Vintage Fall Follies

vintage photo family playing in the fall leaves

Burning Leaves- Hokey Smokey!

The smell of burning leaves is forever seared in my mind.

As memorable as the blazing orange and red colors of the fall leaves of my childhood were , it was the vibrant warmth of the fall leaves burning that remains.

The first real nippy day in November , when early morning frost would sit on the grass like a frosting of sugar on cereal flakes, neighbors would be out raking their fallen  leaves- as they crunched  and crackled underfoot- into neat little piles of reds and scarlet, oranges and yellow.

A light breeze and suddenly leaves would take off from yard to yard, so that we might be raking up a Maple leaf from some other neighborhood amongst our oaks. It was if the trees were shutting down for the winter, not unlike the frozen custard stands that dotted the boardwalk at Long Beach, all boarded up, a sign posting “closed for winter- see you in the spring.”

We All Fall Down

Vintage childrens school books illustration father and son

Jumping in the pile of crunchy dead leaves, hurling them into the air like confetti, was a fall ritual for mid-century kids .

For Dads, burning leaves was a fall ritual to replace the Weber grills that they had put away for the season giving them one more opportunity to indulge in this primordial behavior. Fire making and maintaining it was a man’s job; they merely exchanged their Hawaiian shirts for plaid flannel ones.

Leaf burning was a communal event. Loaded down with a bushel basket of leaves, Dad dumped them into the burn barrel, as  all the neighbors  gathered around having conversations as their leaf piles slowly smoldered.

After discussing the big 10 football games, conversations could be as heated and full of sparks as the burning barrels containing leaves.

By the late 1950’s, early 60’s  one topic more than any other sparked controversy.

Mid-Century Fallout

vintage childrens school book illustration boy burning leaves

Vintage children’s school book illustration “All Around Us” 1946

 The hot topic was the danger of radioactive fallout and some folks had begun questioning the safety of nuclear testing. The explosion of nuclear weapons produced radioactive debris which was carried in the wind along with fall’s foliage to all parts of the world.

Fall was the perfect name; apples and acorns were falling, leaves were falling and now there was fallout.

The mood of the world darkened at the thought.

Suddenly fallout contamination was no longer a vague phrase but real dust settling into every home.

Now it wasn’t just Chicken Little who thought the sky was falling. All anyone could talk about was the danger of radioactive fallout, something dangerous, scary, unseen, up in the sky that could cause great harm.

Harm that neither Superman nor a dose of penicillin could fix. The universe was already a dangerous place. Stars could explode, aliens attack, galaxies collide, and comets could crash into planets.

Revulsion against radioactivity, like the fallout itself, was settling invisibly into every home including mine. Nature’s most perfect food, milk, that miracle elixir, was now laced with radioactive  Strontium 90, released in above ground tests that traveled invisibly thousands of miles to land on grass American cows ate.

Inhaling deeply of the rich sweet aroma of falls burning leaves I would watch with curiosity as the sacrificial smoke wended its way heavenward filling the Autumn sky. I wondered if the dense smoke would interfere in the flight pattern of the flocks of birds migrating south, or clogging the airways for Superman, and Mighty Mouse in their missions to save the weak and helpless.

I now had a personal stake in air traffic. Would the Tooth Fairy from whom I hoped to be expecting a visit, get lost in this mess? Would she collide with a flying saucer, or a weather satellite and even if she could make it through this tangle, this traffic jam, would she be brushing off fallout instead of sprinkling pixie dust?

Tomorrow  Vintage Fall Follies- Fallout II

Copyright (©) 2014 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved



  1. I forgot about the burning of leaves. Yes, that was a pungent, nicely scented part of fall in the 1950s. By the 1960s, where I live, restrictions on open fires doomed the ritual. On the other hand, after the burning ban the same piles of leaves served to build a nice, loamy garden soil, a much better use of the resource. Nothing matches the scent of a freshly-turned spade of leaf-enriched garden soil!


  2. Frost like “a frosting of sugar on cereal flakes” — what a perfect image! Well done!
    There were some 50s TV shows that added to the stress — one about whether a family with a fall-out shelter should admit (less provident) neighbors definitely disturbed me as a child. And a show in which the mother tried to hide from her family the fact that her hair was beginning to fall out — a sign of radiation poisoning — made me a little queasy every time I examined my hairbrush. Nevertheless, I love the smell of fall.


  3. Pingback: Vintage Fall Follies-Fallout Pt II | Envisioning The American Dream

  4. The show you remember is most likely a classic episode of the Twilight Zone entitled “The Shelter” where suburban neighbors fight over one families home fall out shelter, when a nuclear attack feels imminent. The episode ran in Sept. of 1961 as the Berlin Crisis heated up and the fear of nuclear war was heightened.


  5. Love, Love your page and Shared it on my Something Unique board……..blessings have a wonderful Sunday!


  6. I also have beautiful childhood memories with the smell of the burning leaves and the games, but now I really love that we are using them for enriching the soil! They are great for that! There are so many benefits that they bring to gardeners!


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