As I approach my 71st year, time flies by at a rapid pace. As I look back to my childhood days a smile comes over my face. There have been great changes in our daily lives and I think most of us would hate to give up those creature comforts gained over the decades of my life.
Let's go back in time and look at the changes:
There was no air conditioning and very few homes had central heat. We had a coal stove in the kitchen and a heatrola which was also coal fired in the living room. The heat rose to the upstairs by means of convection. The stairway was open and there was a register (a screened, shuttered hole in the ceiling of the living room), which allowed the heat that had been trapped against the ceiling to pass through this hole to the bedroom above.
My mother had a real luxury, in that her kitchen stove was a coal and gas combination. With that type of stove she could cook over the coal fire or use the gas side to heat things in a hurry. The gas was from pipes buried throughout the town. The pipe came into the kitchen and entered a metered control box. Mom would insert a quarter in the box and that would release a specific volume of gas for the stove to use. When she used the metered amount she would have to insert another quarter for a like amount. The coal portion of the stove had a hot water back, so whenever the coal fire was burning it supplied hot water to a holding tank for use in the kitchen and bath. Prior to bedtime the coal fire was banked (additional coal was added to carry the fire until morning). Banking was a tricky art. If you didn't do it right everyone in the house could die during the night from the resulting coal gas or the stove could actually explode. The idea was to have a good bed of hot coals before you topped it with fresh coal and then you left hot coals exposed in the center of the pile, so the resulting gas released would burn harmlessly in the hot coals.
Wash day was Monday and the clothes hanging in all the backyards announced it. Mom was fortunate in that she had an electric washer instead of one with a hand cranked agitator. The body of the washer was a copper drum with the wringer mounted on top, off to the side. There was a quick release on the wringer, because sooner or later someone's fingers were going to get caught in the rollers as the wash was being hand fed. A hit on the release would pop open the wringer and free the hand or finger. After the wash was put through the wringer it was hung outside to dry. If the wind came from the north the clothes were removed from the lines, because the winds would carry the black ash from the electric powerplant in the next valley which could dirty the clean laundry.
Now that the laundry was dry it had to be ironed. If you were lucky you had an electric iron. If you lived in the country or didn't have an electric iron you used the kitchen stove to heat some iron heads. These were placed on the stove to get hot and then a handle was hooked onto one of them. The clothes were ironed with it and when the heat had dissipated from the iron head, it was returned to the stove and another one was attached to the handle and the ironing was resumed.
Electricity was available in the homes in town, but most farms were without it. We used lamps and ceiling fixtures, but wall outlets were few and far between. At Christmas time the tree lights were 8 to a string. Our tree had two strings and they were put out when there was no one in the room. Cutting the use of electricity was one way of keeping a handle on expenses. On the farms they used kerosene lamps. That was an additional chore because they had to be refueled and cleaned constantly. Hand lanterns were used outside and in the barns. They added to the normal fire hazards. Several of the wealthier farmers used direct current power plant to bring electricity into their homes. These were gasoline operated generators, which charged wet cell batteries and the electric power stored in the batteries provided electricity for lighting. I remember one farm had carbide powered lights. The lump carbide was placed in a tank dug into the ground and water was mixed with it. The resulting gas was piped into light fixtures in the house. The fixtures provided bright lights, but now you had an explosive gas being piped into the house.
Refrigerators were yet to come. Ice was delivered to the homes in town in response to a square cardboard request sign placed in your window. By looking at the sign the ice deliveryman could tell what size you needed without asking you. The ice size was indicated by rotating the card, placed in the window, and an upright number was the one he looked at. The ice was placed in the top of an insulated icebox. That ice cooled the food stored, on shelves, in the icebox. As the ice melted the water flowed into container underneath the icebox. This container was overlooked many times, but the water running across the kitchen floor was a good reminder. Once the winter temperatures arrived some homes hung a so-called window box outside a kitchen window. It was a sheet metal rectangular box, with a metal door in front and shelves inside. To use it the window was opened and a latch, at the top of the box was turned, the door opened at the top, dropped down providing a ramp across the windowsill. Items to be kept at or near freezing were placed on the shelves inside the box. The front door was secured and the window closed and mother nature kept the foods cold.
Food, what there was of it, was cheap when compared to today's prices. The only thing in short supply was money. A loaf of bread could be purchased for 5 or 10 cents, eggs were about a quarter a dozen, and dairy products were in the same range. Potatoes and other vegetables were raised on nearby farms and the prices were reasonable. Mom canned vegetables and we used them through the winter. Chickens were our meat mainstay, because once their egg laying days were over they were sold. Beef seemed to be in short supply at our house, except for what was in sausages. My dad liked mackerel and most stores sold salt mackerel, which was preserved in brine. That was usually a Sunday morning breakfast, which my Dad prepared and that gave Mom a break.
Fuel for the stoves in our region was usually coal. That meant you had to provide an outside building or in cellar storage for the coal, because when the winter snows and cold temperatures arrived you had to have your supply in place. The end result of burning coal was ashes. These were used on slippery sidewalks, added to the family garden, or left for the ashman.
Every home today has a dozen or more flashlights and extra batteries. In my time most homes considered a flashlight a luxury and used that money for essentials. My grandfather owned a flashlight and two batteries. The batteries were kept in the warming closet of the stove. The heat would keep the batteries ready for use. Batteries had a short life in those days and since they were expensive they had to last. The flashlights were made of metal since plastic as we know it was yet to come. The plastic of those days was a material called bakolite and was of a brittle nature.
In my day grocery stores were located within a block or two of your home. They provided the food essentials including meat and if you didn't have your milk delivered you could buy it there. Butter and cheese came in large tubs. It was cut, weighed, and wrapped. Salt mackerel was available too. Within walking distance was the shoe repairman. However, he was the last resort because you made an effort to repair your own shoes. The 5 and 10 cent store sold heels and soles, which you could glue or nail on yourself. When you made your own repairs one or two nails managed to show up inside your shoe. You either pounded them out or slipped a piece of cardboard over top of it to insulate your foot from them.
Milk was sold bulk or in glass bottles. You could look in the side of the milk bottle and see the amount of cream floating on top. If you didn't retrieve your milk, in the winter before it froze, the paper cap was pushed about 2 inches above the mouth of the bottle and the cream was there for the taking. Many times I took the ice cold cream, mixed it with sugar, to make poor mans' ice cream. An ice cream cone could be purchased, at the local drug store, if you had five cents.
When you did manage to get a couple of pennies together you could buy a bar of candy or some Tasty Kakes for a nickel. However, the candy store near the school was the best bet, because you were surrounded with all kinds of penny candy. It took a long time to make that final decision, but they were patient.
The trolley car and the train were the means used by most people to travel then. You could get to all the valley towns by trolley car. They were finally replaced by buses and in time they too were phased out. Now you have to depend on a car. I think a good schedule of bus and train transportation today would solve a lot of today's woes. This is one area where the past was better than today in this area.
In my early days cars were large box type machines. At first they lacked windows except for the driver. Side curtains appeared when the weather turned stormy, but they took time to put into use. The headlights were carbide lights, but during my time they were replaced with light bulbs. The area lighted in front of the car was very slim, but the roads were so bad and the cars speed so slow that it didn't make that much difference. In the wintertime chains were a must in snowy weather. On a snowy morning I got my weather report before I got out of bed by listening to the sound of the car chains on the road.
Dad had driven a team of horses for the Stegmeier Brewery when he delivered beer for them. The horses were dual purpose in that they also pulled one of the pieces of fire equipment. Several times he had been delivering beer when the fire alarm sounded. As he hurried back to the team he saw them on their way to the fire station on their own. They would arrive at the firehouse and wait to be unhooked from the brewery wagon and hooked to their designated fire equipment. I wonder if the Teamsters' Union was derived from those that handled commerce by horse team?
In time the horses were replaced by trucks and Dad went with the changes. Dad was one of the three licensed drivers in town. He told me the driver's license was attached by a pin to the driver's cap, so there was no doubt as to who had a license. I know he had driven a Mack truck. The early ones had the carbide lights and the drive arrangement was like a bicycle, in that the power from the up front engine was transferred to the rear wheels by a huge chain and cogs, which were visible on the outside of the frame. Truck drivers wore kidney belts so their bodies could accept the jarring they were subjected to because of the rough roads and the rigid truck suspensions. Dad had to give up truck driving, because the rough rides had caused him kidney and back problems. No disability claims in those days either.
During my time Dad had gotten a second hand car with the help of Grandfather. They now were free to visit friends in the country when Dad had free time, which was a Saturday or Sunday. Once a year they would plan for a trip to visit relatives of Grandad at a small crossroads called Unityville. The planning was as extensive as if they were going cross-country. Tires were lousy and their mileage was nil, so you had to be sure you had a good spare and a supply of tire patches. The length of the trip determined the number of flat tires, but you could expect at least one. Gasoline was 25 cents a gallon and the tanks were few and far between. The gasoline was hand pumped from the storage tank to a sight gauge tank mounted on top of the gas tank. When the required amount was transferred the gas nozzle was inserted in the vehicle and gravity flow did the rest.
My Mom wouldn't let me wear sneakers except in the gym. She said they were too hard on the feet and since I was born flatfooted I guess she was right. My shoes were heavy duty "clog hoppers" had cleats front and rear. One pair saw me through the school year and then new ones had to be purchased for the next school year, because I was growing. In the wintertime your shoes were covered by low quarter rubbers or galoshes, so you could get to and from school with dry feet in bad weather. Wintertime wear was the high top too. One of the leather boots usually had a pocket sewn on the side with a snap top. Inside was a fine pocket knife and I don't remember removing it because I was going to school. All boys carried pocketknives and I don't remember a school stabbing. How times have changed. The first pants were knickers and they were the mainstay for quite a few years. At some point in time I graduated into long pants. The material was usually corduroy as that could take the wear and tear of a young boy.
Our teachers were firm and they were backed by our parents and their principals and superintendent. Female teachers could not be married. If they were widowed and qualified they could return to teaching. We used real pens and there was an ink well with bottle in our desks. When a teacher spoke it was treated as the gospel. I really don't remember any favored treatment in the classroom. You either got on board or returned the following year to the same grade. The schools were located within walking distance and everyone knew you, so God help you if you did anything out of the way, because you parents probably knew it before you got home.
The phonograph was greatly used before the radio was perfected. The outside appearance of this piece of furniture was the shape of a rectangular box upended with wooden legs. The top hinged backward and an adult standing upright was in position to open the top. Nestled inside was the phonograph. It was mechanically powered. The motor for the turntable was powered by a hand cranked spring. The crank was inserted in the upper portion of the body on one side. Winding the handle stored the energy in a clock type spring. The record was placed on the turntable and the soundboard needle was positioned on the record. A lever was moved alongside the record thereby releasing the energy stored in the spring. The speed of the turntable was kept constant by a governor on the motor. The needle rode the groove on the record and the resulting vibrations went back through the needle arm to the sound box in the base of the cabinet. A large cloth covered opening in the cabinet dispensed the sound. My favorite record was, "The Wreck of the 97". My brother George broke his arm while trying to operate our phonograph. He was only 6 or 7 years old, so he moved a stool into position alongside to open the top. The stool he was standing on slipped out from underneath him and in the resulting fall he broke his arm.
Many families had Sunday get-to-gethers in one of their homes. They were song fests and there was always someone who could play a musical instrument; be it a piano, violin, or horn. Old folk songs or hymns were the order of the day. Of course, before the singing was the family style meal.
Television had been discovered about 1929, but it would be many, many more decades before it would be used commercially. If you owned a radio you were lucky and if you received anything but static on it you were luckier still. Our first radio looked as if they hadn't finished yet. It had no cabinet and it had a huge gooseneck speaker plugged into it. Most early ones used headphones. The power supply was wet cell batteries and it was a chore to keep them fired up. An outside antenna was a necessity. In time a Silvertone radio was acquired which hooked into the house current. If the conditions were right you could pick up KDKA in Pittsburgh and in time WJZ came on line. The baseball times were Dads. The news program belonged to the whole family. Mom had priority at Christmas time and for some church programs. After school was my time, when Orphan Annie, the lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, and others were used to build our moral fiber.
There were two movie houses in town, the Palace and the Victoria. The admission was cheaper for Saturday afternoons, so we headed to the Victoria for the matinee. I think the price was 10 or 15 cents. I was reined in when 9 PM arrived. That was my time to be in the house, no excuses.
It was a time when doctors made house calls, but that was after household care failed. My mother relied on Hunphries medicines. It was a small book, but covered the usual ailments and the medicine for each problem was numbered. I think the number went up to 99. Mom diagnosed, selected the number from the book, the drug store provided the requested number and you were on your way back to good health.
In town we had our indoor flush toilets; in a few local places and on the farms the outhouse was the stand by. The outhouse was usually located within a reasonable distance from the main residence. In the wintertime the cold kept you from lingering and in the summer time the smell had the same effect. Last years Sears Roebuck catalog was put to use or a corncob. Toilet paper was a luxury and was available only for special occasions.
Telephones had come into being, but not every house had them. Most business did though. The cheap way to go was the party line. In town that meant you had to compete with three other subscribers. Only one phone rang, so unless you picked up the phone you weren't aware it was in use. In the country there could be eight or ten others on the same line. All the phones rang at the same time, but had a difference sequence, so everyone knew when Aunt Hattie succumbed and made arrangements accordingly.
Looking back over the seven decades I think we have made great advances, but we can still take a lesson from the schools and the transportation systems of that time, also the use of radio (now TV) to get our children headed in the right direction. House calls by medical doctors would be an advantage for the elderly, but in this day and age they would probably have to mortgage their homes to pay for it.
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