August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
A collection of little-known early-twentieth-century photographs of St. Louis recalls the author’s unfashionably happy childhood
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.
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.
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?
Let’s look at those pictures again. Restaurants? Well, yes, St. Louis was pretty well known for food, though we did tend to depend on our own cooks rather than go out to eat. I don’t think I ever knew Frank John’s restaurant, but I’ll bet you anything that indoors it was draped with red plush and had hand-tatted mats on the tablecloths, perhaps even tatted or crocheted antimacassars on the chairs. That’s a fine picture of his saloon at Grand and Morgan. Just looking at it brings back a smell that meant St. Louis to me—the smell of beer. After all, like Milwaukee we were a famous beer town. It comes down to this: Would you rather have Anheuser-Busch or Schlitz? No wonder we mangled those French names—a lot of us were very German in St. Louis. Dimly I recall that long, long ago, before I started spending Saturday mornings at art school, I went to German school and learned a song starting, “Fox, you have stolen the goose.” But with the onset of the First World War, all that stopped, and we changed the name of Berlin Boulevard to Pershing, and our old cleaning woman, Minnie, made me stop singing a song that went, “Oh, Heidelberg, dear Heidelberg/Thy sons will ne’er forget. …” A St. Louis man told me that when he was a child there was a general store down at the corner of his street to which a number of old men used to gravitate and spend most of the day sitting around on cracker barrels, spitting at the stove and talking when they felt like it. One of them would say, “Germany must be beaten.”
“Ja, Ja,” they would murmur in chorus. More silence, and then another old man would bestir himself and say, again, “Germany must be beaten.”
Another murmur, and more silence, until at last somebody would say, “But it’s going to take a hell of a long time.”
But I was talking about beer. We didn’t drink it at our house—we preferred wine, if anything—but I knew the smell, as every child did. One rainy day I was walking along the street with my kid sister, who must have been very small, because I wasn’t so big myself. We were sharing an umbrella. Along came a shabby man, walking toward us with uncertain steps. As he reached us he turned until he was resting an elbow on my shoulder, and he said earnestly into my face, “Life… is flitting… fahst away.”
He stared fixedly, then repeated it. A strong whiff of beer came with the words, and I was terrified. I ducked out from under his elbow, grabbed Dauphine, and we ran. Afterward I thought about that man a lot—an out-of-work actor? Why fahst otherwise? I thought about him, and life, and all that. Was life flitting fast away? Not so I could notice it. To my mind, in St. Louis, it stood charmingly still.
When we went to Michigan in the summer, we took the train, at Union Station of course. I say “of course” because, unlike other stations in other cities, it was indeed a union, the only one in town, and we were proud that it should be so. Look at Chicago with her various stations, we said to each other: we were far more efficient than that. Union Station is still there and has been restored, but it’s not a railway station anymore. It looks, as it always did look, like a Bavarian castle and is supposed to be “good,” architecturally speaking. One thing, however, that we never used—and it surprises me to think of it—was the Mississippi. Even when Aunt Blanche took us out in her car, we never drove down to the levee to have a look at the great river. I suppose it was muddy there and nobody admired it in those days. I had to wait until I came back from my university as a graduate, as a visitor, to go down to the levee at night and take a look at the paddle-wheelers and the lights and the hills across the river. Now, of course, with the Saarinen Gateway to the West—those gigantic elephant tusks that stand higher than anything else in town—it is a celebrated place, and the few boats that are left have been turned into floating restaurants duly tarted up in red plush and crystal sconces.
In my childhood I heard sometimes about the Cahokia Mounds where Indian relics could be found when carefully shepherded archaeology students dug in them. Cahokia was celebrated among archaeologists, lots of whom used to come long distances to look at the mounds, but I never saw them. As far as I know, none of the family did. After all, the mounds were right there. They had always been there and always would be. All you had to do was take a certain streetcar and there you were. So we never went, and I haven’t been since, though from the top of the elephant tusks at the Gateway one can see the town of Cahokia fairly plain.
What did we do for fun when dating time came around? Well, there were the movies—a nickelodeon set up in business just around the corner when they first became popular—and when we were in high school and cars were no longer a novelty, we drove out to the Merrimac River, to a clubhouse there where we had dances and, sometimes, carefully chaperoned weekend parties. From time to time touring companies brought plays to St. Louis. Always, during the season, we had concerts because of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In the summer—in Forest Park, of course—we had open-air entertainment: The Bohemian Girl, The Merry Widow, The Bells of Corneville , that sort of thing, and even grand opera. I heard my first opera, Thaïs, at the open-air theater in Forest Park. During the overture a boy came along the aisle shouting, “Peanuts? Popcorn? Soda pop?” and when somebody shushed him, he yelled even louder, “Oh, g’on, they ain’t out on the stage yet!”
How we scorned him! How snooty we were! And we used to talk scornfully of the politicians of the city. It was said, though I think it must have been apocryphal, that one of our mayors had announced in a speech, “Had I knowed conditions was as they is, I would not have did what I done.”
Oh well, perhaps he really did say it.
At any rate we were not too snooty to go to see the Veiled Prophet’s Parade. This was an annual event sponsored by the leading merchants of the town. Somehow it had got itself mixed up with society, too, because every year a debutante was chosen to be the Prophet’s bride at his Ball, which was held the same evening. Girls were “presented” to the Prophet, and the papers made a big fuss about it. The parade passed by our father’s business building on Washington Street, downtown, so that when we went upstairs to the second floor, we got a good look at all the floats. It was a crowded, jolly time. The fact that the Prophet took another bride every year never bothered me. That was the way it was, that’s all.
I too come from the Middle West,” said a lady novelist to me at a cocktail party in New York, “and not long ago I went back to my hometown to see my grandmother’s house, where I grew up. When I was a child it was a big, dark house, very gloomy. You know how they say that when you go back to a childhood place it always looks much smaller? Well, my grandmother’s house didn’t. It looked bigger and gloomier than ever.”
I remembered her when I went back to St. Louis after I had been away for years. I wondered what it would be like, of course. I had loved St. Louis, simply loved it. Why? Who knows? For one thing, I suppose, because I was unfashionably happy as a child, with only one tragedy to mar my days—the disappearance of my dog Dixie. That was a heartbreak, if you like, but one heartbreak in fifteen years is not too bad. For another thing, I was snatched away by the family’s wholesale move just before I really got into the mixed-up, miserable world of adolescence, for which I could not and did not blame St. Louis. Like the sundial, my hometown marked only the sunny hours, whereas Chicago and Madison and New York took all the blame.
Well, I went back, and I said to one of my cousins, “Let’s drive over to Fountain Avenue and get a look at the old house, shall we?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know if you’d enjoy it,” she said. “The whole neighborhood has Gone Black, you know. ”
She shrugged, and we drove over to Fountain Avenue.
It was not easy at first to recognize our house, because the porch had been removed and there was a new facade. But the old number was still tacked up on the door in metallic letters—4858. The 5 now hung upside down, dangling. The whole scene was oddly bare until I realized that the hedge around the park had been removed. Otherwise everything was as it had been before, neither smaller nor bigger, though there was less grass around. It was evidently a quiet time of day, with few people in the street. Leaving my cousin in the car, I went up the pavement to the front door and found three bells, each with a different name attached. I rang the top one and there was no reaction, but the middle one brought a young woman to the door. I said, “Please excuse me for bothering you, but I was born in this house and lived here all through my childhood. Could I have a look at it?”
“Well now.” She paused and considered this request, her expression pleasantly sympathetic. “The trouble is, it’s been cut up, separated into apartments, you see, and three families live here, and everybody’s away at work except me, and I’m only here to look after the kids in the apartment upstairs. On the middle floor. You’re welcome to come up and look around there and see what you can. Okay?”
I said okay and followed her up the stairs, noticing as I went that the wide door that led into what used to be the parlor was firmly closed, as was the door into what used to be the kitchen, and the one into what was the dining room. But the strip of stained glass over the window on the landing was still there, as, come to think of it, was the similar one over the door into the house. But, again come to think of it, both strips were definitely lower on the wall than I remembered. The wooden ball that marked the bottom of the staircase banister was still wobbly. The staircase itself was uncarpeted and splintered.
I followed my guide down the second-floor hall into what used to be the brass-bed room, now occupied by two small beds. My parents’ room looked peculiar because when the house’s face was lifted, the bow window was flattened out. I peered through that flat window into the park—they needed new shrubs, I noticed, but it all looked very familiar. We went to the rear of the house and looked down into the yard, where there were no shrubs or bushes or trees any more. In the bathroom stood our big old tub, more streaked even than it used to be with rusty dribbles: it still stood on stubby legs like a lion’s paws and was bigger than any tub I have seen since. Rust or no rust, the bathroom was very clean. Everything in the apartment was clean.
Out in the hall at the top of the stairs I thanked my kind guide and started downstairs to rejoin my cousin in the car outside. Until that moment I had no nostalgia, none of those Proustian feelings one might expect to entertain. The whole experience had been—well, almost antiseptic. It was at the front door, after I called one more good-bye upstairs, that it happened, when I pulled the door shut behind me and the 5 in 4858 swung a little, but it wasn’t the 5 that did it. It was that my hand on the doorknob remembered the door . My arm remembered its weight and the way it felt being pulled shut.
They talk about years dropping away, sensations flooding over one, all that stuff. They are right.