by Mel Robertson
Tennyson described Autumn as "happy". John Logan considered the time to be "congenial" and Keats praised its 'yellow fruitlessness". However, if Burford children of the 1920's had got around to calling the after-summer months anything but Fall they might have named them the "four to six" times or the "Leafhouse season".
"Why the 'four to six' times" you may ask? The answer is that in the 1920's Autumn was the time for birthday parties from "four to six". This, of course, prompts the question "Why Autumn when children are born at all times of the year?" The reply to such a query is that in the 1920's when there was a lack of refrigeration and convenience foods, Autumn was the easiest time to hold a children's party as the cooler weather made it easier to preserve ice-cream and other perishable foods so dear to the tastes of children. In other words, Spring was too muddy, Summer was too hot and Winter involved too many overshoes and coats. Whatever the reason, Autumn was the time when the invitations arrived announcing that "little-so-and-so" was having a party from "four to six". The word "little" was always used to describe the hostess or host, presumably so that the recipient would know that the party was honouring a child rather than some adult who had become a bit "dotty".
Yes, there they were; those pretty hand-made invitations with their flowers and bouncing puppy-dogs delivered at the front door -never by post or telephone and with a routine that did not vary year in and year out.
There was a certain unexplainable fascination with repetition in those far-off parties which to-day would be synonomous with boredom. However, that was not the case with the party-goers of the day. Children expected certain things in certain houses every year and would have been disappointed if they were not present. There are many examples - At Roy Miles' a ride on his fabulous hobbyhorse was an anticipated thrill, at Scott Rutherford's cream-puffs of gigantic size were always expected; one ex-Burford businessman (then a child, of course) always took two; one of which he ate and the other which he smeared on his own face and on the faces of anyone handy. At Meredith's we looked forward to having all the chairs lined up while Billy put on a demonstration of magic tricks or something. At my home it was paper streamers to the four corners of the table,
strings to follow to treasures and a long hall for running games. Other places had other features that children looked for as soon as they came in the door.
Another asset in the 1920's Burford party-houses was the fact that most had double parlours with dividing doors or curtains. These provided an excellent setting for many party games where "choosing up sides" was involved as it was possible to separate the two "sides" so easily. Sometimes one of the rooms served as an impromptu stage and cartons of old clothes were brought down from attics so that little actors could perform for an audience seated on rows of dining room chairs in the other room. Another version of the mock stage was when "aunts" or mothers would don false faces or funny hats and by suddenly thrusting their faces through the curtains would convulse children in "guess who" games. At other times the dividing line between the rooms served as a 'baseline' across which two teams contended in "pulling games" such as "Pom-Pom Pull Away" or "Nuts in May"..
In some houses the curtains served as a back-drop for magic-lantern shows with bed sheets pinned to the cloth. A magic-lantern, to the initiated, was a device consisting of a red enameled meal box with gold-scroll fancywork. Inside was a 40 watt bulb, or if the house lacked electricity, a small lamp. By a series of lenses and reflectors it was possible to project picture postcards or little glass slides on the screen. The glass slides were particularly popular as they included such features as "You-Draw-EM" slides. These were plain glass slides on which guests were permitted to draw their own pictures, and to see some of your own handiwork projected on the screen placed you among the movie magnates of the day. I was fortunate in having a hand-cranked moving picture projector which showed two one-minute reels; one of these thrillers showed a man opening a door and patting another man on the back while the other depicted a pianist entertaining card-players in what was obviously (of all things!) a bar. Looking back, I wonder how I was allowed to show such a demoralizing film at a time when bars and card-playing were under such a local taboo. However, I don't think that any of the viewers 'went to hell in a handcart' as a result of seeing these pointless films. Another popular curtain game was "Pinning the tail on the Donkey" in which someone's version of a cardboard
donkey was pinned to the curtains and blindfolded children attempted to pin a tail on it. This was great sport until some of the more socially-advanced children contrived to pin the tail in anatomically impossible places much to the horror of 'mothers and "aunts".
There was considerable organization at those 1920's parties; organization that probably would not be accepted by children to-day. Mothers and "aunts" were always present by the fact that they were prepared to romp like children in the games made their presence less formidable. Maybe children were more regimented in the 1920's but I can't recall that the presence of adults made the parties any less enjoyable. Aimless running and screaming was quietly suppressed, punching and pinching gently discouraged and wall-flower shyness overcome by humour and encouragement. Accidents were averted by watchful mothers who knew at a glance when a very excited child was about to have a physical accident. Then appropriate action was taken to quietly lead the child to the appropriate convenience without subjecting it to the ridicule of its playmates. Looking back it would appear that vigilance was essential, for, generally speaking, children of the 1920's were more reticent about natural functions than they are to-day. At the risk of appearing vulgar I will suggest that this was partly due to natural shyness and partly to the fact that since most houses lacked indoor facilities, few small children were prepared to risk missing the fun by undertaking a trek in the autumn twilight to the vine-covered outhouse in the garden. Absence from a party could be a traumatic thing for a child and I can recall one particular party when a now-prominent, but no longer resident, of Burford was observed to be dancing a tearful fandango in the corner of the room. When asked the reason for this strange performance the sobbing terpsichorean admitted that a trip "out back" had become a necessity but that it had to be postponed indefinitely for fear that the candy would be passed during the enforced absence.
In vain did the anxious mothers and "aunts" plead for the trip to be made before disaster struck but the caterwauling and prancing continued until a promise was made that nothing would happen until the afflicted party goer returned. Talk about black-mail!
Most children of the 1920's accepted the organization at parties with the odd exception when a "show-off"
child attempted to monopolize the attention. I recall one occasion when a couple of exhibitionist boys disrupted a party by crawling downstairs headfirst and other time when all the male guests adjourned to the lawn and began to "show-off" for the girls by jumping from the back of an old church seat. Mothers and "aunts" accepted these things with equanimity as they knew that the exhibitionists would soon tire of their antics if they were ignored.
Most of the parties of the 1920's tended to be sexually-segregated according to the sex of the host or hostess. Occasionally mixed parties were held but boys generally tended to dislike such parties since the girls always wanted to play games that involved singing or kissing such as "Go in and out the Window". Boys, as a rule, didn't like to sing at parties and as far as kissing went it was regarded as one of several things that would stunt your growth.
The giving and receiving of gifts at parties of the 1920's followed a rigid system. Gifts given to the host or hostess were never opened until the guests had departed. This was a sensible rule as it prevented any odious comparisons and comments such as "My gift cost more than yours". I can recall only one departure from this procedure when a guest brought his host a box of chocolates & immediately set up a clamor that the box be opened so that he could have most of the chocolates. This was treated by the other guests as extreme rudeness and some of the more outspoken "aunts" were heard to whisper the word "trashy". It is also interesting to note that at the 1920's parties gifts were not only given but also received. This latter procedure also followed a rigid rule which decreed that gifts given to departing guests were never "store boughten" but were homemade. This did not mean that the farewell presents were "tatty" as considerable thought and skill went into the construction of the tinsel boxes and cornucopias of homemade fudge that appeared on hall tables as the party was breaking up.
Coming home from a party in the autumn dusk of the 1920's was rather special and mysterious due to the absence of traffic on Burford streets and the rather dim street lights. Then the familiar things of the day took on different shapes and the fallen leaves under our feet rustled in an unusual way. At least we imagined that things changed and this was due to the fact that we were rather unsophisticated about practical things and absorbed with the stories we read, or had told to us.
Accordingly, the autumn haze was interpreted as being the lazy smoke from some mysterious encampment of Indian warriors back at the creek and the sound of our feet in the leaves as the stealthy approach of indescribable followers (who never dared to come too close since we all carried battleaxes disguise-ed as sticks we had picked up along the way(. To add to the mystery was the lamp-light from the houses we passed. Many Burford houses did not have electricity in the 1920's and consequently there were no porch lights or yard lights Thus the only light between the widely-spaced street lights was the friendly golden glow from lamps in windows. Of course, we were never allowed to come home alone in case we "dawdled". If an "aunt" from the party house was not available for convoy duty someone's mother or "hired girl" would come to see us home; usually enhancing the trip with fanciful stories or "walking" games. Indeed, if the party was near Halloween, or was a Halloween party, it was not unusual for the escorting person to come disguised as an Indian chief or a Lincolnshire preacher just to please the children and extend the party spirit a bit further.
Another Autumn pastime for children that seems to have fallen into disuse is the making of leafhouses. The decline in this game is probably due to the increased use of such mechanical devices as leaf mulchers and lawn sweepers. Looking back to the time when there was only a rake and basket to gather fallen leaves, I suspect that the encouragement of leaf-house making was a subtle way parents had to get leaves raked up on the lawns Consequently, when a child asked its mother "What will I do this afternoon?" she was apt to reply "Why don't you make a leafhouse?"; knowing full well that such a suggestion would result in the raking of widely-scatter-
ed leaves into orderly piles that could be burned later. This was not a malicious thing on the part of parents as leafhouses were a fleeting attraction that never lasted beyond the first good breeze or heavy dew.
What was a leafhouse? Was it merely a playhouse made of leaves? The answer is that it was and it wasn't. If there was a convenient corner such as the one that existed in front of Mt. Vernon school where leaves could be stuffed into a fence, a real house could be created with a few boards for a roof. If no convenient corner was available to inspire the imagination of children a leafhouse was composed of equal parts of leaves and imagination. Imagination played a great part in the construction of such leafhouses for the walls could only be as high as the breeze permitted; from there up the walls were pure imagination. Most leafhouses only lasted for a few hours of an Autumn's afternoon or until^the imagination of the most outspoken child turned to something else. Still, the construction of the leafhouse provided good exercise for children and fun in pretending that a two-foot wall of leaves was a castle or fort where scenes from our books could be acted out until mothers or "aunts" brought out cookies or buttered scones or until Dr. Johnston came along" and carted everyone off in his open touring car for his "rounds" in the country.
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One rather strange thing about Autumn in the 1920's was that whereas many children spent most of their summer days at the flats along the creek, when Autumn arrived the creek became a forbidden zone. This was not made so by parental orders but rather by a mutually-held felling that something "funny" had taken place in our summer haunts with the onset of Fall and we shunned the place unless we made a quick trip in search of nuts. The feeling one had on such a visit is hard to describe but it was a feeling that time was standing at the flats waiting for summer. It was a world of silence and waiting which
Thomas Hood described in his "Ode to Autumn" as "I saw old Autumn in the misty morn, stand shadowless as silence, listening to silence"; the silence of the flats being due to the absence of the birds and insects which gave the place life in the summer. Fall at the flats was like the interval in a theatre when the scene sets were being changed; a time when one held one's breath waiting for the next act; which in this case was winter. Then our attitude changed and there was no reluctance to visit the creek now that the faded relics of summer had been decently covered with snow.
There was always a time
in the late Autumn of the 1920's when children said to themselves "This is enough" and longed for the onset of winter with its entirely new set of pastimes and pleasures Then every grey cloud
was viewed with anticipation in the hope that it contained snow. If the first snow came at noon the absentee rate at school increased as children begged to be allowed to stay home and watch the snow.
Indeed, at such times it was not uncommon to see the more impatient children tearing the last few leaves from bushes with the hope that this would encourage the arrival of winter while
others laboured to roll snowballs that were more than half leaves. Then "Old Autumn" was gone and children entered happily into the next cycle of the "Rolling Year".