We continue with New Year’s remembrances from Walter Schutz…”We spent New Year’s Eve with our good friends the Steinbart family who lived on Reservoir Avenue, about four blocks from our home. I always looked forward to this event as they had three children plus two cousins in my age range. We would play games, such as Parcheesi and Old Maid. Mr. Steinbart was a sales representative and spent a great deal of time in San Francisco where he could pick up novelty items that were not available in Milwaukee. Each year brought a new type of gift. I so well remember a back scratcher with a white porcelain hand attached to a thin bamboo stick about eighteen inches long. The red bow ribbon at the end of the handle made it easy to hang up.”
“At about ten o’clock or so, Mrs. Steinbart put on a scrumptious feast and I know my mother contributed some of the food. As the meal ended we knew we were getting close to the mystic time of twelve o’clock.”
“There were Christmas decorations which were called a bon-bon, consisting of a round rolled paper tube about 10-12 inches long, an inch or more in diameter, with fringes cut in the ends of the roll and wrapped in colorful Oriental designed paper. These were tied onto the tree and used on New Year’s Eve. At that time, two people would grasp the fringe very tightly and pull the unit apart. In doing this, there was a sharp firecracker sound as it exploded. As it was pulled apart, the inside had a little paper tube in which a decorative tissue paper hat was folded. It was immediately opened up and you would put the hat on your head. This was usually done before the New Year’s Eve meal.”
“Another one of the yearly rituals which Mr. Steinbart carried on each year was to tell the fortune of everyone at the New Year’s Eve party. He had a heavy cast iron bowl on the stove and would place a certain amount of lead in it which would melt down. To perform the ceremony, you would dip a ladle (holding about a tablespoon) into the molten lead and then drop it all at once into a dish of ice-cold water. It would solidify immediately and Mr. Steinbart would then take it out of the water and very carefully read the fortune. I am sure he had no psychic powers, but being quite an intelligent man, it was no problem for him to tell us just exactly what we wanted to hear. There was always a great amount of excitement connected with this ritual and all of us looked forward to this event.”
Walter writes how New Year’s was heralded, “There was no doubt when twelve o’clock arrived in our area because the Milwaukee River just south of us was lined with factories all the way into the city and when the mystic hour did arrive, they would blow their factory whistles. This was an occurrence that would never be forgotten. I think they actually vied with each other to see who could have the loudest whistle. In the end there was such a din that you could actually feel the vibrations in the house. Added to this and even piercing this, was the eerie whistle of the fireboat. These whistles would continue for 15 minutes to half an hour, depending upon the engineers who, I suppose, had a lot of fun breaking the routine of the usual daily schedule.”
“At the beep of the very first whistle, everyone turned out. People turned on porch lights or brought out candles and lanterns and gathered on front porches calling to their neighbors wishing a Happy or Prosperous New Year. People would blow whistles, bang on tin cans, kettles and drums or even set off firecrackers. This continued for about 10 minutes and the whole city would be out in front of their homes whooping it up.”
“In 1914 or 1915 my brother became an industrial engineer of a gaslight company and was given an automobile to call on customers. It so happened that a custom established itself on New Year’s Day. He and his wife would come to our house and we would go for a ride to the Sievers Farm (just north of what is now Silver Spring Road) where our summer cottage was located, depending if we could get through, as many roads, including Green Bay Road were not plowed. There were very few city people who got to see the country in the winter. We were so surprised to see the beauty of all the snow and ice on the river.”
We end Walter Schutz’s childhood rememberances of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays from the early 1900’s with this post. There are so many of his other memories to share. Someday we’ll revisit his writings and take another step back in time.
Shine a light, bang a drum, blow a whistle and whoop it up for the New Year!