I’m sure people do these things today, but they sure did them a lot more often in that other world I visit, the world of the Postcard Craze of 1908 or so. Young men slipped out after curfew to exchange a few words under the girlfriend’s window, women put pies to cool on the kitchen window, tramps slipped up and stole clothes from your clothesline and pies from your kitchen window, unpleasant kids tied firecrackers to a stray dog’s tail, restaurants served tough steak and elderly butter, and people unable to sleep threw shoes at cats.
And children stole jam.
This was a while back, you understand, when billions of dollars were not yet spent on advertising and manufacturing sweet snacks. They existed: a new exotic item called caramel had been brought to the United States in the 1880s and was very popular, and purveyors of chocolate produced both fancy assortments for the upper classes, and cheaper versions for the masses. And, of course, bakeries existed to provide people not just with bread but with sweet rolls and the doughnut of popular consumption (such a hardy bread product in its day that one dunked it in coffee partially in self-defense. It also sweetened the coffee without recourse to the sugar bowl.)
But a majority of Americans lived in rural areas and small towns. This not only meant, for the average child, fewer opportunities to buy sweets but also a security system it was hard to evade. An uncle of mine recalled a moment in the 1930s when he did a chore for a woman who lived several blocks from his house, who surprised him by giving him a nickel. Knowing his parents would either a) make him give back the nickel since it was a neighbor or b) take the nickel and put it into his college fund, he chose to go immediately to a store which would sell him a Fudgesicle for a nickel. He reasoned that if he ate it on the way home, it would be gone when his mother saw him, and there would be no evidence that there had been a nickel or a Fudgesicle.
He had reckoned without the other neighbors, who, seeing him with a Fudgesicle would wonder where a kid who did not usually eat such things got it, and call his mother to inquire. Fifty years later, he could still remember regretting he hadn’t thought to eat the forbidden sweets before he left the store.
So even where there was opportunity, there were eyes watching. But in the privacy of one’s home…true, when pie or cookies were available, these were dispensed by the Kitchen CEO, who could keep track of them. But those jams and jellies….
Just about every well-established family put up fruits and vegetables at harvest time; in the days when grocery stores stocked only seasonal goods, this was the only way to make sure you could have apples (dried or made into sauce), cabbage (as sauerkraut), or beans (cooked and canned) through the long winter. And there would be jams and jellies in varieties you now have to send away to an artisanal market for, but which then grew wild in the back yard: elderberry, huckleberry, blackberry, with perhaps Damson plum and apricot as well.
And jars could be opened and reclosed. In fact, once Mother opened a jar, how could she be sure how much had been in the jar next time she opened it? An enterprising child, with stealth and a spoon, could take care of those sweet tooth cravings. Mind you, it took nerve.
A child who will read her future in her own shadow is not going to make it as a master criminal. It also took a certain amount of planning, a certain degree of stealth.
But once you had mastered your fears and learned to keep your face clean, you had only to deal with the aftereffects of consuming a lot more fruit and sugar and pectin than you usually ate at one time. (You don’t really want to see all the castor oil and chamber pot postcards, do you?)
Of course, sometimes fortune would play into your hand. This was also an era when a child’s Time Out might involve being locked in a dark closet, or in the dark, dank, spider-filled cellar. Where, if you thought about it, was also where Mother stored the jars of jam.
Crime, it seems, COULD occasionally pay.