Saturday, April 29, 2017


In the beginning, women just spread wet laundry over their fence rails or the shrubs in the back yard; at dinner time (noon, on a New England farm) they went outside and flipped everything over. Laundry lines appeared, tied between trees, from the sides of barns to the corner fencepost, etc.; women draped things over the lines, but had to keep a sharp eye on the wind—your laundry could be all over the dooryard in a matter of minutes.

And so there were clothespins…
The first were simply short pieces of sticks with a split in the middle. They worked fine until the stick split completely; some enterprising woman wrapped the top ends tightly in wet twine—when the twine dried, it tightened, making a solid top that split less often.
In the 1840s, there was a rush of clothespin ideas; inventors played around with length and width, choice of wood (oak, cedar, ash). There was a three-pronged design, which stuck on the line with two prongs on one side of the rope, one prong on the other—a sort of modified paper clip!
And in 1853, David M. Smith of Vermont, came up with the first two-piece, spring clamped clothes pin; it could not “be detached from the clothes by the wind as in the case with the common pin and which is a serious evil to washerwomen.”

I remember my grandmother’s laundry yard in Boston. It was a fenced-in section of the back yard (it was considered improper to have your laundry hanging in full view of the neighbors—goodness’ sake, they might see your underwear!). It had, as I remember, six laundry lines that overhung a series of boardwalks; access was from the laundry room door in the basement.

I loved the laundry room—it was warm, smelled of yellow bar soap, powdered Ivory Flakes and bleach; there was a shelf of colorful boxes and cans and a cloth bag of pins that dangled from a hook near the back door; several wicker baskets; it had a soapstone double sink big enough to get into when I was about five or six.

So, down the back stairs from the kitchen to the laundry room, out the door into the laundry yard; I remember sheets hanging nearly to my knees—bright, white-walled tunnels—and the blue sky up over my head; I remember running up and down the boardwalks, my Red Ball Jet sneakers going whop-whop-whop on the wooden slats.

Oh, the smell of those line-dried sheets!

Saturday, April 22, 2017


I have a collection of canes and umbrellas packed into a ceramic stand; it’s nestled in the corner of my living room, tucked up near the front door. There’s my father’s old cane—a rubber-tipped number he used for security as he got older; my great-aunt’s hiking cane (she scrambled all over Switzerland with it in the 1920s!); there’s even the cane I used for a month or so after my hip replacement nearly five years ago.
And there’s the two umbrellas (“umbies,” my parents called them!): my father’s somber black, and my mother’s playful light-green one—it’s covered with frogs in various shades of green, brown and rust!

Umbrella (Latin root “umbra” for “shade”).
The first recorded use of umbrellas was about 3,500 years ago in Egypt, where umbrellas were used for protection from the sun (so the name makes perfect sense here). They were nothing fancy; think palm leaves stuck to a stick and fanned out for maximum coverage!
Later on, the Chinese (who made multi-tiered paper umbrellas to help identify members of a multi-tiered society) figured out how to apply wax to the paper umbrella—and then it shed rainwater!
Early English umbrellas were made with wooden or baleen ribs, covered with canvas; steel ribs came in around 1850, and in 1880, Robert W. Patten invented an umbrella hat; in the 1920s, somebody invented a “pocket umbrella.”
For little rainstorms, I assume.

Here’s an early Montgomery Ward catalog offer:
“Fancy, all silk umbrellas; amber color straight bakelite handle and trim; or a new Punjab (light tan) with hooked handle, tips and end. Navy blue, green, red, purple, brown, black. Rich fine silk with wrist cord in matching color. Fashionable 16-rib gold color frame and wood rod.”
          And, oh! A scarf to match your umbrella (on right)…for another $2.10, please!

Not to be outdone, Sears, Roebuck & Co. came up with this:
“Genuine imported Swiss Gloria, a lustrous silk and cotton fabric (generally known as silk and linen). 16-rib style. Gold color frame, wood rod, ‘Tearose’ handle, stub end, tips to match. Two-tone colors: Brown, navy blue, purple, green, red or black with white combination and silver color frame.”
All that for $5.00.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


When I was sifting through old photographs the other day, I was struck by the fact that I’ve got a lot of photos of children: children in sets and clusters of two, three, four and more; children sitting on front steps, at picnic tables; boys in pup tents, wearing scout uniforms; girls in rowboats wearing little white blouses and camp kerchiefs; boys AND girls posed next to their bicycles.
Most of those children grew up to be my grandparents or my great aunts and uncles; two of them grew up to become my parents; seven are first cousins…one of those children grew up to be me!

I digress.

This is a photo of my mother and my aunt in the front walkway of my grandparents’ first house on Kirk Street in Boston; Martha (left) and Hope  Howell (my mother is the younger). 

On the back of the photo, in my mother’s handwriting, it says “circa 1924.”

I asked her once about the date.
           “I know it was 1924 or earlier,” she said, “because my parents bought the house on Eliot Street, right near Jamaica Pond, in 1925—this is definitely the Kirk Street house.”

She remembered clearly the trellis for the roses, the wooden steps, the big rhododendron; she remembered being told to hold Hope’s hand in a gesture of sibling companionship.

“I was mad about that,” she told me, grinning. “I wanted to be on my own.”

Saturday, April 8, 2017


I found it in a flea market, tucked away in a broken-down cardboard box that was shoved halfway beneath a display table.
What caught my eye was a corner of an old newspaper—and I’ve always been a newsprint fan—so I pulled the box out into the aisle, sat down on the floor and went through every magazine, newspaper, booklet, and folded broadside inside.
          There was a lot of it: a few editions of the Boston Transcript, some 1930s Good Housekeeping magazines; there were some old Shubert Theatre and Boston Symphony Orchestra programs. It all had that particular smell that old paper carries…

I found this on the very bottom, the last piece of ephemera in the stack.
          Miraculously, it was not distressed; there were no folds, no rips, no smears or smudges—kept flat and safe for years at the bottom of this old cardboard box. I recognized Gregorian Chant notation: four clef lines, single note (punctum), two stacked notes (podatus); although I had no idea what any of it meant (my high school Latin long gone, long gone…).
I fell in love with it…bought it on the spot.
          Five dollars.
I had it matted, framed; it now hangs in my study.

I’ve always thought that one of the most powerful moments in human history must have been when two (or more) people realized they could sing together—sing as one rather than independently; they must have found the sense of unification and community that still draws us together today.

Raise your voices high!