Memoir: Indianapolis In The 1920s

by Margaret Winslow Fisher (Alexandria, VA)

I spent my first decade in Indianapolis, Indiana, near the center of the city. I recall a pleasant street with center esplanade luxuriant with fragrant lilac bushes. Pennsylvania Street where I lived was built of wooden blocks, blackened with creosote. Horses hooves clip-clopped in a predictable and pleasant rhythm from pre-dawn to nighttime. The horses of tradesmen knew the territory and would whinny and snort in passing conversation. The milkwagon was first on the scene long before sun-up. One could hear the clip-clop stop at the familiar “Whoa!”, the milk bottles jingle, and the faithful milkman put the day’s supply by the kitchen door. We had a standing order.


Photo of Peggy’s girlhood home at 3224 N. Pennsylvania Street.
It was moved to its present location at 3337 N. Pennsylvania Street to avoid demolition.

Next would come the ice man, his horse whinnying, called “Whoa”, and brought blocks of ice in his big iron tongs, leaving the amount of ice (10, 20, 50, 100 pounds) as specified on a large legible card mother would have placed in the front window. I could hear him open the outside door to the icebox at the back of the house below the open-air sleeping porch where I slept year round. He would heave the ice in and bang the little door shut. Sometimes my sister and I would run after the ice wagon and beg a chunk of ice to suck.

Thus the rhythm of the day began. Soon one could hear other horse drawn carts clattering down the street and the calls of tradesmen: “Strawberries! Strawberries! Sweet strawwwwberries! Ten cents a quart! Strawwwwberries!”, “Knives to Sharpen!”, “Any old rags today, lady?” Then there was the organ grinder who would come in his wagon with his little monkey doing tricks for a few cents. There were constant amusements along Pennsylvania Street.

Now there were cars on the street—Model A’s, Model T’s, and electrics. Yes, we had battery operated cars then. My grandfather sedately drove one, manipulating a sticklike horizontal instrument to steer the car. There were lanterns inside and out and upholstered black horsehair seats. My father bought an early model Chrysler and drove it at frightening speeds. Mother didn’t learn to drive until the 30’s.


1922 photo of Peggy with her mother, Margaret Hornbrook Winslow, and grandparents and long-time neighborhood residents, Henry and Grace Hornbrook, picnicking on the lawn at 3224 N. Pennsylvania Street.

But here I’m writing about Indianapolis in the 20’s. Back to my earliest memories on Pennsylvania Street. The eggman, Mr. VanDyne, came once a week to the kitchen door and faithfully delivered long, conservative political commentaries along with the eggs. His eggs were wonderful. I was less enthusiastic about the drawn out commentaries.

There were certain smells in those days as horses left their inevitable dung along the streets. One had to walk carefully. Also, Kinghan’s Meat Rendering plant was nearby and it smelled terrible. In the winter furnaces burned coal and crude oil and there was always soot on the window sills. It was hard to keep hands clean.


Peggy on tricycle by the front door of 3224 N. Pennsylvania Street in 1927

But I loved our big yard and its beech trees which were great for climbing. We had a kids club which met up high in one of our beech trees. We all carved our initials in it and watched them grow through the years. A neighbor’s garage was by the tree and we climbed on it for secret meetings, much to the chagrin of the neighbor. We also had a hideout under a big clump of bushes where we plotted I forget what.

In the house we had upright telephones. When you lifted the receiver a high pitched voice would say, “Number pleuze!” and you only had to give four numbers: “5224.” Sometimes the operator would say, “The lion is busy,” and we’d have to try again later. As more people had telephones we had to say, “Wabash 5224.” (At our vacation house at Lake Maxinkuckee one had to crank the phone for a sort of bicycle bell to ring and alert the operator).

Our radio was shaped like a stained glass window and emitted strange squeeks and squawks and static along with the music or soap opera or H.B. Kaltenborn, commentator. Phonograph records were heavy, claylike, and scratched and broke easily. Record needles were of steel and bobbed along on a wobbly arm which attempted to follow the tracks on the records, but frequently slipped with a horrible raucous scraping sound that made you wince.

This was Indianapolis in the 20’s from my perspective as a child. It was not a bad life.


The Winslow family in a 1929 photograph taken in the Winslow’s Pennsylvania Street home:
Robert and Margaret Winslow with Peggy and younger sister Barbara.

Margaret Fisher, nee Winslow, is an artist, educator, lecturer, published poet, and author. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia and is the widow of Joseph L. Fisher who served in the United States Congress for three terms.

© 2006, Margaret W. Fisher (used with permission of the author)