From the cover of Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl.
The past, as we know, is another country, and from the age of four or so, I wished passionately for dual citizenship. What old-fashioned meant, I couldn’t even have told you. But for most of my early life I worshipped the idea devoutly. To me it meant inheritance, placement, being part of something larger.
I think I envisioned this vague past as a world where I belonged. Other children were kind and wholesome; clothes were strange and modest; I was not ridiculous. Paradoxically, my communion with the past made me wholly ridiculous. Sporting bloomers to the third grade has rarely been a road to modern popularity.
As might be clear, my family had no particular veneration for ritual, but I still cleaved to the idea of holidays as a tradition-steeped idyll. I baked and decorated and played carols, and my homemade gifts were very strange. The primary reason for this is that I got all my ideas from a series of vintage books with names like Let’s Make a Gift! and Fun and Thought for Little Folk, and the youngest of them dated to the late 1930s. As a result, my parents were treated to pen wipers and blotters, a pipe cleaner “embroidered” with the word Father (my dad did not smoke a pipe), and, on one particularly lackluster occasion, a “brush for invalids” that involved wrapping a stick in a piece of flannel so the bedridden individual did not need to wash her hair.
Sometimes the anachronistic nature of these projects made it difficult to find the necessary materials. The gifts section of the American Girls Handy Book was particularly frustrating in this regard: I still remember trying—and failing—to find pieces of scrub brush on which to mount “fairy dancers” (these skittle across the piano top as one plays) or “a piece of pith taken out of a dried cornstalk” with which to fashion a Miss Nancy doll.
Around twelve, I moved my base of operations to the kitchen. The results here were weird, too. Obviously I used only vintage recipes, and since these were often vague to the point of inscrutability—and I had no idea what a piece of molasses candy or a fondant-stuffed date was supposed to taste like—the results were frequently disgusting. But to me they were that hazy and magical thing: old-fashioned. And as such, they were ambassadors of a dreamworld.
I like to think I have outgrown my nostalgia, if indeed that is the word for my condition. I have normal clothes and friends and know something about actual history. If you asked me, I’d probably say I was over my belief in a golden age. Yet, for the past few years, I have given away candied orange peel. I know no one gets too excited about it. But I was once told that my great-grandmother always made candied orange peel for Christmas, and as such the idea took on the aura of the sacrosanct. No one ever said they particularly liked her candied orange peel, or that they remember it fondly. Just that she made it. And somehow, that has always been enough for me.
Last / Next Article