Thursday, February 10, 2011


“A dull day,” writes Grandma Ina in her diary over and over again between November and March -- “A dull day.”

“A dull day,” repeats Mike thoughtfully, and then concludes, “as opposed to a bright day.” However, Ina referred to a sunny day as “a good day.”

Winter days in this region are often overcast and “dull,” even if the temperature is moderate. We don’t have much sunlight this time of year. The lack of light affects our activities and for some of us, our ability to cope; it makes us feel dull, depressed, uninspired.  Today dawned bright and sunny. As I drove a friend to the grocery store, she remarked on how wonderful it was to see the sun and how she would like more sunlight.

Back in the day when homes weren’t electrified, natural light was very important to the accomplishment of the tasks of daily living. For one thing, the dark sky shortens an already short day. For another, we just don’t see as well when light is dim. Lantern light is effective only in darkness and then it tends to be shadowy.  So, any housewife without electricity would have to consider well the daylight hours available to her before beginning a task, especially on a winter’s afternoon. Truly, the housewife of yore had to manage her tasks well on short winter days. 

I remember Ina sitting in her old overstuffed rocker by the big dining room window where she read or stitched by the natural light. She wore a visor with a green celluloid bill that filtered the light for her. Sometimes in my mind’s eye I can see her sitting there yet, the radio, her Bible, and her pin cushion within reach. Who needs ghosts? Or maybe that memory is the ghost.

As I sew here in our little town house this winter, there’s a time in the afternoon when my thought is arrested by the beauty of the natural light, especially if the sun happens to be shining. It seems like there’s a sudden burst of light as the sun approaches the western horizon. (Perhaps it’s just that the sun has come out from behind the shed.) “This is great!” I’ll think to myself, but it’s really the signal that daylight will soon begin to wane. Within a few minutes a dullness creeps in and shadows lengthen. I can hear my mother say, “We’re losing our light.” Once the sunlight begins to fade, it goes quickly. Well, if I didn’t have that electric lighting, I would have to clear away my sewing and gather whatever I need for the evening’s activities. Like Ina, I would bustle from room to room gathering the needful for my evening’s comfort.  

Of course, I’ve never known a world without the magic of electricity. But when I was young we spent some evenings at the farm. It didn’t surprise me that my dad knew how to cope as evening fell since this was his home place. At dusk he gathered several kerosene lanterns for the kitchen work and stoked the wood cook stove. But what did surprise my child mind was that my mother also “knew the drill,” as it were, without any coaching. But of course, she too had known life prior to electricity.

[The picture of the back of the farm house was taken in 1918 during the first winter of its habitation. This side of the house has western exposure. Note all the windows to take advantage of the afternoon light. The photo of the dining room shows the Aladdin lamp above the table. Though Ina was proud of the Aladdin lamp, eventually it was replaced by a larger kerosene lantern that filled the room with light sufficient for evening dining and reading.] KW


Chuck said...

As I remember, but I could be wrong, was the Aladdin lamp was the kerosene lamp with a circular wick, which had to be trimmed just right, and had a mantle, which was lowered over the flame. The name "Aladdin" was on the base. The glowing of the mantle, rather than the flame, was what gave out the light. If the wick was too high, the flame would go outside the mantle and smoke up the chimney. I eventually got pretty good at getting a good light without smoking things up.

The other lamps were just that--lamps. Then, there was the hurricane lamp, which was good for trips to the barn, etc.

Nick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathy said...

Hi Chuck! The last lamp -- and the only one I remember hanging there -- had a green base and a white shade. I believe that's the one you remember and worked with. For some reason they replaced the Aladdin lamp with that one. Daddy electrified the Aladdin lamp and it now hangs above the stair well. Thanks for sharing that memory.

Nameless Deleter -- Why did you remove that post? I know who you are and what you said. Yes, curtains are homey, and I have not stepped up to it. There are several reasons: the expense, the odd size of the windows, the dust, the tendency for textiles to rot in the sun, and the impediment to the view. I think what we see in that dining room photo are draperies, but I remember sheer curtains, which my mother washed, pressed and re-hung.

It's not that I don't have some ideas on the matter. I even have a niece in the business. Lace curtains would be lovely in Hallie's room. Some windows might just have valances to soften the effect. It's not a closed subject. It could be discussed.

Hallie said...

Ha ha! Nameless deleter? It was me but the account was logged in as Nick and then I was too upset about the stupid mistake to recompose the comment under my own account. In fact, I'm still a little annoyed about it--totally my fault. I was on his computer.

Kathy said...

How funny! I totally thought Nick made the comment and then thought better of it for some reason. I had read the comment in my email, so I addressed my response to "Nick" namelessly.

Leah said...

We all know that people in the past lived without electricity. What we don't think very long about (and you did, Kathy) is just how very hard it was. When the sun set, they continued with life, but in a different way. The memory of Ina with the green visor is priceless.

Chris said...

Good post! I, of course, am post-electricity, but at Canyon we had a generator (for the whole station) that often went on the "fritz" as we would say. We had lanterns in the house and used them when we needed to. Of course, I didn't light them, and have no idea how to use them now. But I'll bet Dan does.

Like you, I'm grateful for good lighting after dark. Evening is one of my favorite times to sew as all my other chores are done.

Kathy said...

I always thought farm families before electricity went to bed early and got up with the sun. They took long winter naps, as it were. I think they were more in tune with the rhythm of nature. On the other hand, physical activity must have been a challenge in winter. And they probably had to fight boredom.

Oh Chris, we could figure out a simple lantern. You can still buy the wicks, but they aren't the quality they used to be. We probably don't want to fool with the one Chuck describes.