These are some illustrations by Jim for a story by Caesar Smith (a regular contributor to the Star Weekly in the late 1920s and early 1930s) about spring cleaning and decorating.
By Gregory Clark, December 19, 1931
The rumor was abroad in the regiment that the new Lieutenant Maybee Basset still believed in Santa Claus.
And, with some humor, everybody waited to learn what Sixteen platoon was going to do about it. For Sixteen platoon being the tail-end of any regiment, and marching next to the sick, lame and lazy, was always a collection of rogues and rascals that could be depended upon to do something about anything.
Mr. Basset was the newly-arrived officer of Sixteen. And the Weasel was his batman.
“I seen him,” said the Weasel, in his soft, sly voice, “saying his prayers. In his kit I found two suits of silk underwear. It was pink.”
Sixteen platoon, sitting, lying and lounging in the hay of its billet barn, received this juicy morsel of news with suitable uproar.
Nifty Smith, the prize fighter, who always lay back on his elbows like a boxer in his corner, said:
“I don’t mind that. That pink stuff. I think it’s time they was somebody different in Sixteen. The last two lieutenants we have had has been loud and yellow. I like this big guy Basset.”
“He writes letters,” said the Weasel, “all the time. To his mamma, I think.”
“I think he’s going to do all right,” said Schwartz, the cheese-eater, “but the regiment says he still believes in Santa Claus and I guess we got to do something about it.”
“We’ll be in the line for Christmas,” croaked Tobacca-chewin’ Martin hoarsely. “We ought to have a Christmas party for him. Maybe a Christmas tree. Or a little stocking hung on the parapet or something.”
“He’s soft lookin’, but I like him,” said Nifty Smith.
The Wessel, who had been batman for longer than anybody could remember, whom nobody loved because of his tattling ways, and whose sly voice always seemed to pick silences into which to creep, now said:
“I know a padre I can get a Santa Claus suit from. I’ll take it up the line and we can put on some kind of a razz for him.”
“We could take him,” said Tobacca-chewin’, eagerly, “out on patrol and he could capture Santa Claus!”
“There’s a swell idea,” said the Weasel, amid a chorus of agreement.
“You be Santa Claus,” said Schwartz, the cheese-eater, to the Weasel.
“Sure, if you birds will undertake that his gat hasn’t got any bullets in it!”
“That won’t be hard!”
So, on the eve of Christmas, when the regiment marched up the line, Lieutenant Basset walked at the head of the swaggering line of Sixteen platoon, little dreaming that he was to be the hero of another of that notorious platoon’s exploits.
The Weasel had the Santa Claus suit in his pack-sack. He had been unable to get one from any padre, but a French family a few miles back – so he said – which had been interested in theatricals before the war, had gladly fixed him up.
In secret, the platoon had all inspected the outfit, and the Weasel had put some of it on. It was old St. Nick himself.
We went in on the Loos-Hill Seventy front; and at Hulluch, where our front was, the No Man’s Land was barely fifty yards across.
“I wonder,” said Nifty Smith, who studied the ground, “if they is enough room for our little Christmas show?”
“Sure, there’s room,” said the Weasel, who had put himself heart and soul into the drama. “I got it all figured out. Christmas Eve, we can do some singing. You remember last Christmas? You could hear Fritz singing all over the line. Well, I know a German song. It goes like this: ‘Stille nacht, heilige nacht! I’ll teach it to you. Well, while we are singing this, and Fritz is singing it back at us, I can sneak out just a little way and lie there. Then you birds crawl out with Basset and just when you get close to where I’ll be, you leave him. I’ll make some sound and he can capture me. And in the dark he won’t know until he gets me back into the trench that I’m Santa Claus.”
“He’ll Be Scared Stiff”
“It sounds swell,” said Schwartz. “We ought to have somebody there, the colonel or somebody, to congratulate him.”
“As soon as we go out,” said Nifty Smith, “we could send word to the other officers that there was something funny on our front. And ask them to come and wait until Basset comes in.”
It was all settled.
And Lieutenant Basset, the day before Christmas, stood innocently in his trench, his kind, friendly face beaming as he listened to the talk of his men. He was a large, shy fellow. Dreamy and far away. One of those good-natured big clumsy men who never could be made into soldiers.
“And tonight,” said Nifty Smith, the prize-fighter, “we can hear them singing. And we can sing back at them.”
“Doesn’t it seem absurd,” said Lieutenant Basset, “sitting a hundred yards apart singing Christmas hymns and killing each other.”
“My idea,” said Tabacca-chewin’ Martin, “would be to sneak out into No Man’s Land about the time their singing is at its best and lob a few bombs into them.”
Lieutenant Basset looked horrified.
“Sure,” said Schwartz. “The colonel would be tickled pink.”
“Would he really?” asked the lieutenant. “He spoke to me rather sharply a couple of days ago about my word of command. If I went out and bombed them while they are singing, he would be pleased, eh?”
“Sure,” chorused the elite of Sixteen platoon, who should have been sleeping at midday instead of gossiping with their new and inquisitive officer.
“And would some of you go with me?” asked Basset.
“We’d all go,” said they.
And like a large, happy child, Lieutenant Basset left them smiling amongst themselves.
It was dark shortly after five o’clock Christmas Eve. And a few lazy flakes of snow were falling to create a little atmosphere of Christmas. But to the shadowy figures who stood-to-arms in that little bit of Hill 70, part of the long line of millions of men who stood facing each other unseen across a wide and unhappy nation, there was little thought of Christmas it was just the same old thing.
In a disused and battered dugout the conspirators of Sixteen were gathered quietly. The Weasel was putting on his Santa Claus suit. A quartet under the leadership of Bunson, the stretcher bearer, were softly practising “Stille nacht, heilige nacht,” which was only the old hymn, “Silent night, holy night,” only with a lot of funny words which the sly and widely travelled Weasel taught them.
“I got two bombs,” said Nifty Smith to the Weasel, “with the detonators took out of them. They’re for Basset. Then, I got hall a dozen pistol shells that I drew the bullets out of, and took out the powder. I’m going to tell him, just before we set out, that I got some new stuff for my pistol and I’ll change these for what is in his gun.”
“Don’t make any mistake about that,” said the Weasel, rather breathlessly. “I don’t want my head blown off by no Basset.”
The Weasel, it was arranged, was to go out at ten o’clock while the quartet lustily sang “Stille nacht” into the still air. He was to be given full hour to get set in a shell hole straight out from the place he went through our wire.
“The reason I want a whole hour,” said the Weasel, “is so there won’t be too much activity. If we all go out within a few minutes of each other, Fritz might notice it and start shooting up our little Christmas pantomime.”
“And at eleven,” said Tobacca-chewin’ Martin, “we’ll come out, crawl straight ahead about twenty yards, until we hear you say Psst! Then we let Basset go on an attack you. Suppose he beats you up?”
“He won’t. I’ll surrender,” said the Weasel. “He’ll be scared stiff and it’ll be me who will lead him back into the trench. But make dead sure his pistol’s a dud.”
Sixteen platoon thought ten o’clock would never come. Every time Lieutenant Basset came through the trench, they held their breath. But about nine-thirty the lieutenant and to Corporal Perry:
“The colonel has sent for me. I won’t be back until ten-thirty or eleven.”
And Sixteen breathed easy.
“His nibs,” said Tobacca-chewin’ Martin to the Weasel where he was concealed in the old ruined dugout, “has been called down to B. H. Q. He won’t be back until half-past ten.”
“I’ll be waiting for you straight out twenty-five yards whenever you come out after eleven,” said the Weasel. He was stiff with excitement.
The Boys are Speechless
At ten o’clock, Sixteen platoon spread itself out to see that no strangers should be in its trench while a comic spectacle appeared: Santa Claus himself, in whiskers and crimson bathrobe and pink fur cap, was hustled through the trench and out over the parapet at the little lane in the wire through which patrols pass into No Man’s Land.
“Start singing,” said Santa Claus breathlessly, “in about five minutes.”
And the quartet drew themselves together and started taking deep breaths.
As Santa Claus faded into the dark there was silence for a moment, broken only by the soft and sudden appearance in their midst of Lieutenant Basset.
“Keep still,” he whispered sharply.
He stepped smoothly on to the firestep and stared after Santa Claus.
Tobacca chewin’ Martin was close to him.
“All right,” said Lieutenant Basset in low whisper. A curiously changed lieutenant; a big, lithe strong lieutenant, from whom all innocence and goofiness had been wiped away as with a rag.
“Take this watch,” said Lieutenant Basset to the stretcher bearer and song leader, Bunson. “In three minutes from the time we go over here, start to sing. Understand? And sing until we come back. Don’t fail!”
His voice was like a Vickers gun.
“Come on, Martin,” said the lieutenant. And with Tobacca-chewin’ right on his heels, the lieutenant pulled himself out of sight over the parapet.
The boy’s stood speechless. But Nifty Smith was the first to swallow.
“Look at that watch,” he warned.
And in moment, the quartet was harmonizing in the finest barber shop manner, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.”
The music rose as softly into the night as the snow flakes drifted down
At the end of the first verse, there came, faintly and full, from the German trenches, the sound of men’s voices repeating the same tune.
Nifty Smith, Schwartz and the corporal were on the firestep staring tensely into the night.
“Start again!” hissed Nifty, as the far away song ended.
The quartet repeated the verse. “Louder,” said Nifty.
Once again, the Germans repeated the tune back to them, and once more the Bunsen quartet soulfully roared the tune into the night.
But half way through the verse, the watching figures on the firestep flattened to their rifle butts. And then through the gap in the wire came Tobacca chewin’ Martin bent low as he dragged a heavy thing behind him.
The heavy thing was the Weasel. His Santa Claus disguise was gone, and around the Weasel’s mouth was bound white bandage.
Tobacca-chewin’ slid the limp body into the trench and snarled everybody to silence. In silence, he frantically unwound his puttee and with it, he trussed the Weasel from head to foot, and then knelt low to listen to the Wessel’s breathing.
“What’s going on?” demanded Schwartz, at last, out of the gang of silent and startled men.
“Watch out there!” commanded Tobacca-chewin’ fiercely. “We gotta go back, Nifty and you and me, and help Mr. Basset when he comes. Keep up that singing. And see nobody fires, whatever happens. Corporal, Mr. Basset’s orders, see nobody on the flank does any firing. All companies on both rides of us are warned. Just look after our own company.”
“What’s happened to the Wessel?” asked the corporal.
“Detail somebody to watch him. Don’t let him move,” said Tobacca-chewin’. And with a gesture, he led Nifty and Schwartz over the top and out into that still, music-filled darkness that was more terrifying than if it were filled with fire.
Suddenly, into the quiet little twisty trench that was Sixteen’s piece, there arrived a squad, a mob, a regular guard of officers. Below their steel helmets glowed the red and gold gorget patches of the mighty staff. The regimental colonel was with them. One very small, aged officer led them. And they stood looking down at the Weasel.
The harmonious quartet faltered and prepared to vacate this part of the earth for more lowly regions. But the little old man with the snow-white moustache rasped :
“Sing damn it!”
And they sang.
The Big Surprise
The little old man stepped up on the firestep and watched into the night.
Four, five, six times, the quartet repeated their Christmas carol across No Man’s Land, and as many times, it was sung back to them, faintly, by the Germans.
And suddenly, the little old general dropped off the firestep and said: “Here they come!”
Lieutenant Basset came first, low and swift like a great hound. Behind him came Nifty and Schwartz, gripping between them a helpless figure over the head of which had been pulled a sandbag. And his feet dragged like those of one sorely hurt. Last of all came old Tobacca-chewin’ Martin, and they slid into the trench all of a heap.
Lieutenant Basset whipped the sandbag off. And there, bare-headed and speechless with fright and fury, stood a German officer.
“Herr Major Rupprecht,” said Lieutenant Basset. “I beg to introduce number of the general staff of the First Army.”
Herr Major Rupprecht staggered back against the trench wall and raid his hand to the back of his head.
“I — I — gentlemen –” he said, and sat down with a bump on the firestep.
“How did you get him, Basset?” asked the old general.
“Just the way you planned it, sir,” said the lieutenant. “I followed the Weasel, as they call him here, and when he called to the trench where the Germans were singing and got an answer, I slugged him, changed into his Santa Claus costume, went in and met Rupprecht, who was actually waiting in the front line trench, good chap.”
“I gave him the Weasel’s package. We will presently see what is in it. Then we had a very jolly drink. And I then informed Rupprecht that perhaps he would like, personally, to bring in complete new Stokes mortar of the latest pattern, complete with sample shell, and a couple of other things he would like to have, which I had secreted just outside the wire. For a moment, I feared he was going to send someone else with me. But all at once, visioning, perhaps, a special order pour le Merite, he slapped me on the back and said I was a capital fellow. And like two schoolboys we slipped out of the trench, into No Man’s Land. And then, shaking him by the hand and wishing him good luck until we met again, I clubbed him on the head and here he is.”
“Has he the stuff the Weasel, as you call him, had written for him?” asked the old general.
“I got it out of his pocket, sir. It’s quite a good sized package. Maps in it, too.”
“Who brought the Weasel in?” and the old man.
“This good man, Martin,” said Mr. Basset. “Martin has been in my confidence from the first day I joined this platoon.”
“We shall let Martin hear from us later,” said the old man.
And with Rupprecht walking amongst them, as though he were one of them, the squad of brass hats filed out of the trench. Mr. Basset, before following, shook hands with Martin, Nifty and the others.
“I had only short visit with you, men,” said he, “but I enjoyed it. Good luck to you.”
Behind remained one cold, black-jawed officer.
“Put this man,” said he to Corporal Perry, “on a stretcher and detail a party to carry him out with me.”
They lifted the mummy shape of the Weasel on to a stretcher, hoisted him and followed after the staff.
“Do you know that last guy?” asked Schwartz, as the little remnant of Sixteen stood dazed in their no longer dreary trench. “That’s the provost marshal. I seen him once at a wall party down at Doullens. One of those early morning wall parties.”
The first German shell of the alarm screamed over the trench.
The night across No Man’s Land, the still, holy night, leaped suddenly and frantically to life with flares, Maxims, shells.
And Sixteen, save for Nifty on the Lewis gun, ducked into the earth.
Editor’s Notes: In case it was not clear, Lieutenant Basset (as Provost marshal and in charge of military police), was undercover to catch the Weasel. Jimmie Frise provided the illustrations.
A batman in the military is a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal servant. This position was much less common after World War One.
A firestep is a built into each trench, cut into its wall some two or three feet from the trench floor. The purpose of the firestep was to enable each occupant of the trench to peer over the side of the trench through the parapet into No Man’s Land in the direction of the enemy trench line.
A puttee is a covering for the lower part of the leg from the ankle to the knee, wrapped like a bandage. This was standard in British and Canadian troops in World War One.
The German officer was perhaps expecting a Pour le Mérite, a German medal or order of merit (despite the French name).
This comic relies on the old gag of couples eloping, and the father of the bride trying to stop it.
By Greg Clark, November 28, 1931
“Where do we eat?” demanded the mighty Griffin, shoving back his typewriter.
“What’s it matter?” I asked. “Let’s eat.”
“It does matter,” declared Frederick. “I am tired unto death of eating in any old restaurant. We go to the same old places day after day, eat the same old food. Look at the same old hash slingers. See the same stupid people around us, gobbling, guzzling, snorting, slurping their food.”
“You are a little off color to-day, Frederick,” said I.
“I never felt better in my life. This rebellion has slowly been coming to the boil in me for years. I’m going to find a place to eat where I will enjoy not only the eating but the surroundings.”
“I can take you,” I said, “to the quaintest little place …”
“Arrrh!” roared the Griffin. “I know what you mean. Ye Olde Boote! Ye Little Greene Puppe! Ye Trype and Yunions! Not for me. With their wall paper peeling, their funny china and Chinese brass hung around the walls and teetering on frail furniture. I may be an Anglican, but not the tea-room breed of Anglican, thank you.”
By this time we had our coats on.
“How about a hotel?” I asked.
“Arrrr!” roared Griff. “Business men’s luncheon, one dollar! And get what’s left of the stuff they prepared for the Rotary Club, or something.”
“Let’s go up to the Athenian Room, then, at the big store.”
“Nnnnn!” moaned Griffin, in intense agony. “And have to sit in bright daylight surrounded by thousands and thousands of young executives talking big.”
“Well, where the heck do we eat, then?” I inquired.
“And some of them have their wives with them!” cried the Griffin, passionately. “The wives of promising young executives! The alert way they sit, looking around! They make their husbands, those wives. Il it weren’t for them …”
“It isn’t the restaurants, then,” said I, as we reached the pavement on King St. “It’s the people.”
“I saw a man,” said Griffin, “just yesterday, in one of the finest restaurants in Toronto, two tables from me, deliberately take his fork, like this, see, and lift the top lid of his pie and peek underneath at the filling. It was apple pie. I don’t know for sure, but I think I saw him lean down and sniff at it. Just two tables from me,” shouted Griffin, so that people on King St. paused and turned to look at us.
“But you shouldn’t look around when you are eating,” I admonished him. “Just keep your eyes cast down and devote yourself to your food.”
A Sort of Progressive Lunch
Griffin stopped me and seized me by the arm.
“Listen!” he cried harshly. “I can’t! I can’t keep my eyes down! I’ve GOT to look around. And it’s terrible. Every day it is getting worse. Even out of the corner of my eye, I can see somebody doing something unspeakable. Do you know what I saw the day before yesterday?”
“I saw a woman pick up her knife, fork and spoon and wipe them with her serviette.”
“Well?” said I. “Do you expect etiquette in a quick lunch?”
“It isn’t etiquette,” said Griffin. “Here was this woman suggesting that the spoons needed wiping, and I was half through my meal and it was too late to wipe mine.”
We proceeded along King street.
“Let’s make a game of it,” I suggested. “We will make a round of the restaurants. And whenever we see anything that offends us either in the manners of the customers, the food, the decorations or the help, we will get up and leave.”
“How much will it cost us?” asked Griffin.
“We won’t pay,” said I. “We’ll speak to the manager in each place and tell him we are couple of high-strung newspaper men and if his place offends us in any way, we are going to leave. We’ll pay for what we have eaten.”
“A sort of progressive lunch.”
“Exactly,” said I.
“And is a restaurant manager responsible for the manners of his guests?” asked Griffin.
“Well, anyway, we can play on the manager’s pride,” said I. “He likes to think the best people in town eat in his place.”
Griffin’s face lighted up.
“The search for the perfect eating place!” he cried, lengthening out his stride.
“Here,” said I. “This is the first place.”
And we turned into a fine big restaurant filled with the sounds and smells of noon.
“Sir,” said I to the manager, standing beside the cash girl. “We are a couple of high-strung, high-pressure newspaper men, and we are seeking the perfect place to eat.”
“You’re here,” said the manager, smiling proudly.
“Yes,” said I, while Griffin lowered at him, suspiciously. “But we wanted it understood, before we eat, that if anything offends us, either in the food, the waitresses, the decorations or the customers, we are not going to finish. We are going to get right up and walk out.”
The manager was unimpressed.
“You will find everything o.k. here,” said he. “Just find a table.”
As we hung up our coats, Griff said: “To begin with, I don’t like that manager.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“He thinks this place is perfect.”
We sat down. Opposite us sat a dark, bald-headed gentleman with serious ingrown countenance and downcast eyes.
The waitress, just as we sat down, placed before this gentleman a large plate filled with a mass of dark brown meat, about a pint of gravy and pale vegetables glowing dimly within its depths,
Seeing a Man Swallow Himself
Griffin nudged me sharply.
The dark, bald-headed man reached to the middle of the table. He took a firm grasp of the catsup bottle. With a far-away look in his eyes, he slowly removed the stopper of the bottle, up-ended it and splattered about a cupful of red catsup all over the goulash on his plate.
“Come on!” rasped Griffin, seizing me by the collar. “Git!”
We stalked past the manager.
“What’s the trouble, gents?” he cried in consternation.
“I’ll tell you,” said Griffin. “You cater to the catsup soppers! That’s what you do!”
And we strode out into the ungravied atmosphere of Yonge street.
“All right,” said Frederick, grimly. “Number one. Go ahead. Where’s number two?”
I led him into a cafeteria.
We took our trays and edged along.
Griff had a piece of pie and his bread and butter selected when suddenly he froze.
“Turn around!” he hissed. “Back out. Drop your tray!”
And before I knew it, he had bundled me out to the street.
“What did you see!” I gasped.
“I saw,” said Griffin, “an old guy with a long moustache. And on his plate was one of those great big mixed-up salads of stringy cabbage and floppy tomatoes and boughs of watercress.”
“What of it?” I demanded.
“Did you ever see a man with a droopy moustache eating one of these droopy salads?” asked Griff. “Half the time he is chewing his moustache and doesn’t know it. And even if he isn’t, I imagine he is. I have a horror of seeing a man swallow himself and turn inside out.”
“Yes, but maybe he wouldn’t sit where we could see him,” I pointed out.
“Life isn’t like that,” said Frederick calmly. “He would sit at the same table with us.”
So we went on our quest.
“Try one of these stool and counter affairs?” I inquired.
“Scientific investigators like us,” said Griff, “never neglect anything.”
So we went into one of those.
We had to stand for a minute or two behind the long row of stools waiting for a vacancy. Griffin surveyed the rank of bobbing and ducking heads. But any sounds of speedy feeding were drowned by a cheery clatter of dishes interspersed with loud shouts by the cowboys acting as waiters.
We got a stool each.
The cowboy on our part of the ranch reached forward with a large loose wet rag and made a grand flourish as he wiped the marble counter.
“Hawdie, boys!” said the cowboy to us.
“Hawdie, yourself!” said Frederick fiercely, and sprang from his stool. “Come on, Greg, and let us get the heck out of this wild west show!”
Up Yonge street we walked in silence. The silence was all mine.
We were passing restaurant after restaurant, tea room after tea room, until I felt Toronto had nothing but eating places in it. But Griffin had his head up and nostrils distended in that wild horse way, so I waited until we got to Queen street.
“What do you say,” I began – because Griffin was glaring at the policeman on traffic duty and I knew he had another red rag to distract his attention. “What do you say if we try one of these Chinese restaurants. They say they’re good.”
“No,” said Griffin.
Eggs a la Haileybury Fire
We got to Shuter street.
“Did you ever try one of these lovely white restaurants where it makes you feel clean even to go inside it?”
“And the bird next to you talks in loud voice for the benefit of everybody four tables around.”
“Not always …”
“Or,” stated Frederick in an emphatic Irish voice, “you get into one of those clubby groups, where they holler to each other, and come and stand talking to one another about business.”
“I know, but …”
“I’m getting hungry,” declared Frederick.
We passed Dundas street. We passed Eaton’s new store. We got up into the motor sales region and the antique furniture belt. We passed Bloor street.
“Gosh, Griff, I’m hungry. What time is it?”
“One-thirty,” said Griff, darkly.
Past gorgeous, glowing fruit stores, past a brewery warehouse, up Yonge street we strode, and came to St. Clair.
“A lot of swell eating places right around here,” said I, slowing down.
“School teachers,” said Griffin. “Musicians, people with long hair, childless housewives saving themselves the trouble of getting lunch, maybe some radio artists from CFCA. Artists wave their hands and upset things. They paw each other and talk with their faces right in the other fellow’s face.”
“Frederick, I’m starving.”
“All right, where do we eat, then?” roared Griffin.
“Any place,” said I, weakly.
“It’s four blocks to my house,” said Griffin. “Let’s go home.”
But the family were all out except the dog.
“I’ll cook you something,” said Griffin. “I know about eggs and things.”
We put on aprons. We started the stove. Griff broke three of the four eggs he dropped in the pan.
“Omelette,” said Frederick, stirring the eggs up.”
“Scrambled eggs,” said I.
But something was wrong. The eggs got brown instead of yellow.
We sat down in the kitchen.
“They taste funny,” said Griffin. “Just a minute.”
He produced a bottle of catsup. “Slather some of that over them,” said he.
We had bread and butter, scrambled eggs a la Haileybury fire, coffee that would make your toes open and shut, Griff upset the sugar bowl, I upset the milk bottle, we forgot to turn the stove off and the pan burned and made a terrible smell, and it was a quarter to three when we got back to the office.
Frederick threw off his coat and sat down to his typewriter with a tremendous bang.
All the editors looked up.
“Gentlemen,” said Griffin grandly, “I am about to write some sort of a masterpiece. For I have just been cured of a point of view. For one whole year, I will be able, now, to eat my lunch anywhere, with pleasure.”
So, while he writing his story, I have written this.
Editor’s Notes: This is a sort of proto Greg-Jim story from the early 1930s illustrated by Jim, but with fellow reporter Fred Griffin accompanying Greg.
The Haileybury fire was a huge news story in Toronto from 1922, which Greg was sent to cover.
By Greg Clark, May 16, 1931
The wife of one of the prominent members of the Ontario legislature brought her little girl to the opening ceremonies in Queen’s Park this spring. The little girl would be about thirteen years old.
But she did not have on a little girl dress. She wore a gown. A ball gown. Right down to her toes, which peeped out in satin slippers. And on her shoulder she wore the proper bunch of flowers.
She was not even a miniature of a lady. She was a lady full size.
And her presence at this magnificent social function created greater stir than the speech from the throne. Nothing that happened during all the past session was nearly so exciting.
It is not an isolated case. But it was a sort of declaration of a new dispensation.
In the communities round about Toronto, in Newmarket, Oshawa, Oakville and the numerous centres where social activities are concentrated enough to be grasped with the eye, the blossoming forth of fourteen and fifteen-year-old girls into gowned and slippered ladies is a phenomenon of the year. Eighteen is the age of debut. For a century, the “coming out” party has been the goal and ambition towards which girls crept slowly through the interminable teens. To this day, the discovery in Toronto of a girl who “came out” before she was eighteen is an impossibility.
Bat the younger generation of girls seem to have lost patience with stiffly organized society. They are developing an organization of their own. No more charades and musical chairs. No more blind man’s buff, which was considered a smart evening’s entertainment for the ‘teen age lassies in dimity frocks a dozen years of age.
Children’s parties now mean tuxedos and gowns. The big caterers in Toronto admit that the menu of ‘teen-age parties now differs in no respect from that of a Conservative association dance. No more ice cream and cookies. Chicken patties, cress rolls, coffee and, aye, even – hors d’oeuvres!
The situation is more acute in the smaller suburban communities than in the city itself. At one children’s dance, in a town not a million miles north of Toronto, some fifteen-year-old city girls were invited out by former misses’ school chums and they arrived with their party dresses. They were shocked and dismayed to discover that all the young ladies of the suburbs were arrayed in satin slippers, dance frocks and all the regalia of the elder generation.
“This is my first dance,” admitted one of the city girls.
But the social secretariat of Government House, Toronto, when asked what age limit is put, by this supreme social arbiter in Ontario, on girls invited to Government House balls, had to say that there is no age limit.
If eighteen years is the official age for a girl to be “out”, then seventeen-year-olds, if they can command a dance frock from their startled parents, are “out”, too. And it is not at all out of the way for sixteen-year-olds to be sharing in the joy of Government House dances.
Young Ladies at Fifteen
Both the big hotels confess that, in the past couple of years, they know for a fact that fifteen and sixteen-year-old girls have appeared in considerable numbers at the numerous dances and balls of the season and have carried themselves as gracefully and maturely as any young woman could do.
The big stores, the makers of formal frocks, announce with some glee that they are making the finest garments for younger girls than they ever had to fit before.
Col. William Michell, senior and directing high school principal of Toronto, a bachelor, and therefore a dispassionate and life-long observer of the fair sex in its ‘teens, unhesitatingly allowed that the girls of Toronto are stepping far past the ‘teenage boys.
“A fifteen-year-old boy is still a boy,” said this shrewd educationist. “But a fifteen-year-old girl is a lady, and not only expects to be treated as such, but really is a young lady. I believe there is something in what you say – that in recent years, girls have advanced in spirit and in mental poise far beyond their years.”
Fathers no longer take their fifteen-year-old daughters to the parties and call for them at a quarter to eleven. Because one of the characteristics of the case is that the fourteen and fifteen-year-old girls are pairing with the seventeen and eighteen-year-old boys. The first form girls find their dancing partners in the fourth form boys. Their young Lochinvars, resplendent in tuxedo, call with a car. And after midnight, the car comes roaring to a stop in front of the house, where papa and mamma are waiting behind the front curtains.
The first form boys, alas, are only boys. They are ordered to bed at ten. And if you mention the word girl to them, they blush and say, “Aw, heck!”
But the case is not without its embarrassments.
At one children’s party last month, one young lady of fifteen, carried away by the glorious consciousness of her gown and her high heels, and recollecting her big sisters, somehow got a cigarette, and in the innocence and show-off of that delightful age of fifteen, proceeded to be the queen of the castle at the party by dancing by with cigarette in fingers.
An adult present reached forth indignantly and snatched it from her. He then reported to the host, who was hiding himself in a bewildered way in front of the fireplace in the living room. And the host congratulated the crusader for his courage.
However, at another youthful party, when the host himself commandeered a cigarette from one of the young swains, half the party good-naturedly and cheerfully retired to an upper room where they locked the door; and all enjoyed a smoke!
The psychology of that, of course, is obvious. The next day, the younger members of the family would be apologizing left and right for the behavior of their elders. Old-fashioned parents, after all, are acts of God.
We may evade the issue by saying to ourselves that these manifestations are superficial, that there always were a percentage of children more advanced, that grandmother was married at eighteen, and that thank goodness the great multitude of children are just plain children and wear middy blouses and accordion pleated skirts still.
Look about you. Look at the girls passing each morning on their way to high school.
Middy blouses, like plus fours, are sport costumes, kept in the school lockers!
Dr. Munthe’s Mystical Theorizing
There are other explanations, vague theories, it is true, standing afar like mountain peaks in that dim country of Nature and Human Nature of which we know so little after all these centuries of ignoring the humanness of Nature.
In his wonderful and most entertaining book, “The Story of San Michele”, Axel Munthe, a great European nerve specialist and doctor of the mind and spirit, quotes such psychologists As Kraft-Ebing and Freiborg to the effect that after exhaustive wars, all through human history, there followed, in Greece, in Rome, in Europe of the middle ages, a startling reaction, in which men became effeminate and the women grew dominant.
Dr. Munthe was amazed both at the Messina earthquake and the terrible epidemic of cholera in Naples, at both of which he labored as a doctor, over the astounding manifestation of love-making that broke out in the very midst of these destroying holocausts. While the human race seemed to be in the throes of destruction in the cholera outbreak, he beheld young men making desperate love to young ladies, though the spectre of death stalked in their midst. At Messina, where with an anger and violence beyond belief, Nature shook a whole countryside to dust and ashes, he beheld the most elaborate serenading, the most desperate wooing.
“It was as if Nature,” says this mystical nerve specialist, “in the moments that she destroyed the race, inspired in hectic fashion, the spirit of preservation of the race.”
He believes that the race of men is no different from the race of pigeons or rabbits, and that Nature moves unconscious in them, causing them to do things on a vast, racial scale, in automatic response to certain causes.
So he comes to this aftermath of war. We had a war. It involved some millions of men of the western world. It killed and maimed some millions of them. It drove stark fear into the souls of millions of women. It sopped the tears from millions more.
To think that such a squeezing and yearlong straining of the hearts of humankind would not have some effect on those hearts is unthinkable.
Are the little girls of fifteen who wear dance frocks and high heels in Toronto today unconsciously answering some far, faint call of the great Mother? Are the parents who stand bewildered by the development of their children rendered numb and helpless by some mysterious spiritual drug blown on the breezes of the world by Nature?
Dr. Munthe, in his thought-releasing book, says that through all history, great wars have been followed by periods of effeminacy amongst the rising generation of men. It may be a reaction due merely to boredom with the war stories of their daddies. Or it may be, as Dr. Munthe says, one of those cyclic efforts of Nature to restore a balance. The men of the race, having exhausted themselves with war and wasted their time in hard, unprofitable things, are turned automatically to the softer aspects of life, to creative things, to dreaming again, and thinking: to art, to law, to philosophy, and those essential parts of life which have been sadly neglected during the time of strife.
And by the same token, the girls of the race are made strong, made lively and adventurous. You might upset Dr. Munthe’s mystical theorizing about Nature by saying that the girls merely seem more lively in comparison with the boys, who are reacting to the boredom of war as expressed in the bayonets, tin hats, pictures and souvenirs that clutter up the mantel piece, and eternally inspire their daddies to reminiscences of a bloody kind.
An Invasion of Nature
But Nature having lost its boldest and bravest in war may, argues the psychologist, speed up the future mothers of the race, to be bold, active, courageous and selective. In times of peace, the girls sit demurely at home and are sought out and wooed by the young men. In times of recuperation after a mighty waste, the girls wake up and come out of their Victorian swoon and do a little active selecting themselves. When good men are few and dreamers are many is no time to sit and wait for a reasonably suitable young man.
The other day there was a tag day. At six o’clock in the morning, into King street Childs there swooped a troop, a platoon, a raiding party of some thirty or forty young girl taggers for an early morning breakfast. It was apparently a rendezvous of one group of taggers for the start of the day’s assault.
Half of them were under eighteen. Some of them were not much over 16. But you could not tell their age by their clothes, because they were all smartly arrayed in the very smartest of early summer costumes, suits, ensembles.
Now, if this mystical theory of the unconscious invasion of Nature were right, I might have expected to hear deep, sonorous voices from these militant taggers. But what filled the restaurant to the deafening point was the high, squealing pandemonium that always accompanies any number of girls from four in number up.
How natural they were! But how keen and competent, the way they got their breakfast, the way they sat about the tables chattering and planning. If your wife is thirty or forty, you know how diffidently and shyly she comes into a restaurant. Or into church.
But these wee girls, radiant, with no sleep in their eyes though it was just the break of day, were alive, vital; and I felt myself wishing, in a kind of hopeless way, that these had been our bond salesmen, our executives, our young go-getters, so that the world could feel the force, the lance, the drive of their vibrant spirits.
There are two things we can do. We can rouse ourselves from our drowsiness and DO something about the younger generation. We can obstruct, rant, hinder, deprive. We can lay down the LAW. We can assume our responsibilities, as one mother of sixteen year-olds said to me in connection with this story. She assumes her responsibilities by making pals of her daughters. What a pal! And she is wearing herself to frazzle trying to do it, and though she is an old friend of mine, I must confess there is a sort of what we used to call “baby talk” creeping into her everyday conversation and making it rather terrible to deal with her.
She spends a lot of time keeping young, taking exercises and treatments. She has responded splendidly to those face cream advertisements. For her children’s sake, she is keeping young.
Yes, and at the same time, having not a bad time.
But I wonder if the two gals do not secretly talk to each other and wonder how much longer they will have to keep it up before they wear mamma out.
But if, as Axel Munthe says, it is the mighty Mother Nature who is back of it all, performing one of her vast, invisible movements, as invisible as the moving of the hands of your watch, or the unfolding of these little leaves of spring – then, dear relics of the past, there is nothing we can do.
Save wait to marvel at our grandchildren.
Editor’s Notes: When speaking of “coming out” in this era, it meant “coming out to society“. It was considered a rite of passage for upper class girls to transition to women.
“To make love” also is different from current usage. It means to make amorous approaches to; to romance.
Jim provided the illustrations to this news article.