At the outset, I must mention my closest friend Charles M. Greene, “The Greene Man.” He is my “main man” at least 90 percent of the time. I must give him recognition because the subject of this column comes from him. Last week, I told him I was in a hurry to get home, as a painter was coming to provide an estimate for painting our kitchen. He mentioned an exhibit at a local museum featuring the interior of a home in Harlem. He commented on how different homes were decorated in the past in comparison to homes today. He suggested this would be a great column for me. So, Charlie, my good friend, thanks for the suggestion.
How many of you grew up in homes where your parents resorted to protecting the living room furniture with plastic covers? I suspect many of you recall those covers on your sofas, love seats or armchairs. There was no way to remove them short of cutting them off. Do you recall sliding off of the plastic covers or perspiring during the summer because of the heat they generated? My dear mother swore by these covers; they eliminated any concern abut stains or dirt, especially when children were permitted to sit in the living room. Those who have plastic-covered furniture today must forgive me. I suspect most of you will agree that such furniture is unacceptable in any living room today. However, such covers were viewed as necessary to enable furniture to last over an extended period of time, back in the day.
I only know a handful of people today who have wall-to-wall carpet and ceiling-to-floor draperies in their living rooms. These draperies had a sheer interior curtain. Draperies were viewed as classy; they “dressed up” the living room. Do you recall the Venetian blinds of the past? I know some of you go back to the days of the wood slats; if you do, then you will recall the “restringing” of the blinds. That was a real task. Recall the Venetian blinds with metal slats, with edges so sharp you could easily cut your fingers.
I clearly remember the huge mirrors used as accessories in the past. They were usually over the sofa, or “couch,” as it was known in my home. They covered a large portion of the wall space above the sofa. These large mirrors gave a spacious appearance to living rooms. And I cannot ignore those small mirrors that were on walls throughout one’s home. They could be found in the vestibule, dining room, hallway and the wall along the stairs from the first to the second floor. Many of these small mirrors had frames that often had been painted gold.
Family photographs were everywhere; on the coffee table; end tables; mantles; and the radiator covers. With regard to pictures, if you reflect on your living room walls back in the late 1960s, I know you will recall pictures of Jesus, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Those who have carried this display of pictures to the present have now added Barack Hussein Obama.
Another familiar item was the framed piece with the words, “God Bless Our Home.” Perhaps there was an upright piano that had been handed down from one generation to another. You might also remember decorative pillows lining the sofa and large pillows in special areas on the floor. Plants, artificial or real, were also important in home decorating. Lamps ranged from the large table lamps to floor lamps, usually found in the corner of a room. Other items you might recall in home furnishing back in the day include cathedral-type radios, candy dishes on the coffee table, and ashtrays. While my father did not permit smoking in our home, we did have several decorative ashtrays in the living room. Were there knickknack shelves or a curio cabinet? Did you have a cast iron doorstop? My parents had a cast iron buffalo and a cast iron dog. Often a coat rack, or at least coat hooks, could be found in your vestibule or hallway adjacent to the living room. A console television set with a radio and record player completed the decor for your living room. Most of these would not find there way into our homes today because they just do not fit; they are too old-fashioned. Our modern way of life has made them obsolete. Still, many of them, in particular, our Zenith console, will be part of my memories of our living room of back in the day.
I grew up in a large three-story home in West Philadelphia. A long hallway led from our vestibule to our kitchen. Besides the plastic on our living room sofa and armchairs, plastic was also found on the floor. Once we graduated to wall-to-wall carpeting, my mother purchased a plastic runner that covered the hallway carpeting from the vestibule to the kitchen door. I would guess it was at least 50 feet long. This plastic runner was removed on Saturday evening to display the carpet.
I used the expression, “graduating to wall-to-wall carpet.” Well, some of you will recall how floors were covered in the past. Linoleum was a standard decorating practice; not any linoleum, but cheap linoleum. This type was so cheap that newspaper was placed under it to give it support and enable it to last. Some of you may also recall what families did prior to the linoleum days; I know someone can go back in time to the days when families used that ugly brown paint to cover their wood floors; no, not hardwood floors, just plain wood. It was during the era of the painted floors that throw rugs were popular. Then there was shag carpeting, popular in home decorating back in the day.
Can you think about any room, particularly the living room, in a home in the past without seeing wallpaper? It was everywhere! There was wallpaper with large floral prints, or perhaps you recall wallpaper with bold, wide stripes. I love wallpaper, but it seems to be a decorating technique buried in the past. In fact, wallpaper hanging is a dying craft. Just try to find a paperhanger today.
I recognize that some things closely related to home decorating in the past can still be found in homes today. Without a doubt, some homes have a grandfather’s clock today. They have them even though they dwarf some rooms and appear to be out of place. I doubt, however, that many homes have cuckoo clocks today. Chandeliers are also found in homes today, particularly in dining rooms. However, those gaudy, glass chandeliers, as beautiful as they are, have become things of the past, except in older homes with high ceilings seeking to provide a throwback look.
It has been some time since I have been in a home that had plates hanging on walls in dining rooms. Also, can you recall the last time you visited a home and saw the dining room table laid out with china and silver in a manner that suggested dinner was being served? Now, reflect on the breakfront in your dining room. I bet it contains a few of your favorite dinner sets. I suspect you will recall the term “china closet.” Whenever I think of this piece of furniture, my mind goes to my mother’s collection of salt and pepper shakers that she proudly displayed in her china closet, back in the day.
Do you have a stepstool in your kitchen? What about an oversized wooden fork and spoon hanging on the wall? When I was a kid, washing machines were typically found in the kitchen. I doubt this is where you wash your clothes today. Are there heavy quilts on your beds? Does anyone still sleep on bunk beds? Is there a Bible on the nightstand by your bed?
Of course home décor is significantly different today than in the past. Given my love for revisiting the past in my column, I admit that there are some things our parents and grandparents did to improve the appearance of their homes that appeals to me today. Thus, I would not hesitate to return to some of their decorating styles that were indicative of style and taste and were characteristic of home life, back in the day.
Despite having written this column for more than ten years, it is still very difficult to approach the last weekend of April without my thoughts turning to the Penn Relays Carnival. You cannot be from my era without having fond memories of time spent at Franklin Field to watch this spectacular track and field event. It was special when I was in high school and it remains very special today.
Each year that I have written about the Penn Relays, I find myself repeating many of those activities indigenous to the event, including. the section in which I have sat for many years; even the same seat. This section, the “horseshoe curve,” is that end of Franklin Field leading into the finish line for Relays events. It is famous in the world of Penn Relays afficionados. Many of us called this area, “Riggy’s Corner” in recognition of the many runners who tightened up or acquired rigor mortis, a term given to such runners by spectators. Today’s all-weather track is in stark contrast to the cinder track it replaced. Back then, I rose to my feet and watched like everyone in the stadium when Morgan State University runners took the track, particularly in what was then known as the mile relay.
The Penn Relays were more than just running and jumping. Those who were around in the ’50s and ’60s will always associate the Penn Relays Carnival with engaging in “a party over here and a party over there;” to Relays participants, “big fun” was endemic to this weekend, back in the day.
I am in no way suggesting that Penn Relays participants do not engage in parties today. I hear people telling others where they will be hanging out after the Relays, but little talk about parties the evening before. I am out of the loop and do not know where they go or their activities. Most of what I hear involves partying at downtown or neighborhood clubs. Furthermore, the dysfunctional and violent behavior displayed by too many of our youths and adults, as well as stricter rules with regard to consuming alcoholic beverages, has altered the world of today’s partygoer. Penn Relays partying for my generation was quite different, mainly because it took place in the environment that I call back in the day.
The partying spirit began on the Friday afternoon of Penn Relays weekend, when people traveled to Philadelphia using any means necessary. Quite often, the main mode of travel would be to flash the thumb and hitchhike. Not everyone was fortunate enough to hook up with a friend to have a roof over his or her head. I can recall cases where one person rented a hotel room and ten or more people would sleep there. One of the most popular low-end hotels where people stayed on this weekend was the Essex, at 13th and Filbert streets. With so many young people together, impromptu parties were not uncommon. I recall friends who came to Philadelphia for the Penn Relays but never attended the events, as they spent most, if not all of their time at the Essex Hotel partying. I even recall circumstances where people had to sleep in their automobiles; still they found ways to party. They did not seem to mind, as the time spent at the Relays and the time spent dancing the night away did not leave much time to sleep.
To my knowledge, there was little or no drug use back then; if there was drug usage, it was done very discretely. Fighting and unruly behavior were minimal. No, there was not total innocence, as Thunderbird wine was the drink, not necessarily of choice but what was consistent with one’s finances. If you did make it to a party on the Friday before the Relays, it was either a house party or a cabaret, but usually Friday night was for cabarets. The Imperial Ballroom at 60th and Walnut streets was one of the major places to party. Times Auditorium at Broad and Spruce was another popular place to party before the major Saturday Relays events. A University of Pennsylvania-sponsored dance on campus, also on Friday evening, was attended by many Black Relays partygoers. We attended these affairs all dressed up and danced to the favorite dances of the times; such as the stroll, cha-cha, mambo, slop, bop, strand, twist and the famous “slow drag.” These cabarets or dances were generally wild affairs on these Friday evenings before the biggest day of the Relays. Partygoers who awakened with headaches often did not show up until early afternoon. Whether you arrived at Franklin Field early on Saturday or later in the day, the signs were evident that a party was “in the air” for that evening. Serious partying was associated with and characteristic of the Penn Relays, back in the day.
Today, most people attend the Penn Relays to watch the track and field events. This was true in the past, but a large number attended as an extension or the beginning of partying. Just think back to your heydays at the Penn Relays and I am certain you will recall the large numbers who attended to simply “profile,” watch and flirt with young ladies and make contacts for an unforgettable evening. If you think the young ladies were out in force during yesterday’s Relays, nothing compared with those at the Penn Relays back in the day. Back then, young ladies purchased special outfits just for the Relays. Some purchased these instead of an Easter outfit. They wanted to present themselves in a way that separated them from the crowd. Not only were they appealing, but they had the class that most mature males from the past desired in young ladies; something that has disappeared from our current generation.
Most of my friends who have regularly attended the Penn Relays over the years have long abandoned the walks under the grandstands observing the sights. Age has a way of changing one’s view of life. So, most of them do as I have done for many decades; they sit in their reserved seats of the past, and pay attention to the track and field events. Preparation for going out on the town later that day has become a figment of their imaginations; even their imaginations have lost the creativity associated with fun they used to experience, back in the day.
If you recall, the fun and spirit of the Penn Relays became more intense as the sun began to set on a long day of events. As someone who attends the Relays each year, it has been many years since I witnessed the rivalry between the fraternities, and in some years the sororities, as they sang their favorite songs. Clearly, it was impossible for partying not to have been in the air. Many of us left the relays “ginned up” from this singing, while carrying this partying spirit home. We showered; got dressed up; went out to house parties; and did not return home until late on Sunday morning. Even though such parties were by invitation, word got out and seemingly everyone attended these “mystery parties.” There were so many parties you never stayed at one for more than a few minutes. While there were dances this Penn Relays weekend, I believe they paled in comparison to the dances and house parties many of us experienced. Partying is a “mind” thing now, but was true reality, back in the day.
Like many of you, I mainly see old friends at funerals. Thankfully, there remain groups from the past, mostly in their twilight years, who maintain relationships by coming together on Penn Relays weekend to continue glimpses of partying from the past. I have joined some of these groups of old friends at someone’s home, always with track and field enthusiasts and primarily males, to engage in modified versions of old-school partying. There is no dancing, just eating and telling stories about the Relays of the past; stories of the things associated with the Penn Relays that will be with us forever; reflecting on how we partied and partied, before, during and after the Penn Relays, back in the day.
At the outset, let me point out emphatically that I have no first-hand knowledge or experience of today’s subject. What I shall share is based on readings; conversations, observations and various other sources.
I have been happily married for close to 50 years and do not need to know about the intricacies of the subject. It comes from a conversation I overheard between two females talking about someone referred to as a “gold-digger.” That label provides a reasonable clue as to her mission. What intrigued me was her willing companion. Do we still have “sugar daddies” like those back in the day?
Anyone not familiar with the term sugar daddy should reflect on Tina Turner’s hit, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” For the sugar daddy and the younger female he supports, love has absolutely nothing to do with it. The significant ingredient in the relationship is money. Some of you may remember relationships between older men and younger women where the women held jobs that did not support their fast-paced trendy lifestyles. They were usually well dressed, living in the right postal zones and driving relatively new automobiles. The older gentlemen were always around. It was not unusual for sugar daddies to live respectable lives across town, in a marriage of many years, but maintaining a secret young lover on the other side of town. Because the sugar daddy was never around on a permanent basis, we always thought they were relatives or very good friends. Sometimes these women lived in the same home as the older men. We thought they were daughters, but in actuality they were live-in lovers; the recipients of financial support from their sugar daddies. Such relationships were quite popular back in the day.
Conditions of the past made the sugar daddy more prevalent. Just reflect on the conditions of women back then. In the ’50s and ’60s, women were not in the job market as they are today. They did not have the well-paying jobs that many women now have. Women did not demonstrate the independence we see today. They were not out on the town unescorted, as they often are today. Even their going into a bar was through a special entrance. Thus, if they wanted some of the things women take for granted today, they turned to someone who had money and who would assume financial responsibility for them; ergo, the sugar daddy. His involvement did not stop with providing food and clothing. In some relationships the financial support included “walking around money.” Obviously, it took a certain type of man and woman to participate in such a relationship. Unfortunately, there was nothing permanent in the relationship. Yet, it was understood that she would be available at any time and for any purpose desired by the sugar daddy. When we observed an older man and a younger woman dining together, attending a play, sporting event or some other social activity, we concluded it was a sugar daddy relationship.
Several acquaintances tell me they may have helped their girlfriends financially in the past; however, they never qualified as sugar daddies. The reason, quite simply, was that they did not have the financial means. On the other hand, if they had had those resources, most confessed they would have had no trouble being a sugar daddy. They felt a sugar daddy relationship would have been less stressful, the rules would have been clear, the payout predictable, the benefits predetermined — and there would have been no surprises. Writer Nathan Koppel recently reported in the Huffington Post a rise in sugar daddy relationships. He recounted an interview with Brandon Wade, the CEO of SeekingArrangement.com, a website that facilitates sugar daddy relationships. Wade, who holds engineering and graduate business degrees from MIT, views such relationships as healthier and less exploitative than more traditional ones. He claims there is chemistry involved and not a one-time exchange of money for a “bedroom relationship.” He says it is not much different from a rich husband or boyfriend giving money to a wife or girlfriend. Now, I know most of our readers are not buying this view. The one person who confessed to being a sugar daddy some years ago pointed out that while he has no experience with such relationships today, he emphatically stated that they are not always good; or more specifically, that they were good and benefited both parties until they came to an end. The one who benefits from the sugar daddy’s finances, the person known as the “sugar baby,” does not always go quietly. Sugar babies age and sugar daddies die. So what happens to the sugar baby, particularly, when the process of aging makes her less desirable, if not obsolete? I know some of you have seen automobiles that were “keyed” and convertible tops cut. Some of you have been to funerals where the sugar baby sits in the rear of the church while the deceased sugar daddy’s wife and family, sit in the front pew. What, then, is the future of a well-financed sugar baby? This question can be easily answered by examining their lifestyles from back in the day. In many instances, they have become “has-beens” and faded into the sunset.
No discussion of the sugar daddy of the past can ignore the emergence of the “cougars” of today with their companions, or what has become known as their “cubs.” You must be wearing blinders if you are not aware of the trend of older women dating significantly younger men. These women’s companions are generally at least 15 years younger. Such age differences are not unusual. AARP The Magazine in February 2008 published an article by Jessica Leshnoff, entitled “Cougars and Their Cubs” which delved into this subject. AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps people age 50 and over have independence and improve their lives. Using interviews with “cougars” who did not wish to be identified, Leshnoff points out that increasingly, they are widowed, separated or divorced, and are seeking young men for dating and companionship. These relationships make the older woman feel ageless and desirable. The younger companion helps to increase the cougar’s self-esteem. She also points out that “stuff of the past” may be what drives older women to younger men. Who wants to hear a companion talking about his ex-wife and his kids? The younger male generally does not bring all of this excess baggage. While many people frown upon cougar-cub relationships, statistics from a recent study in the bi-monthly publication by AARP supports the increasing trend of cougars coming into the mainstream. For young men, these relationships fit their lifestyles. After all, their cougar companions are not only older, but confident, sexually mature and have no inhibitions. I do not think that there were many cougars around back in the day.
Now, do not conclude that I believe the sugar daddy is a thing of the past. Perhaps we do not see them in the same manner today, but they still exist. I have heard stories of college women who describe themselves as sugar babies, seeking out sugar daddies for the purpose of paying their college tuition and expenses. Unlike back in the day, these relationships have gone high-tech. I understand there are Internet sites that specifically advertise the availability of “college tuition sugar daddies.” Thus, full-time college students seek out such sugar daddies to help pay the bills. Some who use the Internet seeking sugar daddies for college assistance identify specific monthly fees. Obviously, these relationships involve bedroom-type activities, but those involved do not view themselves as prostitutes. What they do know at the end of the day is that their college debt has diminished and they have money in the bank. So yes, the sugar daddy is still in our midst. However, the ease with which men can engage in relationships today coupled with the “freedom in which women now express themselves” has made today’s sugar daddy nothing more than a sugar substitute; not one who fits the sugar daddy profile of back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.
In spite of the successes many of us enjoy, as evidenced by the upscale neighborhoods in which we live, we still return to our old neighborhoods for some services. At least five services cause us to still visit in our old neighborhoods: churches, barber shops, beauty salons, soul food restaurants and funeral homes.
You can live in Dresher, Blue Bell, Rydal, Villanova, Huntingdon Valley or some upscale enclave in South Jersey, but the funeral home that handles your remains will in all likelihood be in or near your old neighborhood. I was reminded of this last week when I returned to my old stomping grounds to attend homegoing services for Paul Terry, whose family owned the Terry Funeral Home for many years. Paul grew up at 42nd and Haverford Avenue, living above the funeral home. I grew up at 43rd and Haverford and attended elementary, junior high and high school with Paul. We played together in the same streets and shared many memorable events in our “down the way” neighborhood.
As I rode to Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church at 42nd and Wallace streets, where Paul Terry’s service was held,, I spoke of fond memories of my old neighborhood. I recalled the families on my block — the Dickersons, Manleys, Kelseys, Slades, Coons, Prices and Pooles. Even though there are many vacant lots and dilapidated buildings in the old neighborhood, I was still able to identify the location of many Black businesses of the past: Brown’s Variety Store; Trawick Bakery; Brown’s Barber Shop and the “Colored Grocery Store,” as it was called. I could not ignore the locations where we played half-ball, marbles, baby in the air, hot bread and butter, kick the can and butter and blind man’s buff; and where the girls jumped double-dutch. These unforgettable memories resurfaced because of Paul’s death. It is unfortunate that it took the death of a friend to take me back to those wonderful memories that will forever remain with me. As I left the church and walked across the street, I could not miss the building on the corner. The Beach Ice House, which stood at this location during my early childhood days, still stands as a reminder of what life used to be in our neighborhood. This ice house resurrected another memory that will not go away. So, I ask you, what are your memories of the ice house and the iceman, back in the day?
Visualize life on a warm day in the neighborhood. While parents and perhaps ten siblings may have lived in a row home with two bedrooms, we were as happy and united as a family could be. We did not have refrigerators or air conditioning; ice played a major role in making our lives comfortable. If you grew up bin the fifties, I know you took trips to the ice house to purchase ice. Those much younger than I am may question how little boys carried big blocks of ice from the ice house to their homes. Most of us traveled back and forth with our wagons. Many of you have forgotten about that four-wheeled toy that was used for play and carrying out chores. Did you have a Red Ryder, with a red fence-type railing? Or, was the wagon you used for delivering papers used for other tasks such as transporting ice? For the ten or 15 cents given to you by your mother or father, you could get a block or a half-block of ice. How many of you remember traveling by wagon to the park with ice that was necessary for your family outing? Wagon trips to the ice house did not occur on a regular basis, as families that required ice relied mainly on the iceman who traveled by horse and buggy or later by truck, back in the day.
A much younger colleague, hearing me talk about the delivery of ice to homes, asked what people did with that ice. A question like this makes people from my generation realize how much times have changed. Many of you had an icebox in your kitchen to keep foods cold. The icebox was the precursor to the refrigerator and quite often was the size of a refrigerator. I can still see this large wooden box, made of oak or walnut with multiple hinged doors. The ice block was kept in a separate compartment t lined with tin, zinc, cork or straw. I suspect you remember helping your mother empty the drip pan at the bottom where the water accumulated as the ice melted. Some of you are probably wondering how items were kept cold prior to the icebox. Before any of us were around, food was kept in caves packed with snow or ice — in some cases in streams and in underground cellars lined with straw.
I also remember the delivery of milk and bread to homes. It was a regular occurrence for horse-drawn carriages and later trucks to travel through neighborhoods with the iceman delivering blocks of ice. He used tongs to grab a small block of ice, usually carried over his shoulder, covered by a leather sheath or a burlap sack. Large tarps covered the ice to shield it from the sun. Children would follow the iceman, trying to get some small pieces of ice to satisfy their thirst. The ice was not left at the front door; it was taken directly inside and placed into the icebox. As a collector of many things, I have a pair of these old tongs hanging above my fireplace. I also have an ice pick which was needed to break the ice. It is a reminder of how life was in the past. New technology eventually eliminated the icebox in the mid-1940s. I can still see our first refrigerator, with a large round motor and compressor on top. I did not realize that my family was fortunate as, unlike some, we did not have to put money in a coin box on the side of our new refrigerator to pay for it. It would cut off the electricity to the refrigerator if money was not placed in the coin box as agreed. I still refer to my refrigerator as an icebox.
Now, here is an ice story I have not fabricated. You may have heard some variation of this with some question of its veracity. But believe me; it is true; I was a participant. When I was growing up on North 43rd Street, a neighbor said to me, “Lonnie, let me know if you see the iceman, because I need a block of ice for my icebox. Call me only if you see the white iceman. Do not call me if you see the colored iceman, because the white man’s ice is colder than the ice sold by the colored iceman.” No, I am not kidding you — this conversation actually happened.
Blocks of ice served an important role in making movie houses comfortable on a warm summer afternoon. The Leader theater I frequented as a child had large blocks of ice in large freezer-type compartments next to the movie screen. A large fan blew cool air through vents out into the audience. Some people used a modified version in their homes. There is someone reading this column who placed a block of ice in a tub with a fan directly behind it, an ideal way to provide relief from hot weather.
A block of ice was a critical ingredient when making an old-fashioned “snowball.” I can still see the man with his pushcart pushing a scraper over the ice to form the snowball. I suspect you are familiar with purchasing ice specifically to make ice cream. It would not surprise me if there are still some old-school folk who are still making homemade ice cream. They still have an old-fashioned ice cream maker that still works perfectly and produces ice cream like no other.
Today, I do not know of anyone who does not have a refrigerator, so the need for ice is not the same as in the past. Either families are using ice trays or they have refrigerators with built-in ice makers. Large quantities of ice are easily obtained from supermarkets or convenience stores. Some families use ice packs. For many of us, however, the manner in which we obtain ice today will never replace the warm memories associated with the ice house or the iceman from back in the day.
For me, Christmas would not be Christmas without a Christmas tree. For as long as I can recall, there has been a tree in my home on Christmas Day.
As it is but a few days until Christmas, I suspect most of you who observe Christmas with a tree have one fully decorated in your home. Others traditionally decorate the tree on Christmas Eve.
After our tree was decorated, stared at it for a few moments, allowing my mind to travel back to memories I fondly recall of purchasing and decorating the family’s Christmas tree, back in the day.
I have mentioned that many have artificial trees. I am not ashamed to tell you I have had an artificial tree for more than 35 years. My 35-year-old tree presents some challenges. The early artificial trees coded each individual branch that was placed according to the codes. So there you were, spending at least an hour putting all those branches on the correct rows. Now you may wonder why, in all these years, the same tree remains in my home. Each year, after it is taken down, there is a discussion of discarding it and purchasing a new tree, one easier to put up and decorate, if decorations are needed at all. We continue to hold on to this tree because it is a great-looking tree; a tree that is hard to distinguish from a live one. But, without question, my Christmas tree today is quite different from those in my home back in the day.
When I was a child there were no artificial Christmas trees. The only ones I recall were three- or four-feet tall aluminum trees illuminated by a revolving spotlight. Anyone still using one of these aluminum trees today is not only from back in the day, but is still living back in the day. My father would go out days before Christmas to purchase our tree. This was a big deal. We lived in a home with a living room ceiling that was at least 16 feet high. We always had a tree that touched the ceiling; this was an absolute requirement for my siblings and me. However, my father came home one year with a tree that could not have been more than eight feet tall. He became upset with us because we took it back to exchange it for one the size we were accustomed to seeing in our living room. Back in the day, most trees were transported home tied to the top of one’s automobile. Very few establishments delivered trees. Therefore, returning the small tree was a matter of getting out my wagon to transport it and pick up a new one. This was a real challenge, as only the base of the tree could fit on the wagon; the front section was held by several of us as we traveled back to the corner lot where trees were sold.
You are definitely from back in the day if your purchase of a tree today involves waiting until the 11th hour. Please do not tell me that you wait until 11 o’clock on Christmas Eve to get your tree. At this hour, trees cost a lot less and in some cases, they are free because they are about to be thrown away.
A friend told me that years ago, she routinely went around on Christmas Eve late at night to look for a free tree. One year she found all of the unsold trees cut into pieces by the vendors. She had to take several branches home and nail them to a pole to have a Christmas tree that year. This ended her practice of the 111th-hour search for a cheap or free tree.
Other memories involve nailing the green wooden stand to the tree and the difficulty in getting your tree to stand securely. It was not unusual after the tree had been completely decorated to find it lying on its side. I can still see my father tying a rope around the tree and securing it to the mantle in several places. Do you also recall these live Christmas trees drying out and becoming fire hazards? How did we keep it moist? A small can was placed on the stand before the tree was attached. We then put water with sugar or maple syrup in the container. Did this actually keep the tree moist? I do not know, but I can tell you that many people did this, back in the day.
Decorating a Christmas tree was a real challenge in the past. Most of us remember the fights and fusses we had over our lights. How many times did you put your lights on the tree only to find out they would not work? We had those large, candle-shaped, lights known for the entire string malfunctioning if just one bulb was bad. A string of lights did not automatically blink. In order to get them to blink, you had to purchase a “blinker.” Back then, lighting a Christmas tree had only two options – on and off. Do you recall the lights with a long stem with a liquid that bubbled once they became heated?
Let me remind you that there were no Black ornaments when many of us were children. The first Black ornament I recall seeing was after Black became beautiful. It was in the ’60s when everyone had to have a Black angel on the top of the tree. Before then, a star went there. Today, however, every Black household with a Christmas tree must have at least one Black ornament; and that is usually a Black angel at the top of the tree.
Back in the day, fathers did not always participate in decorating the tree, but it was generally a tradition for the man of the house to place the star or Black angel on the top of the tree.
Do you recall making paper Christmas decorations in school? How many of you cut strips from construction paper to make circles that would be interlocked and placed on the tree like a chain? Do any of you still have the paper star, bell or tree you cut out in school some 40 or 50 years ago? Maybe some of you still hold to the Victorian tradition of stringing popcorn around your tree. There may be those who still place cotton balls on their tree to simulate snow. Perhaps you still spray your tree with a white substance from an aerosol can to give the appearance of snow. Or maybe you still place tinsel, referred to by many as icicles, on the branches. No tree was complete without tinsel back in the day.
Christmas ornaments in the past were very fragile. You dared not let them hit the floor, as they would shatter. Sometimes paper clips or hairpins were used to secure the ornaments to the tree. These ornaments were uniquely decorated, and are highly collectible today. There is just something very special about a Christmas tree decorated with these types of bulbs. Regarding tree-trimming, I disappeared when it came to putting angel hair on. While it looked great on the tree, to touch it meant you would be itching for a day or two. My oldest sister placed it on the tree while wearing gloves. If you do not know anything about angel hair, believe me, you are not missing anything. It is from back in the day and should remain there.
For many of us who struggled in the past with life in a segregated America, the thought of a white Christmas was not in keeping with the Afrocentric views and traditions that we discovered during the civil rights struggles of the ’60s. It may interest you to know that it is possible now to dream of a Black Christmas. While not related to the Black experience, there is a tree that was a big rage in Europe in 2005. It is a Black Christmas tree. This tree was new in the United States for 2006 and is still sold today. It has shiny black needles that glisten with reflections from clear lights and silver decorations. We, as Black Americans, should claim this tree as our own. A Black Christmas tree would enable us to have a Black Christmas; something none of us could dream of, back in the day.
Some things involving sons and daughters have occurred in families since the beginning of time. One in particular presents significant challenges to those involved. In the past, more than today, it created embarrassment and shame.
I am referring to unmarried girls who become mothers when they are still children. Too often, the baby’s father is uninvolved. Their children begin their lives without the strong family environment necessary for a child’s development. Today, there is a significant change in society’s reaction to unwed couples. If you are from my era, you recall the extremely negative reaction to couples having children outside wedlock. Now, please do not conclude that this column is going to “beat up” on those who may have been in this type of relationship in the past or are unmarried and have children today. Today I shall focus on situations of the past; situations in which an unmarried female was expecting a child and showed no sign of uniting as a family unit. Not getting married when pregnancy occurred was non-negotiable, even if it resulted in a “shotgun wedding” back in the day.
In the storybook version of love, you meet a young lady; you are interested in one another; you date for a reasonable period of time, become engaged, have a wonderful marriage and eventually have a family. Unfortunately, life is not always this simple. Although relationships may begin in a happy and wholesome manner, the end result can sometimes be traumatic. Today, a relationship may be going well and then an unplanned pregnancy occurs. Although the two involved appeared to have a wonderful relationship, this pregnancy may cause changes. In some cases, the mother goes one way, often moving home with her parents, and the father of the child goes in another direction. Sometimes he disappears altogether.
Because we see this scene so often today, these situations have become acceptable; they are no big deal. But as we know, things are not okay. We do not need a study to convince us that rearing a child in a two-parent environment is likely to be more wholesome. I have commented on how, during my day, the courtship was long and allowed the two involved to really get to know one another. The boy would ask, “Will you go with me?” When things were really serious, you went to your girlfriend’s father and asked him for her hand. If a young lady became pregnant, a marriage took place. In most cases, the question of marriage was non-negotiable. A friend told me that when he was a teenager, his father emphasized one thing to him relative to sex. He was told that if he got a girl pregnant, he should be prepared to marry her.
Given lifestyles today, you may not fully understand the stigma back in the day that was associated with an unmarried female having a baby. It was a disgrace not just for the two involved, but also their families. Thus, having sex was far more risky back then. In many cultures, premarital sex was and is still a sin. If a female ended up pregnant, the male was expected to do “the right thing.” Unexpected pregnancies sometimes resulted in forced marriages. “Shotgun wedding” is a colloquialism that many of us associate with hillbillies, picturing the future father-in-law, wearing a straw hat, pipe in his mouth, with a shotgun under his arm, escorting the father of the child to the altar. Such weddings were designed to provide protection for the female and the expected child; to restore honor to the mother and to legitimize the child. It was also a means for financial support for the mother and child. You know the horrible stories associated with unwed mothers and their children, so fathers toting shotguns contributed mightily to the creation and maintenance of family units, back in the day.
I was asked how long such marriages survived. This led to an interesting discussion about relationships between couples back then as compared to couples today. Clearly, there are exceptions. However, being from back in the day, I recall my mother and in particular, my father emphasizing that I should not be involved with someone I could not bring home. As tempting as some relationships may have been, back then the words of our parents had significant meaning in selecting that special person. If you grew up back in the day, the identification of someone to date was quite different. Your date was generally from your neighborhood. It was someone whose family your family had known for years. Few had cars, limiting travel to carry on a romantic affair. You worked to develop the relationship. You engaged in little things such as walking someone home from school and just being a showoff to get the attention of that person of interest. There was no “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am!” Brief encounters today, which appear to be commonplace, might result in a disrespectful and uncommitted relationship. Whatever you got back then, you worked for it; you even had to beg for it. The end result: You appreciated the entire experience, in particular, the person involved. Thus, if an unwanted pregnancy resulted, the willingness to join together as husband and wife, without the threat of a shotgun wedding, was more likely back in the day.
Not all shotgun weddings involved such coercion. An associate told me about a friend who visited his girlfriend’s home to tell her mother of her daughter’s pregnancy. The mother vented, expressing her disappointment with her daughter and outrage at the boyfriend. She then asked him, “What are your intentions?” In a surprised and indifferent manner, he asked, “What do you mean, what are my intentions?” He indicated he was not ready for marriage. The mother left the room, returned with a baseball bat and administered a major beating to the boyfriend. They married shortly after in what could be described as a “baseball bat wedding.” Now, do not think that these forced weddings took place in a home or a justice of the peace. Some did, but others occurred in the same manner and spirit as a traditional church wedding, with a reception at a fashionable facility. You have probably attended weddings where the bride was obviously with child. Traditional weddings and shotgun weddings are often not a consideration today, as more females than you would think seek to have children with no desire to have a husband. Also, those of you familiar with shotgun weddings in the past know of couples who were married but never lived together. Strange arrangements, I know, but to maintain the dignity of the female and the newborn was of paramount importance. For many, an unwed mother is no big deal in today’s society, but marriage was vital to family and community life, back in the day.
Marriage just does not appear to be as popular today. Thus, forced weddings have become less common as the shame of out-of-wedlock births has gradually decreased and such births have become more acceptable. Such weddings have also become less popular because too often there is no shotgun in the home and no father in the home to force these types of marriages. Much of our society embraces abstinence. We know, however, that today’s more liberal views tend to make sex outside of marriage far more likely than in the past. Society has accepted women having children before marriage or without the benefit of marriage. Given today’s societal issues with families, and the problems single parents often experience, perhaps it would bode well for families and out society in the future if we returned to the shotgun wedding of back in the day.
Over the years, you have probably recognized my keen interest in rhythm and blues music. In my office, you will hear vocal groups from the ’50s being played on my radio or computer; a ride in my automobile will reveal music by The Spaniels, Flamingoes, Castelles and my favorite group of all time, The Heartbeats. Some weekends, I buy, sell and trade records and music memorabilia at record conventions and shows.
I have a large selection of 45s, 78s and 33 1/3 rpm records. I often play the 45s and 78s on my jukeboxes. My Rockola jukebox, which plays 78s, can play a limited number of records. My Seeburg jukebox, however, can play a large number of 45s, on both sides. Most of the records on both jukeboxes are my favorites, and whenever I play them, they conjure up fond memories of my teen and young adult years. One in particular brings to mind certain behaviors that boys and girls shared when they started to date steadily; a song recorded by The Students in the late ’50s entitled, “I’m So Young.” The words, in part: “I have a girlfriend; she says I’m her only one…..They say our love is just a teenage affection; but no one knows, our heart’s direction….” Whenever I hear this song I reflect on those things young people did when they were recognized as boyfriend and girlfriend, back in the day.
I am sure you recall girls wearing their boyfriends’ varsity sweaters or jackets. Not only did the garment contain the name of the school and the sport the boyfriend lettered in, it also showed his name. A girl loved to go to a game wearing her boyfriend’s jacket or sweater. You had to be special for your boyfriend to give up an item that was so special to him. Did a young man give his girlfriend a scarf with his initials on it? What about the girlfriend wearing a chain or locket around her neck with her boyfriend’s initials or photograph enclosed?
As marriage was not on our minds in high school, friendship rings became a way to demonstrate a close romantic relationship. Some shared friendship rings to demonstrate their love and unconditional support for one another. Not all friendship rings indicated a dating experience; friendship rings were also given as a symbol of a close relationship with no romantic involvement. But if you saw someone in high school wearing a friendship ring on her little finger, you knew that she was in a committed relationship and wanted it known to the entire world. Quite often, friendship rings were simple and cheap. A co-worker told me her boyfriend, now her husband, gave her a friendship ring and within a couple of days her finger wearing the ring became green. He admitted it had come out of a machine at a penny arcade; perhaps the one you gave your girlfriend came out of a Crackerjack box.
Were you one of those young people who wrote the name of your boyfriend or girlfriend on the front of your notebook? Or, did you write it on the edges of a closed book? Perhaps, if you were a girl, you were bolder and used lipstick to write your boyfriend’s name on mirrors in school bathrooms. In your neighborhood, did you use a large stone to draw a heart and write your name and your girlfriend’s name or initials inside? Then again, trees, poles, doors, benches, anything made of wood became a place you could utilize to tell the world you were involved in a steady relationship. It was not uncommon for a student to risk the wrath of a teacher by carving a girlfriend’s initials on a desk. Or, it may have been something as simple as holding hands as you walked through the halls. If you had an automobile, your girlfriend’s name may have been somewhere on it; the front license plate area was a typical location.
Do you recall the popularity of love notes in the past? These letters were important in many relationships. I have heard people talk about having love letters today that were given to them in the ’50s. If you were creative, or thought you were, you wrote poems for your significant other. This was clearly more romantic and sincere than stories I hear of boys and girls “sexting” one another. Not having mobile telephones, and having a different level of morality made this aspect of boy and girl relationships unthinkable back in the day.
If you were pursuing a young lady, you just knew you had struck gold when she gave you her photograph. You would strategically place it in your wallet so it would be visible to everyone when your wallet was opened. In some cases, the girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s photograph would be on the inside door of a locker. If you did this, I know that you found the occasion to leave the looker door wide open so your friends could see the photograph. The class ring was a symbol of going steady. While it has been more than 50 years, I still have my wife’s class ring, hanging on a chain displayed with other high school and college memorabilia in my basement.
If you became a member of a Greek-letter organization, you must remember “pinning” your sweetheart. Early one Saturday morning, I heard one of my friends yelling that he had lost his fraternity pin. While it was some 40 years ago, I vividly recall hearing him moving items around in his dormitory room, looking for his pin. He yelled that someone must have stolen it. I decided to go to his room to help. Within minutes another student came in and reminded him that he had “pinned” a certain young lady the night before at a school dance. He yelled further, remembering that he had taken in more Thunderbird wine than he could handle. While this pinning was inadvertent and influenced by drinking and not love, many young ladies were clearly special, and as a result received a fraternity pin as evidence of love, back in the day.
Of all the expressions of two people caring for one another and wanting to show their love to their friends and the public, a friend shared the most corny tale I ever heard. He told me he and his girlfriend would coordinate their clothes. He proudly told me of a time they went to the old Willow Grove Amusement Park, both wearing the same type jeans, saddle shoes and white tops. I realize I must be careful about making fun of such behavior, as you will occasionally see couples dressing alike today.
So, while we did a variety of things to demonstrate our affection, how we met deserves some attention. Quite often, you were introduced by a family member, particularly, an older brother or sister. Some of you, however, recall passing a note to a classmate asking, “Will you go with me?” Do you recall notes with check-off boxes for a response of “Yes”, “Maybe” or “No”? Do you recall asking a young lady if she would go with you? If so, you must recall that we actually told someone that “I quit you.” Today, it is just a matter of going your separate ways with little or no conversation.
I know you see young people out, particularly on evenings and weekends, and you struggle to determine if they are an “item.” Quite often, there are no indicators; no hints; no symbols, nor is there the desire to make it clear that they have a special relationship. I asked a young person who is still involved in the dating game to share what I should look for. He said the stuff we did, rings, varsity sweaters and the like, are all gone, replaced by some with tattoos bearing the lover’s name. He noted that boys in my generation took a girl out on a date, took her home at a reasonable time and she went to bed. Today, he said, a boy takes a girl out, she goes to bed and then gets up and goes home. Clearly, practices in boy and girl relationships today that demonstrate going steady, if they exist at all, are significantly different from going steady back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.
Recent activity at the Independence Charter School here in Philadelphia, located next to our newspaper’s corporate offices, caught my attention. While a waiting list has apparently been in place for admission to this school for many years, I was particularly intrigued by what occurred in relationship to their process for selecting new students for the next school year.
It was reported that more than 1,000 applications were received for just forty-four open slots; slots that were filled through a lottery process. One need not wonder why there was such interest in admission to the Independence Charter School. I am not surprised as I see the pride, motivation and desire to learn in their faces as they go to and from school.
This experience quickly brought me back to the reality of the failures of too many of our schools; failures that obviously drove these one thousand-plus families to participate in this lottery. This is not an indictment of the Philadelphia School District, as the problems we read and hear about are found in far too many school districts across the country. I constantly tell myself that a day will come when things will be better. I tell myself that someday those buildings that we used to enter will again be venues for meaningful instruction and development.
Such thoughts invariably take me back to school buildings that contained some of those things that were not unique to any one school but found in most schools, back then. It gives me a warm feeling and in some cases, “goose bumps” when I think about some of those activities that aided immensely in building the men and women that we are today; activities that were not just curriculum-driven but other school activities that we used to engage in as innocent little kids, attending elementary school, back in the day.
I suspect that many of you can relate to how special school was in the past. Yes, we have school crossing guards today but thoughts of my elementary school days immediately resurrect images of the safety patrol. You could not have been in school during my era without remembering boys, standing on street corners, directing other students across the street. It is hard to forget those white cloth belts supported by a diagonal strap going over the right shoulder. We may not have known, back then, but this was a Sam Browne; a belt that was often seen as part of a military or police uniform.
I still recall the corner where I stood. Not only do I remember standing on the northwest corner of 44th and Aspen streets at Martha Washington Elementary School but I can still see the other boys guarding the other corners, particularly the boy standing on the corner of Aspen and Lex streets. While my image of him includes a guitar over his shoulder as he helped children cross the street, none of us could imagine that he would develop into one of the great jazz pianists. Yes, McCoy Tyner, like many boys attending my elementary school served on the safety patrol. Tyner was one of the many boys and girls that schools provided the impetus to be someone, back in the day.
While I enjoyed my time on the safety patrol, I did not like the “duties” that we were required to perform inside of the classroom. You may recall tasks that were referred to as “duties.” How many of you were designated to raise and lower the shades or the top part of the classroom windows with a long pole? Were you selected or assigned to take the erasers out to the fire escapes to either clap the erasers together or pound them against the side of a hard surface to get them clean? You must also remember the bench desks; some had an opening in front where books and supplies were stored. You may also recall that some had hinge tops that were lifted up to open in order to store things. Regardless of the type, they both had slots for ink wells. If a youngster sat in a classroom today that had an ink well, then there would be something else going on in the classroom that receives little or no attention in today’s educational environment. Some of you will recall that ink wells on desks meant that there would be ink bottles as well as fountain pens. This also meant that there was considerable emphasis on “penmanship,” or writing cursive, instruction that is virtually unheard of today but was a significant aspect of the learning experience, back in the day.
Some of you will recall classes on citizenship. Others may recall classes dealing with personal hygiene. There was exposure to music even if your involvement was limited. You may also recall that everyone sang in the school chorus or choir. There seemed to have been “plays,” usually around holidays, where we demonstrated our acting ability. This was the Dramatics Club. Like some of you, here I am some 60 years removed from my experiences participating in the Dramatics Club and my director, Goldie Watson, remains a part of this activity. Like most teachers, back then, Goldie Watson’s impact on my growth and development went beyond the Dramatics Club as she took me aside many years ago during rehearsal for an upcoming event and showed me how to blow my noise. Such experiences of teachers dealing with a youngster’s personal issues were not uncommon, back in the day.
I wear Ben Franklin-styled, wire-framed glasses today. While I did not wear glasses during my elementary school days, wearing this style of glasses always take me back to the type of medical services that children received in school in the past. You may recall that the Ben Franklin type glasses were given to children, if needed, free of charge. Glasses came as a result of free eye examinations for all children. Children also received physical examinations in an attempt to identify medical issues that warranted more comprehensive examinations. These medical services also included dental examinations. You must recall classroom exercises where we were shown how to brush our teeth as well as lessons on good dental hygiene and proper diet. It is hard to believe the controversy in our schools today with regard to not having trained personnel to carry out medical services. As you will recall, the school nurse was a permanent fixture in all of our schools, back in the day.
How many of you remember the “cloak room?” This was a small enclosed area usually in the rear of the classroom. The cloakroom was simply a coatroom. We all had hooks designated for hanging our coats. A few of us went to the cloak room for reasons other than hanging our coats. The cloak room was also designated as a place for punishment. However, I do not remember many bad kids. While it may surprise some of you younger folk, we had no security guards in school, particularly elementary schools, back then.
Gym classes were meaningful and challenging in the past. You just could not go to the gymnasium and sit in the bleachers. Let me take you back in time to climbing the ropes; swinging on the bars; exercising on the “horses;” doing flips on the mats; and, running dashes from one end of the gym to the other. We received even more exercise as we ran home around 12 noon. You must remember that we went home for lunch while in elementary school. While the Philadelphia Saving Society Bank (PSFS) is no longer around, if you were around in the 50’s, its relationship to school banking programs must come to mind. There was great emphasis on children having bank accounts, back then. If you remember the banking program, you must remember graham crackers and milk in the morning hours. Of course, this was nap time where the shades were pulled down and the lights were turned off. Teachers also visited your home to meet with your parents. Visits to some children were not always by teachers, but by truant officers because of absenteeism.
I do not recall any issues with regard to schools having insufficient funds, back then. Nor do I recall unions. I do, however, recall the involvement of parents. They were welcomed with opened arms; appointments to visit teachers and classrooms were unnecessary. Parents were respectful as well as courteous. Most of us can still see our teachers and how smartly and professionally dressed; our students were also well dressed. There were no sneakers, except for gym, back then. Girls wore nice dresses while boys wore slacks. Slacks were worn waist high and not down below one’s posterior. Cursing was curtailed by being sent to the principal’s office to get a cup of soapy water to rinse out one’s mouth. Do you still yearn for one last walk across those marble foyers that were at the entrance of most schools? I know you remember that we could not walk in these areas as they were typically roped off. Morning devotions required someone to read a scripture from the Bible. If not, then perhaps you recall silent prayer. Did prayer really hurt anyone or did prayer help to foster principles, values, standards and hope?
We all know the shame with regard to what is occurring in our schools today. If you do not know then you have not read a newspaper lately, listened to the radio or watched television lately. Indeed the state of our public schools is unfortunate. Indeed, much of what we experienced as elementary school youngsters was very precious; very precious. While much must be done in our classrooms to positively impact test scores in our schools, I have little doubt that we could make a significant dent in returning to the greatness of our educational experience without running off to charter or private schools. We could do much by returning to some of those small, seemingly innocent things that many of us experienced as elementary-age children, back in the day.
Several weeks ago, I spent hours outside my home with my son and grandson doing what I suspect many of you have done or are in the process of doing. With their help, all of our leaves were gathered into a pile for removal by our township streets department. Even though we had the benefit of a powerful leaf blower, this effort required substantial raking. It was hard, dirty work. After finishing, I thought of my father’s words; words that I would generally hear, as a child after playing on the playground, streets or backyard. He described my physical state as being “filthy dirty.” There was no question that on this day, getting the leaves in order made me comparable to Charlie Brown’s “Pigpen.” Thus, I removed all of my clothing on the first floor before heading upstairs to shower.
In the shower, I noticed a piece of soap about the size of a quarter. I looked in my bathroom cabinet, but no soap. I then went to the hall linen closet, only to come up with the same result. I went to my wife’s bathroom and then downstairs to the powder room. There was no soap anywhere. I even went into our laundry room to see if there was some Fels Naphtha soap; you may recall this brown soap used by our mothers in the past for laundry. There was none! I thought about what we did in the past in such circumstances. One would have put on a robe and gone down the hall or next door to a neighbor and borrowed a bar of soap. Borrowing household items, particularly kitchen items, was something families just did as a matter of fact, back in the day.
I know you do not think I went next door or down the road to borrow soap. If I had, I cannot imagine the reaction. Would I expect a fresh, unopened bar of soap? How would I have reacted if I was given a used bar? I tried to get a co-worker to help me in writing this column by going to one of his neighbors to borrow something. He said, “I don’t think so, I don’t want to be cursed or hit up-side my head.” He said borrowing is not what it was in the past. He, like many people, does not even know his neighbors. Even if we know our neighbors, our relationships are too impersonal to encourage borrowing things. Furthermore, many of us have too much pride to borrow. But our parents and neighbors were from a different era; they clearly had a different mindset and would not hesitate to borrow anything.
Borrowing was not a function of being poor. Quite often, it came as a result of the kind of experience I had when looking for soap to take a shower; it was one of need. The typical situation that required borrowing involved a family being in the midst of preparing breakfast when their tea or coffee was poured and no sugar was in the cupboard. Stories of families borrowing sugar go back over the years. A protocol was involved when borrowing. All requests back then began with, “May I?”
I have been told of situations where heads of households were reluctant to go to neighbors, so they did what many families did; they sent the child to make the request. A friend told me she recalls a little girl ringing her doorbell and asking if her mother could borrow two eggs. She honored the request only to have the child return a few minutes later to ask to borrow two slices of bread. In an attempt to and ensure the borrowing would not become an ongoing habit, my friend sent a message to the mother: “If you wanted an egg sandwich, you should have asked for one when you made your initial request.”
A refrain one hears more often than he or she cares to is “It’s in the Bible.” You know how some people will find a verse in the Bible to justify whatever they believe, right or wrong. Thus, I was referred to Exodus, Chapter 3:22 in the American King James version of the Bible that reads: “But every woman shall borrow of her neighbor, and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment and you shall put them on your sons, and on your daughters; and you shall spoil the Egyptians.” For those borrowers who refer to this verse to justify their behavior, its interpretation has been taken out of context, with their focus being totally on the word “borrow.” While borrowing things may not have had a Biblical basis, it was a practice that was widespread, back in the day.
Certain items were readily borrowed in the past. Sugar, eggs and bread have been previously mentioned, with sugar at the top of the list. Other items that were regularly borrowed included: flour, butter, milk, coffee, tea bags, salt, pepper, seasonings, salad dressing and syrup. These all can be easily missed until you are ready to use them. In some cases, it was possible to get a child to run to the corner store to purchase whatever was needed. There are no corner stores in many neighborhoods today.
A co-worker, hearing me list the items regularly borrowed in the past, added toilet paper to my list. That stopped me in my tracks. Of course, my question was, “Did the attempt at borrowing toilet paper occur before or after ‘the event’?” I know of people that had to do “number two” and when finished, reached over to get the toilet paper only to find none. This resulted in hopping down the hall to a closet or to another bathroom. I have never had this experience. Therefore, I had to ask my co-worker just what he did in such an emergency. Without blinking, he told me that there was always a newspaper or pages from a Sears Roebuck catalogue in his home.
Even borrowing clothing was not out of the question. It was not unusual for a neighbor to ask to borrow a suit or dress for a special occasion. Not everyone had a suit or dress for an interview. Going to church, a wedding or a funeral quite often dictated the need to borrow. I can recall friends who were going out on a first date who asked to borrow a special article of clothing. The same was true with regard to an automobile. I know a number of you can relate to that. Just think, whose automobile did you drive to your prom, back in the day?
Of all the things one may need to borrow from neighbors, there is nothing more annoying than a request to borrow money. This is particularly true with regard to a neighbor. My advice is, do not ask to borrow money, and if you are asked, do not acquiesce. Many friendships have suffered over borrowed money never being returned. This is true today, just as it was, back in the day.
Borrowing from neighbors has diminished over the years. However, you can still find neighbors borrowing lawn tools, snow blowers, shovels and extension ladders. There seems to be no embarrassment at making such requests. Borrowing such items can pose problems that are not associated with borrowing everyday household items. It is no big deal if your neighbor does not replenish your sugar or replace your eggs. But to ignore returning your chain saw is another matter. In the past, these items were quickly returned; today is another story. Your best bet when you find yourself in such a situation is to simply ask the borrower if he or she has finished with the item. As for those everyday items, you can best avoid borrowing them by doing what is done in my home; we simply leave a notepad on the island counter where items are listed for purchase as the supply diminishes. Obviously, you may never be in a position where you have everything in and around your home whenever you need it. So, I strongly suggest that you start building a warm and cozy relationship with your neighbors just in case you have to borrow something, as our parents and grandparents regularly did, back in the day.
Several weeks ago, my son was working on a project that required the completion of several pre-printed forms. Printing the required information on the designated lines and specific boxes was not an option; completing the forms on a computer was virtually impossible. The only way to complete this paperwork in a neat and efficient manner was by the use of a typewriter.
Finding one became a real challenge. The last typewriter that was in our home was donated to Goodwill shortly after the computer was introduced for home use. So the search began. I knew there was one or possibly two at our newspaper offices but they were closed. Telephone calls were made to family members and friends; office supply establishments were contacted; the Internet was searched. Finally, buried away in my church’s office, was a typewriter. Getting accustomed to its operation was a struggle. This experience took me back to when the typewriter was an absolute necessity. It was impossible to function as a student, as a business person and as an everyday citizen, without the typewriter with that clickety-clack sound, back in the day.
My introduction to the typewriter was by an Underwood in my parents’ home. My skills were refined at Sulzberger Junior High School when I took an elective class in typing. There were few boys in typing classes. Boys were constantly asked, “What are you doing in this class instead of shop?” I can still see the teacher at the front of the class reviewing the keyboard? Did you learn typing by a technique where the letters did not appear on the keys? Keyboard lessons also addressed the way to place your fingers on the keyboard. Whenever I see some young person typing with the index finger in the same manner they send text messages, I recognize that it was unlikely he or she had formal typing instruction. For the most part, those who type by “hunting and pecking” learned by trial and error. The major objective was to get the desired letters on the paper. For a passing grade, typing 40 words a minute, after counting for mistakes, was acceptable. My grade f was excellent, as I routinely managed to type 75 words a minute, even accounting for a few errors. My speed on a computer keyboard is a direct result of my typing classes from back in the day.
Your new-found knowledge and skill in the use of the typewriter became an integral part of your classroom and homework projects. It seemed that typed reports received better grades than printed or handwritten ones. I shall never forget issues associated with my typing assignments. Just think about typing a letter, book report or a term report. Now keep in mind, our typewriters were manual; there were no electric typewriters back then. Making a mistake brought a challenge. When I made a mistake, I reached for my typewriter eraser, the round gray eraser with a black brush attached. If you did not have a typewriter eraser, you might have used a regular eraser, in particular, the eraser on a pencil. Whichever you used, quite often the result was a hole in your paper. When this occurred you turned in a sloppy letter or report, or you did like most good students and typed the page again. Turning in a report with holes caused by erasers resulted in a lower grade.
Today, most of us can appreciate the ease of typing something on a computer; you can start typing from memory or from copy; what you type can be saved for future use; parts of previously typed documents can be highlighted and copied for use in your new project; spell check highlights incorrect or questionable words; wordy sentences are also identified; fonts for printing can be changed; and you can identify the number of copies you wish to print. None of this was possible, back in the day. Most of what was typed had been previously handwritten long before you sat down at the typewriter. A dictionary was nearby to check spelling; there was no spell check. Thus, proofreading was very important during the era of the typewriter. If you needed a copy or two, you used carbon paper, that dark, onion-skin-weight paper between two or more sheets of paper to get copies. It was a real ordeal; the ink from the carbon paper was very messy and would end up on your hands as well as your clothing. Things became even more difficult and challenging when an error occurred and you had to make a correction while using carbon paper.
If many copies were needed, you may recall making a stencil. Do you recall removing the ribbon so the bare keys on the typewriter could strike the stencil to eliminate the wax so that the ink could flow through the remaining tissue paper? Can you still see the waxed mulberry paper used to make a stencil? If so, you must have had the experience of correcting a mistake by brushing it out with correction fluid that could be typed over once it dried. Can you ever forget the awful experience of wrapping a stencil around an ink-filled drum that we called a mimeograph machine? The mimeograph machine operator was covered with an apron, long sleeves and gloves, as ink would splash everywhere as it turned. If one needed a large number of copies, short of going to a commercial printing establishment, this is what was required, back in the day.
While the design of the keyboard has been passed on to computers we use today, most of us have no idea of the origin, meaning and practicality of the QWERTY keyboard arrangement. I wish to share what I learned about this term as a result of writing this column. Those are the first six letters on the top row of the keyboard. The design was invented by Latham Sholes in 1878 and has little to do with speed for the operator, but more to do with the manner in which the keys hit the paper. Sholes originally experimented with arranging the letters in alphabetical order, but found the keys jammed together at a central pint when they were struck with increasing speed. Through much trial and error, the keyboard layout we use today was fashioned from what was designed, back then.
While I pointed out earlier that I do not have a functional typewriter in my home today, I do have the antique Underwood that was in my parents’ home many years ago. The black and red ribbon is still in the typewriter; however, I have limited knowledge of using the red part of the ribbon i. People did use it for highlighting words or letters, underscoring words or when typing financial documents. If you did not have an Underwood typewriter, you may have owned or operated a Remington, Smith-Corona, or Royal. While most of us used manual typewriters, you may have been in the workforce or engaged in a great deal of home typing at the time the electric typewriter, in particular, the IBM Selectric was introduced. I will always remember this typewriter, as it had a “typeball” that replaced the traditional bars that swung up to strike the ribbon and page. This typewriter, you must recall looked sleek, was electric, and made it possible to use different fonts in the same document. The Correcting Selectric introduced in the early ’70s eliminated the need for cover-up tape, Wite Out correction fluid or typewriter erasers. IBM Selectric typewriters added many features that made them the top of the line .Many people to this day, long after the computer became so dominant, still use them. IBM Selectric typewriters and their descendents captured 75 percent of the market for electric typewriters in the 1970s.
Most of my reflections with regard to life in the past conclude with dreams of returning to circumstances as they used to be. However, I have no desire to go back to the typewriter with the absence of multiple fonts; an inability to easily make corrections; carbon paper; stencils; and, all the other things described in this column. I will admit, however, that as a result of some of the issues raised in this column, I have every intention of paying close attention at flea markets, yard sales and for items that friends or co-workers may be discarding. I recognize that I need a typewriter, manual or electric, stored away in my home for something that cannot be addressed with the use of a computer; projects that can only be completed with a typewriter, the only choice we had, back in the day.