Friday, 28 March 2014

The Afterlife of Things 4

In the 1930s your Radio Times (the magazine that told you what was on the radio) was kept in an ornate leather folder, decorated with embossing and oversewing, or tidied away in a floor-standing magazine rack. There were occasional tables but no coffee tables. And you couldn’t just leave a magazine lying around for a week getting tattier and tattier. Could you? Radio Times folders and magazine racks faded soon after the war.

They somehow went with shoe bags embroidered with your initials, night-dress cases and handkerchief sachets. Where did they go? Tissues happened. Handkerchief sachets were usually handmade out of linen and embroidered. There was no telly and we had to make our own entertainment.

Other linen embroidered objects we simply couldn’t live without: antimacassars and traycloths. Antimacassars went over the backs of armchairs and sofas to stop hairoil marking the furniture. 30s men used an oily “dressing” on their hair to keep it in place. (It faded out in the 70s.) Traycloths were a miniature tablecloth that went on a tray for breakfast in bed, or supper by the fire. They vanished with the servants who cooked and brought you the breakfast or supper. And with no servants keeping you out of your own kitchen you could eat in it.

All these were objects you could make yourself, and perhaps that’s why people were convinced they were necessary. They were the descendants of the purses netted and slippers embroidered by early Victorian girls. (Now we make bunting.) Handwork was taught at school, and girls needed projects. Magazines would give away patterns for traycloth embroidery. (They can always be upcycled into cushion covers.) Handwork was strictly gender-segregated: boys made manly pipe racks in woodwork. When did men stop smoking pipes? They were still puffing in the 70s. I remember ads for a vanilla-scented tobacco – was it St Bruno? And there was one called Condor… The decline of pipe-smoking did for the small tobacconists who used to operate from kiosks. More here, and links to the rest.

The Afterlife of Things 3

A few words about sauce boats. Yes, like mustard pots, they came with their own little stand and special ladle.

There were prohibitions about adding anything to your food. You couldn’t add too much. Of course, the gravy or sauce in the one sauce boat had to go round everybody and you had to calculate your share. Child’s play! But if there was never quite enough sauce or gravy, why not make double and have two sauce boats? That would have been much too logical. Meals weren’t supposed to be enjoyable, they were ordeals by cutlery. This one lapsed in the 60s too. More here.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Afterlife of Things 2

In aspirant households of the 50s and probably earlier, hot English mustard was the only condiment on the table apart from salt and pepper. If salad was on the menu, you might get matching, silver-topped oil and vinegar bottles on a silver tray. And if you were really, really lucky the lady of the house might have made her own apple jelly, mint sauce or chutney. Middle class households did not buy Branston Pickle, tomato ketchup or salad cream (when these arrived from America after the war), or anything that might have made the food actually edible. (Though in Mrs Beeton’s day, your cook made her own tomato, walnut or mushroom ketchup.)

The mustard was made from mustard powder and served in a mustard pot on a little saucer with a tiny spoon. The latch by the handle levers the lid open, and there is a little slot for the spoon. So simple, a small child could operate it! Did people transfer Colmans or Dijon into the mustard pot – until they thought “What the hell!” and put the jar on the table?

Salt was supplied in a salt cellar on a plate or stand, with its own tiny spoon. You were supposed to put salt in a little pile on the side of your plate (with the spoon), because it was rude to assume that your hostess’s food was inadequately seasoned. In the mid-60s, sets of salt and pepper shakers became fashionable and presumably this piece of etiquette melted away like snow on the desert’s face. Aspirant couples now had sea-salt and black pepper grinders, just like in the Italian restaurants that were so chic at the time. People gave each other sets for Christmas.

Jam was decanted into a glass pot with its own saucer, and ornate spoon. If the jam stayed in its own pot, you used a specialised jam spoon with a kind of latch that hooked over the edge. It was also long enough to reach the bottom. (Now we struggle to scrape out the last of the jam with a too-short teaspoon.)

More here.
What I don’t miss about the 50s.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Afterlife of Things

Before fridges, butter came in a lump, kept in a butter crock in a chilled pantry. When it was needed for breakfast, tea or dinner, it was turned into pats or curls (by rolling small pieces between two ridged bats), put onto a small plate and sprinkled with water (to keep it cool). You served yourself a pat or curl with a silver butter knife like a tiny fish knife. (You weren’t supposed to cut your dinner roll with your own knife, but break off a piece, dab a bit of butter on top, and eat it.) Bread and butter at teatime probably came ready buttered. You might spread your own toast at breakfast when manners were more free and easy, but you couldn't ask anyone to pass you the butter - you had to wait for them to pass it to you.

Fridges happened in the 50s. There was a short period during which a block of frozen butter would be put on the tiny butter plate, and guests would attempt to carve off a piece with the tiny, blunt, fragile butter knife… I remember being shouted at to SPREAD my bread with the rock-hard butter. Not easy, aged six. Eventually people came to their senses and butter knives became more robust.

Perhaps our parents longed to get back to gracious living after serving in the forces and having just one knife, fork, spoon, mug and plate. But there was also a sense that we had to do things this way because this was the way things had always been done.

Until the late 19th century, sugar arrived at the house in the form of a “loaf” (in the shape of a bullet or a concrete bollard – a “tall cone with a rounded top”, says Wikipedia). This was cut up with special cutters called sugar nippers. It could then be grated to form granulated or caster sugar (fine enough to be served in a caster), or proffered in tiny pieces – perfect for picking up with a pair of tiny Georgian silver sugar tongs and dropping in your coffee or tea. Apparently the first lump sugar factory was built in 1802. Lump sugar was certainly around in the 50s – in lumps too big to be easily picked up with those tiny sugar tongs. Especially when you were six. They soon went the way of the Georgian silver butter knife.

Thursday, 20 March 2014


We know all about servants, don't we. People had them in the past, but we don't, because we're modern and aware. (And housework has become far less labour-intensive.) So why the fascination with Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey? Servants cast a long shadow over our lives - perhaps because when they'd gone, we continued to try and live as if they were still there. Middle-class households prepared elaborate meals in a small kitchen, passed them through a serving hatch, and then sat down to eat. (Working class families sensibly cooked and ate in the kitchen - and sewed and did homework there too.) We decanted vegetables into serving dishes as if they were going to be carried along miles of cold passages from a basement kitchen. (The food must always have been tepid.) And then we all said "Oh, forget it!" and began to live more simply. I hope.

When I re-read those first [books] I’m amazed at the number of servants drifting about. And nobody is really doing any work; they’re always having tea on the lawn… (Agatha Christie, The Writer, 1966)

You can’t get the good old-fashioned kind of servant any more. (Agatha Christie,  Sparkling Cyanide)

"We cannot save our servants trouble; we cannot insist on their making their work easy for themselves; but we can tell them that it would be wiser were they to help themselves." (Mrs Panton, From Kitchen to Garrett) She means that the cook should lay the kitchen fire before going to bed, so that in the morning she only has to light it.

A country house like Downton Abbey was more like a hotel than a house. The family were constantly entertaining guests. Also, there were no supermarkets. Food was raised or grown on the "home farm" or in kitchen gardens, and cooked in the kitchens. A huge staff of servants was necessary. Before self-consuming wicks and whale-oil lamps servants were constantly on hand to "snuff" the candles (to trim the wicks). Candles were of course the only source of light. Likewise, open fires were the only source of heat, and it was the servants' job to carry the fuel, lay the fires, keep them lit, and clean the grate.

Women would ask a male guest to ring for the servant to put coal on the fire. Because SHE couldn’t do it, and HE couldn’t do it, and it was so kind of him to save her the trouble of pulling a bell pull… (OK, the coal might have dirtied her hands or clothes). In George Gissing's New Grub Street, Marian is embarrassed when Milvain puts coal on the fire - these shabby genteel characters are still trying to live as if they were middle class. (She is also mortified because she knows her father has deliberately let the fire die down to save fuel.)

"He took the tongs and carefully disposed small pieces of coal upon the glow that remained. Marian stood apart with a feeling of shame and annoyance. But... after all this vulgar necessity made the beginning of the conversation easier." George Gissing, New Grub Street

When hot water for a bath was heated in the kitchen and brought up to your bedroom by hand, a servant carried it. If you needed a servant, you rang a bell - for instance, to conduct a visitor through mazes of passages from your sitting room to the front door.

"Don't ring - I'll let myself out." (Enter a Murderer, Ngaio Marsh)

This detective story was written in the 30s. The speaker, Nigel, is visiting his friend, Felix, in his small flat. But Felix still rings for his manservant to show Nigel out (the few steps to the front door - Nigel can hardly get lost. In this era, too, menservants and maids prepared a bath for their masters and mistresses - by turning on a tap. Lift boys pressed lift buttons. When did it occur to people that they could see out their own visitors, run their own baths and operate their own lifts?

Monday, 10 March 2014

Social Life in the 30s Suburbs

In the olden days, when you couldn't talk to anyone to whom you had not been introduced, how did you meet a partner? If you were lucky enough to live in the suburbs, you joined a club.

According to the Woman's Own Book of the Home, 1932:

"It is understood that fellow-members of a club are on speaking terms without an introduction, though introductions pave the way more swiftly to friendly intercourse. Thus a new member would be correct in exchanging a smile or word of greeting or a chance remark with any member in the club, though not personally known to her, but without an introduction she should not presume upon the fact that they are fellow-members.

One cannot, however, lay down any hard an fast rule concerning this matter, as custom varies in different clubs, so it is for the new member to discover for herself what is usual in her own club, but whether she has been introduced or not she should refrain from going up to any members who are conversing together and joining without waiting for any invitation to do so; in fact, a newcomer should not upon any occasion be too forward in making friendly overtures, that being the recognized prerogative of older members.

Visitors: Each club member is responsible for the conduct and moral character of any visitors she invites to the club, a point to be considered carefully when giving invitations...

All club accounts, such as dining, card-room, lecture, dance and other entertainment, or games fees or scores should be settled promptly."

That gives you some idea of what went on in these clubs. I expect you had to be put up for membership by one or two other members. The advice continues: don't borrow money from other members, ask them for free advice, or expect them to help you into a job. In mixed clubs "men and women meet on equal terms of good comradeship" and should not be "indiscreet". Furthermore, "ladies should rigidly obey any rules restricting their use of smoking, card or billiard-rooms, never invading any which may be intended for masculine members only".

More on how to get on and get off in the 30s.

Living in Style

Anaglypta dado
After the retro look? Try one of these.

1850s Plate-glass windows muffled in several layers of drapery: blinds, nets, lined curtains. The view was further blocked by potted plants and glass cases full of rare ferns.

1890s Clutter, clutter, clutter, occasional tables, draped shelves, triple window drapes, bobble fringes, draped brackets (but not piano legs), ornaments, pictures, flowery wallpaper, flowery carpet, dust, portières, draught excluders. Potted palms in jardinieres on stands, plaster alsatians, twig effect picture frames, marbled glass lampshades and anaglypta dados painted glossy brown. (Anaglypta was a kind of wipe-clean embossed wallpaper, and a dado is a decorative strip running round the walls to about waist height. You can still get anaglypta in many patterns, including one that looks like swirly Artex.)

00s and 10s: Arts and Crafts peasant style (a bit like shabby chic now). Trees in pots, checkerboard patterns, women in rational dress. Stencils. Painted pottery, barge-painting. Green, blue, red. External wood painted white.

00s and beyond Internal woodwork painted brown because it’s – wood colour. External wood painted dark brown, burgundy, forest green, Kelly green or white. Rooms edited a la William Morris, leaving a few items of oak furniture, blue-and-white plates, books, flowers. Pewter tankards, copper trays. Dark panelled halls and staircases. Books bound in limp purple suede.

20s Primrose and black, all-white interiors with books bound in white vellum. “He had rented the week-end residence of some spinster of moderate means and ghastly good taste… copper warming-pans, ships in bottles… and comfy cretonne-covered armchairs.” Arthur Calder-Marshall, The Magic of My Youth (The copper warming pans were a hangover from the late 19th century.)

Art Deco furniture

30s Heavy Jacobethan furniture and panelling gets everywhere and the middle classes desert it for Art Deco. The Arts and Crafts style fizzles out into a Ye Olde look with a lot of natural wood, brass and copper, especially fire screens/leather folders for the Radio Times with an embossed brass Viking ship (or galleon – anything with square sails). Linen cushions embroidered with crinoline ladies in cottage gardens with hollyhocks. Pewter tankards, pewter everything. Also traycloths.  Pictures of coaching inns and people in Regency dress. Nobody wants this stuff now when it turns up in junk shops. Jacobean crewel embroidery becomes a pattern on wallpaper, chintz and cretonne; or in jazzy colours lives on in Cubist pottery and cushion covers. Pale green walls. Kitchens painted pale green and primrose yellow. Cotman watercolours became fashionable, and watercolours of winding paths through bluebell woods.

40s In the States, there's a style of modernist cosy – heavy square “davenports” in anonymous new flats. Also a desert style with geometric carpets, unglazed pottery and ceramic donkeys. In the UK, utility furniture. Postwar, Cézanne is popular after various exhibitions, and pottery inspired by Picasso’s worst efforts.