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Friday, 24 October 2008

Memories are Made of This

By Nancy Leitz

Here it is, the year 2008, and wonderful things are being invented every day. When I was young in the 1930s, 40s and early 50s, there was also a spurt of creativity and wondrous things like television were on the drawing boards. Medicine was experiencing a slight renaissance, but it would take the "necessity is the mother of invention" expediency of World War ll and Korea to really give medicine the impetus it needed to create the wonder drugs of those years such as penicillin, sulfa, antibiotics and polio vaccine.

But they are not the inventions I am thinking of or the ones I expect you to remember. The inventions I love to recall are the ones we all used and misused. Like the Toni home permanent.

Most mothers of little girls experimented with that singular sensation at least once. Just ask the daughters who were the guinea pigs. Practically every home in America has an old photograph of a 10-year-old girl with hair that looks as though her finger was still in the electrical socket and 110 volts were rushing through every lock of her hair.

Some of these pictures show a child whose mom put the neutralizer on fast enough, and the kid's hair is only slightly singed. But then there is the poor kid whose mom mistimed the perm and now the little girl looks like her picture should be in the National Geographic tour of the Serengetti. Oh, yes, we loved trying to guess which twin had the Toni.

How about the first Polaroid cameras? You would be walking down Market Street in Philadelphia and a photographer would pop up out of nowhere and tell you to "Smile, I am going to take your picture." You would hear a small click and then you would be told that you had to wait a few minutes for the picture to develop.

About 10 minutes later, the fellow would show you your picture and it would be very nice. Bright and sharp and usually flattering. You would be delighted and give him the $1.00 for it and head for the train home.

At each station along the line, the picture would fade a little more until by the time you ran in the door to show mom and dad the beautiful picture, it was completely gone. Disappeared. Kaput. You learned then that the next time the guy took your picture, you couldn't waste time on the train; you had to take a cab home if you had any hope of showing it to your family.

Luckily, Dr. Land improved on his camera later and it was an instant commercial success.

Now, on to the oleo that came in a heavy plastic bag. It was a one pound lump of lard and with it came a small orange tablet. The idea was to knead the bag of lard, mixing in the orange dye and turning the lard into a lovely “butter" yellow color. That was the whole idea. You were supposed to be making butter out of lard and orange dye. The Lord had an easier time turning water into wine at the wedding feast than we did turning lard into butter.

My brother and I were given this chore every week and one of us would knead and knead until our hands were breaking and then we would toss the bag across the room to the other one to knead for awhile. It never really turned out. It was yellow, orange, white and cream striped butter.

But coloring it was only half the battle. Now you had to form it into four quarter pound sticks. Because that was almost impossible, we would get creative and form the globs into dogs, cats, birds, etc. We considered ourselves butter sculptors.

As an aside, I was in our local, ritzy, gourmet, dairy shop the other day and saw all sorts of butter sculptures, and at an exorbitant price. Too bad that shop wasn't around in 1943. Bob and I could have made a fortune with our considerable oleo coloring and sculpting skills.

One by one, as kids turned 10 at our house, they always wanted an ant farm. It was two pieces of glass with lots of sand in it. The ants arrived by mail and had to be put in the sand with bits of bread and special ant food.

My mother was really confused why we would send away for ants when we already had plenty of ants in the house. Just drop a piece of cake on the floor and see how fast you could attract 200 ants. Now these crazy kids wanted to send away their money to BUY a couple hundred ants who would live in this ant farm.

But, we eventully won her over to our side and she would send the check away after we paid her the dimes, nickels and pennies we had saved up for the ants.

The day they arrived was always a red letter day. All the kids in the neighborhood would gather in our cellar. (They weren't allowed in the house until they were under glass; the ants, not the kids.)

We would open the package of ants and my mother needn't have worried. They were mostly dead from the rigors of their long trip through the U.S. postal system, having traveled for 16 days from Duluth, Minnesota to Yeadon, Pennsylvania without a drop of food or water. They'd be damned glad to see the old farm after that journey.

The 20 ants who survived the trek were put in the glass enclosure and would begin tunneling and carrying food to a place only they knew about. It would interest us for a few days then it got repetitious and we would be on to our next adventure in childhood leaving my poor mother to dispose of the few ants who were still alive after the ordeal.

We were told we were NEVER to ask for another ant farm, but then a year or two later somebody else would turn ten and the cycle would begin all over again.

So, that's just three of the crazes or fads that stirred our imagination in childhood and early adulthood. Many more were being thought of in the fertile minds of inventive people. To name just a few: he Hula Hoop, Pet Rocks, Chia Pets - on and on. How many are you thinking of that I didn't mention?

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Oh my gosh, I remember the Toni Perm and all the things you spoke about. What a great journey down memory lane.

Great post..

Dorothy from grammology

See....this is why you need to start a blog of your own!!!

I had the world's worst home perm at about age 12. Our school had to go to the Symphony next day, and I went looking like something out of the Three Stooges. My mom didn't roll my hair right and I ended up with corkscrew curls that had 1-2" straight pieces at the ends. It was horrible!

As the recipient of more than Toni, I feel your pain.

One of my better "class clown" routines was translating the "Tonette" (Toni for little girls) commercial into Spanish for a skit in Spanish class.

The teacher loved it and I got a 'A' to boot.

And yeah -- you need a blog, Nancy!

I remember th Polaroid camera Nancy...I think I even got a smaller version as a gift. I never had a Toni home perminent, but I remember them....and I think my mom may have used them. Never had an ant farm....my mother would have gone crazy with that one. The hula hoop....now you're talking.

Hi Dorothy, Judy,Kay and Joy,

Thanks for your comments.

Everybody seems to relate mostly to the Toni Home Permanent. Do any of you remember the horrible machine they used to hook you up to when you got a perm at the Beauty Parlor (As they were called back in the day)?

There were a hundred electrical cords coming out of a central machine and they put rollers in your hair and then clamped one of these electrical cords on to each roller. It was torture and the Toni was a treat after that.

Judy: did anyone take your picture when you had that awful hair? I would love to see it.

Kay: A Tonette in Spanish.Wow! Caliente! Si?

Dorothy:I'll bet you were a beauty ,too. Did your Mom put the neutralizer on in time to spare you about 3 months of teasing from the other kids?

Joy: You would have enjoyed the Ant Farm. Watching those little ants stagger out of the envelope after their trip from Deluth was half the fun. They couldn't wait to get in the glass and start picking up pieces of bread that were 10 bigger than they were. hey, You could have taken a picture of them with your poloroid camera. It probably would have been OK for about an hour...

Not only do I remember those horrible machines, I had the most horrible perm, couldn't wait for it to grow out.

And boy, getting that perm was painful!!

I had to be about 12 years old and never had another perm, not even a Toni.

Hi Millie,

I feel your pain! We all thought we were going to look beautiful if we submitted to that torture.

I think our Moms saw too many of those "orphan" movies where Bonita Granville was always selected by the rich people who wanted to adopt a little girl. They always left the scene in a chauffeur driven black car and Bonita was always looking out the window with a smug look on her face.

That meant that plain,straight haired Jane Withers was always left behind in the orphanage and was never picked. I suppose our moms were trying to spare us that plight.

I remember the oleo - my sister and I used to fight over who got to knead it until it was yellow! My grandchildren look at me like I am crazy when I tell them such stories. I remember, too well, the toni home perms. My sister had naturally curly hair - mine was straight as a board so I longed for those curls - until I got 'em. Ah, the times they are a'changin'. Thank God!

Polaroid got smart, then, and included that horrible stick of preservative that you had to drag across the pictures. It was so smelly!

And do you recall those Make-A-Face toys that had metal filings inside a plastic covered cardboard? You dragged bunches of them over a face using a magnetic "wand".

How did I miss this. I may be late but I can respond with my memory of kneading the Oleo. No matter how long I manipulated that bag, there was always a stripe of orange in the finished product.

Those torture machines that were supposed to make you look like Shirley Temple were sadistic.
I had such high hopes for a lovely curly head of hair and instead of that I ended up with a singed mess that looked like a Brillo pad. I cried.

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