Standing in line in Safeway the other day I couldn’t help overhearing what the woman behind me said to a friend.
“I’m telling you, [name withheld], I am so fed up with the extra work I have to do because of all the [missed a word here] ... I wish I could go back to the prewar years. I’d have so much time on my hands I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
I sneaked a look. The woman was well over 70. That meant by “prewar,” she meant before World War II.
I swear, it was an effort to turn back around without saying anything.
A big effort!
Pardon me, ma’am, but if you are reading this and recognize yourself, may I respectfully, and as politely as I can, point out that you are stuffed clean full of blueberry cupcakes?
I was still thinking of that comment when I got back home and began carrying groceries inside and stacking them on the kitchen counter. Everywhere I looked in the kitchen I saw something my sainted mother would have given an arm to own.
Let’s compare Mom’s kitchen with mine, which, by the way, is nothing extravagant.
To begin with, “prewar” is pre-washer and pre-dryer.
On one side of Mom’s kitchen stood a pair of deep sinks, each a bit larger than a laundry basket, and each covered by a white enameled top, normally closed, but hinged open on Monday mornings.
Each Monday, Mom spent most of the day bent over one of those two tubs, tediously rubbing dirty clothing on a metal washboard, one piece at a time. After which, each piece went into the other tub to be rinsed and wrung out out by hand.
She did that hour after hour, taking a break once in a while to rest. “Rest” as often as not being doing something for me. I was the youngest, and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, which was often the only heated room in the house. I played on the floor or under the table, where I was out of the way. And I watched Mom work as I played. It was grueling, back-breaking work, and it must have seemed endless to her. And probably thankless too.
When Mom finished washing the clothes and wringing them dry, she set some things aside, soaked them in a basin filled with starch dissolved in boiling water, and then wrung them dry again.
Then, one basketful at a time, she took the hand-wrung wash, hauled it up two flights of wooden steps to the upper level of our yard, and hung it on the clotheslines.
She did all that every week, summer or winter. In winter, when she took the clothes down off the line, usually the next day, they were frozen stiff. So were her hands when she came in.
She then took the clothes and sorted them, some to be folded and put away, and some to be ironed. Ironing was done with an electric iron with no thermostatic control. It had a nasty habit of sticking and scorching things. To prevent sticking, she ran the hot iron over a wax plate once in a while, doing it very fast so that it picked up just the right amount of wax.
Ironing usually took all of Tuesday morning, and part of Tuesday afternoon.
Then it was time to hang the clothes or stow them away in bureau drawers. Done!
The week’s ironing finished in no more than four or five hours. Hurray!
I can do the same amount of laundry, with no physical labor involved other than tossing the clothes into the washer and dryer, in roughly two hours, during all of which, except for 10 minutes or so spent folding clothes or putting them on hangers, I can get on with my other routine household chores — I being the chief cook and bottle washer around here now that Lolly isn’t well.
I won’t go into more details of how different my house is from a prewar house. Instead I’ll list a few things that “prewar” includes, or perhaps I should say things it excludes.
For the majority of Americans, to be prewar was to be pre: washer, dryer, refrigerator, microwave, gas range, electric range, dishwasher, electric mixer, *automatic hot water heater, vented hood, coffee maker, garbage disposal, pop-up toaster, toaster oven, rice pot and pressure cooker.
Which leaves out several dozen smaller items.
(*Regarding the hot water heater, before 1950 or so, you lit the gas in a little 2-foot-tall, 8-inch diameter, cast iron cylindrical device through which ran a coil of water pipes. The burning gas heated the water in the pipes, which ran by natural convection into a hot water tank. By running your hand down the tank and feeling how much of it was hot you decided when you had enough hot water. If you forgot to turn off the gas the tank blew up. People forgot it once in a while. They rarely did it twice.)
Still looking around around the house, we see that prewar also meant being pre: vacuum, central heat, air conditioning, wrinkle-free drapes and curtains, washable throw rugs, television set, touch tone phone, cell phone, electric heating pads, baby monitor, automatic oven, easy care vinyl or laminate flooring, bug sprays ...
And a whole lot more.
Dad wasn’t left out though. He had no electric drill or screwdriver, no electric skill saw, no pneumatic nail, brad or staple driver — and no car either.
There were no vaccines for influenza, pneumonia, cholera, typhoid fever, typhus, tetanus, plague, measles, and you name it.
There were no frozen foods; in winter, vegetables were canned.
Cars didn’t run for 200,000 miles. At 30,000 miles they were old and worn out. At 50,000 miles you burned more oil than gas.
There were no transistors, lasers, tape recorders, CDs, DVDs, or even long-playing records — just scratchy shellac things.
There were no MRIs or CAT scans, and no heart, liver, kidney or other transplants. Most common medicines available today did not exist. Getting pneumonia meant having a 50-50 chance of dying.
And no there were no computers or Internet, which meant ...
Well, there had to be something good about the 1930s, right?