The barrel from the states

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A few years ago, as part of a Social Studies assignment, I was discussing with my granddaughter some interesting details about growing up in Branch in the 1950s.

She inquired about where I shopped for clothes when I was young. First I offered a little commentary informing her that I certainly never possessed as many articles of clothing as she has owned.

She eyed me with disbelief when I told her that maybe once or twice a year we were allowed to order something from the Eaton’s or Simpson-Sears mail order catalogue.

Hand-me-downs and made-over garments were the norm of the day.

My mother owned a Singer sewing machine that was often used to make over-sized and under-sized dresses and coats so they fit just right or close to it. Unlike today, when we give away our stuff to the goodwill centers, then we were our own goodwill recipients.

All this being said, apart from the mail order and second-hand duds, there was the “barrel.” This source of clothing was made possible because many Newfoundland women had married American men serving on bases at Argentia, Pepperrell and elsewhere.

There is probably not one community in Newfoundland that did not have at least one native daughter living in “the States.”

These out-migrated ladies hardly ever forgot their roots. Hence, the barrel, or more precisely the barrel of clothes. Several times a year, a few families received bountiful supplies of clothing that appeared as if it had never been worn.

And, as American fashion has always been eons ahead of the Newfoundland mode, many garments were classy and spiffy and unheard of in local circles.

Unlucky for us, my family had no close relatives residing south of the border. We were not eligible for a free wardrobe from Boston, New York or Miami.

However, this does not mean that we did not benefit from the vogue of Macy’s, J C Penney’s or some department store in Dallas, Texas. When a barrel arrived, there was sure to be finery for sale.

For a few dollars, young ladies could purchase attire that was fit for a queen. I distinctly remember one summer when I was about 12 years old, strutting around Branch in a half-dozen or more outfits made up of bright colored slacks, blue jeans and pedal pushers with T-shirts, sweaters and blouses to match.

If memory serves me right, each article was bought for 25 or 30 cents. With penny loafers or saddle oxfords to complete the ensemble, I would saunter down to Gut and loiter around the wharf as proud as a peacock.

Sometimes more than clothing could be acquired via the barrel from the States. I seem to recall my mother buying a nice set of lace curtains from Mrs. Katie Power and at one time, we owned a gorgeous tablecloth that probably once graced the table of someone much more celebrated than we were. At one time, every bed in our house had beautiful chenille bedspreads from some uppity store in California.

Today, when I look at the expensive jeans worn by the young people, with brand name tops to match, I remark to myself, “For sure, that never came out of the barrel.”

Then I smile and ponder fondly on the pink pedal pushers I spoiled one Sunday under the wharf in Branch.


— Marina Power Gambin was born and raised in her beloved community of Branch, St. Mary’s Bay. She is a retired teacher who lives in Placentia where she taught for almost three decades. She can be reached at



Organizations: Eaton, Argentia

Geographic location: California, Newfoundland, Boston New York Miami Dallas, Texas Placentia

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