Category Archives: coal

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

Coal: A Personal History

It’s January, and much of the country is confronting freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.  I live in San Francisco now, but I vividly remember what life is like in cold-weather climates.

When I was growing up on the North Side of Chicago, my winter garb followed this pattern:

Skirt and blouse, socks (usually short enough to leave my legs largely bare), a woolen coat, and a silk scarf for my head.  Under my coat, I might have added a cardigan sweater.  But during the freezing cold days of winter (nearly every day during a normal Chicago winter), I was always COLD—when I was outside, that is.

My parents were caring and loving, but they followed the norms of most middle-class parents in Chicago during that era.  No one questioned this attire.  I recall shivering whenever our family ventured outside for a special event during the winter.  I especially remember the excitement of going downtown to see the first showing of Disney’s “Cinderella.”  Daddy parked our Chevy at an outdoor parking lot blocks from the theater on State Street, and we bravely faced the winter winds as we made our way there on foot.  I remember being COLD.

School days were somewhat different.  On bitter cold days, girls were allowed to cover our legs, but only if we hung our Levi’s in our lockers when we arrived at school.  We may have added mufflers around our heads and necks to create just a little more warmth as we walked blocks and blocks to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then returning to school for the afternoon.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering why it never occurred to our parents to clothe us more warmly.  Weren’t they aware of the warmer winter clothing worn elsewhere?  One reason that we didn’t adopt warmer winter garb–like thermal underwear, or down jackets, or ski parkas–may have been a lack of awareness that they existed.  Or the answer may have been even simplerthe abundance of coal.

Inside, we were never cold.  Why?  Because heating with coal was ubiquitous.  It heated our apartment buildings, our houses, our schools, our stores, our movie theaters, our libraries, our public buildings, and almost everywhere else.  Radiators heated by coal hissed all winter long.  The result?  Overheated air.

Despite the bleak winter outside, inside I was never cold.  On the contrary, I was probably much too warm in the overheated spaces we inhabited.

Until I was 12, we lived in an apartment with lots of windows.  In winter the radiators were always blazing hot, so hot that we never felt the cold air outside.  The window glass would be covered in condensed moisture, a product of the intensely heated air, and I remember drawing funny faces on the glass that annoyed my scrupulous-housekeeper mother.

Where did all that heat come from?  I never questioned its ultimate source.

I later learned that it was extracted from deep beneath the earth.  But what happened to it above ground was no secret.  More than once, I watched trucks pull up outside my apartment building to deliver large quantities of coal.  The driver would set up a chute that sent the coal directly into the basement, where all those lumps of coal must have been shoveled into a big furnace.

Coal was the primary source of heat back then, and the environment suffered as a result.  After the coal was burned in the furnace, its ashes would be shoveled into bags.  Many of the ashes found their way into the environment.  They were, for example, used on pavements and streets to cope with snow and ice.

The residue from burning coal also led to other harmful results.  Every chimney spewed thick sooty smoke all winter, sending into the air the toxic particles that we all inhaled.

Coal was plentiful, cheap, and reliable.  And few people were able to choose alternatives like fireplaces and wood-burning furnaces (which presented their own problems).

Eventually, cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel displaced coal.  Residential use dropped, and according to one source, today it amounts to less than one percent of heating fuel.

But coal still plays a big part in our lives.  As Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia (which is currently suffering the consequences of climate change), wrote earlier this month in TIME magazine, the issue of “climate action” has been “hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media…, as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.”  He added:  “Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

In her book Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg points out that we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal.  So “streaming your online video may be coal-powered.”  Using as her source a 2014 EPA publication, she notes that coal ash remains one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, largely under-regulated, ending up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.

“As crazy as this might sound,” Schlossberg writes, watching your favorite episode of “The Office” might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.  She’s concerned that even though we know we need electricity to power our computers, we don’t realize that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels.

Illinois is finally dealing with at least one result of its longtime dependence on coal.   Environmental groups like Earthjustice celebrated a big win in Illinois in 2019 when they helped win passage of milestone legislation strengthening rules for cleaning up the state’s coal-ash dumps.  In a special report, Earthjustice noted that coal ash, the toxic residue of burning coal, has been dumped nationwide into more than 1,000 unlined ponds and landfills, where it leaches into waterways and drinking water.

Illinois in particular has been severely impacted by coal ash.  It is belatedly overhauling its legacy of toxic coal waste and the resulting widespread pollution in groundwater near its 24 coal-ash dumpsites.  The new legislation funds coal-ash cleanup programs and requires polluters to set aside funds to ensure that they, not taxpayers, pay for closure and cleanup of coal-ash dumps.

Earthjustice rightfully trumpets its victory, which will now protect Illinois residents and its waters from future toxic pollution by coal ash.  But what about the legacy of the past, and what about the legacy of toxic coal particles that entered the air decades ago?

As an adult, I wonder about the huge quantities of coal dust I must have inhaled during every six-month-long Chicago winter that I lived through as a child.  I appear to have so far escaped adverse health consequences, but that could change at any time.

And I wonder about others in my generation.  How many of us have suffered or will suffer serious health problems as a result of drinking polluted water and inhaling toxic coal-dust particles?

I suspect that many in my generation have been unwilling victims of our decades-long dependence on coal.