Age of Hope

Interview with Beryl Bristow

Beryl Bristow Q: Can you give me a picture of what your home town Danville used to look like when you were a little girl around the turn of the century?

Bristow: It was a town of about 15 to 20 thousand. We had electricity, and I can remember when we didn't have running water that you could drink. We had running water, but it was kind of muddy looking. We could use it for baths and for the bathroom, but that was a great addition when we got pure water, pure running water.

We had street cars and some paved streets, paved with brick in those days, but not very many paved streets. It had pretty good stores. The town was not a buzzing town, I would say.

Q: Tell me about [political parades].

Bristow: I can just barely remember them, but I do. They were Republicans or Democrats and they would decorate a car -- a buggy, not an automobile; we didn't have automobiles -- and people had banners and things of that kind. If you think politics are hot these days, they were really hot in those. You really were a Democrat or a Republican. People did business with that in their mind, I think, quite a bit in those days. Politics was really very important.

Q: America today, at the end of the twentieth century, is a world power, but it wasn't a world power when you were a little girl really.

Bristow: No, the world power that I remember was the United Kingdom. My father was born in Ireland, the north of Ireland, and his mother was born in England, and he thought the United Kingdom was really THE world power, and he would always say "Well they may be in trouble now, but the sun never sets on the United Kingdom," and he thought it never would. That was the world power that I knew about.

Q: Did America feel more like a new nation? Did it have a new feeling as a big country?

Bristow: ...Well yes, we definitely knew it was a new nation, not all the states were yet in the United States at that time, they were coming in one by one, so we did know it was a new nation.

Q: Were you proud?

Bristow: ...Well I am sure we were, we all learned patriotic songs, and I was very pleased to live in Illinois. And famous people had come from Illinois. Lincoln, you know, was from Illinois, and we were very proud of Lincoln.

Q: One of the things...which we are very interested in, is this business of gas or electricity.

Bristow: In 1900, my father was building a house, and one problem was that gas and electricity were just coming in to be used generally. So we asked the head of the company which he should get into the house, gas or electricity. He said "Oh gas by all means, electricity is just a fad, it will never last." So that was what we got. It was 20 years after that before we got electricity.

Q: What was it like to live in a house with gas lighting?

Bristow: We didn't light it very much at night -- I know that. We got used to going round more or less in the dark, and we had to light each one individually with a match. Electricity was a great convenience when we got to that, but we had good gas lamps....coil lamps.

Q: The other thing at that time was the motor car and the horse.

Bristow: Well the first time I knew or saw an automobile, someone came running into the house and said "Quick, there goes an automobile!" or whatever it was called at that time, I don't remember. I ran out and looked at it, and it was just past the house, and it was a one-seated affair. But there was one seat going forward and one seat going backward -- they were back to back -- and it was just a very small little car. I was thrilled to see it.

Later on there got to be a few cars. We always had a horse to drive. On Sunday afternoons, we would always take a ride out through the country. [When] we started out, we had a very fine horse -- a very high spirited horse -- and we were on the country road, and suddenly there came a car towards us and the horse had never seen a car, so he just shot right up the hillside that was beside us and back down, and we all fell out of the buggy. As we came down, some were hurt, I can remember. I wasn't hurt, but of course the automobile politely stopped and took care of us and I got to ride back into the town in the automobile. So that was my first automobile ride...

Q: So what was it like, that first ride in an automobile?

Bristow: Well it was noisy as far as I am concerned, and I am sure it wasn't too smooth a ride, but I enjoyed it -- I got a thrill out of it.

My father wasn't going to keep that horse that was afraid of the he sold the horse and got another one that was not afraid. It had been trained to not be afraid of cars, and the only trouble with this [was that] it was too placid. When it would see a car coming, she would just stop and wait till the car went by and then she would start up again, so it took us quite a long time if we were driving it some place; it took us a long time to get there because we were seeing quite a few cars -- not like today of course, a few cars.

Q: What about the telephone system? What was the telephone system in Danville then?

Bristow: I can remember when we first got a phone, I suppose I was six years old -- something like that -- and it was on the wall, up fairly high on the wall, and you stood there and talked. I remember my mother getting so tired -- she had to do so much telephoning. It was a delight when you got a telephone that was on a stand, and I remember when we got that we all enjoyed the telephone.

Q: Before you got that sort of telephone, how did you dial, how did you make sure you got hold of the person?

Bristow: Well, you would take the receiver off the hook and ring a handle, and a central officer would answer and you would tell...them the person you wanted to talk to. And they would just connect you because there were so few telephones -- they would know. But [for] most of the calls, you could give them your number, and it would be like 354. I remember that was our telephone number for years, and you just gave that number, and you would be connected.

Q: Do you remember also the coming of electrical appliances?

Bristow: We had quite a large house, and my mother did most all of the work, and it was wonderful when we got a vacuum cleaner.... Once a year you would take your carpets up, or your rugs up, take them outdoors, and hang them on the clothes line, and then beat them with a beater to beat the dust out of them. And that was quite a chore and wasn't too successful.

When you got a vacuum and it would take all that dirt, oh it was just wonderful. And then the electric iron instead of the heavy iron. I can remember, we were four little girls in our family, and to keep us in dresses and ruffles and things, that was quite a chore. And when you got an electric iron, that was a wonderful help.

The electric washing machine -- I shall never forget that because I remember when Mother used to have to shave up a bar of soap instead of having liquid or flakes like we have now and prepare it for the washing, and then possibly boil the clothes,...then scrub on a scrub board.

Q: Do you remember anything about the position of women in those days, the years before the First World War?

Bristow: My mother was raised on a farm, south of Champagne about 25 miles... She had all the education that they could push, and I would suppose it was about the same as we call an elementary -- eight years of school. When she came up to the University of Illinois to go to school, she was accepted without much education, and she was quite a bright lady, so after a while she told the powers that be that she wanted to take math. They said, "Oh no -- the girls don't take math, they can't do." She said, "Well I could." They said, "All right, do it if you want to try it." And she did and she enjoyed it and got along so well, they said "Well, if you can do it, the rest of them I guess can too. We will just put mathematics in to required for the girls." The rest of the girls didn't appreciate that, so they left it for the girls for a short time, and then they said they didn't have to do it.

She was the first one to take mathematics as a girl, and it happened that when I went to school that is what I enjoyed. And then I took a major in physics and it turns out that I was the first girl to take a major in physics from the University of Illinois, so it just happens. They didn't expect girls to be interested in science or math or anything of that kind, that is just what I enjoyed. And right now about a third of the students in the engineering school are girls -- that is how different it is.

I think the women in those times were really very highly regarded, not that they felt they were capable of doing what men could do. That wasn't true, but I think since then, when some of the girls in the Engineering Department now ask me, "How were you treated when you were the only person." I said, "I was treated just like anybody else...."

Q: Did you have a sense that things were changing in your world?

Bristow: Even before the First World War, before [19]14 , I wouldn't say I had any sense [that] the world would be different, like it is now. I didn't feel it was split -- it was just the way things were done. Each day the whole family had three meals together, and everybody would tell what happened that day. You would settle a lot of problems right there at the dinner table and really keep acquainted with your family and expect everybody else to do the same thing.

In the Twenties you began to sense that the world was going to be quite different, after the World War.

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