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TideWriters Tales
Didn’t Know We Were Poor
By Catherine C. Brooks 

     I’m sharing the Prologue to my next book with my Chesapeake Style readers, asking for your help after you read it.

     When New Years 1920 ushered in, young men in the United States were ready to push memories of World War I to the back of their minds. They plunged ahead into new ventures. Before the end of the year, voters elected Warren G. Harding to the White House with Calvin Coolidge as Vice President. Optimism prevailed. Many families left rural homes, and settled in urban apartments and communities. Even though the cities boasted a greater population than rural areas for the first time in United States’ history, yet one third of the population still farmed.

     Many of the men in rural coastal areas on the Chesapeake Bay had learned that sailing the seas on freighters or passenger ships brought financial freedom more quickly than working locally. They brought home cash and needed to barter less than their parents had. Depending on the shipping line for which one worked, he had time at home for various intervals between trips. Seagoing men from Mathews County told that officials at every port of call knew other ship captains and crew from Mathews. Though second to the smallest county in the state of Virginia, it boasted more sea captains than most. 

     Children learned to work, doing household chores, tending the fowl and gardening as soon as they became old enough. Older boys chopped wood for kitchen ranges while their brothers and sisters hauled it to the house. The man of the house or older boys handled wood for fireplaces and wood heaters.

     There were men, who stayed home to fish pound nets and drudge oysters while small farms still supported the individual family’s everyday needs. The few larger farms required the owner’s full attention with extra hired help, and perhaps extra help was needed during planting and harvesting seasons. Boat building continued, but bigger urban shipyards had acquired the larger contracts. Rural areas just didn’t have the equipment to construct the more modern sea-going vessels. Doctors, lawyers, merchants and other professional men prospered according to the money coming into the counties. Housewives continued to barter eggs, butter and fowl for household needs that they could not grow on the farm. On occasions, the doctor took a part of his pay for a house call in jellies, jams, eggs or even a rooster to butcher the next morning to be prepared for dinner.

     Citizens took their corn to the local tide mill or gristmill to have it ground for meal, chicken feed and feed for the hogs and piglets. In earlier years, windmills had furnished power for the gristmill, but later owners used noisy gasoline engines. Few mills ground wheat. However, Cow Creek Mill in Gloucester, Virginia, was still prominent in eastern Gloucester and Mathews areas for the latter service as late as the 1940s.

     Automobiles stood in many yards or garages, but others still rode out in the horse-drawn carriages that had been popular since the Civil War ended. Buggies and soirees were in great demand. While many small farmers and local watermen just piled into the wagon or cart to go wherever needed. Steamboats remained the source of travel to and from the county for folks without automobiles.

     Women’s’ fashions displayed lower necklines and shorter skirts with bobbed haircuts. The “Charleston” and “shimmy” replaced graceful and modest dances of former years. Churches were not the only ones to oppose the dances of the 1920s because many college newsletters condemned the practice in their publications.  They told of their young men and women jigging and hopping while shaking their bodies, calling their actions immodest. 

     The few people, who had radios in their homes or offices, tuned to KDKA, the first commercial radio station, broadcasting from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1920. Before the end of that decade, console cabinets with radio knobs on the front adorned homes of those who could afford them. Portable units were more popular and affordable. The smaller boxes sat on most any piece of furniture and could be moved from room to room. That doesn’t mean that every rural home had such a unit. When a special program aired, one reads of people congregating with the family who had the “talking box”. If anyone in Mathews County owned a radio, it was battery operated since electricity hadn’t reached even rural business district until late in the 1920s.

     Kerosene lamps and lanterns provided what light rural citizens had after sunset. They came in all shapes and sizes. Plain and unadorned lamp bases were the usual while the parlor and banquet lamps came with hand painted bowls with matching shades. Even more elegant hanging lamps of pressed glass could be purchased from Sears Roebuck and Co. Inc. catalog for the same price as an entire three-piece bedroom suite.

     Unless the family owned a windmill, running water didn’t exist. While outer houses occupied back yards, in the bedrooms, bowls and pitchers rested on washstands with chamber pots sitting on the side or under the bed. Some had larger china slop jars, but the agate slop bucket sufficed for most homes by 1920. Decorated china pieces became collector items. A washtub in the kitchen served as bathtubs if anyone took a tub bath. Kitchens had a water bucket with dipper and basin nearby until they installed a sink and pitcher pump.

     Firewood, being plentiful in the area, became the common fuel for wood-burning-kitchen ranges and heaters in other rooms. Some of the larger houses burnt coal in stoves. However, most homes had unheated bedrooms, making feather beds welcome over a felt mattress or serving as the mattress. Wool blankets plus one or more quilts made welcome covering. Straw ticks topped boards, sitting on a crude wooden frame, in few homes.

     Most country doctors traveled in automobiles, but when they delivered babies, it took time away from their office and waiting house calls. Therefore, every housewife and mother knew home remedies for injuries and mild illness as well as she knew how to make corn bread or biscuits. They will be entwined in the coming stories.

     In this book, I want to reveal what life was like in the early days of the twentieth century, looking at much of it from my eyes as a child.  However, first I must tell how I came into being as revealed to me by my parents and grandparents. My younger sister and cousins, as well as, others who are older than me, have helped with many of the facts. Unless a contributor requested I use their name, I just intertwine their stories of conditions into my story. To folk, who grew up as far back as the 1920s and 30s, the book will bring back memories, but the younger generations will learn the ways it used to be when things that seem like trash today were treasured.

     I need experiences about the depression years from all 48 states in the continental United States to intertwine in my story. The book’s intent is to interest more than Mathews County folk though the story takes place in the county I know. Others stories from coast to coast need to be told. You may be too young to remember the experiences. What did Daddy or Grandpa tell you? I will include no names unless one requests I do so. Write me at P.O. Box 898, Mathews, VA 23109 or email Janet A. Fast at jfast@chesapeakestyle.com that you have information for me. She’ll forward the information to me, and I’ll get back to you. 

Catherine C. Brooks © 2006 All Rights Reserved.

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