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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.


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

Every Soldier Needs a Charm and a Chuckle; November, 1918


Soldiers, Camp Fremont, CA, 1918. Camp Fremont was in Menlo Park, just south of Redwood City.

Soldiers, Camp Fremont, CA, 1918. Camp Fremont was in Menlo Park, just south of Redwood City.

If you watched the episodes of Downton Abbey that took place during World War I, you probably remember a pocket-sized toy which Matthew carried into battle as a good luck charm.

"Bundoos" -- good luck charms to make for soldiers, Delineator, Nov. 1918.

“Bundoos” — good luck charms to make for soldiers, Delineator, Nov. 1918.

The Butterick Company offered directions for making a set of twelve different “bundoos” in its Delineator magazine, November, 1918. 1918 nov p 25 charms for soldiers bundoos textI can certainly imagine groups of young women having stitching parties to make good luck mascots for the boys at the front. The charms were light-weight, soft, and flat enough to be tucked into a soldier’s tunic or pocket – and, equally important, small and light enough to be put in an envelope and mailed overseas.

"An Army Mule for a Yank of the Transportation Service."

“An Army Mule for a Yank of the Transportation Service.”

The title of the accompanying Delineator article was, “Wish Them a Merry Christmas: Every Soldier Needs a Charm and a Chuckle,” by Bernice Brown, with illustrations by Agnes Lee.

Only a few of the available mascots were illustrated, but the article itself is filled with references to superstitions of the World War I era that may surprise you. It’s also a good example of the tone of many war-time appeals to women.

A load of hay. Quick, make a wish!

A load of hay. Quick, make a wish!

Superstitions, 1918

“Everybody is superstitious. You have counted white horses, haven’t you, and wished on a load of hay and tucked a four-leaf clover into your oxford, even though you knew somebody was looking? . . . You have wished on the first star and been reasonably confident that your wish was recorded on the books of the Fulfiller of Wishes Department.”

Dreaming About a Paris Bus: a Death Omen?

“Of course, there are still a few people who whisper about ‘bad omens’ and the ‘evil eye’ and how unlucky is it to have your path crossed by an inky feline. Those persons are stupid and unprogressive pessimists. . . . We can prove, too, that baleful omens are impotent and quite easily tricked. For instance, there is a rumor in France that to dream of a Paris auto-bus is fatal. One American bid farewell to all his friends because the night before he had been tormented by such an omen.

” ‘You’ve never seen a Paris bus,’ insisted a friend. ‘What did the spook look like?’ The phantom auto was described. ‘That’s just a new tank the British are using,’ explained the friend. Accordingly, the bad omen was double-crossed and the American soldier is alive today.”

A Scarecrow Mascot "For a Signal Service chap."

A Scarecrow Mascot “For a Signal Service chap.”

Mascots for Soldiers and Sailors

“Mascots, however, are invaluable. Everybody should have one, especially soldiers and sailors. Early in the game our friends the ‘Tommies’ decided in their favor, and today no ‘comfort-kit’ is complete without a ‘bundoo.’ They are worn under the neck and inside the shirt, buttoned into a pocket, or, in moments of stress, grasped firmly in the left hand of the brave.

“The Tommy likes his mascot made of a wishbone and a monkey-nut [i.e., peanut] on which are painted eyes, nose and a mouth fearful enough to terrify any invading Hun spirit.”

“One Hundred Percent Lucky” Charms for World War One

“From a great variety of mascots we have chosen five for this page which we are convinced are one hundred percent lucky. These we recommend that you make . . . and send in your Christmas letters to the boys to whom you wish all the special good luck in the world.

“Instead of writing a meager postal-card, make them a mascot. It may take you a little longer, but who wouldn’t spend two hours if, as a result of her effort, she could make a soldier chuckle for two minutes?

“We recommend first the wish-bone mascot.

Mascot made from a wishbone.

“Lucky Jack” mascot made from a wishbone.

“This works in any branch of the service, but we should say it was especially adapted for the Navy because of the span of its pedal extremities. Sailors would appreciate why a nautical mascot must stand thusly when the ship is plunging under him…. Lucky Jack is made of brown felt with blue-jacket covering; …letters cut of paper pasted on; beads for the eyes; mouth of hair or silk, cap and collar of white felt or paper. [The legs and feet are presumably the ends of the wishbone.]1918 nov p 25 charms for soldiers mule

“The white mule mascot…is enhanced by a colored felt saddle and head-piece; eyes pasted on; mane and tail made of raffia; body of mule cut double and sewed to hold card with verse.

“The scarecrow we recommend for anyone of the Signal Service.

1918 nov p 25 charms for soldiers signal service

“He is cut quite simply from black felt; face painted on paper of silk and pasted on. Hair may be made of yellow wool or raffia; hands and feet of raffia; white buttons. The following verse is sent with him:

For many years without a gun

I’ve fought black pests alone.

If you will take me on with you

I’ll help you halt the Hun.

[The “black pests” are, of course, the crows he scared away from farmers’ crops.]

“Peter Rabbit will suit a Southerner.”

1918 nov p 25 charms for soldiers rabbit

“All the boys south of the Mason and Dixon line appreciate the rabbit foot. If one foot is good, why not four? Peter Rabbit is made of white felt, red bead eyes, red mouth, black whiskers; features sewed with black thread or marked with a pen. Or the rabbit may be made of brown felt with a white cotton tail, pink eyes and mouth; black whiskers.”

"Old Witch of magic fame."

“Old Witch of magic fame.”

“We should send [Old Witch] to all engineers who, at a moment’s notice, conjure up bridges across rushing streams. With the power of Old Witch added, . . . soon they will be bridging the Rhine and into Germany. ” Her hat has a slit to fit over a button; her broom is a match-stick and raffia.

A Bundoo for the One You Love Best1918 nov p 25 charms for soldiers pirate

” ‘Treat ‘em Rough,’ the pirate, is a favorite. We should send [Treat ‘em Rough] by all means to the ‘one you love best.” He sleeps with one eye open and never takes vacations. He is the most sure-fire, on-the-job, energetic mascot we know anything about.” He is made of felt with embroidery rings in his ears, toothpick or paper covered with foil for his knives, and fastened on the back with a little safety-pin.

Make All Six Mascots Several Times Over

“. . . Make one for the boy who used to carry your books home from high-school . . . and the boy you taught to waltz, . . . and the boy who used to put on your skates and who taught you to do the ‘Dutch roll’, and the boy you used to say was teacher’s pet. He’ll need lots of luck.”

“Englishwomen send their brothers and sweethearts a lucky gold-piece. The Italian soldier carries a tiny bit of coral . . . as a charm against the ‘evil eye,’ and the American soldier continues to be a devoted believer in the horseshoe….”

“You can see how essential the mascot has become. It is no new development of modern warfare along with the seventy-five mile gun and the ‘cootie.’  The ancient Greeks depended on it quite as much as the long-range javelin and the battering-ram.” [Soldiers in the trenches were plagued by lice, which the Americans called cooties.]

Women’s Duty: Knitting and Working and Smiling

“There are times when all of us like to depend on some power outside ourselves. . . . On ninety-nine occasions we are reasonable and sane and sensible; on the hundredth we would give half our monthly salary for a good, reliable, sure-fire mascot.

“The lives of our soldiers are full of ‘hundredth’ occasions….The knowledge that someone is wishing for him and caring for him will work wonders….No army wins that doesn’t believe in itself, and it only believes when ‘every woman to a girl’ is behind it . . . knitting and working and smiling.”

A Redwood City girl, age 17, with Camp Fremont soldier Walter van Alyne, age 20. 1918.

A Redwood City girl, age 17, with Camp Fremont soldier Walter van Alyne, age 20. 1918.

Mascots for Morale

“In fact, every boy in the service should have a mascot this Christmas. We can not send boxes – such are the fortunes of war – but we can write to them and a mascot fits very neatly into an envelope….Perhaps these little charms may seem fanciful and insignificant, but every boy who tucks one inside the O.D. shirt will feel a new warmth and an added courage where before, perhaps, there was a touch of loneliness.”

NOTE: World War One ended on November 11, 1918. Shortly after this November magazine article hit the newsstands, making “Bundoos” was no longer necessary for the war effort.




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Filed under 1900 to 1919, Vintage Ads, World War I

Redwood City Grammar School, Possibly Eighth Grade, 1914

Redwood City Grammar School, 8th grade, 1914

Redwood City Grammar School, probably 8th grade, 1914 (Click to enlarge)

A picture, printed as a postcard, labeled Redwood City Grammar School, 1914. r c grammar school 1914 caption 500 dpiMy aunt Dot (front row) identified this as her eighth grade graduation.

Correction posted 4/27/14:  I have come to suspect that this is really a sixth or seventh grade picture. If school pictures were taken near the beginning of the fall semester, Dot would be barely 14 in 1914, which makes sense for an eighth grader.  However,  I am beginning to mistrust all the dates on her photo identifications.

My Aunt Dot wrote on photographs, both backs and fronts, and she often had more than one copy of the same photo. As I sort through the hundreds of pictures, loose and in albums, I am finding many that have contradictory information on the front and back, or information that calls the identification of another picture into question.

Yesterday, I found a group of photos which have 1917 written on the front and back, or on the front and in the album, and which say they are of seventh or eighth graders at the Grammar School. Some say, “Graduation Day, June 23.” She looks older in these pictures, but, since she was born in the fall of 1900, she would be rather old (16 in June) for eighth grade. So, in future, I will trust any date the photographer printed on the picture, like the one above,  more than I trust Aunt Dot’s hand-written information.

Her brother Mel (third row up, on the far left) was less than a year older, so apparently they were in the same class. As usual with 14-year-olds, some of these students are still children, while others look quite grown up.

World War I had begun in Europe in the summer of 1914; America did not officially enter the war until April 2nd, 1917. No doubt some of these young men enlisted when they were old enough.

To make viewing the details easier, I have divided the photo into three parts, from left to right. r c grammar school 1914 1000 dpi highr c grammar school 1914 ctr 1000 dpi highr c grammar school 1914 right 1000 dpi high


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Filed under 1900 to 1919, 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.


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

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….


Filed under 1900 to 1919, 1920s, 1930s, 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