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October 29, 2005

My "Deprived" Childhood

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A lot more than once I've read about famous people who had tough financial times in childhood, yet claimed they didn't really know their family was poor.

In some ways, the same applies to me.

My deprivations were material, not financial. Basically it was a matter of timing related to the onset of World War 2 and its impact on the Home Front. Curious about how it was like to be a child during the war? Read on...

Setting the Scene

My parents were fortunate and weathered the Depression well.

My dad graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering at the worst possible time, 1933, yet was able to get hired as a chemist by a pulp/paper mill. My mother went to a two-year state teacher's college in the mid-1920s (that was all that Washington State required in those days -- they went to a 4-year program in the 30s) and already had a teaching job when the Crash occurred.

I was born in Everett, Washington in the fall of 1939 followed by my sister a few days before the end of 1940. We moved to Seattle in the late spring of 1941 because my father quit Weyerhaeuser to become a testing-laboratory equipment salesman. This did not turn out well, so after a year he went to work for the Army Corps of Engineers as a contract-compliance technician. This was the spring of 1942 and the U.S. had been at war since December, 1941.

Our first Seattle house was a modest rental in the West Woodland neighborhood, just east of the world-famous Ballard area (Scandinavia's gift to America -- you have to have grown up in Seattle to get this). For three months during the summer of 1942 we lived in the spiffier Montlake district, just south of the ship canal bordering the University of Washington. The duration was three months because the house's owner was now a war correspondent on assignment; his family was away for the summer months and would be returning. So we had to vacate before September.

But there was a slight problem: housing was almost impossible to find.

You need to understand that World War 2 was hugely disruptive -- for individuals, for families, for communities and for the economy. Among other things, there was a great deal of migration from some parts of the country to others. For example, people flocked to Washington D.C. because it was the heart and brains of the war effort. Newsman David Brinkley wrote a charming memoir of his efforts to find housing in the suddenly-packed city titled Washington Goes to War.

Southern California boomed because it was home to four major aircraft makers (Douglas, Lockheed, North American and Consolidated) as well as some smaller, but still important, firms (Northrop and Ryan). Plus San Pedro and San Diego were major naval bases.

Seattle was home to bomber-builder Boeing, some small shipyards, a naval air station, and also was a major cargo and troop processing port. Nearby were Fort Lewis, a major training center and the Bremerton Navy Yard, a large ship repair/refit facility.

Parts of the country that lacked military bases and war industries had housing to spare. But impacted areas such as those just mentioned were in a double-bind because the housing industry had to compete for workers and materials with the military, which usually had a higher priority (the Army had to build lots of barracks, for example).

Fortunately, my parents were able to find a house for sale a mile or so north of the city limits in a partly built up area (still plenty of trees and fields and scrub, however -- great for romping when I reached school age). What wasn't so fortunate was the fact that the house was almost entirely lacking in modern (in 1942) amenities. I'll describe the disaster (it was a disaster for my mother, anyhow) in a moment.

Why I Can Remember Stuff When I Was Two

I'm about to offer some memories going back to when I was two years old and even younger. How can I remember so far back, you might wonder.

The reason why I can remember a few things from early childhood had to do with those moves I just mentioned. I remember nothing of Everett. I can remember a number of things about growing up in that house we bought in 1942, but I can't tie events to years until the fall of 1944 when I entered Kindergarten -- events just blend. My children spent their entire childhoods in just one house and can't easily sort out early memories. But I have a few definite memories of the West Woodland house, the Montlake house, and early days in the suburban house due to the drastic changes of scene caused by the moves.

My only solid pre-age-two memories, by the way, involve a trip to an uncle's farm in southwestern Washington taken in the summer of 1941. The farm had an outhouse in those days and I remember being plopped atop the hole above the vile, smelly part. Outhouses are hard to forget if you've never experienced one before.

A West Woodland memory is of Christmastime 1941. The decorated tree was in the corner of the living room and my father and another uncle were having what struck me as a serious conversation about something (usually things were fairly jovial). In hindsight, they were probably discussing the war (this must have been only a couple weeks after Pearl Harbor), perhaps wondering how it would impact on them and their families.

Because it was summertime, Montlake memories are of sunny, carefree days (while Americans and Japanese were battling to the death at Midway). I remember going with my mother to the nearby supermarket (tiny by today's standards, but the building still stands and it's still a market), wheeling my sister in the stroller.

And I remember my first view of the new house. It was empty, of course, so I had great fun whooping and hearing echoes, scrambling up and down stairs, and generally poking into things.

My mother seemed a bit remote that day, but said a bunch of comforting things about our new home. I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't have a good cry in the bedroom that evening.

House of (Amenity) Horrors

Our new home was a two-story-with-leaky-basement 1920-vintage Dutch Colonial style house perched on a hillside. Behind the house was a separate one-car garage. In back of the garage was an abandoned chicken coop (that later blew over in a windstorm) and behind the coop were lines with raspberries and loganberries which we used for breakfasts and pies in later summers.

The house was heated by a sawdust-burning furnace. Actually, the sawdust was more like small wood-chips than powder. But it burned relatively quickly, so about a third of the basement was devoted to a sawdust-bin that had to be refilled perhaps every month or two (I'm guessing) in the winter. After the war, the furnace got converted to coal-burning, and the (now) coal bin was maybe 30-40 percent smaller than the sawdust bin had been because coal burned more efficiently than sawdust. We didn't convert from coal to oil until I was in high school or college (natural gas came late to Seattle). If anyone is curious how to get a coal furnace started on a cold winter morning, I'll gladly explain in Comments.

There was no refrigerator: instead, we had an icebox. The iceman would come by in his truck about once a week (I'm not sure -- possibly it was more often) and put a 25-pound block of ice in the ice-chest.

Nor was there an electric or gas range for cooking. The kitchen stove was heated using wood. And because there was no electric water heater, hot water was heated in a water tank connected by copper tubing to the wood-burning stove. So we only got hot baths in the tub upstairs when my mother did a lot of baking and the water tank could get pretty hot. That upstairs bathroom was the only one in the house, but at least it had a flush-toilet. Because we weren't in Seattle proper, there was no sewage system and we had to make do with a septic tank in the back yard.

My mother rigged a curtain at the top of the stairs to preserve warmth upstairs (where the bedrooms were) in winter because the sawdust fire usually would go out overnight.

Adding to my mother's woes was the fact that there was no washing machine at first. Apparently my parents were soon able to convince a wartime priorities board to allow them to buy a washer (my sister and I were probably cited as compelling reasons). The washer was state-of-the art for 1942 -- upright agitator in the water tub and an electrically-powered wringer atop it all. As a child, the wringer fascinated me. My mother would place one of my dad's soggy, just-washed undershirts at the ingestion side of the wringer (being careful not to get her fingers pinched) and the undershirt would emerge board-stiff out the other side of the rollers. By the way, automatic washers as we know them didn't appear until after the war.

Another problem was isolation. Seattle's municipal bus lines didn't extend beyond the city limits. There was a privately-owned bus line that stopped about a third of a mile from us, but that wasn't convenient for a mother with two young children. However, my father commuted to work downtown on that line.

So why didn't my parents simply drive the car? Well they did, but only once a week to a Lake City supermarket about a mile and a half from our place in order to stock up on groceries; for odds 'n' ends my mom walked to an over-the-counter grocery near the bus-stop.

And why was that shiny almost-new 1941 Pontiac used so sparingly? Rationing.

Lots of consumer items were rationed during the war. Each member of our family was issued a booklet from time to time with ration stamps for such items as sugar. To buy a pound of sugar, you had to fork over a certain number of sugar stamps; cash alone supposedly wouldn't do the trick (but possibly some extra might have bypassed a stamp problem). Substitutes replaced rationed items where feasible. If I remember correctly, molasses was used as a substitute for sugar in baking.

Gasoline was rationed partly to conserve gas itself but moreso to free up rubber for tires of military vehicles: less civilian driving, less tire wear, fewer new tires needed. Car owners were allotted gasoline rationing books and stickers that were placed in a corner of the windshield. Low-priority folks such as us had an "A" sticker, a two-inch black rectangle with a narrow white border and a large white block letter A in the center. Doctors (they made house-calls in those days) and people with key defense-related jobs got a "C" sticker that allowed them to buy as much gasoline (or nearly so) as needed. There was an intermediate "B" sticker as well.

My dad could have used the car more often, but elected to conserve the ration stamps for a possible emergency or maybe a vacation.

For more information on wartime rationing, click here.

Besides mandatory, rationing-related behavior, we helped the war effort in voluntary ways. For instance, after dumping soup or peas out of a can, mom would remove the remaining end of the can and take it and other cans to the cement driveway behind the house where my sister and I would jump on them, stomping them flat for metal drives.

We also had a Victory Garden, a summer vegetable patch out back that would furnish peas, corn, potatoes and other vegetables for our meals. I suppose the logic was than fewer workers would be needed on truck gardens and they instead could be in the military or a defense industry.

After the war ended in August, 1945, it took a while for things to return to normal. I'll focus on our house.

I forget which items were replaced at what time, but by 1948 we had an electric water heater, a refrigerator and an electric range. The coal-burning furnace was also in operation by about that time. The agitator-wringer washing machine wasn't replaced until the 1950s when an automatic washer and automatic drier arrived. Natural gas didn't replace the oil furnace (of 1960-vintage) until the 70s. Meanwhile, the back porch was enclosed and a half-bath added. The living room was doubled in size via an addition to the house. My parents lived in that house until 1991, 49 years after they moved in.

Actually, my mother would have preferred to move to someplace nicer, but by then the house was paid off (after 15-20 years - the purchase price was about $4,500) and my dad refused to take on a new mortgage. Did I tell you that my mother was a saint? Would you believe a martyr?

Oblivious Me

Even though I had spent most of the first three years of my life in properly equipped houses, I failed to understand that the suburban house was riddled with defects. I suppose this was because I was still so young that the world adults lived in was pretty much a mystery; I simply took things as they came.

After the war, the arrival of modern appliances was also taken in stride. Moreover, even though I was now old enough to play with friends after school or attend Cub Scout meetings elsewhere, I didn't compare our house with their houses (in retrospect, most were better, a few weren't). The first thing that made a comparative difference was the presence of a television set; Seattle didn't get television until Thanksgiving 1948 and we didn't get a set until the fall of 1951. My sister and I really envied folks with television and pestered our parents until they bought one.

It wasn't until I was entering high school that I began to pay attention to who had nice houses and nice stuff and who didn't. Girls seemed to be more sensitive to distinctions; I remember some former neighbor girls being embarrassed to be seen in their dad's old car.

So yes, I was materially deprived -- relative to prevailing middle-class standards -- roughly between ages three and nine, yet I never realized it at the time. Childhood has its blessings.



posted by Donald at October 29, 2005


How interesting that you brought this up- I just read that this day in history "Shoe rationing" from WW2 ended... So many of us today do not appreciate what the Depression/WW2 generations sacrificed for the war effort, and just-plain-did-without before that! It would be unthinkable to many of us to have to cut cardboard for soles in worn-out shoes, save ration coupons for sugar for a birthday cake, and save the metal foil of gum wrappers for recycling! That's right, folks, recycling was not invented on Earth Day!

I've always wondered if the depravations of the Depression made it a little easier for Americans to deal with the shortages and rationing during the War. Gas, leather, metal, many kinds of of my Mother's (certainly not fondest) memories is of squeezing the bag of oleo (couldn't get butter) so that the yellow dye would disperse throughout - yuck. She was also the one who had to use the cardboard on the bottom of her shoes-over and over (no good on a rainy day, either.) The stories are countless, from both the Depression and the War, but the overall sense my sister and I got about her childhood was that it was a happy one - and no less so because of what had been missing, (and even a little mysterious and adventurous in ways ours never was.)

I used to enjoy watching "The Waltons" because some of the everyday machinations depicted reminded me a bit of my Mother's stories. Now that I think about it, I wonder how different these experiences were in the cities vs. the small towns and surrounding rural areas (as well as regional differences)?. My Mother's family were in the Carolinas during the Depression, and lived in Baltimore (shipyards) during the War. I'm thinking that I've never heard my Father speak of those times (he just celebrated his 75th birthday)- spent in New York City and Philadelphia--now I'll have to ask him!

Posted by: American Mother on October 30, 2005 9:14 PM

Thanks Donald. An interesting story.

My family suffered real poverty in the Depression and well into the 1960s. (I'm not engaging in a competition.) Disease and death from poverty related illness was common well into the 1960s.

My family is white, but we were as poor as any blacks we knew. Hell, we were as poor as any class or nationality you'd like to consider.

The most politically radical kids in college, in my experience in the late 60s, were the rich kids. I think that this continues to be true. Revealing that you are desparate for an education and a job marks you as lower class. There is no compassion for a redneck white boy.

Throughout my life I've been told that I come from a background of privilege, just because I am white. Long ago, I gave up even trying to explain that this is not true.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 31, 2005 8:16 AM

From my favorite writer: "...they lived in a house lacking in things but abundant with love".

Posted by: Tatyana on October 31, 2005 1:27 PM

I think I'll take Mr. Pittenger up on his offer to describe starting a coal fire on a cold winter morning. I grew up in a coal-heated former farmhouse in a small Ohio town from age 5 to 16, and I recall that my parents' verb of choice for starting a fire was "fixing," as in fixing the furnace. (Analogous to fixing dinner, I guess.) I was occasionally called upon to go down in the basement and add coal or wood to the existing fire in the furnace, but actually starting a fire seemed to be a major operation rather beyond me at the time and Mom or Dad had to do it. As I recall, you can't just stick a match up next to a piece of coal.

While the Pittenger boyhood home sounds somewhat similar to mine (especially the bit about the one bathroom being upstairs), the sawdust-burning furnace is something I've never heard of before. A byproduct of the lumber industry in the Seattle area, perhaps?


Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 31, 2005 3:10 PM

As a child in the mid-1960's, I came home from elementary school one day crying my eyes out because a kid I didn't like had bragged that he had a TV set - a *color* TV set no less - in his bedroom. At the time, this sort of thing was just unheard-of; families had one set, usually in the living room, and watching it often was a family activity. Hard to believe this today, less than 40 years later. Now children think of themselves as deprived if they don't have cable/satellite TV's, computers and video game consoles in their bedrooms.
It turns out that the kid with the TV in his bedroom was lying. His family had one TV, and it had been broken for months.

Posted by: Peter on October 31, 2005 3:24 PM

I'm with Dwight. My major chore as a child in the '50s was 'shaking out' the furnace. Shoveling the dust from the bottom, shaking the screen and picking out the bigger lumps to go back in the bin. My mother would have a path of newsprint from the top of the cellar stairs to the shower. I went through a bar of Lava in a week. I only had to do that once a week but a couple times a week I had to shovel the coal from the back of the bin to the front. I was allowed occasionally to light the fire, but only under strict supervision.

Posted by: Sluggo on October 31, 2005 5:10 PM

My father - born in 1929 - grew up in a relatively well-off small-town Ohio family that was hit pretty strongly by the Depression and WWII. His father owned a small department store that suffered throughout this era due to unemployment and rationing, and soon thereafter the store closed.

As fortunes declined, however, they retained one significant trapping of luxury: when nylon stockings were rationed during WWII to manufacture parachutes, the store would, occasionally, get a small shipment of nylons. (Keep in mind that nylons were so popular - and rare - that some women would use makeup on their legs to make it look as if they were wearing them.) My grandfather would always retain one pair for his wife.

At the time, it was better than jewelry!

Dad also recalled when movie tickets went from five cents to ten... what are they up to now, a quarter?

Posted by: Nick on October 31, 2005 5:22 PM

Hi. Thanks for the interesting perspective on everyday life during an eventful period. It's amazing how rarely we hear about the myriad mundane ways in which major events filter into the lives of the masses. The TV commentators, journalists, and big picture people rarely capture that kind of thing. It's perhaps why it's so shocking to hear about DVD sales at Iraqi marketplaces.

But I comment in order to ask a question: what is a 'truck garden'? I was reading some Jane Jacobs earlier today and she refers to them on multiple occasions (in the Los Angeles area) as well. Is this what I know as a 'market garden'? Why the specific combination of mode of transport and agricultural production form? Do these appear at a given point in history? Are they only in a specific part of the US (or elsewhere)? I'm very curious.



Posted by: Desmond Bliek on October 31, 2005 7:03 PM

"Truck garden" sticks in my memory because it came up in some early grade school reading book when I was a wee tyke. We had the "Alice & Jerry" series (instead of the better-known Dick & Jane), and perhaps the first story in the book had to do with Alice & Jerry coming upon their neighborhood friend, kindly Mr. Carl, working on his "truck garden." I recall the grade school teacher having to explain the term, since none of us kids knew what it meant. Checking the dictionary, I see that "truck" as a word has more meanings than freight-carrying conveyance, and in this sense refers to miscellaneous vegetables grown for market.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 31, 2005 8:52 PM

My granddad, who could recite the Iliad in Greek, ran a fly-spray factory in Oakland during the Great Depression. So it goes.
When I was growing up in Greenwich Village, our rent for a one-room apt was 69 dollars a month (Grace Paley's sister was our landlady!)

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 31, 2005 10:41 PM

American Mother -- You are probably right about habits formed in the Depression carrying over into the war period, though it's also possible that general prosperity levels in previous decades might have been part of the background. When I was young, my mother mended socks, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the average housewife circa 1885 did the same thing. I'll assert that it's only been in recent decades (when overall wealth is high) that ordinary folks have been weaned from mending to simply discarding partly worn-out items. I know my habits have changed since I was young.

ST -- Interesting to learn more about you -- you certainly have transcended the economic part of your roots.

My mother came from a pretty poor background. Her dad had a promising career in manufacturing in Springfield, OH but got TB and was told to move west for health reasons. Thereafter, he only had marginal jobs. My mother and her older brother worked their way through college (her younger brother stayed on the farm -- the one I mentioned that had the outhouse). So, by 1942, my mom probably figured she had finally gotten away from her economically-deprived past, only to sink into material deprivation as I described in the posting. Going down the ladder is usually harder that going up.

Oh, and it's nice to learn what an open-minded, compassionate, non-prejudiced group you sometimes mingle with.

Dwight -- Okay, you're on! Let's assume prep work such as emptying ashes and chopping wood has been done. Here is how you start a coal furnace:

It's based on layering, with the most combustible material at the bottom so that flames from it will ignite the next higher level and so forth. So, first crumple some old newspaper pages, enough to make a bed for the remaining items. Atop the crumpled paper, place sticks of kindling. Finally, add a layer of coal (not necessarily a lot -- more can be added once the fire is burning well). Now strike a wooden kitchen match and light the paper in three or four places. Maybe another match or two might be needed, the idea being to get a good bed of paper flames. If all goes well, the paper fire will ignite most of the kindling. Then the kindling will ignite the coal.

Of course, one detail or another might not work and the attempt fails (I suppose this happened to me perhaps one time in ten). In this case, you simply start over, putting a layer of crumpled paper and so forth on top of your failed attempt.

Peter -- HEH (as they say in blogging).

Nick -- I think my mom did the leg makeup thing a time or two. So you think movies might cost 25 cents? -- why that's one-third the price of a haircut! Outrageous!!

Desmond & Dwight -- My understanding is in line with what Dwight indicated. I remember New Jersey's agriculture production (veggies such as tomatoes that were hauled to Campbell Soup in Camden) being referred to a "truck gardening." I'll guess this was to distinguish it from crops such as wheat that were largely shipped via rail.

Winnifer -- Was your grad-dad an immigrant? Intelligent folks hwo spoke badly broken English would have a hard time finding work -- though you do mention that he ran the place (did he own it too?).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 31, 2005 10:51 PM

Lovely memoir, thanks. My mom darned socks through the 1950s and 1960s, as I recall -- it strikes me as quite a luxury even today to just throw a worn-out pair of socks out. But my mom's family had been very hard-hit by the Depression -- they'd been educated upper-middle-class professionals, and lost every bit of it in the crash. As a consequence my mom took it as her crusade to hoist the family back up to what she imagined was its former eminence. Part of that seemed to involve saving every possible penny.

There was also a lot of hand-me-downing going on back in those days. Older cousins who outgrew kiddie clothing would pass it along to us, and when we outgrew it we'd pass it along to younger cousins. I wonder if middle-class families still do that.

Given how tight things often were, it's amazing to me that my parents got my sister and me through private colleges without scholarships. It seemed to me even at the time that they must have managed it by saving pennies, using Green Stamps, and making use of every possible save-at-the-grocery coupon in the paper.

My mom seemed to love the discipline of not-spending, but my dad chafed under it. He wanted to have more fun, and for the two of them to have more fun. It was interesting to see how the relationship was beginning to change when I finished college. With me out on my own, and with my dad making a bit more money than he ever had before, my mom could no longer use the ever-victorious "you want the kids to get a good education, don't you?" argument, and my father was beginning to assert himself, really for the first time. A major relationship realignment was going on. Then, alas, my mom died, so I never did get to see how things would shake themselves out ... Still, it was an interesting moment, when the whole Depression-kid thing almost seemed to be on its last legs ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 1, 2005 12:19 AM

OK, I fought myself commenting on this post so as not appear snubbing. I lost.

I just want to add some perspective for comparison - and I'll not say anything about the War or post-War times, although I have plenty of family stories to illustrate; only give few examples of my own experience.

When I was 9 (I'm about 2 decades younger than you, Donald), my chore was to help my grandpa to start a coal fireplace in the morning. It wasn't a stove, but it wasn't open flame either: it was floor-to ceiling sort of prism, tiled with white glazed ceramics. The 3-story house was built in '47th by German prisoners, the stove in the kitchen (with metal rings)and the fireplace was their design - which, of course, was the envy of the whole street. I remember well that each tenant had coal shack in the yard, with complicated locks and slanted wooden top/door. Coal wasn't a problem in the city - we lived close to Donbass where it was mined. it the cooking gas and hot water pipes that were considered a luxury, only suited to Party nomenclature.
It was my duty to stock dry newspapers and supply small twigs for starters. Donald, your description brought immediate vision I thought I had forgotten - dark winter morning, my grandpa's bending down to shove portion of coals in the fireplace, castiron door suddenly appears in the dark outlined with fierce saffron of fire.

On my 3rd year in college students were sent to the countryside for a month to help with harvest. September in Ural region is closer to N.Dacota's November. Snow covered frozen ground. Electricity (from stationary generator) was available only for kolkhoz' various farms, mostly for the herd. We had kerosene lamps for light and logs and brush for wooden stove (which our boys had to gather in the forest with their own tender "intelligensia" hands). I'd milked cows (manually), picked potatoes and cabbage in the fields at -20C, did laundry (manually) for 40 and chopped and cooked fresh-butchered pigs - &c. The city was different, though. That was beginning of 80's.

When we were leaving in 1992, Ukraine had ration system for some foods that were "in deficit" - sugar, f.ex., milk and cheese, etc. To get "talons", or ration cards, you had to have a stamp in the passport verifying you're legally connected to your address. Since we have applied for foreign visas, we got "out of this address" stamps (I'm trying really hard to explain it comprehensively, I have vocabulary glitch - Americans don't have adequate terms) - for 11 months. It meant we couldn't buy most of the food in the stores, we had to pay 3 or 4 times at the market. Which was a bit problematic for people who couldn't get employed legally with "out of this address" stamp in the passport.
We had it much, much easier than most of refugees, though. And ration system is gone now, in Ukraine as well as in Russia - but big parts of population still have to choose between buying milk or paying for utilities.

Please don't take it as attempt to discount American experience. I'm sure immigrants from India, f.ex., or Africa could tell much darker tales - but that's exactly the point: SU consider itself industrialized country, certainly not 3rd World.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 1, 2005 1:23 AM

Michael -

Your account of your mother's Depression-era frugality illustrates the fact that different people react in different ways to otherwise-similar experiences. My father (1926 - 2000) grew up in fairly hard circumstances during the Depression in a working-class town in Connecticut. His father made a modest living as a barber, but with nine children his earnings didn't stretch too far. During adult life, however, my father was anything but frugal, with a money-management philosophy not dissimilar to that of a drunken sailor on shore leave.
Even worse than overspending was a reckless attitude toward risk. During the 1980's, in late middle age, my father's contracting business finally paid off and he became relatively affluent. In 1990, however, he severely overextended himself developing condominiums, believing them to be a "sure thing." Their completion coincided with the total collapse of the Connecticut real estate market during the "Great Recession" of the early 1990's. He was wiped out and spent the remaining decade of his life in difficult circumstances.
It's probably an oversimiplification to say that the Depression was responsible for both your mother's frugality and my father's profilgacy. Even so, I've no doubt it was a major factor in each case, albeit with very difference consequences.

Posted by: Peter on November 1, 2005 9:06 AM

Michael -- Interesting how the Depression, like a tornado, hit some badly and skipped others. But it definitely affected the attitudes and behavior of those who lived through it, namely our parents. And to a lesser degree it has affected us, as your comments indicate (and you were born when the 50s boom was underway). The next generation away -- my kids, for example -- are used to what would have been sheer affluence in 1945, even though many of us have had to go through periods of penny-pinching (I certainly did when I was a consultant). As for hand-me-downs, I see a lot of that for baby clothes that are quickly outgrown and seldom run the risk of being grass-stained. I didn't get any because my cousins across town were about the same age I was, wearing clothes out in parellel, as it were.

Tatyana -- Indeed, America (and Canada) represents a special case historically, and I was careful to note that such "deprivation" that I had was relative only to the middle-class context. I thank all that's holy that I was lucky enough to have been born when and where I was. And I'm glad that you were finally able to get here, even if it took months of being a non-person, administratively.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 1, 2005 9:26 AM

Donald, I also was refering to a middle class - or rather to a group called here "professionals". My grandma was a pharmacist, grandpa - well-paid "blue collar" at metallurgy plant (he was making more than an ER doctor, f.ex.). And I don't think I had "deprived" childhood, on the contrary, I was priviledged: my parents didn't drink, they took me to the Zoo and paid for my piano lessons.

I'm indeed happy to be here, but not for the reasons of having unlimited hot water or 1000 cell phones to choose from.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 1, 2005 9:46 AM

Don's (Donald is my brother) memory is much better than mine, particularly since I was too young to remember any but the old colonial house. Also, when I was five (1946) I contracted rheumatic fever and was confined to bed for almost a year. The folks converted the dining room into my convalescense bedroom. I have no idea where the family ate as there was only a small kitchen and small livingroom on the main floor besides the converted dining room. Some good came of my illness. We got permission to acquire a refrigerator to replace the icebox sooner than would have been possible otherwise and perhaps also the replacement of the old wood and coal kitchen stove. And I think that we went from a four party phone line to a two party line so that my rest wouldn't be disturbed by the ringing phone which was mounted on the wall in my room.

American Mother's post mentioned coloring the oleo... one of my favorite tasks. Great fun to pop the red orange dye bubble and then kneed the shafts of color into the white oleo until it was all a uniform yellow. Another favorite was coal delivery day. The big truck would grind up the driveway to behind the house, back up to the coal chute window, place the chute, then as the back of the truck was elevated watch and listen to the coal tumble into the coal bin.

Posted by: Nancy on November 1, 2005 4:55 PM

Nancy -- Thanks for the additional info! (My foggy memory is that the water heater came first, then the refigerator and finally the stove, though I forget the years.

I had also forgotten about party lines. They weren't a war-related thing, but definitely were an annoying part of life in those days. I forget when we finally got an exclusing line, but it must have been well into the 50s.

The margaine situation lasted several years past the war because, I believe, dairy farmers were able to keep (state) laws on the books stipulating that yellow-colored margaine could not be sold. The hassle of coloring would lead many folks to pay more for butter. Margarine was sold with alternative coloring modes (depending on the brand). One used a powdered dye which meant that the margarine and dye had to go into a bowl and mixing was done by stirring it with a utensil. The other option was the margarine-in-a-bag-with-dye-blob, where the blob was broken and then one kneeded, as was mentiomed above. My memory was that the latter was more fun to do, but that the margarine was stiff and hard to kneed for a while; eventually it would soften, and that's when it got more fun.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 1, 2005 7:56 PM

* ahem* excuse me, could you explain why margarine needed to be colored in the first place? You "can't believe it's a butter", anyway, since you're the one adding the dye...sort of defeats the purpose, no?

Posted by: Tatyana on November 1, 2005 9:13 PM

Tatyana -- Oops, sorry. I forgot that you and probably a lot of other readers have no idea what the margaine situation was.

Since margarine was and is a butter substitute (not a complete one, butter is superior for cooking), dairy farmers correctly saw it as a threat. Why buy butter when less-expensive margarine is practically the same? So farmers (a much larger share of the voting population 60+ years ago) got laws passed in many states stipulating that yellow-colored margarine could not be sold. Here is the key point left out in the various comments: margarine in its "natural" state is white. A white spread looks a lot like lard and not much like butter, greatly reducing its appeal. So margarine makers included one kind of dye or another so that the dye, when mixed into the margarine, would make the margarine look like butter. The dyes, by the way, were sort of chinese-red in their concentrated state. So the letter of the law was followed, the margarine being sold was white and not yellow. The buyer had to weigh the cheaper cost of the margarine against the effort required to color it. As best I remember, mixing was something like a 15-minute process, which was a lot of time to save a few bucks (in 2005 dollars).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 1, 2005 10:28 PM

By the time I was aware of things as a widdle kid in the '50s, margarine was yellow and for all I knew always had been. But my mother remembered the days of having to add food coloring and mentioned it a time or two when she got to reminiscing. And I gathered she thought the whole thing had been absurd.

Now, in our household when I was growing up, real butter was unknown. It was always margarine for us, both for cooking and for table use as a bread spread or to put on baked potatoes. Yet the stuff was always referred to generically as "butter" in daily parlance even though it had never seen the inside of a cow. This kind of confusion and blurring of terms was probably just the sort of thing the dairy industry was trying to prevent with things like the seemingly petty measure of not allowing margarine to be sold pre-colored yellow.

And since I had never had real butter that I could remember as a little kid, margarine suited me just fine. We always called it "butter," so I didn't comprehend that what we had was actually something else when I heard butter mentioned outside the house.

The trouble started when we visited some farm relatives who did serve Real Butter on their table. And it was home-made butter at that (even richer than your commercial store-bought Land-o-Lakes butter). Every pleasure-neuron in my brain lit up when I tasted it, and I suddenly realized what a poor substitute the stuff we had at home was. Now I understood the difference between butter and margarine that I never had before. So, in my little-kid-obnoxious-pestering-wheedling-complaining way, I started agitating for my parents to start buying Real Butter for our house, too.

Which my parents weren't about to do. The price difference between margarine and butter may seem small by modern standards, but at the time it was significant. I also think my mother felt Real Butter was _too_ rich, and not really good for one, while margarine served the purpose just fine for cooking and table use. But I was so persistent in my wheedling for Real Butter that Dad tried to argue me out of it, saying that the difference in taste between margarine and butter was so slight that once you put it on bread you couldn't really tell which was which. He even said that he might pull a surprise taste test on me sometime when I least expected it -- that is, slip in some butter, and he bet I'd even never notice it. I rather wish he'd actually tried it, as by then I had taken the full measure of margarine's flavor (rather chemical, with a slight metallic aftertaste), and I would have spotted a different spread at once.

After all that, you'd think that as an adult I'd be exclusively devoted to Real Butter and nothing else. But over the years, butter substitutes got better. Shedd's Spread, for instance, satisfies my palate quite nicely these days (though I notice their stuff is also called "Country Crock" even though it's just some commercially processed chemical concatenation -- maybe "Chromium Vat" would be more apropos). If we'd had Shedd's Spread when I was a kid instead of oleomargarine, I wouldn't have made such a pest of myself about butter.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 2, 2005 8:09 AM

Well, thanks, Donald (and Dwight!) for explanation, but it still doesn't clear the question of delusion with self-coloring. If you buy pigment separately of the product, and then have to combine the two, how can you believe the stuff you fixed yourself becomes genuine butter? Sounds like an episode from Mr.Bean's routine to me.

As to margarine and cooking: unsalted uncolored margarine is actually preferable for certain types of pastry than butter, like cookies based on carbohydrate raising agent; I have a few empirically proven recipes. For the rest, having margarine on our family's table most of my childhood in much same manner as Dwight had (the difference being my grandma and my mom always knew the proper hierarchy in butter-margarine war) I'm a big supporter of butter.

I wonder what can Deb say on the subject?!

Posted by: Tatyana on November 2, 2005 8:36 AM

Hmmm....butter vs margarine.

I once told a local farmer that I only ate butter at table to support the local farmers and he pointed out that farmers raise the soy beans that go into the margarine too.

When I was a kid in the early 60's we drove over the border to Illinois to buy colored margarine since you could only buy the uncolored type in Wisconsin. Mother baked with butter but we ate margarine at the table. I have no clue why except perhaps being raised in WI with dairy farmers all around her, margarine was more "modern" than plain old butter. Being modern was big in advertising and women's magazines in those days. I dont have any memories of the coloring of margarine tho.

I bake with both, depending on the recipe. Some cookies, for example, come out more short and richer flavored when baked with margarine and tend to burn faster with butter. Some, like my Mom's old fashioned German and Norwegian Christmas cookies, need the butter for the flavor because they are not flavored with chocolate, nuts, dried fruit or coconut. Some I mix half and half. It depends and it's something I've learned over the years of making cookies and bars.

Butter has a lower water content than margarine and you have to adjust flour in the recipe if you are substituting. Most modern recipes I've tried work best with margarine unless you want to fiddle with the dry ingredients. Those from recipe books older than 1940 work best with butter.

And I make my pie crust with Butter flavored Crisco that comes in those nifty neato sticks. The whole idea of lard leaves me cold unless I am making lefse at Christmas. My mother, who swears home rendered lard is the best thing for pie crust, cant tell the difference, heh heh!!!

Dairy products, in general, are not yellow or orange. Cheddar cheese that you folks buy that's made in Wisconsin has been colored to make it look like what cheese is "sposed" to look like. Around here you can get fresh from the cheese factory cheese curds on Fridays and they are about the color of mozzerella cheese. The ones that are produced for export to bigger cities and out of state, which in my opinion are not real curd if they've been refrigerated, are colored orange. I believe some of the cheaper butters like Land O Lakes may even have some coloring in it now. I usually dont bother with the unsalted, expensive variety. If a recipe calls for it, I just adjust the invariable salt requirement down or omit it if not necessary to the end product. And I buy whatever is on sale and freeze it for later. Right now I have 10 lbs of butter in my freezer. Christmas is coming and I start baking before Thanksgiving.

That's my take, fwiw.

Posted by: Deb on November 2, 2005 9:35 AM

My mom had a wringer washer til 1970 when we had a fire and my father adamantly refused to buy her another one. She spent the entire day doing laundry. It had a hand cranked wringer on top with a hot suds tub on one side and a cold rinse tub on the other. We had a dryer but she only used it for bath towels. Everything else was either line dried or rolled up and frozen for ironing day. She spent a whole day ironing everything. Dad's shirts, the linens etc were taken from the freezer and ironed dry with starch. Usually they would stand on thier own when she got done. Some of my first memories are standing on a box, ironing my Dad's linen or cotton handkerchiefs into perfect squares folded over 4 times to pocket size. If they werent exactly square, I had to do them over. I also ironed his socks and boxers tho those werent starched.

She would tell stories of growing up in the 30's and 40's on her parents farm with no electricity and only a woodstove, having to heat the irons on the stove and mixing the starch by hand. I felt lucky to have spray starch.

We darned sox well into the 70's. In fact, I still darn. I was lamenting the inablilty to find darning cotton one day at my knitting group and the next month all the older ladies brought me bags of the little balls of various colored cotton used to mend with. They think I'm nuts. I find it soothing.

I recently did a demo at a fiber fair on how to retoe handknit socks. All the younger set acted like I'd invented the coolest thing they'd ever seen. The older set all remembered how to do it from growing up in the Depressiona and WWII. I've been asked to give a darning class in the spring cuz all the younger knitters who are making socks with the hot new expensive sock yarns are mightily distressed when they wear out a heel or toe.

My father grew up in the western part of Minnesota near the SD border. He was the son of the town pharmacist and told stories of going along during middle of the night snow storms with the town doctor out on a call to help him dig out of the drifts. The doc would stop by the pharmacy to pick up whatever he thought he might need based on what the call was for and take my dad with him. Gas was short and the farmers had a section of road they had to keep plowed using their horse teams but that only happened after the storm was over. Unless of course you were the local doc and the Torvaldson baby decided now would be a good time to make it's entry into the world. Then you took a strong teenager and a couple of shovels along and fought your way thru it.

Posted by: Deb on November 2, 2005 10:12 AM

Food coloration is significant with respect to more than just margarine. We expect particular foods to be particular colors and may reject them if they're not. As I'd mentioned in another thread, the steamed cheeseburgers occasionally found in central Connecticut never became popular beyond a very limited niche market, despite an excellent taste, at least in part because they're an unpalatable gray color. It's also been said that the vodka-based sauce sometimes used on pasta has had a difficult time gaining wide acceptance due to its strange pink color. And let's not forget the story of Alfred Hitchcock's dinner party, in which he had his cook dye all the foods blue; though flavor was complete unaffected, the guests were repulsed.

Posted by: Peter on November 2, 2005 11:05 AM

The story my father told was that in Australia when he was a kid table margarine to eat on bread was taxed heavily in order to protect dairy farmers and butter manufacturers. However, the law did not apply to cooking margarine, which led to manufacturers of margarine putting the word "cooking" on every tub or margarine they sold.

My father always ate margarine on his bread when I was a child, and my mother always had butter. I am not sure my father actually preferred margarine, but he was always concerned about his cholesterol level (this was the 1970s) and he didn't have a tremendous preference, so he always ate margarine. My mother had a strong preference for butter so that is what she ate. (And actually my parents are still alive follow this pattern to this day). Both butter and margarine were therefore always on the table when I was a child. For some reason I actually picked up a preference for margarine, which I retain. I eat margarine on bread, and I use it to cook when I make pastry. I use butter for most other things when I cook, however.

Margarine is a product that is highly variable in quality though. Cheap margarine often doesn't taste very good, whereas the more expensive stuff is often a lot better.

Posted by: Michael Jennings on November 2, 2005 1:16 PM

I'd like to second poster Esmond Bliek's remark:

"Thanks for the interesting perspective on everyday life during an eventful period. It's amazing how rarely we hear about the myriad mundane ways in which major events filter into the lives of the masses. The TV commentators, journalists, and big picture people rarely capture that kind of thing."

Here are some other accounts, in a somewhat similar vein, that come to mind:

Jane Jacobs, in "Dark Age Ahead," has a interesting, but brief, account about her life during the Great Depression (when she was in her late teens and 20s[?]) and her life in New York City during the WWII years.

Also, in Margaret Truman's memoir/bio about her father, Harry Truman, there are occasionally some interesting details about life in Washington, D.C. (e.g., the streets pretty empty of vehicles) and Independence, Mo., during both the Depression and the early days of WWII. (While I don't recall as much material deprivation in her account, it was interesting nevertheless to see how modestly her family was living, even though her mother was from a well-to-do family and her father was either a Senator or, briefly, the Vice-President.)

If I remember correctly, those Studs Turkel oral history books also have this kind of info, but not as focused.

Also, occasionally on the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens or Manhattan boards (internet nostalgia boards) someone will post something interesting about some aspect of everyday life in the 1930s or 1940s.

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 2, 2005 4:07 PM

I remembered my dad always called the fridge the "icebox" because that's what he had grown up with. I still call it that--never use the word refrigerator.
Donald: no, gramps was the son of a Norwegian minister (HE was the immigrant, with a charter from King- Oscar-on-the-sardine-can) and gramps spoke perfect English.
Those were just hard times--my dad used to joke that he worked twice for NBC, first for the National Biscuit Co (Nabisco) and then for the National B'casting System. Grandma did her part by being a seamstress. If they'd stayed in the Philippines, where they were missionary schoolteachers, they'd have been better off, but I guess they wanted their kids to spend some of their childhood in America.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on November 2, 2005 10:12 PM

My dad tells the story of going with his dad on a service call to repair a broken down car sometime during WW2. They had two flats in one mile on the 1928 Dodge due to the tires and tubes being worn out. You had to dismount the tire, patch the tube, put a cap over the patch to protect it and reinstall the tire. The tubes had caps on top of caps. The Grandpa finally got the ration board to allow them to buy 2 new tires and tubes.

Posted by: rmark on November 3, 2005 12:45 PM

Margarine spread more easily---if butter had been refrigerated it was hard as a rock when you put it on the dinner table---hard to spread across bread. At least that's what my mom told me!

Posted by: annette on November 3, 2005 3:21 PM

Correction: Now that I think about it, the occasional interesting details about everyday life for the Trumans during the Depression and WWII were probably more common in the bio that Margaret Truman wrote about her mother, Bess, rather than the one she wrote about her father.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 3, 2005 5:48 PM

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