so did many private citizens who dressed in Old California finery and decked their palomino horses in silver-encrusted saddles. Veterans marched, including some survivors of World War I, and the two or three day rodeo meant that the entire Independence Day weekend had a western flavor. My parents always dressed up in cowboy clothes. My father wore a black ten gallon hat, like the ones seen in 1930’s western movies. Here’s one worn by Tom Mix.

My father was a Forester, and enjoyed helping to build floats like this one:

A rocket -- or a firecracker -- blasting off on a float made by the Foresters. Early 1950s.

A rocket — or a firecracker — blasting off on a float made by the Foresters. Early 1950s.

That’s my father, in his black ten gallon hat; he was very proud of this float, because every once in a while the rocket emitted a mighty roar and a cloud of icy smoke. There was a fire extinguisher inside the rocket. I got to ride on this float, too.

The rocket sounded very loud when you were riding next to it.

The rocket, fueled by a fire extinguisher, sounded very loud when you were riding next to it.

There was no problem finding little girls and boys who had cowboy outfits. These were the years of tiny black and white TV sets where we watched The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Roy Rogers (and his horse, Trigger,) Hopalong Cassidy (and his horse,  Topper,) Red Ryder and Little Beaver, and The Cisco Kid and his sidekick, Pancho. Those of us who didn’t have TV sets could read about their adventures in the Sunday Comics (The Lone Ranger ) or listen to them on the radio.

"Buckaroos" costumes made from McCall sewing patterns, McCall catalog, May 1950.

“Buckaroos” costumes made from McCall sewing patterns, McCall catalog, May 1950.

McCall pattern 1504 for a boy's western costume. May, 1950 catalog.

McCall pattern 1504 for a boy’s western costume. May, 1950 catalog.

"Rodeo Queen" costumes ; McCall pattern 1505, May 1950 catalog.

“Rodeo Queen” costumes ; McCall pattern 1505, May 1950 catalog.

Here’s another look at the Foresters’ float with the big silver star and a group of “Rodeo Queens:”

A flag at one end, a star at the other. Foresters' float, Redwood City, late 1940's.

A flag at one end, a star at the other. Foresters’ float, Redwood City, late 1940’s.

Here, it is passing the Hull Brothers Hardware store and the Luxor Taxi Cab offices.

Hull Hardware store and Luxor Taxi Cab office. Redwood City, late 1940s.

Hull Bros. Hardware store and Luxor Taxi Cab office. 4th of July Parade, Redwood City, late 1940s.

For a horse-crazy little girl like me, the morning of July 4th had a special aroma. The parade used to form up in the streets north of Broadway and follow a parade route up Arguello Street, turning East onto Broadway. Our house was on Hopkins near Arguello, and the horse and rider groups often parked their horse trailers along our street. My father always filled two big galvanized tubs with fresh water for the horses and put them on the curb in front of our house. After the horses had been there for a glorious hour or so, my Grandma B. and my Great Aunt Alice (two dignified ladies in their seventies) would appear with cardboard boxes and brooms. They swore there was nothing like horse manure for growing roses.

May your Fourth of July memories be as happy as mine.

Ye Olde Town Band, Redwood City, circa 1958-62.

Ye Olde Town Band, Redwood City, probably late 1950’s or early 1960’s.

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Filed under 1950s, 1960s, Golden Afternoons, Vintage Photographs

Remembering My Father

Giggling in my father's arms, late 1940s.

Giggling in my father’s arms, late 1940s.

Like most children, I took my father for granted. It was only when I became a woman, in the 1960’s, that I realized how different he was from most men born in the early 1900’s.  And how lucky I was to have a father who never even considered treating his daughter differently than he would have treated a son.

My father leveling a construction site, with me in his lap. He built the two houses in the background with his own hands.

My father leveling a construction site, with me (very briefly) in his lap. He built the two houses in the background with his own hands, in 1933.  As far as I know they’re still standing.

He did manual labor all his life, and, being a housemover, he had to know everything about building a house: laying the foundations, doing the wiring and plumbing, carpentry, framing and finishing, putting on a roof, installing floors and kitchens and baths, stuccoing and painting, even laying bricks and paving the driveway. He assumed his daughter would also need to know these things. Once, he let me “help” him drive a steamroller!

My father showing me how to lay a course of bricks on the front of a building.

My father showing me how to lay a course of bricks on the front of a building. (The bricks are level; the camera was tilted.)

Unlike most modern children, I could see my father working. He didn’t disappear in a suit at 7:30 each morning and return just before I went to bed. His clothes smelled of paint or cement or new-sawn wood or creosote. Sometimes they had a whiff of car oil or gasoline, because he could also take an engine apart and put it together again. (A teenager in 1920, he started with model T cars and early tractors, so he mastered their principles while they were relatively simple machines.)

My father on an early tractor. He learned to plow with a horse, so he loved "modern improvements." He had shoveled a lot of horse manure before getting the tractor.

My father on an early tractor. He had learned to plow with a horse, so he loved “modern improvements.” At the end of a long day, he didn’t have to shovel out the barn anymore.

He taught me to use and care for tools correctly, to drive a nail with two strokes (“One to set it, one to drive it,”) to paint walls and patch holes, to clean my brushes properly, to take pride in my work and in not taking shortcuts; to plan a job and do it safely. He expected me — a girl — to be responsible, fearless, confident that I could learn to do whatever had to be done. [When I attended a woman’s college, I found these skills much appreciated in the drama department. I knew how to use tools, and I was willing to get dirty. And, because I was afraid of heights, I specialized in stage lighting, spending hours climbing ladders. My father taught me to overcome my fears, not be limited by them.]

I think my father took this picture. I always felt this delight when he came home from work.

I think my father took this picture, because I always felt this delight when he came home from work.

I think the only time I really disappointed him — although he didn’t say anything — was when he discovered that I didn’t share his appreciation of the internal combustion engine. He must have been looking forward to teaching me how to clean a carburetor, but I only lasted a couple of nights. When I asked him to teach me to change my own oil, he said, “By the time you clean up and wash your clothes after crawling under the car, you’d be better off taking it to a gas station.”

Nevertheless, he taught me to fish — and clean the fish and cook it — and to shoot. I was about nine years old, able to handle the .22 rifle, but he said the recoil from his deer rifle would be too much for me. Nevertheless, he taught me to load it and unload it — if you’re not going to be afraid of guns, you need to know when they are and aren’t safe to handle.

My father, after a fishing trip. 1970s.

My father, after a fishing trip. 1970s.

When we visited him on a work site, sometimes we’d have a picnic lunch with him. Once, he caught a gopher snake and brought it to me, so I could watch it curving back and forth, over one stick and under another. He showed me how beautiful it was, and how to tell a “safe” snake from a rattler. He made sure I knew that not all snakes are bad — that some are very useful and deserve our respect. He showed me a nest of baby mice on another occasion (uncovered while clearing a field) — but I found their hairless, translucent skin repulsive. I could tell, however, that he thought they were tiny miracles; he was sad that they had been stripped of their safe little home. He was very careful with them. He also taught me not to pick wildflowers. When I insisted on taking a bouquet home with us, he remembered to show me they were wilted and no longer beautiful that night. I never picked wildflowers again.

My father and mother in front of the house he built for them before their marriage.

My father and mother in front of the house he built for them before their marriage.

Since all my uncles — and most of their friends — were in the building trades, my father built the house I grew up in, with some help from pals and brothers who were plumbers, tile setters, carpenters, etc. Down in the cellar of this little vine-covered cottage, I found a heart inscribed in the concrete, with my parents’ initials and the date of their marriage: 1933 — the depths of the Depression.

Wedding day, flanked by my mother's siblings.

Wedding day, flanked by my mother’s siblings.

My father came from a family of six-footers, and he was not only extremely tall, but freakishly thin all his life. When Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was described as very thin but exceptionally strong, with “sinewy forearms,” I had no trouble believing it. Once, we found an old tuxedo my father had worn when he and my mother went out dancing, decades before I was born. “On the day I married your mother,” he told me, “I was six feet four inches tall, weighed one hundred and forty pounds, and thought I was a helluva good-lookin’ fella.”

In spite of his long, thin body, my father was very strong, and was still doing manual labor in his late fifties.

In spite of his long, thin body, my father was very strong, and was still doing manual labor in his sixties. The most he ever weighed was 172 lbs.

His friends sometimes used him as a unit of measurement, as in this photo, where his arm span shows the size of a giant tree in Yosemite.

My 6' 4" father showing how big a tree is on a visit to Yosemite; 1930s.

My 6′ 4″ father showing how big a tree is on a visit to Yosemite; 1930s.

This photo of my parents and me in front of their small house in Redwood City implies more prosperity than we usually experienced. My mother, decked in a fur stole, had continued to work as a secretary during the first years of their marriage — a two-income couple.

Happy times. My father liked to sing, "just Molly and me, and baby makes three; we're happy in my blue heaven."

Happy times. My father liked to sing, “Just Molly and me, and baby makes three; we’re happy in My Blue Heaven.”

My arrival, 12 years after they wed, came as a pleasant surprise for two people over forty who had given up hope of having a family. But it undoubtedly put a strain on their budget, as did my mother’s cancer surgery a few years later.

My father owned a small house-moving business; in the post-war years when highways were being built and downtown areas were being improved, there were plenty of houses that needed moving. When someone’s home was in the way of a new freeway, their wooden frame house could be jacked up off its foundation, put on “Blocks” and wheels, and towed to a new location. This was skilled work, since no one wanted big cracks to form!

Two two-story houses being moved to a new location. About 1950.

Two two-story houses being moved to a new location. About 1950. Redwood City, CA.

My father is the tall figure on top of the house. Telephone and electric lines sometimes had to be cut temporarily or moved out of the way so the roof would have clearance. A man on the roof also watched for problems — a position that was doubly dangerous. My father did it himself.

In many construction trades, no work can be done when the weather is too wet. As a child, I remember visiting my Uncle Monte (who drove a bulldozer) on a weekday in the winter. I expected him and my father to be happy, as if a rainy day was like a day when you didn’t have to go to school, but supporting a family through a wet winter was no “holiday” for working men. Every morning, my father’s foreman and best friend, Walter, would drink a cup of coffee at our kitchen table while they planned the day’s work.

Walter, my father, My mother, and me, with a housemoving crew, late 1940's.

Walter, my father, my mother, and me, with a housemoving crew, late 1940’s.

I remember a long, rainy December when the morning meeting was grim. Christmas was coming, we had medical bills to pay, and the ground was too saturated for housemoving. Walter suggested that, as there was no work, they should call all the men and tell them not to come in till next Monday, if the rain broke by Saturday. My father said, “We need to find something for “X” to do; they just had a baby. Tell him to come in tomorrow and service the tractor and the truck.” These were jobs my father, himself, normally did on rain days, to save money. “And “Y” needs some work; his wife is in the hospital for an operation. Give him a day and a half; tell him to come in and clean up the yard (sorting lumber, etc.)” My mother, listening, was furious — we were looking at a pretty lean Christmas, ourselves. She called this “playing the Big Shot.” It was true that my father was generous to a fault. But he also felt a responsibility to his men.

My father and me, dressed up for Easter. early 1950's.

My father and me, dressed up for Easter. early 1950’s.

After my mother died, in spite of her bitter misgivings about him, my father took good care of me. He trusted me to use my common sense, and he believed in me. (I was never a “latch-key kid,” because we never locked our house.) He showed me  — by example, working with me — how to do laundry, and clean the floors and wash dishes; he taught me to cook, and he loved to cook, himself. When I was little, he made me pancakes in the shape of airplanes and cats; now, he cooked fabulous spaghetti bolognese, taught me to love vegetables and fresh fruit (as he did), and, on the occasions when we could afford a porterhouse steak, he practically danced around the kitchen, singing:

[A] turn to the right, a little white light, [I hurry] to my Blue Heaven. Just Molly and me, and baby makes three, We’re happy in My Blue Heaven. . . .” He sang very well. And he always gave me the tenderest part of the steak. because he wanted me to love it as much as he did.

My father, in his eighties.

My father, in his eighties.

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Filed under 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, Golden Afternoons, Vintage Photographs

Monday Is Wash Day: Day of the Week Towels

Monday was Washday; corner of an embroidered and appliqued Sunbonnet Sue dishtowel. Circa 1945.

Monday was Washday; corner of an embroidered and appliqued Sunbonnet Sue dishtowel. Circa 1945.

Once upon a time, certain days of the week were devoted to specific tasks, and there was a general agreement among housewives that Monday was Laundry Day.  On Tuesday, you did the ironing. Wednesday, you could recover from those backbreaking jobs by sewing, mending, and knitting — at least that work could be done while you were sitting down.

Ad for Fels-Naptha Laundry soap, Ladies' Home Journal, July 1917.

Ad for Fels-Naptha Laundry soap, Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1917.

Thursday was usually ” Go to Market” day; on Friday you cleaned the house.

McCall's embroidery pattern # 120, McCall Needlework Catalog, Nov. 1950.

McCall’s embroidery pattern # 120, McCall Needlework Catalog, Nov. 1950.

On Saturday, you baked for the weekend, since Sunday was “the Day of Rest” (and the day for church attendance.)

Sunbonnet Sue embroidery and applique pattern from McCall's. Pattern # 668, Nov. 1950 catalog.

Sunbonnet Sue embroidery and applique pattern from McCall’s. Pattern # 668, Nov. 1950 catalog.

These day-of-the-week and job-of-the-day patterns had long been popular for use on dish towels, since you needed a fresh towel every day.  It may seem incredible that a housewife’s tasks should be so regimented, but there were good reasons.

Laundry Day

Doing the laundry took all day, starting with rising extra-early to build a fire and start heating wash water; you had to get the laundry on the line early, too, if you wanted it to dry before dark. There were no electric or gas dryers in most homes until the 1950s.  Laundry had to be hung out to dry in your yard, in fresh air, which meant that it was exposed to public view. Most back yards contained two tall posts (picture small, square telephone poles) with four or more clotheslines  strung between them from the crossbars. (Wet sheets took up a lot of room.) For the benefit of people who have never dried their laundry this way, here are some prettified versions of what more compact clotheslines looked like in the twenties and thirties:

Hanging laundry outdoors, Borax Ad, Delineator magazine, February 1924.

Hanging laundry outdoors, Borax Ad, Delineator magazine, February 1924.

I  had a folding laundry line like this one in my back yard  in the 1970s,  and I have a friend who still uses one, because sheets that have been dried in fresh air just smell better than any artificial fragrance on a dryer sheet.

Sunshine Clothes Dryer Ad, Better Homes and Gardens, April 1930.

Sunshine Clothes Dryer Ad, Better Homes and Gardens, April 1930.

It seems incredible that proof of cleanliness is now forbidden as unsightly in some (energy wasting) communities. Incidentally, we still use the expressions “hung out to dry” and “clotheslined,” which have a very literal meaning to people born before 1960. (Walking into an empty clothesline in the dark meant it caught you under the chin and left you lying flat on the ground.)

Of course, in the old days, all of your neighbors hung out laundry on the same day you did, so there was some competition as to who had the whitest sheets. In the 1940s , my grandmother always put bluing in her final rinse.

I am still using embroidered dishtowels that I inherited thirty years ago — and they were already old then. I love them, because the embroidery was done on bleached feed sacks, so they are large enough to surround big pots and pans and prevent drips while you dry them, and, after hundreds of washings,  they are very soft and absorbent!

Apparently my aunt had two sets made from the same pattern, since two of her “Thursday — Go to Market” towels are still around:

Thursday "Go to Market" towels; she is carrying a tiny purse.

Thursday “Go to Market” towels; she is carrying a tiny purse.

Tuesday: Ironing Day

At first I thought Sunbonnet Sue was holding an iron, but the Tuesday “iron” towels from this set had a visible ironing board, like these:

Raggedy Ann Day of the Week embroidery pattern from McCall's catalog, May 1950.

Raggedy Ann Day of the Week embroidery pattern from McCall’s catalog, May 1950.

It was vital to iron on Tuesday in case the wash did not get completely dry on Monday. By Wednesday it would be wrinkled and possibly starting to mildew.

In addition to variations on the Sunbonnet Sue quilt motif, McCall’s was licensed to carry Raggedy Ann embroidery patterns and doll patterns.

Raggedy Ann and Andy doll pattern, McCall's catalog, May 1950.

Raggedy Ann and Andy doll pattern, McCall’s catalog, May 1950.

Pattern for Raggedy Ann and Andy Dolls, McCall's 820, 1950.  This pattern must have been available earlier, because I got a homemade doll like this around 1947.

Pattern for Raggedy Ann and Andy Dolls, McCall’s 820, 1950. This pattern must have been available earlier, because I got a homemade doll like this around 1947.

Little Lulu, a comic book character, also starred in a set of McCall’s towel patterns. There’s a copyright licensing mark at the bottom of the ad:

Little Lulu Day of the Week towel embroidery and applique pattern No. 1488, McCall's, May 1950.

Little Lulu Day of the Week towel embroidery and applique pattern No. 1488, McCall’s, May 1950.

Embroidered kitchen towels were often made as gifts, and a set of seven was a very useful housewarming present, but I think my aunt purchased hers at various “charity bazaars” or other fund-raising events. I’m glad she did!

Some patterns disagreed about whether baking and marketing should be done on Saturday and Thursday, respectively; perhaps some towns held their market day on Saturday. In the fifties, my grandmother did her main shopping on Saturday, when my uncle could drive her to the supermarket, but she always baked pies and tarts for the week on Saturday afternoon. If I had a time machine, I’d book a visit to Grandma’s pantry, fragrant with baked goods,  on any Saturday afternoon in 1949. Of course, it would be even nicer if she were there . . . .

 

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Filed under 1900 to 1919, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, Daily Life "Back Then", Kitchens, Vintage Ads

A Pump in the Kitchen, 1949

Ad for Myers Water System, Better Homes and Gardens, February 1930.

Ad for Myers Water System, Better Homes and Gardens, February 1930.

This ad is a mother’s fantasy circa 1930, when the kitchen sink might or might not have a faucet and running water. (And if you really want a ‘farmhouse sink,” take another look at the one in that ad.)

A Visit to the Dakotas, Autumn, 1949

My mother, my Grandma, and me, in Las Vegas, 1949.

My Mother, my Grandma, and me, passing through Las Vegas, 1949.

In 1949 my mother loaded me (too young for school), her own mother, and a few suitcases into a second-hand Studebaker and set out on a three month road trip to New York, with stops along the way at points of interest. washington's boyhood home 500

We also stopped to meet — and stay with — distant members of my father’s family in the midwest and the Dakotas. For the three generations — Grandmother, Mother, and me — who grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula, with the green slopes of the Coast Range to the west and the Bay and Mt. Diablo to the east, the flatness of the Dakotas was not attractive. I remember watching miles and miles of dull brown scenery (it was November) through the window of the car, and finally a tiny pointed object — I thought it was a distant Christmas tree — appeared on the horizon. It got bigger as we came closer, as if it were growing, and resolved itself into a church steeple. We had reached a town.

Norwegian Lutheran Church, Milnor, North Dakota. Photo fron archives of NDSU.

Norwegian Lutheran Church, Milnor, North Dakota. Photo fron archives of NDSU.

We were going to spend the night at a house in that town. I don’t know the name of the town, but our relatives definitely did not live on a farm. They had neighbors on all sides. Almost as soon as we entered the house, the housewife ushered us into the kitchen to show us a wonderful home improvement that her husband had just finished installing . . .

Ad for Fairbanks-Morse Home Water System, Better Homes and Gardens, April 1930.

Ad for Fairbanks-Morse Home Water System, Better Homes and Gardens, April 1930.

. . . she finally had running water in her kitchen! In America, in 1949. But it didn’t come out of a faucet; a pump, like the one in this picture, was attached to her drainboard, and she could lift the handle and pump cold water right into the sink. She was thrilled. (And well she might be, compared to lugging heavy buckets of water in from the yard for washing and cooking and bathing.) As I remember, the drainboard and sink were dark gray (probably zinc), not porcelain or tile like the ones I was used to seeing in Redwood City:

Most homes I visited  in the 1940s had a kitchen sink like this one, from Better Homes and Gardens magazine, Feb. 1930.

Most homes I visited in the 1940s had a kitchen sink like this one. From Better Homes and Gardens magazine, Feb. 1930.

Our happy hostess still had to heat all her water on the stove, but she didn’t have to go outside for it, which was a good thing, because it began to snow that night.

Of course, without running water there was no flush toilet in the house. I suppose the chamber pot under the bed was too big for a child to use (or already full), so, in the middle of the night, my mother had to throw on an overcoat and her galoshes, dress me the same way, and take me outside to use the outhouse. She had a flashlight for the purpose, but there were no streetlights or lighted windows to soften the blackness of a night when snow was falling. And there were no fences between the back yards, so it was easy to get disoriented.

When we came down to breakfast the next morning, our hostess had already received a crack-of-dawn visit from her irate next-door neighbor. Someone from our house had used this neighbor’s outhouse! This was incredibly rude, and might start a feud that lasted years. There was no denying it — a track of footprints in the snow led from our back door to the wrong outhouse. In the daylight, we could see that the two outhouses were perhaps fifteen feet apart. (Both houses had located these noxious outbuildings as far from their back doors as possible, close to their property lines.)

This adventure stuck in my four-year-old mind — the pump in the kitchen and the trip to the outhouse — because Redwood City had had municipal water and sewage lines for a long time. (Those in Menlo Park were built around 1917 to accomodate Camp Fremont Army Base.) Our friends, the Halletts, still lived on their family’s ranch in Woodside — my father once kept a herd of cattle there — but by 1949 their farmhouse kitchen had hot and cold running water, and their bathrooms had flush toilets and warm baths, just like houses in town.  By 1930, Better Homes and Gardens magazine had plenty of ads for home water systems that could be installed on farms or in towns where people depended on well water.

Water for the Mere Turning of a Tap: The Kitchen Faucet

BHG apr 1930 p 161  top oldest water system myers147“Down the centuries stretches the immemorial line — carrying home the daily water supply from stream and lake, from spring and pond, from cistern and fountain, from well and pump — in an unbroken chain of Yesterdays. Today the picture changes. Modern housekeeping, with its emphasis on cleanliness, its insistence on sanitation, hygiene, comfort and convenience, requires water in greater quantities than ever before. Human effort, however willing, cannot keep up with the demand. Nor does it need to when a simple low-cost machine and a few lengths of pipe supply more water for the mere turning of a tap, than could be delivered by many weary hours of carrying.”

Myers water system ad, Better Homes and Gardens, April 1930.

Myers water system ad, Better Homes and Gardens, April 1930.

Most of these water systems (“for operation by hand, windmill, electricity or gasoline engine”) cost about $75 in 1930, which was a lot of money, when you could buy a kit to build an entire pre-fabricated five room house for $483:

Aladdin ready-to-build house kits, 1930. Ad from Better Homes and Gardens.

Aladdin ready-to-build house kits, 1930. Ad from Better Homes and Gardens.

In just one magazine, I found ads for water systems from the F.E. Myers & Bro. Company,  General Electric, General Motors’ Delco Light (which made the ‘Waterboy’ system, ) and Fairbanks-Morse.

BHG feb 1930 feb p93 myers water system no pump and carry 500“Housekeepers who are still struggling with the old pump-and-carry method of water supply, might think ‘There is something wrong with that picture.’ But it really takes very little coaxing to get ‘help with the dishes’ when there is plenty of water always on tap and no heavy buckets to lug. The task is so shortened that even the youngsters enjoy it.  Living beyond city water mains no longer means doing without running water. Thousands of suburban and country homes are being modernized each year with the help of the reliable MYERS Self-Oiling Water Systems. A few cents worth of gasoline or electric power per day, gives you complete service — running water any time, day or night — in kitchen, bathroom, laundry — for lawn and garden — for garage, stock watering and fire protection.”

Most Americans take faucets with hot running water in the kitchen and bath for granted. But my grandmothers grew up without them. And even in 1949, in a small town in the Dakotas, one woman’s life was vastly improved when she got, not a “water system,” but a primitive hand pump installed in her kitchen. We have it easy.

(In many places in the world, women and children still walk miles a day to carry water to their families. Charities like Oxfam and Heifer International , among others, make it possible to donate a water pump with life changing results. Oxfam America received a Four Star (excellent) rating from Charity Navigator. Heifer International spends 23.6% of its income on fundraising, and received only Two Stars, but a family that receives a goat, a heifer, or a flock of chickens is required to give one of their offspring to another villager, and I like that idea.)

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Filed under 1940s, 1950s, Appliances, Bathrooms, Daily Life "Back Then", Kitchens, Vintage Ads, Vintage Photographs

Hallowe’en Memories

Halloween, Emerson Elementary School, probably 1951or1952

Halloween, Emerson Elementary School, probably 1951 or 1952

I am the masked figure in the middle. Back in the 1950s, we actually felt sorry for the few students who had to wear Hallowe’en costumes purchased from the dime store, like the one on the left. Most of my friends were able to improvise a costume from their parents’ or older sibling’s closets. The black mask with a lace veil (possibly dating back to the 1920s) had been worn by my mother, who also suggested that I should be a “Gypsy Fortune Teller.” [We were not aware of the persecution of the Romany people back then.] The necklace with coins was also from one of her old masquerade costumes (“Arabian”, as was the bolero), and she added a hem to a flowered child’s skirt and produced a flowered hankie headscarf to finish the look. The girl on the right is a female Lone Ranger. Most kids had a cowboy or cowgirl suit in the late 40s and 50s. They were often Christmas presents. Here I am riding a float in a Redwood City Fourth of July Parade in the late 1940s:

Fourth of July float, Redwood City, late 1940s.

Fourth of July float, Redwood City, late 1940s.

As you can see, these four little girls all came equipped with cowgirl outfits, as did the adult rodeo “queen” behind us. We all wanted to be Dale Evans and ride a beautiful horse (hers was named “Buttermilk”) and catch rustlers and other miscreants.

Hallowe’en Costumes:  You Used What You Had

Other popular and easy, no-purchase-necessary Hallowe’en disguises were:

“Hobo”– burnt-cork stuble on your face, a raggedy, old, man’s jacket with patches, your Dad’s old felt hat, and a bundle tied in a bandana hanging on a stick over your shoulder.

“Doctor” — a toy stethoscope around your neck plus a mirrored eye reflector on a headband (a cheap “doctor” set from the 5 & 10 cent store), worn with an old, white, man’s shirt as a lab coat. Shirt and Necktie required. I don’t remember the “lab coats” being smeared with “blood” but some may have been.

“Nurse” — a white dress or white apron, a starched nurses’ cap (paper would do,) plus a toy nurse’s bag with a red cross on the side (also from the dime store, it was a toy you already had, not one purchased for the occasion.)

Nurse's cap, 1932.

Nurse’s cap, 1932.

“Princess, Good Witch, or Ballerina” — your big sister’s many-layered, white or pastel crinoline petticoat worn over your bathing suit. A Princess got a gold foil crown or a tiara (usually your mom’s or sister’s from a long-ago dance); a Ballerina usually wore her shoes from dance class plus a tiara and maybe some lipstick and rouge; and a Good Witch added a wand with a home-made foil star on top. (The Good Witch from Wizard of Oz was an option for girls whose sisters had pink crinolines.)

“Pirate” — pants cut short and ragged at the bottom, a striped tee or Mom’s big-sleeved blouse, a bolero vest (could be from your old cowboy suit, minus fringe,) with a black or red head scarf, plus an eyepatch. Striped socks were a plus. Wooden sword optional. One gold hoop earring — clip-on — mandatory.

What all these outfits had in common was: You used what you had. Some kids had home made-costumes sewn from store-bought patterns and cloth. But at my house, and most of my friends’ houses, we improvised. (You can see some 1950’s children’s Hallowe’en costume patterns at the blog witness2fashion. Click here.)

Outhouse Tipping

My parent’s generation grew up in Redwood City before and during the First World War. Halloween pranks then were often destructive and sometimes pay-back for real or imagined mistreatment. Windows would be “soaped” — written on — at houses where treats were not forthcoming, and the neighborhood grouch, who cursed the kids who stole his apples, might receive some rough treatment.

In those days before sewage treatment plants and municipal sewer systems, teenaged boys occasionally got into deep doo-doo by waiting in the dark until their victim had entered his outhouse. A gang of boys would sneak up behind the little building and try to push it over — preferably with the occupant still going about his business inside. This was an ill-advised stunt, since, once the outhouse started to tip, the pusher might fall into the suddenly exposed cesspit underneath it. That could be a life-threatening experience, and, even if you were quickly rescued, you were also quickly apprehended  — and easy to identify!

The Gate Up the Flagpole

Both my parents grew up in Redwood City, so my father and his seven brothers knew my mother and her siblings from childhood. Once, over Thanksgiving dinner in the 70s, my father and my mother’s older sister began reminiscing about Hallowe’ens gone by. Dorothy recalled a great injustice suffered because of a Halloween prank:  Somebody stole the front gate from her home, and it was eventually discovered hanging from the top of a flagpole downtown. Her father was furious. “Pa thought Mel and I knew who put it up there, and he gave us a beating because we wouldn’t tell. But we couldn’t tell, because we really didn’t know!”

My father looked at her with some surprise. A slow grin began to form on his face, but he tried to suppress it. “Dorothy, really. . . . Couldn’t you guess?”

I saw the scales drop from her eyes. All at once, a little girl who had been unfairly punished looked out from her 75- year-old face.

She stared at my father across the table for a long, long time. (Dorothy was a master at family feuds, as I described in  The Icebox Battle. ) Then, slowly, she relaxed and became, again, a dignified older lady quietly eating her turkey dinner. We all let out our breaths. I suppose she had realized — just in time — that she was running out of relatives, and that my father was the only person alive who still remembered her as a child; or, perhaps, she had mellowed a bit over the years.
Happy Halloween; save some candy for later, and do not tip over any outhouses.

[Edited for typos on 10/30/14 @ 12 p.m.]

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Filed under 1900 to 1919, 1950s, Tales I Was Told, Vintage Photographs

Raising Frogs and Food Foraging, 1930s to 1950s

The ads at the back of Depression-era magazines offer a variety of ways to “Make Money at Home” – everything from selling Christmas cards to painting lampshades – but the advertisement that really got my attention was this one:

Advertisement from Delineator, March, 1937

Advertisement from Delineator, March, 1937

Raise Giant Frogs!

I was under the impression that frogs do a pretty good job of raising themselves, without human intervention. I didn’t grasp the point of the ad until I enlarged it and read the fine print: 1937 march raise giant frogs Delineator 72This is an ad from . . .

The American Frog Canning Company.

It was a legitimate business located in New Orleans; online I found a photo of the canning company, a facsimile copy of the company’s book “Frog Raising,” a picture of their product ( a can of frog legs) in an article by longstreet.typepad.com , and a more extensive ad which reads:

“Raise Giant Frogs. Sell up to $5 per dozen. A New Industry! Millions used yearly! Markets waiting. Price Steady. Pleasant, outdoor work. Easy to ship to any part of the country. Nation-wide market at your command.

“A SMALL POND is all you need to start with five pairs of ‘Nuford Giant Breeders.’ Expand with increase. WE BUY! As originators of Canned Frog Legs, we are developing one of the world’s largest frog markets. In addition to other markets, frog raisers can also ship to us.

“MEN & WOMEN! Investigate this interesting, new work. . . . Send for our illustrated, FREE book [“A Future in Frogs”] explaining our offer in detail. Write today. American Frog Canning Company, Dept. 133-B , New Orleans, La.” [Today, poultry companies sell chicks to farmers to be raised, and then buy the birds back when they are ready to be slaughtered; the frog business seems to have worked the same way.]

Frog Legs for Dinner

This was not just a “Southern” or exotic food. Although I was surprised by the Frog Canning ad, I was even more surprised to find this photo of my parents’ old friends “frog gigging” [pronounced with a hard “G”] in the late 1930s or 1940s. [These are all urban people who lived in a town 27 miles south of San Francisco.]

My honorary 'Uncle' Milt and 'Aunt' Lillian showing off their catch.

My honorary ‘Uncle’ Milt and ‘Aunt’ Lillian showing off their catch. California, 1930s or 40s.

I don’t think they intended to can these frogs; Everyday French Cooking, by Henri-Paul Pellaprat, says that when making Grenouilles Sautées Fines Herbes, Grenouilles Frites, or Grenouilles en Beignets, you should allow 6 American frog’s legs or 12 European frog’s legs per serving. (American frogs really were giants!)

Adventurous Eating

My parents were adventurous eaters and cooks; having tasted frog legs at a French restaurant in San Francisco, they probably decided to duplicate the dish at home. Although I don’t have a picture of my folks holding frogs, they often went hunting and fishing with my honorary “uncle” Milt, my “aunt” Lillian, and our neighbor, Vic.

Vic, Milt, and my mother, 1930s. Milt is wearing my mother’s enormous sun-hat as a joke.

Vic, Milt, and my mother, 1930s. Milt is wearing my mother’s enormous sun-hat as a joke.

My mother and my "Aunt" Lillian fishing in the 1930s. Lillian is wearing mens' overalls.

My mother and my “Aunt” Lillian fishing in the 1930s. Lillian is wearing men’s overalls.

Hunting, Fishing and Foraging

Whether because of the Great Depression or just because they had adventurous palates, my parents and their friends enjoyed foraging for food long before Michael Pollan wrote about it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. My mother could hardly pass a field of wild mustard without pulling over to pick fresh mustard greens for dinner. [Ah, the bygone days of pesticide-free fields….]

My mother fishing; proud of her very pale complexion, she wore this gigantic straw hat for gardening and outdoors work.

My mother fishing; proud of her very pale complexion, she wore this gigantic straw hat for gardening and outdoors work. It lasted into the 1950s!

My parents took me fishing in the 1950s. I remember the taste of a freshly caught trout, breaded with cornmeal and sauteed over a campfire – a treat modern children may never know, now that many rivers and lakes have pollution levels so high that some fish are too toxic for children’s small bodies to digest.

My father fishing in the 1930s

My father fishing in the 1930s

My father and his friends also went deer-hunting every year. Out of respect for the deer, every bit of meat was used. One family friend made delicious home-made jerky to use up the scraps; another mixed lean ground venison scraps with ground pork for juicy grilled patties.)

My mother and a friend clowning on a duck hunting trip. Her Marcel-waved hair dates this to the late 1920s or early 1930s. I can’t explain the saw.

My mother and a friend clowning on a duck hunting trip. Her Marcel-waved hair dates this to the late 1920s or early 1930s. I can’t explain the saw.

Friends also brought us duck and pheasant in season (biting down on a tiny piece of shot that had escaped the cook’s examination was not pleasant!) I preferred chicken.

Mushrooms and Huckleberries

For my parents, mushrooming was an occasion for a picnic in the woods. However, the fact that I’m alive to tell about it is pure luck, since they believed – WRONGLY! – that, if you cooked the mushrooms with a silver coin in the pot, and the silver didn’t turn black, the mushrooms were safe to eat. This is NOT TRUE, so don’t try it!  We only survived because they were better than they realized at identifying edible fungi.

Getting scratched while picking wild blackberries made me appreciate their sweetness all the more (and eating them warm from the sun – instead of putting them into the bucket – was irresistible.)

Me, about six years old, learning to pick fruit.

Learning to pick fruit. I’m about 6 years old. I don’t know why I’m wearing a purse!

We picked wild huckleberries in the Half Moon Bay mountains every year. The coastal fog was cool and pleasant. I still love the combined smells of scrub brush and sea air. Huckleberries look rather like blueberries, but are not good to eat right off the bush. My parents made huckleberry pies, huckleberry jam and jelly, and huckleberry syrup for our pancakes (It was probably just jelly that didn’t ‘set,’ but we didn’t waste food.) When I was seven or so, accidentally putting my foot through the roof of a pack-rat’s nest in the undergrowth was always interesting: pack-rats pilfered bits of broken crockery, silverware, cigarette lighters, pens, and other small items from people’s farms and mountain cabins.

Grenouilles Sautées in the Making

Milt, Vic, and Lillian. Milt has a bag of frogs.

Milt, Vic, and Lillian. Milt is holding a bag of frogs. The shadow of the photographer — my mother — is visible. The short dress dates this to around 1940.

By the time these frogs were collected for dinner, my parents and their friends were not foraging for food out of necessity, but for the fun and companionship of an outing in the open air, ending with a feast.  And don’t feel too sorry for these frogs; they were on their way to a heavenly rendezvous with olive oil, garlic, and butter.

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Filed under 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, Vintage Ads, Vintage Photographs

What I Want to Remember

Remember Their Summers

I am only one generation away from the 19th century.

My Mother's Aunts, with a Friend, about 1890

My Mother’s Aunts, with a Friend, about 1890

My mother was the youngest child in her family. She had siblings born in the 1890s. So did my father. The grandmother who took care of me when I was a child was born in the 1870s, married in the 1890s, and was still running a household in the 1950s — running it as she had in the 1930s.

I was born 20 years late — when my parents were in their forties.  I thought everyone’s parents talked about bathtub gin, roadhouses, Model T Fords, cranking the truck, and the thrill of driving on a paved road.

My great aunt, my grandmother, and my mother on a road trip, late 1920s.

My great aunt, my grandmother, and my mother on a road trip, late 1920s.

The aunts and uncles who read me the comics, built me a bicycle, and took me to the movies and on vacations with them were born in the 19th century.

Two of my uncles, and my aunt, with their aunts, early 1900s

My Uncle Frank, My Uncle Mel, and my Aunt Dorothy with their aunts, early 1900s. My great-aunt Alice, in striped blouse, was a familiar and lively figure when I was a child.

A Moon Landing and the Wright Brothers

In 1966, my Uncle Bert and I watched television together as Surveyor One made a soft landing on the moon.  My uncle said, “The first newspaper article I remember reading — reading all by myself, you know, not with help — was about the Wright Brothers  flying an airplane.” Coincidentally, the first word I remember reading in a newspaper was “jet” — in a headline. (In the early 1950s, people still pointed to the sky with excitement when a jet streaked overhead, leaving a surprising white line of cloud behind it. We were used to prop [propeller] planes, which didn’t leave a vapor trail.)

Watching Sputnik from a Spinning World

I remember an evening when my father took me outside to watch a satellite crossing the night sky — a tiny moving star among all the others. It wasn’t just staring up at the sky that made us dizzy; we could feel the world changing. My father, who remembered plowing with a horse and team — and much preferred plowing with a tractor — taught me to appreciate scientific progress.

So, on a black and white TV set, in 1966, I was eager to watch the first time a man-made object made a soft landing on the moon. I watched it in the company of a man who had made his own “cat whisker” radio set, who was born before airplanes even existed.

I want to tell the stories my family told me, to pass on some of their tales  — tales that were told and retold when they and their friends sat around the kitchen table, sometimes forgetting the child playing among their feet. My parents, their siblings, and their friends lived through World War I, the roaring twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the fifties, the space race, the sixties…. They went from iceboxes to refrigerators, from homemade radios to VCRs.

They are all gone now. I want to remember their summers.

My mother, right, and friends, showing their naughty rolled stockings, 1921

My mother, right, and friends, showing their naughty rolled stockings, 1921

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Filed under 1900 to 1919, 1920s, 1950s, 1960s, Vintage Photographs