THE RAMBLINGS OF AN ANCIENT DAYTONIAN
Haec olim meminisse juvabit, sang the old poet. A pleasure to have remembered these things! And such a pleasure that I am loth to lay it down. The ‘sixties were such charming years! Therefore I am going to take it upon myself to continue, excusing the prolixity by the argument that it is a moral obligation to let young people of today know something about the adventures of their forebears. Historians are too apt to deal exclusively with the major facts of living and forget about the subtler undercurrents.
I have hinted at the hospitality of the ‘sixties as exemplified in the house parties at the Patterson farm and the constant tide of visitors and parties at the Harries and Harshman homes on the Springfield Pike. It is, of course, a shining virtue, but there is no doubt that in those days it was apt to be over-done. Hotels were not patronized to the extent they are now, even by people abundantly able to afford to do so. If you desired to visit another city and were so fortunate as to have an acquaintance living there, that made it easy. You wrote him you were coming, or you didn’t, and just came. It was all right with him for it was what he did when he got the chance. There is no record as to what his wife said (or thought).
The first intimation you were likely to have that six extra people would be your guests for dinner was when you looked out of the front window at eleven-thirty and saw them climbing out of the surrey at the horse block. Semper non paratus – never unready – had to be the motto of the housekeeper in those days, for there were no telephones and writing was too much trouble. A modern hostess can meet unexpected emergencies by ordering from a well-stocked store with a delivery system. But in the ‘sixties there were no well-stocked stores with a delivery system. It was “cash and carry” right through the existence of our mothers and grandmothers. I have described in a former chapter the markets of Dayton as furnishing supplies both cheap and good, but those markets were held only on certain days of the week and at certain hours of the day. When a child I have been sent on an errand of mad emergency to scour the backyards of our neighbors or of the dwellers on “the Commons” to buy a chicken because the one we had had for dinner was eaten up and another needed for unexpected company. If the chicken was found (unlikely enough) it had to be run down, decapitated, picked, drawn and cooked in rigor mortis for no such thing as a dressed chicken was to be had, even on market days. And any cook will agree that feathers are in the way when serving in a hurry.
The casual guests being provided with the piece de resistance, other things were needed. No canned goods of any kind were to be had. Such a thing had never occurred to the mind of man – or woman. Pause, oh twentieth century housekeeper and contemplate such a situation! The tinned fruits and vegetables which have made possible the conquering of the Arctic regions did not come in until thirty years later than the date of which we write. If it was June and tomatoes were growing in the back lot, so much to the good, but if it happened to be February (and chance visitors came any old time of the year) the hostess confined her efforts to potatoes, parsnips and turnips. A pipe dream to the 1860 housekeeper would it have seemed to buy lettuce all the year around.
Grocery stores were depended upon for flour, sugar and spices – the “dry ingredients” as the cook books called them, but not for fruits, meats or vegetables. I don’t remember a butcher’s block in a Dayton grocery previous to the ‘seventies. I suppose that is why families bought sugar and flour by the barrel and kept a whole ham against the times when the Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold. The only canned fruit was what our mother put up herself, standing over a hot wood stove in the middle of summer, ladling the cooked fruit into the jars and pouring sealing wax around the edges to keep the air out. These jars were deposited in a cellar way against our winter needs where they invariably exploded and decorated the ceiling.
Bread was, as a matter of course, the product of each home kitchen. If the chance guests happened to exceed the supply on hand there was a waxy product smelling of pipe-smoke to be had at the corner grocery where all the loafers in the neighborhood sat around the stove. No desserts could be purchased. Ice cream one could indeed find by the small dish to be eaten on the premises, at Kemper’s store on Main Street, but it never sent home in bulk.
I used to wonder why these persistent relatives did not choose market days when there were supplies in the house instead of the between days when the larder was apt to be empty. But who can explain human nature.
Our house was large, but not large in a practical way. Much space there was to be heated and kept in order, but not much available space for visitors. As I remember, out family of six quite filled it up, yet I have seen another family of four descend upon us uninvited and stay for weeks, knowing perfectly well that “help” was next to impossible to get and that we children were “doubling up” in the other part of the house. To remember what such visitations meant to my mother fills me with hot indignation to this day and yet I never heard her complain. It was all an inevitable part of the scheme of living and had to be borne.
One case of “lending to the Lord” in the matter of giving of house and food and care will scarcely be credited in the present day. The story goes back to an epidemic of incendiary fires that occurred with distressing regularity sometime during the late ‘sixties; the work, evidently, of an insane firebug which the police did not succeed in rounding out. Blazes burst out nearly every night and heads of families went to bed with the expectation that the hoarse cry of “fire,” so much more horrifying than a fire bell, would wake them from their beds. Since it took some time for tired business men to rouse out of deep sleep, get on their clothes and run to the nearest engine house to man the hand pumps it will not be found surprising that every fire got a good headway before it could be checked. Dwelling after dwelling was consumed with great resulting loss and hardships. Turner’s Opera House, on the corner of First and Main, was the biggest fire in the history of Dayton, and it did not lessen the terror of citizens who did not know but their homes would be the next to go.
One night the usual alarm woke us and the glare of the flames lit up our rooms. The fire this time was in a frame dwelling on Ludlow Street called the Witherup House, midway between Third and Fourth. It was a well-kept boarding house and always full. I, with the children of the neighborhood, watched the fire with terrified fascination from the attic windows of the David Morrison house on the corner of Fourth and Ludlow. We saw the firemen fight the flames, one of them emerged from the blazing building with a dead body in his arms and another with a body still living. This sufferer was taken, in a matter of course, into the nearest available place which was the house we were then in. What else could be done? There was no hospital or any place of any kind except a private home for hurt or sick people. I have heard my father bemoan the fact that a man patient with a broken leg from the quarries was obliged to have as a bed-fellow his own small restless son. It was fully twenty years later than the time of writing before the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis established the small beginnings of the present St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
This unconscious and unwilling visitor from the burning house was put in a small bedroom off the dining room in the Morrison home and here he stayed – an addition to a family of ten for many weeks – helpless, suffering horribly, with no bathroom, no public nurses, the stench of burnt flesh filling the house. The sight of his marred face and the offensive dressings made the whole thing a horror to a sensitive child. I have wondered who took care of him; the family in turn I suppose with the neighbors to lend an occasional hand. The point to my story is, in such a demand on human kindness nobody complained. It was accepted as all in the day’s work or laid on the shoulders of Providence. A good deal has been taken off the shoulders of Providence in these days.
Casualties were not always unwelcome to children in that day, nor since. They varied the monotony of existence and made endurable the hour we had to spend in school or helping mother. Not for worlds would I have acknowledged it then but there was a distinct impression in my mind that the perennial floods with which the Miami Valley was visited were sent for the special delectation of the children. I did have, it is true, a dim impression that digging out the tacks in a reluctant carpet to get it out of the way of the inrushing water, or dragging bedding and cooking utensils from where they belonged to where they didn’t, that getting tired and wet and dirty through whole days and nights, were not occupations which my parents would have preferred.
But it was a great game for us. First we hied us to the river bank at the head of Main Street to see the yellow flood piling higher and higher against the bridge piers. The whole town was out, standing under umbrellas and watching the flotsam and jetsam of the current – hayricks, pigpens, logs and fences, hitting the lower edges of the bridge and being sucked under by the current. Sometimes a little house went careening by and was knocked to pieces under the bridge. Once an old blind white horse stood, already in the current, on the top of the levee on the other side of the river. He did not know which way to swim out and probably was not of enough value to be rescued by the owner. Patiently, hour after hour he stood, the water rising higher and higher toward his head, and was so when we reluctantly left to go home to supper. The next morning he was gone.
A part of the joy of flood times was that we children were held to no rules. Nobody cared whether we went to school or not, if indeed there was a school to go to, which I doubt. Nobody told me to wash my face or to practice. Eating a beefsteak cooked over the grate fire in the sitting room was a sort of picnic. Fun, too, to help pack a basket of food and coffee for father to take on horseback to families down on the Commons who were on lower ground than we and consequently in worse circumstances. It was fun to watch old ladies with no seafaring experience being taken home from prayer-meeting in a skiff which tipped and bumped against the trees and made the passengers scream. All so unusual, so thrilling, so free from the monotony of other days – we would have welcomed a flood several times a year.
And when the high water went down out of the streets it still lingered in the cellars, three or four feet deep. Where, in a washtub with a clothes pole to navigate with, we progressed from room to room, dodging barrels and playing we were Robinson Crusoe on a voyage of discovery.
All ancient Daytonians, whether they agree to it or not, will remember the old Fifth Street graveyard, the land for which had been given the city by D. C. Cooper in the childhood of our municipal years. It occupied the block bounded by Ludlow, Wilkinson, Fifth and Six. A solid board fence shut in the area for its entire length, broken only by a wide gate for the hearses to drive in and by a set of steps up and over. I liked to climb the steps for the emotion of looking into the peaceful tangle of moss rose bushes, briers and tall grass. The graves were sunken, the gray mossy stones leaned over. I interested my childish soul in reading the inscriptions and marveled that all the really good and fine people that lived in Dayton were buried beneath them. None so good seemed to be alive and going about among us. It was such an utterly quiet place. Even the movement of trains at the other side of the graveyard seemed only to make the silence more intense. Outside, the busy world, distant noises of boys and trains – inside, all hot, silent, summer sunshine and memories of the dead.
It occurs to me as I write now how much more talk there used to be about death than there is now. And how much more devotion to lost friends. One of our neighbors used to do, not often, but every single day by the calendar to place flowers on her husband’s grave. Summer, spring, fall, and winter, it was a part of her daily duties. Today the funny paragraphers in the newspapers would find, somehow, a joke in it. Ghost stories were current conversation and in spite of the fact that my sensible mother flouted the hair-raising tales they did still remain in my sensitive brain. One historical fact was that one minister buried his entire congregation of forty-two in that graveyard during the summer of 1833. Cholera, of course.
Two subjects of gruesome attraction circulated among the children I played with: First, that of being buried alive, and second, of what were called “body-snatchers.” The former subject often embellished with tales of graves being opened to find the occupant had turned over in the coffin was probably the cause of much insomnia in my later life. The latter, that of unholy diggings in the dark of the moon by masked men whispering in hoarse voices while they plied their ghastly task, the burden carried off to sell to the medical schools, will still raise the hair at the back of my neck when I think about it. Impossible as it may now seem there was a very real basis, if not in Dayton then elsewhere, for such tales. In time they came to my father’s ears. Moved by the esprit de corps of his profession he took me on his lap, on the big porch at the side of our house, and explained an aspect of the situation that had never occurred to me and which he meant I should understand and repeat wherever necessary.
I knew that doctors were expected to help people when they were sick, didn’t I? That sometimes in order to help them there had to be an operation, and cut into the body? Yes. Well how could they do it if they had not studied the human body both outside and in? And how could they operate on living bodies if they had not operated many times on the dead? As well expect doctors to educate themselves without books as without the human cadaver. That sometime, he hoped, the law would provide subjects for hospital research and put a stop to the unfortunate incidents that made such stories possible. Which, thank heavens! it has at last has.
Patently manufactured hair-raisers about headless ghosts surrounded with blue luminosity stalking the aisles of the graveyard did not take much hold on me, but I have known simple literalist lives made frightful by them. We may deplore the over-emphasis at the present day on the movies as a recreation, but it must be said for them that they impart a healthier emphasis than the one I have been describing.
There came a time when the Woodland Cemetery trustees announced that no more interments would take place in the Fifth Street graveyard. The poor old ghosts had to go out of fashion in that part of town. Then began the removal of bodies to the new quarters out on the hill. Ah, that was a chance for real thrills. The top of the board fence was like a crowded balcony on a benefit night. All the boys in town were there taking base advantage of their sex to get the best seats. Talking not long ago with a man who as a boy of ten assisted at that process he recalled that two heads of long hair, one black and the other red, were acquired surreptitiously from the excavators and passed around as cherished trophies.
We took trips away from town in the ‘sixties but how differently from now: The first excitement was to see one of the old busses that plied between the Phillips House and the Union Depot back up to the sidewalk for its passenger load. The very climbing in and disposal of our hand packages was the open gateway to seeing the great outside world. Very ramshackled they were, those busses, which rumbled along the uneven streets with great straining of mechanism and the clatter of harness. The seats went from front to back along the side and were very high – to my short legs at least – very hard and round and covered with red Brussels carpet. If going around a corner slid me off the seat my feet were plunged into a deep straw which covered the floor of the vehicle and was not changed as often as it should have been. The driver always hoisted on his shoulder the Saratoga trunk which held our belongings and slammed it on the roof of the bus, convincing me that we were to be crushed to a certain pulp.
Down Ludlow Street we went, over the tracks to the old depot where the busses lined up at the entrance for the next load. Right there was a pump with a shallow iron dipper chained to the trough so as not to tempt the acquisitive tourist. And the cars of the ‘sixties! How primitive and scanty – bare floors littered with peanut shells, and dirty plush seats. The noise of transport drowned any attempt at talk and the hot sun and flies and cinders sweeping in at the windows made the ten-hour trip to Cleveland a long horror. And yet my clear remembrance includes the reminiscences of older people of the trials of a two-days stagecoach trip over the same ground twenty years earlier.
The houses of the ‘sixties and the ‘seventies deserve a part of our attention. Builders of that day lacked both originality and imagination. They built solidly and well, as they hoped and thought, to last forever. Heavy oak beams and thick walls entered into all the old dwellings town down in late years to make place for business blocks. With the exception of about a dozen big houses with halls in the middle and rooms on either side the plan of the general run of well-to-do homes was to string the rooms along in a row without regard to convenience downstairs or privacy up. Large double parlors with ceilings ten or twelve feet high occupied the front of the house. They were entered from a wide hall which ran the length of the front rooms and then opened on a porch running the length of the back of the house. Dining-room, sitting-room and kitchen opened onto this porch which was commonly draped with Isabella or Concord grapevines and was a pleasant place to sit in the summer. In fact the homes of that day could not have been more delightful in the warm months. It was when the cold weather came that their deficiencies became manifest.
No such thing as a furnace existed in the ‘sixties and, for many people, far into the ‘seventies. Large air-tight stoves for burning wood or coal grates in each room furnished the heat, such as it was – torrid in front and glacial behind. Except in sickness, bedrooms were not heated. The consequence was that, whether their names were Lowe or Stoddard or Phillips, they dressed in installments around the first fire in the house that got to going – generally that in their sitting-room. Their descendants may say they didn’t but they did. Comfort knows no concessions and when the frost makes etchings on the window-pane and when the snow creaks under foot outside one makes one’s self as comfortable as circumstances will permit.
A bathroom was just as unknown as a furnace. A washstand with pitcher and basin, utensils scarcely to be found in these days, were the only means of ablutions. Other necessary adjuncts to the bath were placed at a remote distance down in the rear of the lot, where, rain or shine, frost or snow, the family repaired individually when occasion required. Their descendants may say they didn’t, but they did.
To go back to the big parlors. The mention of them recalls two periods in my life, that of little girlhood and young ladyhood. Some I looked into with awe contained ancestral mahogany still preserved by the family with love. Soft velvet carpets covered the floor, and long lace curtains reached the carpet and were spread out upon it in fan-shaped glory. But the upholsterers of the day saw no farther than horsehair cloth which sometimes came loose and tickled my legs as I sat on the sofa. The center table was sure to hold a kerosene lamp on a mat of fringed wool, the family Bible, too big or anybody to read and with colored prints of Joseph and his brethren and a stand of wax lilies. There was a craze in the ‘sixties for making wax flowers. Materials were bought at Miss Kemper’s fancy store – sheets of wax with vials of coloring powder and wire to hold the petals together. This was before the advanced days of the ‘eighties when we learned what real art was and decorated the inside of a chopping bowl with a snow scene in all the verisimilitude of powdered mica and hung it on the wall with a blue ribbon.
The grand parlors of Dayton were lighted by gas chandeliers hung with glass prisms, the second best parlors imitated it by hanging a similarly decorated coal-oil “bastard” from the ceiling at a convenient height to bump one’s head upon. It thus happened that a faint odor of kerosene filled the air, mingled with that of oilcloth with which the floors of most halls were covered.
If my memory is aged ten, it peeps into these formidable rooms with a certain degree of trepidation. Would I remember all my mother told me of the polite things to say and do? Was my dress right? Would anybody ask me to dance? The dancing school boys huddled in a segregated group by the door filled me with sardonic excitement. Some of them I knew, would step on my toes and their hands were sure to be warty! Although probably the grate fire had been stoked generously since morning the room was invariably cold. The temperature of those parlors in the ‘sixties was befitting nothing but a funeral. The musicians tuning up in the space under the stairs gave me thrills, and I still wonder why the turning is so much more enjoyable than the playing.
If the party was at the house of a good Methodist I knew what would happen. We would not dance, we would play games. And how I loathed games! There was one called forfeits and a part of it was that each boy would “bow to the wittiest, kneel to the prettiest and kiss the one he loved the best.” No one ever kissed me nor knelt to me. The most I ever got was a frosty nod from across the room and I wanted to go right home. Supper was some diversion, except that following the fried oysters and chicken salad we had ice cream which reduced my interior to a section of the Arctic regions, and the chattering of my teeth threatened competition with the bands.
It was at this part of the evening’s entertainment that Carrie Dudley, afterwards the famous Leslie Carter, danced the Highland Fling. She had sashes wider than any others and skirts shorter, and in spite of inevitable envy in my soul I had to confess that she did dance well. The linen covered floor, the violins, the light from the crystal chandeliers and Carrie in the middle, waving her scarf and keeping pretty feet in time with the music, is a picture quite plain after over sixty years.
In recalling the embellishments of the parlors let us not forget the whatnot. One turns up now and then in an antique shop, and I remember what it used to held in its pristine importance: A large sea shell, a piece of white branched coral, a glass paper-weight with a view of Niagara Falls inside, and the stereoscope. Everybody had a stereoscope, and the order of the entertainment of a chance guest it followed close on the family photograph album. You first turned the pages of the album explaining the relationship of each picture figure to yourself, and then you offered the stereoscope, pointing out the cleverness with which the photographer made it appear that the object in the view was really there. Perhaps I am out in my chronology and stereoscopes did not come in until the sophisticated ‘eighties, but anyhow they were always on the whatnot.
In our own home there were no velvet carpets nor long lace curtains but there was an open piano, plenty of sheet music about and plenty of books. We rejoiced in a few treasures in the way of Swiss carvings and colored views of the Alps which gave us a certain prestige in the neighborhood because they showed that father had been to Europe. But they were as nothing beside the large framed photograph of the Roman Forum which hung in the John G. Lowe hall, or the gilt and silver labels marked “Cognac” or “Sherry” hung around the necks of Bohemian glass decanters in the Lowe dining room.
There was about all these parlors of my childhood a close, dusty smell, comprehensible in winter because they were never aired. Heat, so laboriously arrived at, was too precious to waste through open windows and the gospel of fresh air was never preached. In summer it was to be accounted for by the fact that carpets were tacked down and covered the entire floor. The laying of them was such an exertion, accomplished only by Dan Bush with his kit of carpet tools, that housekeepers avoided the job as long as possible. When in the spring, they were taken up and beaten on a line in the yard, the floor under them held a layer of fine dust that could best be dealt with by a broom and a shovel.
Blame them not, these long-ago housekeepers for shutting up their living rooms from light and air. There was another reason – flies! A feeble idea would be given of the difficulties or that day which omitted mention of the flies. Nearly every family owned a horse and carriage, at least a buggy. The stable was on the back of the lot and just behind it, in the alley, the ever-growing manure pile. This arrangement was a fly factory with mass production going on all the time. There was no city garbage disposal. Colored men who lived below the railroad used to collect it for their pigs when they did not forget. Between the neglected garbage pails and the uncovered manure piles, the flies multiplied by the million, their first duty in life being to seek out the dinner tables of the neighborhood. Fly screens not having been invented, they had free access to the kitchen, bakeries and dining rooms. This necessitated the “help” of one of the children detailed for the service, standing at the head of the table swinging back and forth over the eatables in a long-handled arrangement made of cut newspapers tacked onto the end of a broomstick. In more sumptuous homes it was a peacock feather duster which, for all its elegance had no more permanent effect on the flies than the humbler utensil. If the fanning stopped for a minute the flies settled back on meat platter, bread plate and pies. Nobody seemed to mind. What was the use? There they were and there they probably would always be. Why criticize the arrangements of Providence? No room was dark enough nor cool enough to keep the ravenous insects away. Every cake or pie that was put on the pantry shelf had to be covered with a dome-shaped screen of metal netting. It was very likely this protection which finally suggested the idea of making frames to fit in the windows. When they were first used the flies would settle on the outside, attracted by the odor of food, so as to really darken the room. It would be interesting, if possible, to ascertain what the almost elimination of flies has to do with the lowered death rate of the present day.
An altercation often heard in our household took place on the eve of our mother’s semi-annual shopping expeditions to Cincinnati. My father said she should stay in Dayton and buy of merchants who patronized him. Mother agreed entirely with the argument but retorted that there was nothing to buy in Dayton stores. She was far from wrong. Although I was too young at the time to discern the difference between Dayton hats and Cincinnati hats, I did feel that we were somehow limited in our selection of many things we wanted.
Our leading dry-goods store (no one at that day dreamed of a department store) was kept by Henry Perrine in the Phillips Building on North Main Street. In the two shallow windows opening toward the street the only temptations to passing customers were several papers of pins, some lengths of calico or barege (a thin woolen material of incredible toughness used for “best dresses”) and perhaps some spools of thread, all next to invisible from the fly specks on the pane. Inside two clerks lounged over the counters while Mr. Perrine read the paper in the back of the store. If business was really heavy he took a hand himself in measuring cloth or matching samples. One advantage of this store over those of the present day was that you could always match a piece of goods. If the dress made of it was worn out and you wanted to make it over, the same bale of material from which the dress was made was still on the shelves. Colors were crass and unimaginative. Green was green in those days and the same tint used to paint the pump was to be found in ribbons, and no other. Muslins were incredibly heavy and close in texture. A nightgown made out of “Fruit of the Loom” was almost warm enough to go sleigh-riding in. A whole bolt of this material was used up every spring on the sewing-machine in our house because nothing whatever was to be had ready-made in Perrine’s store. In fact the term “ready-made” was held for years to denote something cheap and unworthy. It was much worse than the word “ready-made” for men’s clothes in the present day.
Buying a “dress pattern” was an event in my mother’s life and I infer in the lives of most of the ladies of that day. How many yards would be needed to make the skirt held out by voluminous “hoops” and what kind of trimming (either “gimp” or velvet ribbon) was fully discussed among the neighbors, all having different advice to give. It is recorded that merchants of that day “threw in” the “findings,” i. e., the linings, whalebone, tape and buttons. There was no woven underwear to be bought, and that which we wore was made of rough red flannel and occasioned much torment for sensitive skins. When nice old ladies came tiptoeing across the street to call on mother holding up their skirts in front to avoid the mud, I always expected to see their red flannel drawers and always did.
It was at Christmas time that I personally felt the paucity of choice in the offerings of the Dayton stores. Something for father, something for mother, something for baby sister, was what we were after. A scanty imagination added to a scanty pocketbook made a problematic situation. Dayton merchants seem not to have waked up to the fact that people would buy things during the weeks of December that they would not buy the rest of the Year. At any rate I never remember the least catering to the wants of customers. In the matter of skates and sleds I will make an exception, for every boy expected one or both of these treasures and the hardware shops hung them out in front of the door as a bait. In passing (this to the deniers that seasons change) how many merchants do that today? In the ‘sixties and ‘seventies we expected the Miami to freeze over soon after the middle of November and it generally did so.
In the middle ‘seventies Payne and Holden’s was the leading bookstore in Dayton and there you could buy books of poetry, inkstands and paper cutters; but previous to that, what despairing searchings for the proper present to offer on Christmas morning! Lacking shopping facilities we were thrown back on our own resources, that is to say homemade presents. What horrors of decalcomania, wax flowers and wool mats we perpetrated would give us chills today. Everybody was either crocheting or poking a blunt needle in and out of the spaces in canvas work. Slippers were the only thing to give one’s minister and many were the newspaper jokes about his attic hoard from admiring members of his congregations. Slippers for father and a pincushion for mother was as far as childish imaginations reached. The basis for these works of art were gaudy patterns of impossible roses worked on coarse canvas in cross-stitch, our contribution being merely to “fill in” with a background of colored worsted.
More ambitious workers at that time sought to embroider the design themselves and for this purpose borrowed a “pattern” from the store but I never heard that such efforts came to fruition. Once, last year’s slippers lasting perhaps longer than they should, a daring thought struck us to buy a china cup for father to drink his breakfast coffee from. There were but two places offering the least chance of finding such an article, a Smith’s “queensware” store on North Main Street and Welty’s toy and candy store on South Main. Search we did with scanty results. There were small cups with a gilt edge and pink roses marked “For a Good Child” – manifestly inappropriate. There were gaudy shaving mugs with an equally banal tribute. At last a large cup, with “For Father” on the side was discovered, but alas” it was a moustache cup, the kind we had seen “drummers” at the hotel table manipulate with such dexterity that very few drops fell on the cloth. Father wore a smooth shaven face! To this day I can sense the disappointment and the feeling that if father would only cultivate a moustache he would eliminate one of the problems of our childish years.
The toys of that day were limited to dolls with china heads and glossy painted curls (real hair was not thought of), tin engines that disintegrated the second time they made a trip and a monkey on a stick whose paint came off and made the baby sick. Children’s books went no father that day than Mother Goose and Robinson Crusoe. When you had graduated from the latter there was nothing for you except grown people’s books – Dickens and Scott, which perhaps was not such a privation as it might have been.
Christmas trees were not as plentiful as now, never for sale and hardly ever seen in private houses. To get one for the Sunday school meant that somebody had to cut down a cedar on his lot or find a farmer who would do so. Christmas tree ornaments were also lacking, but the teachers in the Sunday school met and strung yards and yards of popcorn to loop over the branches or cranberries to give the Christmas color. Oranges were still rare enough to make desirable decorations and if a child got a sticky popcorn ball, an orange and a cornucopia full of peppermints he was happy as a king.
The joy of Christmas was not so much in the kind of gifts we got, but in the glamour surrounding the season. Once, in our neighborhood a family of children made their own tree, stripped cedar from the big trees in the yard, shaking the snow off so as not to spoil the carpet, and tied the branches of evergreen to the branches of a dead bush pulled up for the purpose. The result left something to be desired – for a botanist, but we were not exacting and didn’t mind if the cedar grew both ways on one branch. That tree was a joy as long as it lasted and illustrated what modern education experts are trying to teach parents, that the real pleasures of a child’s life are the things he invents for his own amusement.
The paucity of purchasable articles reached far beyond luxuries like Christmas presents. Small occurrences make me recall the things we did not have in those far-off years. How would a modern mother of a family carry on without safety pins? When they were invented I have no means of ascertaining, but it is quite plain in my memory the difficulties we had making common pins do their duty. There were no containers of any kind. Groceries were sold in bulk with no attempt to keep them clean. That we did not all die of contamination is probably due to the fact that there were not as many chimneys as now pouring our coal soot. Butter was exposed openly on market stands; oatmeal sold in bulk from open bins; spices measured out on a scale at the druggist’s; meat wrapped in heavy brown paper that melted at a touch and had to be scraped off. Not a sign of the neat boxes that keep our eatables clean and wholesome. It therefore happened that an empty bottle was to be put away on an empty shelf until somebody needed one, spare string wound on a ball and kept in a drawer, writing paper hoarded and used economically and lunches put up in shapeless packages, all for want of the results of the wisdom of modern boards of health and the coopering manufacturers, all of whom have helped educate the public in what makes for health.
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