Growing up in Hammond in the '20s
Maurice O'Hern was born and raised in Hammond, working as an engineer at American Steel Foundries for 25 years, then at Purdue University Calumet and Bishop Noll Institute. Maurice passed away March 30, 1999, at the age of 84. Before his death he shared his memories and provided research and guidance to The Times as a member of the Times Capsule advisory board.
His interest in local history led him to write articles on growing up in the 1920s, the American Steel Foundries, Hammond's theaters and theater organist John Muri. Maurice not only researched the history of Hammond's theaters, he lived it. He was a frequent customer of the Bijou -- because it played more cowboy movies than "boring" romances. He saw, and even petted, Rin Tin Tin -- in the lobby of the Parthenon theater when the large German shepherd was a movie star. He vividly remembers going to All Saints Church to serve Mass on Nov. 8, 1927, and, when he saw no one around, seeing the State Theater across the street had been bombed.
Maurice's articles are on file in the Calumet Room of the Hammond Public Library. Here are excerpts from his writings on the life of a boy growing up in Hammond in the 1920s.
Most boys wore knickers with black stockings that were held up with black elastic bands. The knickers were made of corduroy that provided a whistling sound as one leg brushed against the other leg. Most of us got our first long pants when we graduated from grade school.
For winter weather, we were provided with corduroy jackets that were lined with sheepskin. The collar was made of heavy sheepskin wool.
Our gloves were cowboy gloves with cuffs that featured narrow leather strips. Our winter shoes went half-way to our knees. One shoe had a pocket that contained a jackknife. Our winter headwear was a knitted woolen cap that also covered our ears and wrapped around our throats. These caps were known as Tim Caps -- probably a trade name.
Most of the summer we ran around barefoot. Occasionally we would stub a toe or cut a toe on a piece of glass. Mothers would bandage the cut with a clean cloth which would be split on one end to provide means of tying the bandage together. Before applying the bandage the cut would be swabbed with iodine, which caused more pain than the cut. We were glad to see the coming of mercurochrome.
Summer clothing consisted of coveralls or overalls. By cutting off the lower part of the legs, this year's overalls became next year's swim suit. This worked out pretty well as it saved some clothes changing. The wet suit could be worn for 10 minutes in the sun and pass for dry clothes.
Another piece of summer wear was the straw hat, the same design as the hat the farmers wore in the summer sunshine -- and the same design hat that thoughtful farmers provided for their horses, except the horses' hats had holes in them so the hat could be put onto the horses' heads by slipping the hat over the horses' ears.
Downtown Saturday night!
You had to be there to appreciate it.
People, cars, streetcars and people, people, people! Saturday night was the only night of the week the stores were open. Sidewalks were jammed on State Street -- from Oakley to Hohman and from State Street to Douglas Street. And the side streets had their share of people. Gridlock was invented in downtown Hammond with people, cars, street cars and freight trains that blocked traffic across State Street, Hohman Avenue and Sibley Street. The freight trains were marshaling their trains in the Erie and Monon yards. A 15-minute holdup was not unusual. People also used downtown Saturday Night as a great social event. You couldn't help but meet several dozen people you knew.
Common street scenes were boys and girls playing hide-and-go seek, girls playing hop scotch or jacks, and boys playing catch or shinny on your own side. There was also a fair amount of commercial activity on the street. For instance there was the man who sharpened knives and scissors. He would push his cart down the street, ringing a bell that could be heard a block away. This gave the housewife time to gather up the utensils that needed sharpening. Virtually the same pattern held for the umbrella man. Occasionally a chimney sweep would come by. His coming was heralded by his blasts on a bugle. There were others, too, such as the iceman, the coal man and the grocery man.
There were occasional bits of street entertainment. There was the organ (hurdy-gurdy) grinder with his trained monkey that would solicit coins from the audience. He would put the coins in a tin cup his master was carrying. If you tried to retrieve a coin you might be bitten by the monkey. A source of terror and entertainment was the giant and muzzled brown bear who would "dance" to his master's accordion. The ice cream bar man in those days drove a horse-pulled yellow wagon with a glass enclosure. He sold ice cream bars and popcorn. Door-to-door salesmen were common, especially vacuum cleaner salesmen.
Western Union telegrams were delivered by a young man on a bicycle wearing a military sort of uniform. A telegram was almost a sure sign that a relative had died.
In the wintertime coal would be delivered to the edge of the sidewalk. Then it would be hauled by wheelbarrow to a basement window to the coal bin.
The most frightening scene I experienced occurred at the corner of Summer Street and Calumet Avenue. I was on an errand of some sort and had to walk in front of a robed Ku Klux Klansman. He and I were the only people at the crossing. The KKK had taken over the direction of all traffic for the evening. They certainly showed their political clout. And they sure frightened me -- a 14-year-old boy against a robed and hooded bigot.
The corner grocery store
Mom and Pop grocery stores were integral parts of a neighborhood. Today they are judged to be something unusual. How different it was back in the 1920s. Within a radius of two blocks there were eight such stores in our neighborhood. A customer would read off the grocery list and the grocer, or his wife, would scurry around the store to gather the list. Most things were on shelves. For things that could not be reached, the grocer had a pole with a clasp on the end to reach the high items. Some stores used a ladder with rollers on the bottom.
Meat items were kept in a large ice refrigerator. When the customer made known his meat items to the butcher, most always "Pop" would propose something from the meat counter, or bring out a slab of meat from the refrigerator. He would then find out which cut was wanted, and then proceed to cut off the desired piece with axe, saw and knife. All work was done on a butcher wooden block.
Many of the grocer's items, now boxed, were sold in bulk. Thus butter and lard would be put into thin wooden "boats" and wrapped in special paper. Cookies were also stored in bulk. Thereby the customer could buy only the quantity desired. About the only kinds of breakfast foods were Quaker Oats, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, puffed wheat, puffed rice, Grape Nuts, oatmeal and Cream of Wheat.
In the days before radio and television, housewives got some enjoyment at the grocer's because of the chance to meet acquaintances and exchange family news. If the mother was tied up with the many chores of running a home and family, she would telephone her grocery list to the grocer and he would deliver the items to the house. Of special interest to children was the penny candy counter where there could be purchased such items as red hots, Tootsie Rolls, evergreens, Mary Janes licorice sticks and other treats.
Many of the customers used credit to shop for groceries. Each purchase would be written on a small form, and the form would be held by a special clip assigned to that customer. At the end of the week or two weeks, on payday, the customer would pay his bill. The grocer would then fill up a little brown bag of penny candy for the customer's children.
Games boys played
"Soft ball," also called "kitten ball" and "indoors. The ball was about 5 inches in diameter. It was fairly soft with large seams. The rules were basic baseball rules with a few modifications. The attractive features of the game were that it could be played almost anywhere. Any sandlot or playground would do for a game. And it was not necessary to have nine players on a team, nor was it necessary to have gloves. It was played indoors in gymnasiums. Home plate could be under one basket and second base could be under the other basket. The only bad feature was the fact the ball was soft and had a short life.
Marbles, perhaps the most popular game. Marbles were about 1-inch spheres of stone or glass or some such hard material. In one version, two boys put a number of marbles in a small circle. Then a large circle would be drawn around the small circle. The idea was to shoot from outside the large circle and knock a marble out of the small circle, and thereby win the marble. The game was played until one boy won all the marbles. Hence the expression "You don't have all your marbles." Playing marbles (also called "mibs") was so popular that it was not unusual for a boy to wear through his thumbnail from which he propelled his shooter. A popular gift for a boy was a bag of marbles.
"Buck, buck, how many fingers up?" A boy would be designated to wrap his arms around a pole or the trunk of a tree, and keep his body stooped. Another player would jump on the first player's back, and yell "Buck, buck how many fingers up? If the player on the bottom guessed correctly how many fingers were up, the players exchanged places. If the first player guessed incorrectly, the first two players kept their positions and a third player jumped on the pile, and shouted "Buck, buck, How many fingers up?" If the first player guessed incorrectly, the third player jumped on the pile, and so on, until the pile collapsed.
Another game, without a name, was for one boy riding the shoulders of another boy. The larger boy did the carrying. They would challenge another pair of boys similarly mounted. Then the two pairs would engage in a pushing and pulling contest until one pair was pushed over.
Fox and Geese was a good winter game. A large wheel with spokes would be drawn in the snow. The lines of the circle and spokes furnished a path for the designated Fox and Geese. The Fox had to catch a Goose who would then become the Fox and have to chase another Goose to take over the job of the Fox.
Kick the Can! A pastime for boys on the way home from school was to find an empty can and start kicking it all the way home. A similar pastime, just as hard on shoes, was to step on a tin can, and then jam a shoe into it so it sort of wrapped around the sole. Then find a can for the other foot. The noise provided by the hollow tin can hitting the concrete sidewalk would make only a subteen-ager happy.
Books for a boy
The series books kept the same heroes, and ingenious devices kept the same villain. If the villain would be killed in the final chapter of a book by falling off a cliff, he'd appear in the first chapter of the next book with the story that when he fell off the cliff he fell into the limbs of a tree.
Chicken on Sunday
Chicken for dinner was sort of a Sunday specialty. The preliminaries were my responsibility. First of all, live chickens were transported by truck from the farm to a designated store. My job was to go to the store and pick out a chicken and bring it home. The legs of the chicken were tied together for ease of carrying the chicken home.
The procedure sounds gruesome today, but this was the method accepted by all families. Using a hatchet and a special chopping block, I went in the back yard and chopped off the chicken's head. The next step was to immerse the dead chicken into very hot water. This made the next step, removing the feathers, rather easy, but messy.
There was no question about the chicken being fresh.
Not uncommon was the presence of chicken coops in back yards in the 1920s. This was probably a carryover from living on a farm or from what was known as The Old Country. Most popular breeds were Dominiks and Rhode Island Reds. When our home on Summer Street was bought in 1921, one of the first chores I had was to demolish the chicken coop.
There was a short stairway from the back yard to the basement or cellar. The stairway was covered by a pair of doors. Also in many back yards was a grape arbor that provided a bit of shade on a hot day, and provided a few grapes in the fall. Back yards furnished a limited area for raising vegetables and small plots of flowers. The back yard also furnished an area for hanging clothes out to dry -- in good weather.
Another backyard business was raising pigeons. Occasionally there would be a sign in the front yard that advertised squabs for sale.
In hot weather, small children would play in a washtub in the back yard. There would be a lot of squealing and splashing. Perhaps it was not as elegant as the present day pools and diving boards, but it was just as much fun.
The back porch furnished a spot to talk with one's neighbors. It also furnished a spot to enjoy the outside a bit, and shell peas or destring beans.
And, of course the back yard furnished a wonderful playground for neighborhood kids.
The basic washing machine was the wash board and a bar of American Family soap. Water for washing had to be heated on a stove. Fortunately these conditions were remedied about the middle of the decade. A Thor automatic took the place of the washboard. Drying the clothes was taken over by the wringer attached to the washing machine. The wringer, however, was not perfect and clothes had to be hung up on a clothesline in the basement in the winter, or on the backyard clothesline in the summer. Hot water for every use had to be heated in a container on the stove. This, too, was remedied by a semiautomatic gas water heater.
In summer an icebox was used to refrigerate food. As the ice melted it was gathered in a pan under the refrigerator. Occasionally emptying the pan was overlooked, and when we got up in the morning there would be a flood in the kitchen.
In the wintertime, a windowbox would be put in the pantry window. This would be the refrigerator until warm weather came.
The timing of events was regulated by the Big Ben radiant clock on the kitchen shelf. Its winding every night was the signal that all activities were done for the day.
In 1925 some homes had a radio. Such homes could be identified by the aerial that ran along the side of the roof from the front of the house to the back of the house. The aerial generally had three wires and were nailed to the house and attached to wooden laths. The few homes that had a radio would invite friends to the house for special events, like the Dempsey-Tunney fight. Radios had three dials. To tune in a station, much fiddling with the three dials and much patience were required.
There were not that many radio stations broadcasting. One of the easier stations to get was KDKA of Pittsburgh. When a person tuned in a station, he would jot down the positions of the three dials. People exchanged such information with each other.