Child’s polio braces … and how they relate to spotless midcentury kitchens

child's polio bracesBack in the early days of the blog, I wrote a story 10 Reasons I’m Glad I Don’t Live in the ’50s to clarify that with this blog, I’m singing the praises of the decorating, not necessarily the lifestyle or all the ins and outs of life then. A few of my reasons for life today vs. yesteryear were tongue-in-cheek. But on the main, I was dead serious about how, all things considered, I believe we are way better off today for very specific reasons — in particular due to civil rights and medical advances. A related case in point, spotted on ebay this week: Shoes fixed with leg braces, for a child, found at an estate sale in Texas. For polio? We’re guessing. See this photo reference from Harvard.

Go to the listing: Those shoes were worn hard, worn right out. My mom tells me that, growing up the 1930s in rural Pennsylvania, there would regularly be quarantines for all the children when another child was diagnosed with polio. Can you imagine. Related to the usual topics of this blog: Some academics point to the historic preference for white tiled kitchens as a defense against disease. This all started with Florence Nightingale and her work to advance hospital sanitation around 1850. From that point on, homemakers and their servants started to aim for absolute cleanliness to ward off germs. White cabinets, floors and walls made it easier to see the dirt. “Sanitary kitchens” — that’s what they called them. Similarly, steel cabinetry — starting with steel Hoosier cabinets — were marketed as “vermin free” — rats and mice could not chew through and eat, or contaminate, your precious foodstuffs. Americans took the whole cleanliness thing even further, by linking personal and home hygiene to advancing socially and economically. I read all about this a couple years ago in the fascinating book Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (affiliate link). So… there was a well-evolved back-story to all that renowned midcentury focus on household cleanliness — including how we ended up with so many white kitchens. Thanks to seller Ray for giving me permission to feature these photos. You can see his listing, with more photos, here.

Categoriespostwar culture
  1. Julie says:

    It drives me nuts when people think it is so horrible now. As though people only started doing horrible things in the year 2000 or something. The difference today is that we see it in our tv shows and our news all the time. We read about it on Facebook and Twitter. It is everywhere.

  2. JefferyK says:

    Polio has nearly been eradicated off the face of the Earth. People can do amazing things when they set their minds to it.

  3. Cynthia says:

    My mother grew up in the 1940s in Milwaukee and used to tell stories about how in the summer none of the kids in her neighborhood were allowed to play with their friends. They would all go out on their front porches and call up and down the street to each other…that was the extent of her social interaction with her friends, because everyone’s parents were terrified of polio.

    Yep, I agree with everyone else…love the look, but would not want to live in those times…

  4. Bandita says:

    Thank you so much for the diversity of your posts! My Grandpa had polio and has an extreme limp. I’ve never looked into the terror that polio caused and the sadness that his family must have had when they discovered what he had. I’m now inspired to get his full story on the subject..

  5. nina462 says:

    Thanks for this section. I, too, ‘live in the past’ decorating style, but would not want to live without the advances we’ve seen. Speaking of which, there is a show on bbc america – the Supersizers Go…and last night they it was the 50’s. Showed how people ate/dressed/entertained etc in the Britian in the 50’s. (too much smog back then). The show also goes back to Victorian, Edwardian, 1970’s etc….was made in 2009 – but well, worth looking into for some insights from the 50-70’s. (It’s a hoot to watch a well!) – look it up on youtube.

  6. Just another Pam says:

    “Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.” Ovid approximately 43 B.C.

    I wouldn’t wish to live in the 50’s again though I do have a slight fantasy about The Village in N.Y. but realistically these days are getting a little worrisome too as in some ways the future is looking a little back to the future too.

  7. cj says:

    Great post and comments. My younger sister had polio and ended up with one leg and foot significantly smaller than the other. She wore braces to her waist for several years and a below knee brace all though school. She had surgeries every 3-4 years to stimulate or stop growth.

    It all had a horrible psychological impact on her.

    Kudos to the March of Dimes for sponsoring research and for paying for treatments and devices when families needed help. (Did you know there were no federal funds for the research?)

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