- Historic Sites
Meet Me In St. Lewis, Louie
A collection of little-known early-twentieth-century photographs of St. Louis recalls the author’s unfashionably happy childhood
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Fireflies? Glowworms? Whatever the right name for them, in St. Louis we called them lightning bugs. On summer evenings we used to chase them across our lawns, which were not divided from one another, and collect them, when caught, in little medicine bottles. We had grandiose ideas of getting enough lightning bugs together to make lamps, but it never worked out like that because they died first. I remember that they had a not unpleasant smell when clutched in my sweaty hand, a smell like that of a dilute miner’s lamp, and their glow was greenish. Lightning bugs (or fireflies, have it your own way) are, I suppose, a tropical or at least subtropical phenomenon, and St. Louis was, is, subtropical. Nowadays we hide the fact from ourselves with air conditioning, but it is, or was, awfully hot through the long summer, and the heat began before our vacation did. There was a board of education rule that classes were not to be held when the mercury rose to ninety degrees, so on suspiciously warm days the principal came to the classroom just before the noon bell to inspect the thermometer. Whenever he appeared, we fell silent and held our breath as he peered at the instrument, and when he turned to the teacher and nodded, we shouted for joy before grabbing our books and rushing home.
On such free afternoons we could take off our shoes and socks, turn on the garden hose, and just soak. The heat made the asphalt streets grow mushy, and tar stuck to our toes. My family always went away during the worst months, July and August. Where did we find respite and coolth? Michigan, that’s where. But Michigan, you might say, is very warm. True, but it was cooler than St. Louis. Anywhere was. No wonder hummingbirds fooled around in the hibiscus bushes of our backyard.
The photographs on these pages give me faint twinges of nostalgic recognition but they don’t convey the lushness of St. Louis, the green and pink and red and white flowers along the block. Foliage played a large part in my childish life, though it had at least as much to do with eating as with beauty in the eye of the beholder. I was always nibbling at flowers. We were in the city, of the city, but our house on Fountain Avenue was part of an oval around a plot of grass and trees and hedges called Fountain Park—and to get to the George Washington Public School you had to walk through it, past the plashing fountain. On the way there were lots of weeds and bushes and such things to sample with the teeth. All our backyards were full of flowering shrubs, and some neighbors, who had fewer children than we, grew things in their front yards as well—snowball bushes and flowering borders with elephant ears, ornamental rocks, nasturtiums, and morning glories. Have you ever bitten into an elephant ear? Don’t. It is full of painful prickles, but nasturtium stems are very good, and there is a weed that tastes like lemon drops, which we called sour grass.
Everywhere, especially back of the house, was the smell of horses, because there was a livery stable next to the alley. We were quite used to seeing buggies with fringe on the top. The iceman had a wonderful team of draft horses. While he shouldered hundred-pound blocks and carried them to the waiting ice boxes that stood on our back porches, we investigated his stock inside the van, great hunks of ice sitting on drenched sawdust, with chips lying around from his chopping out the blocks on order. We swiped that chipped ice and sucked it, sawdust and all. It was considered very daring to run and step up on the back of the van while the horses were in motion. But horses were on the way out, though we didn’t realize it. We had a rich aunt who came very occasionally in her big, black, shiny car to take us for sedate rides. The chauffeur, who wore a peaked cap, would drive down Kingshighway to Lindell Boulevard and along that broad avenue of big stone houses with porches all along their fronts and wide lawns. I am also reminded when I look at these pictures that St. Louis was a very churchy city, which meant that there were many stretches of stairs to play on all along the street—though our park was always the best place for hide-and-seek.