Below is Chapter Eight of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.
Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.
To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/
Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at firstname.lastname@example.org
BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s
CHAPTER EIGHT: ‘Cutting their lawns…with their fedoras firmly in place’
By KEITH BLACK
We all had fathers. At least everyone that I can remember had one, me included. If you have managed to survive this far into this narrative, you may have concluded that fathers did not exist. Not true. It just seems that way because everything that I have discussed up till now occurred when our fathers were not there. Our mothers were.
Fathers worked. Unmarried women worked. Mothers didn’t. Mothers looked after the house; Fathers didn’t. Now I have absolutely no intention of getting into a debate that involves words such as, but not limited to, women’s liberation, gender bias, misogyny, oppression, chauvinist, sexist, or bigot. However I feel that I must recount the reality of the times in the 1950s. Most married women with children did not work. I can remember one friend of mine whose mother went off to work each day. That is all. Many women were employed during the Second World War, but they left those jobs to make way for the returning vets and to have babies.
And then we must consider what it took to run a household in the Fifties. Throughout the decade I attended Williamson Road Public School. It started at 9 a.m. and ran until 3:30 p.m., with lunch being from noon till 1:30; I and all of my schoolmates went home for lunch. We were only out of the way for about 5 ½ hours a day.
There were no dishwashers, or at least none that I ever saw. Most floors were hardwood in an era when urethane finishes were not available. They had to be waxed regularly with a paste wax; the only way this could be applied was by getting on your knees and wiping it on with a cloth. Electric floor polishers were rare. Instead a heavy block of metal attached to a swiveling broom handle was used. A cloth was place under this and it was then guided quickly over the floors.
Kitchen floors were generally linoleum which too had to be waxed but after several coats of wax, the linoleum had a tendency to discolour and the wax had to be stripped.
Laundry day was lots of fun. The vast majority of women owned wringer washing machines. My mother kept hers in the basement along with those belonging to other tenants. When her allotted time arrived, she would wheel her washer over to the laundry tubs and get a load underway. After the wash cycle she would then run each article through the wringer two or three times to wring the water out and get it ready to hang dry. There were few electric dryers and certainly none in our building.
Incidentally, for some reason I loved to watch the clothes going through the wringer. There were a limited number of clotheslines in the basement which she used and the balance of the laundry went on to a folding rack that she set up in our bathtub. In fine weather there were many outdoor clotheslines available– on the roof, four floors up. No elevators. Her normal washday entailed three or four loads. And almost all of it required ironing.
My mother did not drive and she didn’t have access to a car even if she did. Most women of the Fifties were the same. Grocery shopping involved walking along Queen Street to one of the “supermarkets” which, being quite small, weren’t really that “super”, and then stopping in at a variety of shops: the deli, the green grocer, the meat market and maybe the fish market, wherever she could get the best deals.
She would then return home with her arms laden with full paper bags. She probably walked about a mile in the process. It was a big event in the latter part of the decade when she was able to purchase a personal shopping cart, a bundle buggy.
Our refrigerator like most of them at that time was quite small; so my mother had to go grocery shopping at least twice a week or more. She tried to do most of her shopping at Power (owned by Loblaws) because she collected their Green Stamps which she saved in small booklets which could be traded for prizes. That is how she managed to acquire an electric mixer.
Meal preparation was time consuming. There were few ready-to-eat meals or processed foods available; most meals were made from scratch. If my mother wanted to make a dish with ground beef, she would buy a cheap cut of meat and put it through a hand-cranked meat grinder that she and most other women owned.It was a bit like the wringer; I liked watching it.
Desserts were not bought; they were baked. Large freezers were extremely rare so women could not prepare meals in advance. The freezer compartment of our fridge was about one cubic foot in size.
There were no microwaves, food processors, blenders, rice cookers, toaster ovens, beverage makers, juicers, crockpots, non-stick frying pans or automatic coffee makers. I remember when my mother received that electric hand mixer; several women from neighbouring apartments came to admire it with considerable envy. Really!
I am getting tired just from writing about the housekeeping of the Fifties. I suspect that you may be getting tired of reading about it so I will move on. And I haven’t even mentioned carpet beaters, and furniture waxes and oils or sewing or the darning of socks, or….. Earlier in this chapter I stated that mothers didn’t work. Allow me to rephrase that; mothers didn’t work outside of the home.
My father did. He was an inside sales agent for a company that produced specialty metal products, principally of copper and brass. It was a white-collar job but not particularly high paying. The fathers of almost all of my friends were white-collar workers; there were sales clerks, accounting clerks, office managers, an engineer, a supervisor at Hydro and three insurance agents.
And if I am remembering correctly, none of them drove to work. It wouldn’t have made much sense. Parking in downtown Toronto was almost non-existent; there were few parking lots, no parkades or underground parking garages and, starting in 1952 a forest of parking meters took root ruling out street parking except for short-term stays.
Each morning, all of these gentlemen would don jackets and ties and head towards the northeast corner of Queen and Glen Manor Drive to catch the westbound streetcar.
Before leaving home, each would ensure that his carefully groomed hair was in place and many of them, to ensure that it stayed that way, applied an emulsion of water, mineral oil and beeswax; Brylcreem; “A little dab’ll do ya!” My brother and I were forced to use it as well whenever we were being taken somewhere “special”. Fortunately, it did have a pleasant odour, one that I still remember.
After having ensured that their hair remained well-behaved, the men of the Fifties immediately hid it by donning a hat as they were going out the door. A fedora to be precise. All men wore hats. If you look at a picture of a crowd of men in that era, it is not likely that you will see any who are bareheaded.
We boys always wore hats as well. We had baseball caps, tams and newsboys hats as well as the occasional fad such as the previously mentioned coonskin hats. And I had better watch out if I happened to forget to remove my hat as I walked into the apartment. Wearing a cap or hat in our or anyone’s home was akin to original sin; to this day if I walk into my house wearing a hat, I glance around to see if my mother is watching. And she’s been gone for almost 60 years!
Not only did all men remove their hats when entering a home, they doffed them, that is raised them slightly, when encountering a female. We kids were expected to do the same and, in fact, were instructed to remove our hats entirely when speaking to an adult. But I must confess that this custom was rarely honoured. If a woman entered a room, all of the males in the room were expected to rise. And we often did.
Men had been wearing hats for over a century and then the tradition came to an abrupt end in the late Fifties. What happened?
As more and more people were able to afford cars and as parking lots became more prevalent and as shopping plazas and malls opened, men began to drive those cars more often. And the cars were getting lower. Men could not wear their fedoras while driving so they started to remove them before getting into the car. Then they started to leave them at home if they were going to be driving. And then they just abandoned them entirely.
I have read a theory that hats died on Jan. 20, 1961, the day that John F. Kennedy was sworn in, the first President of the United States to do so bareheaded. The story goes that on the day of the inauguration, JFK managed to send countless hat manufacturers into bankruptcy. But I’m not too sure about that.
Because we lived in an apartment, my father did not have any outside yard chores to perform but most of the men in the neighbourhood, being homeowners, did. In order to free up more time on their weekends, they would often take care of some of those tasks when they arrived home from work or after supper. There were no power mowers or riding tractors in the 1950s and all lawn cutting was down with manual (push) reel mowers. Fortunately, with yards in the Beach being quite small, this was not too arduous a job unless your house happened to be on one of the major hills in the area.
The starting and stopping whirring noise of a reel mower was much more pleasant than any of today’s power machines. But as much as I remember the sound, I also remember the sight of the exercise. In deference to the act of manual labour, the gentlemen of the region would remove their jackets before commencing the work at hand. And that was all. It was not at all uncommon to see them cutting their lawns in good trousers, dress shirts and ties, with their fedoras firmly in place.
The sight of well-dressed men working on their lawns; the sound of their reel mowers; and then there is the smell in the fall when the leaves had been raked into a pile at the curb and then set to smoldering with curls of white smoke drifting upwards.
It was not an unpleasant odour and it permeated the neighbourhood. The smell of burning leaves lingers with me. I miss it. This annual tradition was understandably banned a few years later and, perhaps it warrants the appellation “Fault of the Fifties”, but I can’t bring myself to tarnish it in that way. So, I won’t.
It took my father about a half hour to get home from work; he was fortunate in that the streetcar stopped at the corner of Queen and Maclean directly in front of our apartment building. I would often wait on the steps of our building for his streetcar to arrive.
There were two kinds of streetcars on Toronto streets at the time, the “new” modern model, was the PCC car which came to be known affectionately as the Red Rocket. PCC stood for Presidents Conference Committee. They ran on Toronto streets from 1938 to the early 1990s. Imagine that; a very successful streetcar designed by a committee! But I preferred the much older “Peter Witt” design. Its boxy shape made it appear larger and I liked the way the steps dropped down when the doors folded open. And they were noisier and had a very distinctive bell.
I have an enduring memory concerning streetcars which I can’t quite fathom. I definitely remember a group of us children, boys and girls, from time to time waiting for a streetcar and then, when the front doors opened, yelling “transfers”. The conductor would generally respond by throwing a pad of transfers to us. Why, I don’t know. What we did with them, I can’t remember. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.
When my father arrived home and was awaiting supper he would read the newspaper, the Toronto Daily Star to be precise and I would grab the section containing the comics and lie on the floor reading them. Little Lulu, Popeye, Bringing up Father, Hopalong Cassidy, Hi and Lois, Flash Gordon, and Mandrake the Magician I liked; I passed over Lil Abner, Moon Mullens, Grandma, Buz Sawyer, Perry Mason, Ella Cinders and Terry and the Pirates.
I am pleased to say that as the decade progressed, so did the breadth of my daily reading material. I consumed all of the ever-increasing number of articles about space exploration, and science in general. But I still lay on the floor to read. I also became an avid reader of Pierre Berton whose daily column started in 1958. I remained a fan of his for the rest of his life; he died in 2004.
The Toronto Daily Star was one of two afternoon papers in town, the Toronto Telegram being the other. There was also one morning paper, that being the Globe and Mail. I actually delivered the Star for a two or three year period but it was a very small route of about 35 papers extending along the south side of Queen Street from Maclean to Beech Avenue.
One of my friends had a Telegram route of a similar size but it took him down Maclean. It was a daily competition; whose papers would be dropped off first as we waited on the southwest corner of Queen and Maclean.
And it wasn’t just a competition between the two of us; it was a very real race between the competing newspapers as they strived to get their products into the hands of the dealers, the delivery boys, and into the metal newspaper boxes placed at many intersections along Queen Street. My friend and I watched in awe as two fellows, one with the Star, the other with the Tely performed their perilous maneuvers. Each of these young men would stand on a narrow ledge on the back of the delivery van and lean into its interior and sort heavy bundles of papers as the truck barreled and bounced down Queen.
When the truck screamed to a stop in front of us he would throw a package of newspapers at our feet and then with another bundle under his arm he would race across the street dodging cars and streetcars in the process to drop it off at the variety store on the northwest corner. He would run back across bobbing and weaving and as soon as his feet hit the back of the truck off it would go in a roaring cloud of dust and exhaust. These trucks were not driven delicately; this was a serious and frenzied race. No words were ever exchanged between us and these defiers of death; there was no time for pleasantries. As much as we liked excitement, theirs was not on our list of potential lifelong careers.
Speaking of careers, a friend of my brother had a Globe and Mail route but he had about 100 customers. He would rise very early each morning to attend to his route and he did this from the time that he was about 8 until long after he graduated from high school. With the proceeds he was able to pay his own way through university and he became a very successful lawyer. With the proceeds from my newspaper career I bought a bike. I don’t quite know what to say next.
To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:
To read Chapter Two, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Three, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Four, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Five, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Six, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/