Cleaning House in the 1950s…
Although I grew up in Mill Valley during the 1950s, the Myers household at 10 Seymour Avenue was far from a paragon of post war modernity. The advertising art of that era depicts a world populated by happy mothers with beautiful dresses and aprons as well as friendly, casually dressed dads, polishing their newest Ford, Chevy or Buick.
America at this time was experiencing an explosion of conspicuous consumption: brand new cars, refrigerators, toasters and TV sets were flying off shelves and out of showrooms in record numbers all over the country. But while this bonanza was happening, the Myers family was trotting along at a different pace altogether.
Practically everything we owned was either old or second hand. Neither of my parents had any personal interest in consumerism except as the political phenomenon that it was. The teddy bears my brother Jim and I played with were mostly hand-me-downs and my father Blackie drove the same old Plymouth station wagon forever.
The weekly shop at the Mill Valley Safeway was a strictly practical exercise. Thrift was the guiding principle and nothing extravagant or expensive was ever purchased. Though the grim reality of poverty never traversed our threshold, we lived like we had no money.
My family had come west from New York and Connecticut because my father’s political blacklisting had made it impossible for him to keep a job on the east coast. Every bit of employment lasted about two months and then the FBI would turn up to inform his boss of what a dangerous radical he was.
But in the bay area, Blackie was never out of work for long and did a variety of jobs which always put food on our table. The food however was very basic and not as stylish as what I’d eat at friends’ houses. Instead of steak or lamb chops we’d have hamburgers. Not in a bun like at C’s drive-in but served on a plate along with rice or potatoes with vegetables. Butter was another luxury we never had so it was margarine which, in the 1950s was far from delicious. Another favourite meal was Beth’s spaghetti and meatballs.
My mother always insisted we drink milk with our dinner and the glasses we kids drank from were those that had contained Welch’s Grape Jelly and they were decorated with silk screened images of cartoon characters like Archie, Veronica or Donald Duck.
Ironically some of my parents’ left wing friends were very wealthy indeed, like the Hallinans who lived in Ross. Vin Hallinan was a famous San Francisco lawyer who became politically notorious by defending labour leader Harry Bridges. As a result, their snooty neighbours wouldn’t allow their children to play with Danny, their youngest. Danny was the same age as my brother Jim, so he and I would regularly spend the weekend up at their mansion.
Their house was palatial with pillars on the porch overlooking a massive lawn that stretched to a swimming pool and gymnasium at the other end. Eating meals at the Hallinans’ was like dining in an expensive restaurant. So we did have exposure to how the other half lived.
But how the Hallinans lived was nothing like life in the Myers family. Our record player was new and occasional LPs like the soundtrack of High Society or Ella Fitzgerald Sings Cole Porter would have been bought at Village Music but these represented the limits of any extravagance that my parents might indulge in. They did buy a Motorola radio which sat down in the living room and looked bright and shiny but everything else was a little bit worn.
And of course Blackie would not allow us to have a television set. His nickname for a TV was an ‘Agony Wagon’ and with the exception of a short time when a cousin came to stay and brought one with him, we had to go to friends’ houses to watch shows like Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club.
But we did go regularly to the movies which always excited me. We went to the Lark, Marin and Sequoia Theatres. Whenever Alfred Hitchcock had a new movie out like Rear Window, we’d be there to see it.
And as for home appliances, well, everything was basic. Just off our kitchen was a slightly murky, dark area where the washing machine stood. I guess you’d call it a utility room except it wasn’t really a room. More like an unlit corridor with a cement floor that tapered off to nothing. It was kind of a dumping ground. Stacks of old Chronicles were surrounded by mops, brooms and, of course, the washing machine.
The washing machine was a big white barrel, supported by four legs in which the clothes would be sloshed backwards and forwards by a huge ruddered spindle. It was very noisy and it shook. There was no door on the top so it was a miracle of design that water didn’t splash out of the thing while it was going.
Once the washing was complete, my mother would turn it off and drain the water out of the tub. She would then extract the items, soaking wet, and feed them, one by one, into this device at the top of the machine which squeezed the liquid out. It was two cylinders encased in a metal frame with an electric switch which started them rolling. Once she flicked the switch a new and different noise came into our world. It was kind of a drone which was constant until the wet clothes or sheets became gripped between the cylinders and then it got louder and more grating as they moved steadily through. The excess water was squished out into the now empty tub below and the flattened material would emerge on the other side.
The squeezing process made the item of clothing so flat that it acquired several creases which would have to be ironed out once it had dried. The drying was achieved on a rotating metallic clothesline which stood in the middle of the lawn below our living room window.
The washing machine was old, almost certainly from the 1940s, and nothing like the flashy new models we’d see advertised in the paper or on television at our friends’ houses. The mothers in these ads were a picture of pure happiness. They wore attractive dresses, aprons, high heels and had overstated smiles on their faces as they went about their work. These women looked nothing like our mother Beth. When she was cleaning, she resembled a female factory worker from the Second World War.
We did not have a vacuum cleaner. Beth used a broom and dust pan to clean the house. She was a formidable cleaner. When she went to work with sleeves rolled up she was like a machine.
She would always put her music on the record player while she worked. Her favourites were The Trout by Schubert, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Scheherezade by Rimsky Korsakov.
Perhaps it was her training as a nurse which informed the way she set about cleaning the house. She’d tie her hair up and, with the music going, tackle each task vigorously.
When we’d return from school in the afternoon and find our beds neatly made it was like entering a different world to the one we’d left behind that morning.
Often when we’d come home from a day at Homestead School she’d be washing the dishes and was visible through the porch window. Dirty dishes would be washed by hand in two washing up bowls. The first was the one with the detergent in and the second would have clear water for rinsing.
Our father Blackie devised a system for washing the dishes after dinner, a chore, he felt, which should be shared out between the four of us children. Basically we each had a night when it was our turn to do the dishes.
This was never a job I wanted to do and would put it off in the hope that one of the others would step forward to take over. I’m sure that Nell, Kate or Jim would occasionally do just that but their resentment of me for shirking my duty was intense.
On one occasion I claimed, as justification for my idleness, that washing dishes was “woman’s work.” Having uttered these words within Blackie’s hearing range his retort was immediate, loud and clear: “There is no such thing as woman’s work. There is only work.”
So the strategy I would employ would be to leave the dishes as late or as long as possible in the hope that someone would rescue me from this commitment.
My siblings seemed to have no problem about tackling this chore and, to be honest, once I got tucked into actually doing the dishes I didn’t mind it either. But something about the enormity of the undone task made it seem much worse than it was and I would be seized by a kind of paralysis.
On occasions we would share the jobs. One would wash while the other would dry. I remember the expression: ‘drying the silver’ which was a bit inaccurate as none of our cheap cutlery was anything like silver.
So life in the Myers house had very little to do with the American Dream. I don’t ever recall a conversation at dinner about products on offer at Sears and Roebuck or anywhere else. Such things were considered trivial by my parents. Politics was a constant topic to be discussed and though I didn’t always understand what they were talking about, I enjoyed listening.
Both my parents were like refugees from a different time to the 1950s that we were growing up in. The world they’d come from in Manhattan had been turned upside down by the anti-Communist witch hunts. Even being a liberal was considered suspicious in this rabidly right wing era and Blackie, Beth and all their close friends were far left of liberal. This was when ‘Socialist’ became a dirty word for most Americans.
Though much of the American political landscape in the early 1950s scared the hell out of me, I can remember clearly thinking that I would never want to change families. As Judy Garland’s Dorothy said after she woke up back in Kansas, there’s no place like home.