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Home in the 1950’s

By Nan McKay: In the 50’s decade, I was 8-18 so I’m remembering what it was like when I was a kid in grade school. I lived out of town a little way, between 2 farms, in a small town of about 3000 people in mid-Illinois. My dad was an accountant at Caterpillar about 15 miles away and my mom was a housewife. Why? Because that’s what women did back then. If you dreamed about doing anything else back then, you were told you could be a teacher or a nurse. I thought a teacher sounded better than a nurse because I didn’t like to even think about blood and gore. But, first and foremost, you were destined to be a wife and mother. Everything was focused that way for girls – even taking home economics in high school which was only for girls, of course. 

It included sewing and cooking. I liked the cooking part but not the sewing. I had to rip out so many seams, I finished 2 dresses, a shirtwaist and one with ballerina straps, but they didn’t look great.  Here’s what I mean by a shirtwaist dress. I’m sure my waist was never this small, though.

It was a big house (especially when you were small) with a vegetable garden and a fence across the back where you could see a train go by. A long way to walk home from school because we had farms on both sides and were on a gravel road, but it was great place to grow up!

We had a big walnut tree, and we would climb the tree and pick walnuts and take them to the attic to dry. They were green when picked but turned very black which then meant you could take the cover off and get to the walnut. The green walnuts looked this this until they were dried in the attic and turned black.

The Dreaded Basement

The really scary place in the house was a basement with 5 rooms which went totally under the house.  It looked sort of like this with a dirt floor and mostly concrete – and dark! With only one bulb hanging from a string.

The furnace room was down there and there was a coal room next to the furnace room. The coal room had a window that opened where the coal truck would drive over the lawn and spill coal into the window. When we wanted heat, my dad would shovel coal into the furnace from the coal room and take any “clinkers” out to put in a bucket of water to cool. Clinkers were burned-up coal and they were fairly heavy.

I Hate Mushy Vegetables!

We also had a fruit cellar which was just one of the rooms in the basement but it was very far back into the basement, and I didn’t like to go there. My mother would tell me to get a jar of peaches or mushy vegetables out that she had canned months before. This meant that she put the fruit or vegetables in a jar that was sealed and put in the basement for winter. I would scurry to get them – and get out of there! I’m not sure what I was afraid of, but it was pretty dark back there. I still don’t like the dark. There was no such thing as frozen food so everything was grown in a garden and canned, like this, or you bought a can of mushy vegetables at the store. Big choice. I hate mushy vegetables!

No Automatic Washers or Dryers

The washing machine and the mangle were in the same room. We had a wringer on the washing machine so when the clothes were washed, you put them through the wringer and then either hung them outside in the summer or in the basement on clothes lines in the winter. When you had a baby in the house, there were only cloth diapers, so you washed a dirty diaper in the toilet and then put it in a bucket with a top until you did a wash. 

You ironed sheets with a mangle. Why would you iron sheets? Because it’s what you did as a “good” housewife. Can you imagine ironing sheets today? So what is a mangle? It was used for ironing, in addition to the ironing board. You sat down at it and it had a big roller and you had to feed it just right to not put wrinkles into whatever you were ironing. We ironed everything from sheets to my dad’s white shirts and handkerchiefs. Steam irons hadn’t been invented yet, so you had to have a wet rag that you put on top of what you were ironing to smooth it out when you placed your hot iron on top of it. It wasn’t too bad because I got a nickel for every sheet I ironed.

We always ate dinner in the dining room at the table. Woe to you if you didn’t like something served. You sat there until you ate it, no matter how long it took. I tried hiding food everywhere in my clothes and shoes, but I usually got caught. Speaking of getting caught, if you were really bad, like not coming when your mother called you, she went outside and cut a switch from the tree and hit your bare legs with it. Not fun. I ran most of the time, but she was always faster and she always caught me. No one ever mentioned child abuse.

This was before rotary phones. You had to get the operator on the line and give them a number to call. When you wanted to call someone, there was a phone on the wall where you picked up the receiver and listened to see if someone else was talking. Back then, you were on a party line which meant that you had to wait your turn to make your call. And there were some long-winded people that about drove you nuts when you really wanted to call a friend. What was fun is if there was someone else on the line and you held your breath so they didn’t hear you, you could pick up some really interesting gossip! Have you seen the youtube video of the teenagers trying to dial a rotary phone? It’s a riot! https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=dialing+a+rotary+phone

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