|Viola Brady talks and plays Mozart at her home in July 1990 (MP3, 2:49).
More audio clips below
In the summer of 1995 my grandmother began to write a memoir, a chronicle of her life growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to finish it. She died Jan. 1, 1996, at her home in Ontario, California. She was 84.
When I was a little girl growing up in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, the world around us was a lot different from what it is today. Then there were fields and meadows of wildflowers: daisies, Queen Anne's Lace, wild asters, red clover and in the Fall the stately goldenrod. There were patches of woods, In the Spring the ground in these woods was a carpet of violets. You could pick a big bunch in no time. Once I found a white one. It was not really white, but a very pale washed-out blue. It looked white alongside the others.
Nobody had a telephone. There were no electric lights where we lived, only in the business district and some of the more expensive homes on Broadway. The one and only street light where we played street games was a gas light. A man would come in the evening carrying a ladder. He would climb up and light the gas. In the morning he came back and turned it off. He was called the Lamplighter.
In the bedrooms we had gas jets. This was a pipe coming out of the wall about a foot. It had a grooved nipple on the end which pointed upward. This made a fan-shaped flame. The least current of air could blow the flame out and gas would leak into the room. Reading in bed was strictly forbidden.
Our early Christmas trees had candles. The flames were pretty to look at, and they made shadows on the walls and ceiling. The burning wax smelled nice too. I don't remember that these candles burned down homes like the faulty electric lights.
AND THE BELLS! There were always bells ringing - school bells, church bells. We knew which bell was which. At six o'clock in the evening the church bells would ring the Angelus. There are no more bells now. There are no more haystacks either. The hay is rolled or baled. The haystacks meant farms.
About this time a big war was raging in Europe. Then there was no radio or television. We got all the news from newspapers. When the war started to go bad for England and France, we had to go help. This was 1917-1918. We little kids were good soldiers. We saved our pennies and bought War Saving Stamps which we pasted in a little book. We sang pariotic songs - Keep the Home Fires Burning - Over There - My Buddy etc. And we believed all the propaganda: The German soldiers were cutting off the hands of the Belgian babies! They tossed the babies in the air and caught them on their bayonets! We believed it. Kids and morons believe everything.
On our way to school we would chant, boys and girls together, Kaiser Bill went up the hill to get a look at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants. That fixed them.
On November 7, 1918 the news came out that there was an Armistice. The war was over!! I'll never, never forget that day. Bells were ringing. People were shouting and firing off guns. My father was beating on a tin washtub with a broomstick! It was Pandemonium! It also wasn't true. There was no Armistice. The war was not over. It was false. This was a terrible letdown. Four days later on November 11th, the Armistice was signed in a forest in France. This time it was true. Nobody celebrated in our neighborhood. The bells did not ring. My father did not beat on the washtub. It was anticlimax. The war was really over. Now we could have sugar again. We could burn all the coal we wanted to and be warm again. We did not have to save every little sliver of soap. One day when the war was still raging and we were living with shortages, the news came on the grapevine that Star Market had SUGAR! My mother gave me a dollar and told me to fly. "Don't let your feet touch the ground." I flew. I stood in a long, long line in the scorching sun until finally it was my turn. I got half a pound of BROWN sugar. 35¢. In our house we were starved for white sugar.
But we were better off than lots of other people. While others were eating Liberty Cabbage (sauer kraut) We had everything. My father always planted a big garden on all the vacant lots he had cleared piece by piece. We had tomatoes and corn; green beans and wax beans; peas; bell peppers and cherry peppers. We had zucchini, Swiss chard. Savoy cabbage, eggplants. We had beets and turnips and carrots. For salad we had leaf lettuce, romaine and escarole. We had red radishes and white radishes and green onions. Two kinds of cucumbers.
We grew our own garlic and onions and all the herbs we needed: Italian parsley, sweet basil, oregano, finocchio, chives, rosemary and even dill for making dill pickles. We had chickens so we had meat and eggs. My mother spent the whole summer canning stuff. But 1918 was a bad year on account of no white sugar. She could not make jelly, nor pickles nor spiced pears and peaches, nor pickled beets and I don't remember what all.
In a lot of ways WW-I was worse than WW-II. The bible mentions the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. There was famine in Europe. Germany was not defeated on the battlefield. She was defeated on the Homefront. There were Bread riots in every city. In Kiel Harbor the sailors mutinied. They refused to go out again. The warships stayed in the Harbor.
Then came Pestilence and Death!! Spanish Influenza! Whatever it was, it was very virulent. You got sick today, day after tomorrow you were dead. Thousands died all over Europe. Soldiers coming home from the war brought it here; whole families died. I remember that very well indeed. People wore masks over their mouth and nose. They wore strings of garlic around their necks. I don't know what that was supposed to do.
World War II was better. We had ration points and we got 1/2 lb. of sugar per person a week. We also got butter when it was available. But we had margarine which we never even heard of in WW-I. And there was no epidemic.
The summer after WWI in 1919, we saw our very first airplane. It was a biplane. Those did not fly too high. We could see the pilot in the cockpit. We little kids were hysterical with excitement. We ran along with the plane screaming AIRPLANE! AIRPLANE!!! We did not even look where we were going. It's a wonder we didn't fall over a rock.
After the war, my father cashed in our Liberty Bonds and had the house wired for electric light. That's all we had - electric light. The appliances were still in the future. The toaster was a gadget that looked like two flyswatters hinged together. The swatter end was like a wire basket. We opened the long wire handles and put the bread in this basket and turned it over a low flame on the stove until both sides were "toasted". Sometimes it caught on fire.
Washing was done by hand on a washboard. White things were placed in a copper boiler filled with boiling soapsuds and simmered for hours, sometimes overnight. Starch was cooked in a pan and the articles dipped in this hot liquid. When they were dry they were dampened and rolled real tight and then ironed. The irons were heated over a low flame on the stove. There was a wood handle that hooked onto a little bar that went across the middle of the iron.
We had an icebox. This was a wood cabinet. The top lifted up and there was a zinc-lined space for the ice. Below were the shelves for food storage. When the ice melted, the water ran through a pipe into a dishpan under the icebox. I don't think anybody in our family ever remembered to empty this pan. We always had a mopup job to do. There were no ice cubes. If you wanted some ice to make lemonade or something, you chipped it off with an ice pick.
Just a word here for the iceman, This guy worked so hard! He chipped 50 lbs. of ice off a 100 lb. piece, grabbed it with tongs and slung it over his shoulder which was protected with some gunnysacks. Then he walked with the ice up steps. In this one place there were 4 houses in a row on a terrace. Up the steps to the first house, down again to get another 50 lbs. of ice; back up the steps for all 4 houses. The milkman took his wire rack with the milk bottles and went right across. At the end of the row the horse was there to meet him with the wagon.
In colder weather our "refrigerator" was an apple box nailed on the outside of the kitchen window. It was covered with oilcloth and "insulated" with pieces of carpet. Just open the window and take out the butter or milk or lunch meat or whatever was there.
The milk came in bottles with a narrow neck. It was sealed with a little piece of cardboard about the size of a silver dollar. The milkman delivered it to our door. In near-zero weather the milk froze and the cream rose out of the bottle like a thick yellow candle. This frozen milk was a big pain. We could not pour it.
The vacuum cleaner was a broom. Clocks were wound by hand. Hair was curled with a hair curler heated on the gas stove. When it was hot we fanned ourselves with a palm leaf fan, courtesy of the local undertaker.
There were no supermarkets like now. You could not buy everything in one store. The Fruit store sold fruit and vegetables and ice cream by the pint or quart, or even cones. The butcher sold meat; Groceries were bought in the grocery store. The drug store filled prescriptions and sold patent medicine, cosmetics and magazines. Every drugstore had an ice cream parlor. You sat at little round-topped tables and enjoyed banana splits and sodas and sundaes. Also malts and shakes which you sipped with real straws. The Hardware store sold pots and pans and dishes and glasses and tableware. They also sold nuts and bolts and hammers and hatchets, etc. They sold coal oil. You brought your own can to be filled. Then they jammed a raw potato on the spout to keep it from spilling. The coal oil was to light fires in the pot-belly stove in the winter. Only a few of the better homes on Broadway had central heating.
Then there was the Hoish Heesh man. This guy had a Halloween horn and a basket. He would give a blast on that horn and then he would holler Hoish HEESH! I used to see him on my way to school in the morning. Took me a while to figure out he was saying Fresh Fish!
The one we little kids really loved was the scissors grinder. This was a young guy. He carried the grindstone on his back with his arms through two stout straps. He had a brass bell which was heard for blocks around. He would set up his grindstone in a central location under a shade tree and he would sharpen scissors, knives, hedge shears and little hatchets. The hatchets were for housewives to chop kindling wood to light fires in the stove.
When we heard that brass bell we little kids all ran to meet the scissors grinder. I feel sorry for kids today. They don't know the excitement of watching those sparks fly off that wheel like showers of lightning. They don't have a scissors grinder to follow around nor an ice man who would chip off some slivers of ice for us.
Then there was the peddler. This was an old Hassidic Jew with a black hat and a beard down to here. He was a walking drygoods store with a well-stocked Notions department. He had cards of straight pins and safety pins. He had sewing needles, sewing machine needles, knitting needles, embroidery needles, crochet hooks, embroidery hoops, thread, floss, crochet thread, knitting yarn. He had cards of buttons in all sizes; hooks and eyes and snap fasteners. Zippers were still in the future. He had yard goods to make girls dresses and boys shirts. He had rick-rack in every color. He had long black stockings for boys and girls, socks and underwear and flannel and birdseye to make baby diapers. I don't know what all he didn't have. All this stuff was wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with strong cord. He thrust his arms through this cord and carried the whole shebang on his back. He went from house to house.
I liked to watch him measure yard goods. He did not use a yardstick or tape measure. He would grasp the end of the material between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand and hold it up to the right side of his nose. With his right hand he stretched the material at arms length. This was a yard. He brought that end up to his nose and measured off another yard.
Before the gasoline engine all work was done with horses. They hauled big wagons filled with beer barrels and lumber. They were used to pave the streets and move loads of dirt from here to there with much Geeing and Hawing and clanking of chains and swearing by the workmen. They worked hard too but they got paid. We little kids watched them pave Hampshire Avenue which was the cross street at the top of our hill.
Labor contractors went to Europe to recruit labor. They told the people that in America there was gold in the streets. All you had to do was pick it up. So they came in droves lugging their featherbeds with them. There was gold in the streets all right. Some guys got jobs picking it up. They had an oil drum with wheels and a push handle all painted white. They had a push broom and a big dustpan with a long handle. They were dressed all in white. They were called White Wings. Their job was to clean up the horse manure. Each guy had his "beat".
One cold snowy day in January 1918 I started out for school when I happened to look up at the hill opposite our hill. A bunch of kids were running. I raced past our chicken coop, across a field and up a long flight of City steps to Methyl Street. I made it in 30 seconds flat. A horse was down! He was lying in the snow in a tangle harness. He had fallen and broken a leg. Before I arrived on the scene a couple of boys had been dispatched to Smitty's Saloon to get our one and only cop. They had to shoot the horse! I was transfixed! I was hoping we did not get chased. We little kids tried to make ourselves invisible around BIG people. How we HATED them! They were always bawling us out or bossing us or chasing us.
The cop came and looked the situation over. He talked with the owner a while and then got his gun out and shot the horse behind the ear. There was a cloud of steam when the hot blood hit that cold air. The horse twitched and shuddered and a big pink bubble came out of its nose. Then it lay still. We were all set to stay right there and see this thing through. We wanted to see how they took the horse away. But the cop turned around and saw us. You kids git to school NOW! We got. But we put our standard BIG people curse on him. I hope he DIES! At lunchtime we came running back to see if the horse was still there. It was gone and the wagon too. Somebody had scattered sawdust on the blood in the snow.
- - - - - - - -
Then came the 1920's and everything changed. The horse disappeared from the scene along with the White Wings. Gas lights were gone and so was the Lamplighter. People learned to go to town on the streetcar and shop in the bargain basements. That was the end of the peddler. We never saw the Ragsoline any more nor the Hoish Heesh man. The scissors grinder and his sparks was gone too. The only one still around was the iceman. Electric refrigerators did not come out until the end of the decade. Gone too was the copper boiler. Now we had wash machines and electric irons and vacuum cleaners and real toasters. Everybody had a telephone. Every house was wired for electricity. Automobiles and trucks were everywhere. Gone too were ladies' corsets and long hair.
In 1919 Congress passed the 18th Amendment. This opened a Pandora's Box of lawlessness and disregard for Christian Mores the like of which had never been seen before.
In January 1920 the saloons closed and the Speak-Easy came into being. A hush-hush place down a cellar or up in a loft with a secret password. A big room with dining room tables and a dance floor with a good dance band. Thirsty citizens sat in these Speaks and drank bootleg hooch out of ceramic coffee cups. Al Capone and rival gangs kept the booze flowing by the law of the Tommy gun. (the Thompson submachine gun.)
But it was not until the last half of the decade that the 20's started to roar. Besides the booze the rank and file discovered the stock market. People from all walks of life start playing the market. They bought shares in gold mines and oil wells and banana plantations that didn't even exist. Legitimate shares with a par value of 15 1/2 shot up to 150 and kept climbing. It was the biggest Bull Market ever. Everybody was getting rich - on paper. Every summer shiploads of rich Americans sailed for Paris, France to drink champagne and spend their dividends in the Rue de la Paix.
Here at home everything was wide open. The Speak-easy was now called a night club. A floor show was added with a chorus line doing high kicks. Helen Morgan sat on the piano and sang The Man I Love. Ted Lewis with his top hat and gold cane strutted across the stage singing Is EVVVVERYbody Happy? Men and women in evening clothes as now befitted their station were out on the town drinking and dancing and buying more stocks "on margin" (I promise to pay) TRALALA LALA TRALALA LALALALA.....
Those were the LAST happy days. Near the end of October 1929 the Stock Market crashed.
Copyright © 1990-95 Viola A. Brady.
Excerpt from letter dated June 23, 1990:
When I first got my piano in 1985 (I was 74 years old) I was lucky to find some music that I practiced when I was taking lessons. I was practicing this Intermezzo from an opera. I came to a certain place in that music - suddenly I was 13 years old again. Playing my piano at home. My mother in the back yard gossiping with the next door neighbor lady. All the neighbors going about their daily routine, and the little kids playing in the street yelling and shrieking in their childish voices. Just the way we were on that summer day in 1924. I actually heard those little kids - all those vanished children. I almost cried.
Viola Brady talks about quitting piano lessons as a teen-ager in the 1920s (MP3, 0:28).
Viola Brady talks about learning to play the piano again at age 74 (MP3, 0:42).
Viola Brady talks about Paderewski, "Madame Butterfly" and buying sheet music (MP3, 3:00).
Viola Brady talks and plays Brahms (MP3, 2:02).