Defining Ages- coal in your stocking

Everyone knows that “Frosty had a corn-cob pipe, a button nose and two eyes made out of coal” but we don’t think about it much. When Gene Autry released the song, it was already evocative of a earlier, simpler time, probably the Depression era when kids made their own fun with stuff that didn’t cost their parents anything.I have seen ‘snowman kits’ sold with plastic coal and carrot- sort of a cold weather “Mr. Potato-head”. (Come to think of it, when I was a kid, you only got the features and limbs and poked them into a potato. That shows how cheap potatoes were, I guess.) Similarly, the coal in your stocking was something with no value (as opposed to the rotten potatoes in kids shoes in Iceland- a much better motivator IMO).

When I was a kid we had a coal bin in the cellar, even though we had an oil burner for heat. On really nasty weather days, Mama would let us put on our play clothes (does that concept even exist any more?) and go down and play in it. You could get poked by sharp pieces, but we enjoyed it. Even so, I don’t remember using coal for our snow men’s eyes. The pieces were too big, and since the bin was full, I expect anything the right size was down at the bottom. When we moved to Winchester, there was a section of the cellar in the new house that I realized had been the coal-bin, although there was no coal, when our parents let us take it over to use it as a hang-out. It was probably when we painted it that I saw the wooden slots for boards that would be removed to access the coal to put it into the furnace.
These coal bins were on the street side of the house, and I think I found where the chute for loading the coal into the bin from the delivery truck was in one of them. It now occurs to me that they probably had locks, as bulkhead doors did, to keep anyone from using them to get into the house.

Time passes. Coal bins were a fixture of houses built in the 20th century, but by mid century, they were on their way out. I assume the dwindling coal industry serves electricity manufacturing plants. I’ve read stories of other kids playing in coal bins, or dealing with furnaces that needed feeding (seems to have required a handyman to do it). Those stories preserve that aspect of normal life, just as we accept that there’s a coal car and a stoker behind the locomotive in old fashioned trains. We don’t expect it now, but we understand the tradition (back in the days when controlling power represented by the ability to pull a hundred heavy cars made being an engineer a romantic idea for kids). I now wonder what aspects of our daily lives children reading stories set in the early 21st century will find odd or romantic. Even now, if I watch an old crime show I have to remind myself that DNA analysis isn’t available to them, or that in an old horror movie, they can’t just use their mobile phones to call for help. (Frankly, even in modern movies and books, the idiots rarely think to call for help. Some authors do give an explanation of why they can’t- but you’d think anything written in the last ten years, they’d think of it!)

I love that the old songs and books and movies do keep reminding us that things used to be different. I think we’d lose something valuable if we forget that change. I could define childhood as when you don’t realize that life hasn’t always been the way you experience it, youth as when you learn about the differences (I remember teens who mock earlier periods), and adulthood as when you accept it. This is probably because you’ve seen changes in your own life. Old age would be when you start missing the things the way they used to be.
While there may be some forgetting the inconveniences that led to the technological changes, with old age we can also observe the social changes that accompany them, and start to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages. I am definitely old. This means that I get to pick which technological level I prefer, and frankly, I like picking and choosing. I like computers for accessing information, but think of mobile phones as emergency communication. I like cooking with gas, and electric lights, but I like having candles and a wood stove so I am not helpless if the power goes out.

I also see how cost dictates which aspect of technology is available to people intensifies the class inequities, and this is a disturbing issue. When Monsanto pressured the farmers of India to use their hybrid grain, with promises of better yields, they were taking away the option of saving and planting some of the previous year’s crop to grow next year. Like Nestle’ giving African new mothers just enough formula to allow their milk to dry up so they’d be forced to keep buying it, or a drug pusher giving away enough product to create an addiction… “good” business practice, but a vile thing for one human to do to another. (happy postscript: when it turned out that the yields were not better, the farmers are going back to their old seeds- when they can find them!)
By all means let us use new technologies when they improve our lives, but we should never give our very survival or that of our culture into the hands of those who have shown that they care nothing for us, or culture, the environment or anything but their own profit. An animal who has no ability to care for itself is a pet if it’s relationship to humans benefits both, but if it is under the control of the human, and only the human gets benefit, it’s livestock. This may be an over-simplification, but it looks like corporations are setting modern humans up to be their livestock. We live as they allow us. I am old, and what’s more, I am an historian. I have seen what happens when people give away their ability to survive to make their lives easier. I love indoor plumbing and heating, but I’d rather chop wood and carry water sometimes, maybe even all the time, than not have the option to do so.