When I was a kid, I thought antiques were musty old pieces of furniture that elderly family members kept under a sheet in the fancy parlor that was only used for “company” and special occasions. Now at 50+, I guess I’m an antique (at least it sure feels that way when I feel the knees and joints creak when I climb the stairs), but in my head, I’m still a young woman with ideals and dreams and energy. It just doesn’t translate well into the physical body!
Recently my kids began asking their grandfather what life was like when he was a boy. What did he do for fun? Where did he play and what did he play with? At 74, it doesn’t take much to get my dad reminiscing about his boyhood in Snowville, playing in the creek, going squirrel hunting, and working in the garden. He and his four siblings didn’t have much money, but they never went hungry and his memories of those early years are pretty positive ones.
But dig a little deeper and the flavor of those memories changes. Dad was a child of the Depression. He remembers when their car and Granny’s prized washing machine were repossessed. Going down to the creek to take a bath, and washing clothes with the old washboard. Wearing one pair of overalls all week, and patching holes in the bottoms of their shoes with cardboard. Christmas trees were decorated with the seed pods of the sycamore tree wrapped in the foil liners from cigarette packs. Eventually they had water piped into the house, but never had a septic system, so the outhouse was where you went to “do your business” year-round.
Some people have a nostalgia for those days gone by, and they collect the furnishings and doodads of those periods of time most of us don’t even remember. Vist your local antique store and take a good look at the stuff of life in previous generations. Feel the fabrics of vintage clothing, and you will find a lot of fabrics that were not very soft and comfortable like we wear today. Look at the old shoes, and the undergarments women wore “back in the day” and you wouldn’t want to wear those things very long.
Spend some time with old photos from the 40’s and 50’s and you will be a little surprised at what you will see. Those were the days when homes weren’t insulated against the winds and temperature changes. For many people there was no central heating system to warm the house. More likely there was a coal or wood stove in the main room that you stood near to get warm on cold days. The heat wouldn’t reach back into the bedrooms, so some families would heat rocks on the stove to carry to bed with them and help warm their feet while they were drifting off to sleep. If you were well off, you might have some coal stoves in the bedrooms you could use, hauling small buckets of coal back and forth and tending the stove as needed. In the winter, snow would often blow through cracks around windows and between the boards on wood siding and you might wake up to find a little drift of snow on your floor or windowsill.
There was no electricity in most of the rural areas until the mid to late 1930’s, so houses were lit with oil lamps (oil that wasn’t as clear as what we use today, and didn’t have all the fancy fragrances added to make it smell good). Having a car was a luxury in many homes, and a trip to town was a once a month or every other week treat. No shopping mall, no computers and video games, no DVD players. My dad has memories of his father charging up the big batteries to run the radio so they could listen.
My grandmother was one of ten children raised in a house the size of my living room today. I can only assume that all or most of them shared one bedroom somehow, sleeping several to a bed. None of this having your own room like we expect today. And the telephone, when it came in, was a party line. When there was a call for you, your phone would ring a certain way, like one long ring and two short ones, and you would know the call was for you. But more often than not, other curious ears on that party line picked up their phones to listen in to your conversation.
This wasn’t hardship, it was just life as they knew it, before the post-WW2 boom in industry and technology that forever changed lifestyles. Today we have thousands of things our grandparents never could have dreamed of owning. We have more stuff, but are more discontented with life than any previous generations. Underneath it all, there is this current of longing to go back to those old days our grandparents described to us. That is one reason TV shows like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie enjoyed such a long run in the public eye. Nostalgia for what used to be.