Thursday, 26 January 2017

Lagging Behind

This blog is really about how the way we live now grew out of the way we lived then. The future doesn't arrive all at once: there are odd pockets that fail to keep up with the march of progress and are always lagging behind.

Pub opening and closing times (introduced in World War One) fitted contemporary work start and end times (sometimes 8am to 4pm), as did last tube and last bus times. When we started work later and left later, these were slow to catch up.

Some letter-writers don’t seal post because they think it’s cheaper to send unsealed envelopes. Not true since 1969 and the introduction of 1st and 2nd class post.

Treasury tags resembled tiny green shoelaces and were used in old-fashioned filing systems. They lived on in office drawers long after becoming pointless.

People are still using (and buying, and supplying in cafes and restaurants) teaspoons and jam spoons that are too short for the tall glass coffee cup, or the jampot. What they need are long “parfait” spoons, designed for eating ice cream from one of those tall glasses.

Most Essex/Cardiff girls get breast implants, but clothes manufacturers haven't caught up. They’re still using measurements taken immediately after the war, in the 50s, when food had been rationed for 10 years. And the average unaltered English woman has hips that are two inches wider than her bust. Another side effect of better nutrition is that people are now taller – again, manufacturers pay no attention. So the girls at Aintree Ladies' Day wear dresses strained over the bust, with a waist that’s too high and a skirt that’s too short.

New, groovy craft books recycle the same old patterns for – tumbler cosies? Wine bottle cosies? Did anyone ever a) make them or b) use them? (They might have gone with the raffia placemat aesthetic of the early 60s.) Also unwearable slippers (slippery), knitted summer tops and dresses (hot).

Why did anyone object to “illegitimate” children if they didn’t think unmarried sex was a mortal sin, and the laws had been changed so that you could legitimize a child?

It makes sense to ban contraception when you need cannon and factory fodder. But the idea that contraception was somehow sinful continued after these were no longer needed, and we worried about overpopulation. Some doctors would only prescribe the pill for married women. And in the 70s some women having abortions were pressured to be sterilised at the same time, or have an IUD.

Prom dresses are copied from ball gowns designed for ballroom dancing, but girls wear them to “bop”. They have looked silly for 40 years.

When will social etiquette catch up with idiots who blare songs/videos on their phones in restaurants already playing music? (@andybud_o New technology always takes some time to develop its own code of manners.)

Toner was intended to clean off greasy cleansers, like cold cream, in the days when women were convinced by beauty pundits that soap was too "drying", and at the same time their faces were being destroyed by ingrained dirt (more likely before the Clean Air Act). So toner went out of style. But toners are back, says the Times March 2015: “The toners that we used to know were harsh, aggressive and dried out your skin. Now they are designed to soothe, hydrate and calm.” Old versions of revived products were always “harsh”. (Women's products are always sold as “gentle and kind”.)

There’s a lingering feeling that doctors need something to give patients to “keep them happy”. If they can’t refer to homeopaths, what can they do? Before regulation, they handed out useless “tonics”, or prescribed rest cures – perhaps we should bring these back.

Historian Quentin Bell pointed out that because of the lag between design and construction, buildings “with bobbed hair, cloche hats and short skirts” were being finished when women’s fashions had moved on to curls, frills and drapery.

We went on making steamed puddings long after we’d ceased to cook over open fires in a cauldron (when boiling a pudding in a cloth made sense). And they were recommended in WWII, when we were also urged to save fuel.

Men’s shirt pockets still fit cigarette packets, not mobile phones (and why do women’s tops have a tiny useless pocket?)

Elastic was in short supply during WWII, hence all those instructions to cut up old rubber gloves and hot water bottles to make elastic bands, which persisted long after the need for them had gone. We were still being told to wash rice and lentils in the 70s, when they came in packets. My mother used to save the wrappers from butter and margarine to grease pans for baking long after vegetable oil became available, and butter and marge were no longer rationed. We were also told to grease pie dishes because that was how you stopped the pudding sticking to the sides of a pudding basin – but pointless when you're making a casserole.

Continuing to lay a table cloth on a deal kitchen table, or one with a plasticised surface. Converse: marking your polished wood table because you don’t realise that you need a woollen cloth, covered with a linen cloth, and place mats.

Insisting on shallow, tepid baths even though you now have constant hot and cold running water. (And only three times a week.)

An older person pointed out c. 1970 that girls were wearing long, floaty, old-fashioned, feminine dresses – with the big clumpy platform shoes that went with mini-dresses. And it looked all wrong. She was right.

We still talk about “bed linen” even though it’s made of cotton, and used to refer to “under-linen”. We still “tape” when we record, and refer to recordings as “tapes”. Well, you can’t get “sex recording” into a headline. We still “film” things (“videoing” is awkward).

Newspapers called the Something Herald or Bugle. When was news last announced by a herald with a bugle?

Sitting with your back to the engine (or facing) on trains was relevant when carriages were open, and if you faced the engine you might get a face full of ashes, sparks and cinders. It continued as a superstition that some people felt sick unless they “faced the engine” or vice versa.

Gas lighting used up oxygen and people began to stifle, so keeping one window open even in winter was a good idea.

Tomato pincushions still have an emery-filled strawberry attached for de-rusting your needles. Modern stainless steel pins and needles don’t go rusty or oxidised.

Enamel hot water jugs and galvanised iron baths lived on in houses after we all acquired indoor plumbing. They were just repurposed: the baths ended up in the garden, full of earth and plants (as now with Belfast sinks). Or else they were used as drinking troughs for animals. The enamel jugs became flower vases. Some tin hot water jugs became watering cans (enamelled and  painted). (And cattle drinking troughs in cities are now full of plants.)

Brushing your hair 100 times a day keeps it glossy, we're told. It's a relic of the days when Victorian women had waist-length hair. The (soft) brush distributed the oil from the top to the end and probably did make your hair smooth and glossy. Detangling was done with a comb. But there's no need to brush short hair 100 times.

Early Man threw precious objects into bogs from 10,000BC. We still throw coins into water, and tie rags and more onto sacred trees.

Hats and gloves for formal wear lasted into the 50s. Originally the gloves kept your hands clean – and the veil on your hat kept your face clean and protected it from the sun.

Why do some people STILL refer to utility companies as 'boards' 30 years after the shackles of nationalisation were cut away? (‏@davidkingmozart)

The menservants who worked in large and lavish households were still made to wear powder, and grand footmen looked like extras from Cinderella right up to the Second World War. (If Walls Could Talk: An intimate history of the home, Lucy Worsley)

And isn't it time for lawyers to junk those stupid wigs?

Picture by John Leech.

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