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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Monday, September 24, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 10

I mentioned that the apartment had a cast iron tub, an old stove, and a wall-mounted kitchen sink. It had no radio (though Dad would soon build one out of spare parts, no phonograph player, and no television. (In 1951, many people did not yet have televisions. That would change in the decades ahead. There are now 2.73 televisions per household. The average number of people per household is 2.55—that means TVs now outnumber the people watching them!)

More importantly, the apartment lacked two appliances that today would be considered "must have." First of all, it did not have a washing machine. Mom did small amounts of laundry in the kitchen sink with a washboard, but when she had a lot of laundry to do, she'd load up a basket and haul it over to her parents' house to use the old wringer washer in their basement.

In the 50's, washing machines as we now know them were just being introduced in advertisements, but in the years following World War II, the vast majority of homes that had a "machine" still used something like this old Maytag. It's hard to imagine something getting "clean" in that contraption. (My grandmother once got her hand stuck in the wringer part of the machine, a common hazard of the day.) You may be thinking that the other missing appliance was a clothes drier, but those were not yet popular. Most people considered them a waste of electricity compared to a clothesline. [Even after my Mom had a drier, she preferred hanging clothes on a line, weather permitting, for as long as I can remember.]
The other missing appliance was introduced before WWII but did not go into major mass production and "must have" status until after the war. It changed human life more than we could have imagined. Mom and Dad’s apartment had no refrigerator.

The glass of milk Mom poured for Dad before unveiling her no-gravy meal had been kept cold in a wooden box on the stoop outside the apartment door. The idea worked fine in the winter, but it was early April and daytime temps were beginning to reach the fifties, which meant Dad had to buy a block of ice for his “ice box" and cover the whole thing with an old blanket.

Mom now laughs about their porch “ice box,” but at the time it didn’t strike her as strange or even nostalgic. She knew it was only temporary, and the arrangement was not far removed from their not-so-distant childhoods.

Like many children of the Great Depression Mom remembered having ice delivered each week to their old oak ice box in the kitchen. These were not bags of machine-made cubes (like the kind we buy today for picnics and parties); they were twenty-five pound blocks of ice cut from the frozen river in winter and stored in the ice house beneath a mountain of sawdust through the rest of the year. It had worked that way for centuries. No electricity required.

The ice man would drive a horse-drawn wagon (and later an old truck) down the streets looking for "ICE TODAY" signs in the front window. Mom says on hot summer days she and her friends would wait for the heavy cart, dripping from slowly melting ice, and the ice man would chip off of chunk with an ice pick, wipe off the sawdust and give it to them like a popsicle. Then he'd clamp the block with his big ice tongs and carry it with one arm up to the house and right into the kitchen ice box.

It was not until the late 30's that my mother's home saw its first electric "ice box" with the compressor on the top. As a kid visiting the same house in the 60's, they had a slightly newer model with all the round lines and chrome accents of Studebaker. Even then Grandma still called it an "ice box." She'd say things like “Here, Deary, put this left-over coleslaw in the ice box for me.” And I’d say, “Sure, Grandma. Do you mean in the fridge?” Then I would walk to their small refrigerator and open it to see it packed with fowl smelling things like Limburger cheese and countless clumps of tinfoil holding who knows what from who knows when. I remember that anything we ate from Grandma’s “ice box” had a unique osmosis flavor of everything else stashed in there.

But I digress… I say all this to say that the practice of keeping things cold with a block of ice was not primitive—it was the way Mom and Dad remembered doing it as kids. In 1951, up to 20% of the homes in Port Huron still had ice delivered to their old oak “ice box.” Or in my mom and dad’s case, a wooden box outside their apartment door.
For several months now Mom and Dad had been putting aside part of their paychecks to buy the new Firestone refrigerator in the showroom of Star Oil, where Mom worked. It would take another couple weeks to have the cash in hand.

Mom’s boss offered to sell it “on credit,” but Dad was firmly against debt and would not let the fridge be delivered until they could pay for it in full.
Just in time for Mom's birthday on April 24, the new refrigerator was delivered to the apartment. It was their first major purchase as a young couple, and Mom got absolutely giddy each time she put something in it. Even Dad couldn't help but smile when he saw it. Opening the door, he'd say things like, "May I pour you a spot of milk, M'lady?" as if he were a butler. Brand new things bring out the child in all of us.
There was only one minor problem: the kitchen outlets had been wired before electric refrigerators were common, so where they had to plug in the fridge left it as conspicuous in their little kitchen as it had been in the window at Star Oil.... It did not quite look at home.


Blogger the walking man said...

I remember Ice trucks but not for delivering ice but for keeping the twin pines milk cold when they were on their rounds delivering milk and other dairy products and the driver always giving us chips of ice to suck on during Detroit hot summer days.

Stop bringing back so many memories Tom, I am beginning to fel geezerish!



25/9/07 5:38 AM  
Blogger Cris said...

I remember my aunt had one of those old wringer wash tubs when I was about 6-years-old, and yes, one of my cousins did get their arm stuck in it. :O

I know it was a way of life back then and it's what they were accustomed to, but I'm not sure what life would be like without an actual electric washing machine and a refrigerator. (Yes, I know my generation is spoiled....LOL)

25/9/07 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think of myself as "old" but guess I must be at 62. I remember the wringer washer my mom had and how she had two rinse tubs. I remember her warning me not to get too close to the wringer as well. She hung everything outside, even in winter, and would then press everything as well (including underwear). Ah, the good ole days!
As for fridges....I remember renting in the early years of marriage and having on fridge that looked like the bottom picture (with the lady bent looking inside) and it was a pain. Most items would freeze in the freezer part except ice cream. Then every few weeks or so you'd have to de-frost the thing and what a pain. You'd have to empty the whole thing and turn it off and the mess!!!! Younger people today have no idea on how easy it is to wash clothes and buy and prepare foods. This blog really brings back alot of my childhood memories!!!

25/9/07 11:58 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I remember Twin Pines Dairy and their Saturday show with "Milky the Clown." When we first moved to Roseville, we had milk delivered through the "milk chute" in the kitchen. In fact, I have a draft for a post called "Through the Milk Chute" about how my Dad used to slide me through the milk chute whenever we actually locked the house. (We never had a key to the house for 14 years and rarely locked it.) I could not fit through a milk chute anymore. =)

Those wringers were very dangerous. I don't think they would sell them today without a device that shuts the thing down when a scream of significant decibels was emitted within three feet.

Sixty-two is a great age to be. Some of my good friends are that age. =)
That new Firestone refrigerator is the one my parents still had till I was in high school and then we got my Grandma K's General Electric (after she died). It was slightly different than the one in the picture. The freezer went all the way across the top, and like you said, it frosted up terribly. I wrote about DEFROSTING THE FREEZER last winter.

25/9/07 5:54 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

I just recently heard the story about how my father-in-law and his twin brother were "helping" thier mother with the laundry and my father-in-laws arm got stuck in the wringer. They were not sure at the time if he would ever get full use of it again, but he did. I guess he was pretty lucky. I know the two of got into a lot of trouble with thier "helping".

Also, as I wash load after load of baby clothes and our clothes getting ready for next weeks arrival, I absolutely can not imagine not having a washer and dryer. Good thing, I was born after they became popular. I think I would be an even bigger complainer than I already am if I had to live like that. Make me feel pretty fortunate. But I do love reading about those times. Thanks Tom!

Julie B.

25/9/07 7:24 PM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

Tom, I'll be back to comment some more on this. I wanted to read it before I took off for our granddaugther' little birthday celebration tonight. She turned 11 today.

But I just wanted to say that I am glad you talked about ice and how it was cut and stored back then (in sawdust)and how the ice man would chip off a piece, clean off the sawdust and hand it to someone. When I was writing my story, that is what I had in mind when one of my characters chipped off some ice from the block in the ice box, cleaned off the sawdust, and made ice water for Julia. Isn't this delving into the history part just too much fun though.

I'll return.

25/9/07 7:36 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Julie B.
We'll be praying for you Monday. How exciting!
This series of chapters has been a fun source of interesting conversation for my mom and me. It's the year of marriage without kids. They were married 14 months when my sister was born. Four years later they had four kids. If I ever write about that, you'll really be able to relate! Mom had a way of making a house a home for us kids. I get to that in the closing chapters of this series.

Ice picks are creepy utensils we don't see much of anymore. I've used them and it's sort of a brutal motion with very little finesse. When we used to go camping in Canada, we would by a block of ice from a shed full of sawdust like this so I can imagine it vividly. Mom says the iceman wasn't truly being generous since he was chipping the ice off the block he was delivering, but once it was in the ice box, her grandpa didn't like to "waste it" by chipping it off...that's why it was special.
Until writing this chapter, and reading the links about ice houses and refrigerators, I really took this invention for granted and had no idea that many people (10% city and 20% rural) were still using block ice in an ice box in 1950.

We tend to forget that the gap between when modern convenience hit the market and when most people could afford them was sometimes decades. For instance, color TVs were out for about ten years before my house had one. Today, people are less concerned about credit (debt) and they tend to "buy now pay later."

It is fun to research the setting and time line aspects of personal writing.
Hope you had fun at the birthday party. Sorry I missed your 45th Anniversary on the September 15th. Congratulations!

25/9/07 8:51 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Just wanted to thank you for your kind words last week and to let you know that I still stop by and am enjoying this series. As a not-so-proud member of the "buy now/pay later" generation, I have hope that we can bring back some of those values from this era you are talking about - especially regarding debt and money. It's taken us this long to learn the hard way, but hopefully it's not too late for us in our early thirties!

Julie in Colorado

26/9/07 11:12 AM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

I'm back and I just noticed Walking Man's remark about feeling geezerish. Hey Mark, guess what...my email address starts with Mrs. Geezerette.

Tom, I still have a tendency to refer to refrigerators as ice boxes. When I was growing up during the 1940's and 1950's, we always had refrigerators. But my parents and grandparents called them ice boxes.

I am trying to recall when my mother finally got her automatic washer and dryer. I think it was in the early 1950's when we moved to a larger house. These were front loaders. I remember before we moved how Mother would go out to a small shed next to our house to do the laundry with her wringer washer. She hung the clothes on the line to dry back then of course.

There is nothing that smells better to me than bed sheets that have dried outside on the line. But in many upscale neighborhoods of today there are restrictions and you can't put up a clothes line. What a shame.

Looking forward to more of your story.

26/9/07 1:59 PM  
Blogger leslie said...

Gosh, I too (as a geezerette, I guess) can remember the days when my Mom did the laundry in the old wringer washer and then I'd help her hang everything out on the line. And yes, even in wintertime. And I think we had an "ice box" until my parents bought their first home around 1955ish.

26/9/07 2:46 PM  
Blogger JR's Thumbprints said...

When my next door neighbor had a live-in girlfriend, she would hang their clothes outside to dry. My wife and I never said anything, but it sure was tacky looking at all those under garments flapping in the breeze. No ice box though, except for a small wooden box with a tin lining stored in our garage. I'm still trying to figure out what I can do with it.

26/9/07 10:33 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I tried to respond to comments last night but for some reason I could not open the comments page on mine or other blogs. Hmmmmm....
It's working this morning.

Julie in CO,
Dad had his reasons for fearing debt, and I hope to include a hint of it somehow. I'm afraid you're right about the generations since my parents. We tend to forget what Patrick Henry said in his speech to the Virginia Convention. "It is dearness only that gives things their worth." It is the "wanting of something" that makes the "having it" worthwhile. If we want something enough to save for it, then we are far less likely to make frivolous choices with our limited resources. There are things worth borrowing money for--typically things that maintain their value (or appreciate), but when we borrow money on something that we know is going to drop rapidly in value... that is another story. Thank you for mentioning this. I want to work it in somehow.

I've heard of "the wash shed" especially in rural areas. Just think of how messy it was to do the laundry. The clothes were dripping wet until you put them through the wringer. Doing it out in a shed, on in the basements made sense. By the time I was born my Mom had a Speed Queen washer and drier...she had that pair for about 20 years. =)

Were your folks urban or rural? According to one of the links I read, Ice boxes were still used 2 to 1 in the country vs. city in the 50's. Makes sense. Even though SQ calls herself a geezerette and you're willing to join the club. Have no fear, I will always assume that all of you are sharp and spry regardless of what the calendar says.

I do remember the smell and feeling of clothesline-dried sheets. I remember running through them on the line in the summer. The cool damp fabric would brush against the skin. I remember my Mom telling not to do that for fear we'd get her clean sheets dirty. =) But I don't remember our underwear hanging on the line. Mom must have felt the same way you did about that and used her Speed Queen Drier for the "delicates." =)

27/9/07 6:29 AM  
Blogger HeiressChild said...

wow, does this bring back memories. i remember my mom washing clothes in the bathtub on the washboard when she couldn't get out to the laundry. i'm a city girl, but when we lived in an apartment when i was little, we had a clothesline for the neighborhood with a big wood fence around it where we hung our clothes. i only remember one time someone had something stolen from the clothesline. i do remember when we got our first washer and dryer. even then, on nice days, we had to hang the clothes on the clothesline. many of the homes today have wooden fences, so people still use clotheslines.

i remember getting milk and orange juice (in bottles) from the milkman, where he'd put it in a metal-type box outside our door. another good chapter tom.

30/9/07 6:47 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Some people had the metal box you mention for the milkman. Later on, when we kids were born we moved from Port Huron to the Detroit suburbs where the little brick ranch homes all had a "milk chute" that went through the wall of the house into the kitchen stairway. I have a draft of a post about how I used to crawl through it when we were locked out of the house. That story belongs in a different series called "Mixed Milk." =)

6/10/07 7:16 AM  

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