Here we are at the beginning of our longest month. The calendar says, of course, that it’s the shortest, but let us not fool ourselves. There are short days and long evenings to while away one way or another, and always have been. There are only so many cookies or batches of popcorn you can make, and the sewing room is too cold to use. Barn chores take no more of the day than in summer, and after you sort the buckets for sugaring, there is not much to catch up on in the evenings. You pretty much already know what you need for the garden, so seed catalogues take minimal time.
Reading is always good, though if the roads were too bad you didn’t get to the village library very often – even if your village had a library. If you were sufficiently middle class you had a few books of your own to reread. There are often old engravings of women in long dresses reading by the window, but honestly, few people actually sat down during the day, at least the people I knew. Of course media are always media, and perhaps all the pictured ladies had maids and housekeepers and such. Reading at night was difficult to a greater or lesser degree depending on how your house was lighted.
If you were a kid you could pick on your brothers or sisters, but that was usually quashed early with parental threats of going to bed right now. That was a real hardship, because your bedroom was usually cold, and there were no bedroom lights to speak of – Dad’s family used candles to find their way to bed, but they blew them out immediately to save the tallow, so no reading in bed. Even ordinary things were conditioned by the lighting – Dad recalls once spending the whole evening beautifully coloring a brown horse. In the morning light it turned out to be a beautifully rendered purple horse! I think of that from time to time because some of my colored pencils have no words to indicate color, just the paint on the outside – and it can be very difficult to tell a purple from a brown, even with electric lights.
One quite wonderful thing was a stereoscope viewer. This was more of a Sunday pastime, since it too benefited from daylight. A stereoscope was used with special double-mounted photographs which the lens on the viewer melded into one 3D image. The views were exciting, even if the subject matter was kind of dull. Some of the photos were rudely funny, some were of foreign places, some more ordinary life. There is a card at the museum of Main Street in Milton, and I assume other villages and towns had like photos. There were advertising stereo cards – I have seen a rather boring set of them from a company in Chicago – Sears, Roebuck maybe. After the first 2 or 3 you learn that an office is an office is an office even in 3D. In the 50s the man across the street had a more modern viewer with circular cards of double slides. He lent his collection to Mom who spent a good many hours with it. Us kids looked at a few, but one flowery path in Hawaii started to look rather like another and we’d wander off. Later they made, maybe still make, the viewers but the slides were of kid-oriented things, comic book stories and the like.
All of this was in the dark ages, before TV and computers. There is little point in romanticizing long winter evenings of the past – one or two at a time, they may sound cozy. But in the long run, not so much. Probably why everyone went to bed so early.