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School Days in the 1930’s Part Two
By Catherine C. Brooks

     Momma called me when the sun had just begun to rise on my first day of school. My first task, before going downstairs, began with donning the clothes that she had laid out the night before. The homemade underwear resembled a woman’s chemise, cut with wide shoulder straps. The seat buttoned just above my buttocks, making trips to the outdoor toilet a chore. They were made of a white cotton fabric, heavier weight than batiste but lighter weight than today’s broadcloth. Then a slip made of white percale, or a bleached flour sack if there wasn’t enough money to purchase fabric. My cotton print dresses were simple pull over the head designs with a few buttons to fasten the front, and often a sash sewed into the side seams at the waistline and tied in the back. Last I pulled on my socks, with cuffs turned down just at the right spot where the ribbing changed to a plain weave, and my tie shoes.

     Momma always tied my sash when I went downstairs to the kitchen, but some of the boys delighted in untying the girl’s sashes. I’d do my best until Miss Mae, our teacher, could retie the bow.

     In winter I wore, long-knit-one-piece underwear with the buttoned flap in the seat like my shorter homemade version. They came down to my ankles and cotton stockings, with garters to hold them in place, pulled up over my legs. Some days the garters worked down and those ugly hose bagged until I could find a private place to pull them up. There was little privacy in the classroom with approximately six desks in each of the two rows, one row for each class, with two children in each seat. The desks had a shelf built under the top where we kept our books and lunches. The wall that made the partition between the rooms held pegs for our coats. If we wore boots in bad weather, they sat below the wraps. Before we went out for recess or went home during the cold months, we had to stand in lines to gather our outer clothing and return to our seats to put on our wraps and pull on galoshes or boots. Some of the boys kept knee-high boots on all day since they were worn without shoes.

     My long-sleeved dresses usually hung straight without sashes. When I grew a little older, they had waistlines with a belt of the same fabric. My first school coats were made from the better parts of Daddy’s worn overcoat or Momma’s older church coat. For Christmas of 1934, I received what was known as a “camel’s hair” coat and a brown hat to wear for church. Being large enough to allow for growth, I later wore the warm heavy woolen coat, the color of a camel, to school with pride. 

     We girls all had short hair parted on one side or with bangs. Either Momma or the barber cut my hair when I began going to school because beauty parlors didn’t exist. They both explained that I couldn’t wear bangs because my hair had a definite part of its own on one side. Therefore I wore a bow in my hair. Momma purchased a wide strip of ribbon, caught up a section of hair, tying a knot with the ribbon, and then tied the remaining streamers into a bow over it. The bow looked crisp and fresh when I left home; but when I returned, it had become droopy.

     When school first opened, boys looked little different than today’s six-year-old lads. They wore short pants, woven shirts tucked in at the waistline with socks and shoes. However on the first cool day, boys donned knickers with longer socks, covering the lower part of their legs and coming to their knees under the cuffs of the knickers. Long-sleeved-woven shirts replaced the former short sleeves. And by the time weather grew cold, though we only saw a bit hanging below a cuff on some, they wore long-one-piece-knit underwear. 

     Unless we lived near our school, as few did, we walked long distances in freezing cold weather, and the pot-belly-wood stove in the center of the room never kept an even temperature. When the wood burnt down, it would cool off until the new logs began to burn. Beaded wooden walls without insulation and only weather boarding on the outside failed to keep all the wind out on stormy days. Conditions demanded warm clothing.

     In mid-winter I left home with the first daylight and didn’t arrive back home until after four in the afternoon. After I changed to older clothes, I carried kindling wood from the woodpile to the house the first few years that I went to school. Then I graduated to wood that fit the cook stove, split pine logs cut into about 12 inch lengths, and my sister carried in the smaller pieces cut for kindling. When in high school, I carried heavy hardwood spilt logs to the side porch for the wood heater until about my junior year of high school when my parents had purchased an oil burner for the sitting room.

     Through my first seven years of school, we had no electricity so I did all my homework by lamplight at the dining room table and on the side next to the wood heater. When I undressed and went to bed, the sheets would be ice cold until my body warmed them so I wanted to be toasty while I could. In severe weather, Momma heated an iron, which she used for ironing clothes, and wrapped it in a towel to put at my feet when I climbed into bed. What a treat until it cooled off. Then I dared not move because the sheets would be cold away from where I laid. 

     My sister and I undressed and dressed by the heater those early years of my schooling. We bathed a little each night from the basin in the kitchen, but Saturday evening we had full baths. The term “Saturday night bath” was popular in those days so my lifestyle must have been the norm.

     I remember the early 1930’s as happy days even though I realize today they weren’t always easy for my parents. 

© 2002 Catherine C. Brooks All Rights Reserved


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