Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: October 1991 Volume 29 Number 4, Pages 151–160

Family Folklore

Club Members

Folklore titles:

Page 151

Every family has its "in" jokes -- incidents or happenings that have become family anecdotes or family sayings -- that have special meaning or make sense only to those who know how they came about. Sometimes they have even been handed down from one generation to another.

Here are some instances of "family folklore" that were shared by some of our club members at a club meeting early this summer.


Small dog, small dog!

For years my brother and I were awakened in the morning by the call "Small dog, small dog!"

It was one of my father's many plays on words. You see, a small dog is a pup, and "A pup, a pup", when repeated quickly, becomes "Up, up; up, up". Hence "Small dog, small dog" was our morning call.


Up 'n' at 'em

The wake-up call in our family was always "up 'n' at 'em". I suppose that after a good night's rest we were supposed to be able to take on anything the new day might have in store for us.

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Daylight in the Swamp

The new day, when I was a little girl, was heralded with the announcement "Daylight in the swamp!" How it originated or where my father first heard it I have no idea. (Perhaps when he was a boy he was awakened in the same way.) In any. event, it did not make a great deal of sense, because at that time we lived on a bluff high above the Hudson River, a long way from any swamp.


With a Half a Pound of Tea

When my grandmother announced "Today is the day we give babies away with a half a pound of tea" it meant that it was going to be a very busy and productive day -- get ready, for here we go! Where the phrase came from again I don't know. It was handed down by my English ancestors and may have been from an old English music hall favorite.


Did I Win the Pony?

To encourage my brother and me to get up more quickly in the morning, at some point my father made a standing offer of a pony to whomever was the first one in the morning downstairs and properly dressed. Since my mother was usually downstairs cooking breakfast before either of us could make it, the odds obviously were not very good, but even an outside chance of winning a pony became a real incentive for us.

The phrase "properly dressed" sometimes created a problem. One time, for example, my brother seemed to have met all the qualifications, being the first up and dressed and the first down, only to discover that he did not have a white handkerchief in his pocket, a sartorial requirement on that particular day. On another occasion he remembered the handkerchief, but it was in his left hand pocket rather than the right hand pocket. It wasn't easy!

There were other problems too, like the time all the requirements had been met, but the pony that day was a fine Siberian pony, f.o.b. Siberia, and the freight charges were obviously beyond my brother's and my meager means. But still, whenever the circumstances seemed to warrant it, on reaching the bottom step we would ask, "Did I win the pony? -- with a great deal more hope than expectation.


Up the Wooden Hill

Our family didn't have a unique morning wake-up call, but we did have a gentle reminder when it was time to go to bed. At such time my mother would shepherd her flock to the foot of the stairs with the admonition "Up the wooden hill".

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Cloth Kleenex

Speaking of handkerchiefs, in my early years carrying a clean and proper handkerchief was an essential element of good grooming. (During World War II, I sold beautiful handkerchiefs at the local department store. They were an art form -- sometimes cotton, sometimes linen, white or colorful, embroiderd, lace-trimmed, printed or plain.) In those days Kleenex was considered messy, and to put one in your pocket was regarded as unsanitary. The family always had dozens of handkerchiefs that had to be washed and ironed.

I didn't realize the extent of our progression from the handkerchief to paper tissues until one day in 1960. Our three-year old was surprised to see his first real handkerchief. "Oh," he exclaimed, "look at the cloth Kleenex!" From then on we always obliged the children by calling all real handkerchiefs "cloth Kleenex".


Pie-nies and Pie Plant

Certain flowers and plants in our household were usually referred to by their family names - not in the botanical sense, however, but by names that were a part of our family folklore. Most of these names were handed down from my grandmother, my father's mother, who lived in southern Michigan.

Peonies, for example, were known as "pie-nies", perhaps a middle-western colloquialism. By the same token, a plant widely known as a spring tonic was always "pie plant", not rhubarb; it is still obviously an essential ingredient in an apple-rhubarb pie. And cantaloupes were known as "mush-melons" - not musk-melons but mush-melons -- whether they were dead ripe and soft and mushy or still green and firm as a rock.



We always called iris "flags". Is that just a local name for them?

[A number of members, most of whom grew up in this area, were familiar with this name for iris, with one member also reporting that iris were also called flags as far away as in Oklahoma.]
[eb, bm]


Two Kinds of Lilacs

My grandfather on my mother's side of the family was on one occasion the surprising source of information about horticulture, in particular the number of species of lilacs. It seems that a committee from the local garden club was at our house planning the schedule for an upcoming flower show and discussing the various classes for lilacs.

Page 154

After a number of suggestions, my grandfather, who was in the next room trying to read the newspaper, had had enough. Slamming down the paper, he announced for their benefit, "There are just two kinds of lilacs -- white ones and purple ones." It became a handy rejoinder whenever things began to become too complicated or detailed.


A Family of Weeds

One summer our family all came to have nature-related nicknames. (I don't recall how this came about except that my husband often gave people unusual nicknames.) Some of these nature-nicknames had some relevance, but others apparently just "happened".

Our adolescent son, who was sometimes a bit crabby, was called Crabgrass, while our cute young daughter was Chickweed. Mother somehow was named Thick Fescue, and Father was Alfalfa. And Grandmother was known as Mouth Full of Seaweed. (We never did get an explanation of why "mouth full of" was included as part of her name, but it stuck.)


A Civil War Volkswagen

Another phrase unique to our family was calling the cannons at State and National Battlefields "Volkswagens". On a trip to Gettysburg, when the children were young, our very young daughter had no word for cannon in her vocabulary, and so for some reason (or no reason at all) she called one a Volkswagen. It became our name for cannon at all the battlefields we have subsequently visited.


An Urch

One day, when my brother was in first grade, he came home and announced that his teacher had let him read a whole story to the class.

It turned out that it was about Peter Rabbit and Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, each of whom had an "urch". His teacher was so amused by his pronunciation of "ear ache" that, as he reported, she had let him read the story from beginning to end. Needless to say, no one in our family ever had an earache after that -- it was always an urch. [rmg]


Beatha, &c.

One of my family's claims to fame was that Blue Boy, the prize-winning boar about which the movie "State Fair" was written, lived on the same farm as one of my cousins. But somehow, when I visited there at the age of about 15 I was much more impressed by my cousin's maiden name: Beatha Behulda Belinda Baumbaugh!

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A Peculiar Taste

My father enjoyed the humor which often arose in the daily routine of operating a dairy farm during the great depression. One of his favorite mealtime expressions had its origin in the large noon day meal served to the hired hands during haying season.

After polishing off a large and delicious piece of cherry pie, one of the men exclaimed in a loud voice, to the mortification of the cooks, "This pie has a peculiar taste", and then, after a pause, he added, "a 'morish' taste." My father often complimented the cook in this fashion when he was particularly pleased with a delicious dish on the table that day.



I never met Grandma Rose, my son's father's grandmother, but every story about her has been filled with unqualified love and admiration. She was obviously that traditional matriarch of a Jewish family of four boys and a girl, who blessed her with nine grand children, and she ruled the world from behind dowdy aprons and barrages of "curra hurras".

She also had a figure of considerable girth, yet she never seemed to eat. At family gatherings and festivities, which were numerous, she would remain in her kitchen, dispatching kugels, wise cracks, biscuits, and love throughout the ponderous meal. One time one of the grandchildren, still too young to appreciate or exercise tact with regard to personal avoir dupois, asked her why she was so fat when she never sat and ate.

"Oh, I eat plenty," she replied, "all the 'shametas'." "What are shametas?" he persevered. "Oh, you know," quipped Rose, "it's a shameta throw this out, it's a shameta throw that out, shametas."


Who Will Get the Sandwich?

We lived in the coal regions of eastern Pennsylvania, where my father worked in the mines. Every day my mother packed his lunch pail, and when she did she would put in an extra sandwich. It was not to be eaten in the mines, however, but was to be brought back home.

Late in the day, with my brother and two sisters I would go out and watch for his return down the sidewalk. Who would get the sandwich?

My mother would be behind us, and somehow my parents had worked out some sort of signal so that my father knew which one of us had earned it and to whom to give the award. Out of the lunch pail came the sandwich -- by now wrapped in wax paper as black as coal, for no lunch bucket ever made was secure against coal dust -- and no sandwich ever made tasted better.

Page 156


Pour le Chien

A household phrase that grew out of one of our many trips through Canada when I was a boy was "pour le chien" ["for the dog"]. (Whenever our family took a trip, Lobo, our German-Shepherd dog, always went with us.)

One time when we were in the French-speaking section of Quebec my mother went into the local boucherie to buy some meat for Lobo's dinner. Not knowing the French words for plate beef, his usual ration, she kept explaining that it was "pour le chien". After some time, a look of comprehension finally swept across the butcher's face. He walked over to a case and proudly took out and held up a string of hot dogs! Whenever anyone had difficulty explaining something, it thereafter would be described simply as "pour le chien".


Moose Milk

It was on another trip through Canada that "moose milk" took on a new meaning for us. The story starts in New Brunswick, where a store featured kippered herring in the window. My father sent my brother in to get a dime's worth. Staggering out with the two bushel baskets (or so it later seemed) of herring that a dime bought, we used them as a snack as we headed west.

Were they ever salty! It got so bad that we were using saltines to slake our thirst. After a while we passed a milk wagon and stopped and bought some milk.

It was raw milk. "Does this milk taste different to you?" my father asked. "Yes," we replied, "because it's raw milk -- and we don't like raw milk." Ignoring our comment, my father -- it should be noted that he was in the advertising business -- continued, "I don't wonder that you find it different. It's because it's moose milk." And just a few minutes later, as we rounded a curve in the road, there, munching grass, stood a huge moose with its wide antlers. What could be more convincing?

And so we went across Canada, from New Brunswick to the Soo, knoshing on kippered herring and saltines and lapping up moose milk. Raw milk has been "moose milk" ever since.

[Since then I've learned that moose milk can actually be obtained at bars in Canada. It's neither raw milk nor the milk of a moose, however, but a bartender's concoction of various spirits.]



Mine was another father who sent his child off with a dime into a store in the Canadian Maritimes: this time when our family was traveling in Nova Scotia, where my grandmother had been brought up.

Page 157

"Dulce," my father proclaimed as I got out of the car, "is one of nature's greatest gifts to children. My mother said they used to chew it like candy."

A dime's worth of dulce, like a dime's worth of herring, is a lot of dulce, a bright red, stringy seaweed. So I came out of the store with a bigger bag of dulce than we really needed, or wanted. It was dry, salty,and tasted terrible! From then on, anyone in our family wishing to give a low opinion of anything needed only to say "Dulce!".


Bear Sandwiches

A disappointment in our family was sometimes described as "a bear sandwich". This phrase also came from a vacation trip, this time driving through New England. Signs along the highway announced that bear sandwiches were a specialty of a roadside stand a little farther down the road, and with more and more anticipation my brother and I were looking forward to a new epicurean treat.

You can imagine how we felt when we found out that the sandwiches were made of bread and honey, to be fed to some bears chained to trees in a picnic grove behind the store.


Teached it to Walk

Looking out the kitchen window some years ago my mother saw my three-year old sister walking around the house dragging a heavy stick behind her. On the third trip, my mother's curiosity could stand it no longer.

"Charlotte, what are you doing?" she asked. "This is a wild and wicious snake," came the instant reply, "and I teached him to walk on his two hind legs." It soon became a good answer for any inquiry that was considered a "dumb" question.


In Milwaukee

"In Milwaukee" was a reminder that times have changed and prices aren't what they used to be. My father's father was at one time a fruit estimator; he worked for a canning company and in the spring would inspect orchards in bloom to determine whether his company should make an advance purchase of the crop or not. Since his territory included Wisconsin and parts of Illinois and Minnesota, around the turn of the century my father and his parents and sisters lived in Milwaukee.

About the only thing I remember his telling of the time he lived there was that the butchers actually gave away meats like liver or sweetbreads as there was no market for them. So whenever he commented on the high prices of groceries -- like bread at $.08 a loaf or beef steak for $.29 a

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pound -- and how things didn't use to cost so much, we'd politely [?] remind him that he was no longer living "in Milwaukee"!


She Lived in Haiti

It was true that my aunt married a Marine and that they lived for a time in hot, torrid, horrid Haiti. However, my sister and I, over the years, got really tired of hearing my mother say, "Auntie Mike used to live in Haiti." Similarly, my sister and mother were likewise bored by my repeated announcement, whenever we drove west on Route 30 through Rosemont, "Marion Powell [a classmate] lived here."

So if any member of the family came out with an oft-repeated remark, he was sure to hear in reply, "Oh yes, and Auntie Mike used to live in Haiti "and/or "Marion Powell lived here."


A Big Splash

My grandfather, my father's father, weighed perhaps 125 pounds, but my grandmother, who tipped the beam at somewhere around 285, more than made up for it. Standing together side by side, they made a perfect 10! (In a similar manner, my brother, who was quite bow-legged from riding, and his wife, who was equally knock-kneed, side by side spelled "ox".)

But anyway, one of our favorite family stories was of the time when my grandparents went boating. As my grandmother was stepping into the small row boat it and the pier started to part company. The result was what you have already anticipated, and possibly one of the biggest splashes that ever took place in Lake Goshorn, just outside of Saugatuck, Michigan.

Somehow, my grandmother never found it the least bit amusing!


Small Consolation

Our gentle-minded elderly next-door neighbor was mending a tire for his car when my three-year old sister came by. "Oh, Charlotte," he greeted her, "see this terrible flat tire." Immediately she consoled him, "Oh, Mr. Burnham, we have a much flatter tire at our house."

Her observation was found to be very useful whenever anyone in our family thought he had trouble.



My father was a very mild-mannered and soft-spoken man. You knew that he was quite perturbed about something if he muttered softly, "Darn!" And if he said "Damn!" it meant that something was really wrong.

Page 159


Great Scott!

My father was brought up in a strict Baptist family, and was likewise careful in his use of expletives.

Once, when my mother requested him to get rid of a large wasp in the dining room, rather than sending it to its doom he carefully collected it in his handkerchief. "Great Scott!" he yelled, as the creature applied its defensive mechanism through the handkerchief and into his thumb.

His "outburst" became an expletive we all tried to remember when things went awry while visiting my grandparents.


Great Day

My father, a Virginian, had a saying that always amused my husband. I don't know if it was unusual, but my husband apparently had never heard it in the middle west. But when something surprised or amazed my dad he would exclaim, "Great day in the morning!"


Ach du Lieber

Several phrases used by my grandmother when I was growing up helped to remind me of my German ancestry on both sides of the family. (Before he came to this country one of my great-grandfathers served under Bismark. During the Civil War he organized a German-American regiment for the Union Army and fought at Gettysburg. One of the men serving under him at one time was William McKinley, later President McKinley; he delivered the funeral oration when my great-grandfather died.)

Anyway, one of my grandmother's declarations of disgust or impatience a tan unfavorable turn of events was frequently "Ach du lieber Strohschock" [literally "Oh my beloved shock of straw" but a euphemism for "Oh dear God in Heaven"]. Another expression, used playfully in speaking to the person causing her distress, was "Schlock du einst urn Kopf" ["(I'll) hit you once in the head"].


Bought the Farm

Motor sports, especially midget automobile racing, has always been a favorite spectator sport for our family. Although there is an element of danger involved for the participants, over the years concern for safety has reduced the risk of injury significantly.

But in earlier years when danger was a more real concern, the drivers seemed to adopt a fatalistic attitude and embraced some interesting superstitions. A race car painted green, for example, was absolutely taboo and drivers were known to refuse to participate in a race in which a green car was entered. Likewise, peanut shells in the pits were seen as a harbinger of dire things to come.

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Death was never spoken of directly. In those rare instances when a driver was fatally injured, conversation around the track acknowledged only that he had "bought the farm".


Barney Oldfield

This is an expression that probably was common to many families, although to some of the younger members of the club it may be meaningless today. In the early decades of this century Barney Oldfield was a pioneer automobile racing driver. His fame was such that a traffic cop's standard query on apprehending a speeding motorist was, "Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?"

The phrase was also adopted by back-seat drivers in many families as a not-too-subtle suggestion that the driver might reduce his speed.

Contributors to this article., in alphabetical order, were Evelyn Bloomer, Peggy Egertson, Skip Eichner, Meg Fruchter, Barbara and Herb Fry, Elizabeth and Bob Goshorn, Leroy Kolderup, Ginny Mentzer, Betty Miller, and Dr. William Stephens


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