Working with crafts brings fond childhood memories

#480 in a series of true experiences in real estate
January 2005, Hills Newspapers

When I was a child, we — just about everyone I knew — did lots of crafts. We were interested, had the time, and were provided opportunities to make things at home and at school.

We made gifts for our moms and dads, Valentines, decorations, and toys. I remember giving my mom a bottle to sprinkle clothes before ironing. We swished red paint on the inside and applied a dime store decal to the outside before adding the sprinkler at the top. I think everyone in my class was asked to bring a coke bottle for the project but the rest of the materials were supplied by the teacher.

A teacher also provided tiny little calendars to paste onto cards for our parents, helped everyone in the class mold plaster-of-Paris pins for Mother’s Day, and showed us how to make flower corsages out of pieces of felt.

Every classroom in those days had a Christmas tree which were decorated with handmade stars, paper chains, and pointy cornucopias. And we made place mats of woven paper strips, springy folded–paper clowns, and — a favorite activity of mine, done again and again — shoebox dioramas.

We had at our grade school a recreation director who provided any of us who stayed after school with games and crafts. One year he gave lessons in carving figures from balsa wood. That was very exciting.

About the time I started kindergarten, my parents bought for my sister and me, a set of 12 volumes entitled Book House for Children. Included with the purchase was a bonus, a folder with illustrations and instructions for making all sorts of crafts. On the front of the folder are the words Creative Work for Your Child’s Hands, copyright 1944.

I still have this folder, which I recently remembered and looked at for the first time in many years. Oh, the memories that came back to me.

As with a favorite childhood book, every illustration was still in my mind, exactly. It was as if I was still age 6, or 9, or 12, and was entreating my mother, again, to help me make favorite projects.

One I found irresistible was a life-size circus ticket office. I never got to make it because it was much too elaborate. A wooden frame was involved (lumber, saw, nails, glue), plus a scalloped cardboard canopy, and paper sides squarely and tautly attached.

That was a problem: Many of the Book House craft projects were just too hard, impossible, even.

The circus booth illustration shows a child of about 8 years — the ticket taker — in a fancy black tuxedo-like suit and black top hat. Where did he get such clothes?

On one wall of the booth behind the boy are prizes, animal toys on sticks. Did the boy make them? How could he?

The booth is beautifully painted with clowns and impossibly fancy lettering. I couldn’t do these things, I knew that.

I looked at all of the projects in the folder many times. There was the eight-note xylophone made of strips of poplar “purchased from any lumber yard.” I knew making a xylophone wasn’t in the cards.

Maybe I could make the Indian maiden doll from one of my mother’s old gloves, but I’d never manage her pretty face which, the directions suggested, could be painted or sewn.

When I saw the “Dancing Colleens” again, I was so excited, my heart almost stopped. I certainly remembered this one.

Dancing Colleens is part of the holiday craft section, something to make for St. Patrick’s Day. The idea was that a string of paper dolls could be made to dance on steam from boiling water. There was a sketch showing a pot of water on a stove with a lid on which dolls were dancing.

I remember longingly studying that picture as a child, reading how it was supposed to work. The instructions said to cut a string of paper dolls, then glue the ends together to form a circle. Easy enough.

Next a circle of cardboard large enough to cover a pan of water was needed. It was to be punctured in a lot of places with a nail.

Now, “with a parent’s help” (the instructions cautioned), the cardboard was placed on top of a pan of lively, steaming water. When the dolls were put on the lid, “the steam puffing through the holes will make your dolls really dance.” That was the promise.

I think I might actually have talked my mother into doing this one, but as I have no picture in my head of seeing it happen in our kitchen, I guess not. I would certainly remember.

So, now that it’s been fifty years since I first read about the Dancing Colleens, I had to try it. I folded a strip of paper back and forth eight times. Then I drew a doll on one side – head, body, arms and legs.

The arms of each doll link to the next doll at the fold so I was careful as I cut through all the layers at once not to cut that part of the folds.

Now I had a continuous string of dolls which I joined into a circle with a small piece of tape.

I then cut a circle of cardboard large enough to cover the top of a saucepan, filled the pan with water, and set it on the stove to boil.

Poking holes in the cardboard proved tedious so I abandoned that idea and instead put onto the now boiling pot a spatter screen, the kind used when frying bacon.

It was time! I carefully placed my circle of dolls onto the screen and stood back to watch.

It worked, they did dance! Not jitterbug exactly, but the dolls did move in a gentle up-and-down sort of motion. I found it quite satisfying.

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