- 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
We picnicked on deviled eggs, little dollops of potato salad, and lemonade.
For genuinely unlimited space one had to go to Forest Park. During the 1904 World’s Fair, my eldest sister tells me, they constructed the Cascades, a marvelous arrangement of waterfalls along the reaches of a hill in the park, falls where the water dropped from one artificial lake to the next, coming to rest at last in a large lake known as the Lagoon. After the fair the Lagoon was preserved, but the Cascades were dismantled. In their place was erected the art museum. Other buildings originally intended for an ephemeral existence lingered on for some years. Among these was an Italianate villa with a sunken garden, known to World’s Fair authorities for some mysterious reason as the British Building. This bordered the campus of Washington University and in my day served as the St. Louis Art School. I went there every Saturday morning, taking the Hodiamont Street trolley car from our corner. Originally that streetcar line was known as the Suburban. Then it became the de Hodiamont, which was soon shortened to something that sounded like “Hodamont, ” and then—I don’t know what happened to it then. Naturally we all depended heavily on streetcars. My father took one to work, and we used to go to meet the car we thought he would be on in the evening, rushing toward him in a screaming mob when we spotted him stepping down from the front door, each determined to get there first. My brother used to sell the Saturday Evening Post on streetcars. I believe, but I am not sure, that we even took a streetcar way out to Webster Groves when we were invited by our cook, who lived there, to spend Sunday with her on the family farm. In summertime a lot of the cars were open, and the benches inside were upholstered in straw or rattan, anyway something cool and nonsticky.
St. Louis had a lot of France in her background, which might have been reflected in the street names and districts if we hadn’t been determined to have no truck with such foolishness. We have seen what happened to de Hodiamont. We mispronounced Crevé Coeur, the region known as Des Pères, and the name of the city itself. It drove us crazy when people called it St. Louie. That song, for instance—“Meet me in St. Louie, Louie, meet me at the fair”—we would not permit. The name of my natal town, sir, is St. Lewis , as any fool can plainly see.
Forest Park was a genuine forest except for the tamed region around Art Hill and, of course, the zoo. In the spring it was full of violets, which, through what must have been a municipal oversight, we could pick. In the fall there were acorns. Now and then we impinged on families having picnics, but we never bothered to bring picnic food over; we used Fountain Park for that, with butter pails full of lemonade, and deviled eggs stuck together with toothpicks, and little dollops of potato salad. This provender could be carried in a basket across the street to the park (as we got bigger we simply stepped over the hedge) and eaten in full view of Mother sewing in her bow window. I don’t see any pictures in this collection of Forest Park, but after all, what would there be to photograph? Just a lot of trees and perhaps some women in funny hats. What the pictures really show best are the streets that were known to us as “downtown,” like Olive Street, which stretched for miles, North Main Street, Market Street—yes, they were just like that, full of little stores and posters and horse-drawn carriages and streetcars. We didn’t use those stores much except for dry cleaning and shoe fixing, that kind of thing. I don’t recall any laundries, for the good reason that all our washing was done at home, in the basement, where the hired girl helped the laundress every week with the ironing. They always set up a great square of long ironing boards, large enough for sheets and tablecloths, and as they ironed they sang. They used beeswax on the irons, which were heated close by on a stove. It smelled good.
The big stores—Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney, or Stix, Baer & Fuller, originally known as Grand Leader—were the places to go when one wanted to shop for lengths of material, and lace, and braid, and buttons. We didn’t buy many dresses ready made. Twice a year a dressmaker came to the house every day for a week to make over the children’s clothes and create new ones for Mother and the older girls. And we bought our shoes at Swope’s. We always bought our shoes at Swope’s. I am told that St. Louis was a great shoe town, but I can’t believe it. There was only Swope’s.
Looking at that saloon brings back a smell that meant St. Louis to me, the smell of beer.
Sometimes, though not often, we patronized a neighboring German bakery for things like pound cake. At big dinner parties the grown-ups sometimes had oyster cocktails to start off with. These of course were neither fresh nor frozen but came out of individual little cans, each can holding one huge Chesapeake Bay oyster. How else would a St. Louisan taste seafood?