By Marge Knoth, Author, Activity Professional
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Author, Activity Professional
Valley Press Books

Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State.  She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of

Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care.  She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials.  Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
To Order Books by Marge Knoth
Things That Used to Be - Part 1 of 2
by Marge Knoth

   Would you like a fun, quick activity that can involve most any resident? Well, here it is!
Nearly everyone likes to reminiscence. Oh, some residents may say things like, “Let’s
live in the present, not the past.” But when the group about them begins to recall “things
that used to be”, they soon jump right in with their memories. And before you know it,
they are speaking out more enthusiastically than all the others.
   Every month I used to plan a “new resident’s tea” located in our fancy guest dining
room. New residents were given a special invite. Several others, who had lived there for
some time, were also invited. They loved this activity. With everyone gathered around
the table, the new residents were welcomed and given a little “dollar store” gift. To get
them talking, I would ask what state they are from. Then I asked them to tell us
something their state was famous for. Invariably there was another resident from that
same state present, and conversation quickly began. Before you knew it, we were into a
lively reminiscence session. I threw out a few topics (like the following ones) and they
supplied the memories. Every single month, without exception, I had to interrupt the
gathering when our time was over. No one wanted to leave.
   If you have struggled with a reminiscence program, maybe today’s column will help. I’
m going to supply you with plenty of ready-to-use material. And you will hardly have to do
a thing–just keep feeding them subjects and then sit back and enjoy their stories. And I
hope you have as much fun with it as I have. So without further introduction, let’s take a
look at some “things that used to be”.

Coal bins: It was a regular sight. The big, old, fully-loaded coal truck would arrive every
often, open the small door on the side of the house, and begin to dump the coal into the
coal bin in the basement. What a racket it made as it tumbled against the concrete
sides and floor and then stacked up on itself. But getting coal was a comforting feeling;
you knew your house would be warm for a while longer.

The coal furnace: Many of us remember our dads’ rising up early and heading to the
basement to shovel some coal into the big furnace so the house would be warm when
the family got up. I don’t understand this one today, but as children, we would write
letters to Santa Claus.  Then to mail them, Daddy would take them down to the
basement and put them in the fiery furnace. We felt sure they went up in smoke to Santa.

Feather beds: The big black and white pillow-ticking casing was stuffed with feathers
and so
comfy to mold your body into. All too soon, though, it would be flat in the spot where you
were lying and you had to find another spot.

Churns: There were many kinds of churns. One was a square glass bottle with four
paddles inside, attached to a handle on the top that turned the paddles. There was also
a large
wooden barrel-type churn. It had a long rod-like plunger that went down inside to press
the rich cream into sweet butter. Water would be added at certain intervals, and at the
end, salt was sprinkled on top. After storing overnight in the cellar, it was pressed into
wooden molds.

Hand pump on the sink: It almost made you feel rich to have running water inside the
house.  All you had to do was lift the handle and pump it a bit, and you would get a rush
of water into the old tin or porcelain oblong sink. This sink was open underneath so it
often sported a skirt around it made from pillow-ticking.

Mail delivery: Mail used to be delivered two times a day.

Milk delivery: While everyone still slept, the milkman would arrive in his milk wagon,
pulled by a horse. He would leave the glass bottles on the porch and pick up the empty
ones. He would
find change in one of the bottles for payment.

Cream on top of milk bottles: It would rise to the top of the milk bottles and be a sought-
after treat, but generally, it would be saved to churn into butter or whip into cream.

Curtain stretchers: They were large wooden frames with nails driven all around the
frame at half-inch intervals. On these frames were stretched lace or other curtains so
they could dry and become stretched back out to their original size.

Fountain pens: These were used before ballpoint pens. Even in the early 1950s my
teachers would not permit the use of a ballpoint pen in class because “one could not
write well with
them.” To fill the pen with ink, the tip was placed in a bottle of ink and a tiny pull-tab lever
on the side of the pen was pulled out and held open until the ink was sucked up into the
pen. After that, for a short time, a cartridge pen was used. A tiny plastic cartridge of pre-
filled ink would be dropped into the pen.

Ink blotters: These were used to catch any dripping from the fountain pen, and for other
purposes as well.

Wall paper cleaning: Wallpaper was cleaned with a home-cooked cornmeal substance
that was then rubbed on the walls like an eraser. Later it could be purchased at a store
ready-made. There was a blue kind and a pink kind.

Old-time barbershops: Women sometimes got their hair cut at a barbershop, and
permed at a
beauty shop. A shave was two-bits. There was often a shoeshine boy at the shop. The
smell of
Bay Rum was ever present. A red and white striped pole was often outside the shops.
Men read the racy Police Gazette there.

Box Socials: Generally held at the church as a fund raiser and social event, young
available girls would cook up a storm and pack it into a box. They would then decorate
the boxes with ribbons, flowers, or whatever they could devise, trying to make them as
attractive as possible. It remained a secret who brought which box. The available young
men would then bid on the boxes. The girl who had filled and decorated the box would
have as her date for the night the guy who purchased her decorated box. Sometimes
they didn’t like who they got, but they usually made the best of it.

Barn-raising: When a farmer needed a barn, neighbors and friends would gather
together and build a nice big barn, often in a single day.

Town and country: When playing a form of baseball long ago, “town “was infield and
“country” was outfield. Also, in early baseball, bases were not run as today. The hitter
would run to a particular point and back before another player might hit him with the ball
and get him out.

Goldfish swallowing: One rage, during the 1920s, was college students swallowing

Stuffing: Another rage was that young people would see how many of them they could
“stuff” in a phone booth.

White bucks: These were white suede-like shoes popularized by the singer Pat Boone
in the 1950s.

Wing-walking: In the days of bi-wing airplanes, it was a sport to walk on the wings in

Sock hops: These informal dances were popular in the 1950s. One wore bobby socks
(so as to not hurt the gym floors), and decorated them with trinkets, charms. and
ribbons. Prizes were given for the best decorated socks.

Daniel Boone caps: These fur caps with a long raccoon tail were popular in the 1950s.
were inspired by a television show about Daniel Boone.

Mohawk haircuts: You did not see this unusual haircut often. The sides of the hair were
shaved up to almost the center of the head. Then a long strip of hair was left, about an
inch-and-a- half wide and an inch-and-a half long, reaching from the forehead to the

Burma Shave signs: These were little roadside signs that advertised Burma Shave.
They were tacked to telephone poles. Each one of the little red signs with white lettering
gave a part of the total message. “Passing can’t see...will get you...a glimpse
of eternity...Burma Shave.”  There were regular contests held for creative new slogans.

Mah-jongg: This was a board game that was popular in the 1920s.

Poodle hairstyles: Popular in the early 1960s, the stylish woman sported this very short,
permed, curly hairstyle.

Bottling root beer: Folks often bottled their own root beer and capped it. During
prohibition, they made real beer.

Old telephone: Each old oak box telephone on the wall had its own unique ring–maybe
two long
rings and a short one. It rang into every home and each listened for their own ring. Folks
would often pick up the phone and eavesdrop on their neighbors. If one of the parties
having a conversation said, “I didn’t hear that!” a third party might chime in, “He said....”

Ice: Ice used to be cut from the river with saws and stored in a homemade icehouse
lined with sawdust. Later on, there were large ice houses where one could purchase

The iceman: Wearing a leather apron, he delivered blocks of ice to the door, which he
carried on his shoulder. A sign would be placed in the home’s window to tell the
iceman how much they wanted: 25#, 50#, etc. He would generally walk right into the
kitchen and put the ice in the icebox. Sometimes he tracked up a clean floor.

Ration books and coupons: During the war sugar and other items were rationed. Little
coupon books would be issued to each person in the family, even little babies. These
tiny coupons of stamps were required to purchase these items.

War effort: During the First World War peach pits were collected to help make gas
masks.  During the Second World War, scrap metal, rubber tires, tin cans, milkweed
pods, and meat fat were collected for the war effort.

The circus parade: Many families could not afford the ten-cents it took for each child to
get into the circus. But there was still the “circus parade” one could watch as the circus
rolled into town.  There were colorful wagons full of lions and tigers and bears. There
were horses and elephants and monkeys. There were clowns, midgets, sword
swallowers, and trapeze artists–all marching on foot. There soon would be cotton
candy and lemonade stands. And best of all, there was the circus music. It was almost
as good as the real show–and it was absolutely free.

Spittoons were located in bars and elsewhere for those who chewed tobacco and
needed to spit it out.

Toys and games: There were whistles made from river cane, towns made from
pasteboard boxes, and clowns cut from cereal boxes. There were balls made from yarn
that was obtained by unwinding old socks. There were hand-made dolls, some made
from corn husks. There were
games like kick the can, harem-scare’m, tinklin’-tanklin’-Roman buck, or run sheep run.
Bank tellers behind cages: Even up into the early 1960s, at least in Fall River,
Massachusetts, some bank tellers remained behind tall iron bars as they served their

Airplane advertising: Before Lady Bird Johnson started the “Keep America Beautiful”
program, airplanes would fly over and drop advertising leaflets onto a city.

Work whistles: Starting and stopping times at factories were announced by the blowing
of a

Street cars and interurbans: They smelled of ozone gas. There were summer and
winter cars
with wicker seats. At the end of the line, the seats would be turned around by lifting the
back of the bench and flipping it over until it set where the front of the seat had been.

The player piano: What fun it was to have a piano that played itself! You could have
whenever you wanted. Some say it was a vacuum or air pump, operated by a foot pedal.
There was a roll of paper in it punched full of holes.

Flapper dresses: The 1920s featured flapper dresses, cloche hats, and for men, zoot
suits with the extra long jacket and a super long watch chain.

Gibson Girl: She was a beautiful woman that men adored and women imitated, but she
even real. Rather, she was a series of pen and ink drawings by Charles Dana Gibson.
She was
featured on hair brushes, mirrors, china plates, broom handles, pillows, and silverware.

The Chautauqua: Before the automobile, the Chautauqua was the entertainment of the
day. It was a traveling show that featured many acts–magicians, yodelers, opera
singers, bands, plays, concerts, and preachers like Billy Sunday.

The nickelodeon: It was a motion picture theater that cost five-cents for 500 to 800 feet
of film that lasted about 15 minutes. In the early days, there were no close-ups because
movie makers felt viewers would feel cheated seeing only half a person. Middle-aged
women were the biggest fans. There were signs on the walls like, “Don’t spit on the
floor” or “Don’t use bad language.”

Barn dances: Guest sat on bales of hay along the sides of the barn. Sometimes the
dances were in the hay mow. Instruments usually included a fiddle, harmonica, banjo,
or guitar. A caller called out the moves while one of more squares of dancers
responded to them. After barn dances went out, dances moved inside the house.
Furniture would be removed and rugs rolled up for dancing. This was often done at

One-room school houses: After walking to school, or riding in a school hack students
studied from their McGuffey Readers, Olney’s Geography, Kirkham’s Grammar, and
Webster’s English Speller. There were “borrowing one”, and “singing geography”. In
sing-song recitation, students learned their states and capitals, rivers, and mountains.

Round barns: These round barns were sometimes found in the Midwest and other

The speakeasy: It was an illegal bar found during prohibition. You needed a password
to get in.  They were often raided and the liquor would be quickly hidden.

Steam engine: After farming with horses, the steam engine was the biggest and best
way to farm.  They weighed a whopping 26,000 pounds.

Hand-held corn-planter: This planted just two or three kernels of corn at a time.

Curling irons: Before electricity was in common use, curling irons were heated by
putting them
down in the kerosene lamp flue.

Sad irons: A homemaker used about three of these at one ironing session. While she
with one, the other two heated on the old iron kitchen stove. When the one she was
using cooled, she grabbed a second one and put the first back on the stove to reheat.

Parlors: Parlors were a fancy room, seldom used except for Christmas, a home funeral,
or for a special date. There might be lace curtains, velvet plush furniture, crocheted
doilies and library tablecloths, and family photographs.

Home funerals: Funerals were once held at home. At death, pennies were put on the
eyes of the deceased to keep them closed. Clocks were sometimes stopped at the
moment of death. Some people even covered mirrors (maybe a superstitious practice)
when a death occurred in that house

Covered bridges: Dark and rickety, lovers enjoyed stopping midway for a kiss.

Windmills: Windmills, some very tall, were used to pump water.

Early automobiles: There were many: The Haynes, made by buggy makers and
featuring 17 coats of paint; the wooden-framed Franklin, the Morman, Whippet,
Hupmobile, Moon, Stanley Steamer and the Saxon, a light car almost like a bicycle.
Then there was the bootlegger’s favorite, the Stutz Bearcat with the tall shiny radiator.

Running boards: These were like a little step on the side of the car, just under the door,
to make it easier to get in.

Outhouses: Without indoor plumbing, outhouses or back houses were a necessity. A
small wooden building with a bench-like seat inside featured either one or two holes. A
Sear’s catalog was present in place of toilet paper. You might find spiders or other
small creatures in the outhouse. They outhouses were usually kept relatively clean. My
mother remembers theirs was scrubbed with the lye water that had first been used to
clean the kitchen floor.

Indoor pots, or chamber pots: It was sometimes very cold and generally a pretty fearful
thing to tromp out the path to the outhouse in the dark of night. So a covered enamel,
granite, or china pot was kept beside the bed for use during the night. And it was
somebody’s unpleasant responsibility to empty it in the morning.

Two-cent-stamp: There was a time, not too long ago, when you could mail a letter for
two cents and a postcard for a penny. I remember in the early 1950s it took only a three-
cent stamp to mail a letter and two-cents for a postcard.

Roller skates with a key: They clamped on your shoes and you adjusted them to fit, and
then you tightened them with a special key.

Pin curls: Before style-and-go hairdos, and before wire hair rollers, pin curls were the
You simply rolled a curl around your finger up to your scalp, and secured it with a bobby
pin, or maybe two cris-crossed.

Waving lotions: It was a clear liquid solution that was combed through the hair and then
waves would be pushed in with the fingers. These would be secured with a metal pinch-
type clamp and left in place until the hair dried.

   Well, we are out of space again, and we’ve only just begun. Next month we will take
this up again with lots more “things that used to be.” When you have a no-show for an
activity and need something quickly, try pulling out this column. Throw out some of
these things, and most likely your residents will jump right in with stories of their own
about “things that used to be.”

God bless you all. Marge
-END of part 1 of 2