Spring cleaning reveals old memories


The last days of Passover have come and gone. Now begins the process of putting away Pesach items until next year and restoring the kitchen to its normal condition. Then, after a short breather, it’s time for the annual spring cleaning.

In our house, the cleaning means going through all the drawers filled with ephemera accumulated over the winter months, as well as papers that must be discarded, read or filed away. But that still leaves the unpacked boxes from our move almost two years ago.

The time had come to include at least one box in the spring-cleaning ritual.

The chosen box, as it happens, contained materials I had accumulated while researching articles that I wrote for many years in the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association’s “Notes.” There, between the long legal-type pad of jottings and folders of copied papers, lay an old photo that immediately halted my cleaning.

The small, glossy, ripple-edged print featured three smiling teenaged girls (one of them me) dressed in the baggy shorts, sleeveless cotton blouses, bobby socks and tennis shoes that were then stylish and appropriate summer-leisure clothing for high school girls. The camera used was a Kodak Baby Brownie, which was easily determined by the size of the print.

There were a series of Baby Brownie cameras beginning in the 1930s and continuing for about 25 years. The Baby Brownie popular during my youth was not brown:  It was a black, Bakelite plastic, squarish box.  Art Deco-style pleats flanked the fixed lens above the mechanism of the shutter.  It had a pop-up viewfinder and a turning knob to advance the film.

Everybody had one of these cameras to take to the beach, outings or gatherings of friends. The prints were small and not meant for scenic vistas. But in your teens, who cares about scenic vistas?

The Baby Brownies were inexpensive and easy to use: just point and shoot and you had a permanent record of a person or persons. But first, you had to master the viewfinder and replacing the film. Those were the tricky parts.

The lens did not always capture what you saw in the viewfinder: too close, and heads were missing; too far, and the subject became too tiny to recognize.

But the most difficult maneuver had to do with threading the “127” film. Removing the back of the camera was easy, as was removing the wrapping on the film, which was rolled up around a slotted spindle that was clicked into a designated space on the left. On the right side, another slotted spindle waited. The roll of film began with a pointed tongue, which had to be inserted into the opposite spindle, then advanced by turning the knob on the top. Inevitably, a portion of the film was accidentally exposed in the process. This did not become apparent until the finished roll was taken to be developed – and you still had to pay for prints with no picture, just darkness.

My Baby Brownie had disappeared long before my graduation from high school. I had never mastered the technique of successful BB photography – indeed, of any photography. I left that to others. I suspect my mother had noticed the camera lying on the bureau unused and had given it to a younger cousin whose hand was out for any of my unwanted treasures.

My attention then returned to the box chosen for the spring cleaning. The contents of the folders and the pads were consigned to the shredder and the recycling bin. The empty folders were placed on a desk for possible future use. Only the photo remained, a souvenir of a summer friendship. In the fall, we returned to three different high schools, one of them in another town. The arc of our lives then took us in separate directions.

What to do with the photo?  It did not belong in the family albums so carefully tended by my daughter Judith. Nor did it have value as a vintage shot, an important glimpse of the past.

But I found the perfect solution – I placed the photo in the back of the closet, with those delicate China tea cups that nobody wants.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.