We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. —T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
What is it that drives me back upon the past, to consider what has gone before and view it in a new light? I feel the need more strongly with each passing year.
When we get old, we want to make young people understand.
The portents of the past, things our children and grandchildren do not know simply because they were not there. The world I grew up in was not only different, it was instructive.
My mind reels back to Streator, Illinois, population 17,500—the town where I lived between the ages of six and twelve. The years were 1951 to 1957. The rhythms and facts of life told us who we were and taught us how to be.
People needed things. But shopping malls, strip malls, and convenience stores on the edge of town—these had not yet been invented. So what were we to do? We went downtown, of course.
All the stores were on Main Street, or on half a dozen streets that intersected Main in what was called “the business district.” We had a big, solid bank; two department stores, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward; a couple of dime stores; dry goods stores, men’s and women’s clothing stores; a store that sold sheet music, band instruments, phonograph records and the machines to play them; two movie theaters, a few family-style restaurants, and several taverns.
Stores opened at nine a.m. and closed at five p.m., but on Saturday they stayed open till nine at night. People drove into town from outlying farms. They walked up and down the streets, shopping or window-shopping in the stores.
We town-dwellers did the same thing. Thus the streets were crowded every Saturday night. You were always bumping into people you had just seen at school or at work yesterday. Sometimes you encountered an old friend you hadn’t seen in nearly a week!
It taught us we were members of a community.
Sunday was a day of rest. Nothing was open on Sunday except the churches, a few gas stations, and the little mom-and-pop stores—one in each neighborhood—that sold newspapers, candy, bubble gum, cigarettes, and the occasional quart of milk or box of crackers.
For a few weeks in summer, muscular, leathery men in clean blue jeans, western shirts, and cowboy hats joined the promenade on the streets of town. They were Navajos and worked most of the year repairing track and roadbed for the Santa Fe railroad. They worked their way north, arriving in our area in early summer. They lived in dormitory railcars that were parked on a siding near the high school athletic field.
On Saturday nights, these Navajos got cleaned up and went downtown like everybody else, adding an exotic element to our community. When they were in our vicinity, they just came downtown on Saturday night, like everybody else. It was what you did.
Our parents taught us that people who are different from you are still people, and that people who do hard jobs are worthy of respect on that account alone.
Men went out to work in offices, shops, or factories, or on farms. Women worked at home doing housework, which was more demanding in those days. Clothing was washed in cylindrical tubs, then run between a pair of rollers on top of the tub to wring the water out. Then you hung the clothes on a cotton line in the backyard to dry.
When the sun had dried the clothes stiff, they were taken down, remoistened with water from a sprinkling bottle, and ironed. Irons were electric, but they were not yet steam irons. Therefore clothes had to be dampened before ironing so the wrinkles would come out. Wrinkled clothes were considered unsightly; permanent press fabrics did not exist. The woman of the household spent at least one full day each week, maybe two, on laundry and ironing.
Every spring Mom had a special job to do, part of spring cleaning. She had to clean soot off the walls. We burned soft coal for heat all through the winter. Tiny specks of soot wafted through heating ducts and clung to walls and other surfaces. Most of our walls were covered with wallpaper, which in those days was literally paper. You couldn’t get it wet.
So mom used a special wallpaper-cleaning compound. You rubbed a lump of it across the wall, picking up soot, then folded the soot inside and used a clean part of the lump on the next stroke; over and over again. When coal furnaces and old-fashioned wallpaper were things of the past, the wallpaper cleaning compound was re-merchandised as Play-Doh.
Not only laundry and housecleaning, but food preparation was more labor-intensive. Housewives took full advantage of canned foods and the new frozen foods—TV dinners—that became available, but most food was not prepackaged. It had to be cooked on a stove, electric or gas-fired. We didn’t have microwave ovens yet.
Women used lard a lot in cooking. Often the lard was actually bacon grease, drained from the skillet and saved in a tub in the refrigerator.
There was no “Take Your Children to Work Day.” Opportunities to shadow Dad at work were rare for most of us. But we got to see Mom hard at work on her many tasks every day. It gave us a respect for our mothers.
For all that, life was not just a daily grind. There was a fair amount of skylarking.
Gasoline was cheap, traffic was light, and America’s love affair with the private automobile was in full bloom. Often on weekends in the summer Dad loaded us into the car for a drive in the country. We just drove around, looking at farms and forests. We kids rolled the windows down and stuck our faces out into the slipstream like cocker spaniels. We seldom exceeded fifty miles per hour, which was about what the roads would allow. The Interstate system was just starting to be built; none of us had ever experienced driving on a superhighway.
On the way home we would stop at the root beer stand for—what else?—root beer. It was a delightful treat on a Friday or Saturday night. We learned that life had simple pleasures to offer, and they are good.
General Mills and the other cereal companies offered wonderful emoluments for children—secret decoder rings, a square inch of land in the Klondike gold fields, miniature atomic submarines that rose and sank in the bathtub when fueled with baking soda.
You had to send in one or two boxtops from the sponsor’s cereal brand, along with twenty-five cents “in coins or stamps,” to a postal box in Battle Creek, Michigan. It usually took two or three weeks for the small parcel with the prize to arrive in the mail. That taught us the principle of delayed gratification.
Far be it from me to suggest, Dear Reader, that our daily routines were a preconceived set of lesson plans to educate us in important life skills and attitudes. But that’s what they amounted to. That was the effect.
I lie awake nights wondering if my grandchildren will grow up easy marks for fast-talking salesmen because they were never wooed by the siren song of the Duncan Yo-yo representative in the vacant lot beside Marx’s store on a balmy afternoon in May.
No wonder I’m starting to look haggard. I guess we’ll just have to hope for the best.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Bravo for this look at the 1950s. Anybody writing about that time or a character growing up in that time needs to read and save this post for reference. This is pure gold. This all rings true for me (raised in southern Wisconsin) and much of what you say was still part of living in the countryside in the 1960s. I recall being a kid doing a lot of ironing. And of course we helped hang clothes outside on the clothes line, too, after Mom ran them through the wringer washer. And taking rides in the countryside after chores on the farm were done? Cheap entertainment. We also stopped at the root beer stand during that ride. And small towns on a Saturday? You described that perfectly. Thanks for this great document.
Glad you enjoyed it, Christine! I’m finding one benefit of doing a weekly blog is it forces you to dredge up things in the recesses of your mind that you never wrote down before.
Thank you Larry! And such fun facts about Play-Doh!
You’re welcome, Tom. I’m your guy for anything before 1958.