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1941: My hometown

Discussion in 'The Golden Era' started by BlueTrain, Dec 17, 2016.

  1. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    I discovered a YouTube video of my hometown of a film supposedly made in 1941:

    I grew up in Princeton, West Virginia, a small railroad town ten miles inside the state line on U.S. 460, an east-west highway that goes through Blacksburg, Virginia, and Bluefield, West Virginia. It was the southern end of the West Virginia State Turnpike when that was completed in the 1950s.

    Some of the film is of poor quality and none of it is exactly that great. But it shows some interesting street scenes that captures what people looked like on a trip downtown--or uptown, depending on where you lived. The scenes I recognized were either on the main business district, a four or five block stretch of road in the center of town. I noticed the two and only movie theaters in some parts. They were across the street from one another. Other scenes were around the courthouse, several blocks away from the business district.

    There were a few buildings in town that approached monumental architecture. The courthouse was imposing, if not exactly beautiful. It was designed by a man who was educated in France but it doesn't look at all French. There was a Baptist church seen briefly that had aspirations of being a Greek temple and it was in fact referred to as a temple. The post office, however, was a place more people actually visited frequently. It was also an imposing structure of a beautiful sandstone that turned gray-brown over the years. It's now the city library.

    The people walking up and down the sidewalks are especially interesting, though, and might be taken to represent typical small town Americans, probably on a Saturday. There is a great variety in the way people are dressed. Many wear hats but hardly everyone. It must have been a nice summer day since many are in shirtsleeves. A few young men are even in t-shirts. As far as I noticed, all the women are wearing dresses, all with hemlines exactly the same length. Their hairstyles are generally the same, too, allowing for their ages. Most people seem rather thin, too, except for a few older people. Men's neckties were fashionably short that year, it seems. Overall, there were a lot of people out on the sidewalks when the movies were made. It seemed a lot busier than Bedford Falls, for instance.

    I was born in 1946 and by the time I was old enough to remember very much, little had changed. Things started happening in the 1970s and they weren't good things.
  2. Very neat video - thank you for posting.

    Also, great catch on the hemlines all being about a the same length. I probably would have missed that if you hadn't pointed it out.

    Which brings up a question. I have a vague memory of hemlines being a fashion thing that changed yearly with some women altering the hemlines of their existing clothes to match. But that was in the '60s and maybe somewhat the '70s.

    Women don't - I don't think - do that any more as I can't remember the last time anyone mentioned hemlines "going up or down this years," etc.

    I guess I really have two questions - when did it stop and why? My guess to the answer to both is the cultural / social revolution of the late '60s with its emphasis on individuals "doing their own thing, " undermined the practice.

    Also, it is pretty amazing that even though it was a fashion thing - people in railroad towns and small towns like the one I grew up in were (at least some of the women) following these trends. Thus, it wasn't just a cosmopolitan / big city thing.
  3. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    I recall that hemlines were still worth mentioning as late as 1970, not because they were real short, which they sometimes had been, but because very long dresses were in vogue. But when pants began to be worn more than dresses, things changed. After that, it was where the waistline was.

    It's always a mistaken idea that places are so isolated that contemporary fashion doesn't mean anything. I'm sure that fashion didn't have the same impact in the little coal camps further to the west but I think it still largely held true. But small towns were much more city-like than you might imagine. Even though the place only had around 8,000 people living there, more or less, depending on the year, it was a real city. It had a city government, fire department, police department and performed all the governmental functions that were expected. It was also city-like in that you could walk around downtown to wherever you needed to go, provided you could find a parking place, if you drove. So it had some big city problems. It was nothing like the suburbs. There are so-called town centers around where I live now in Northern Virginia that have attempted to recreate the small-town feeling but in a far more upscale way than where I lived. They even have parking problems.
  4. The rejection of the "midi skirt" in the early 1970s marked the end of the hemline era. Around 1971, the arbiters of fashion declared the end of the "mini" and women declared that they had had enough of Paris telling them what to do. It was a rather eerie echo of the aborted rebellion that the women of 1947 had declared against the New Look -- the "midi" skirts were the same length as Dior's ridiculous postwar monstrosities, but unlike the 1940s backlash, the 1970s one didn't cave, and the midi died an ignominious death.

    You could argue, though, that the hemline fascisti has, in its own way, returned since the 1990s. You can buy a skirt that flashes your kneecaps, bareley covers your backside, or drags in the mud -- but try and find one that hits A Little Below The Knee. Every length skirt is widely sold except the one that doesn't make a woman look off-balance.

    There were a few people in my town of about 2000 people who followed fashion, but the vast majority didn't. The men all wore work clothes -- the only ties worn were worn by doctors and lawyers -- and the women wore shapeless, rather drab outfits: my grandmother always wore simple homemade cotton dresses and the same hairstyle she'd worn since 1942, and my mother was schlepping around in an old sweatshirt and stretch-waist pants long before it became a thing that people on internet boards Viewed With Alarm.

    In Maine, 8000 people *is* a city. We have a few towns up north that are so small they don't even have names -- they're identified on the map as something like "T5-R9."
  5. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    Well, where I'm from in southern West Virginia, there are some small communities that still appear on maps but no longer exist in fact. If you didn't know a little village had been there, you wouldn't even guess it now. But on the other hand, there are county seats in a few places in rural Virginia that consist of little more than the small courthouse, perhaps a jail, maybe even a gas station and a couple of houses and that's it. They typically have names like "Amelia Courthouse" or "Lancaster Courthouse." They never became centers of economic activity.

    If people do not dress in contemporary fashion, it begs the question as to how they do dress. It is true that some do not dress well but mostly people wore things until they wore out, though to go shopping, visiting or to transact business somewhere, people would dress up. People definitely did not dress casually to go to church on Sunday. But that was more true of women than men. Working men wore their everyday work clothes everywhere for almost everything--but not to church. In the video, there were more men wearing neckties than I expected. I was also a little surprised to see young men wearing t-shirts but it gets hot and humid there in the summer. Overall, though, some people will always be better dressed, or more correctly, dressed up more, than others.

    There were no big-box stores there then and the big department stores were in other cities. But there were two or three men's shops and three or four women's shops in town where people could buy their dress clothes. There are none of those left now and if fact, few such places exist anywhere. In their place are chain stores, both department stores and specialty shops, not to mention the internet.
  6. We had one clothing store in town when I was growing up, a place called Epstein's, which specialized in work clothes -- the only kind of suit a man could buy in town had "Big Yank" on the label, and the women's section was mostly chore coats and Wrangler overalls and dungarees. The vast majority of men in town had jobs on the docks or on fishing boats, and most of the women who had jobs worked on the line in the poultry processing plants or the sardine canneries over in the next town. I didn't know any white-collar people growing up, other than doctors and school teachers, but I assume the ones that did exist bought their clothes out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. When my mother was a telephone operator she'd gotten her blouses and skirts from there, and it was where we got what school clothes we had that weren't hand-me-downs. Our only local "department" stores were Grant's, Woolworths, and McLellan's, all in the next town, in descending order of presitge, and the clothes at all of them were pretty dowdy. Grant's was really good only for gym sneakers and Girl Scout paraphernalia, and the other two were dime stores. If you wanted to drive thirty miles you could go to Freese's or Zayre's or the Mammoth Mart in Bangor, but that was basically a once-a-year thing.

    There was a womens' shop the next town over, a store in the Puritan chain, where you could get nice clothes. My grandmother owned one suit, which she got some time in the early 1950s at Puritan's (as it was always called, never simply "Puritan"), and wore when she was Democratic ward clerk at election time, but otherwise she made all her own clothes out of yard goods bought at this huge fabric outlet store on the edge of town called "The Maine Textile Center." Sounded pretty grandiose, but it was actually a dirty old wood-frame building with a lot of sawhorse-and-plywood tables spread out with more bolts of fabric than you'd ever seen in your life. I was fascinated by it and would go there at any opportunity just to roam around.


    The only "men's store" in the area was a place in the next town called Kilroy's, which had started out after the war as an Army Surplus place, and branched out a bit into civilian goods later on. Like Epstein's, it was mostly work clothes, and had a big DubbleWare Overalls sign painted on the side of the building. Whether they sold dressier stuff or not I couldn't say, but somebody must've sold the doctors and lawyers and school principals their ties. But whatever the situation, there were definitely no fops, coxcombs, or dandies to be found in my part of the world.
  7. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    There used to be a men's shop in town called "The Stag." At one time it had a branch location about six or seven miles away in the local collage town. I guess that was when college men dressed up to go to class. That was still mostly the rule when I finally made it college, though that didn't mean suits or sport coats with ties. That's what they wore in law school, though. But by the time I graduated, seven years later, student dress was rather more relaxed. I never set foot in The Stag. But there also used to be shops with the latest men's fashions in college towns, too, usually called something like "the University Shop" or some variation. All of those seem to have gone missing, too. But the fraternity and sorority crowd must get their nice clothes from somewhere before they go off to law school or medical school.

    I do miss my hometown as it was in the 1950s. The 40s and 50s were prosperous years there but the real boom days when most of the building took place was the decades before and after 1900. That was when the railroads were still expanding. It brought a lot of immigrants to the area from overseas, legally, I assume.
  8. The town I grew up in had a Army-Navy store where we got most of my clothes and a Robert Hall on the edge of town (a kinda warehouse type of men's clothing store - one big open room, clothes on racks on wheels with big "discount" labels on them) where I'd get a sport coat and "dress" pants once a year or so when I outgrew the one set I had.

    I liked going to the Army-Navy store as they had the "cool" clothes - jeans, canvas sneakers, sweatshirts, work-boots - that I wanted; whereas, Robert Halls was "adult" clothing for an event with relatives or a wedding or something.

    For nice men's clothing, one had to go a town over where there was a men's shop, literal called, (I think I have this right) Archie's Mens Shop. My mom might take me there to buy my father a tie or socks or something for father's day. Looking back, I have no idea where women shopped other than that my mom bought some items from a store called Loehmans (like Robert Hall - a big discount clothing store that was on a highway outside of town).
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2016
  9. There was a traditional men's store in Bangor called "John Paul's," which I remember only because of its incessant radio and TV commercials which played forever and never, ever changed -- a cartoon figure of a little caricature-stereotype tailor in an unbuttoned vest with a tape measure draped around his neck, miming the lyrics to the jingle: "Shorrrrrrt or talllllllll, big or small, John Paul fits 'em all! (bup bup BUP!)" The jingle had to have been recorded at some point in the late 1940s, and the animation looked to have been shot about 1957. But the spots ran unchanged until the store finally went out of business some time in the '70s or early '80s. If you ever want to flush any Mainers born before 1970 out of a crowd, just start singing that jingle, and see who joins in.

    As far as legal immigrants are concerned, don't be so sure. My great-grandparents rode their wagon across the border from Canada around 1890 without ever being checked-in by anyone, and remained "illegal aliens" for the rest of their lives.
  10. Inkstainedwretch

    Inkstainedwretch Practically Family

    There was a film of this sort made about my hometown of Mt. Vernon, OH. It was one of those WWII propaganda, "Why We Fight" things, intended to show the troops and the homefront what they were protecting, which was the Middle America, small town Frank Capra way of life. It was called the "Typical American Town" series and there were several of them, though I have no idea which other towns were included. When I was a boy, a sign outside the town actually said: "Welcome to Mt. Vernon, a typical American town." I've never been able to find the film. Many years later, I wrote a mystery novel located in a fictional version of Mt. Vernon titled, "A Typical American Town."
  11. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    Someone, don't know who, said that Norman Rockwell's America never existed. But it did! What Norman Rockwell painted, however, were essentially scenes from his own hometown and not necessarily anyone else's. I doubt he ever imagined that he was illustrating some fictional America never really existed. It may have seemed that way to, say, Edward Hopper, whose reality was a little different, and possibly even more interesting to the people on this forum.

    It goes without saying that what a typical small town was like varied a great deal over the years and from place to place. But some things seem to have been common everywhere. There was, I think, a certain pride of place by the local citizens and that was reflected in some of the buildings that today seem very remarkable. These buildings I'm referring to were all located right in the middle of town, or at least where the middle of town was when they were built, and were architectural gems, after a fashion. I've often wondered what combination of factors produced such things in small towns and cities around the country.

    Wealth was probably the most important factor, if not the only one. Probably most of the buildings like I'm referring to were built before 1930 and chances are, most of them were built when the local economy was booming. I mentioned before that the boom times in my home town were before WWI but the place remained prosperous for decades. When I say small towns and big buildings, I'm really not referring to really small towns. My home town had no such buildings, except perhaps for a church, the post office and the courthouse and they were all build later than the period that seemed to have produced the interesting buildings I'm thinking of. So anyway, I guess a city of 30,000 would not really be a small town but some standards.

    One thing that changed the most and caused the most changes was the automobile. Prior to WWI, photographs of streets in small towns show few vehicles. How different life would have been. My home town used to have streetcars, too. I don't know when they disappeared but it enabled people to go from there to the two towns on either side with a total rail line of maybe twenty miles. I guess that was something else that private automobiles killed.
  12. I think that what didn't exist is the perception some people have of what they think of when someone says "Norman Rockwell's America." Rockwell himself was in many ways caricaturing the world around him -- his photorealistic technique gives his stuff the sense of absolute reality, but many of the details are deliberate exaggerations intended to make a point. Most people today, removed from the original context of the images, don't notice the exaggeration and take his work at face value, which often gives it the opposite meaning to what he intended.


    Note for example the famous "Freedom From Want" scene from "The Four Freedoms." People today look at that image and see it as a celebration of the Traditional American Family, and they nostalgically remember gathering round the table at Thanksgiving time at Grandma's house. But that wasn't what Rockwell intended to convey in that picture -- look at the size of the turkey, for example. It's gigantic, far larger and plumper in the breast than would have been available to anyone during the 1940s, before the rise of industrial poultry farming. And anyone who's ever eaten a wild turkey shot in the woods knows they look absolutely nothing like the bird in the picture. What Rockwell was doing there was projecting FDR's ideal of a hypothetical postwar future in which every American family would have more than enough to eat -- representing that bounty in the image of a freakishly huge turkey. Viewers in the 1940s, who had never seen a turkey like that in their lives, would have understood the point. But modern viewers, after sixty years worth of selectively-bred pumped-up Butterballs, see something entirely different. Thus the original political meaning of the painting has been lost under an overlaid veneer of unintended nostalgia.

    As to town buildings, a major factor also was the fact that fires were epidemic in the small towns and cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and wreaked havoc on the cheap wooden-frame structures that were often at the center of such towns. It's a rare town or small city that doesn't have its "Phoenix Row" or "Phoenix Block" built of brick in the late 19th or early 20th century on the site of one of these major blazes. The town where I live now was shaped repeatedly by such fires -- including two gigantic ones in 1920 and 1952 that, between them, destroyed much of the remaining 19th Century downtown area. We still have a few of the old 19th Century wooden buildings on the north end of Main Street, but nobody expects their luck to hold out forever, especially since the upper floors are let out as apartments.

    The buildings here that gave the most pride was the U. S. Customs House, built of local granite in 1873. It housed the Post Office along with various other Federal agencies, but was unceremoniously demolished in 1970 to make way for a new parking lot for the new low-slung "Federal Building" built in 1967, a structure which produces no emotion whatsoever in anyone. Pride, it seems, goeth before a fall.

    My home town went to great trouble to build its first Town Hall in the 1840s. It deliberately named itself after a certain wealthy mercantilist and then approached said wealthy gentleman and asked him to fund the construction of a Town Hall. The man-of-means, flattered, readily agreed, and forwarded the cash. The building was built, a little blocky thing made of brick, and the benefactor was invited to visit the town for the dedication. He arrived in all his pomp and glory, alit from his carriage, took one look at the building, and sniffed derisively. "Looks like a powder-house," he sneered, as he remounted his coach and rode away, never to set foot in the town again.


    Well, he did have a point. It *does* look like a "powder house," and is even smaller and dumpier than it looks in the picture. But that was no reason to be rude.
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  13. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    I'm not so sure I agree completely with your interpretation of Rockwell's paintings--or more correctly, his illustrations. He was really an illustrator. But it's certainly true that his paintings had a point. Presumably all do. Usually they have a certain amount of humor, too. In a way, both the worst thing as well as the best thing about Norman Rockwell was that he was the one who painted all those Norman Rockwell pictures. Some were a little sappy and some were a little controversial. At least one or two had something that someone objected to enough for him to alter the painting. And like Edward Hopper, at least one painting featured a diner, but otherwise pretty different. He was no Jackson Pollock.

    There was an old movie, "One Foot in Heaven," which dealt with a newly arrived minister in a small town. By the time the film ends, he has convinced a local rich man (I suppose there is always a local rich man) to fund the construction of a new church and it ends with him playing the bells in the new church and people streaming out of their homes and businesses to stand in the street listening to the music. There was a very similar church in my home town (it's in the video). Sure enough, they played church bells, which came through very clearly at our house four or five blocks away in cold weather but I don't ever remember anyone rushing out of their homes or businesses to listen. It was a Methodist church and I'll bet they still ring bells like that. We attended a Methodist church, too, but not that one and it didn't have bells, either.

    I hope I'm remembering all the little details of these old movies and things about my hometown. I lived there sixty years ago and my memory may not always be that accurate about some things, especially for things that happened before I was born.
  14. Rockwell had a very sly sense of humor that often gets overlooked. We had a stack of Saturday Evening Posts lying around at my grandparents' house, and even as a little kid I got many of Rockwell's jokes. There was one in particular that sticks in my mind of the 'average American family tree," which included all sorts of unusual-looking characters, including a pirate, a saloon girl (polite language for prostitute), a pinch-faced clergyman, Union and Confederate soldiers, a grizzly prospector, an Indian, a Mexican bandito, and various other "types," all culminating in the ultimate product of the family, a typical jug-eared Howdy Doody-ish Rockwell boy.


    Rockwell here celebrates the "typical American story" while also subverting it by pointing out that it's rarely so whitebread as it might seem.

    His best gag, though, was his famous Rosie The Riveter -- which was both a deliberate swipe and a humorous subversion of Michaelangelo's Isaiah.


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  15. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    Rockwell worked from either live models or photos of them, so the realism present in his subject's faces is genuine, mostly. I think most of his painting or illustrations are somewhat humorous but by no means all of them were. For instance, some of his paints of Boys Scouts, and he did a lot of those, were quite serious looking, almost over the top, especially the later ones. In the same way, H. A. Ogden, who is best known for his paintings or illustrations of US Army uniforms up through the Spanish-American way, tended to paint his figures in a certain way. The younger soldiers and officers were bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked and were usually arranged so they were gazing upon or even saluting senior officers who usually looked wise and grandfatherly. It was definitely posed but not entirely unrealistic, although very sober and serious compared with Rockwell.

    The real person who posed for Rosie the Riveter was not really a riveter. She died not that long ago. But photographs of real female factory workers are even more interesting and presumably more realistic. But the details in the painting are interesting in themselves. Notice what her (correctly) loafer-clad feet are resting on?
  16. Inkstainedwretch

    Inkstainedwretch Practically Family

    In many small towns you'll find a palatial Mason's lodge. Up until the mid-20th century nearly all of the wealthiest merchants were Masons and contributed to making their Lodge the finest building in town, often trying to outdo the Lodges in nearby towns. In the major cities, these Lodges could be incredibly extravagant, architectural wonders.
  17. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    In Alexandria, Virginia, not far from where we live now and close to where my wife grew up, there is the George Washington Masonic Memorial and it is decidedly monumental. My late father-in-law was a Mason and belonged to a lodge in Alexandria. There was a Masonic rite at his funeral, too. Nobody ever asked me to be a mason.

    I don't recall any Masonic lodge in my hometown, although there was probably a meeting room downtown somewhere. I once visited an Elks lodge, also in Alexandria, and it was a very curious place inside.
  18. Working in finance, I've been through one merger after another and, at one point, the company I worked for bought US Trust (basically a private bank for wealthy people). As part of the "transition" (corporate speak for the process to figure out how to cut costs by firing people and consolidating real estate and systems), I was over in the US Trust offices and invited to have lunch in one of the private dinning rooms.

    I got there a bit early and, looking around the room, noticed a Normal Rockwell painting on the wall titled "Father and Son," which is the picture of a prosperous looking father reviewing stock certificates with his son in a stately living room. Shocked to see a Rockwell original, I did a little homework later and found out that, back in the early '70s, US Trust had commission the painting from Rockwell.

    I think all of Rockwell's paintings / illustrations look "off" in some way to me. Maybe that's just his style, maybe it's his subtle / sly way of saying all isn't as it appears in "typical" America or maybe I just don't understand him. Lizzie, as always, has a smart analysis, but I'll just repeat that they look "off" in some way to me - there's an irony or something there that isn't there in, say, Currier and Ives paintings.

    Here's the "Father and Son" US Trust commissioned painting:

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  19. "Don't be a chump, kid. Invest in commodities!"

    As for Masonic buildings, lodge halls of various kinds are very very common here, even though the lodges themselves are greatly diminished from their peak in the early years of the 20th century. We have a very large and impressive terra-cotta brick Masonic Building on Main Street, with retail space on the ground floor and the lodge rooms upstairs. Occasionally you used to see the uniformed lodge officers in their aprons and their jeweled neck thingies and top hats and white gloves standing in front of the buiilding smoking cigarettes, but I think someone must've told them to cut that out.

    For many years the ground floor of the Masonic Building was occupied by the local electric power company, and used as a showroom/salesroom for a line of appliances they co-marketed with GE. The showroom was locally famous for being equipped with the first electric-eye automatic door ever seen in this part of the country, and the ruins of the photocell box are still present on one of the pillars outside the building. Years ago I was walking past and noticed the photocell tube itself was still in place, so I helped myself to it, and still have it in a desk drawer somewhere.

    We also have an I. O. O. F. building, which is currently occupied by a dance studio, an insurance firm, and a store that sells knitting supplies. There's a signboard over the door advertising Odd Fellows meeting times, but I don't think they actually meet there anymore. There are still plenty of odd fellows around town, but I don't think they're organized as such any more.

    From time to time you read of tenants in former lodge buildings in our area uncovering mysterious artifacts in hidden cabinets. This is very common in old Grange halls, where ceremonial swords and other implements often turn up, and every now and then a former Odd Fellows hall will terrify its new occupants by yielding a black wooden coffin containing a genuine full-length human skeleton as used in their initiation rituals. The most disturbing such incident happened some years ago just a couple blocks over from where I live -- a large, impressive house in a quiet neighborhood was being renovated when a hidden compartment in one of the upstairs rooms revealed a rack of Ku Klux Klan robes. Turns out that in the 1920s, the house had been the headquarters of the local Klavern.
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  20. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    Secret societies are always, uh, curious.

    Regarding the painting, I wouldn't use the word "off" but there is to me a disturbing tension in the painting. It's almost like the young man had been caught with a stash of forbidden literature under his bed. The father's sideburns date the picture but the son's appearance almost seems a little old-fashioned, like he should be wearing knickerbocker trousers.

    Some of Currier and Ives illustrations were nostalgic even when they were new but many were what might be called newsworthy illustrations. They're even more nostalgic now, of course, and the ones we probably like best depict scenes that most viewers only wished they could have lived. But there's nothing wrong with that. I'd still love to live in a castle. Not just any castle, of course.

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