Several years ago, my second graders wrote letters to my grandmother, Lizzie Jim Sanders Farmer. She and my mother, Shirley Farmer Krampf, wrote this as a reply.
I was in second grade a very long time ago. It was 1912. Many of the things that you have at home and at school had not been invented yet. A hundred years from now, people will wonder how you were able to live without some on the things that will be invented between now and then. Since they have not been invented, we don’t even know what they will be.
When I was in second grade, I lived a long way from a city. I lived in a little community. Farms were all around it. It was about 15 miles from a small town and fifty miles from a city. To get to the small town or the city, we had to ride in a wagon pulled by a mule. My house had no electricity because no one in our area had electricity. Even though electricity had been invented, the wires that carry electricity did not come out into the farmland until many years later. We got our light from lamps filled with oil, and from the fireplace. Anything that has to be plugged into the wall, we did not have.
No refrigerator, no freezer, no TV, no video games, no CD player, no Ipod.
I walked about a mile and a half to school when I was in second grade. A few years later, we moved from the very small community to the farm where my father worked, and I had to walk about three miles to school. On rainy days, my father took us on a mule. If the weather was very bad, we stayed home and worked in the barn shelling corn or cleaning out the stalls where the cows stayed. Sometimes we cleaned the ashes out of the fireplace and the stove, and saved them outside in a bucket. My mother used the ashes to make hominy from dried corn. We could make it to eat in the wintertime, when the corn was no longer growing in the garden. She also used the ashes to make soap.
When we lived in the small community, we had a cow and some chickens. From the cow, we got milk and butter. From the chickens, we got eggs, and we had chicken for dinner on special occasions. We got our water from a well.
We also put things that we needed to keep cool, like milk, down in the well, because the water in the well was cool. There was usually a small shelf dug out in the wall of the well, where you could set a couple of things.
We bought some food from the small general store. It was one room, only a little bigger than your classroom. We could buy flour, meal, and sugar, and dry beans and spices. Sometimes they had pieces of candy. We could also buy shoes and socks, and fabric to make our clothes. It was sort of like WalMart if you took away all the things that required electricity or refrigeration or had not been invented yet. WalMart would not be very big today if you took all those things away. Some things had been invented that were only in large cities like San Francisco.
I think I was about 10 or 11 when we moved to live on the farm. The farm was large and several families had little houses there to live in. At one time, there were 14 children who lived there with their families. We played games together. The owner of the farm lived in a large, white house and the rest of us lived in small houses. Our house had a small kitchen with a stove. There were two small bedrooms with a stove that used wood to heat the rooms and a larger room with a fireplace and two beds. The larger room was only used when company came, because we had to save the wood so it would last all winter. Upstairs, there was a large room with no heat. It had three beds in it. It was like an attic. My brothers slept up there. My sister slept in a small bed downstairs.
Now I will answer your questions.
The school that I went to had two rooms. Several grades were in the same room. I carried my books to school in a “book satchel” which was a cloth bag with handles. My mother made it. We did not have much to carry home. Usually, I carried a tablet with my spelling words, a pencil and my geography book. If it was raining, we did not take a book home because we did not want to get it wet.
We had some homework. We had to learn spelling words. I was good in spelling and every Friday we had a spelling bee. Even though I was good at spelling words, sometimes I had to sit down.
We had reading homework every night. I liked to read. My father could not read or write. When he was growing up, he was never able to live close enough to a school to go to it.
My mother could read and write, but she could not read hard words. She only went to school a few years. Because I learned to read really well, I still enjoy reading. I read the newspaper every night. I read the advertisements, too, and I like to look at the clothes that are for sale.
When I moved to the city, I got a library card. I went to the library every week to get books to read.
We had a blackboard at school and wrote on it with chalk. Markers and whiteboards had not been invented. I did my work in a tablet that cost a nickel. I used a pencil to write with. I think it cost a penny.
I liked geography. I did not like arithmetic. I learned how to do it because I wanted to know how much money I needed to buy candy, and to make sure I got the right amount of pennies back from the storekeeper. But I did not like arithmetic because you have to think a lot to learn it.
I had friends at school. And some people who were not friends at school, but I had to be nice to them anyway. One girl did not have a lot of food at home. Sometimes she took my lunch and ate it. That meant that I did not have any lunch that day. We had to bring our lunch, or go home to eat. I usually took a biscuit sandwich, with ham or bacon or egg on it. If we had sweet potatoes, I would take a baked sweet potato. We drank water.
One day a boy took a cup of water up to the top of the steps that went outside. When we went out to play at recess, he poured the water on us.
He got in a lot of trouble, and had to stay in at recess for several days.
I can still remember the names of the boys and girls in my class. Kate Grimes. Georgia Grimes (she needed help walking) Thelma Anderson. Cornell Easlely. Edith Anderson (she was stuck up). Pauline Ferguson. Odell Ferguson. Elese Baker (she is the one who took my lunch). Lily Worley. Ruby Harvell. Paul Baker. James Baker. Hobert Baird. Easley Bratton. Paul Jones. Malcolm Baker. “Dummy” Baird (it was not nice of us to call him “Dummy” and I cannot remember what his real name was) and Pauline Neely.
I did not have a bicycle. No one I knew had a bicycle. The roads were not smooth, and you could not ride a bicycle on them. I learned to ride a bicycle when I was grown up. I did not have a camera. Only professional photographers had cameras. They traveled around the country, taking photographs of families. They would stay with a family for a few days and take pictures. Then they would bring the photographs back in a few weeks. Even poor families wanted the photographs to hang on their wall, because it was something we had not seen before. It was almost like a miracle.
We did not have many toys. At Christmas we usually got one toy, an orange and a peppermint stick of candy. Oranges were rare, and we thought they were very good. We did not have orange juice at the store. Oranges had to come from a long way off because orange trees do not grow in Tennessee.
We played games. We played with balls and jump ropes and marbles, and jacks. We played hide and seek and other games like that. Sometimes we played with things that we should not play with. One afternoon on the farm, we pulled a large hay wagon up to the top of a hill and all the kids on the farm got in it and rode in it down the hill (without any mule pulling it). There was no way to guide it. It was fun and no one got hurt. So we pulled it back up the hill and were going to do it again. It could have turned over and hurt us because we could not guide which way it would go. The man who owned the farm saw us and made us stop. He told our fathers. We got in big trouble and never tried to do that again.
My bed looked much like the bed you sleep in, but the mattress was made out of straw, covered in fabric. It had a place where you could add more straw when you needed to. We had to shake it once in a while to fluff it up. On top of the straw was a “featherbed”. It was like a pillow filled with feathers, and it was large enough to cover the straw mattress. It needed to be
fluffed once in a while to make it more comfortable. Both of these mattresses needed to be taken outside in the sun occasionally to freshen them and make them smell good. We had pillows filled with feathers from chickens that we killed and cooked for dinner. Some pillows were filled with duck feathers. You can pluck feathers from live ducks – without hurting them – if you know how. They will grow more feathers to replace them.
My mother made the soap that our clothes were washed in. She used water poured thru ashes and grease from the meat we cooked. It made a soap called lye soap. She put our clothes in a very large kettle over a fire in the yard. She put water and soap in it and stirred them with a big stick. Then she poured out that water and put in more. We had to bring buckets of water from the well. She rinsed them in the pot over the fire, and took them out with the big stick. She wrung the water out and hung them over a clothesline to dry. It was hard work.
Most of the time we had soap from the store to use when we took a bath. We washed our hair with the same soap. My mother kept a large barrel in the yard where the rainwater ran off the house. We used it to wash our hair in because it made our hair soft. There were no factories nearby, so there was no pollution in the water. We took a bath in a large tub, out in the yard behind the well house, in the summertime. In the winter, we had to take a bath in a small wash basin, near the stove. We washed as well as possible, but we liked taking a bath in summer better.
I don’t remember too much about brushing our teeth. I know that there was a kind of tree that had little branches. If we pulled off one of the little branches and smashed the end, it would splinter apart into little pieces kind of like the bristles on your toothbrush. Later on, we had store-bought toothbrushes. Sometimes we used baking soda on our toothbrush. And sometimes we could get toothpaste or tooth powder from the store.
We did not have a bathroom. We had a little shed outside with a toilet in it.
If you have ever gone to a carnival or someplace that had Porta-potties, you will know what ours looked like.
My mother cooked our meals on a big stove that you had to put wood into to make it hot. My father lit the fire with a match, but every night, he piled the ashes up on the hot coals left from the wood. The next morning, there would still be some fire left and all he had to do was put on some more wood.
For breakfast, we had bacon, or sausage, or ham which came from the pigs that we raised. We had eggs, and biscuits. We took leftovers from breakfast for our lunch. For dinner, we had lots of vegetables in the summer. In the winter, we had potatoes, and apples, and biscuits with butter and jelly or syrup. And we had pie or cake that my mother made, for dessert.
We only had one cow, and we needed her to get milk from, so we did not have hamburgers or roast, or steak for dinner.
When I was about 10 years old, my mother bought a pretty piece of red fabric from the general store. She said she would make me a dress out of it when she had time. She made all of my clothes, and all of my sister’s clothes, and shirts for my two brothers. She made our pajamas, and our underwear.
One day, when my mother was out working in the garden, I got the piece of fabric out of the drawer. I wanted a dress out of it today. I decided that I could make it myself. I had watched her lots of times. I had even used the sewing machine to sew a little bit when I tore my dress.
I laid the piece of material on the floor and smoothed it out. I got my other dress – I only had two dresses – and put it on the floor so I could see it. Then I got the scissors and some pins, and cut the red fabric in pieces. I put red thread in the sewing machine, and sat down to sew the pieces together. I knew just how to push the pedal up and down to make the sewing machine work.
My mother came in and saw that I had cut up the red fabric. She looked really sad. She was a gentle woman and never yelled at us. She never spanked us. But we knew that we had done something wrong when she looked so sad. She did not have any money to buy more fabric. It had taken a long time to save money to buy this fabric.
She picked it up to see if somehow she could still use it. What a surprise! I had done a good job. I had made a dress. It did not look as fancy as it would have if she made it, but it was good enough to wear to school. My mother was happy. If I could make this, I could make clothes for my sister and brothers. This would give my mother more time to work in the garden and to take care of the chickens.
Every one has a talent for something. Each person just has to find out what that talent is. Some people can paint pictures. Others can build houses, or take care of animals, or work in the fields. My talent is sewing. I can make patterns for the things that I want to sew. Then I can cut out the pieces and sew them together to make something pretty. I have been sewing for 91 years. I have sewed a lot of things, and most of them turned out just fine – just like the red dress did.
I hope I have answered your questions about what it was like when I was your age. If you have more questions, let me know.