Category Archives: Tales I Was Told

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.]


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

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!


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

School Days, Redwood City, California, circa 1907 – 1910

Redwood City Grammar School, First Grade Class, circa 1907

Redwood City Grammar School, First Grade Class, circa 1907 1909

Redwood City Grammar School, First Grade, probably 1907 1909

CORRECTION: I have since found a report card dated June 7, 1910, certifying that Dorothy had passed first grade and would be entitled to admission to the second grade. First graders must have been older than six, or the writing on the back of the card misidentified a kindergarten class as a first grade class….

The back of this photograph says that it is the first grade class of my Aunt Dorothy. I have a different picture of the first grade, 1908, so this is 1906 or 1907. CORRECTION: this is 1909 – 10. Dorothy is the small girl holding the banner, wearing a square neckline.RCGS first grade about 1907 dorothy

Dorothy said she liked school, but when she was in first grade, several months into the semester, a new girl joined her class. The new girl shyly came up to the teacher’s desk, and when asked her name, she said, “Dorothy.”

My aunt was outraged.

She managed to contain herself until the new girl was seated at a desk; then she ran up to the teacher, burst into tears, and flung out an accusing finger.

“That little girl stole my name!” she cried.

Seventy years later, when she told me this story, she was still embarrassed. “I was so little,” she said, “I didn’t know more than one person could have the same name.”

A Closer Look at the Students

Because of the limitations of the blog format, the only way I can give you a good view of all the faces in that class picture is by breaking the image into smaller close-ups. (One big 600 dpi image would take a long time to load!) To me the clothes are fascinating, but the faces are really worth looking at. It’s nice to see that not all the children in this rather large class have northern European ancestry. California has always benefitted from a multi-cultural population. But what’s really arresting, to me, is how old and how grave many of these children are. Many look well-cared for. But some are very tiny, some have been ill, some look angry….  (I wish I knew more about that boy in the center of the top row.)

Incidentally, notice how dusty their boots are. There were no paved streets or sidewalks, although there was a boardwalk downtown. I don’t know if the boys were wearing a uniform sweater, or there were just very few styles for sale at the drygoods store.

I have a whole series of class photos from this grammar school to share in the future. It will be interesting to see how many of these children I can recognize as they grow up.

From the top (first, a larger image in each category, then two smaller, detailed ones:)

The Boys, Top Left:RCGS first grade about 1907 boys at top left of photo

RCGS first grade 1907 boys at top far left of photo

RCGS first grade 1907boys at top ctr left of photo

The Boys, Top RightRCGS first grade 1907 boys at top far right ofphoto

RCGS first grade 1907 boys at top ctr right of photo

RCGS first grade 1907 boys at top far right of photo

The Girls, Bottom LeftRCGS first grade 1907 girls at left of photo

RCGS first grade 1907 girls at far left of photo

RCGS first grade 1907 girls at ctr left of photo

The Girls, Bottom CenterRCGS first grade about 1907 dorothy

RCGS first grade 1907 girls at center left of photo

The Girls, Bottom Right

RCGS first grade 1907 girls at far right of photo

RCGS first grade 1907 faces of girls at far right of photoEDITED: This site was edited on 2/26/14 based on new information about the date.


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

A Secret Visit to A Vaudeville Show, 1910s

My mother with her parents, dated 1920

My mother with her parents, dated 1920

I never knew my grandfather; he died in 1923. My mother loved him dearly, and, since she was the baby of the family, he may have indulged her a little more than her brothers and older sister.  However, the father of four is not supposed to play favorites, so, when he took her with him to a vaudeville show one afternoon before WW I, he made her promise to keep it a secret, just between the two of them.

In fact, since he had been planning to take the afternoon off and attend a matinee all by himself, keeping it a secret from Grandma was part of the deal.

Harrigan, That’s Me

A popular song of the day, (the 1910s) written and performed on Broadway by George M. Cohan, was:

“H, A, double-R, I, – G, A, N spells Harrigan

Proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me

Divvil a man can say a word agin me

H, A, double-R, I, – G, A, N you see

Is a name that a shame never has been connected with

Harrigan, that’s me!” – Lyrics by George M. Cohan, 1907

But the version that delighted my mother at that vaudeville matinee was a parody – not “Harrigan” but “Hooligan.” A hooligan was a bad boy, a ruffian, a gang member; in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that the breaking of the first statuette “seemed to be one of those senseless acts of Hooliganism which occur from time to time, and it was reported to the constable on the beat as such.” [1900]

The song parody that caught my mother’s  fancy was:

“H, O, oho, L, I, – G, A, N spells Hooligan!” and continued along the lines of “that’s the name that people call me….” Every chorus ended with the triumphant shout, “HOOLIGAN! That’s Me!”

Hooligan, That’s Me!

Being a quick study, my mother had learned the lyrics by the end of the performance, and she repeated them over and over in her mind, savoring the joke.

That night, at dinner, she and her father said nothing about their secret trip to the theatre.

In the 1910s, children were seen but not heard at the dinner table.  They didn’t talk, and they certainly did not sing.  Mother and her brothers and sister ate in silence, except for the clinking of silverware and an occasional, “Please pass the salt.”

But, in her head, little Helen was singing, “H, O, oho, L, I, – G, A, N spells Hooligan!” all through the meal.

Suddenly it burst from her mouth at full volume: “HOOLIGAN! That’s Me!”

What did you say?” asked her mother. “You are not a hooligan! None of my children are hooligans!”

Little Helen squirmed. “It’s a song,” she murmured, digging herself in deeper.

“A song? Where did you hear a song like that? You tell me who taught you that song.  I’m going to tell their mothers!”

Grandpa knew the jig was up.  He confessed that he took his little girl to a vaudeville show.

My mother was grateful to him, but she never did tell me what happened after that. And she didn’t teach me all the lyrics to “Hooligan, that’s me!”

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Filed under 1900 to 1919, 1920s, Tales I Was Told, Vintage Photographs

Uncle Bert Takes a Girl to the Movies, circa 1916

My Uncle Bert, Age 16

My Uncle Bert, Age 16

The Carpenter

Uncle Bert, my cat, and me, late 1940s (click to enlarge)

Uncle Bert, my cat, and me, late 1940s (click to enlarge)

Uncle Bert was a fixture of my early life. The second oldest of my father’s seven brothers, he lived in a shed behind his mother’s house when I was a baby – just across the street from us. He was a carpenter. He built my swing (and my first two-wheeled bicycle), and he gave me one of the best presents I ever got: a miniature carpenter’s chest, with a real (but child-sized) saw, a real hammer, and a real plane, with a sharp blade that let me shave off long, golden curls of wood, just like my father did. He also kept me supplied with scrap lumber, which I nailed into tugboats and other – probably unrecognizable – shapes. Both my father and Uncle Bert made the unusual assumption, for men born around 1900, that a little girl was just as likely to want to build things as a little boy was. And they were right.

World War II and After

Uncle Bert spent WW II in Hawaii doing military construction work; I don’t know if he arrived before or after Pearl Harbor. In this picture, he is flanked by his two brothers in the navy. Bob was a SeaBee (CB). Bert is smoking a cigarette, but later switched to a pipe. Bert definitely cultivated a Popeye-the-Sailor look.

Bert flanked by two of his younger brothers

Bert flanked by two of his younger brothers

By the time I was in high school, Uncle Bert had moved to a warm berth – with a bathroom – in our basement. He was by that time severely disabled by arthritis that turned his skillful carpenter’s hands into rigid claws with gigantic knuckles. His fingers were bent under his palms and frozen into position, but he could move his thumbs enough to use a fork or spoon and to fill and light his pipe. There was usually a bag of tobacco in his shirt pocket.

He also had something in common with Garrison Keillor’s Norwegian bachelor farmers: Uncle Bert put on his long underwear in the fall and didn’t believe in taking it off until spring. At all. He was shy and physically modest, and he held to the old idea that taking a bath in the winter would “open the pores” and let diseases in. I suspect that he was also afraid that someone would suddenly enter the bathroom as a prank while he was in the tub. (He did grow up with seven brothers….) In addition to his bath-aversion, he was fond of Limburger cheese, liverwurst sandwiches, and raw onions – he kept a huge barrel of onions in the basement. I got to sit next to him at dinner all through high school.

I loved him when I was two, and I still loved him – but I was always grateful when my stepmother laid down the law: If he wanted to eat the food she cooked, he had to bathe occasionally.

Uncle Bert at Sweet Sixteen

Bert sweet sixteen postcard 72dpi

When I showed Uncle Bert this picture, taken around 1915,  he remembered the shy and awkward boy he had been, and told me this story:

“There was a family moved in next to us from somewhere in the backwoods. The old lady used to sit on the front porch in a rocking chair and chew tobacco. She’d spit that tobacco juice right on the floor: Rock – Rock – Splat!   Rock – Rock – Splat!

“They had a daughter about my age, and they worked her awful hard; she was thin and never had a decent dress or pair of shoes. So I felt sorry for her. That’s all; I just felt sorry for her because she never had any fun.”

(Uncle Bert knew a lot about hard work and poverty. His father – what was called “a hard man” — yanked him out of school as soon as he was big enough to be useful on the construction crew and paid him 50 cents a week, year after year. “Fifty cents a week!” my uncle said bitterly, sixty years later.)

Bert -- "Sweet Sixteen" is written on the back

Bert — “Sweet Sixteen” is written on the back

Young Bert decided to spend some of his hard-earned wages on a trip to the movies (silents, of course) with a group of kids his age, boys and girls who had grown up together. And he decided to treat the hard-worked girl next door to her first movie. He went over to her house the day before to ask permission of her Maw, who was, as usual, sitting on the porch in the wooden rocking chair, chewing and spitting. Amazingly, she said her daughter could go with the group.

Picture the boy in this photograph, shy and diffident, approaching her house the next evening to collect the girl. Maw was waiting for him in the rocker: Rock – Rock – Splat!

But this time she had a shotgun across her lap.

She gave him a long, steely-eyed look, and said, “Iffen anythin’ happen to my daughter – Splat! – Ah’ll shoot you like a dawg.”

No wonder Bert was shy around women.


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Filed under 1900 to 1919, 1940s, 1960s, Tales I Was Told, Vintage Photographs