County of Brant Public Library Digital Collections
Taking the Air by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times

Robertson, Mel, Author
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Item Type:
From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article Taking the Air. It explores the meanings of the expression "taking the air" in the beginning of the 20th century. The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.
Date of Original:
September 20, 2000
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Geographic Coverage:
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.0834 Longitude: -80.49968
Provided by Liz Brown
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Protected by copyright: Uses other than research or private study require the permission of the rightsholder(s). Responsibility for obtaining permissions and for any use rests exclusively with the user.
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The Burford Times
Recommended Citation:
Robertson, Mel. (2000, Sep. 20). Taking the Air. Burford, Ontario: The Burford Times.
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Full Text

Taking the air

by Mel Robertson

NOW THAT THE FIRST summer of the new century is "on its last legs", one of my readers has suggested that another "old saying" might be worth discussion. I refer to the expression "taking the air" that was popular when the 20th century came in.

This expression is hard to define as the word "air" was involved with a number of " old sayings". For example, in earlier times if a young lady gave a young man "the air" it meant that she had "dumped" him or, to be "politically correct", had "terminated the relationship". Other uses included "putting on airs" which meant being "snooty" and "hot air" meant stupid verbosity. However, from earlier editions of the "Burford Advance" the term "taking the air" meant various stages of relaxation ranging from physical activity to doing nothing. It was a "catchall" phrase that applied to a time before TV, computers, cell phones, motor cars, air conditioning and skateboards dominated people's lives and people had to decide on a summer evening what part of their imagination would help them relax and be cool (physically, not socially).

Looking back, some people may think that there wasn't much to do in Burford on a summer evening. However, a casual look up and down King Street and Maple Avenue will give a different story.

Let us imagine that we are part of a young family who decides on a summer evening to "take the air". Let us start at the east end of King Street and note the various places people could enjoy themselves - not all in one evening but spread out as the summer progressed.

To begin our evening stroll, our first stop would be at the last house on the east end of King Street. This was the Anglican Rectory where a lawn tea might be in progress with people taking tea and goodies at little tables while enjoying string music played by Mrs. Luard, Margery Cavan and Prof. Carpenter. Then, walking west, the next stop would be at the lawn in front of what is now Sunridge Lodge where the Alpha Tennis Club would be in action with men in white duck trousers

and ladies in white "middeys" playing tennis while elders watch from little tea tables. Here the adults of our party would stop for a brief chat while the children would cross the street to the Pollard property to see if the Pollard parrot would talk to them.

Further west in our stroll we would pass the Anglican cemetery and note the number of people walking among the tombstones. (Cemeteries may seem to be a strange place for an evening stroll but, in earlier days, people liked their park-like grounds and would meet friends for a chat.) Farther west a garden party might be in progress on the lawn of the 1851 house and, at the bandstand in front of what is now the County offices, the local Brass band would be playing and the Lawn Bowling club would be playing on what is now the parking lot.

At the comer of King and Maple a variety of entertainment would be available. In the Barnea Hall a traveling "Road Show" might be playing while at George Armstrong's Ice Cream Parlor you could spend a happy time over a "10 cent" dish of ice cream.

Strolling west our little party would note militia activity at the Armoury and tennis on the Muir lawn (now Bill Sprowl's) and on the Saunders lawn (now my place). From there we would walk west to the end of the sidewalk and, if we were ambitious, we would then proceed along the little cinder path to the bridge over the much-larger drain where big pike could be seen and, finally, for a rest, we go a few steps further to the wooden "High Sidewalk" where we could lean against the railing and "catch our breath". From this spot we could look west to the big house on the bend of the road where a garden party might be in progress or Mrs. Mclntee's "Bicycle club" might be limbering up for a trip around the four mile block.

Returning, in our imagination, to the comer of King and Maple, activities both north and south would be available. Going south, our first centre of activity would be the Congregational cemetery which, like the Anglican cemetery, was considered to be an ideal place for an evening stroll where friends would be met and local events could be discussed.

Then, further south at the comer of Maple and Rutherford Streets, was the Methodist parsonage where a tennis tea or a garden party might be in progress. The same could be said for the lawn that is now the front lawn of Rumble's Funeral home and for the big lawn in front of Pam Reavie's.

Next, our strolling family might note that a freight engine was shunting cars at the RR station and that the canning factory was canning peas. These activities were worthy of attention and our family would walk up the concrete sidewalk to the station where they might chat with Wes Meredith, the interesting station agent, or watch the canning process on the other side of the tracks.

Much further south there might be a garden party at Joe Brethour's on the corner of Maple Ave. and the 8th Concession Road. However a long walk out to Brethour's meant passing by Joe's extensive hog lands which did not provide the sort of evening "air" our family would be seeking.

Returning to the corner of King and Maple, a walk north would bring us to the public school where, on "the big back field", a baseball game between the grey-suited Burford nine and the blue-suited United Farmer nine might be taking place. Near at hand there would be tennis on the Miller lawn and the beginning of the well-kept, tree-lined path that called "courting couples" for a walk as far north as the creek.

At this point we bring our strolling family back to their verandah where, as the kids played on the lawn, the adults would "put their feet up" and discuss the things they had seen, the people they had met and the news they had heard. Verandah time was considered to be the most sedentary way to "take the air" when people rocked on rockers, swung on swings and sang popular songs.

Part-singing was a very popular way to pass the time in earlier Burford times. Many local people were adept at four-part harmony and, at a moment's notice, such songs as "In the Gloaming", "Tenting To-night" or " The Old Mill Stream" would be harmonized. Sometimes an auto-harp, a guitar, a harmonica or a ocarina (Sweet Potato) might be added to The recital. Verandah music could KorrrpttrnE*; bring out another bit of "taking the air" for it was not uncommon, if a strolling family passed a friend's house where singing was in progress, to stop and join in and accept a glass of lemonade.

Non-musical verandah activity could include guessing games and, when the children grew tired of running on the lawn, many people were adept at making up impromptu stories on whatever subject a child might suggest or making kids laugh with nonsensical demonstrations of "mouth music" - a skill I have discussed in previous articles.

Hardly any of the "taking the air" activities involved transportation for most men did not wish to get into the sweaty job of harnessing a horse or cranking a car. People were content to sit on their verandah and maybe watch Mrs. Mclntee's "Bicycle Club" wobble by. The snooty but unskilled activity of this club made people laugh and say, "Looks like bicycles don't care what people do with them."

"Taking the Air" in earlier times was governed by a considerable number of unwritten rules based mainly on various interpretations of such words as "proper", "decent" and "Christian". For example, you could be arrested for doing anything on Sunday but go to church and vigilante gangs of "decent" citizens could threaten you with assault if you raked your leaves on "The Sabbath". Similar restrictive rules applied to summer attire. Very little summer clothing could be bought in stores. Teenage girls could get away with ankle-length skirts and "middy" blouses with long sleeves. Boys were restricted to knee-pants and cotton short-sleeved shirts. Older women confined their summer attire to lighter, full sleeved but open-necked dresses. Hats were usually big Leghorns with flowing ribbons. A 1920's photo of the Burford Public School "Home & School Society" which I have reveals a considerable variety of summer wear, none of which looks cool.

Men were equally "fussy" about what they wore in summer. Sleeves were never rolled up and collars and ties stayed in place. For a man to remove his collar and roll up his sleeves was thought to make him look like an

off-duty bartender - a social NO-NO in Prohibitionist Burford. Men's summer hats were hard-as-rock Christie stiffs which were the acme of sweaty uncomfortable conformity.

The only breaches of summer conformity in Burford were confined to visitors from "The States" when men would appear in the evening without coats, without ties and with open collars, while their American wives were apt to show too much bare arm. Many local people admired the coolness such informal wear gave to the visitors but did not dare defy local rules.

"Taking the air" still survives but not in the magnitude it once did. Motor car travel, computers and out-of-town activities make it almost impossible for many families to get together, let alone together on the verandah. However, I am happy to say that, as a person who likes to have a coffee on my verandah on a summer evening, it is pleasant to see young couples walk by with mobile toddlers and carriage-borne babies with everyone, plus the family dog, enjoying the evening. Verandah sitting by groups hardly exists anymore for the constant heavy traffic along King Street limits conversation to shouted requests of "What did you say?".

Time was once said to "march along" but it now passes with supersonic speed. "Taking the air" has been succeeded by "surfing the net" and now any attempt at relaxation is described quite pompously as "quality time" that must be spent in "politically correct" activity. "Taking the air" and "surfing the net" are about 100 years apart. The former provided local news, local advice and local thought while the latter gives access to almost every sort of information including how to make pipe bombs (and how to use them) and how to vote in Lower Slobovia. In "taking the air" time school teachers read essays based in a child's imagination or what they had been told by parents. However, in "surfing the net" time teachers are faced with essays, compositions and themes based on identical printouts from the "Net". In "taking the air" time maybe a hundred people would be pleased to hear that "A" and "B" had decided to get married. Now the "Net" and the computerized world can make millions over "Harry Potter" or Svyrvrvav. However, amid all this electronic enthusiasm it is interesting to note that the impromptu off-the-cuff story of "Alice in Wonderland", which was made up on a summer day over 140 years ago, can still draw crowds to places like the Port Dover Lighthouse Festival Theatre.

In the new century young people will say that there is no resemblance between the "taking the air" times and the "surfing the net" era of today. There have been great changes, of course, but one important thing remains. I refer to the word "intimidation".

During "taking the air" times young people were intimidated by their parents, teachers, friends and the clergy. The scope of this "intimidation" was small but none the less it was there and influenced young people's lives. Now, in the "surfing the net" era, "intimidation" has become a major part in the lives of millions being "intimidated" by unknown electronic "nerds". Many people will deny that they are being "intimidated" by electronics but it is easy to prove when we note the widespread multi-voiced rage that is directed against anyone who dares to suggest that the "Harry Potter" books are not the best children's books that have ever been written or who say that they were bored by the TV show "Survival". Maybe the person who once said, "The more things change the more they are the same", wasn't completely wrong.

However, before I close this article one important point needs to be mentioned and that is the difference in the "air" in "taking the air" times and "surfing the net" times. One hundred years ago local "air" was influenced by Joe Brethour's "essence of pig poop" and the soft-coal of the post office furnace. Now our "air" is influenced by the big Toronto sewage tankers that bear "essence of purified people's personal products". (How's that for a "politically correct" description of a four-lettered word?) Now we have many ways to combat the odour of "the west wind". In "taking the air" times people just held their nose, said "whew" and kept on walking.

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Taking the Air by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times

From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article Taking the Air. It explores the meanings of the expression "taking the air" in the beginning of the 20th century. The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.