Mac McGrew - Childhood Memories
Childhood Memories

by Mac McGrew

Family lore says that when I was born, my father sent telegrams to the two new grandmothers (since telephones were rare then, and long-distance telephone service was not an option for the average person). They lived in the same town, a couple of blocks apart, and when they received the news, each started for the other one’s house, and met halfway between.

*   *   *   *

My parents had lived in Martins Ferry, in eastern Ohio, a residential and mill town on the Ohio River, not far from Wheeling, West Virginia.
      My mother was born in Scio, a small rural town several miles west of Martins Ferry, but as a young woman she and a partner started a millinery shop in Martins Ferry, the nearest town of moderate size. There she thrived in that business, and later her parents moved to that town.
      My father was born and raised in Martins Ferry, where his father was a house painter and glazier—that is, he sold glass and installed windows.
      After high school, my father went to Ohio State University in Columbus, but after a year or two switched to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied architecture.
      After college, he worked for a short time in Pittsburgh, selling the embossed metal ceilings that were popular for commercial establishments at the time, then as a draftsman (“draughtsman,” it was spelled then) in an architectural office.
      Before long he found a better job in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and at about the same time got married and took his bride to his new location “down South.” There I was born in due time.
      I haven’t the slightest recollection of Chattanooga, as we moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, a year or so later. But I do have a memory from there. And I must have been no more than three years old, because we had come back “up North” before my sister was born, 3½ years after me.
      But to the memory, still in a Cincinnati suburb . . . one of my grandmothers was visiting, and on a Sunday afternoon, I suppose, Dad and Grandmother took me out for a walk.
      Two or three blocks from home, we came to the edge of town, where the street became a country road. A short distance farther, and the road bridged over a small stream. There, I stood on the low wall at the edge of the road, while my grandmother stood very primly beside me, and Dad took a picture of us. The picture still exists, and reinforces my memory, but other details are still in a very hazy part of my memory.
      I picture us leaving the house, walking a short distance to the end of the street, turning left, going a block or two, and turning right on the street parallel to our own, and being at the edge of town. And so to the picture, and the end of my earliest memory.


After Chattanooga we lived in Cincinnati for a year or two, but I have no memories whatsoever of that location.
      Our next move was back to the Pittsburgh district. My father had often traveled between Martins Ferry and Pittsburgh by train, and thought the Crafton area was attractive, so that’s where he and my mother looked for a house, selecting one in the neighboring town of Ingram. There my sister was born—or was it after our next move?—I’m not sure.
      My memories of that location are also very vague, except for one playmate, Tom Ross, who lived across the street. When we moved again, our mothers kept in touch for a long time, so his name at least remained in my memory. Thirty-five years or so later I found him again when I started a new job, and still visit with him now and then.
      But one detail of that move when I was about five years old remains in my mind. Our new location, in Crafton, was two or three miles from the Ingram location. I picture myself riding in the back seat of an open “touring” car, with the roof folded down back of the seat. I sat between my mother, holding her new baby, and my maternal grandmother.

Move to New House
Not long after I started going to school, my family moved just a short distance, into a larger house than we had lived in previously.
      Although this house wasn’t new, it seemed to be very exciting to me, since it had more rooms, and an attic. But especially, it gave me a bedroom of my own—although I’m not sure just what sleeping arrangements I had earlier.
      One of my first times in this house, perhaps the very first time, I remember being in the attic and looking out the back window. Several airplanes, in a group, came toward me—biplanes were the most common form then. The next day I drew a picture of them—very crudely, I’m sure—for my class at school. The teacher praised me for it, and that made me very proud.
      But one thing this house didn’t have, at the time, was electric lights—only gas lights.
      My parents carefully taught me the dangers of gas— never leave it turned on when the light isn’t burning—it might cause an explosion or fire.
      Then my father had electric lights installed, and that was a great experience.
      But one day I went into my bedroom and found the electric switch turned on, but no bulb in the socket. I ran downstairs. “Mother!” I cried, “the electricity is escaping in my room!” Needless to say, she calmed me and explained the difference.


As I recall, there was only one outlet in each room. But then, there was little need for more. At first we had only one floor lamp in the living room—a heavy wooden thing with a fancy round upright pole in a fancy round base; and two bulbs under a shade at the top.
      Extension cords in those days had screw-in plugs at the end, and the brass-plate outlets matched that—no plug-ins until later. And after a while cords became hopelessly twisted from repeatedly screwing them in and unscrewing them.
      A later development was “split plugs” with prongs that allowed them to be pulled apart. And years later, plug-in sockets replaced the screw-in style, and gave us much more convenience, as well as neater cords.
      A coal furnace furnished heat for the house. In addition, the living and dining rooms and the two larger bedrooms had fireplaces with built-in “gas fronts,” covered with sheets of asbestos perforated with rows of small holes where gas could be lit—an added comfort on cold days.
      There was a coal bin in the front of the cellar, with a short chute where coal could be shoveled in after being dumped just outside, at the edge of the alley next to our house. Dad always had the coal shoveled into the bin, but I remember him shoveling it into the furnace, and prying out the “clinkers” formed from impurities in the coal. And when I was older, those became my jobs, too.
      Years later, a more modern gas furnace was installed.

The McMunn Avenue House
This house, which we moved into when I was six or seven years old, was to be my home for 20 years. At first, I slept in the back bedroom; later half the attic was fixed up as a bedroom for me.
      Since both were beyond the range of the furnace or gas fronts, they both had small portable gas stoves in them. The stoves helped, but the rooms were still uncomfortably cold in winter weather, for the house was not well insulated.
      In fact, in the coldest weather the water pipes to the kitchen sometimes froze, and Dad had to carefully thaw them out, being careful not to set the house on fire.
      The kitchen at first had an upright gas stove for cooking, with an oven on one side next to the set of burners. All raised on curving legs to a height for comfortable working. This is what my Mother did a lot of baking and cooking on.
      In a corner beyond the stove was a sink with a wooden drainboard and wooden frame, although the actual sink portion was porcelain lined. And at the end of it was a pump to get water from the cistern out beyond the back porch. However, I believe that pump, and another in the basement, was out of use by the time we lived there, as there were hot- and cold-water pipes as well.
      Built-in cabinets were unknown in those days, and space under the stove and sink just went to waste. Beside the stove was a “work table,” where my Mother prepared foods for baking or serving. And between the kitchen and back of the hall was a pantry, with an ice-box, and shelves and cupboards for storage.
      The ice-box was a wooden cabinet with three doors— a large one on the right for general storage, a somewhat smaller one on the left for the big blocks of ice, and a much smaller one below for milk and butter and such.
      The ice-man came around two or three times a week, I suppose, with a horse-drawn wagon. On the days he was due, Mother put his foot-square card in the front window, with the appropriate edge up, indicating whether she needed 25, 50, 75, or 100 pounds of ice that day.
      For the smaller amounts, he chipped off the appropriate size from one of the large blocks on his wagon, put a leather pad over his shoulder, picked up the block with tongs, and carried it into the house and put it in place.
      But a special feature of the kitchen was the breakfast nook, which my Father put in. He had the table itself made by the local lumber yard—a stout piece of wood, perhaps three by five feet, with one end supported by a fancy leg and the other end hooked to a bracket on the wall, so it could be removed easily for cleaning.
      For seats, he got an appropriate pew from an old church, cut it in two, and hooked it to the wall also. Dad and I always sat on the seat against the side wall, while Mother and my sister sat on the other side. In my youngest days there, I could slide down under the table and crawl out the end around Dad’s legs, but soon outgrew that!

Home Entertainment Features

For the time, our Victrola must have been an up-to-date piece of equipment for home entertainment. This was a wind-up phonograph in a nice wooden cabinet. Like kitchen equipment, it was on nicely curved legs, with waste space beneath it.
      A lid in the center of the top was raised for access to play records. Below that mechanism was the built-in horn-like sound chamber, and on each side was storage space for albums of records. Sound was not very loud, as it was entirely mechanical. But we enjoyed it.
      This must have been about 1920, and about the time that KDKA went on the air as the first regular broadcasting station. Before that, radio had been used only for communication with ships at sea, and such purposes.
      How many people can remember the first time they heard a radio? I can! One Sunday, after church, we were invited to have dinner with friends. After we finished eating, the dining table was cleared and their new radio was brought out and set on the table. It had a couple of sets of earphones. These were passed around, and when my turn came I heard faint music in them. That’s all— nothing more. Not very impressive at the time, and we probably had no idea how popular it would become.
      Some time later Dad got an RCA radio of our own— a black box with a couple of glass tubes sticking out of an opening in the top, and several dials. A couple of these dials had to be coordinated just right for reception.
      This radio also had a couple of sets of earphones, so we had to share them. After a while, Dad got an attachment that permitted the radio to be hooked up to the amplifier of the phonograph, and we could all enjoy it.
      By that time KQV and perhaps one or two other local stations were in operation. But distant stations could usually be received well at night, although certain weather conditions produced a lot of static. WLW in Cincinnati was popular, as were several other out-of-town stations.
      When I was a little older, one of my first independent purchases was a better radio. Eventually, improvements were made in equipment that brought “high fidelity” to the listener at the expense of distant reception.
      My prized set was still “low fidelity,” with great reception of distant stations. I gloried in listening to New York, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many places in between. On one occasion, very late at night, I listened to a little 500-watt station in Portland, Oregon—faint, but perfectly clear. During a period when one of the Pittsburgh stations was rebuilding its transmitter and operating temporarily with low power, its network programs came in more clearly from a station in Dallas, Texas.
      But a later set received short wave as well as standard broadcasts, and that opened a whole new world to me. Many nights I stayed up and listened to London, South America, and many other locations.
      The National Broadcasting Company had developed two networks by then, the Red and Blue, while Columbia Broadcasting System had its one network, and the Mutual Broadcasting System was a late-comer.
      All network programs were performed “live” in those days, as recording systems hadn’t developed the quality required. So most of the popular network shows were performed twice, once for the eastern part of the country and once for the west. Often I listened to the late, western, broadcast of a popular program when it wasn’t convenient to listen to the earlier performance.
      Live program pick-ups from foreign countries were popular for a time. On one occasion, NBC was getting poor reception on a pick-up from Germany, through its large set-up in the New York area, while I was able to get perfect reception from the German transmitter!
      In the late ’20s and early ’30s, I visited local broadcast studios on many occasions and watched shows being broadcast.
      While studying printing at Carnegie Tech in 1932, I had an idea for consolidating the radio program listings as published in the newspapers into a chart form, and set up a sample in the typography lab. This I submitted to Darrell Martin, radio editor of the Post-Gazette, whom I had become acquainted with.
      He liked the idea, and hired me part-time to compile the daily programs. (Later I learned that a New York newspaper had used essentially the same idea a few weeks earlier.) Going to the newspaper after school, and later after a printing job, I enjoyed that work for several months, until it became inconvenient to juggle two jobs.
      But in the meantime, I had the opportunity to visit more local broadcasts, and even some network programs which were performed locally when the artists were appearing at local engagements. On one memorable occasion I was an audience-of-one at the network broadcast of Wayne King, a popular “Big Band” leader of the time, and got to speak with him.
      I considered seeking a career in newspaper or broadcast work, but decided to stay with printing, and have never regretted the decision.


How old was I when my father began taking me along to see some of the buildings he had worked on in his office? I have no idea. Certainly while I was still a pre-teen. On Sunday afternoons we went by streetcar to various parts of the Pittsburgh district to see the homes and schools under construction.
      As he planned the inscriptional lettering for these buildings, that was one of the important details we looked for. That introduced me to many parts of the area, but more significantly, it introduced me to an important part of his work.
      The year before I entered high school, he gave me some type specimen booklets that he had used for reference, and they sparked my interest in type, and printing in general, so I sent to Kelsey, one of the major suppliers of hobby printing equipment, for their literature.
      Before the end of that school year I splurged and sent $15—plus shipping charges, I suppose—for a small hobby printing outfit, complete with two fonts of type. Then I waited, and checked with the local railway express office, and waited some more.
      Eventually the little wooden box arrived, having been mis-sent to West Virginia instead of Pennsylvania. It took a while to learn to use all of it, but by the time I entered high school in the fall, I was ready to accept orders for printing. That became a leading obsession during most of my high school days.
      There isn’t really very much one can do with equipment with a 3x5-inch maximum printing area, but I managed to get an occasional order for tickets or even letterheads. I even undertook to print a small—very small —newsletter for a school organization—the Phy-Chy Club (for physics–chemistry). And I soon found that the small fonts of type didn’t go very far. Finding Pittsburgh sources solved that problem, but required frequent purchases.
      During a summer vacation, perhaps after my Junior year, I got a job in a downtown Pittsburgh print shop— my first real job. There I learned a lot more about printing, but my experience at home with my hobby equipment gave me a great advantage.
      During that time I also started a card file of typeface names and data, which came in handy later on.
      Throughout my school days, I tended to be shy, preferring to follow my private interests more than group activities. As a result I had comparatively few friends. But I knew I wanted to work in printing.
      Carnegie Institute of Technology had the reputation of being the country’s leading school of printing at that time, and it was right in Pittsburgh, so that of course was my choice of colleges. My sights were low, though, and I settled for a two-year course, which gave me most of the subjects I was most interested in. Summer school after the second year gave me some additional courses.
      After that I went back to the shop I had worked in previously, but soon moved up to a better job in a larger shop, eventually becoming a production manager and typographer in a fairly large shop, and from there was recommended for the job of type director in the city’s largest advertising agency.
—Mac McGrew