Thursday 18 August 2016

The Way We Lived Then - Celia Rees

Compton Verney is currently hosting the Exhibition, Britain in the Fifties - Design and Aspiration, looking back to the time when Harold Macmillan announced that 'most of our people had never had it so good'. A time when everything was new. Modern. The exhibition starts with the Festival of Britain and follows through to 1959, the end of the decade and the dawn of the Sixties and Withnail's 'greatest decade in the history of mankind.'

The emphasis is on design, everything from fabric to furniture and household goods. The exhibition allows us to look with new eyes at everyday items easily overlooked or dismissed as 'ordinary'. We are invited to see that things that we might unthinkingly assess as unexceptional, dull, even ugly, were actually different from anything that had gone before. It was the decade when everything was new. Not new exactly, but the design movements of previous decades in furniture, ceramics, fabrics, architecture were no longer exclusive, they were being made available to Macmillan's newly prosperous, aspirational middle classes. 

New, bright, boldly patterned designer materials might be available but women still routinely made their own clothes. Shop bought 'gowns' were for the rich, or for special occasions. Few households were without a sewing machine as this spanking electric machine, array of dress patterns and impressively stocked sewing box illustrates.

New materials, like formica, and a host of mechanical gadgets and appliances from fridges, to washing machines, electric cookers, electric mixers and teasmades were set to make women's lives much easier. 

The display shelves themselves are an example of the new design. The appliances arrayed show what housewives aspired to, or desired: a Kenwood Chef, a teasmade, a portable radio, stainless steel toast rack, an electric kettle. The styling was American or Scandinavian. The aptly named 'Maidsaver' with it's multiple cupboards and counter, replaced the larder, scullery and notional 'maid'. 

The introduction of a television into more and more living rooms was poised to transform everybody's life. The advent of ITV, launched in 1955, and the 'commercial break' were about to make people want the above illustrated innovations and all the household products that went with them: Persil, Flash, Fairy Liquid. Their slogans and jingles would become part of our consciousness and culture.

All this innovation is neatly illustrated in a series of artfully created rooms,  deceptively simple but carefully curated. Meticulous in every detail, each one re-pays close attention.  The television, showing the Coronation on a loop, is twinned with a large radio standing rather forlornly in the opposite corner. The previous source of all home entertainment was about to be eclipsed. Many of the exhibits were loned by local people like my friend, Barbara Crowther, items still in use 'part of the furniture'. This adds to the illusion that these are rooms in real homes rather than artefacts in a museum.

They certainly spark much memory and reflection. The rooms murmur with the chatter of re-discovery:

"We had one of those..."
"My mum made me a dress in that material."
'I had one just like that!"
"I remember..."

'I remember' is repeated over and over again, sometimes as an  exclamation of recognition, sometimes prefacing a deeper memory, a longer anecdote. The display of bathing suits (stout to our eyes, frilled and ruched) seems particularly redolent, sparking memories of trips to the lido, the seaside, family holidays with sisters and brothers, mum and dad. When I visited the exhibition with friend and fellow author Linda Newbery, we were exclaiming at every turn over one thing or another, adding our voices to those around us. 

The lifestyle depicted  is neatly summed up by a series of panels from Ladybird books in their pre-ironic incarnation. 

Mother is dressed to go shopping in a hat, heels and costume, the little boy is in his school uniform, the little girl in a smart red coat and beret. She carries a basket, a miniature of the one her mother carries. They visit different shops to make purchases. I remember such trips with my mother going from shop to shop, to George Mason's (grocer), Dewhurst (butcher), Simpson's (fishmonger), Warden's (draper & haberdasher), Timothy White and Taylor (chemist), Midland Educational and Twig's Toy Shop. This was how my mother shopped. There were no supermarkets in our town until the 1960s. 

My mother went 'up the village' most days, buying little and often. She had to shop like this because we didn't have a fridge. Or most of the shiny gadgets and appliances on display. We were a middle class household but we didn't have a washing machine. My mother made do with a wringer then a spin dryer. An odd fact of British consumerism is that the front loading washing machine, the Bendix as it was known from its manufacturer, was eschewed for the twin tub top loader. Front loading made washing too easy.  As it says in the accompanying notes to the exhibition, 'in practice many of these new, much trumpeted machines failed to liberate women from the kitchen, but instead tended to re-enforce gender stereotypes - resulting in more rigid gendering of domestic spaces.' In some ways they made more work, not less. Ease of cleaning and washing meant these chores were performed more often.

 This exhibition offers a snapshot of a certain kind of life style. It shows a revolution in design that  has one way or another influenced all our lives. The title is Design and Aspiration and, by default, the lifestyle shown is middle class, even upper middle class. Most households, even middle class ones like mine, didn't have all the 'mod cons' on display here and some had nothing at all. The new council houses, much of the design a bargain basement version of what we see here, were not available to all. Slum and back to back housing was still very much with us. Not everybody could aspire to live like this. 

As historical novelists, we are always interested in visiting exhibitions that re-create a particular era and this one does it very well. It is important, however, to remember what is not shown here. I lived through the Fifties, so I could fill in some of the gaps. Remember things that no exhibition can show. The cold in winter when few people had central heating. Coal grates, gas fires and single bar electric heaters didn't heat much of the house. Frost on the inside of the windows as well as the out. 

And smells. Smoke from those coal fires and steam trains, people smoking indoors. I don't specifically remember, but its not hard to imagine the body odour. Baths rather than showers. Some houses still without bathrooms. Talcum powder at best, the use of deodorants was not widespread. Sounds that are lost, like the early morning rattle and whine of the milk float. The noise, or lack of it, in a world with far less traffic, fewer aircraft, ubiquitous machines in cafes, musak in every shop. If we can remember the era, we have to remember hard. If not, we have to imagine if we are to re-create how people really lived then. 

Celia Rees


Linda Newbery said...

Lovely post, Celia, and a reminder of a very enjoyable visit! I have been again since (yesterday!) and this time found the Fifties Allotment, which we'd somehow missed. I was struck again by how very modern some of the fabrics and furnishings looked - moving towards the sixties.

Mary Hoffman said...

Oh, I must go! Love Compton Verney and remember a lot of these things. The day we got our first fridge was a big one!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Excellent post and so many memories. I was particularly struck by your closing paragraphs about what was not shown. Dandruff on dark collars - what a common sight, and people have much straighter teeth these days down to better and interventionist dentistry. If your front teeth stuck out or overcrowded your mouth in the 1950s then that was that.

Susan Price said...

Great post, but yes, I liked the closing paragraphs best. It's so true that, no matter how much research you do, imagination is still needed.

My parents didn't move to a council house with an inside toilet and bath until 1960. For many of my other relatives, such comforts came much later.

The house I was born in had no inside water and no electricity. Gas lamps, across the 'track' to the wash-house and a long walk 'up the track' to the toilet block. It was infested with mice and cockroaches, which could not be controlled, no matter how hard they tried. (They came in from the fields outside.)

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes, dandruff on collars. And acne (young people now have beautiful complexions, don't they?) And I DO remember body odour - or "B.O." as we always called it. Some of the early deodorants had a strong chemical smell that was almost worse than the problem. Close fitting sleeves and the introduction of nylon fabrics didn't help.

My sister recently unearthed a photo of the two of us, aged about 7 and 4, on a beach with our dad, making a sandcastle. We children are in swimsuits and cardigans, but Dad is in what looks like his office suit, with a white shirt with the sleeves pulled up and held with those circular clips that men used to wear.

Penny Dolan said...

Compton Verney's a little too far away to visit so thank you for this description, Celia, especially those final thoughts on using the imagination.

Celia Rees said...

Glad the post struck a chord with so many of you. I'd forgotten about dandruff. I remember hair washing being a real faff. In the sink with jugs or in the bath. My mother used to add lemon juice to the swilling water. No conditioners, either. No wonder people had dandruff! And brylcreem. I'd forgotten about that as well. A good way I find to recreate these coincidentals is to look at adverts from the time - brings it all back.
I went again, Linda - to write this - and found the allotment. doing very well, especially fine beetroot.

Ruan Peat said...

I just about remember the first visit to Gran's after the 'new' indoor toilet and bath had been put in! First time I ever had a bath at Gran's, unknown to me then but only mentioned years later, my Mum always said she would never put my brother and I through 'the tin bath in front of the fire ritual' she had had. That and my Aunt who kept taking me out to the new bigger kitchen (under the new bathroom) to show me the fridge! Couldn't work out why then, but later found out they hadn't had one until then. This would be early 70's, and yes there was a room kept locked to save for best!
The only smell I hated was the out door toilet at the end of the yard, which my uncle used to make me use if I said I couldn't wait for the indoor one. EWWWWWW...

Sue Purkiss said...

Oh, lots of memories! But when you've lived though an era, and you absolutely know how many gaps there are in subsequent accounts of it - it does make the task of re-creating a bygone era seem very challenging. What was everyday life really like in the Dark Ages or whenever? Tantalising!

Celia Rees said...

Exactly, Sue. That's what this exhibition made me think, too. I could fill in the gaps (well, some of them) but it gave me a clue as to what needs to be done when writing about a period outside our experience. Exhibitions, books, museums are never enough. We have to use our imaginations to fill the gaps.