Was life really better in the good old days? Jayne Dawson delves into the daily routine of a 1950s housewife and discovers a world of frayed sofas, and disappointing brandy snaps.
But in a Yorkshire second hand bookshop I recently discovered a book published in 1953 and long out of print which shows that life then, though not so very far back in time, was hugely different. It was written by Stella Martin Currey, an upper middle class woman of her day, and it charts domestic life month by month.
The year it was published our Queen was crowned, but Britain was still dragging itself out of the ruins, cities were scarred bombsites and post-war drabness had the nation in its grip. It is in this world that Stella tells of life’s highlights and lowlights. Your January will probably have been a flurry of good intentions. You will have resolved to get fit, lose weight, declutter everything in sight. But Stella’s year had a grand start. Her highlight was a visit to the hairdresser after putting the children on the train back to boarding school.
On the other hand her most loathed job involves burst pipes, from which she seems to often suffer, and she tells a story of neighbours having to form a chain from her lavatory down the steps to fill and empty jugs from a burst pipe. I don’t know that we would see such neighbourliness now.
The book is peppered with recipes which reveal just how truly rotten the food was in the early 1950s and how blessed we are now in 2015. A particular low point is the dish for impressing guests that begins with a ring mould of tomato aspic and goes on to involve olives, eggs and shrimps.
By February, life is all about glorious eggs since the hens are laying again so there is also Pancake Pagoda, in honour of Pancake Day. It is a frankly vile-sounding concoction where pancakes are stacked with savoury fillings in-between, including curry, fried vegetables, and celery. To be fair, Stella calls it a despair recipe herself. But reading it made me very thankful I can buy some fresh lemons and a jar of expensive maple syrup for mine.
As spring arrives, the thoughts of an upper middle class housewife are turning to cleaning, a mammoth task continuing throughout March and April and involving redecorating, and lots of workmen. There is no mention of that job that faces almost everyone in 2015: trying to dispose of the mountain of stuff that threatens to overwhelm us, from old redundant gadgets to clothes we never wear.
In fact, Stella is worrying: something will have to be done about the loose covers in the sitting room, but she can’t afford anything decent. The best she ever had were during the war and made of army palliasse covers. She considers putting the good bits from the backs of the chairs to the front, but then all her chairs would have to stand against the wall.
By May, Stella is casting clouts - she places the family’s thicker garments in the box room in the attic, covered in paper sprinkled with DDT powder, a now-banned insecticide. And her thoughts have turned to chickens again, but the meat this time - relatively cheap now but a luxury back then.
She says: “It is possible sometimes to buy a chicken from a farmer friend, or from a friend who just keeps fowls, for less than half your savings for old age.”
By the summer Stella’s thoughts have turned away from chickens and to foreign visitors, of which the household has had many in the post-war years, and talks of a charming Finnish girl. She writes: “The Finnish women, she told me, all take it for granted that once their childbearing period is over they will return to practice the profession or trade they were trained for. How sane is that!”
Her days at this time of year are a very British mix of seaside holidays and sandwiches, and thus it makes sense that her worst job of August is getting sand out of sandwiches. Stella knows much of sandwiches having, she wearily declares, made thousands throughout her life
But by September in this woman’s world, there is serious work to be done - in the form of fruit bottling. “There is never a convenient time for fruit bottling, just as there is rarely a convenient time for having a baby or tidying the larder. We all preserved fruit and vegetables with such energy during the war that a reaction has set in against this summer pursuit but I think any woman who has to provide meals for children is sorry if she does not make an effort in the hot days and look that loaded basket in the face,” she says. I can practically see her squaring her shoulders to the strains of Jerusalem.
October brings memories of another disliked task - cleaning up after brandy snap making. I’m guessing that one doesn’t figure on your list of October lows, but at times the world Stella describes is very Enid Blyton.
“At this chilly time of year with firelight and twilight mixed for tea, brandy snaps filled with cream will be a treat for everybody,” she says. That’s how it should be but make them with self-raising flour accidentally, as Stella did, and you will be cleaning a heaving volcanic mass from oven, trays, sink, cloths to the point of exhaustion.
Luckily, I buy mine from the supermarket and thus avoid this ever-present danger. Come November and Stella’s chief worry is mushrooms. Every year she is torn between collecting the specimens in her garden to fry with bacon, or erring on the side of caution.
“If they don’t kill the French they won’t kill us somebody says, and everybody agrees that this is true while inwardly reserving the right to believe that English and French stomachs are constructed on entirely different lines,” she writes. She recounts that one year she screws her courage to the sticking place and fries a batch - and her husband feels ill for days afterwards.
By December the dressing up box has achieved an important place in the household. The Victorian family home is complete with a “withdrawing room” in which plays can be performed and the box contains a Victorian christening cloak amongst its treasures. Much fun of the make-your-own-entertainment kind ensues. But then comes the business of thank you letters and Stella fantasises about pre-printed forms as she watches a rebellious and ink-stained recipient of a delightful present breathing heavily over a writing pad.
Your own children may well have sent their thank you notes by email and text but this is a window into a different world. In the decade after the Second World War the country was drawing breath. It was a tired and worn place after the first exhilaration of peace. Days were slower and quieter before consumerism exploded making life more colourful and exciting but also more frantic and greedy. I’m glad I discovered Stella in that bookshop that day.
The headline news of 1953
January: Car ferry sinks in the Irish Sea killing 133 on board.
February: Floods kills hundreds of people on the East Coast of Britain.
March: Queen Mary dies.
April: The first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, is published.
May: The FA Cup is televised for the first time.
June: The Coronation takes place in Westminster Abbey.
July: Rillington Place murderer John Christie is hanged.
August: England win The Ashes for the first time in 19 years.
September: End of sugar rationing.
October: Government sends troops into British Guiana.
November: Current affairs series Panorama first airs on the BBC.
December: Winston Churchill wins the Nobel Prize in Literature