Last week I rescued this wooden box from an estate sale in Southern California. It's about 12 x 12 x 6 inches, and it intrigued me for many reasons: It was obviously handmade and hand-painted; It appears to date from the World War II era; It contains a number of handmade wooden games, markers, marbles and a spinner....
...and it must have been made after the Works Progress Administration's name was changed to Work Projects Administration in 1939, and almost certainly after December 1941 because of the "War Services Section" on the hand-painted lid.
A little history: America was reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration), basically to create jobs for the unemployed. It appears that more than 7,000 communities across the United States operated WPA-sponsored Recreation Programs in school buildings, community centers, libraries, private homes, and other locations, in partnerships with local organizations such as local government agencies, school boards, civic groups, churches and the like. Game room activities were some of the most popular; others included basketball, swimming, arts and crafts, dancing and so on. The WPA paid workers to operate the Recreation Projects. But I wasn't able to determine where this box might have been used, nor how the games were played. Perhaps someday the wooden box can become part of a collection where it will help inform our understanding of how Americans moved through the Great Depression and World War II, together.
Sometimes I buy things at estate sales because I take pity on them. I see them and know that they need to be in a place where someone can truly appreciate them and their historic context, rather than see them go to someone who will take them apart and sell the pieces individually online to collectors, hoping to make a huge profit.
I have nothing against resellers making a profit, but some things deserve and require better treatment than being flogged to the highest bidder. That's why I brought home the pages from Gladys Gale's photo album from her daughter's estate sale several months ago. I felt sorry for the crumbling black pages packed with small photos. I didn't want to see the pages cut up and misused. Gladys (later Gladys Uebele) has a story to tell, and it's interesting to look through the pictures and see Gladys and her friends having fun in Southern California, just before and after the start of the Great Depression. My favorite picture from Gladys' album shows the young adult Gladys and two of her friends, on the roof of a building in downtown Los Angeles in 1926. Written along the side of the photo, white ink on black paper, are the words:
Day at the office
On the roof Stewart Dawes Bldg. 1926
Underneath, it says:
Varus, Gladys, Harriet
They stopped dancing long enough to pose for some additional photos, some of which include a fourth young woman wearing dark stockings (on the left in the photo below). Perhaps they took turns taking the pictures? This photo, below, is labeled "Irene, Varus, Gladys / See the birdie!"
The next shot is labeled "Vanity case brigade." A vanity case was/is a portable bag or case with a mirror, used to carry makeup -- probably at least powder and a powder puff. There are five in the picture, so I wonder if there were really five young women on the roof that day? Stewart-Dawes was a shoe company, but I wonder if they also made vanity cases?
A closer look shows us the cases a little more clearly.
And the young woman with the dark stockings joined the brigade in another photo.
This photo, below, is labeled "Smiling Trio."
They look like they're enjoying their break from work.
The family had lived in their Southern California house since it was built in 1932, and the items at their estate sale showed that they saved a lot of stuff over the decades. One upstairs room was full of old books, magazines, photographs, Christmas music books -- and a sheet of instructions for a toy that had long since vanished from the family's collection. I brought it home with the other items I purchased.
This was not just an instruction sheet for any old Hula Hoop. but a Hula Hoop made before the mid-century plastic phenomenon was patented in 1963. This Hula Hoop instruction sheet was dated 1958, the year that two USC graduates, Richard Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin of Wham-O Mfg. Co. first started mass distribution of their creation. Knerr and Melin had formed Wham-O, working out of a garage in Pasadena, California back in 1948, and spent many years making slingshots and other toys. Marketing the Frisbee and the Hula Hoop from their home office in nearby San Gabriel in the late 1950s made their business not just take off, but explode and rain down dollars on the creators. They sold more than 100 million Hula Hoops within two years. Newspaper articles from back in the day show how adults tried to get their minds around the popularity of the Hula Hoop. In August 1958, a columnist for the Long Beach, California Independent Press- Telegram moaned that the "spasms of the human trunk" required to keep the Hula Hoop going would turn a generation of kids into small Elvis Presleys:
Economics aside, to really appreciate just how significant Wham-O was, you had to have been a kid between about the late 1950s through the 1970s. Wham-O created and popularized not only the Frisbee (1957) and the Hula Hoop (1958), but also the Slip N' Slide (1961), the Super Ball (1965) and many other toys. My own memories of Wham-O toys are mostly fond ones. Most kids, athletic or not, could -- with practice -- figure out how to get a hula hoop to work.
We stood around in the driveway, the yard or the sidewalk for extended periods of time, practicing. You could even play with your hula hoop in the house if your room was big enough. And your parents could even use it as an exercise device, if they were so inclined.
But Wham-O toys also had an unspoken element of danger to them, so appealing to the midcentury child who also rode a bike without a helmet and roller skated without knee and elbow pads. You could get hurt trying to dive through a hula hoop or using it like a jump rope, after all.
Cooling off in the summer was easier when you or a neighbor kid had a Slip N' Slide and a big grassy lawn, and your parents would let you hook up the garden hose to get it to work. That was also a little risky, particularly if there were small, sharp rocks underneath the long yellow expanse of "slide" on the ground. The back of the hula hoop instruction sheet shows a variety of other toys and games made by Wham-0 in the late 1950s.
Most of them are not well-remembered, but the one in the lower left-hand corner is perhaps even more beloved than the Hula Hoop and the Slip N' Slide.
A Frisbee could do some damage, too -- although probably not as much as a baseball or softball if it veered off course. You had to have a lot of space to throw a Frisbee, and preferably someone else to catch it (a relative, a friend, or the family dog) unless you could get it to boomerang consistently. Almost every kid I knew wanted a Super Ball in the mid-1960s -- and talk about needing space to play with it. Super Balls took over the outdoor basketball courts at school during the Christmas holidays, as kids (usually boys) tried to throw it down so hard that it would bounce higher than anyone else's. Catching a Super Ball was somewhat problematic, particularly because it didn't always bounce the second, third, or fourth time where you thought it might. But the kids in our neighborhood were up to the challenge. Some of them also learned the hard way why you weren't supposed to bounce it in the house. And if you are a football fan, you might be interested to know that the Super Bowl owes its name to the Super Ball: http://www.history.com/news/super-bowl-owes-its-name-to-a-bouncy-ball Wham-O has been sold and resold over the years; the toys and games they created in the 1950s and 1960s are the stuff of legend, dreams and memories. _______________________________________ You can read more about the company's history here: http://www.wham-o.com/about-us/our-heritage/ Here's a link to a couple of original TV ads for the Slip N' Slide and the Wham-O Water Wiggle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvGH8n0_-pw
The other day I came across a plastic bag with some items I had found at a “living” estate sale a couple of years ago. The elderly woman whose things were being sold didn’t need them anymore, we were told, because she was moving to a smaller place. Her name is Mary. (Since I believe she and some of her family members are still alive, I’m not going to share her last name here.)
Mary saved a lot of what’s called “paper ephemera.” Among the cards and envelopes in her collection was a Letter from Santa that her daughter received just before Christmas in 1961.
The front of the envelope was hand addressed to the child, postmarked Santa Claus, Indiana – rather a long way from the North Pole, but perhaps when you're little that doesn't matter. The back of the envelope shows us that her mom had worked with the folks at the local Montgomery Ward store to get Santa to write.
This letter from Santa is evidence that someone led a rather typical mid-20th century American family life. But the other pieces of paper ephemera I brought home from the estate sale tell, as media commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”
Mary had also saved memorabilia from her high school years. In 1947, she graduated from Excelsior Union High School in Norwalk, California. Cross-checking her on Ancestry.com, I can see that in her senior year, Mary was the secretary of Excelsior’s chapter of the National Forensics League, the forerunner of the National Speech and Debate Association.
Several of Mary’s classmates and teachers signed the back pages of her small “Memories” book. Her senior year school yearbook photo, also accessed on Ancestry.com, shows the young woman that her classmates described as “brainy,” “peppy” and “wonderful," and alluding to her skill as a debater.
The last person to sign Mary's Memories Book was her Forensics League sponsor, Mr. Hanks:
‘Tis always a sad time to say “Good bye.” In this case, it will not be for I have only memories of a most efficient secretary, a most pleasant person, a young lady of the most courteous type, an American who really knew what the ideals of our country meant to people. We’ll miss you – but we’ll feel better for our memories.
The most significant item I found among Mary's graduation papers was the special Certificate of Merit in Citizenship she received from her school.
In 1946, Mary’s junior year, she doesn’t seem to have participated in any extracurricular activities. She looks thoughtful, perhaps a little sad, on the far right of a row of students in her junior class group picture.
The 1945 Excelsior Union High yearbook doesn’t show a photo of Mary. That’s probably because of what the official records from the time reveal: Mary and her family lived in Arkansas from September 1942 to November 1945, when the Rohwer War Relocation Center (internment camp) closed and the families of Japanese origin were finally released.
Mary’s parents were born in Japan and settled as agricultural workers in Southern California. Her father, born in Japan in 1884, had registered for the draft in this country in World War I and World War II. Mary herself was born in the United States in 1929.
Mary and her siblings were among about 2,000 children interned at Rohwer. (Another child interned there was a young fellow you may have heard of, named George Takei.)
It is ironic that Mary earned her high school’s Citizenship Award within two years of being released from an internment camp. Does Mr. Hanks’ comment that Mary was “an American who really knew what the ideals of our country meant to people” indicate that she displayed a positive attitude about what had happened to her and her family? Did the school’s administrators recognize that the internment of American students because of their parents’ country of origin, was wrong? Or did Mary realize that sometimes the best and only way to get past a problem, is to go through it and come out the other side?
Regardless of the reason(s), Mary the 1947 all-American high school graduate was indeed a Survivor. In 1954, she married Merrill, a man who apparently spent much of their marriage in the hospital. (A photo of the family on Ancestry.com shows him in a wheelchair, Mary and their young daughter at his side.)
Her husband died in 1964; Mary raised her daughter as a single parent and had a career as a registered nurse. Other items from her living estate included a packet of letters from her father's relatives in Japan written shortly after World War II ended, a collection of old Disneyland tickets, and many greeting cards that showed family members expressing great love for each other .
The man who ran the estate sale told me that, in her old age, Mary had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and given only months to live.
“But that was several years ago,” he said, “and she’s still with us. Great lady. Wish you could meet her.”
Somehow it didn't surprise me that Mary didn't appear to let bad news get her down. I wish I could have met her, too.
When I was a kid, I lived in a Spring Training town in the southwest. I have very clear memories of riding my bike home from school through a local park in early spring and seeing members of the Chicago Cubs working out.
Spring Training wasn't the big deal back then that it is now. Local newspapers of the day carried stories of how nice it was that local children and families could see Major League Baseball players in action. One story, from 1969, interviewed several kids and their parents about the excitement of seeing Ernie Banks, "Mr. Cub," hit a home run, even though the Cubs ultimately lost the game. Playing hard and well while still losing was something the Cubs seemed to be accustomed to, for so many years. I'd always wished that it would be the Chicago Cubs' turn to win the World Series. Now in 2016, all these years later, they have. That made me want to look at newspaper clippings from 1908, to see what it was like the last time the Cubs won the World Series. The Rock Island (Illinois) Daily Union previewed the 1908 World Series with a list of the Cubs players, giving us some context for the iconic baseball saying "Tinker to Evers to Chance."
And when the Cubs beat the Detroit Tigers to take the Series, newspaper headlines read like something you might see today.
"Fifty-plus years in the same house," the ad for the estate sale read.
As more and more Baby Boomers and members of the "Greatest Generation" pass away, the danger increases that we will forget what they valued. One way to find clues about what was important to someone who raised a family in the post-World War II era, is to visit their estate sale. Sometimes you have to really look for those clues -- notes and love letters, photographs and a grandchild's "refrigerator art," saved in a sock drawer or a scrapbook. Military service uniforms. An old black Singer sewing machine in a purpose-built oak cabinet. Other times, the evidence of what the older person valued is staring you right in the face as you walk up the driveway to the estate sale: Their home, looking pretty much like it did when it was new.
The Southern California area I live in grew exponentially after the war. Some of the houses built in the late 1940s were just big enough for the former soldier going to college on the GI Bill, his wife and their one child, with a single-car garage. By the 1950s and 1960s, though, the was demand for larger homes on larger lots, with larger garages. The "Ranch Style" home met that need. A quick search on the Internet tells me that Ranch Style houses were pioneered by architect Cliff May in the 1930s, who was influenced by the homes of the original Spanish settlers who built long, low houses with thick adobe walls and tile roofs, often in an "L" shape. Southern California's relatively temperate climate also influenced his style; May erased the lines between "indoors" and "outdoors" with large windows, sliding glass doors, and patios. Other architects' home designs followed suit. Today these Ranch Style homes are still in many neighborhoods. I found evidence of one of the best-known promoters of post-war housing at an estate sale a couple of weeks ago; Grandma had saved the 1950s brochures of Ranch Style floor plans offered by a man with the improbable name of Hiawatha T. Estes.
Estes (1918-2003) was based in Northridge, California, part of the San Fernando Valley. Born in 1918 in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, Estes was a member of the Chickasaw Indian Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1940 with a degree in civil engineering, and served as an Air Force captain during World War II. Like so many other GIs, Estes moved to Southern California and got married. He and his wife started a business selling and promoting architectural house plans, which they operated for more than 30 years. Estes also wrote a syndicated newspaper column which ran for many years in newspapers across the country. The woman who saved his floorplan brochure, also clipped and saved some of his newspaper work.
The brochures of Estes' home designs showed houses small and large, to meet a variety of family needs. The one-bedroom house below was less than 700 square feet.
A house with "oriental influence" was a little over 2000 square feet, with a huge patio.
In a Ranch Style floorplan, it's common to see the bedrooms all on one side of the house and the living room, dining room and kitchen on the other, as shown below.
You can see many of Hiawatha Estes' floorplans here:
Footnote: Neighborhoods change over time. Sometimes Ranch Style houses in California are remodeled because they've been badly damaged by earthquakes. Other times, though, they're torn down and remodeled, not of necessity but rather for the sake of ostentation and profit. Too often, charming old neighborhoods have been invaded by red tile-roofed Mediterranean-style (orange, bright coral or pink) and/or modern anonymous box-shaped slab-sided (brown or gray) "McMansions" that have no sense of the integration of "indoors" and "outdoors." Their multi-thousand square feet floorplans with multiple stories and five-car garages are squished onto a piece of land like an elephant in a bathtub; a lawn mower would barely fit between the side of the house and the fence, the front of the house and the sidewalk. But a lawn mower isn't necessary here: the real estate "investor" (speculator) who bulldozed the vintage Ranch Style home and built the McMansion has installed artificial grass along the narrow perimeter around the house.
There's increasing backlash against McMansions in neighborhoods across the country. For one thing, a lot of them are Just Plain Ugly. And perhaps more people are beginning to realize that sometimes it's better to preserve and respect what we have, rather than destroy it forever for the sake of profit.