This photo is worth more than 1,000 words for me

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks
Week Eight: What is a family photo that has special meaning to you? Tell about the people in the photo, when and where it was taken, and why it was taken?

Front (l to r) Patrick, Barb, Nancy Middle (l to r) Joan, Rita, John, Mary (me)—all Baby Boomers with parents, Bill and Rite Donahue Maloney

This photo takes me back to the 1960s. It was taken mid-decade in the backyard of our family home located in North St. Paul, an outer-ring suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. The family was not yet complete. Three more siblings would arrive—a sister in 1966, and two more brothers, one in 1967 and the other in 1969.

Although this was the obligatory Easter family photo, it’s more than that. It’s an iconic peek into the mid-20th century’s middle-class, white culture. During that era men smoked pipes and wore suits with white shirts and ties. Women wore sophisticated clothing made with all-natural fabric—wool, cotton, animal fur and leather—with well-tailored lines. Children’s clothing mirrored their parents’.

Dress codes were invoked and enforced in the schools, from kindergarten through high school, requiring girls to wear dresses year-round. During cold Minnesota winter days, we tucked our dresses into our snow pants to stay warm, while we waited for the bus or walked to school. Mandated dress for boys included non-denim pants, tucked-in, buttoned-up shirts, and belted pant loops. Tennis shoes and sandals were banned footwear for all.

Dads went to work in those days and moms, for the most part, stayed home where they were tethered to kid care, cooking and clothing. That’s right. The classic clothing made with all-natural fibers was a lot of work. Those white shirts the men and boys wore were one-hundred percent cotton. After being washed and dried, they were a wrinkled mess.

Laundry sprinkler like Mom's
Post-dryer, Mom would sprinkle the shirts using an aluminum-topped laundry sprinkler with a corked end, which fit into a water-filled pop (aka soda) bottle. Then she would roll them up and put them in the freezer overnight. For ironing, the shirts could only be moderately dampened to prevent scorching, and this method seemed to do the trick.  However, when the occasional scorch occurred, it had to be removed with hydrogen peroxide, which was also handy to clean wax out of our ears. Scorching required re-washing, re-sprinkling and re-ironing the shirt.

That wasn’t the only thing that needed ironing. Many women
This mangle was a Kenmore product
ironed larger items, like bedsheets and tablecloths, using a mangle. Mom never went that far. That was a prudent decision. It prevented a child from being mangled in that monster appliance.

However, Mom took the opportunity to teach my sisters and me to iron when we were about eight, by letting us iron handkerchiefs. Both men and women used cloth “hankies” rather than paper tissues to blow their own noses and, sometimes, their children’s.

Intermittent dry cleaning was used for non-washable clothing items. Pressing those clothes was also required between trips to Gold Eagle, our local dry cleaner, as well as after pickup of a dry cleaning order. Mom never paid extra for pressing.

A single-car garage was standard in those days. Like most families in that era, ours owned only one car. Dad parked in the driveway from late summer to early autumn, when he turned the garage into a TV- play-family room. He mounted large screens on the garage entrance to let the air in and keep the bugs out.

This is similar to our vending machine
In the early ‘60s, our neighbor, Delmar, who worked for Coca Cola, sold my dad an out-of-service vending machine with its dispensing mechanism gutted. Friends visiting for the first time after we got it were extremely impressed, until they found out what was in it. Dad had placed a free-standing, multi-shelf unit, in what was now basically an over-sized refrigerator, to hold the gallons of milk our family drank each week.

Other families in the neighborhood were also heavy milk consumers. So, five or six families put together a sort of milk co-op. Each week, an order for all families in this group was called into nearby Sanitary Farm Dairy. The entire order was dropped off at the end of a different family’s driveway every Saturday. The order’s distribution was kid-powered. That crew of kids from the member families, and perhaps an errant outsider or two, took their job seriously. They were always great a meeting the need for speed during the warmer seasons.

During the week, Dad had the car at work all day. Mom would use it during off-work hours for any grocery shopping or other errands. That was true for most of the households in our neighborhood. If we needed to get somewhere as kids, our choices were to walk, ride our bikes or take the bus. There were also restrictions that came with those transportation choices.

Our small town’s main street where the roller rink, soda fountain, library, and bowling alley, along with the Ben Franklin Store, pharmacy and grocery store, were on the south side of the four-lane State Highway 36, which I wasn’t allowed to cross until sixth grade. Living on the north side kept me limited to school, church and a convenient store.

A child-thrilling slide from 1955-2012
However, we northsiders had one bonus—Silver Lake. Its southern edge had a sandy beach and a park that featured a spiral chute slide attached to a tree. Before being used as a slide, the chute built by Standard Conveyor, had been a fire escape on one of that company’s three-story buildings. We added our own thrill to that slide when we brought wax paper. It sent us flying off the end of the slide and rivaled any county fair ride I had ever taken at that point. Joy Park was on the north side of the lake and was a great fishing spot for beginners with cans full of worms, bamboo poles and red-and-white bobbers.

The same year I got to cross Highway 36, I was also allowed to ride the city bus, via Metro Transit, on my own. The draw of our town’s main street offerings paled in comparison to the looming department stores in Downtown Saint Paul. Riding that bus some distance from home was more of a rite of passage than being able to get to Ben Franklin to buy a turtle.

The nearest bus stop was a six-block walk for me. I took the 9B route into Saint Paul and returned on the 9C route—no transfers required. And that brings me back to the subject of clothing that began this piece. Going downtown—whether by bus or by car—required dressing for it, whether you were a child or an adult.

However, by the end of the decade, dress codes began changing—at least in the part of the Midwest where I lived. In 1969, it took me the entire first quarter of my freshman year in college to notice only a few girls, including me,  were wearing dresses or skirts to class. I championed the change and gladly donned denim daily. It took me another two years to figure out I didn’t have to crease them anymore.


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