Mothers got up extra early on Monday to do their washing and get it hung on the clothesline by seven, do their ironing very early on Tuesday morning, and get their baking done early on Saturday morning so that the hot kitchen might lose its extra oven heat by evening. Then, in the hottest time of the day, mothers would slow down to do quieter housework, like darning socks or shelling peas for supper, while sitting in a chair on a shady porch, where they might catch a breeze. In fact, we did a lot of our chores outside in the shade.
Fathers could not adjust their working hours very much, but they might have the advantage of ceiling fans in their shops. In my Dad’s barbershop the ceiling fan blew the talcum powder and cut hair all over the room but kept it from clinging onto sweaty skin. Those who worked outside, like farmers, started as early as they could, then took an extra long rest—maybe a nap—in the middle of the day in the dense shade of a maple, drinking plenty of water or tea with their dog lying quietly next to them. Both farmers and city men wore hats all the time, which was using common sense, except when inside buildings where it was impolite to keep your hat on.
In the evenings, after supper was over and the dishes taken care of, folks escaped from their hot houses and sat in their yards or on their porches, rocking or swinging gently and fanning themselves to cool off. It was a good time for a mother and father to talk with each other and catch up on things, and the talk got their minds off the heat. There were no night Cardinal ball games to listen to, and of course no TV. Parents could watch their kids play ball in the street. No one told us kids we were hot, so we weren’t.
Some nights were just too hot for sleeping. On those nights my father carried my brother’s and my twin mattresses from our third-floor uninsulated, renovated attic, down two flights of stairs, and into the back yard, where it was supposed to be cooler. Naturally we talked and read comic books with flashlights long into the night. Just when it finally got cool enough to sleep and the dew began to make us wet, Dad woke us up in order to carry the mattresses back up to the third floor. It was 6 o’clock, and he had to leave for work. Good thing there was no school and we were able to sleep back in our own room, by then somewhat cooler.
Mom and Dad slept on daybeds on the sunporch, sometimes on the floor itself, hoping for a breeze through the windows. Our two electric floor fans were reserved for Grandma and Grandpa in their bedroom so that they would be comfortable.
We kept a glass pitcher of chilled water (no plastic or aluminum in those days) in the Frigidaire. We didn’t use ice cubes in our water, because we had to keep them frozen for supper. Whenever Mom heard us getting a drink, she yelled, “Be sure to fill the pitcher back up for the next person!” We also drank pitchers of Kool-Aid. We had to mix up the unsweetened powder with sugar, and again Mom, who had eyes in the back of her head and knew everything we did, would yell from another room, “Only one cup of sugar in the pitcher, boys!” We left it to her to squeeze the lemons for lemonade or brew tea for iced tea at supper.
Special treats were Popsicles (one Popsicle had two sticks for five cents), Fudgsicles (chocolate ice on a stick for five cents), and smoothies (ice cream coated with chocolate on a stick). We could get these at any corner Mom and Pop grocery, but had no way to keep them frozen at home. Central Dairy made Dixie cups with wooden spoons, just as they do today, but then you got a movie star’s picture on the inside of the lid.
The best treat came when the ice truck came up Elm Street to deliver blocks of ice to families that still had ice boxes. Every kid on the street rushed to pick up shards of ice from the truck bed, and if there weren’t enough, the good-natured deliverer, always a young guy, would chip off some pieces for us with his ice pick. We used common sense not to crush the ice with our teeth, because we wanted to suck on it to make it last as long as possible.
There was plenty for us boys to do during the day to keep cool. We could go to shady Wears Creek and look for polliwogs, frogs, and crawdads, or we could go into the dark Miller Street tunnel. Both were just a block from our house. By the way, boys wore long pants or overalls. We gave up shorts when we started the first grade. “Babies” wore short pants. And most boys wore caps, too, which kept their heads cooler than going bareheaded.
A favorite cool place was the Capitol, only four blocks away. The walls of the Capitol are made of massive limestone blocks, which served as thick, natural insulation against the summer sun. Inside, temperatures remained cavelike, up to twenty degrees cooler than outside.
We spent hours comfortably in the Capitol museum inspecting exhibits, like the huge Boonslick salt-making kettle and the Indian burial display. Because the legislature was not in session during the summer and the upstairs halls were empty, we could roll marbles or golf balls the length of the halls, ricocheting off the walls for a hundred feet. We lost a few, probably by bouncing into an open office door and startling a secretary. However, by summer’s end in late August, those massive limestone walls of the Capitol had absorbed the summer heat and now radiated it inside, which converted it from a cave into an oven. Oh well, it was time for school to start anyway.
Sunday mornings presented a different challenge to keeping cool. It was only three blocks to Central Evangelical Church, but our walk took us past an open, unshaded lot at the brewery. This was a tarred surface, and even at nine in the morning, heat reflected off it so much that we boys called it the “desert” and pretended we were being made to cross it on a forced march. We unbuttoned our starched, white Sunday shirts and called out for “Water! Water! I’m dying of thirst!” Mom and Dad ignored our pleas, and as soon as we crossed Dunklin Street Dad ordered us to button back up our shirts, tuck them in, wipe the sweat off our faces, put a smile on our faces, and walk properly up the hill and into the church in single file.
Sweaty worshipers crowded the church pews, which made it unpleasant in those days before deodorant. Women dusted themselves with powders and used perfumes, but still . . . Then, after the ushers had finished collecting the offering and just before the sermon began, the ushers went to the tall, stained-glass windows, and, using a very long pole with a metal hook on its end, lowered the upper pane to let in some air.
Just outside the top of those opened windows, wasps had their nests under the eaves of the church—and you know what happened. Wasps swooped into the sanctuary, hovered for a while up around the high ceiling, but soon made their way down among the crowded worshipers. For whatever reason (I suspect it was the perfume), the wasps favored the women and buzzed around them. The women batted at them nervously with their Tanner Funeral Home fans, which only made the wasps go to another woman’s hat, hair, and head.
Well, all this action certainly aroused all the kids from boredom. We had great fun, turning around and around watching the wasps dive-bomb and torment the anxious women. Reverend Damm could have been telling us the world was coming to an end, but his pastoral words fell on deaf ears, at least the kids’ ears.
. . . See what we’re missing with air-conditioning today?
Copyright 2011 by Walter A. Schroeder.
Are you interested in Jefferson City’s historic German south side? Why not join the Old Munichburg Association! We work to promote, preserve, and protect this unique historic neighborhood, originally settled as a separate small town just south of the capital city.