On the notion that no innovation should be allowed to be forgotten without a proper memorial, this post is devoted to the smudge pot — a regular Autumn neighborhood activity for boys who grew up during World War II. When I remarked nostalgically on smudge pots to my middle-aged son recently, he knew nothing of them. Nor did the Internet yield any clue to what I was talking about. Here and now I intend to correct that lack of knowledge.
The smudge pot has not been ignored completely. One dictionary definition of “smudge: is a smoky fire, especially one made for safeguarding fruit trees frost or for driving away mosquitoes. The use in orchards is the image most people have of smudge pots. As shown here, they have been deployed in the understory of orange groves, heating the air when frost threatens to damage crops. Note that the device puts out considerable flame as well as smoke.
The second item shown here is meant to drive off mosquitoes and other insects from joining a backyard party. This smudge pot has been crafted from a tiki lamp that has lost its shaft and, again, spouts more flame than smoke. Below is still a third mechanism termed smudge pot. These would be placed as lights at construction sites or railroad crossings to warn motorists about potential hazards. The one shown was made by the Toledo Torch Company, in my hometown, and burned kerosene. When filled, it could flame for 24 hours. I remember as a kid an array of those flickering in the night air when the street in front of our house was paved. In recent times such pots have been replaced by battery-operated amber flashers or orange cones.
A final traditional item called a smudge pot is a New England fire starter. According to those in the know, this six inch plus tankard held a foot-long wand with a hunk of pumice at the end. It was soaked in fuel in the vessel. When ready to light a fire, the saturated wand was placed under the logs and the pumice lighted. It burned long enough to ignite the timber, was allowed to cool, and replaced in the tankard. Where the “smudge” element was involved escapes me.
In fact, none of these items bear any resemblance to the smudge pots of my boyhood. The setting was the period during and a few years after World War II. For most of that time gasoline rationing restricted travel and most outdoors recreation had to be found close to home. Hence the every Autumn every boy with any interest in neighborhood acceptance had to have a smudge pot.
These were fashioned by the young man himself. The first component was a gallon paint can, empty or with a small layer of paint congealed on the bottom. Paint running over the sides, as on the example here, was considered optimal since it lent character to the vessel. Working with a hammer and a chisel, the maker punched a single hole roughly an inch in diameter near the base of the can. Little care was taken for the symmetry of the opening but an effort was made to leave no rough edges on the outside that might later cut a finger.
Then a suitable base had to be found. Requirements were that the board had to be at least a half inch longer than the diameter of the paint can on the sides, allow approximately three inches in front of the hole, and be a little longer at the rear for enhanced stability. Selecting the right kind of plank and cutting it correctly to fit was important. Mom’s kitchen cutting board often seemed just right but carried unacceptable risks. Best to find a cast off piece of lumber in the basement and shape it. Once this base had been crafted, the paint can was carefully positioned and nailed firmly onto the board. Five or six nails usually were required. Then an eye-screw with a fairly large opening was attached several inches in front of the punched opening.
A piece of rope — clothesline made a good choice — was stuck through the eye screw and the two ends tied to the rear of a bicycle. Many bikes had a rear platform with struts and those made a good anchoring place. Fender struts could also suffice but less well. Now the smudge pot was ready. Remember that this is an Autumn activity so that dry leaves were in abundance as fuel. A good many were stuffed into the paint can and a lighted match applied through the punched hole. As the leaves began to smolder and burn, the bicycle was ridden through neighborhood streets, hopefully trailing billows of smoke behind.
On a given Saturday fall afternoon a half dozen pre- and early teen boys could be seen peddling furiously hoping that their clouds of glory eclipsed everyone else. Truth be told, I was never very good at it. My pot was forever going out and I was forced to stop frequently to relight it. Whether my hole was too small to push sufficient air into the chamber, or I was not able to ride fast enough, or the leaves were a little wet, my smudge pot too often disappointed. “Smudge envy” may have scarred my boyhood.
Just think if such a pastime were attempted in 2016. The cops would be called in an instant on the grounds that a group of terrorists were running around the streets threatening people with fire. Environmentalists would be shaking a finger at the pollution of the atmosphere. Safety experts would be exclaiming against the lack of head protection. In that day, by the way, only sissys wore helmets. In fact, they may not yet have been invented. In short, the boyish thrills that smudge pots provided to that earlier generation, it seems, would be forbidden today.
If this post on smudge pots is to be definitive, it must be mentioned that the term also is used in the contemporary world to describe a ceramic pot filled with sand on which herbs have been mashed together or torn apart in a fashion to let them burn. They are lighted as shown here and the smoke inhaled. The aromas are said to induce peace and euphoria. Hmmm. Finally, below, is an exhibit of smudge pot art. Here the devices have been turned into lamps and fanciful animals.
Note: While writing this post, I have been searching the Internet for a photograph of an actual boys’ smudge pot, but without success. I refused to believe that this tradition was restricted to a few neighborhoods in Toledo and that kids in other parts of America, particularly the Middle West, were not also riding around madly every Autumn, trailing burning leaves. Thus it is my hope an Alert Reader will have such a snapshot and let me know. It would make a valuable addition to this narrative.