Unnecessary necessities Of the Past
by Mel Robertson
THE LOGIC OF THIS TITLE may seem to be illogical to people who consider "political correctness" to be more important than anything else, but it was not chosen with logic or "political correctness" in mind. It was chosen merely for its attention-getting quality. This is a well-known practice in journalism whereby readers' attention is stimulated before they read the article. Good examples of this can be seen every time we wait in lines at supermarket check-outs. There we see headlines such as "Man dead 200 years fathers quadruplets" or "Concerto for three flatulent ponies receives a standing ovation in New York". Such headlines have little to do with the articles they head but make a potential reader curious about the whole article. The title of this article may. or may not. fit the subject.
Every age has had its "useless necessities". Some were needed to fit their times and some were just plain stupid. For example, at one time women wore bustles to make them stick out behind and at another time men wore cod-pieces to make them stick out in front. Later when King Edward VII had a pot-belly men's fashions were designed to create potbellies where they did not exist. Of course, figure "useless necessities" still exist in "falsies" for women, "fat suits" for men and shoulder pads for both sexes. There are others (mostly invisible) that are only seen on TV commercials.
One of the most gadget-ridden things of the past was the passing of time in the form of watches. Considerable useless ceremony grew up around watches including where they were kept and how they were used.
To begin with there were no wrist-watches 100 years ago. All watches were pocket watches around which a strict set of rules and ritual developed. Pocket watches that were reserved for formal occasions were always of gold with snap-shut "hunter" cases. They were kept in vest pockets and were attacked to the vest by a heavy gold chain with a dangling "fob" that usually contained the picture of a beloved person or a lodge symbol. These chains and fobs hung in careful dignified loops across a man's chest and proclaimed his social status every time he belched, or took a deep breath.
In pocket-watch days great stress and dignity was placed on the checking of time. For example, if a man said to another man "I will meet you at 2 o'clock" each would, with ponderous solemnity, reach for his gold watch chain and draw it, with all its "fobs",
from his vest pocket. Then the "hunter" case and the watch was displayed at arm's length for the admiration of spectators. After the watches had been synchronized they were returned to their vest pockets with the same display of dignity or ostentation.
Not all pocket watches were things of dignity, for there were watches designed for the working day. These were known as "turnip" watches for they were about twice the size of" an ordinary watch and were always made of silver with no "hunter" case. Foremen of work gangs used these heavy watches to intimidate tardy workmen or workmen who didn't do what they were told to do. I have one such "turnip" watch. It belonged to my grandfather Charlie Woodin who as a house-mover and constructor of large brick factory chimneys, demanded instant obedience from his workmen to avoid life-threatening accidents. Charlie was a large, imposing, no-nonsense man and I am sure that when he produced his heavy "turnip" watch from his work vest, tardy or recalcitrant workmen were intimidated and did what they were told to do.
Women in the old days carried watches on chains. These were about half the size of a man's gold watch and had fancy engraved "hunter" cases. Since women of the time did not have vest pockets they either snapped their watches to little hooks on their blouses or dropped them on chains down the front of their dresses. Retrieving such a watch was carried out with considerable dignity. I recall such ceremony with amusement. Mother had a friend who, while she was a very fine and friendly person, was a bit prissy. She wore pince-nez glasses and starched "waists". Her fancy gold watch was attached to a couple of yards of fine gold chain and she carried it down the front of her dress. My sister and I used to watch open-mouthed when this lady began to haul on her chain in order to check train times back to Brantford. I think we wondered if this long haul of chain would eventually produce a watch. I have several small ladies' watches. My grandfather Woodin, who made a lot of money moving houses, spent a lot of it buying watches for all his female relatives. Some of these, which were not lost among the "Princess Slips" and "corset covers" of the time, eventually came back to me.
Gold watches were a sign of family solidarity and were passed from one generation to
another with considerable solemnity. I can still recall the feeling of awe I experienced at age 7 when my grandfather's gold watch was given to me after his death.
Pocket knives were another item around which a certain amount of "useless necessity" developed in the past. Every man carried a pocket knife of some sort. The ordinary "jack knife" was an absolute necessity 100 years ago when most things were not "user friendly" and required "whittling" to make them work. The biggest of pocket knives was the "Toad slabber" which I hope was never used to stab friendly little toads. It had one big blade and an awl to punch holes in harness. The other end of the line was the "pen" knife that was a fancy little thing kept in vest pockets or ladies' purses. The word "Pen" did not mean that the knife could be used for writing. The word went back to the time when goose quills that were used for writing needed re-pointing with a little sharp knife. Pen knives came in a variety of forms. They were often of engraved "coin silver" and had one little blade for opening letters and a tiny pointed rod that could be used to clean finger nails or pick teeth. To have a tool to pick your teeth may seem strange in 1994, but public tooth-picking was not uncommon 100 years ago. Indeed, it used to be said that people who were trying to create a phoney affluent image in New York would eat at a "greasy spoon" and then stand in front of Delmonico's restaurant picking their teeth with a silver tooth pick.
The acme of all pocket knives was a multi-bladed thing called a "Boy Scout Knife" which still exists under the name of "The Swiss Army Knife". This knife was the hope of every boy even though some of its gadgets did not meet the approval of some of the "politically correct" people of the time. These included a cork-screw which could be used to open beer bottles (Shhh) and a clipper that could be used to clip the ends of cigars (Shhh). Some even had a gadget to remove stones from horses hooves, a particularly "manly" device for it branded the owner as a "sport" who "rode to hounds" and dazzled the ladies. There were even racy jokes about young men who possessed these gadgets on their knives gaining romantic favours form beautiful women. Thus the name "Boy Scout Knife" seemed to be a misnomer for Scouts of the time were urged to avoid smoking, drinking or seeking romantic favours from beautiful women.
Another "useless necessity" of 100 years ago was a set of "Military brushes" which men thought they needed to create a proper parting in their heavily greased hair. "Military brushes", which came in pairs, were always made of ebony. Henry Morgan & Co.'s "Colonial House" catalogue of 1908 advertised a set of "military brushes" as an ideal Christmas present at prices ranging form $3 to $9. Most sets had heavy silver monogram plates on the back and were kept in pig skin or seal skin leather cases to give the impression that since the brushes were "Military brushes" the owner might be called at any time to help suppress the "heathen" in some part of the British Empire. A certain formal flourish was expected of men when they used "military brushes" but comic strip artists of the day often depicted them as one of the missiles, next to rolling pins, that women seeking "empowerment" hurled at submissive husbands. I rate "military brush" sets as "useless" for. while they might have created a good impression on a bedroom dresser. I can't imagine men wasting their time trying to master the skills required to use them.
When the smoking of cigarettes became the "cool" thing in the 1920s, a considerable number of "useless necessities" grew up around it. The silver cigarette case became the ultimate sign of social sophistication. Then people with pretensions for social advancement wanted to smoke they produced a silver cigarette case from their coats or purses. It was opened with a flourish and a cigarette was taken out with an equal flourish. The cigarette was then tapped on the case and. with a couple of arm-length gestures, was placed in the mouth. Then a silver cigarette lighter was produced, held at arm length to draw admiration and snapped a couple of times to emphasize its importance. When the cigarette was alight the user blew a cloud of smoke and then showed their sophistication by passing the case to everyone else. This was considered to be the final "cool" gesture for it assumed that all present (especially ladies) were sophisticated enough to smoke. Women who accepted a cigarette then produced long silver holders from their sequined purses and flourished them like empresses ruling the world. All of these "useless necessities" may still be seen in TV re-runs of Noel Coward plays or such 1930s horrors as "Casablanca".
Pipes and cigars also had "useless necessities" surrounding them. Cigars, in particular, had a certain phoney aura of sophistication. For example, when a man wanted to buy cigars, the merchant never handed them to him. Oh no. that was a no-no. The purchaser was always offered the box so that he could make individual selections and roll them in his fingers beside his ear to test their moisture content. Men who wanted to appear to be "sports" bit off their cigar ends, but men who wanted to appear to be "genteel" produced silver cigar-end-cutters and cigar holders. Pipes, on the other hand, had a sort of reverse bit of "useless necessity" about them. Men who wanted to appear to be "macho" smoked short heavy briars, while "gents" favoured long small pipes with silver bands. The silliest bit of pipe "uselessness" was the carrying of an unlit pipe in the mouth. This, apparently, was felt to be an aggressive thing which when thrust into the face of an opponent, emphasized a man's "macho" power. This was carried to ridiculous extremes by socially prominent men or athletes in the 1930s. The most remembered person to practice this was Fred Perry, the English tennis star, who was seldom seen without an unlit pipe in his mouth or hand.
The carrying and use of canes was considered to be a "useless necessity" even up to the 1930s. Canes were, of course, a carry-over from the time when gentlemen carried swords and were thought to be a sign of "macho" power worthy of "Bobbetizing". The use of a cane could brand a man as a gentleman or a cad. For example, no man who fancied himself to be a gentleman ever twirled his cane for this would brand him as being on a par with vaudeville comedians. Indeed, Charlie Chaplin's silly little cane was thought to be a put-down to cane-carrying people who did not need them. Locally, older Burford people will recall the pompous use of a cane by a man who fancied himself socially superior to the rest of us. As a kid I often wondered, when I saw this person strutting to church with his head thrown back, his eyes half-closed and his cane pompously displayed, if (as his hired girl used to say) he carried his cane when he urinated in his kitchen sink.
Do we have "useless necessities" today? Of course we do. and they can be seen in all phases of life. For example, in former days a batter picked up a bat and walked to the plate. Now he goes adorned with fancy batting gloves, fancy wrist protectors and fancy shin guards. If he gets on base he takes off the batting gloves, hands them to his base coach and dons fancy running gloves. Similar "useless necessities" can be seen in many pro sports where "hot dogging" has replaced playing skill. In other phases of life the entertainer Madonna has introduced the wearing of underwear as outerwear. In everyday life young people spend hours trying to create a "grungy" look of casual filth. Still further, the wearing of "fat suits" by TV newsmen and the sale of coloured condoms defy all attempts at justification. Maybe we haven't advanced as far form the age of "useless necessities" as we think we have.