Readers recall what life was like before modern conveniences.
Strength Gained Through Hard Work: Back in the days before running water, people got their water from a well.
Strength Gained Through Hard Work
When I was a child, many families in our rural area were poor. My family had no electricity and no indoor plumbing. We also didn't have a car, but we were blessed to live within walking distance of the school, the church, and the little country store.
Times were tough before modern conveniences. I'm sure everyone agrees they would never want to go back to life without electricity, indoor plumbing and running water.
The men farmed and worked in sawmills or log woods, cutting wood with a crosscut saw. The days were long, and the work was hard. My dad used to say he worked all day in the log woods, and then came home and had to chop wood for the family to burn in the fireplace and the woodstove. My dad was a strong man, as were most men back then.
Our water was drawn from a well in our yard, and carried to the house in a bucket. On wash day, during warm weather, water was heated in a big kettle over a fire, and then carried to the washtub. The clothes were scrubbed on a washboard, rinsed in clean water and hung on the clothesline to dry. When it was cold outside, the wash was done in the kitchen, and the clothes froze when we hung them on the line outside to dry.
Women made almost all of their family's clothing on a treadle sewing machine. Some of the better seamstresses could even take old hand-me-downs and turn them into nice “new” clothes. In addition, women also sewed quilt tops from scraps, and then either hand-quilted or tied them together. The quilts were not fancy, they were instead made to keep families warm on cold winter nights.
Grandma raised chickens and traded eggs at the country store for items she couldn't grow on the farm – sugar, salt, flour, baking powder, and occasionally cloth or underclothes. We also raised hogs, and nothing was wasted when the hogs were butchered. Select cuts were stored in the smokehouse until needed, the heads were made into souse meat, and the lard was rendered for cooking.
Almost all of our food was grown on the farm, and Grandma was a great cook. She made delicious green beans and potatoes in a cast-iron pot, and she baked up some tasty cornbread and biscuits.
Grandma and my aunt also canned vegetables from the garden, and Grandma made sauerkraut in a churn. As a special treat, Grandma would sometimes make blackberry cobbler for the family, and it was greatly appreciated and welcomed.
I'm 80 years old now, and I'm thankful for all the modern conveniences we have today. I love my washer and dryer, I thoroughly enjoy my microwave, and I don't know what I would do without my refrigerator to keep food from spoiling. Oh, and there's also the indoor plumbing convenience, which is certainly something to be grateful for.
Willodean – Allardt, Tennessee
I laughed when I read your Heart of the Home request for stories about life before modern conveniences. You see, I'm 81 years old and live in an old log house in the country. But wait, there's more.
I have never owned an automatic washing machine. My 1970s washer pushes up to the sink. I do have a portable electric dryer, though, because we get too much snow during our cold Wisconsin winters to hang clothes outside on a line.
Growing up, we washed our clothes in a wringer washer on the back porch. We had to heat the water and then cut up cakes of lye soap to add to it. Next we ran the clothes through the wringer, rinsed them in a big washtub, and hung them up to dry on the clothesline. And since nearly everything was made of cotton, after the clothes dried, they had to be ironed.
Our first telephone was a wooden monster that hung on the wall. There were several people connected to our phone line, and each family had a different ring. To make a call, we used a ringer that connected us with an operator who would connect our outgoing calls. The telephone I use today is much smaller, but it is still a land-line telephone – and it has an answering machine. I still don't own a cell phone.
Being employed in an office for more than 50 years, I started out on a manual typewriter, then upgraded to an electric typewriter. Eventually we started using computers, and I decided then that after I retired I would not own a computer. However, I did get a word processor, but I still write many letters in longhand for friends.
My grandmother had an icebox that held ice and foods that needed to be kept cold, and she cooked on a kerosene stove. She could bake made-from-scratch cakes in her stove-top oven, without heat controls or a timer, better than I can in my electric oven.
Years ago, it was not uncommon for a family to own only one car. Some families didn't even own one. Back then, teenagers rode bicycles or walked where they needed to go. They didn't have their own car, and they didn't borrow the family car.
Since we had no indoor plumbing, we used an outhouse, complete with catalog pages for “toilet paper.” On Saturday nights, we took turns bathing in a galvanized washtub.
My family never had air conditioning. In fact, I have never lived in a house that had air conditioning. I did have a car with air conditioning, which I only bought because I had an English bulldog who loved to ride in the car, but couldn't stand the heat.
My old log house is not modern. It has no closets and very little cabinet space. Something is always breaking down, but I love it. It's where I plan to live out my remaining years on Earth. The house is surrounded by woods, where wildlife is abundant, and colorful birds frequent the feeders around the property. I am happily living in God's country with a few, but not all, of today's modern conveniences.
Florence – Rhinelander, Wisconsin
Because I spent my childhood without modern conveniences, I have decided that the luxury I most appreciate is central heat.
In our old farmhouse, the wood stove in the kitchen was the only source of heat in the winter months. It was hot near the stove, but the rest of the room and the house were freezing cold.
When the weather was really cold, Mom and Dad would sleep on cots near the stove so they could keep the fire going through the night. We four children slept upstairs under feather comforters. It was no use complaining to Mom about how cold it was, because she had slept in those same beds, in the same room, under the same comforters when she was growing up.
However, to prove a point, we once took a tin cup half full of water upstairs with us when we went to bed. The next morning, the water was frozen solid. When we showed it to Mom, she just smiled and said we should be grateful that it was warm near the stove.
On extremely cold days, we children would sit on chairs placed in front of the oven. We sat with quilts wrapped around us and with our feet propped up on the oven. We played games like “I Spy” and “Riddle-Riddle-Ree” until we got bored, and then we would begin accusing each other of cheating or taking up too much room, or breathing too loud on purpose. That's when someone would get insulted and go into the corner and sulk for a few minutes, until the cold set in, before returning to the group. Then we would all get along for awhile, before the ordeal would start all over again.
The winter I was 10 years old, an older cousin gave me a wonderful coat she had outgrown. Even with the coat on, I was cold as I waited for everyone to get ready for church. So, I moved as close as I could to the stove. Then I decided it would be even warmer if I leaned against the stove. I was enjoying the heat, when my mother suddenly yanked me away from the stove. Just then I became aware of the smell of wool being scorched. My beautiful new coat had a big brown burn mark on the back. Luckily, my mom was able to salvage the coat.
The heat the wood stove generated in the summer months made the room stifling hot, especially during canning season. As we children helped with canning, we did not suffer in silence. Instead, we continually let Mom know just how miserable we were. Somehow she always managed to remain calm as she told us to keep peeling, washing jars, washing fruit, and so on.
I have fond memories of growing up in the old farmhouse, as I'm sure my siblings would agree. However, I will never take central heat for granted.
Joan – Southboro, Massachusetts
I was delivered at home by the family doctor on March 6, 1928, weighing in at only 21⁄2 pounds. My first several years on Earth were pretty easy, and then life as I knew it changed.
In my family, when a child reached age 5, chores were assigned. Mornings started at 4:30. Mom prepared breakfast, and then we all sat down at the table and enjoyed homemade biscuits and gravy, made from the leftover grease from the meat cooked the previous day. Around 5, the chores began, including bringing in corn cobs and kindling to fuel the wood and coal stoves, and taking out last night's ashes.
As we got older, the chores got tougher. At the age of 6 or 7, we were old enough to milk the cows and carry the milk to the smokehouse, where it was put into a separator – a big metal machine that separated the cream and the milk (called "blue john" because of its color). Mom made butter with the cream and sold it.
Next it was time to slop the hogs, which meant gathering up all the leftover scraps from the previous day's meals, as well as a little blue john milk, and taking it out to feed the pigs. Then I headed for the chicken house to feed and water the chickens and gather the eggs. It was important to be careful at this job, especially if the chickens were sitting on their nests, as they would peck you if you weren't paying close attention. Rarely did our family get to eat the eggs, because Mom also sold the eggs to help support the family.
When the chores were done, it was time to head to school. My brothers and sisters and I walked two miles to and from school. Weather didn't matter. If it was freezing cold with a foot of snow on the ground, we walked. If it was 90 degrees and miserable, we still walked.
Our dresses were made from feed sacks, cut to come below our knees. Our clothes may not have been pretty, but they were always clean. I wore high-top, laced shoes (or four-buckle overshoes on days when they were needed), and my long stockings were held up by elastic garters. My hair was always a beautiful dark brown because I washed it with homemade lye soap.
Our entertainment for playtime consisted of walking on stilts, swinging on swings fashioned from trees, wading in the pond, and playing with our pets: a white bulldog named Pup; a collie named Jack; the barn cats; and our horses, Maude and Charlie.
In spring and summer, when it was hot, we would sit under the big shade tree in the yard and drink tea or lemonade. At night, if it was extremely hot, in addition to opening all the windows, we would sleep on the floor in front of the screen door. In later years, we got electricity, and we were able to use window fans.
The only way to keep in touch with neighbors, friends and family was by mail or by visiting them. Telephones were not available, so we would pile into our old Model A. Back then, cars didn't have heat or air conditioning. When it was cold, we would wrap our feet in blankets and place warm bricks around our insulated feet. Occasionally we would have to stop and scrape ice off the windshield because there was no defroster. When it was hot, all we could do was roll down the windows.
Nowadays, women are rushed to hospitals to deliver their babies. Doctors no longer make house visits. Rarely does a family sit down and enjoy a meal together, let alone every day. Few children do chores, unless they live on a farm. Very few children walk to school anymore, because now there are buses, or their parents drive them.
Video games and electronics have taken the place of “games.” Air conditioning and furnaces are a must for most households. Cell phones and computers are the main source of communication. And vehicles have both heat and air conditioning.
I do believe the good ol' days are gone!
Annabelle – Lincoln, Illinois
I have many Good memories of growing up in the 1950s. My family lived in the country in an old two-story farmhouse. I shared a bedroom with my three sisters, and my little brother shared a room with our parents. We had a coal furnace, but it always seemed cold in the mornings when we got up and dressed for school. We all tried to stand over the one heat register that blew warm air upstairs.
An outhouse some 70 feet from the house was our “bathroom,” until we moved to a house with an indoor bathroom when I was in fifth grade. We had a crank telephone with a hand-held receiver, and we were one of many families on a party line, which meant anyone could listen in on any conversation.
We also had a black-and-white television with an antenna that sat on top. We had three channels and no remote control. If we wanted to switch the channel to see what else was on, or if the volume needed turned up or down, we actually had to get up, walk over to the TV set, and do it manually. What fun it was when TV dinners came out, and we were allowed to eat the family meal in front of the TV.
Saturday night was bath night. Dad would get the big washtub down and fill it with hot water. Then we all took turns bathing and washing our hair.
All of us girls had chores to do, and we were given an allowance for doing them. We cleaned the house, made our beds, and washed, dried and put away the dishes. When we got our allowance on Saturday, we would go to town and head straight to Housie Otto's candy store, where we could fill a whole bag with penny candy.
In the summer, children played outside from morning until dark. My little sister and I had an old blue bicycle we would take turns riding, and we also had a little record player and a couple of records. We played with our baby dolls a lot, and I was so excited the Christmas I got a Barbie and a Ken doll.
We had the woods to play in, the barns to explore, and a tire swing just right for trying to reach the clouds. After dark, we chased fireflies and called whippoorwills.
We didn't have kindergarten, so I started first grade when I was 6. My sisters and I got on the school bus at 6:45 a.m. and got dropped off at 4:45 p.m. At school, I had a desk that opened up, and I took great care putting my treasured school supplies inside. I had a red plaid lunch box, and milk cost two cents. The girls wore dresses or a skirt and blouse, and the boys wore slacks and a shirt. Jeans and shorts were unheard-of.
Life was simple. We didn't have much (no computers, cell phones, video games, CDs or DVDs), but we didn't need much – and yet we all survived.
My favorite modern conveniences are air conditioning, digital cameras and laptops. I admit I may not need everything available these days, but it's nice to have a choice.
Rebecca – Lincoln, Illinois
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