by Sandra Lee Smith
I was born in 1940 and grew up in the 40s and 50s; despite the frugalities of WWII and a country recovering from a Depression and the War, we grew up without ever knowing that we were at best lower middle class economically.
The center of my childhood certainly was my mother’s kitchen, where I learned to cook, and we sat around the table doing homework while listening to the old-time radio shows. Supper was at 6 O’clock every night and woe betide the child who wasn’t sitting at the table at exactly six sharp.
It was our job to clean the kitchen after dinner. My sister Barbara, brother Jim and I learned the words to all of the current popular songs in the 40s and 50s while doing the dishes. Barbara washed, Jim dried, and I had to put them away. My sister would buy the weekly songbook for ten cents and prop it behind the faucet. That’s how we three memorized the words to popular songs—most of which I still remember.
In our home on Sutter Street, in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I grew up and learned to cook, there was one cookbook. It was kept in a drawer in the kitchen cupboard, along with ration stamp books, scraps of paper, pencils, pieces of chalk, rubber bands, cereal box tops that Jim saved to send away for free things like decoder rings, and my mother’s collection of WILSON evaporated milk labels.
There’s an interesting aside about the evaporated milk labels. My mother used the canned milk to make formula for whoever was the baby at the time (in a family our size, somebody was always the baby—We poured evaporated milk into coffee and what’s more, we liked it. Even my parents drank coffee this way.. The can of evaporated milk was on the supper table along with everything else. We sometimes had it with cereal too—it was either that or powdered milk that, when added to water, had indestructible little lumps that never completely dissolved. Evaporated milk was also a mainstay to making mashed potatoes and creamed peas. (Creamed peas made with canned milk still tastes pretty good to me.)
However, I tried evaporated milk in coffee a few years ago--ew, ew! I can’t believe we actually drank that stuff.
The mother had a collection of WILSON evaporated milk labels because you could redeem them for things, similar to free gifts from S&H Green Stamps. I remember taking the bundles of evaporated milk labels downtown to exchange them for tea towels or potholders. It may have required several thousand labels for one potholder, but I came from a family where free was always a good thing no matter how much work was involved.
My sister, Barbara, recalled the acquisition of free ‘stuff’ such as dishes, obtained by selling Watkins products, and the free samples of grape or orange juice you could get at the Orange Juice Bar downtown. We loved anything “free”.
Things I remember: The house on Sutter Street. We moved into my parents’ first home just before my 5th birthday. My 8 year old brother was responsible for walking me and our 3 year old brother to the new home, over a mile away.
Brothers Biff and Bill setting a fire on the kitchen table. Mom’s homemade “work” soap. We used it for everything, from scrubbing floors to giving the dog a bath.
Monopoly games on rainy summer days. Playing dress-ups and parading up and down Sutter Street in our finery. Also on rainy days, we dragged out our boxes of fabric clippings (furnished by our mothers and older neighbor ladies) and sewed clothing for our tiny dolls (Pre Barbie!) - or we might get out our boxes of paper dolls and play with those.
We also all had boxes of “trading cards” which were generally just playing cards but had nice scenes or designs on them. You could also buy trading cards for about ten cents a pack; those had a variety of scenes and were blank on the opposite side rather than having card numbers.
Sitting around the kitchen table, doing our homework, and listening to radio shows (Mr & Mrs. North, My Friend Irma, The Lone Ranger, Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, The Cisco Kid, the Aldrich Family, Amos and Andy, the Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, Baby Snooks, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Burns & Allen, the Life of Riley, Suspense)
My most outstanding memory is the amount of freedom we all enjoyed. We walked or rode bicycles everywhere and explored neighborhoods for miles around. We explored wooded areas and built forts. We ran and played all day long during the summer months. Once a week during the summer I rode my bike over to the school to meet the bookmobile and fill my bike-basket up with books to read while perched in the cherry tree in our back yard. We walked to the municipal swimming pool, learned to swim and got our swimming badges. On summer nights when we had exhausted ourselves from playing hide & seek --we sat on someone’s front stoop and took turns standing up and singing a song.
It might not have been the best time to be a child--but in my heart, it remains a golden good old days.
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