More stories from readers about life before modern conveniences.
Today, I don’t go anywhere without my cell phone. When it recently went missing for a day, I was completely lost. Before I found it, I was brought up short with remembering what it was like before we even had a phone in our house.
During the Great Depression, a telephone was a luxury that only the rich could afford. However, there was a way to receive a phone call without having a phone in your home. The corner candy store had a public phone in a booth. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the phone number, which was given to friends and family who didn’t live nearby. People could call the candy store, and if your party was in the store, you made a connection immediately. If the person wasn’t there, the caller left a call-back number, knowing that the message couldn’t be delivered until a youngster came into the store to buy penny candy.
The owner would dispatch the first child to come into the store to deliver the message to the intended recipient. Most of us children jumped at the chance to deliver messages because sometimes you made a penny tip. A call-back was always important news – a birth, an accident, or a death in the family. After all, a phone call cost a nickel, so people didn’t just call for nothing.
The other way of communicating back in those days was the penny postal card. Mom would send her sister, who lived two boroughs away, a postal card on Wednesday saying we would be coming to visit on Sunday afternoon. The card would arrive at my aunt’s house on Thursday afternoon, and if she had other plans for Sunday, she would mail a postal card back, which Mom would get Saturday. If no card came in the mail on Saturday, it was my job to take a quarter to the bakery and buy a crumb cake, a sugar loaf and a stolen.
After church on Sunday, we rode the trolley south for the next hour and a half, all for a nickel. My young uncle, who was more like a brother, had convinced me that we were crossing the Mason Dixon Line when we ventured into South Brooklyn. I was 8 years old at the time, but try telling that to today’s 8-year-old, as the Blackberry is pulled out to prove you wrong.
Florence – North Hollywood
Life without modern conveniences was less complicated, for sure, but it was also much more physically demanding.
I grew up on a farm in the 1930s and ’40s, and my dad had a team of horses he used for farming. Some of the farm equipment had a seat, but the plow he had was a walk-behind plow. Not only did the farmer need lunch and a break, the horses did, too. Hay was stacked with a pitchfork, and corn was picked by hand. And girls were not exempt from farm chores.
The farm provided most of our food, which meant a lot of chores for us children. I arose early enough to help milk the cows by hand. Then I had to let the chickens out of the brooder and make sure they had feed and water. After that, it was time for breakfast. Then I walked a mile to school.
With six children to care for, Mother stayed extremely busy. The washing machine had a gasoline engine, and the water was heated on the wood stove. The dryer was a clothesline. When it was time to press the clothes, the irons were heated on the stove. Wash day was quite a chore.
A large garden provided fruits and vegetables, which were either eaten fresh, dried, or canned on the wood stove. Once a week, a 25-pound block of ice was purchased from the ice plant and placed in the ice box. In winter, we ate a lot of homemade ice cream since we had our own cream, milk and eggs. Dad would cut a chunk of ice from the pond, and we all took turns cranking the ice-cream freezer.
Our toys consisted of a red wagon, a softball and a deck of well-worn cards. Many long winter evening were spent playing “Pitch” at the kitchen table.
The world has certainly changed plenty during my 70 years on Earth. The thing I miss most from the good old days is that we seemed to have more time to spend with family and friends, and God was the center of our lives.
Norlene – Paola, Kansas
When I was born in 1950, we lived with my uncle in Michigan in the home where my mother was born. My uncle inherited the farm after my grandparents passed away. My mom was a housewife, and my dad was a laborer, and with three children, sharing the old farmhouse with my uncle fit their budget.
The home was old and had not been renovated. It had no electricity, and the “bathroom” was an outhouse. These were the worst of the inconveniences I can recall. I don’t recall ever having a car while we lived with my uncle. And I didn’t miss electrical conveniences other children had because I never had them.
In contrast to these shortcomings to our lifestyle, we lived on a good-sized former farm, where my sisters and I had multiple acres of land to safely run around in. We used our imaginations to create our own fun. We whipped down snow-covered hills using boxes for sleds, and we swam in nearby creeks when the brief Michigan summers arrived. The farm had fertile soil, and fruit grew wild on the property. In nicer weather, we picked apples, crab apples, chokecherries, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. Often we picked the fruit for our mother to can. However, as we picked and filled buckets, we also ate to our hearts desire.
When I was about 8, my family moved to a rental home less than five miles from the farm. We had electricity, and my dad got a car.
We also got a radio, and a few years later a used TV. While we did have cold water in the house, my mom still had to heat water on the wood stove for everything from baths to washing clothes. Unfortunately, though, we still didn’t have a bathroom, so we continued using an outhouse. My sister told me to always open and then slam the door before entering the outhouse in case there were any snakes or rats inside. She said the noise would scare them off. I dreaded trips to this essential structure!
I loved the wood stoves from my childhood. They were great to snuggle beside after playing outside in the snow, while our wet gloves hung over the stove to dry. I still remember the Ben Franklin stove I learned to cook on, helping my mom make raisin pie and bread. Bread never tasted as good as when it came out of the wood stove’s oven. Fresh, warm bread from the wood stove oven, with creamy butter slathered on it, defies description. It was simply delicious.
Many years later, I still enjoy baking. Even if the baked goods are inferior to those of my childhood that were baked in a wood stove, they still taste great.
Mary – Abilene, Texas
Starting in 1939, at the age of 5, and continuing until age 16, I spent my summer vacations with my grandparents on their farm in a rural part of northeast Louisiana. Life on the farm was totally different from life in a city apartment in St. Louis. Both of my parents were raised on farms, and they felt summers at my grandparents’ farm would be a safer experience for me than spending summers in the city. The jury is still out on that, but the love and attention my grandparents showed me, as well as the experience of a whole different lifestyle, made the farm a treasured place to be.
Lack of electricity and indoor plumbing were the things that were the most difficult to get used to. On the farm, coal oil lamps were used instead of electric lamps, and an outhouse located some distance from the house took the place of an indoor bathroom, which I was accustomed to. At home, when I needed water, I simply turned on a faucet. But at the farm, I had to pump water from the well into a bucket, and then carry the bucket to the house. Mother cooked on a gas-powered stove, but Grandma built a fire in her stove.
While my mother used an electric wringer washing machine, Grandma boiled clothes outside in a cast-iron wash pot, and then scrubbed and rinsed them in two galvanized washtubs set on a bench under a shade tree. Those washtubs also served as a bathtub. And instead of an electric iron like my mother used, Grandma heated flat irons over a small fire outside.
At home, my mother shopped for our groceries at a supermarket, but at the farm, meat came from the smokehouse, fruit came from the trees, vegetables came from the garden, and milk came from the two cows Grandpa milked every day.
Back home in the city, fun activities included riding my bicycle, roller skating on the sidewalks, listening to radio programs, playing with the neighborhood children, and going to the movies. In order to play with the neighborhood children during my summers at the farm, it meant walking a lot, since the nearest neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away. Grandpa was a lot of fun, too, and we enjoyed played dominoes together and going fishing or boating in the bayou in back of the farmhouse. On Saturdays, Grandpa would hitch his two mules to the wagon and drive us to town. On Sundays, we walked to church, a mile away.
As a teenager, I went to neighbors’ homes for ice cream socials, “pound” parties and guitar dances – the greatest fun ever. In later years, electricity, indoor plumbing, automobiles and other modern conveniences found their way to the farm, but I continue to cling to my happy memories of the days when I learned about all the things people can live without, and still have a wonderful life.
Hellen – San Diego
I was raised during the Great Depression, along with my two older sisters and two younger brothers. We didn’t have electricity until I was in eighth grade. It was great, because at last, wash day didn’t take all day, and while some of the clothes were drying on the clothesline, Mama or one of us girls could start ironing the dry clothes with our new electric iron.
Before modern conveniences, though, we carried rainwater in from the barrels placed under the eves, heated it on the kitchen stove (which was heated with wood and coal), poured it in tubs for washing and rinsing, and then used the washboard to scrub the clothes clean. Then we carried all the clothes outside and hung them on the clothesline to dry.
While doing the wash, Mama always had a big pot of pinto beans slow-cooking on the stove, and she would give directions to one of us girls to make a batch of cornbread and get it baking. By the time the wash was done and the floors were scrubbed (using the rinse water), our meal was ready. In addition to beans and cornbread, we usually had sliced onions and a cold glass of buttermilk.
In the summer, we kept our large, two-story house cool by opening all the windows. When it was time for bed, we would pull our beds close to the windows and hopefully catch a breeze. We also didn’t have indoor plumbing, but we had a well, which meant we had plenty of good, cold water.
I didn’t know anyone who had a telephone, although there was one at my aunt’s store about a mile away. But I don’t remember us ever having to use it. Mama kept in touch with her parents, who lived 18 miles away, and her sister in Kansas by letter.
When we needed to go to town for supplies like coffee, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda, we walked the two and a half miles each way. Sometimes we got lucky and someone headed our way would give us a ride. We had a car, but Dad, who worked away from home, drove it to work, and he was only home once or twice a month.
We raised cows and pigs, so we had plenty of milk and meat. Mama also raised a large garden each year, and we canned vegetables and fruit. We also dried a lot of apples. And the “rolling store” came through about every other week selling items that might be needed before the next trip to town.
We had a battery-operated radio, and we listened to The Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night. On Saturday afternoons, Mama let my two older sisters ride their bicycles to town, where they saw a movie. We were all avid readers, and swapped books and comics with the other children, always taking extra good care of the borrowed books.
Life was good. I have many happy memories. My siblings and I never missed what we didn’t have.
Frankie – Colorado Springs, Colorado
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