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I’ve written before about how it’s very easy to get up in nostalgia, forgetting the negative points of life at that time.  I think there are times when our eyes are opened to this; I know some of my friends and family experienced this first-hand in the past week after they were hit with a massive ice storm in South Dakota and many were without power for a couple of days at the least.  Some are still without power.  Some people, like my mom, enjoyed having to hunker down in the candlelight, layer on the clothing, and cook on the woodburning stove.  Others cursed as each hour of darkness went by.  However, I still saw Facebook posts about how neighbors would drop by with chainsaws (to move the huge branches that had fallen from the heavy ice coating) and car chargers for phones so that even without power, people could stay in touch with friends and family.

As I was reflecting on the thought of whether the desire to help others is a thing of the past, I ran across this letter to the “Neighbor Lady” in her 1942 cookbook (the first edition):

Hi there neighbors all.
After listening to this helpful program day after day reminds me of the close neighborly spirit of long, long ago when people, especially farmers, did and could rely on their neighbors in time of need.  Yes, in those days, even without telephones, somehow when help was needed, help came, voluntarily and generously.  This old world certainly has changed, but the people, contrary to popular belief, have that same helpful feeling toward each other now that our parents and grandparents shared between them so long ago.  Some 25 years ago I had a recipe for raisin cake that was made with one cup of bread sponge.  I have lost the recipe years ago and I wonder if one of the neighbors could help me with it.  I’d be so thankful.
Mrs. Elise Hecht
Dunnell, Minnesota

 

On another page, this letter appeared:

Dear neighbor lady:
This morning as I was doing my Saturday’s mopping I was listening to the radio and happened to have it turned os that I got your program.  I have heard several ladies talk about your program and what help they get from listening to you but I never had listened until this morning.  I think it is very nice to be able to help one another in this way.  I noticed one lady asked for a cake recipe which called for one cup of bread sponge and I happen to have a recipe which my mother used every time she baked bread years ago.  I hope it’s like she wants.  My sister … Mrs. Robert Huber … is a great neighbor lady fan and has had her name mentioned several times … she even won a dollar!
Mrs. Elvin Jacobsen
Woonsocket, South Dakota

 

Today, this spirit of neighborliness still exists online; one only has to peruse through blogs to see how people still take the time to trade recipes, ideas, hints, and advice.  What strikes me now is the time it took “back then” to be neighborly, and sometimes I think we measure our desire to be helpfulness in how many clicks of the mouse it would take in order to be helpful.  Mrs. Jacobsen, in response to Mrs. Hecht, would undoubtedly have to hand-write the recipe, place a stamp, and mail the letter.  She did it for one reason: she had a recipe that someone else wanted.  She received no monetary gain — just the notoriety that came with being published in the Neighbor Lady cookbook.

The ice storm in South Dakota — while incredibly destructive — has brought back that neighborly spirit in many cases.  I saw several posts about how meals were brought over, or home opened to friends, or yards cleaned up.  Starbucks tried to do their part by handing out free coffee to police and firefighters — which, although generous, left out two other obvious categories: paramedics and power linemen.  But what impressed me most of all were the random acts of kindness that no one had to do — they just simply did them because people knew that they were all in the same boat (or, in this case, all on the same ice-skating rink!).

It’s easy to claim that neighborliness has died simply because we get so comfortable in our everyday lives that we don’t take the time to do things that don’t directly benefit us.  The spirit is there, just as it was in 1942.  Whether it’s passing along recipes for raising cake or wielding a chain saw to clear out fallen branches, the desire to help others is alive and well; unfortunately, it takes a tragic event for that spirit to emerge.

 

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If you’ve read a few posts of this blog, you know that I’m a big fan of the WNAX Neighbor Lady cookbooks.  This past spring I was ecstatic when I found the very first cookbook of the series from 1941-1942.  I am usually not an aggressive bidder on eBay, but I set my max bid to what I felt it was worth, and I ended up winning the bid.

Trust me — these books are NOT easy to find.  I started my collection over fifteen years ago and that’s how long it took me to get my hands on the original.  Today on eBay I noticed another one up for grabs with five days to go in the bidding.  It might get up there, but it might not.  I wanted to put this on the blog ASAP so that fellow WNAX fans can watch this one and possibly win it for themselves.

Here’s the link! Happy bidding!

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I received my prized 1941-1942 Neighbor Lady cookbook last week and immediately took time to sit down and read it front to back.  It’s evident that after the first book they perfected the format, for the first one is nowhere near as organized as the subsequent books.  In fact, all the recipes are just lumped together without headings.  On the inside cover there is a photo of a very young Wynn Speece:

What I love the best about these books are the little comments that previous owners have written in the margins.  Many ladies have written little notes like “try” next to recipes that seemed promising, or notes about ones that were successful:

The rye bread does sound good, actually.

And toward the back of the book are the letters, favorite verses, household hints, and a list of people who won good deed dollars.  Here is Wynn’s explanation:

A novel idea, eh? — a radio station encouraging friendliness and helpfulness and actually rewarding people for their efforts.  The list was long and a couple pages in length.

See any familiar names? 🙂

In the letters section, I saw one that I think must have been the inspiration for these books to begin:

She was planning on keeping a notebook full of the recipes and helpful hints that she encountered during the show, and voila!  The Neighbor Lady books were born.  That’s my theory, anyway.

And yes, I’m sticking to it.

 

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My recent purchase of a 1941-1942 WNAX Neighbor Lady cookbook has reignited my love for these books.  I particularly love the letters that are included in each book because they capture so much of the history and the way that people lived.  Here are some of my favorites from the 1944 book.


Dear Neighbor Lady: For many years I have spent my winter months making quilts and rugs.  But since the war came on my hobby is writing to those in service.  I began by writing the home news to the boys from our own community who were at Guadalcanal.  Later on there were others and as the young folks call me “Mom Fay” I always signed my name like that.  Finally boys who had no mothers wrote and asked if I wouldn’t be their “mom” too.  So up to date I write to 26.  I had always hoped to have a “baseball nine” of my own, but they were nearly all girls.  “My sons” in service all want to belong to my baseball nine.  My pitcher writes from India, my catcher from North Ireland, my first basement from Australia, my shortstop from Italy.  They write such good letters.  They seems as if they are my sons.  One is a red-head from the state of Ohio, and while in the hospital he wrote and said, “Dear Mom, you can’t imagine how good it was to have you call me ‘son’.”  My hobby takes a lot of time but I enjoy writing and how much it means to these boys whose mothers died when they were 3 or 5 or so.  They seem to feel that sense of belonging to someone, which is very important to all of us.  In a letter from a boy from the state of Texas, who is now across, he wrote, “Guess what, Mom.  I qualified as a bugler yesterday.”  He wrote and asked if I could stand just one more son, in April last year, as he lost his mother when he was 3 and he had been reading the letters I sent to his buddy.  So my evenings are spent writing to these boys of mine.  My southern boys always say, “Be sweet, Mom,” and I can hardly wait to have them all come home, although there are so many that I have neer seen

– Mrs. John Fay, York, North Dakota

 

Dear Neighbor Lady:  Maybe first, I had better ask you to excuse me for being so brassy as to address you as above, but you know us poor husbands have to listen to the ups and downs of women for 6 days each week through WNAX as our wives always turn their dial to this program at 3:25 p.m., but it could be worse.  The reason I am writing is because my wife has been in bed for three days with flu, she was pretty sick but is coming all right now and she said, “if someone does not write for me they will think I have forgotten them,” but you do not need to worry as she mentions something about the Neighbor Lady program all through the day and maybe the night as I do not stay awake to listen to her.  I guess she has tried every article that you advertise and of course there is no comparison and I suppose I will have to admit that they are all okay with me.  She sure has received a lot of letters from Neighbor Ladies all over the country and she wishes you to tell them that she will write to them when she gets her strength again.  I work out at the airport so if you women get too hard on us men, I can fly away.  I think I will write to Jack Paige and have him start a competitive Neighbor Man Program and name it “Neighbor Ladies’ Poor Husbands.”  Well, I don’t expect a good deed dollar, but pray for my wife to get strong fast.  Very truly yours, a batching husband.

– George R. Granger, Mitchell, South Dakota.

P.S., While I was writing this letter I forgot my Neighbor Lady meat stretcher in the oven, viz: meat pie, and the top cooked to a dark brown, so I guess it is done.  G.R.G.

 

 

Dear Neighbor Lady, and all you wonderful friends.  Usually I find it easy to write letters, but this time, I just don’t know how to begin.  How can a “thank you friends” convey my feelings and make you all know just how much I did enjoy those wonderful letters, cards, beautiful greetings, the pictures and the presents. Thank you, thank you all so much.  I wish every WNAX Neighbor Lady would have as pleasant a birthday as I did.  I wish I could write to each one and thank them, but that’s impossible.  I didn’t turn the radio off as you suggested, Neighbor Lady, as I’d had a letter telling me someone had suggested a card shower.  I was surprised that so many did write and the mail came so fast.  Hazel said, “Mother, you had better tell Neighbor Lady how excited you were.”  Just how did I rate such a surprise?  I kind of believe it was Mrs. Whitehorn and Mrs. Granger that got the idea started; with your cooperation, it was a huge success.  I especially like birthdays, and I can’t think of anything that could have pleased me more than did all those kind messages.  I received 170 cards, letters, and greetings, 18 lovely hankies, a bird of paradise brooch, a wool yarn flower for a coat lapel, a crocheted cross book mark, doily with lace edge of shaded pink thread, package of flower seeds and a Perfex hot pan holder.  Also a clever cut-out greeting from our Neighbor Lady.  Some very thoughtful person even wrote to Bertha Kott about my birthday so I received a lovely letter and a greeting and hankie from her too.  Again and again, “thanks” all you grand neighbors.  

Very truly yours, 

Mary Renn, Pine River, Minnesota

 

These letters make me realize a few things.  One, that we seem to have lost a sense of community to the point where we make connections with random strangers and take the time to really communicate.  The advent of the internet created a surge in that a little bit, with Yahoo groups and the like bringing people together.  Facebook has also allowed us to make connections with long lost friends across the globe.  However, we spend so much time “liking” statuses and not enough time actually talking.  How much do we really know about the people on our friends list?

These letters also make me feel guilty for my own lack of meaningful communication.  Nearly all of us enjoy getting actual mail from people, but how many of us actually send mail aside from the obligatory birthday card?  I need to make a point to be better about mailing letters and whatever else.  The card shower idea is not new, I know, but it is a lost practice.  Can you imagine getting 170 cards for your birthday?

And the lady who wrote to all her adopted “sons” — that is a heartwarming story and selfless act on her part.  Keep in mind that there was no computer to type letters quickly; no way to just copy and paste things to avoid having to repeat it.  She wrote to 26 boys and had to take hours out of each day to hand write the letters.

One thing these letters remind me of is the simple fact that it is important to stay in meaningful contact with people.  Facebook and smart phones give us a false sense of connectedness, I think.  We think a text means something, or a Facebook “like” means that we are thinking of that person, but in reality, that contact means very little.

Perhaps we should revive the concept of a card shower and start mailing letters to those who are important to us. Email has made us forget how fun it is to actually get a letter or package in our mailboxes.

OK, end of rant.  I will be posting more letters from other Neighbor Lady books in the near future.  More fun on the way!

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I have written before about my WNAX cookbook collection.  The proof:

Exhibit A.

Exhibit B.

Exhibit C.

Exhibit D.

I started collecting these books by accident after discovering one in a box of stuff from my great aunt’s estate sale.  I started leafing through it and was amazing how such a small little cookbook packed so much information in it.  Each one had letters from listeners, pictures of events and ones that listeners had sent in, recipes, household hints and tips, and favorite verses.  The older ones especially were a treasure trove of history — the letters from the war wives expressing their gratitude for Wynn Speece and her radio program are very interesting to read.  The radio was not just a source of information — it was a friendly voice to keep lonely housewives company.  People who had never met Wynn Speece wrote her heartfelt letters about what her program meant to them, and she always wrote heartfelt replies back.  Try getting THAT out of today’s radio hosts.  🙂

After I discovered how wonderful these cookbooks were, I started collecting them, intent on getting as many of the early ones as possible.  For some reason, the cookbooks got less interesting in the 60’s.  Eventually they stopped publishing letters from listeners, and I can only imagine that the popularity of TV quickly replaced radio and that no one really took the time to actually write letters as often.  I concentrated on getting as many of the 40s and the 50s that I could.

A couple years ago, I had all of the 1940s and the 1950s, but I was missing one — the very first edition of the cookbook from 1941-1942.  Oh, how I wanted that, but the auctions I stumbled across for one usually ran into the hundreds of dollars.  I couldn’t justify spending that much for a cookbook, no matter how badly I wanted it.

Fast forward to a few days ago when I accidentally stumbled across one on eBay.  The auction started at 12.99, which was really low for something that rare.  I added to my watch list and honestly forgot about it until I received a reminder email from eBay yesterday.  I checked on the auction and noticed that there seemed to be a few interested people and the bid was slowly inching its way up.  I got discouraged, because I have never had good luck with contested items on eBay.  Someone always swooped in and got the item at the last minute.  However, I had a moment of clarity.  I’ve been looking for this book for many years.  Here it is in front of me.  What is it worth to me?  I set my max bid and hoped it would be enough to deter all the other bidders.

Long story short, I won the auction and I have the final book in my collection on its way to me.  The good news is that the auction didn’t get close to my max bid AND the book sold for under a hundred bucks — a rarity for this item.

When it gets here, I’ll be sure to post some pictures from the contents!

In my quest to collect these books, I’ve also ended up with some duplicate books. I am selling a couple of them at my Etsy shop, so if you’re interested in checking these books out or starting a collection of your own, they’d be a good start.  The books I’m selling are from 1950 and 1951.

 

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Addicted to ephemera

I’m not sure “ephemera” is the write word to use for this post, but it’s the one that seems to fit the best.  By “ephemera,” I’m talking about bits of writing that I find in books, particularly the WNAX Neighbor Lady cookbooks that I collect.  I’m fascinated by “found art,” if that’s a better term for it — bits of writing or drawings in books that were probably never meant for anyone else’s eyes.  When I find some, it makes that book even more special to me.
Read the rest of this entry »

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I know I talk a lot about my Neighbor Lady books. I suppose one could accuse me of being mildly — ok, massively — obsessed with the darn things. To me, those books are like opening up a dusty box in the attic to find grandma’s diary, left undisturbed for generations. These books are so packed with history, and a gentle reminder of times past.

The books I cherish the most are the ones from the years during WWII. These days we feel “deprived” if our cell phone poops out on us; in 1944, however, although the war was drawing to a close, the sting of actual sacrifice was being felt all over the country. As the saying in one of the books goes, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!” How many of us abide by that today in our throwaway society? I know I feel a twinge of guilt when I think that our household puts out about 3 bags of garbage, if not more, per week. In our micro-pre-packaged world, it’s hard to buy anything that doesn’t come in a container that ends up getting thrown away. Read the rest of this entry »

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In an earlier post I wrote about my growing collection of WNAX neighbor lady books, and how much I enjoyed reading through all the household hints and letters from homemakers everywhere. Every so often I’ll pick up a stack of the books and leaf through the “household hints” sections, taking note of things that I had never tried before or solutions to cleaning dilemmas. Here’s just a sample from my new book — the 1946 edition. Some of these are just grand, and some of them seem to be a little questionable. Enjoy! Read the rest of this entry »

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