It was January of 1920. An old-fashioned sleigh traveled down a snowy street in Meriden, Connecticut with Arthur and Eva Sternberg, and their infant daughter, Charlotte Joan Sternberg. When she was born, a few days earlier on the 23rd, there was an enormous blizzard. The cars of that era were unable to drive in such heavy snow, and so Charlotte went home in a sleigh. Ever after, the family joked that this sleigh ride had “marked” her, made snow, sleighs, and winter a part of her psyche. She would be most famous in her lifetime for her snow scenes and Christmas cards.
Carter Avenue, where the family lived, was a working-class, small-city enclave. Neat rows of Victorian houses lined the streets. No one locked their doors. It was thought safe for children to play by themselves in the yard. At the very end of the dead end street lived Charlotte’s grandparents. They enjoyed a slightly larger lot, with a kitchen garden, fruit trees, and chickens. In that era, it was not unusual for families in cities to keep chickens. My father’s family kept a few in the backyard of their Brooklyn, New York brownstone.
Her grandparents, Franz Jacob and Paulina Johanna Hackbarth, left Germany as young children,around 1860. The Russian Cossacks had literally chased the family out of the small town there, and Charlotte remembered being told how the Cossacks swung their sabres before assaulting the people. Now, the Hackbarths had made a good life in America. Franz was a foreman at the iron foundry downtown, Bradley and Hubbard. The company made lamps, bric-a-brac, figurines, and other domestic goods. His work was grueling: six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. When the elders did get some time off, they tended the garden, the tiny orchard, or the chickens. They were almost always at home. This way of life was a remnant of an earlier time in America when families had been more self-sufficient.
Paternal grandmother Paulina Sternberg, widow of Charles Sternberg and mother of eight, lived in another part of town. That family ran a grocery store, so that they’d never run out of food—later, it was owned by Elise Dittmer (of the painting, “Aunt Lee’s Store.”)
This is the whole painting, Backyards.