The End of Childhood
By Mel Robertson
IN THE PAST 20 YEARS I have written about 40 articles concerning Burford childhood in the 1920s. I began this series with some apprehension as I was sure that most of my contemporaries would have different recollections, and people who were not my contemporaries would not be interested. However, I have been astonished by the number of calls, letters, etc. I have received from people of all ages telling me that they found the series interesting and amusing. I would like to thank everyone who took the trouble to let me know.
In the past 20 years I have dug deeply into my bag of childhood memories but now find that the only item remaining is one I will call "The End of Childhood", and I will try to finish this series with an attempt to describe both the beginning and end of that magic period in a child's life.
I realize that in attempting to define childhood I am in danger of running into the social scientist, the politically-correct the multisyllabic know-it-alls and those wearying people whose entire lives have been circumscribed by electronic devices and "battery included" intelligence. Those people can have their say after the/have read this article, but please don't try to impress me with many-decimalled polls and the turgid contents of your word-processor's vocabulary. This article is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive. Anyone who expects that sort of thing can stop reading it right here.
When did childhood begin? Possibly it was when a child began to walk and thus have a bit of independence and curiosity to investigate its environment. Then, with the ability to understand stories that Mother or someone read or told, imagination began to develop. Next, when a child developed reading ability it's horizon broadened still more. Finally, when a child was allowed to integrate into groups of other children and to travel with them, the ultimate magic of childhood was achieved. This age lasted until the child felt "grown up" no matter how old that was in years.
Childhood has ended at various ages. Today it would be at whatever age a child has mastered a computer and the language that goes with it. In the 1920s a number of social factors had great influence on when a child could feel "grown up". One of the most important influences was the severe sexual segregation that existed and the stern belief (held by both men and women) that each sex had definite roles in life, and children should not assume these roles prematurely. Life was divided into "men's work" and "women's work", and men and women did not dare to venture into the other sex's realm. For exam-
ple, apart from teaching and nursing, few women entered professional careers and, while a few men became chefs, very few were found doing things that were considered to be "women's work". Such was the accepted way of life in the 1920s and I do not presume to pass judgment on it.
Since 1920s children did not have computers, TV, or illustrated "How-to-do-it" books to turn them into "know-alls" before they had the common sense to handle this knowledge, children remained run-loving kids until they finished public school. As to boys, the big step away from childhood involved the wearing of "long pants". Such a step may seem laughable in the 1990s but we must remember that in the 1920s long pants for tots were not available in stores and old pictures of Burford Public School classes show all the boys wearing knee pants and long cotton stockings. This was the order of the day and boys did not question it. Grade 7 was considered to be the right time for boys to start thinking about "long pants" and Grade 8 was the usual time to get into them. I recall my first pair of "long pants" with a shudder. When a couple of my older friends got "long pants" I urged Mother to get me a pair. She was reluctant to see me "grow up" and insisted that my first "long pants" would be a pair of my uncle Mel's grey flannels cut. She did the job with skill and on Burford Fair day I planned to "swank it" with my older friends. However, when I put on the pants I found that they barely reached the top of my ankle boots. When I complained Mother told me that I was not old enough for real "long pants" and the responsibilities that went with wearing them. I tried to increase the length by lowering my belt but since this did not improve the "high water" look, I postponed adulthood until I could buy a real pair of "long pants" at Wiles & Quinlan in Brantford. Such was the importance and gravity that was placed on boys converting form short to long pants in the 1920s.
I don't know what serious steps were involved when 1920s girls stepped up to being women. However, as I recall, girls who were taking piano lessons were considered to have taken the big step when they stopped playing "The Jolly Farmer" and were allowed to try their skill at such popular hits as "Yes. We Have No Bananas" and "Peggy O'Neill". This step in sophistication was accompanied by the fact that they were also allowed to wear "barrettes" in their hair instead of hair ribbons.
One of the big differences in the transfer from childhood to "grownup" status between the 1920s and 1990s was the method 'communication. Today children are faced with all sorts of ways to become "cool" through TV. videos, etc. but in the 1920s the big promotion came from a cartoon strip named "Harold Teen". The hero of this strip was a loud smart-ass, Harold, who wore a pound of grease on his hair, "jazz" sweaters and balloon-bottom pants. His vocabulary consisted of expressions such as "hot diggity dog", "sweet patootie", "Charleston-Charleston", "Horse Feathers" and "so's yer old man". His only appendage was a ukulele on which he constantly strummed "It ain't gonna rain no more". His means of transport was an open Ford car on which expressions such as "Oh Min" were scrawled in white paint. His girl friend was a frenetic creature named "Lillums Lovewell" who dared to have "bobbed hair" and to wear 1920s mini-skirts and "jazz garters" which she showed amply when she danced the Charleston. Harold and Lillums spent most of their time dancing the Charleston on street corners and watching "college boys" pile up in football scrimmages. This was the 1920s version of being "cool". Another promotion came from the movies which most kids could not afford to see. In these the cool, macho image was found in the various actors who played the part of desert "sheiks". These were greasy, pseudo-desert bandits who made "hands-off' love to damsels (who's that again?) tbj/had captured in a daring desert raid. To be called a "sheik" in the 1920s was a great compliment and I recall the pride one Burford boy took in this nickname. Maybe it was from these phoney desert romances that the word "hot" became the way to describe youthful sophistication in the 1920s. In 1990s parlance it was "cool" to be called "hot".
Many parents in the 1920s were reluctant to see their children "grow up" and I have a story in my life to illustrate this. At Christmas when I was about 121 received a large mechanical toy from my father. I thought it was a rather strange gift for my age but since neither of my parents said anything I did not ask for an explanation. Many years later, after my father's death. Mother and I discovered the old toy in the attic when we were going through father's things. I asked Mother why I had received the toy so late in childhood. Mother said she had questioned my Father before he put it under the tree. He replied, "I guess I am not ready to let him go yet". I wished that he had been there so that
of love and kindness. The old toy remains somewhere in my attic as a remembrance of a father I should have known better.
Imagination played a big part in 1920s childhood for, since there was no TV, no Nintendo, no videos and no computers to enhance images, kids had to imagine things. This ability depended on how their parents helped by reading to them, or by making up stories. In most Burford homes books such as "Hurlburt's Stories of the Bible" were important reading. Books such as these influenced childish actions and I can recall one time when a group of us decided to make a house of sun-dried brick like houses we had read about in "Hurlburt". Consequently, a mud hole was dug and long grass was pulled. Then a broken doll carriage was overturned in this mess to stir things up. However, our attention-span was short and after a few "bricks" had been made, the erection of the "Temple of Solomon" came to an end and we turned to some other imaginary thing. Imagination in the 1920s was diversified as each child had its own idea of what things should be. There was no way to have visual images such as those realistic horrors that can be created by computer enhancement. For example, we each had a mind-image of the ogre who lived under the bridge and tried to catch "the Billy Goat's Gruff' and of the "Pipsese-waw" who wanted to chew "Uncle Wiggley's" ears, but there was no way that these things could be thrust into our faces by electronic means.
Another dominating factor in a 1920s childhood was what Oscar Wilde described as "Middle-class morality" in which parents taught children that certain things "were not done" and that certain things were "socially correct". One of the rules of "social correctness" was always to fold your long drawers under your long cotton socks as, apparently, bumps around your ankles were considered to be socially depressing. Other rules were always to say "please" and "Thank you". You were also taught that when passed a dish of cake or candy, you did not paw things over trying to find the largest piece but to take the piece "next to you". This meant "nearest to you", but as a kid I always thought this meant the piece beside the piece nearest to you. The
most ominous rule was never to "answer back" to an adult. This could easily result in "one alongside the ear" from the adult concerned plus a similar reward from your parents after they heard about you "answering back". Today, of course, such punishment would result in a lawsuit against the adult who swatted you and prosecution of your parents for doing the same thing to you.
Commercial exploitation of children was not a factor in 1920s childhood, for children had not become "a commercially viable group" that could be exploited to increase corporate profits. Little attention was paid to children in advertising. Children received toys only at Christmas and maybe on birthdays and there was no all-pervasive media such as TV to threaten family break-up if parents did not buy their kids that $500 atom smasher. However, despite severe family and academic restrictions, many parents gave their children considerable leeway in developing their personalities and potential. For example, there were no graduated swimming classes to teach kids how to do "the butterfly" or "a one and a half gainer" off the high board, but most of us became competent swimmers. There were no martial arts defense instructors to teach us to scream a triumphant "Benjo" when we had delivered a behind-the-ear kick, but we learned how to cope with bullies. No one taught us how to do a "Triple ffide" or deliver a crushing cross-check but several became excellent skaters and hockey players. No environmental "experts" told us what to believe about the environment. No "trauma" experts told us how to feel sad when someone died. "Experts" of all sorts now flourish in the realm of childhood. Maybe we would have become better adults if we had enjoyed these benefits. However, what constitutes "a better adult" when today so many people demand their "rights" and so few accept their "responsibilities"?
And so I seem to have come to the bottom of my bag of childhood memories. I turn it over and give it a good shake. Nothing comes out. Maybe somewhere I can hear the far-off laughter of children who laughed with (and at) me. Do I hear the sound of the six o'clock train at the Maple Ave Crossing or the early morning bugle call from the Luard farm? Do treat it" or singing "Merry, Merry Christmas and Good Night"? Do I feel Ted-dog's little cold nose in my hand or do Bowerman's paw as he offered to shake hands? No, it is all gone, carried away by the winds of reality that blew with increasing vigour through my life and that of my friends. So what do I do now? Well, as children have done for ages, I blow the bag full of air, squeeze the top together and give it a good whack. It explodes into little bits and is thrown away.
Maybe an appropriate ending for this series would be a reference to a quotation from Shakespeare's play "The Tempest", which was the first "English Literature" item we studied after leaving the childhood place of Public School and entering the "Grown-up" place of High School. This play revolves around a group of people who are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by magical people and things. Toward the end of the play one of the players. Prospero. says. "Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and have melted into air, into thin air... We are such things as dreams are made of and our little life is founded with a sleep". Maybe that says the
P.S. In writing almost anything today journalists ha\>e to insert a disclaimer at either the beginning or the end of their articles. This will be at the end. In writing about a 1920s childhood it is hard to avoid the charge that on are praising "the good old days" and decrying the present. This is a facile, but stupid, argument. The 1920s were no better than the 1990s; they were only different. Every age and time has its memorable aspects and its forgettable things. I certainly know that this applies to me. I don't look back on my childhood with nostalgic joy. Some of it was memorable and some was forgettable. The only way an historian can be honest is to present the good and bad points of the past with equal emphasis and hope that people will perpetuate the good things and avoid precious errors. I don't know if I succeed in this or not, but I do know that the people who sneer at any discussion of our history are always those who don't give a damn if they continue to fall face-down in messes they could have avoided.