While helping a relative clear out the garage, I was thinking about Things, and the cultural assumptions that barnacle onto them. And how those barnacles gradually drop away, until the things become either joke items, or else puzzling implements a la Motel of the Mysteries.
The first time I thought about these things was when I was at a yard sale with my grandmother. I was a young teen, and this was the mid-sixties. Suddenly she cracked up. I mean she was having trouble hiding her smile, so she walked on. I knew that she adored yard sales. Having been extremely poor during the Depression (she’d been pulled out of school at age 12 and put to work full time cooking and cleaning for a family for a dollar a week) I knew how much she loved hunting for bargains at yard sales, so I followed, puzzled, and she pointed back inside, to where the proprietor had set up a bunch of pretty porcelain and ceramic giant bowls, some with plants in them. Others filled with yarn or cigarette paraphernalia. “She’s selling pots like they’re china!” my grandmother declared, half scandalized and half amused.
“Pots?” I said. “You mean plant pots?”
She looked around the street, lowered her voice, and whispered, “Chamber pots!”
Chamber pots? Now, I’d come across the term once or twice in my voracious reading, but back then, books especially for kids were squeaky clean.
“What’s that?” I asked, and she looked around again, making sure none of her neighbors were lurking around with hand cupped to hear before she said, “In the winter, when it’s fifteen below, you don’t want to go out to the outhouse in the middle of the night, so you take and put the chamber pot under the bed.”
Bingo! A whole new raft of associations opened in my mind—the books that referred to noxious night airs, to “Gare de loo!” and so forth. Now I knew what they were talking about!
Another thing sitting out there gathering dust was a princess phone. For those under, oh, probably thirty is a safe guess, this is a plastic round-dial phone that looks just like the ones in the noir movies, except it’s a slightly cut down version, and—this is important—it was never black, though it could be white. It was usually pink or baby blue or possibly yellow. “She has a princess phone,” the adults used to say in that tone of voice that promised hours of gossip as soon as we kids were chased out of the room, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure why. All I knew was that nobody ever had a princess phone in the kitchen.
When I was a kid, very few people in our lives had second phones. Many were on party lines. References to princess phones were obscure, but by the attitudes of adults (especially if they referred to the woman as a “bottle blonde” or a “divorcee”) we knew that there was something really, really weird about having a princess phone in your bedroom. This was especially puzzling when the rich girl in our class, she who had seven pairs of tennis shoes of different colors (most of us had a single pair of shoes that lasted all year) and also three cashmere sweaters, just like the teenagers, was given a princess phone in her room for her tenth birthday. Did that mean she would be a divorcee or a bottle blonde?
The whole phone in the bedroom thing became somewhat clearer a few years later, my first year in high school, when a friend explained that we should never call her at home unless there was an emergency. Like the rest of us, their phone was in the kitchen, but her parents would only permit her to answer one call on any given day, and they would set a timer for three minutes, and listen to every word before the timer went off. This was for the same reason that she and her sister had a cotton cloth hanging in their bedroom doorway instead of a door. The cloth was for the sake of modesty,but also because their parents could hear every work spoken in that room. Good girls, the parents said, had nothing to hide from their parents.
When I think back, there were so many objects whose use is pretty much unknown now, and that carried cultural assumptions that are puzzling today, like the notion of the bottle, or peroxide, blonde. Clothes pins. Rat-tail combs. Blue chip stamp books. The milk man with his glass milk bottles. “Mad money.” Skate keys.
Then there are the things I am so glad not to be using again, like a clothes wringer. Having to help my mother with that thing before she got a better washing machine was horrible. We didn’t get a dryer for many years; it was clothespins, yard lines, and the ironing board. Then there was the garbage pail. Washing the maggots out of the garbage pail in summer was a horrible job.
Anyway, do you ever go to yard sales and see objects whose use you can’t guess? Or objects that have been repurposed, like the chamber pot that now grows spider plants?