Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pony Pictures

Me and my Sis on Painted Pony 1953
One fine day in the summer of 1953, an itinerant photographer came down our street leading a painted pony. He snapped this black and white photo of my sister and me astride the just-our-size mount.

I remember the discrete dispute about who would get to wear the cowboy hat and who the bandana. I wore the bandana, which was, well . . . almost as good as the hat. I remember as well the acrid odor of horseflesh and how excited I felt to be seated atop a real horse.

That summer, when Dwight “I like Ike” Eisenhower was in the White House, was the best of times and the worst of times. It was an era when unemployment stood at 2.9 percent in the U.S., average annual salaries were $4,000, and the inflation rate was under one percent.  A new car cost on average about $1600, a gallon of gas 20 cents, and a new house about $10,000.

This was also the year that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would conquer the unconquerable summit of Mount Everest. Scientific advances would include Dr. Jonas Salk’s first successful trials of a vaccine to prevent polio and the unveiling of Watson and Crick’s double helix model of DNA. Across the ocean, Elizabeth II would be crowned Queen of England and Albert Schweitzer would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, these positive events took place against a background dominated by the Cold War. Tension between the Soviet Union on one hand and Western Europe and the United States on the other colored the geopolitical landscape a bleak gray. The USSR would brutally repress protests against the Communist government in East Germany. After Josef Stalin’s death in March of that year, Nikita Krushchev would eventually win out in the ensuing power struggle.

Of course my sister and I were oblivious to these events. We knew nothing of Ike or Stalin or even of Sir Edmund Hillary. Our hero was Superman, that caped figure on the TV screen who was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, [and] able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

Seated on the painted pony, we smiled directly at the camera. As for the pony, I don’t remember if she was patient or whether she pawed her front hoof and snorted a puff of pony breath as ponies do, but I suppose she did. Perhaps she was thinking, “Let’s get a move on here,” down the street to the next house with children.

                                                *   *   *
Grandma's Children on Pony 1923
Pony pictures seem to have been a family tradition. Thirty years before my sister and I posed on the pony, another family of children took a similar photo. This picture of Grandma Minnie’s four eldest children was probably taken in the summer of 1923. Marg stands behind the horse and Charlotte in front. Bill (Dad) and Glenadore are seated on the pony.

This too was an era of contrasts. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th American President in early August, following the death of President Harding. One could purchase a dozen eggs for 25 cents, an oven and broiler for $59.00, a “roadster” automobile for $480, and a pair of tweed knickers for a dollar and a half.

Medical advances included the first use of insulin to treat diabetes; technological advances for the modern family included the development of the first portable radio and the first household refrigerator.  In popular culture, the names Harry Houdini, Louis Armstrong, Jack Dempsey, and King Tut were on everyone’s lips. In higher culture, William Butler Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his eloquent and artistic poetry. Italian actress Eleonora Duse became the first woman whose features graced the front cover of the new weekly news magazine, “Time.”

In spite of the fact that this decade is often known as the “Roaring Twenties” for its prosperity and highly spirited shedding of inhibitions following the First World War, 1923 was also the year that several events occurred which foreshadowed darker days to come in the 1930’s and ‘40’s: it was that year that all non-Fascist political parties were banned in Italy, and Benito Mussolini’s troops bombarded and briefly occupied the island of Corfu off the coast of Greece.

In Germany, the currency was devalued to a rate of 600,000 Deutsche mark to one US dollar. Taking advantage of dissatisfaction with this hyperinflation, Adolf Hitler led the Nazi party in a failed coup attempt against the Weimar Republic. East of Germany and north of Italy, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was consolidated.

These clouds as yet barely visible on the horizon did not prevent adults from partying through the Twenties, or children from smiling for pony pictures. On that summer day in the Mohawk Valley, perhaps Minnie’s children were also anticipating a tempting piece of her raspberry cake for an afternoon treat:

Grandma's Raspberry Cake Recipe

Here is how I updated the recipe:

                                  Grandma Minnie’s Raspberry Cake


- 1 ½ cup flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup margarine ( = 1 stick margarine)
- 2 eggs
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons milk
- 1 cup raspberries


- Pre-sift flour; preheat oven to 350 degrees. (325 degrees if using a glass pan)

- Grease and flour an 8 inch or 9 inch cake pan.

- Sift dry ingredients together and set aside.

- Cream margarine with sugar. (Margarine should be left at room temperature for a while before beginning this.)

- Mix in eggs and vanilla.

- Add milk and flour alternately, while mixing. Do not overbeat.

- Fold in raspberries. Add a few drops of red food coloring if you wish.

- Pour into cake pan and bake until toothpick comes out clean. (This might be 20 to 25 minutes, depending on size of pan.)

I have tried the recipe in several ways:  folding the raspberries into the batter gently, or using a mixer to mix them in more thoroughly. With the second method, the batter became blue instead of the pink I was expecting. I have also tried decreasing the margarine or butter a bit more, or using butter-flavored baking shortening, which is less fatty, but unfortunately more expensive than margarine. 

I have also made the cake with strawberries instead of raspberries, which is just as tasty and less gritty.

The photo shows an example of how to serve this pleasing summer dessert. 

Raspberry Cake

Note: Historical information cited in this essay was drawn from the following sources:
 - The People History: 
- The Nobel Prize:
- Time Magazine Archive: 
- Brainy History:

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