It seemed quite normal to me at the time, since post war times meant everyone was short of money to at least some degree, but with Medicare and Pharmacare not yet a reality in Canada, our family in the 1950’s could definitely have been considered poor.
My Mother had a very rare disease with left her both short of strength, and relying heavily on expensive medicines just to exist, but she never let that get in the way of raising her five children. I was the oldest and learned to be her right hand, helping with babies, meals and cleaning, but my favourite thing was the sewing machine and what it could do. Mum had been given an old Singer treadle machine by her Mother, and it was our mainstay for mending, cloth diaper making, (in those days we called them napkins), letting down hems, making over of hand-me-downs, and new clothes, when it became completely necessary. I learned to sew early, and remember sewing seams on fabric for diapers when a brother arrived a few months before my 9th birthday.
Of course we did get a new pair of flannelette pyjamas most every Christmas from Mum and Dad (by way of that old treadle machine), and at least one item in our stocking along with a Japanese orange and a few “Christmas ribbon candies” from Santa, but the gift I remember most from those years was a new Brownie uniform. I had been allowed to join Brownies with all my friends in the fall, but even then, as a young child, I worried that as all the other girls completed their early requirements and were enrolled, and of course wore their new uniforms proudly, I joined with no uniform.
It seemed to me then that my Mother was quite blasé about my not having a uniform, and she reassured me that in time, I would have one. Nonetheless, I couldn’t see how that could happen, as I knew that we certainly had no money for something as non- essential as a Brownie uniform, but I trusted her that it would happen, even when week after week went by and I still went to Brownies in my school clothes!
It always seemed a miracle to me that on Christmas morning there would be some wonderful surprise, but you can imagine my total surprise and delight when that year, the enormous bulge in the stocking on Christmas morning turned out to be the longed for Brownie uniform! Obviously Mum had worked often into the night on the old machine after we children were all in bed, transforming crisp brown cotton into not only a perfect uniform, but a brand new one!
Even though the treasured uniform came as a gift from Santa, I was under no illusion about where the gift had actually originated, and I was anything but disappointed, Santa or no Santa, for I knew even then how hard my parents worked to make sure that my childhood was all that it could be.
–Margaret Mills is the commentator and co-ordinator of the Historic Fashion Review for the Costume Museum of Canada.
(Brownie uniform photo courtesy of Leslie’s Guiding History Site)