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We are the Last Generation To...

On Monday at The Elder Storytelling Place, Ann Berger wrote about the horse, Lady, who took her to school each day when she was a child. With the possible exception of a few families living in the rural wilds of Montana and Wyoming or the Amish people, it is unlikely that today's children have any first-hand knowledge about riding a horse for everyday transportation.

Until the latter part of the 19th century, when the industrial revolution kicked in, life had been pretty much the same for centuries. How parents lived, their children lived, as did their grandchildren and so on.

If a person of the 14th century were magically dropped into the 19th, most of tools and ways of life would be, if not exactly the same, at least recognizable. Now, so much has changed in just 100 years that we elders are the last generation to connect with that ancient past.

In the greater scheme of things, it is not so long ago that candles were used to light the dark. Many rural areas of the United States were not wired for electricity until the 1930s.

Even into the 1950s it was not entirely unusual, where I lived in Portland, Oregon, for some people to cook on wood-burning stoves. I got a taste of that in a country house I owned in the 1970s without an electric or gas stove. It may seem charming, but it wasn't the best fun I ever had, on a cold, winter morning, to get a fire going full blast before I could boil water for coffee. But that's how people had lived for eons.

There was a time up until 20 years ago that I was amazed, reading novels of the Victorian era, to know that people could expect to mail a letter in the morning and have it delivered across town the same afternoon. Of course, now we've improved on that with email, Twitter and Facebook and no young person would read those books with the the same amazement as I.

Before refrigerators, in our lifetime, there were iceboxes. (The Iceman Cometh and the kids get to suck on the small pieces he dropped.) At my house, we couldn't go away overnight unless the ice was almost gone because the drip pan would overflow.

Frozen foods are a mid-20th century invention. Before then, food rotted if it didn't get eaten within a week or so. When I was a child in the 1940s, every woman I knew canned food for the winter and all had basement shelves lined with beans, carrots, pickles, tomatoes, other vegetables, jams and jellies. I've read that old-fashioned canning is back in fashion now due to our Great Recession.

Unlike New York City, here in Portland, Maine, I am able to buy milk in glass bottles. But the plastic top is sometimes stuck and I use an old church key to pry it up. That's the only thing I use this tool for - what was once the only way to open a beer or soda can. I wonder if they're even made anymore.

Until the early part of the last century, if you wanted to hear some music, you had to make it yourself or wait for the band to show up on the 4th of July. For a long time after recordings came along, many middle class families still had pianos, just about every kid I knew took lessons and it was common for guests to gather around the piano after dinner on special occasions for a singalong. I miss that.

Do you remember when taking photos was an event? Even when I was a kid in the 1940s, it was reserved for special occasions – birthdays, graduations, a family outing to the beach. The number of photos on a roll of film never seemed to come out even with the flash bulbs which often fizzled without firing. And remember how we waited impatiently for the prints from the drug store a week later.

Children and young adults too today probably don't have any idea what a dial phone was, let alone party lines. And telephone booths are disappearing now too. I hope someone is saving a couple of them for a museum, especially the beautiful ones in New York City's Chinatown.

I never rode to school on a horse like Ann Berger who wrote the Monday story at The Elder Storytelling Place - we traveled by bus, trolley and later, car. But when the vegetable man and the tinker who sharpened knives and repaired cooking pots came down the alley each week, their carts were pulled by horses.

So many little bits of how we once lived and no longer do that will be lost to the mists of time when our generation's day is done. I'm sure you can recall some I've overlooked.

The Life (Part 2) series continues on PBS and they recently featured brain exercises. Here's a clip:

You can watch the full episode here.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ronni Prior: The Doll


Your mentioning of the glass milk bottles reminded me of what I think is my most "old fashioned" memory. That being the delivery trucks that use to deliver our milk in those old familiar glass bottles once or twice a week leaving by the front door of the house. And they delivered it early in the morning. I guess that was so the heat of the day wouldn't affect its quality.

Remember they had those little round cardboard 'stoppers' on top and you had to pry the little tab up on top to remove the stopper.

You also had to remember to bring the milk into the house and not leave it outside very long.

I grew up on a farm and always thought the glass milk bottles of the cities was so exotic and civilized. We had to make do with milk straight from the cow.

I Recall the glass milk bottle had wonderful cream on the top layer, poured off and used for grown ups coffee. We had a coal furnace that Dad kept stoked and ashes used on driveway in winter for some traction. Today, even with all the progress that has taken place, those days seemed simpler but, of course that view was from a child's eyes. These older eyes knows it wasn't.

There is another feature of the glass milk bottles that hasn't been mentioned. If the time between delivery and pick up was too long on a cold morning the milk would freeze and the top cream would push the cardboard stopper up and about an inch of cream would rise above the bottle rim.

The house would get so cold during the night that you would be the one freezing while getting dressed. Not everyone had central heating.

My grandmother always had a soft spot in her heart for my dad. Soon after he married my mom, he converted the gas lighting in Grandmother's house to electricity. She bragged about that for many years' convinced that dad was the smartest, most talented man to say nothing of how handsome he was! My 94 year old mom still mentions it now & then. Dee

We elders are not the only ones who long for Victoriana. I was amazed to read, in a recent issue of Time Magazine, about the Steampunk movement, a growing group that writes novels and makes movies that are futuristic fantasies based on Victorian technology (as opposed to digital technology.) The movement encourages invention that relies on copper, brass, wood, and glass--the materials available at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. You can read about it here:,9171,1945343,00.html. Fascinating; makes me want to learn more.

While I can't forget the exploitation of child and female labor that followed that Revolution, I'm oddly tickled to see children of the digital age who recognize the beauty and quality of clockwork machines. And I agree with the Steampunks that the Victorians just dressed better than we do.

I never imagined that any of our children and grandchildren might also want to step back in time. I guess we have no monopoly on history.

I have always been amazed that my Dad was born in 1891 and had no electricity, indoor plumbing,telephone or automobile and yet lived to see a man walk on the Moon.

My husband's great-uncle worked a summer delivering ice on the "good side" of town.

Because Ron was a skinny guy, he would shimmy between the huge ice blocks to the back of the horse-drawn cart. They were dusted with sawdust (don't know why - for handling? to keep from melting?). Ron woud put his back against the ice and push blocks forward with his feet for a much bigger kid to grab with tongs. He joked he never felt warm that whole summer.

Of course, now, to get ice we just press a button on the fridge. Instant everything!

Nancy catches something I ruminate about sometimes. We not only have our own memories of a different time -- the milk bottles, before TV was ubiquitous, before getting a faraway person on the phone was routine.

But many of us are also in touch with our parents' memories. In my case that carries me back to their tales of childhoods in the 1900-1910 decade -- and their awareness of Civil War veterans among their relatives. Wow!

I remember getting a big bag of butter (delivered from the diary with our milk, I suppose) which contained a small bag of yellow stuff and we kids would fight over who got to mush the yellow stuff into the butter... to make the butter yellow.

What WAS that stuff, anyway?!? And why did butter need to be yellow?!? I could investigate, but it's dinner prep time...

Reading all this reminded me that my mother, who was born in 1911 and died in 2000, wrote an account of what daily life was like in her childhood. If anyone is interested in reading it, I have just uploaded it on to my website. It makes fascinating reading.'s_Memories.pdf

I have thought of this and most especially every time I edit some of my earlier fiction. Even in the last 20 years, it's been unreal how much change we have seen through the internet and cell phones alone.

Fun read, Ronni.

I was re-watching Mad Men episodes the other day and in one scene Don opened a can of beer with a church key he had hanging on a string by the garage door. That screech/pop sound of the opener as it forced its way through the top of the can took me right back to my childhood. :)

Erin--The sawdust kept the blocks of ice from freezing together.

Nikki--That was not a bag of butter that you were coloring, but a bag of oleomargarine. It was illegal, at the time, to sell colored oleo; but, folks found it more palatable if it had the familiar yellowish tint of butter.

Ronni--My mother rode a horse to school, but I never did. Nor did I ever ride a bus, trolly, or streetcar to school...nor did I ride a bicycle, as some did. No matter what school I attended - grade, high, college - I walked everywhere that I went. I recall walking the 2 miles home from high school in a blizzard wearing only a wool sweater for warmth, following a sudden change in the weather during the school day.

I remember the people, fondly, but I don't miss the lack of sanitation or medicines that now keep most of us healthy or help us recover our health.

My mother, who died in 2005 at the age of 86, was first generation with both parents coming from Poland. Her family had a farm in northern Minnesota and my mom often talked about when in the winter being able to tell when her dad was coming home because of the sleigh bells jingling in the distance. I often thought what a wonderful sound memory that was.

Even myself at the tender "young" age of 50, can remember Gene, our milkman from Sanitary Farm Dairy. I think the service stopped when I was around 5.

Thank you for this. I really think it was the generation before mine that was the turning point generation.

Imagine four sisters all going to college from a Minnesota farm in the 1800's. Imagine one man having the inventive mind to make the controls for the locks on the Panama canal. They didn't have the maids or cooks or giant families of their predecessors, but they knowledge that was unavailable to previous generations. Their children became lawyers and engineers, and one or two of their inventions did change the world.

Mine is just one family.

I learned to cook on a wood stove. As the eldest child it was my job to go down in the dirt basement and put wood in the furnace and start it in the mornings. I also had to chop wood and kindling. You didn't mention the wringer washing machines or hanging clothes on the line. We didn't get indoor plumbing until I was in second grade.
I am so thankful for my modern conveniences like flush toilets, dish washers, clothes dryer and air conditioning.

I remember the coal bin in the basement. The coal would be dropped in via a chute and contained in a large bin (almost the size of a cattle stall) until taken via a bucket to the 3rd floor. The 1st and 2nd had their heat converted to an oil furnace but not the 3rd floor in our tenement.

I also enjoyed being the daily newspaper delivery boy for many years. It paid for much of my high school tuition. Now a days, the paper is tossed in the yard by someone driving a car not carrying the bag like we used to. The experience was not quite as glamorous as portrayed in the Disney movie "Newsies" but some aspects of it's rough and tumble nature I can vouch for. Especially if the call was disputed in the handball game while waiting for the papers to arrive via the truck. :-)

I have often thought the same thing, remembering how things were when I was a child. And also wondering if I'm being one of those "things were better in my day" people when I object to the f word flying around so freely.

We still do many things the old way--heating with wood, canning, putting up our own meat, raising chickens, and no TV in the house. I even have one of those wood cookstoves! but not for everyday use. Still, even in my remote home the internet is in constant use, cell phones follow us everywhere and we take photos of anything and everything.

I walked to school until I was old enough to get a bike and then I rode it. Except in my final year when I was too cool for riding a bike so I walked again. Besides, you could walk along with the girls.

I vaguely remember the ice chest (that’s Australian for icebox) we had. When I was three or four we acquired a spanking new giant (to my eyes) Frigidaire. It was cream in color and had a rounded top (nor squared off as they are now) and a silver crown symbol at the top. It was magic, especially as mum now made ice cream for us.

Our phone wasn’t a party line, people in the surrounding countryside had that, but it wasn’t a dial either. It had a handle and you’d crank that and get the operator. “Marge, could you put me through to the Palmer’s please.” Something like that. It was a country town. Our phone number was 273, I can still remember it.

Milk was delivered daily in bottles from a horse drawn cart. The horse knew the route so well that it would amble along as the milkman delivered to each house on foot, returning to the cart to get some more bottles.
Bread was also delivered daily and if you planned ahead and rang the grocery store, they’d deliver too. Mum was a good planner.
Mail twice a day. I notice in the Sherlock Holmes books the mail then was 5 or 6 times a day. Their equivalent of the internet, I guess.

We also had a wood fired stove upon (or within) which everything was cooked. On cold days (there weren’t many of those) dad would be up at the crack of dawn to fire it up and it’d be nice and toasty by the time my sister and I emerged. We had a small electric stove for the summer time, sure didn’t want that other one blazing away in the middle of an Australian summer.

I wouldn’t go back to those times for anything.

We also had milk delivered to our front stoop near Washington, D.C in the 1960s. You would put out the number of empty bottles that you wanted the milkman to leave that day.

Earlier,we had a coal furnace, complete with basement coal bin, when I was a child in Indianapolis. Every family owned just one car, which the dad drove to work, so many groceries besides bread were delivered to homes. I recall something like Atlantic & Pacific Tea, and another company that delivered spices, flavorings and the like. In our case, if we ran out of something mother had me walk to the store, which was quite some distance. You told the clerk what you needed, and he selected it from the shelves--no self-service in the 1940s. There were no "pull" dates, so sometimes the cereal would be stale.

At my grandparents' home in the country, they always had a party-line telephone but there were no electric lines in the area until the REA built them about 1940. I well remember trying to read by the dim yellow light of a kerosene lantern. Their house was heated by wood or coal stoves, which left it pretty cold by morning.

Grandma cooked on a big woodstove, but eventually she bought a kerosene range to keep the kitchen cooler in summer. It was a great thing when they got electricity and could buy a refrigerator. In the old days they had cut ice from their lake to keep food cool. Blocks were packed in a shed in sawdust.

They never did get indoor plumbing, so they had to hand-pump water from their lake, and follow the path to an outhouse out back. Baths were taken in a big washtub in front of the stove, or on a porch in summer.

Margarine was sold white and then colored at home because dairy farmers were afraid too many people would buy "oleo" instead of butter if it looked good. Squashing the color packet into it was pretty messy.

My grandparents never did buy a car. They hitched up the horses and drove a wagon to town to do their shopping. Of course, they didn't need to do that very often, since so many things were grown at home.

Thanks to everyone for their reminiscences!

With great fondness I remember laundry day with Mom in the 1950's.

We had an old wringer washer, and a separate steel tub for rinsing.

During the winter we hung the clothes in the basement to dry, and in the warmer months we use the twirly gig clothesline out of doors.

When the clothes were dry, we sprinkled the cottons with water from a capped coke bottle.

Next, we rolled up the sprinkled clothes for awhile until we were ready to iron.

I can still remember the wonderful smell of the damp clean clothes mixed with the heat of the iron. That iron was heavy for a little girl, but I took pride in maneuvering it around collars and cuffs and such.

Everything got ironed: sheets,pillowcases, Dad's handkkerchiefs,and dinner napkins.

Certain clothes required starching with Niagara. I can still see that green and yellow box.

Laundry was quite a production, and it provided a special time for me and Mom to bond.

Oh my…I can hear Mr. Cooper, our neighbor and milkman, starting up his milk truck at 5 a.m.

My job was to make the oleo yellow for Christmas baking....not necessary, but it did keep TheKid busy. Also burning pin feathers off the Thanksgiving turkey, the smell after the coal guy finished his delivery and carrying the clinker pail out to the back alley are memories for me. No one mentioned outhouses. There's absolutely NOTHING like that experience when the wind chill is 26 below zero. Heh.

I love this thread. Yes, I remember begging to squeeze the bag of oleo, breaking the coloring button and making the oleo a yellow color.

I remember my father making butter during the war in a kind of glass jar thingy.

I remember hearing the bottles of milk rattling in the milkman's rack early in the morning when he would deliver it to the front porch and put it the metal milk box.

I remember the "scissors man," as we kids called him. We would put our trikes upside down and twirl the wheel around by the foot pedals, trying to imitate him.

I remember the organ grinder man with his music box. Where and when did the organ grinder men go?

I remember hot summer afternoons, when all the ladies and little children took naps, and the only thing you would hear on the street would be the hum of fans through opened windows.

I remember the bakery man delivering on Friday so we would have a coffee cake for breakfast on Sunday morning before church.

I remember all the things mentioned in this thread: the vegetable man, the "scissors man," the ice man, and particularly the icebox with the rivulet of water running across the kitchen floor when my mother forgot to empty it (almost all of the time) and my father's enraged remarks when he stepped into the water in his stocking feet early in the morning. (You would have thought he would get smart after a while and watch where he stepped, but no.)

I remember so much more, but it would take a book to capture all of them.

Oh, and don't forget the paper drives and saving flattened metal cans in a box for the boy scouts to pick up.

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