building a whatnot, 1941

Joseph Weaver, 13, mans the jigsaw to work on a whatnot during the polio quarantine of 1941.

This story contains links that will take you to our archives site on This content is free for LancasterOnline subscribers who are logged in. Click here for more information about how to subscribe.

Now that Gov. Tom Wolf has announced the closure of Pennsylvania schools until further notice - and with social distancing affecting children as well as adults - there are plenty of Lancaster County kids looking for things to do.

Of course, many of the ways modern young people entertain themselves rely on new technology. Firing up the Nintendo Switch to play Animal Crossing. Making TikTok videos to share with friends. Livestreaming on Twitch.

Without all that technology, what would this pandemic look like in terms of under-18 entertainment?

Well, it might look a bit like 1941, when a polio epidemic kept schools from opening in September, and children were sequestered at home - "exiled from everything including movies and funerals," according to the Sunday News of Sept. 7, 1941.

With the help of Grant D. Brandon of the city's Recreation and Playground Association, the Sunday News published numerous suggestions for crafts and activities to occupy the youth until such time as the government restrictions were lifted, so they wouldn't "spend all their time at the radio or underfoot."

Here are a few of those suggestions:

  • Build a "whatnot": What's a whatnot? It's a little shelf or set of shelves, often meant to be hung in a corner, to hold small knick-knacks or miniatures. Kids with some interest in carpentry - and access to a parent's tool chest - might make such a thing out of scraps of plywood. (Adult supervision while using the saw? Not mentioned.)
  • Make a belt: "A strip of burlap and a few bright patches of cloth from the rag-bag" are all that's needed appliqué a belt with flowers. And, presumably, access to a sewing kit.
  • Try your hand at sculpture: A few cents worth of modeling clay, some homemade plaster-of Paris, or even "a hunk of clay out of the back yard" could be the raw materials for a budding Michelangelo.
  • Raid the kitchen to make jewelry: From necklaces made of macaroni to bracelets made of red and yellow corn, fashion accessories using foodstuffs as raw materials could produce pieces "that might have come from a Fifth Avenue shop window." 
  • Go fly a kite: Provided you don't do it with a flock of other neighborhood kids, that is. Keep to a solo flight, or one restricted to siblings.
  • Catch up on forgotten hobbies: Stamp collections and music lessons were the hobbies specified in 1941, but in general this advice is fairly timeless.
  • Read a book: Here's hoping this one never goes out of style.
  • Do some chores: The Sunday News article ended on a note that might have been grim for any children reading - have the kids pitch in with cooking, cleaning, canning and other housework. "Maybe this forced vacation will be a real benefit," the article said in closing, "not only to children who never knew what to do with spare time, but for parents who hadn't thought about what to do with the kids when they had to stay around the house."

What are your kids doing through the current quarantine? Let us know in the comments!