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The shift in make-shift

Food For Thought

A recent luncheon with some of my old school friends, several of whom I first met in kindergarten, brought to mind the toys and activities we enjoyed during the late 1930s and early ‘40s. Looking back, I suppose I had more toys than the average child from a family of comparable means, because of my dad’s belief a child’s business was playing, and the tools for that business were toys. He also had a German mother who emigrated from a country with a natural love and appreciation for toys, and a Norwegian father whose hobby was crafting violins and miniature curiosities, doll house furniture and wooden toys. Dad appreciated craftsmanship and was naturally creative and interested in new ideas. My mother, having grown up in a farming family that, for generations, moved frequently as Americans flowed west to investigate and populate new territories, was used to traveling light and improvising. Between the two of them, my sisters and I enjoyed the benefits of a well-stocked toy box and a natural inclination to create our own toys and other things from leftovers, discards and imagination.
Because Dad liked toys, especially anything new and unusual, and because he had only daughters, he frequently brought home what most people would consider “boy toys,” because he enjoyed playing with them, which meant we girls were included in the play and grew up thinking cap pistols, lead soldiers, dump trucks and exploding submarines were meant for girls just as much as for boys. Erector sets, smelly chemistry sets, kits for building birdhouses and model planes frequently found their way under the Christmas tree. Best of all, we all learned to use hammers and saws, pliers and wrenches, clamps and soldering irons.
Surprisingly, some of those manly skills were taught to us by our mother, who was adept at installing new window panes and screens, replacing worn lamp cords, patching plaster, painting and hanging wallpaper. All these skills and the attending self-confidence added up to our belief we could turn those empty shoe boxes into luxurious dollhouses; soup cans and cheese boxes into an elegant desk or dressing-table accessories; oatmeal boxes into doll cradles; and empty pop cans into bases for clever table lamps. Like all children at that time, we treasured old roller skates, wagon wheels and casters from discarded furniture, hoarding them for future projects which seldom materialized.
A constant and treasured source of material for many of our projects was the wallpaper sample book Mother regularly talked the manager at the paint store into saving for her. As soon as the new sample books arrived, the old ones became obsolete and Mother chose one or two of the large volumes which we, first, simply browsed, enjoying the variety of colors, styles and color schemes available. We tended to reserve the smallest designs for papering the rooms in our dollhouses. Sometimes, we were surprised to find a wallpaper pattern that matched a design currently existing in a room in our house (often amazed to learn the same design was available in different color combinations) and we would claim the familiar design to cover a tissue box or small wastebasket for that room. Come May Day, the wallpaper book provided material for the baskets we folded to contain the candy, popcorn and wildflowers we filled them with to deliver to our friends.
Those popular wooden orange crates (also used for berries, peaches, and many other fruits and vegetables, but still referred to as orange crates) were prizes to be envied, along with the sturdy cigar boxes we turned into safes for treasured collections of jewelry, marbles, photos and, later, love letters. While the crates could be taken apart and the material used to build many different things, they were quite useful just as they came from the grocery store. One, two, or several could be stacked or lined up in a row to serve as shelves for books, toys, tools, garden supplies, whatever. Two crates set upright with space between served as the base for a desk or dressing table with the addition of a wide board for the top. Rough surfaces on the shelves could be covered with wallpaper to prevent snagging of sweaters, lingerie, diapers, towels or other cloth items to be stored. A curtain or “skirt” was often thumb-tacked to the edge of the board to hide and protect the things stored on the shelves. When orange crates were no longer available, they were partially replaced by the brick and board bookshelves of the 1950s, then by the tower of milk crates. Today, we can buy plastic or resin components especially manufactured for constructing our own “makeshift” storage.