Rural America in the “Good Old Days”

America of the 1930s and 1940s was a very different time

Woman doing laundry, circa 1930, Mississippi archives

ST. LOUIS, Sept. 26, 2015 – Life in rural America in the 1930s and 1940s was built on the pillars of family, respect for others and appreciation for the simple things in life.

Growing up in Missouri in that time, I learned about family values through example. My whole family practiced these values, and we all lived them every day. Cherishing and respecting our families and others was an integral part of who we were. We said our prayers before meals and at bedtime and were happy to have everyday necessities such as food, shelter and clean clothes on our backs.

Cleanliness was also a virtue. We took tub baths in a galvanized wash tub once a week in the kitchen. There was no running water, so we got it from the well by pumping it into a bucket. Then we heated it on the kitchen wood stove.

We worked and played outside, and we got very dirty. But it was clean dirt.

Even though we only took the tub bath once a week, we scrubbed ourselves every morning, before meals and before bedtime. The washbasin was a huge bowl, and we would fill it with water and use homemade soap. We did not use store-bought soap. I don’t remember the ingredients, but the homemade bar was big and yellow and it took the dirt right off of your body without creating an enormous amount of soap lather. I remember smelling very clean.

A washtub and a “scrubbing board” were used for washing clothes. After the scrubbing was complete—and this was a very physical—task, the clothes were put into rinse water that had to be frequently changed.

The system was to scrub, rinse and get more water from the well. The next step was to hang the wash on a clothesline. This was well and good in the summertime, but when it was wintertime, the clothes being hung to dry would freeze. They were so stiff that I could almost walk alongside my “long johns” to bring them into the house.

The stiff clothes were taken to the kitchen, the focal part of the home, and hung on all manner of devices to dry. They were not hung all at once because it was a several day process. They were hung near that famous wood-burning stove. I must say, those stoves really generated a lot of heat. I remember the freshness of the clothes and again I attribute this to the homemade soap. It could very well be the same soap that we used in our weekly baths.

Later we upgraded our “washing machine” to one that had an agitator that was driven by hand. It also had a ringer attached that we could put the clothes through and get rid of the excess water, which made the item dry more quickly.

I was the power behind the handle that turned the paddles. Now we have washers and dryers with the latest in technology. We also have laundromats to handle our washing needs if our systems are shut down.

Inside plumbing was not available for my family and our neighbors, but we did have the “outhouse” with the ever-present and familiar Sears Roebuck catalog.

Normally the outhouses were made of wood, but there were some that were made out of brick. There were many fears that came with the usage of this facility, which I will not write about. You can rely on your own memories or imaginations.

Eventually, we did have a hand pump in the kitchen in order to pump water. The water was heated by setting the pan or bucket on the all-purpose wood burning stove. We used a washtub that was placed in the kitchen, and the water was heated on the stove and poured into the tub. We washed using that homemade lye soap.

Coal oil lamps were the main source of light. We had no electricity. A lamp was used to guide the way to our rooms at night. The lamp was used to read by, and the main reading was from the Bible. We did not stay up late because we got up before dawn. Eventually electricity became available, which was revolutionary.

We did not have refrigerators and would put the dairy products in a bucket and lower them into the cistern to keep cool. During the winter we had a wooden box that was kept on the porch, which would keep things cold but would not freeze.

People in the city had wooden iceboxes that would hold the food and keep it cold by use of blocks of ice. The ice was put into a compartment at the top of the box and created the cold for the food. People would put a sign in the window for the amount of ice they wanted: 25, 50, 75 or 100 lb. Today we have refrigerators large and small, not only in our homes, but also on boats, airplanes and vans.

When I was growing up, we had allowances. The first allowance I remember came from my uncle. He had a large farm and would give to each of the children a farm animal to raise and, at the appropriate time, the child would sell it and keep the money.

This was a great lesson in money management, for we learned what it takes to make a nickel. There was no need for a seminar on money management, because we all understood the work it took to make a dollar.

I remember playing baseball without adult supervision. We set the rules and time limits, chose sides and played the game without any interference from an adult. If we were not chosen as team members, we knew how to accept disappointment and we hung around anyway, watching the game, hoping that next time somebody would not show up and we would be picked to play on a team. It taught us to develop character and to handle disappointment.

We had filling stations that actually provided service. You got your windshield cleaned, oil checked and gas pumped without asking, every time.  And, you got trading stamps to boot. Today when I go to a full-service station, I have to ask them to do this and I feel guilty as I may be imposing on them. But I do it anyway. You know us seniors.

When I grew up it was a safer time. We didn’t lose our keys because we kept them in the ignition of the car, and the doors were never locked. And you got in big trouble if you accidentally locked the doors at home, since no one ever had a key.

There was safety on the streets too. You could send a child to the store to buy a loaf of bread for 15 cents and he would run home safely. I’m not even sure that kids today know how to go to the grocery store.

Even with all our progress in technology, medicine and science, don’t you just wish, for once, you could slip back in time and savor the slower pace and share it with the children of today?

Remember the telephone on the wall with each resident having a certain number of rings? To call out, one would turn a crank by hand. I remember that families could have a community call and we didn’t even know then about teleconferencing.

We made coffee by putting coffee in a small sack and placing it in the big pot to let it boil or putting the coffee into the boiling water and then pouring it through a strainer for a good hot and strong cup of coffee.

There were no electric toasters, no electric coffee pots, no waffle makers, no mixers, no George Foreman grills, no blenders, no electric breadmakers, no orange juice squeezers, no electric knives, no electric can openers, no electric or gas stoves or any of the other amazing electrical appliances.

We had a big black frying pan, big bowls for making bread and salads, wood burning stove, big heavy coffee pot, bread rollers and many more hand-held devices that were powered by a human being.

These were the simple times as I was growing up, and to this day I still have fond memories that I share with my grandchildren, and I hope they will share them with their children, now numbering 13 beautiful little ones. We must always look back to where we came from because without history there is no real future.

However, that’s from a time and place I am from.

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