Saturday, September 11, 2010

11 September 1956 “What is a Vintage Life? Rosie the Riveter or June Cleaver?”

Recently, I received a comment from a follower that said:
I love your blog, but sometimes I think that what you are trying to express is a return to "civility", to the social norms of the first half of the 20th century, rather than to the specific decade of the 1950s. Your homesteading and self-sufficiency seems to be more pre-war than post. After the war we truly did want to forget our home front struggles, just as our men who served rarely spoke of their war front activities.
This got me thinking. Am I living a more pre-war life? rosierivetor Am I more Rosie the Riveter or June Cleaver? junecleaver Does my desire to want to keep chickens, grow veg as well as pretty flowers, and can my own food and sew make me more 1940’s than 1950’s? And it isn’t as if I need to really just choose a decade, I just happen to like the positive feelings of the 1950s and how much ‘hope’ there was in the world. But, I also don’t want to fall prey to the easy plastic world which really was beginning in the late 1950’s.
I met a woman who would have been close to my age in the 1950’s. She lived on the Cape and still does. I met here volunteering at our local church run antique shop in town. I talked with her about this concept, my being more 1940’s than 1950’s because I chose to make more of my own, grow my food, keep chickens. She laughed and told me that the 1950’s must have been different everywhere. She, living in my old town (1600’s is pretty old for the United States) said the 1950’s in the movies was not the 1950’s here.
First of all, as I can plainly see, there were very few ‘new’ modern 1950’s homes in my town. There are some, but they are greatly outnumbered by Capes and Colonials that have seen 1650 as well as 1950. Living here in 1950 may have been the modern world, but plastic, wonder bread and gleaming but sterile green lawns were not the norm. In East Sandwich, a town outside of my own, new developments were started and one might find a row of typical 1950’s ranch, but by and large my town is house much older than the 1950’s.
“Maybe this lady is thinking of the newer parts of the country” she told me “When a town just sprang up out of an old farmer’s field. But here, on Cape, I was keeping chickens and canning in 1950’s.”
My town is, in some respects, a garden lover’s dream. Many people care greatly for their garden and their yards are full of lush roses and hydrangeas as well as pots of annuals and an equal smattering of vegetable. This, at least according to this fine lady, was true even then.
I think what I must remember( not as if I need to validate the ‘true living’ to myself, but I do want to express a true experience) is that much like today or 100 years ago, the decade in which you live is going to be lived differently depending on your area. The middle class homemaker of my age in 1956 here on Cape Cod certainly did not live like a homemaker in Wisconsin in a new suburb of cookie cutter houses. The families living outside of NYC in the growing suburbs also most likely lived a different life. And though many regional dialects and atitudes are all but gone thanks to shared media and tv, in 1956 a Cape Cod wife would have lived a very regional existence.
“Look,” she told me, “We live and breath history here on the Cape.  In 1956 I may have bought a new sofa, but my house was also filled with colonial antiques because they were my families. They were what was available around here. My vegetable garden was as much a pride to me as was my rose garden. I didn’t pack up the chickens because the war ended. They make the best soil for roses. We still canned and even traded recipes and shared jams and pickles amongst one another.”
In trying to recreate as well as study a time period as I am doing, I must remember that there is no one way to ‘be 1950’s.’ There is no one right or wrong way to live “A Vintage Life”. I find myself naturally falling into step with what local ladies in 1950’s would have done here because I AM here. My house is not a 1950’s ranch. I do have old furniture that people have sat in long before 1956. I have a nice little yard with room for veg and chickens and flowers and I naturally fill them with that.
I think, then, if any of us want to live a Vintage Life, no matter to what extreme, getting to know the traditions of our own area will make it all the more rich and real. We might only want to simply where some vintage clothes or perhaps just learn to cook and dress better, but to learn our regions history and social history, rather or not we implement it, is worth it.
As much as I have come to see how important it is for Women’s History to really study and understand the Homemaking arts and skills, so to is it important to understand where and how your community was built. The history of it’s buildings and economy is all worth the effort.
When I asked this lady if it was true,what my commenter said, that the men rarely spoke of their war activities, she laughed and then sort of went quite, thinking. “Well, I suppose we never really heard of the bad things the men must have gone through, but to say they didn’t talk about it is not true. The men, when they got together, loved to swap war stories. And though it must have been horrible what they went through, what they talked and laughed about were the good times. Roughing it and the comradery was always discussed with these men. In fact we women would often say such things as ‘oh, here comes another war story’.”
She told me they even often sang old war songs, such as this line that makes me laugh,
The biscuits in the Army, they say are mighty fine
one rolled off the table, and killed a friend of mine
And the refrain of that song almost brought a tear to my eye
I don’t want no more of Army life,
please mum I want to go, but they won’t let me go
please mum, I want to go home.
Maybe it is the New England spirit. The old curmudgeon who can get a nickel out of a penny if he squeezes hard enough. He remembers ancestors who had to literally fell forests to eek out existence. To them, hardship is merely the very stuff they are made of. Though the war was filled with unmentionable horror, they old New Englander still enjoyed a good gossip about the ‘war’ with the comradery of men around the old wood stove at the local general store.
Much like that song, with the raucous joke combined with the said refrain, ‘I want to go home’. And they did and when they returned they did not complain and go on about the horror of it. But they also recalled the good times, imbuing our communities with the very idea that, even in deadly hardships one can laugh and smile again. That is the never give up spirit I truly love about New England.
I felt better after learning this. I began to realize life, in any form, is really how we make it, but also colored by our town, our culture. We are lucky in this country in that if we do not like or feel any affiliation with our area, we can pick up and move and soon become a part of a different town a different history a different set of local values. That freedom is one thing our country prides itself on. And though we might be thought as an ‘outsider’ if we were to move to a new community, we know we would still be accepted because what is more flattering to a town than to know an outsider would like to be let inside. Just as the ladies at the old antique store are flattered that I have taken a part of my life to re-live and rekindle a time in their life that they not only loved but of which they were proud.
The civility and comradery of the past is like that. It is willing to take you on and, though you don’t really belong there, it welcomes you. Because you have bothered to blow the dust off and care and to realize that what has gone does not have to be forgot. And even though sometimes in the modern world I might fell much like that refrain from the old Army song to return to a time I did not belong: “Please mum I want to go home” I realize, the old adage is true: Home is where your heart is. Corny but sincere. And we can make our homes and our community and our lives the way we like it. That might be different for you than for me, but we can all agree on the love of the past won’t ever steer us wrong.
juneinpants And after all, even June cleaver took off the pearls and got into the garden, didn’t she?
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