Old-time Baltimore was green long before living green was fashionable

August 16, 2008|By Jacques Kelly

Every time I hear about how we need to live more green, I chuckle. Nothing new. I was raised that way - and so were many fellow thrifty Baltimoreans in the 1950s.

We wasted little and used - and reused - much. We walked and took buses and streetcars. Air-conditioning was a treat experienced only in movie theaters. We were a household of 12, and much of the time had one automobile. I spent a lot of time waiting at transit stops and running routine errands on foot. As they say, it built character.

As a child, I marveled at the hard work my grandmother, her sister and my mother employed to cut consumption. All paper was used until it could not hold another sentence - both sides, of course. Paper towels were unheard of - they preserved and used rags until they disintegrated from punishing use. Instead of buying cleaning supplies (especially ones that carried a national brand name) they often made up their own with washing soda or ammonia. They also bought very un-green but cheap chemicals at the hardware store to clean the house.

One their favorite chemicals was lye, which they used to make their own washing soap. The other ingredient was grease, which they saved and also accepted from neighbors. For years I was deeply embarrassed by their soap-making. The only consolation I had was that we didn't have to use it to bathe. For that there was Procter & Gamble.

OK. I'll admit it. The little room air-conditioning unit I switch on an hour before retiring has taken the sting out of Baltimore summer misery. I installed one only about 10 years ago, so reluctant to change my ways. I also grew up with open windows and screens, even when Baltimore summers could translate into sleepless nights during an extended heat wave.

In the winter, heating was chancy at night. My grandmother shut the furnace off and opened bedroom windows, which my elders told me kept you healthy. This made for chilly bedrooms, but there were always blankets. Lots of them. They made them, too, from bolts of wool and silk bindings bought at the old Stewart's downtown. They carried the wool home as well.

My sister Mimi keeps the old family sewing machine handy. It's a 100-year-old Willcox & Gibbs, foot-powered, no electricity. Parts for an antique machine were something of an issue in the 1950s and required a lot of diligent shopping and searching in the neighborhood known today for the Hippodrome Theatre. It goes without saying that this was on foot.

We often made our own ice cream and rarely bought Hershey's chocolate sauce when what you made on the stove was a superior product. But to be honest, we also bought a lot of Hendler's, too.

On Wednesday night, the usual dessert was fruit in gelatin. This was accompanied by whipped cream, but never from a can. A hand-operated egg beater and whole cream did the job and tasted better, too.

I think my family enjoyed the challenge of keeping up the old machines in the way that some obstinate car owners will keep up an old car.

To this day, my father delights in his classic Toyota, which refuses to quit after nearly 20 years of duty.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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