So exactly what did we not have?
It is widely said that Britain first became a consumer society sometime in the 1950s. I cannot argue since it was in that decade that so many of the 'first' of the kit we were to come to treat as normal arrived. But for this story the earlier period is more interesting. Which makes it an especial shame that my memory of anything before 1948 is so poor.
However it is not difficult to deal with the consumer environment from the point of view of what we did not have. That list is rather long. No washing machine. No method of drying clothes, although we did have a mangle. It was a cast iron monstrosity which was used outdoors. It had wooden rollers and no safety release. Catch a finger and it stayed there until either the fire brigade cut you out or someone with a two pound hammer destroyed the cast iron structure. No mechanical music in most homes – the gramophone lurked but was a pricey luxury. The roll-tube phonograph had never really caught on with the masses. Punch paper driven euphoniums and the like were around but expensive. Radios were simple and there was the BBC or static laden Hilversum or Luxemburg – more on that anon. Electric irons were appearing. Vacuum cleaners were arriving but expensively and ineffectually at first.
We had a telephone but that was provided to ensure copper dad was able to visit scenes of crime and dust for fingerprints. Seriously. To have a phone was sufficiently rare for us to be a port of call for all local emergencies. As I have said there was an honesty box alongside the phone. Tin, noisy and audible to mother.
Cars were very rare, motorbikes less so along with sidecars. The bike was universal. Black, heavy, rusty and usually ungeared. With roller brakes. That's steel rods which were twisted to actuate the brake blocks. Which I recall were sometimes cork.
No central heating for the vast majority of course and not much hot water either. A coal fire could heat a back boiler providing it was lit. Which until the 50s meant not overnight. They went out (wot? No maid?). Cold tanks in the morning until the all-night burner of smokeless fuel arrived in the later 50s. In fact for a while my Gran lived in a flat which had some heating and hot water from a central boiler. We would have bathed there but she had no bath. We did. Tin it was, portable and not even big enough for me to drown in. Apparently.
The cooker was gas – that is town gas, the old sort that could easily kill you as it was poisonous and produced vast amounts of carbon monoxide. It was made locally from coal and water. I won't bore you but the process produces water gas first. Allegedly what was then dried to produce town gas. The green slime which could build up on the cooker, especially in the oven suggested it was not an exact science; it could have been a bit drier. Its appalling smell was unavoidable and anyway a major safety feature – no one ever ignored a gas leak for long. But when the new natural gas arrived twenty years later it had no smell. For a short time they considered a nice smell until the penny dropped. Then they made it smell as much like town gas as possible. Not much like though, even if rotting cabbage was, given a bit of chemistry, the source of the additive (ethyl mercaptan).
No fridge. It is so easy to say that. Yet it represents the most critical feature of all. Everything had to be bought fresh pretty much each day. Hence the array of delivery men visiting the street. And the absence of any fresh goods in the 'grocer' shop. So each day the milk that was delivered would be consumed. If not the residue would be used to make rice puddings, bread puddings and the rest for the next day. And even then if any was left over it would be allowed to curdle and then placed in muslin netting cloths and suspended over a bowl in the larder. This vital room was in every house, built in. I'll come back to it. This suppurating feast would produce cottage cheese in the muslin and whey in the bowl. I think the whey was fed to animals but I guess not our dogs as milk is no good for dogs.
Bread did come every day. The baker in the 40s was always horsedrawn and progressively less so into the 50s. Like milk, bread needed to be eaten or it went stale. Stale bread however is useful, providing the substance for an array of puddings and even meat dishes like cobblers. Butter was a problem. It would keep a few days out of a fridge but had to to stay in the larder in summer. Cheese was excellent I now know but back then we were less sophisticated and reckoned little to the joys of maturity. It was mostly cheddar or similar of course and genuine mousetrap was an inevitable and delightful result. Cheese on toast was never so good. Blue cheese was Danish, copper wire corrupted and with no penicillin in sight. Father did not approve if mother bought actual Gorgonzola and her liking for smelly brie in the form of Camembert was beyond him.
Meat was bought when needed so there were butchers everywhere in the French manner and like the French they tended to specialise. Beef was bright scarlet and not only because it was often coated in something called dragon's blood and which stopped it from going dark. Ageing was not common since the meat had to be stored at home at ambient temperature. And anyway everyone was sure fresh was best. Pork of course needed to be handled with care – tapeworm was a real risk - but intensive rearing was some way off so the flavour and texture was superior to most of what we see today. Denmark was not yet insulting the porcine kingdom by producing the junk we accept today. Fish was buy, cook, eat or battered and bought cooked. Vegetables were of course the easiest to deal with and it is a wonder we did not become a nation of veggies.
But seasonality was something we lived with and delighted in. Everything had its season. Lamb was seasonal – the rest was mutton or hoggett if you were lucky. Veg were entirely seasonal. The world waited on the arrival of the Jersey Royal potatoes, even if three or four times the price of olds at6d (2.5p). The asparagus (from oop t'road lad not Peru). The strawberries. The raspberries, cherries, currants - red, white, black - the loganberries, the gooseberries... and on and on. Each season delighting us with its surprise and its brevity. Never think it was a problem. Seasonality was a wonderful thing.
Seasons were timely too. Christmas started in December, not October. Easter was announced by Lent, not in February. Guy Fawkes night was at best a week of bad behaviour in the street followed by two meek days with a bundle of rags filled with old nylon stockings and a paper mask. A penny was enough until about 1953 when it started to seem mean.
But I digress. What did we not have? Packet biscuits began to appear – the rest came from big boxes, selected by hand. Broken were half price. But if you were caught breaking any you would get a clip round the ear and mother would not turn a hair. Serve you right, me lad. No frozen goods. Peas were shucked. And seasonal. Chips came from the chippy unless mum was brave. Why? Well no vegetable oil so it was animal fat – lard. Boils at a mighty high temperature. Kitchen fires were plenty. Fantastic chips mind.
Fruit was seasonal or apples. And even the apples were seasonal – the good keepers were few and far. Oranges were appearing but pricey and short in supply. And seasonal. Christmas treats at the end of the stocking.
Cleaning things required elbow grease which was plentiful rather than chemicals which were not. There was Sunlight soap and the ends of bars were put into muslin socks to be thrashed about in the sink to produce some bubbles. No one had really heard of surfactants. There was VIM and Ajax for floors but both needed application, mopping, rinsing and mopping dry. Kitchen surfaces might get the Dettol treatment and scrubbed tables were, well scrubbed and bleached. DDT was still in use to deter flies and the like – of course we soon discovered it deterred people just as well.
Irons were electric by the 50s but crude and not exactly impressive. Ironing boards were made of wood mostly. They creaked and trapped fingers equally well. Clothes were natural fibres. Nylon did appear but it was crude stuff, yellowed easily and uncomfortable. Men who had to wear white collars like my father were still in collarless cotton shirts with separate collars that could be starched and turned into steel neck bruisers. A firm called Wembley did his, six a week as he worked Saturday morning until the mid 50s. Boxed up on Monday and collected as the replacement box arrived. Interesting that I cannot remember that he ever got the wrong ones back. And knowing him the whole street would have become aware at 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
It was in the 50s that boys started to follow fashion so that jeans were plentiful - but they came as workmen's clothing had to be tapered by willing seamstresses – pegging it was called. 12 inches (300mm) was usual, just about allowing the foot through. They were all blue and initially all workmen's blue. Proper jeans by a firm called Levi Strauss or another called Lee Cooper. And of course cheap for a while. For my set evening street wear was a bright T-short – lemon, acid green, scarlet – with matching socks. I also sported a denim jacket of which I was inordinately proud and wore long after it ceased to actually fit! Of course Teddy boys were everywhere and more of them anon.
Furniture was universally old. Tables were 30s extenders, chair were rickety ditto with Rexine covered seats. The horsehair could often be seen. When the ration ended and utility began to fade I recall a day I went with mum and dad to a carpet shop in Wood Green (posh, see) to buy big rugs to cover the fading linoleum in the front and back rooms and runners for the stairs and halls. Luxury.
Soft furniture was also old and hand-me-down mostly. Re-covered or with throws over it. Fully sprung but with the springs breaking free from the weaver and so a bit lumpy. We had two big three seaters in the lounge and both had drop down arms so they could be slept on. Uncle Walter from Canada visited and his wife my aunt Hilda and mum's mother's eldest sister, consigned him to sleep downstairs after a skinful at the Queens. He weighed about 20 stone and the arm snapped off a treat. Dad was not amused but set to in his usual way to repair it. This it was that it never stayed up again, sagging wearily whenever anyone leaned against it.
The rooms were lit by large central bowl lights with, if we were lucky a 100 watt bulb. Enough to miss the furniture by anyway. Later we had table lamps and dad demonstrated a rare skill – the construction with multiple socket adaptors of the festoon. Truly artistic sometimes and even stable on occasions.
(To be developed)