I asked my mother if she remembered when Grandma Martha first bought the nursery rhyme party hats and plastic nut cups we used for every kid’s birthday for years when I was little. Mom wasn’t sure; we both knew the tradition had started by 1960, when my youngest brother was born. We both remembered how his hat was always Humpty-Dumpty.
Grandma rented the upstairs of the little East End house to our family, which meant we had the privilege of running downstairs to see her just about any time she was home or awake. Of course, by day Grandma worked in the Sign Shop at Shillito’s department store, and she was in bed by nine, so our opportunities to descend on her weren’t unlimited. (Grandpa lived there too, of course, but he spent his days at the barns with his horses; and during a harness racing meet at one of the local tracks, he sometimes bunked in the tack room at the barn.)
Grandma welcomed all her grandchildren whenever she could, including my aunt’s two young boys, so there were many festive occasions in the dining room/bedroom or front room downstairs. At some point Grandma purchased cardboard birthday hats, one for each child, and plastic nut cups she filled with candy (most likely M&Ms). Being the thrifty sort, Grandma recycled those favors for each birthday.
I have a vague memory of the first time she produced the hats and nut cups, and of being quite impressed by them. Our family celebrations were never overdone. There might be balloons, but we never had crepe paper streamers and bakery cakes. To have Grandma suddenly provide party hats and nut cups seemed extravagant and indulgent, and terribly exciting.
In among my keepsakes I have one of those original hats, squashed flat and very worn after nearly 50 years. It might actually be MY hat, which was Little Bo Beep. I was the only girl, so that designation was a given, but I’m not sure how the three boys decided on their hats, or if they even did. If Grandma said, “Here, you get Little Jack Horner” or whatever, then that’s what you got, no arguments.
Besides Little Bo Beep (or was it Mary Had a Little Lamb?) and Humpty Dumpty, I don’t really recall what nursery rhyme the other hats depicted. I do remember their shiny finish, lots of silver plus shades of blue and pink, maybe purple. The nut cups were the kind of beautifully detailed plastic trinkets manufactured in the 1950s, small baskets with incised sides and scrolled handles, festooned with leaves and flowers, all in a shell pink plastic. I’ve seen these same nut baskets in antique malls, an indication of their durability. No wonder they wore well for so many of our birthdays.
Set in our ways, we wouldn’t have allowed any kind of party without our hats. The boys probably didn’t care so much about the nut cups, but I did. Maybe the fact that they vanished after the celebration and didn’t appear again until the next made them that much more anticipated.
I don’t know when we drifted away from the tradition of party hats and nut cups. Maybe we older kids simply outgrew them by six or seven. Maybe when we moved out of the upstairs flat to our house in Oakley, the regular birthday parties happened less frequently. It wasn’t long before Grandma and Grandpa (whether he wanted to or not) followed us out to Oakley, moving into a big gray house just around the corner. Grandma certainly continued to have get-togethers, but I don’t have a visual image of us wearing our accustomed hats in Grandma’s new dining room (a real dining room; the house had three real bedrooms upstairs, so no more sleeping on a sofa bed for Grandma and Grandpa).
Those hats and nut cups, though, are an indelible image of my earliest birthdays in the tiny house on Eastern Avenue.