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Before modern conveniences


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"Before Modern Conveniences", by Helmi Kortes-Erkkila, is about a Finnish farm family 1917-1927. The author grew up on a farm in Woodland, Washington State. She writes about events that took place among the Finnish settlers. Her father took part in the Hibbing, MN strike of 1907, was blacklisted and couldn’t find a job. He went to the Work People’s College in Minnesota, studying English and other college subjects to qualify for citizenship. He met his future wife while she was a dishwasher there. She had worked for several wealthy families and picked up ideas of American life which she used in her own life. Two things she insisted on having in their new house which was being built, were a pantry and a clothes closet, having seen them in American homes.

The Introduction states that the book is intended to acquaint today’s youth with the way people lived before they had modern conveniences such as electricity, telephones, radios, television and computers. There were no vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, dishwashers and few automobiles. Even though these "conveniences" were lacking, the years before the Great Depression were considered the golden years of farm life in America.

Living on a farm meant the children had chores to do, such as milking, shoveling manure, gathering eggs, feeding pigs. The farm was mortgaged and the family had to live frugally in order to have money for mortgage payments. All through the book references were made about saving money. Leftover bread was made into pudding, teeth were brushed with salt or baking soda because they couldn’t afford toothpaste. When a visiting aunt left them her toothpaste, they were surprised she would leave something that expensive. The children went barefoot in the summer to save shoes. Ashes from the big black cookstove were saved and spread as fertilizer around the fruit trees. They ordered clothing and household items from Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues.

When the traveling salesman came, he was always welcomed. The family bought vanilla extract for their baking, colored thread, cloth and sewing needles for making clothing and patching overalls. Another necessary purchase was Bag Balm for the udders of cows.

World War I had been over for a week before they knew it after reading about it in a Finnish language newspaper. They were happy to read the news because her father had worried about being drafted into the army and leaving his family with no one to run the farm.

The book discusses customs and traditions: learning to hold the cow’s tail while milking to avoid being slapped with the tail; cutting potatoes into chunks and planting them for a new potato crop; operating the separator correctly to separate cream from skim milk — and then washing the machine thoroughly afterwards. The children participated in these activities. I grew up during the depression years and our family used many of these economies. I had to smile when the author wrote about the lumpy stockings when wearing long winter underwear. It brought back memories of my childhood and the lumpy stockings.

The author described an old tradition of cupping brought from Finland to America. Her parents took a sauna and then were cupped by a cupping woman who used a cone made from a cow’s horn that had been hollowed out. The cupping was done in the sauna because the heat of the sauna drew the blood to the surface of the skin. The cupper made a few cuts with a razor over the back or shoulders and placed the cone over the cuts. Then she sucked on a membrane that covered the tip of the horn, drawing blood from the cuts. After a few minutes she removed the cone and let the blood flow down the body. The the blood was then rinsed away and the same procedure was followed in another area of the body. People said that the cupping brought out "bad" blood, and they felt better afterwards.

The book was written through the eyes of a child as she experienced life on their small farm, the love of her caring family, associating with other Finnish families and learning English in school to help her Finnish-speaking parents.

June Pelo

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