“Summertime and the livin’ is easy…”, to us this just a line from an old song. Once that defined the essence of Summer. Summer was a time of fun and enjoyment, a time when life was easy, especially for people who lived close to nature. Summer was a time for growing gardens, beautiful flowers, fishing in lakes and streams, pulling fruit off trees, eating cold watermelon and going to picnics in the park.
Back in those days food was very seasonal. Watermelon was available for about six weeks, ice cream stores opened in the Spring and closed in the Fall, lots of foods showed up for just a season. Food was also more local and regional. If you really wanted sea food, go to the coastal regions, it was more abundant and less expensive. back in these old days, shrimp is what the poor people ate. Strawberries, blackberries and blueberries were not necessarily bought in stores, you got them from berry picking in the country. Summertime was canning time with Ball jars or Mason jars or several other company’s jars.
A good poem which captured this was James Whitcomb Riley’s “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s”:
“And wasn’t it good for a boy to be
Out to Old Aunt Mary’s?
The jelly-the jam and the marmalade,
And the cherry and quince “preserves” she made!
And the sweet-sour pickles of peach and pear,
With cinnamon in ’em and all things rare!-
And the more we ate was the more to spare,
Out to Old Aunt Mary’s!”
Winters by contrast were hard, people struggled to keep warm, some were caught in storms or fell through the ice and froze to death. As winter approached, people worried that some of the older folk might not make it through.
The big problem of the summer time was beating the heat. This is still true, but not with such intensity as back then. Many more died from heat prostration and some actually went crazy. One of the Thin Man movies starts out with a heat wave in New York City. People are frantic, trying to stay cool without air conditioning. A classic radio drama on Suspense was “August Heat” concerning someone who did go crazy from the heat.
When my family moved from St. Paul, Minnesota to Indianapolis in 1950, our first Summer was very hot and humid. It amazed me that even though at night the temperature dropped to the low sixties and every window was open, it didn’t cool the house very much. Later on I learned that when it’s very hot for a long time the walls themselves become hot and at night radiate their heat. Our second Summer, my father bought a powerful window fan which sucked in the cold air and cooled the walls. What a blessing that was!
Many of the activities of summer time revolved around this. Ice cold drinks were much more a blessing than they are today. What a treat it was to go to the drugstore fountain to get an ice cream soda or a coke, or a limeade, or a root beer or a Black Cow. Picnics were a big favorite because women could get out of their 100 degree plus kitchen. They were held in the park because of the shade trees and the proximity to a lake or a stream where the temperature was 5 to 10 degrees less. Some fortunate individuals managed to spend time in the local ice house and working men often slept on a cot in the basement. When air conditioning came into the movie theaters, a lot of people went to them just as much or more for the coolness than the the picture.
Times have changed-the forms of summer remain-people still picnic or go to the beach, but the underlying realities have changed. Old timers like me come home, kiss their whole house air conditioner and say “to heck with going anywhere!”