by Flossie Erwin Austin
Continuing her story…
Chapter Four—Necessity is the Mother of Invention
With never quite enough money to buy what one considered “the necessities” in those early years, to say nothing of the things one fancied, “making do” became a way of life. Looking back, I think a great deal of ingenuity was displayed in those so-called “good old days” in just the process of day-to-day living. Although “recycle,” as used today, is a comparatively new word, the practice of it, in one form or another, was certainly going on in those years.
So many things come to mind as I review my life; take, for instance, the bright-colored flour sacks. Homemade bread was a very important part of the diet, so flour was purchased in large quantities, especially by families the size of ours; forty-eight pound sacks were the usual size, I believe. During the years that flour came in bright print sacks, trading in sacks became the rule; one needed several matching sacks to make dresses, curtains, bedding, etc.
As flour came in cloth sacks, so other things came in wooden boxes. Orange crates and apple boxes became dressing tables, book cases and any number of storage units, as well as toys. With a little paint, scraps of wallpaper and a pretty flour sack, they became works of art.
But, it seems to me, the greatest ingenuity was shown by the children with the toys and other wished-for articles, created from discarded items. I remember, as a child, how pleased I was when the new mail order catalog arrived and I was awarded the old one. With a pair of scissors, a cardboard box or two and the discarded catalog, I was happy for hours. Many paper doll families were created; the cardboard made beds, chairs, tables and other furniture. They were lovingly put away after each play time, and if a younger brother or sister didn't find them, would probably last until a new catalog came again. Of course the remains of the catalog usually found its way to the little house at the end of the back walk, where the final recycling was done.
While I could create my own paper dolls, other popular items of entertainment were a different matter. I remember at one time, a hoop and stick was a popular item of play with the neighborhood kids. An iron hoop, about twelve to eighteen inches in diameter, together with a section of barrel stave nailed to the end of a narrow stick completed this treasured item. With practice, we became quite skilled in rolling our hoops; challenging each other in seeing who could keep their hoop rolling the longest.
Another item that was popular with the older, more active boys and girls, was a pair of stilts. As these were homemade from the different pieces of scrap lumber and leather pieces such as scraps of harness, belts, and so forth that one was lucky enough to find, each pair was usually different. These were made by the boys old enough to use saws, knives, hammers, etc. An older brother or a friend could sometimes be talked into making extra pairs for those willing to run errands or do the scavenging for needed material. Kids too young to manage this type of stilts were made happy with a pair made from two tin cans and lengths of baling wire. The wire was run through holes in opposite edges of the can and then fastened for hand holds long enough to accommodate the child; the wire was wrapped to protect the hands.
Since horses played such a large part in our early life, I am not surprised that my brothers would turn to stick horses for play. I remember, one time, being quite fascinated as I watched a younger brother create a several-horse team from discarded broomsticks, slats or other such sticks, with binding twine for lines and harness. He seemed to have them all named and talked to each in turn as he commanded them to gee and haw.
Another never to be forgotten object of my early school days, was the tin syrup or molasses pail. When the pail was empty it was washed, and became someone’s lunch pail. It was the usual thing to see a row of syrup pails lined up at the back of the one room country schoolhouse where I attended school for awhile; but, every once in awhile there was an exception. I remember one instance in particular. A red-haired, freckled-faced little girl carried her lunch in a store bought lunch pail...with a thermos bottle even. One picture that is very clear in my memory, is of the little girl in the blue velvet dress, all smiles, as she displayed the mysteries of that wonderful lunch pail. I wonder how many of the others grouped around her became dissatisfied with their syrup pail. I knew of one who was certainly green with envy.
I can remember one other case where envy of a school friend was so strong that the memory has persisted over these many, many years. In this instance, it was the little girl's shoes I envied; they had shiny-black patent leather bottoms and bright red tops. My heavy, high-topped black shoes, with the metal built-in toe guards, certainly lost out in comparison. But as I remember the dainty shoes, I also remember the little girl's one crippled foot, or leg, that was shorter than her other, that caused her to walk off balance. That I didn't envy her.
With the wisdom of age, as I review my life and count my blessings, I have come to feel that life has its own way of balancing its books. What was once envy, is now only compassion.
Chapter Five—Fads and Fashions
Every generation seems to have its own pet fads and different fashions or style of dress. In fact, some styles change so often that only the very style conscious can keep up with them.
Nothing seems to be more subject to change than ladies’ skirt lengths or the location of the waist line. I was going through my teenage years in what was called the “Flapper Era.” Pictures taken in my junior and senior years of high school remind me of when we were teetering around on high-heeled shoes, dresses at knee-length, and belts at our hips. Our hair was cut short, and small cloche hats were the style.
Although we were showing a lot of leg, never, never could they be bare. I can remember being in despair half of the time, trying to keep a pair of rayon hose ready to wear. It helped a lot a few years later when longer dress lengths came into style and mended hose were easier to hide.
I can remember when I was younger how my mother would suffer in the heat of summer, wearing the long cotton hose as was the custom then. Frequently, she would be daring, and go without while working in the house, but we children would be told to be sure and let her know if unexpected company approached, thus allowing her plenty of time to put on her stockings.
For a short while, when I was in grade school, bright colored bloomers were the style for the rope jumping, jack playing group. Black sateen bloomers were the standard undergarment to wear with the knee-length dresses, as were the long, black cotton stockings, but for a time, bright green or bright purple sateen bloomers brightened up the scene at recess time, and happy was the little girl who was allowed to have a pair. More often than not, I was one of those to be disappointed, but in this particular fad I was lucky, and became the proud owner of a bright green pair. I remember becoming quite adept at flipping my dress tail as I ran under the jump rope so a bit of bright green bloomer would show.
I’m glad the custom of wearing long underwear in the wintertime, regardless of the weather, has become outmoded. It was the practice to don them about the same time each fall, no matter what the temperature. That, and the long black stockings and high button top shoes, made for a miserable winter. We were glad when our mother decided that spring had arrived. As I recall, the happy time occurred sometime in May. School was dismissed for the summer, and the long underwear and heavy shoes were shed at the same time. It was summer vacation and barefoot time; the happiest time of the year.
As I watch a young granddaughter dress for school, I think, “what a contrast are the easy, simple styles of today, as compared to those of my day.” What could be easier than slipping into a pair of blue jeans, a bright knit top, elastic topped knee-length socks, and a pair of her beloved “tenney runners,” now called joggers.
Of course, her electric curling iron has been plugged in during this time, and with a few quick twists of her wrist, she is secure in her ability to charm the current boyfriend with her curls. I bid her good-by, and as she runs to catch the school bus I then check to see if she has unplugged the curling iron, as I reminisce of the long ago when I was that age.
The “good old days” it was called, but I have a feeling of sympathy for that little girl, as she got ready for school so many years ago. The long underwear that had to have a pleat around the ankle to enable one to pull on the heavy black stockings—oh, for the stretch materials of the present day. Next must go on that hated harness that was necessary to hold up the stockings. One had a choice: it could be tight, and one would have sore shoulders, or loose and have droopy socks. Of course, there was another alternative, which was tight, elastic garters. Next, the high button shoes, and the dress that invariably buttoned up the back, usually brought tears to a sleepy little girl, as she struggled with the button hook on shoes and waited for help with dress buttons. Finally, there was the long hair to be braided and tied; when it was fixed in one braid down the back, it seemed to be always caught on dress buttons.
Little girls always wore dresses, of course, no problem telling them from the little boys, and to protect their modesty, there were always the black, voluminous bloomers. "How could you ever get changed for gym?" I can hear my granddaughter ask. The answer, of course, is we didn't. Modesty would forbid such exposure away from the privacy of one's own home. Besides, one would be sure to get pneumonia, if not that dread disease, consumption. What, I wonder, protects the girls today from these disasters.
Boys' styles have changed over the years as well. Little boys wore short pants - just below the knee, until they were considered old enough to join their fathers and older brothers in the mature “long pants.” In other words, the length of their pants was one way of “telling the men from the boys.”
Chapter Six—First World War
We lived in Augusta, Kansas when the First World War began, which had a great influence on our lives. One of the first memories I have is of a young uncle—one of my father’s younger brothers—coming to bid us good-by, as he left to answer the draft.
I remember the family felt especially bad about seeing him go, as he had been married only about a month to a young lady they all cared for. The sad part of it was, although he went through a term of active duty overseas, and came home with no apparent wounds, his homecoming was a sad one. He wasn’t to see his young wife again. While he was gone she died of the flu that killed so many during the war years, both at home and in the army camps.
Another uncle—my mother’s only brother—was also a victim of the flu. He had enlisted, but died during the epidemic while he was still in a training camp in the U.S. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The flu epidemic seemed to be feared more than the war itself. I must have been about seven or eight—old enough to remember much of what happened during the war years, but not old enough to fully understand all that I saw or heard.
One of my most poignant memories of that time is of the little bag of asafetida that we all wore around our necks to ward off the flu bug. This was a drug with a very strong and offensive odor, and it was very unpleasant to live with day and night. Whether it actually had any medicinal effect, I never knew.
We lived only a block or two from the railroad tracks, and I recall joining others of the neighborhood, both children and adults, at the tracks to watch the troop trains go through. Everyone was excited as the trains moved slowly through town, and we cheered and waved to the young soldiers, and they laughed and waved in return. They were already heroes in their own eyes, as well as that of the crowd cheering them on; they were off to join the struggle to make the “world safe for democracy.”
The song “Over There,” written by George M. Cohen in 1917, when he heard that America had declared war on Germany, became the most famous song of World War One. “K-K-Katy” was another popular song and was heard wherever crowds gathered.
As in every war, or other crisis, the citizens were called on to make sacrifices of one kind or another. Often times the result wasn’t quite what was intended. One such case comes to mind, as I try to remember back to those war years.
Women and girls were called on to help by not buying new clothes, but to wear overalls, the theory being that more money would be available for the war effort. I am not sure whether this idea came from the government, or some local civic group, but I am sure it was misinterpreted by many and, in particular, by a certain family on our street.
The only members of this family I clearly remember though, are the mother and a teenage daughter, both of whom were style conscious, and with a liking for publicity. Instead of wearing out their old clothes before buying new, as was intended, they saw it as a chance to be first in starting a new style. I can still see them as they swaggered up and down the street in brand new overalls, smugly doing their part for “democracy.”
I admit that I was a little envious, since the idea of wearing overalls appealed to me. Up until then overalls were considered boys’ clothing, and taboo for girls. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to indulge my whim for a pair of overalls, but more about that later. During the Great War we, as did most of the others on our street, continued to wear our old clothes, not so much for patriotism’s sake, but because we couldn’t afford new.
The war changed lives in other ways too; there was a definite relaxing of moral values. I gained this impression from listening to my mother and other neighbor women, as they gossiped about the deplorable state of affairs. According to them hasty marriages occurred that shouldn't have happened, and apparently many of them produced children that raised the eyebrows of the gossipers. Of course a child my age was too young to understand these things, and I am sure I didn't, but still the talk gave me a lot of food for thought, and I did a lot of pondering over it, when I was supposedly interested only in my own play.
Events were organized to raise money for the war effort, both for the soldier’s entertainment—“nothing too good for our boys” was the slogan on the home front—and for needed equipment. I remember one occasion, when my sister and I had walked to town with my father and a younger uncle—no doubt my mother was at home with younger brothers and sisters—and on the way home we passed a dance in progress. It was in a building with an open front, and girls were stopping all males going by, urging them to come dance, all for the war effort of course. My uncle nudged my father with an excited, “Come on Odes, let’s dance.” My father hesitated for a minute before he shook his head, as he glanced significantly down at us girls. My father walked on home with us, while my uncle stayed behind to do his bit “for the war effort.”
I recall that there was one event that we all attended: it was an amateur program held in the local theatre. It was made up of local talent—with a lot of doubt as to the talent. Anyone who wanted to perform on the stage was welcome to participate. A fourteen-year-old girl we all knew won first prize. She came running out on stage and sang at the top of her voice: “I went to Heaven, but I came right back, because the Angels in Heaven couldn't ball the jack,” as she kicked her heels in the air, in true dance hall style.
I remember asking my mother later what “ball the jack” meant, and she replied, “It's something not very nice, forget it.” But in the way of a child, I kept on wondering and I find, here in my mature years, I still don't know the meaning.
Occasionally a teenage grandson will ask, “How about a lesson on the facts of life, Grandma?”
To which I’ll reply, “Don’t bother. I am a great believer in that phrase, ‘If ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,’ so just let this seventy-year-plus grandma remain ‘blissfully ignorant.'''
To be continued...