Great Changes in Living

Looking Back with Lloyd Mathews, originally printed May 4, 2003

I have been reading a book entitled “The Big Change” in which the author, Frederick Lewis Allen, talks about life in America in the year 1900, and takes the reader up through 1949. This book has caused me to realize the great changes in everyday living that took place in that 50-year period. I was not around in 1900, but by the early 1920s, I was learning a lot about life and habits of the American people in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century.

I have often thought about the changes that have taken place in America since I started running around through the roads, streets, and alleys in the City of Lynchburg, Virginia. I speak of a time when I was in my pre-teen years, actually a time when I was much to young and small to be doing many of the things I did, but I think I received much of my education and experience as a citizen during those years of the mid-1920s.

One of my earliest memories was of standing on the street corner on hot summer days, waiting for the Hoky-Poky wagon that would be loaded with cardboard kegs of ice cream to sell to the kids at every corner stop. Vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry cost five cents a dip, and kids would make them last by pressing the cream deep into the cone, then biting off the bottom and sucking out the delicious frosty concoction—each trying to out-slow the others, so he could be eating his last bite while they all drooled for more.

Later in the day would come the ice wagon. The ice man would chop off pieces of ice to be delivered in blocks to match the sign that hung on customers’ doorposts, anywhere from 10 to 50 pounds, depending on the size of the customer’s refrigeration, or ice box, as they were called. At that time, the only indication of apparent wealth was the size block of ice purchased by a family. There were few electric refrigerators at the time, so every family enjoyed about the same luxuries. Each icebox came equipped with a large flat pan that was slid under the box to catch the drops of water from the ever-melting ice. If a youngster wanted to get a sizable scolding or spanking, the best way to do it was by letting the pan overflow and run across the kitchen floor. One such error was usually enough to last a while.

At the time when I was growing up there were about an equal number of horse-drawn wagons and Model-T Fords, and not many people owned either. The general public enjoyed riding to downtown and other places on streetcars. These were often called trolleys. The steel-wheeled vehicles ran on two steel tracks and were connected to an overhead cable that furnished the electricity to power the trolley. When one reached the end of the line, certain adjustments were made between the a cable and the trolley and the part that had been the front became the rear for the return trip.

Kids had little tricks that they played on the conductor, such as putting sand on the tracks that sometimes caused the vehicle to skid, and lose valuable time.

I expect there are many people in America today who don’t know what a washboard is, and I expect there are many who do. I mention the washboard because from the time when I was very young until the middle of the twentieth century, I watched women wear out their backs and hands scrubbing clothes on the old washboards. I bet there are very few people my age who do not remember those large bars of Octogon laundry soap that used to rest at the top of the wash board when not being used. And there was a coupon on every bar that could be saved, and exchanged for useful household items.

Another product that paid off to the consumer was oatmeal. There were two brands that packed a dish in each box of oatmeal, and today antique collectors have these dishes as heirlooms.

At some time during the years while I was reaching the time of maturity men’s and women’s clothing underwent a drastic change from wash, dry and iron to wash and dry. My mother had five sons and a daughter, and I can remember watching her iron our school clothes. Sometimes this job plus ironing the wrinkles out of everything down to handkerchiefs lasted from morning into the darkness of night. In an earlier time, this task would have been even more burdensome, because only in the early 1900s did electric irons replace the heavy cast-iron ones that had a place on the old kitchen ranges where they were heated for service.

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