Thursday, December 22nd, 2005
Photo Examples of Dangerous Domestic Goodness, Circa 1954
This past weekend we visited Auntie M (my aunt and Little Miss’ great aunt). As a dad, I saw our family home in a new light.
Our family has 80 acres in rural northern California homesteaded by my Great Grandfather in the 1880s. We would have 80 more acres today if not for a drunken poker game. A bunch of aging chicken sheds and the remnants of a modest peach orchard hint at the land’s history.
Today, you would consider my great grandfather’s house a glorified shack. It had single board walls, no insulation, no running water and no bathroom â€“ something out of The Little House on the Prairie.
His son built a nearby modern wooden house in 1934, but it proved too small when his two kids arrived â€“ my dad had to sleep on a couch.
So my grandfather tore down his childhood shack home and built a larger adobe farm house by hand in the 1950s. "The Ranch" as we call it is now just a peaceful place to live.
This story would be cooler if the photos below were from a house where toddlers once ran, but my dad and aunt were high school age in the 1950s. Oh well.
Each room in the adobe house has a heater mounted into a wall with
an M-shaped heating coil sitting behind a black metal grate. The whole
thing almost lies flush with the bumpy brick wall.
There is plenty of room for fingers of any size to poke through the
grate in an attempt to touch the enticing red hotness. Don’t worry.
Curious fingers would be quickly repelled by the searing temperature of
the grate itself.
The heaters are individually activated via a light switch placed
adjacent to the grate. An alcove can be see in the photo â€“ it is a
thermostat my grandfather used in baby chick(en) warmers. The
heater is horribly inefficient, not exactly Energy Star.
After lying dormant for 20 years, the switch was flicked by my father and
we smelled smoke in about 10 seconds. Maybe dust was burning off, but
we decided not to wait to find out and possibly start an electrical
The living room and kitchen are also heated by a shared chimney with
a fireplace in both rooms. There were no child gates in those days. A
kid would just be taught to avoid dangerous things.
While I was there, Auntie M showed me the family potty and bath tub.
The potty my father and aunt sat and shat upon looks like a big cast
iron soup mug with white enamel.
Apparently, you just poop into the pot, or get off the pot. (Make up your own rhyme.)
The toddler tub is cast iron with white enamel, too. (The photo at right was taken in a chicken shed, not the house!)
Today we bathe infants in plastic foam-lined contraptions or soft
inflated tubs. My parents bathed me directly in their kitchen sink with
a towel for padding. I suppose a metal tub isn’t too shocking.
The main rooms of the house have linoleum on top of a cement slab â€“ a rock hard
surface for tumbling toddlers. Drop anything in the kitchen and it
shatters to the four corners. Pudding caps certainly would be warranted.
Later, we looked through some of Auntie M’s genealogy research. My grandfather had a brother who died after a few months and his other
brother as a teenager. Illnesses certainly took their toll in that era,
but I still wonder how many babies and toddlers were done in by safety
I’ve critiqued my grandfather’s house in this article quite a bit, but the truth is he was one awesome guy. I can’t imagine his building a house by himself, let alone two houses… or running a farm… or caring for a wife who had a debilitating illness which eventually left her immobile in a wheelchair in their country home, unable to even feed herself. His wife was one tough cookie too, managing a family with two kids and doing all the farm chores expected of a farm wife, despite her troubles. He stayed with her to the very end, and followed soon after.
The summer before I entered college, we learned he was terminally ill with cancer. At a certain point we, himself included, knew his departure was days away. He asked that we each sit down next to him, one by one, at his death bed. His interest was on the future, wanting to know how each of his grandsons planned to live their lives. I didn’t turn out to be a computer programmer like I told him, but I am thankful I had the opportunity to say "I love you" and hug him before he left.