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July 29, 2014 / 2 Av, 5774
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Before Color Photographs

Horses and buggies? Gas lights on streets? Did my mother grow up in the Dark Ages of History? She told me about living in buildings without elevators, where no apartment had its own bathroom. Years later I decided it was like my college dorm in the 1950′s when I had to climb stairs to my room on the 4th floor, and a bathroom with showers was at the end of each floor’s hallway; no big deal. She informed me there were no washing machines, dryers, refrigerators with freezers, and gas stoves had to be lit with a match; this didn’t seem to affect me as I wasn’t doing laundry or grocery shopping and cooking; being a young girl, my mother was responsible for all of my needs.

My mother spoke of her girlhood apartments with coin-operated heating devices; was she cold in the winter, I wondered, suddenly listening to what she was saying! My dad bought space heaters for us to use during World War II, and I always grabbed it first for my bedroom and warmed up my clothes before putting them on for school. But I just plugged it in; no coins were necessary. She mentioned that there were no electric sewing machines and she hand-made most of our childhood dresses; she taught me to sew when I was about nine years old.

The author's father outside their family home

The daily life she was describing, even that coin-space-heater, seemed as far back as hoopskirts, and I’d only thought those gowns were gorgeous and never about the wearer being restricted. My mother didn’t appear old but she certainly had to be since she’d been living “before” so much. I tried to imagine her sleeping on a fire escape in the summer because the tiny apartment was too hot, sharing a bed with her sister, even the 4 flights of stairs she walked up and down just to get to the street or school, and really couldn’t. My childhood in a big house with my own bedroom, streetlights, cars, radios, 78-rpm recordings, was “modern,” and I tended to “see” my mother in my world and not one before I was ever born.

“Did you grow up in black and white?” my granddaughter, Elaina asked; we were looking at some photos. They were all black and white. When did color film come out, and be inexpensive enough to put a roll in a camera, I wondered but kept that to myself? The question was cleverly put. Was she being diplomatic about age, or merely observant that photos were shades of grey? If I were to tell any of my grandchildren about my “black and white” days, might I then seem as ancient as my own mother had been because of the “lack of?”

I quickly remembered some of my early childhood before houses/cars/offices were air-conditioned, when music records were heavy 78-rpm and only one could be played at a time. We had a weighty black telephone with a personal phone number of only a few digits, and a real operator generated long distance calls, microwaves were not even imagined. My early hosiery had seams and were made of silk. All my elementary school classes were held in one room (except sewing for girls and shop for boys), taught by a single female teacher, and the desks had inkwells for liquid ink. There were no ballpoint pens.

Well, I could tell Elaina that my parents got our first television set in May 1948, the screen was very tiny, and there were almost no programs on anyway. Nah. She’d laugh. Hmm. We had no cell phones, x-boxes, computers, fax machines, eye contact lenses, automatic garage door openers, frost free refrigerators, self-cleaning ovens, disposable items, riding lawn mowers, cars with navigation systems and keyless operation, our cotton clothing required heavy starching via a solution to soak the items in…my mind was remembering things as if turning a rolladex and bringing up file cards. Now a hand-held device with a tiny memory chip takes the place of file cards and calendars. I can make a phone call to Israel and get an instant connection, and, with a computer or tablet, have a video call.

“Elaina, color photography didn’t exist, and a black and white portrait was hand colored in transparent oil paint.” I smiled as I remembered when I personally learned this process, enjoyed both making plain into magical visual with paint, and there was not the fading I eventually had when color film came out for my camera and captured color images. I paused. I did want to tell her about life before hand-held hair dryers, curling irons, and automatic ice machines in refrigerators, but decided to enjoy playing in raked leaves and sharing giggles and “young” things with her which I couldn’t do if I revealed “my days.” It would sound so old, just like my mother’s did for me. So, I merely answered, “Yes, Elaina, I was a very little girl during black and white.”

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One Response to “Before Color Photographs”

  1. Very nice article. I also heard my son explain that his grandparents were alive before color was invented!

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Horses and buggies? Gas lights on streets? Did my mother grow up in the Dark Ages of History? She told me about living in buildings without elevators, where no apartment had its own bathroom. Years later I decided it was like my college dorm in the 1950′s when I had to climb stairs to my room on the 4th floor, and a bathroom with showers was at the end of each floor’s hallway; no big deal.

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