Up in the air and down by Mei Robertson
In my attempts over the years, to chronicle the lives of Burford children in the early 1920's I seem to have overlooked one of the simplest, but yet most versatile, of children's playthings. I refer to the swing in its many forms.
The swing, of course, is not an extinct device, a new thing or yet something that was unique to the 1920's. Swings have been with people of all ages for all ages. It is impossible to determine when they were invented. If we accept Darwin's theory our hirsute ancestors hot-rodded it through the trees on swings of vines. Ancient Oriental artists portrayed the swing as an adjunct to pursuits of a rather disgusting and acrobatic nature. Eighteenth century artists delighted in portraying overdressed men pushing overdressed women on swings with the hope thereby of catching a glimpse of a silken ankle. Swinging (on swings) has been enjoyed by many people over the centuries with the possible exception of pirates, highwaymen and other criminals who may not have got too much enjoyment swinging from gallows, yardarms, lampposts and other conveniences.
Swings have really never left the scene. They are still in use in most playgrounds. However, I do not think that they play as great a part in the lives of children in 1979 as they did in 1921 simply because to-day there are television programmes, playground activities and swimming pools to divert a child on a summer's day whereas in 1921 the lack of such things forced the child to make the most of his imagination, invent his own games and make do with what little he had. If children were the better for it I do not know or am I particularly interested in speculating.
Swings in 1921 could be divided into three main categories, plus one - the rope swing with a wooden seat, the hammock and the four-seater lawn swing. The
"plus one" wasn't really a swing at all and will be described later.
The hammock, which is still with us in a rigid aluminum frame, was quite a different article in 1921. Basically it was a free-swinging device intended to be suspended between two trees or verandah posts. It also came in three varieties. The Queen (or King) of hammocks was made of Indian cotton in colours of red, yellow, orange, green, black and brown woven in intricate patterns. For some reason blues, pinks and whites were never seen. Along the edges hung flaps of the same material heavily fringed in matching colours and at the head was a pillow of marmoreal hardness. At the head and foot, ropes of complimentary colours were kept separated by turned yellow rods. Why all the gaudy colours and fringe? Probably for decoration but also from experience it would seem that the swinging fringe and bright colours discouraged mosquitos and flies in a day before modern pesticides encouraged the more hardy of these pests to belabour mankind.
The fringed hammock was ideal for day-dreaming or napping but it was of little use to a solitary child as it could not be swung properly by a reclining person and needed someone to do the swinging. It was, however, the butt of many garden-party comedians' jokes. These usually involved ardent young swains who in attempting to kiss their beloved, either ended up snared like a mackerel or were cast upon the ground in an unfathomable tangle.
The fringed hammock in 1921 was a status-symbol almost on a par with the neat, vine-covered outhouse. Every respectable household rejoiced in a properly-hung and fringed hammock on the front verandah and while boisterous children might be discouraged from using the device, the sight of properly-flannelled young men, or neatly middled young ladies, reclining in hammocks with tennis racquets and lemonade, was bound to be status-solidifying. Even better, was the vision of visiting American aunts and uncles attired in Christie-stiff hats or frilly blouses (according to their sex or inclination) lolling in hammocks with glasses of "Dr. Adams Cooling Mixture and Health Beverage" in their indolent hands.
The second type of hammock was the home-made canvas hammock. This type was fairly rare and with good cause, for due to the lack of stiffeners, it tended to enfold the user like a clam and unless properly hung, would sag and drag his backside on the ground. On the bottom rung of the hammock ladder was the barrel-stave hammock which, as named, was made of barrel-staves fastened together with heavy wire. This was utility and discomfort at their best. It was impossible to destroy the thing or to be comfortable in it. There was a certain malevolence about barrel-stave hammocks for if the wires did not pinch you the slivers would impale you. Indeed, it was thought by some that to attempt to kiss a young lady in a barrel-stave hammock marked a man as a cad, unfit for human society.
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Almost equal in status-gaining was the four-seater lawn swing. This was a wooden affair with facing seats that hung in a wooden frame and provided seating for, at least, four adults in considerable comfort. It was an ideal plaything for children as it provided great scope for the imagination and could be converted, in the mind, to a dirigible, a motor-car, an airplane, a submarine or any of the death-defying devices featured in our story-books. Many Burford houses had these swings on their front lawns; many so close to the sidewalk that casual passersby would pause for a swing and chat with any other casual passersby who happened to be using it. These swings are still available in less well-constructed form. Alas, in these days of enlightened vandalism, it is doubtful if a lawn swing would last one night on a Burford front lawn.
Another type of verandah swing was the stiff-backed contraption like a wooden settee, without feet. This hung on chains and creaked abominably when swung. In pre-traffic summer evenings Burford owners of such swings proclaimed their munificence the width and length of the street. However, inspite of their loquacity, these swings, if properly hung, could be extremely comfortable and safe since their broad beams prevented snoozers with equally broad beams from tipping off the edge. Children found them a marvellous vehicle in which to escape from reality into the world of whimsey and make-believe.
Last, but not least among swings was the simple wooden-seated rope swing that hung from any convenient tree. Here was the ultimate delight of childhood in the 1920's; a thing so cheap and simple but imbued with a versatility that is almost beyond the imagination to describe.
The rope swing, as described by R.L. Stevenson in his most rythimic poem of the same name, was part of every household, with children, in the 1920's; usually the work of a loving uncle or grandfather. It was the answer to the bored, or solitary child when he or she, asked the question "What is there to do?" The child's mother could say "Why don't you swing for a while?" and this would open an ever-varying field of imagination and contrivance.
Little skill was required to operate a common rope swing other than the ability to "pump" in order to gain altitude. This action may be called something else to-day as few children know what a pump is, or need to know. However, in the 1920's every house in Burford, with a few exceptions, had a pump in the yard and children were accustomed to the act of pumping. It did not matter to them that there was little resemblance between pumping a pump and pumping a swing, the name was used. "Pumping" a swing was done by pushing your backside forward against the seat board and then
straightening your legs. This gave impetus to the swing and the harder you "pumped" the higher you went. There were various forms of "pumping" such as standing up, double standing up with pumpers facing in opposite directions and stand-up-sit down pumping with one person sitting down and one standing up. Double sitting down pumping was impossible as neither pumper could exert sufficient force on the swing to gain altitude. Usually swinging was done by a solitary swinger who after he had reached his best height would "let the old cat die" which meant that he stopped pumping and let the swing gradually stop swinging. Then he could try twisting the rope as tight as he could and be rendered staggering dizzy by the unwinding cord. When this grew tiresome there was always the game of leaping off the swing at its highest and trying to beat your previous leap. On some occasions, if an aunt or uncle was present they could be induced to push the swing. This was a pleasant treat as the child could usually count on what was considered the thrill of thrills.
I don't know what children called it but when the pusher grew tired of pushing, he or she^, would suddenly shout "High Water" and pushing the seat of the swing to a point higher than their head would let go of the board and run under it. This left the child careening through the air in the most abandoned manner. The "High Water" was the ultimate thrill of swinging and I challenge anyone who has flown at over 35,000 feet in a plane to say that such a flight can offer more thrills than a good old "High Water" push. However, it was unusual for a child to experience more than one "High Water" push at a time for the energy involved in producing it was more than most city-bred aunts and uncles were prepared to expend. There were also certain hazards attending a "High Water" push - the child on the swing might be overcome by the altitude and fall on the pusher thereby soiling a celluloid collar or mussing a frilly "waist". There, too, was the possibility that a nervous child, confused by the sudden sensation, might have a physical reaction and throw up. Consequently it was a risky business.
Finally we come to a type of swinging which I described as "plus one" earlier in this article. This was swinging without a swing on the Armoury railings. These were long metal pipes that ran along the east side of the Armoury (Fellowship Baptist Church). They were designed to tether cavalry horses but when not so engaged were inhabited by hordes of Burford rhildren intent upon "turning themselves inside out" and "Skinnging the cat". The first of these manoevres involved hanging from the bar and swinging your feet between your arms thereby turning a summer sault under the bar. "Skinning the Cat" meant sitting on the bar and swinging back-
wards until your head passed under the bar; hoping all the while that you hadn't grown so much since the last time that your head would crash against the ground. Another and more stupid trick was to straddle the bar and then by holding tight with your hands swing down either to the right or left hoping once again that you would not dash your brains out on the ground or fertilize them with the residue of the cavalry horses.
The use of the phrases "Let the Old Cat Die" and "Skinning the Cat" have always puzzled me as most kids had cats or kittens as pets in the 1920's and would not have harmed them in any way. However, like many other old phrases, they probably go back to ancient times when cats were thought to be the companions of witches and capable of malevolent powers.
So what was so great about swinging in the 1920's to merit an article about it? The only "big" thing about swings was that they were simple devices on which children, in their imagination could seem to leave the confines of earth and fly like birds or aviators.
The idea of imagining that you were flying on a swing may seem laughable to-day but it must be remembered that in the 1920's aviation was a new and exciting thing. Burford people rarely saw an aeroplane and the sound of an aeroengine would bring the whole village into the streets shouting and gesticulating in the most extravagant manner. On the odd occasion when a barnstorming pilot landed on the field
where the Arena now stands, or in what is now the Clarke Survey, houses were emptied for miles around and roads were clogged with automobiles and buggies. The idea of flying was on everyone's minds but the opportunities for doing so were almost nonexistent, especially for children. Consequently, flying into the and on a swing was the only way that a child could imagine that he or she, had left "the surly bounds of earth" and was flying like a bird, Tom Swift, or one of the World War aces they read about in story books.
Times and attitudes change. Even the word "swinging" has progressed from something that was done on a swing to something that was done to music to something that is not done to music. The only place it has not changed is in the minds of rather elderly people who can still hear, on a
summer's day, the scuffy sound of running shoes on the earth under a swing and the faint echo or that feral cry of "High Water".