The First World War brought unprecedented changes to Britain, right down to the humble periodicals which adorned the coffee tables of the growing middle class. Neil Huds
Cookery, Cycling, Woman’s World and Mother & Home all had a substantial following before the outbreak of the First World War. During the four year conflict they were part of the propaganda of the day as the war influenced everything from fashion, cookery and even cycling.
Social changes which may or may not have already been in motion were accelerated, says Jackie Rees, an expert on the period and memorabelia collector from Leeds.
“As shortages begin to kick in, you can see women’s hemlines go up by about five or six inches,” says the 57-year-old. “It was the first time women really showed the lower parts of their legs. There is no waste material and no buttons, which was in complete contrast to the way women dressed before that - in 1914, hemlines were the longest they had ever been and dresses were quite often very elaborate with lots of support structures. For some, getting dressed would have felt like wearing an iron-mongers shop. The weight was incredible.
“There was a practical side to it. Women had to step up and do many of the jobs which had previously been done by men and so they just couldn’t wear elaborate corsets and they moved away from restrictive corsetry. While it’s probably true to say it was already going in that direction, the war certainly accelerated the move.
“As an aside, they did try to re-introduce longer hemlines in 1919 but by that time women had realised the greater freedom which came with much simpler clothing and there was no going back to the days when dresses used to be so long they would trail in the mud.”
This newfound freedom, reflected in a much simpler, practical form of clothing, resonated with the notion of ‘dedication to duty’. One advert from 1915 reads: “It’s up to you to wear this ‘Hawkey’ national dress... it saves 40 per cent on material, has no fastenings...”
Knitting, though ancient, was encouraged as the war wore on to the point it almost became a necessarily life skill. Anyone who thinks the ‘onesy’ is a modern invention should think again, as the cover of Mother and Home from November 27, 1915 proves.
It wasn’t just fashion magazines which reflected the all-pervasive influence of the war and the need for economy at every turn.
“With magazines like Home Cookery, you can see the shortages begin to bite as the war continues,” says Jackie. “But you can also see the same thing in children’s magazines and even cycling magazines, which start to have pictures on the covers showing soldiers using bikes and so on. It really was all-encompassing.
“There’s certainly a change post-1914 with all kinds of things, from fashion to cookery to the way people looked at life. You can argue things like the Suffragette movement were already in place, but the war made brought it all to a head. Women’s fashion changed forever and so did women’s attitudes.
“There’s an all-pervading sense of patriotism. I do not know how readily people would conform these days but we have to remember these people were from a different era. I grew up listening to my grandmothers talk about this era, about the battles and the people and how things were.”
A copy of Woman’s World from October 1914 shows a line drawing of a mother tending childre. Juxtaposed are uniformed men sat on boxes and laid on the ground. The caption reads: “Women’s World keeps the fire bright in the home while the father is away fighting for his country.” Another from the same year shows a forlorn looking woman presumably imagining the horrors of the trenches, the caption: “This girl has done her duty in sending her sweetheart to fight for his country.”
Elsewhere, a copy of Mother and Home from November 1917 shows two children playing, one dressed as a Scottish soldier pointing a gun at the chest of another, arms raised in surrender, dressed as a German, wearing a colander for a helmet.
However, it’s the cookery magazines which make the most intriguing reading, not least because of the substitutes they came up with for ingredients which were in short supply, most of which seemed to have involved dripping.
The recipe for ‘creamed porridge’ suggests: “taking the dripping from the weekly joint” and adds: “render it carefully so that is may not have the very best flavour of meat and then beat a little of it into the porridge just before serving.” A cooking tip to go with that adds: “Serve the porridge very hot or the fat will cake on top and look horrid.”
If you thought that was unpalatable, you’d probably gasp at the recipe for ‘fried porridge’, which again involves copious amounts of dripping only this time allowing the porridge mix to set before carving into slices before frying. Still, they were a means to an end and as the recipe points out: “It helps to get down a lot of fat and the children rejoice in it.”
The ‘waste not want not’ mantra was well drilled - one ‘economy in baking’ tip helpfully points out that after baking cakes (in flat Yorkshire pudding tins, as they take less cooking), one should always use the heat in the oven to render down fat, dry orange peel to be used as fuel, or add the casserole for tea.”
A recipe for mock shepherd’s pie, “suitable for very special visitors” involves chopping up any spare vegetables, then adding generous proportions of curry powder and rice, before topping with potatoes .
“Some firms did not miss a trick, Fry’s being one, pushing its cocoa drink as “always on service”, showing pictures of grinning soldiers, bayonet in one hand and a mug of Fry’s cocoa in the other. So while the bombs fell and hemlines rose, the world got used to living lean, making do so that even the clothes they wore and the flat cakes they baked meant they were doing their bit to save the empire.