Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Phyllis Brooks Schafer: What We Didn't Have Back in "the Old Days"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I must say a big thank you to British-born Blitz-survivor Phyllis Brooks Schafer, who has been kind enough to read my manuscripts and share her knowledge and experience of World War II Britain. (I remember specifically when I had the radio program "It's That Man Again" on at a particular day of the week and time — and Phyllis corrected me: "No! It was on on Mondays at 8:30!")

Phyllis is a friend of my college thesis advisor Susan Meyer (who also wrote  a novels, hers for children called BLACK RADISHES, set during World War II) and we met through Susan on Facebook. 

Phyllis and I became friends and we met in person in the Bay Area last year, where I was introduced to her two lovely cats and had a delightful tour of Berkeley, where she lives and works.

Today Phyllis shares with us details about growing up in England during the war.

PHYLLIS BROOKS SCHAFER: The world changes. 

Pre-1948 was a different world, defined for me in many ways by the things I didn’t have rather than those I did have. Life in England was more “primitive” than that I met in the U.S. when we arrived in Seattle at the end of 1948, but many of the things I didn’t have in England were also rare in poorer families in the U.S. at that time. Remember this reflects my roots – in a working class family with next-to-no disposable income, but the “No”s I list were common to large parts of the population beyond my immediate class limits. And of course this list would be as shocking to people under the age of 60 in England today as it is to those living in Berkeley.

What did not form part of my personal life?

No plastic – Oh, the occasional bakelite bangle or drawer knob, or a fragile celluloid floating duck. But none of the common plastics we live among now. None. No plastic wrap, no plastic bowls, no plastic bags, no sheet plastic to substitute for glass in picture frames, no plastic toys, no plastic pieces for games. Mah jongg tiles and dominos were made of ivory. Checkers were made of wood. No plastic table cloths. No plastic cases for typewriters, radios, clocks. No plastic typewriter keys. Instead ceramics, glass, wood, metal, rubber.

No television – I have a dim memory of seeing a small postcard-size TV screen with programing when I was about 6, but BBC TV went off the air in 1939 and did not return until about 1947. (When I first came to Seattle in 1948, TV transmission was just beginning there.) Instead of watching TV we listened to the radio, with its choices of plays, children’s programs, music, etc. The BBC, and no commercial channels. There only two BBC stations until 1947, and all tastes were catered to at various times through those two outlets, with everything from pop music to opera, from comedy to talks (more like lectures) on serious scientific subjects. We learned the hours when the things we liked to listen to were on, and the entire nation went quiet around the time of especially popular comedy shows. And there was reading, reading, reading. Mostly from the public library, but the local newspaper store ran a little lending library – books could be rented for a penny or two a day, mostly mysteries and romances.

No central heating – We heated the living room of our small house with a coal fire, and in the two bedrooms upstairs we had the ultimate in modernity – electrical heaters in the wall. Yes, the house could get cold. That’s why God made sweaters! And we folded a blanket to keep out the draft that whistled in under our front door when the winter wind was in certain directions.

No checksFor working class people, it was a cash economy. My father received his pay in cash, in a pay packet, once a week. (Still much the same in Japan!) Savings were not usually in a bank, but rather in a post office savings account. There was no bank in our community – one had to go into town for a bank. By the time checking accounts started to come in, it was usually the man of the house who wrote them. I had to teach my mother how to write a check when she divorced my father in her late 50s in Pasadena.

No bills coming in the mail – The rent man came round once a week to collect the rent and write down the receipt in the rent book. The electricity and gas men came round every few weeks to empty the meters inside the house, meters we fed with coins to continue the supply of power. The milkman brought his account book with him and collected payment about once a week. Same for the newspaper delivery man. The coal man had to be paid at the time of delivery. No money, no coal, no heat.

Almost no synthetic fabrics – Shirts, blouses, etc., were made of cotton, and outer clothing of wool. Silk or linen was beyond the means of the average person. Nylon stockings came in during the war years with the Americans stationed in England – the best present a girl could get from her Yank boy friend. Otherwise stockings were either expensive silk, or made of a kind of cotton knit called lisle. There was some rayon for dresses and underwear, but it was not common. At the end of the war, surplus parachutes were briefly much in demand: they were white nylon and made good wedding dresses (though there was a rumor that nylon should not be worn when you were having a photo taken - you would appear naked in the resulting pictures).

Almost no electrical appliances – We had only two electrical outlets in our little living/dining  room. None in our “front room” or the bedrooms, bathroom, etc.  We had an electric iron and a radio. Period. When my mother or I ironed, we could listen to the radio. There was no electrical outlet in the kitchen. No electric clocks. Alarm clocks, in their metal cases with a bell on top, had to be wound up each night. The big clock in the living room was an eight-day clock, and my father ritually rewound it every Saturday morning. No toaster. No electric kettle, no electric mixer or blender. And, of course, no microwave. Bread was either toasted at the fireside – a long handled toasting fork let you hold a slice close to a glowing coal till it was brown, and then you had to turn it over and toast the other side – or under the small grill on the gas cooking stove.

No refrigeration – Not even an ice box. Ice was something you broke on ponds and puddles, or slid on in the streets. I didn’t see ice cubes or block ice until I came to the U.S. To keep milk from souring in the summer, we stood the bottles in a bowl of water in the empty fireplace and draped a cloth over it to absorb water and cool as it evaporated. We shopped every day for meat, cheese, etc. – just enough for that day’s meals – so we had very few leftovers. In any case there was no aluminum foil, no waxed paper, no plastic film to wrap and cover leftovers – but there was cooking parchment to line cake tins for making fruit cakes.

No washing machineMy mother boiled clothes in a large metal container (called a “copper”) that lived under the wooden draining board beside the kitchen sink. It had a gas heating unit to bring the water up to the right temperature. She stirred the clothes with a wooden stick, and pulled them out to scrub them in the kitchen sink on a ridged scrubbing board. Buckets held washed clothes as she rinsed them, once again in the sink, in cold water. We did not have a wringer, so she wrung out everything by hand – including the sheets. (Our neighbor did have a wooden wringer turned by a big handle, but my mother was too proud to ask to use it.)

No dryer – The washed clothes had to be carried outside and pinned up onto the washing line that was then raised up into the air with a heavy wooden prop with a Y-shaped end. If we were lucky, the clothes dried before it started raining again. Otherwise we had to carry things inside to dry on racks in the tiny living room. In winter the sheets and clothes froze hard as boards. We had to be careful taking them down – they could actually break. But freezing and thawing did get rid of a lot of moisture. The smell of clothes taken down from the line on a warm summer day was wonderful. I remember burying my head in the sheets just for the joy of smelling them.

No vacuum cleaner – But then nobody we knew had fitted carpets. Rather the floors were wood or covered with linoleum, with area rugs on them. We carried the rugs outside, hung them over the washing line, propped them up higher, and then beat them with a carpet beater until the dust no longer came out of them. The carpet on the stairs to the second story was a long runner held in place by metal rods that could be slipped out of their holders. Periodically we removed the rods and carried the whole runner outside for the ritual beating.

No restaurant meals – Well, very, very rarely we might have a snack in a café (or, as adults, in a pub) while shopping in town. Even before the second world war, with its stringent food rationing, meals in restaurants, even of the most modest sort, were not part of working class life. I never sat down to a dinner in a restaurant with a table cloth and a menu until I came to Seattle. The only takeaway foods were fish and chips (bought from the fish shop on the nights when they were open and frying, and wrapped in newspaper to bring home for consumption) or pork pies and slices cut for each customer individually from a big, bone-in ham, which some butchers had for sale. In bigger towns or in the cities, there were often stands or carts on the street – something like the taco trucks on International Boulevard in Oakland – selling sausage and mash, or the Cockneys’ favorite winkles, little cooked sea snails that one picked out of their shells with a pin and dipped into vinegar, to be eaten standing up or on a nearby park bench. The only big treat meal eaten out by working class people with some pretensions to good taste was the occasional tea, usually in a dainty little tearoom: pots of tea, with little sandwiches, cakes, and, in summer, strawberries with clotted cream – only a fond memory for much of my life until the post-war austerity began to lift slightly.

No private telephones – In the small community where I lived, only the doctor had a phone. Maybe to call an ambulance if one was needed? There was no one local to call him. If he was needed, someone ran down to his house-cum-office to get him or to leave a note. The local policeman also had a phone, in the police station office inside his house – but that was half a mile away. There was one public telephone box at our nearby string of small shops, the bright red British telephone box with the glass paneled sides like the model that you see in “Doctor Who.” And those were all the phones I can remember in my immediate environment. I never made a phone call till I came to the U.S. Once I was going to high school I got to know a few people who had phones, people who lived in the local town. But they were all people whose parents (usually the fathers) needed a phone for work purposes. We wrote letters or walked over to talk directly to the people we needed to see.

No out-of-season vegetables and fruits – For six years the war made merchant shipping a dangerous endeavor used only for essential supplies (so no bananas), but even before the war items like fresh pineapples or asparagus were available only in London or other big cities and bought by professionals and other upper-class people. Our treats – pineapple and the like – came in cans, and those had only started to come back more commonly on the market by the time I left England in 1948. But we did have the joy of seasonal fruits and vegetables appearing in the shops as the year wore round. Too many potatoes, carrots, cabbages, rutabagas, and brussels sprouts – but always apples – during the winter. And then late spring: strawberries, cherries, tomatoes, green peas, green beans, new potatoes – each sweet and delicious.

No supermarkets as we know them. Even if you registered to buy certain rations at Sainsbury’s (groceries, meats, dairy), you could not buy there things like cleaning supplies, or soap, or the hundred other things we expect to pick up in our local Safeway store (or Tesco, etc., in England).
I’m quitting here – though things that people like us didn’t have keep coming to mind: no gears on bicycles, no Christmas trees, no credit cards, no yogurt, no typewriters, no pasta (except for canned spaghetti) – not start talking about things like computers!

And then there were the things that we had, but that we owned only one of – Where are the scissors? I need the sharp knife. Who hid the screw driver? That’s another story.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: And so, Reds and lovely readers, what do you think of Phyllis's list? Where did you grow up and in what decade? What do you remember having and not having? Tell us in the comments!


Joan Emerson said...

Wow . . . what an amazing look back. And I love the pictures!
I remember hanging laundry on the line; we had a washer and a dryer, but everything smelled so fresh, so nice when it was dried on the clothesline in the fresh air. Does anyone still hang laundry?
I remember listening to news on the radio, but not to other shows. I wasn’t very old, eight or nine maybe when we first got a television . . . .
We never ate out much, either . . . I think we had a mixer in the kitchen, but no coffee maker [my personal technological joy] . . . in the winter, when we came home from school, if the furnace wasn’t working [again], my mom would be in the kitchen baking bread. To this day, there is nothing like bread, warm from the oven, with butter melting into it.
I remember party line telephones . . . rotary dial phones . . . and books. There were, thank goodness, always books.

Mark Baker said...

It's always good to be reminded just how spoiled we are today versus even not that long ago.

I grew up in the 80's, so the list of things I didn't have then is much less, although digital cameras and computers and cell phones were the things of science fiction. Well, some people had computers, but they weren't at all like we have today.

Thanks for the reminder about how truly spoiled we are.

Ellen Kozak said...

What a wonderful, wonderful essay, just fascinating. Where DID one buy soap and toilet paper? (I know one bought things like talcum powder in drug stores and at Woolworth's in this contry).

England had fewer things because of the War, but I was born at the tail end of WWII there were also certain limitations in the US. My grandmother went down to the basement and shoveled coal into the furnace every morning. She used the coal ash on the ice on the sidewalk; there were large wooden bins on street corners marked "Sand for icy streets" and instead of the garbage trucks spreading salt on the streets, motorists stopped, lifted the cover, took out the short shovel and threw sand on any icy patches they saw.

As an adult, I've lived in several older houses that still had one-foot-high, two-burner gas heaters in the basement for boiling clothes, but in the late Forties, my mother and grandmother both used wringer washers and those long wooden poles. My grandmother's house did not have hot water (though ours did); she boiled a large kettle on the stove and carried it to the sink to wash dishes in an enamel pan (and we used those enamel pans to wash dishes in cooking class in junior high, although by then my mom had a divided enamel sink with hot water, and an automatic clothes washing machine and dryer-- but no dishwasher).

I still hang my clothes outside to dry, which is permitted in my suburban village, but there are some communities where it is illegal (how silly, and how environmentally backward). In winter, I hang them in the basement (I have a dryer, but almost never use it; clothes hung on plastic hangers don't require fabric softener to dry without wrinkles).

There were three places to go out to eat when I was growing up: the drugstore counter for ice cream sodas and sundaes, the Woolworth's counter for grilled cheese sandwiches, BLTs, hot dogs, or hamburgers (with a malted milk accompaniment), and the Chinese restaurant, which served only Cantonese food (my favorites were Extra Fine chop suey and egg foo yung). My father would bring Chinese food home some nights (there was a Chinese restaurant near his office). It must have come in paper cartons, but I don't remember. I never saw a pizza until I was about twelve, which is also around when the first local McDonald's, with its 15 cent hamburgers, opened.

When I was sick and stayed home from school (we got all the childhood disease that they inoculate for now-- chicken pox, measles, German measles, scarlet fever, mumps-- I would listen to soap operas on the radio: "The Romance of Helen Trent," or "Like sands through the hourglass are the Days of Our Lives." And comedy shows. And kids' shows on Saturdays ("Who was that masked man?") and the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons.

There was a carpet sweeper before there was a vacuum cleaner, and my grandmother had a candlestick phone that had no dial (we had a dial phone). You picked it up and the operator came on, and you told her what number you wanted. And sometimes when you picked it up, someone else was using the party line, so you had to wait for their call to be over.

We moved into a newly built house when I was six, and my mother put up polished cotton curtains in a hideous chartreuse print in my room. Much later, I asked her why she'd chosen that awful print, and she said that there were very few patterns available-- that in 1950, there were still post-war limitations. Who knew?

Oh, yes, one more thing: when I first lived in an apartment with a shared kitchen, my senior year in college, I had a glass percolator in which I made coffee. Watching water percolate through one of those is mesmerizing.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

It's astonishing to think back on how much has changed! And what a gift Susan, to have such a reader who can catch mistakes before the world sees them.

Thanks for introducing us to Phyllis!

Karen in Ohio said...

This post is making me feel my age!

In about 1990, I wrote an essay to submit to the local weekly community paper. They were looking for a replacement columnist for their "home" writer, who was retiring. One of the points I made was how much simpler life was in the 50's. Just keeping track of the stuff we own now is a fulltime job, and way more complicated than it was in 1990, too.

We had milk, groceries, and bread delivered. In early summer my mother would order strawberry milk, which had seeds from the fresh strawberries in the bottom of the glass bottle. I can still taste it! And in the winter the milk had to be brought in quickly, or the bottles would freeze and the glass would break. That was an occasion for crying over spilt milk, for sure. My dad drove a bread truck for awhile.

Stuff we didn't deal with then: passwords I don't think I need say anything more about that.

Clothing management was different. Yes, we had to work a lot harder to get clothes clean then (my mother had a wringer washer, and we hung laundry to dry), but we didn't have nearly as many clothes then, they were too expensive back in the day. We had enough outfits for, at most, ten days of wearing, plus "church" or "good" outfits. Ditto for shoes: School or casual, church, and play or gardening, and a pair of boots. Period. My mother had a couple more pair of pumps, and all the family shoes got lined up for polishing once a week. I had to keep my tennis shoes white, with shoe polish, when I was a waitress in high school.

Today, clothing is very cheap in comparison, since almost nothing is made here in the US, including very high-end garments. And if you tried to wash it in a wringer washer it would fall apart on you.

I'm really grateful for much lighter vacuum cleaners that don't have those nasty cloth bags that had to be emptied, although the old kind were probably much more environmentally friendly.

Hardly anyone had more than one car; we did not even have one car for most of my childhood, and my mother did not learn to drive until I was in my mid-20's and she remarried. Even in our little town there was excellent bus service, which is not true in most small, and even medium, towns today.

FChurch said...

Thank you so much, Phyllis, and Susan, for this remarkable look back. My parents grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression, so much of what Phyllis shares resonates with stories my parents shared. After WWII, my father, restless and unable to settle, moved my mom and oldest sibling back and forth between the hills of Kentucky and northern Ohio several times until my mom finally put her foot down and said no more. I say I'm glad the foot was in Ohio--much as I loved going to my grandparents' farm, Ohio had better jobs, better schools, better medical care.

Even then, we had a coal furnace (you would race your siblings to stand over the heating registers early morning before the house warmed up), a wringer washer, a coffee percolator, a gas stove and dryer--although clothes were hung outside to dry most of the time. A huge vegetable garden for fresh produce and canning for the winter months. We raised our own beef cattle and hogs for meat--the meat was stored in a rented meat locker at the local grocers.

Today I still prefer to hang my clothes out to dry--I'm lucky to live where it's not against some silly ordinance.

Kathy Lynn Emerson said...

I still hang my clothes up to dry. I don't even own a clothes dryer (or a dishwasher). Love the photo of drawing lines on legs to simulate stocking seams. My mother spent the war traveling the U.S. demonstrating cosmetics women could substitute for those no longer available. It was considered important to look good to keep up morale at home, even when so many of the husbands were overseas.


Deb Romano said...


Thanks for sharing your memories! I was born not all that long after you came to the US. Some of what you mentioned was gone by the time I was old enough to remember, but we did experience some of the other things you mentioned. Some of them: we had a wringer washing machine in the kitchen of our apartment, and we had to hang the clothes out to dry. In bad weather, we had one of those wooden clothes drying thingies that got set up in the bathtub. I think my dad got paid in a money envelope but can't remember for sure. When I was old enough, it was sometimes my job to walk the rent money over to The Office, which was the Housing Authority office for the housing project where we lived. We did not have a party line but my grandparents did.

Because my dad was a sucker for any sort of new technology, we sometimes had newer versions of appliances, etc, which my parents made great financial sacrifices to purchase. Ours was the first household with a TV, and many people did not have one until many years later. It surprised me in recent years to find out how many of my contemporaries remember when their parents purchased the first TV. Mine bought ours either when I was an infant or just before I was born, at the end of the forties.

When I was a child it was exciting to go to Woolworth's or a drugstore with Mom or Dad and get lunch at a lunch counter. It rarely happened, with five small children in the house, so it was usually just one of us, most likely on the way home from going to the doctor. I still vividly remember going out one Saturday night with my dad to pick up ice cream cones at a drugstore a couple of miles away. The chocolate (of course it was chocolate) ice cream was DARK and so delicious! Normally, ice cream was a treat for birthdays and holidays. On long drives on summer Sundays (the only kind of vacations my parents could afford) we would either bring our own food and find a place for a picnic or we'd look for a hotdog stand.

I don't think the first fast food restaurant opened up in our town until around 1975. In that year I drove out to the Midwest with some friends to attend a conference, and we were delighted to find a Burger King where we could buy a cheap meal, instead of having to go to a restaurant or a diner! Later that year, a Burger King opened not far from my neighborhood. I don't remember when McDonald's made it to our town.

During World War II my mom saved up her money to buy nylon stockings. The first time she wore them to work she was running to catch the bus, and tripped and fell. That was the end of nylons for her for a very long time!

And on this election day it seems weird to say I remember when we used to vote in booths! My state returned to paper ballots a few years ago, something that I still can't get used to.

Reine said...

My father was one of those merchant mariners during the war. He left his high school class with a few other boys to join the war effort in the North Atlantic before the US was officially at war. They joined a British convoy at Loch Ewe in Scotland and shipped supplies through a northern route in Russia. Their ship was torpedoed twice and they were stuck in Murmansk where they took turns shooting at German planes with the one gun they had mounted on deck.

After the war he married my mother and planted tomatoes which is what we ate mostly for a few years. Tomatoes and spaghetti. Tomatoes and barley. Corn in the fall. Apples from a neighbor. An entire New England winter with no heat. Peas in the spring. Then string beans.

There were no pensions for the boys who went when asked to help before the States were in the fight. They are remembered each year in Scotland and Russia by other governments. He doesn't even rate a grave marker here. Not even a little flag on veterans day.

Hallie Ephron said...

... and most women didn't have jobs outside the home, which is how come they managed.

What astonishes me is that my mother, who was a screenwriter even before electric typewriters and Xerox machines or white-out, typed screenplays on a manual typewriter with 3 copysets. (She had household help.)

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Good morning, everyone! Yes, I'm truly blessed to have met Phyllis and have her read my manuscripts. She is an inspiration.

Phyllis lives in Berkeley, CA, so will be jointing us a bit later.....

James Montgomery Jackson said...

As a child (and math geek wannabe) I was fascinated by my grandfather's Monroe mechanical calculator. He was an accountant so had this device, which was larger than a typewriter and made a wonderfully seductive racket while it performed addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

The rest of the world did their calculations using pen/pencil and paper or (gasp) in their heads.

~ Jim

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, this is bringing me to tears. Thank you. And I am now counting blessings.

Yes, Mark--so spoiled! The other day the battery in my toothbrush ran out, and I had a moment of thinking--oh NO! What do I do?

Thank you Phyllis!

Mary Sutton said...

Like Mark, I'm a child of the 80s. My list is rather meager compared to this. But I do remember my grandmother, a Depression-era child, talking about all the things that simply weren't avaiable - and things she'd never eat again (Caro corn syrup - wouldn't touch the stuff).

I think I'd manage without most of the items on the list except central heating. Yeah, we have a wood stove and we've used it to heat our house when we have a power outage (no electricity, no boiler pump), but man, I do appreciate a nice warm radiator on cold nights!

Debi Huff said...

W-O-W!! I feel like I was just transported to that place in history!! Thank you all for sharing. I was born right after the war so some of these things I only know of from reading. I am so grateful for those who have gone before me and paved the way!! And only you, Hank, would wonder what to do when the battery on your toothbrush ran out!!! LOL!!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Like Mark and Mary, I grew up in the 70s and 80s. What's really changed for us is communication (rotary phones to phones with answering machines to cordless phones, to various incarnations of cell phones) and media — I love freaking my son out with stories of how we had only three channels and they'd all go off at midnight. And you had to GET UP to change the channel!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I too grew up in the 70's and 80's but my parents grew up during the depression and my father still had that mentality. Our pantry upstate was stocked with canned goods 'just in case.' I remember how amazing it was when cable was first came into being in the 1970's, and then MTV. I also remember only having 3 major channels, 4 if you counted PBS, and then the syndicated stations like WPIX, WWOR-TV, and Channel 5 which was the only other station my grandmother watched besides CBS (She had to watch Lawrence Welk on Sunday). My mother lived long enough to have a microwave, but missed out on cellular phones.

Karen in Ohio said...

Jim, in my first job after high school I worked for Mosler Safe, in one of their plants, as the clerk for the Time Study department. My only tool for doing all the calculations of the time studies was a comptometer, which is what your grandfather used. (Had to be; it was the only thing there was.) It took up half my desk space, and was incredibly and satisfyingly noisy to use. :-)

Anonymous said...

This certainly makes me think of my childhood, my parents' stories and my grandparents. I learned to sew on my grandmother's treadle sewing machine. Bedrooms were unheated - ahhhh - the luxury of central heat and a/c ! Rationing during WWII - wouldn't people just have fits if that were to happen now? Fresh produce no matter what the season these day - when I was little available produce was whatever was in season or had a long "shelf life".

Margaret Turkevich said...

thank you Phyllis! Thinking of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road and remembering my mother's stories about World War II rationing. I've line-dried my sheets in the sun for years; the fragrance is unsurpassed.

Rhys Bowen said...

Thank you, Phyllis! I grew up in the post war years in England and my experiences were pretty much the same. I remember the first supermarket coming in the late 50s. I remember our first washing machine, first fridge.
And I don't think people realize that food was rationed right into the 1950s. Life was quite austere.
We lived in a big old house with no central heating. A large fireplace in the drawing room but no heat at all in my bedroom on the third floor. Sooo cold.
And people in England still line dry their sheets--from preference. I wish Arizonans would follow suit. All that wasted sun!

Ramona said...

Lovely memories, almost like a different world. A cash economy and ritual rug beatings.

I am astounded by the amount of relentless hard work women put into everyday life. And I'm just thinking about laundry.

Kathy Reel said...

Phyllis, thank you so much for sharing your fascinating memories of that time with us. We have so much these days to make our lives easier, falling into complacency about what are still luxuries to so many people in the world. I'm betting that everyone in your family was expected to pitch in and did so without a lot of grumbling.

I had older parents, with my father having been born in 1901 and my mother in 1910. I was born in 1954, so by the time I came along, my parents were I'm sure in their eyes living a life of convenience. I wish I'd realized what a wealth of information they both were and questioned them more about their growing up and years before I was born. I know that my father went from driving a horse and buggy into town to driving a car. He and his mother were in a buggy that overturned once, so he saw enormous changes. I remember my mother talking about putting butter and milk in the well to keep them cold and snow drifting in cracks in a window onto her bed at night. Her experiences in washing diapers, starting in 1944, was something nightmarish to hear about, too, although she was never complaining about it, just telling it like it was.

Growing up in the fifties and sixties and a bit in the seventies allowed me to see some changes, too. As a kid, I have fond memories of the sheets blowing in the breeze on the line, probably fonder memories than my mother had of putting them there and taking them down. There was the Christmas that my parents surprised my siblings and me with a large console television and a console stereo. We were living large then for sure. We watched TV as a family with only one set in the house. My mother fixed sloppy joes, hamburgers, fried ham and bologna for lunch meals. No going out to fast food joints. Big evening meals with meat, potatoes, and veggies. There was that nifty invention of frozen dinners that we did occasionally partake of, after all it was all the rage. Didn't have color TV until I met my future husband at college in 1976, and as his father had retail stores that sold them, my parents finally purchased one. My husband is also responsible for my mother finally starting to use a dishwasher. She just didn't believe that they cleaned as well, and she still washed dishes off before she put them in the machine. Oh, and growing up with one phone, rotary dial on a phone stand. I still have that phone stand and sitting stool.

Susan, I'm so glad that you brought Phyllis to us today, such an eye opening account. It must be wonderful to have her as your guiding light in accuracy for the WWII time period.

Kathy Reel said...

Oh, I forgot one of my favorite memories of growing up in the fifties and sixties. It was having milk and other dairy goods delivered to our door and put in the silver tin box outside the front door. My mother would write out an order of what she wanted and place it in one of the empty milk bottles for the milkman to see. It was a red letter day indeed when she included chocolate milk in the order. I remember cottage cheese usually being on the list, too. I sure wish that I had that old tin box still. I do have a couple of old milk bottles.

Phyllis Brooks Schafer said...

Actually women did work. My mother was drafted to work half a day in a former Electrolux factor converted to the production of depth charges. And there was no bus to the factory from where we lived. She walked the mile and a half to the factory, worked her 4 hours (part-time because she had a child), and then a mile and a half back.

Ellen Kozak said...

No need for a gym membership if you walked a mile to work or shop, or wrung out laundry and hung it on the line!

I was just remembering the milk that the milkman left on the back stoop early in the morning when I was in grade school. It was not homogenized so you had to shake it up before using it, or you could pour off the cream and use that separately.

And if it was really cold outside, the milk expanded as it froze, and pushed the paper cap and lid up above the glass milk bottle.

Joan Emerson said...

Ah, reading these really stirs the memories . . . I remember when television was just a few channels [and the TV Guide really told you about the shows being aired] . . . the milk in glass bottles left in the milk box at the back door . . . and the coffee percolator [I still have one, just in case the power ever goes out; I can light the gas stove with a match . . .]
It was a coffee percolator that got my brownie Girl Scout pin turned right side up . . . .

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Just got back from voting AND working out — loving all the responses

Karen in Ohio said...

Yes, my mother worked, too. She worked for one of the largest employers in Hamilton (Ohio), the Ohio Casualty Insurance Company. Lots of women in town worked for "the Casualty", and were paid a pittance compared to the men they worked with. My mom worked there for nearly 35 years, starting right after my younger sister was born in 1953.

Mother was paid a whopping $2,500 a YEAR in 1967, which had to provide for herself and her four kids. And if she was late, even one minute, they docked her pay, and they took away her once-a-month half-day. She needed the half-days, since there was always something that had to be done, and we all lived in fear of making her lose it for our tardiness. Since we mostly walked to school, and she walked to work (about a mile, sometimes further), this was a constant problem in our home.

Phyllis Brooks Schafer said...

Loved the comments on milk deliveries. And the lifting of the cardboard lid as the milk froze in winter time! Still had such deliveries in Berkeley until the late 60s. But here we didn't run one risk that we had in England: a small passerine bird - some kind of tit or sparrow - had learned to peck at the lids and get at the cream at the top of the bottle. Not only that, but the little genius had passed the skill on to its neighbors and coming generations!

Deb Romano said...

I remember the home milk deliveries, too, and how concerned my parents were about being able to afford milk whenever the price would be increased. I was supposed to bring in the milk bottles on delivery days, so I also saw the milk bills. I was terrified that we'd end up in "the poorhouse" if my parents had trouble paying for our milk! (This, of course, is based on my childhood reading!)

Edith Maxwell said...

I still hang laundry on the line whenever the weather permits, arranged by person and clothing category. I bake fresh sourdough bread. We can get local eggs, milk, and vegetables, and bless electricity for the ability to preserve by freezing instead of standing over a hot stove for hours in August canning.

Growing up in southern California in the fifties and sixties, we had TV (three channels, changed manually), bought milk in glass bottles from the drive-through dairy, and sewed all our own clothes. My mother, not a skilled cook but wanting to provide balanced meals, made great use of frozen vegetables, instant rice (does anyone even sell that any more?), and TV dinners. But we didn't have much soda and always had fresh fruit and milk.

Deb Romano said...

When I was in high school, everyone I knew had rotary phones except for a friend whose father was disabled and could not use his fingers any longer. They may have been among the first people in town to get a push button phone.

My niece was astonished four years ago to find out that my cell phone does not have a camera!

Deborah Crombie said...

Thank you so much, Phyllis and Susan! What a fascinating list. Phyllis, I've set one book partly in London during WWII, and one partly in London in 1952. I wish I'd had you to proof my manuscript. I did read diaries from the period very thoroughly, however.

When I moved to Scotland from Texas in the late seventies, it didn't seem like things had progressed all that much from post-war days. My in-laws had one television (color!) and a portable radio they moved from room to room. My mother-in-law still had a ringer washing machine and hung clothes out to dry. Hanging the laundry in freezing weather was quite a shock for a suburban Texas girl, I can tell you. No dishwasher, of course, although they did have central heating. When my ex and I moved into a flat in central Edinburgh, we did not.
There was a supermarket, but it was well outside the city. We did all our shopping at the local shops.

So interesting to think about what we take so easily for granted now...

Reine said...

Thank you for such an engaging post, Susan and Phyllis! I keep coming back to read the comments. Very entertaining.

Those frozen cream memories! I went to live with neighbors one year and remember that a milkman left their milk in the mud room. Much like Ellen's memory the cream would freeze and push the little cardboard circle up and out of the glass bottle. My friends and I would race out to get it and pour Hershey's chocolate syrup on it and share the spoon. Their mother was great. She pretended she didn't see, but you could see her smiling.

Lisa Alber said...

Thank you for this elucidating post! We live in a country and a time overripe with stuff, don't we?

Spoiled, for sure. I, too, can't think of anything basic that we did without when I was growing up. For awhile, my parent's rented and didn't have a washer and dryer. My mom would drive her put-put black VW bug to the laundromat. (My dad had an orange corvette -- so 70s!) But even I go to the laundromat now and then to wash the big stuff.

I used to love it when the lights went out and we lived by candlelight for a night. That was my idea of roughing it. Hah!

Lenita said...

I'm probably one of your older contributors, being born in 1932, at the height of the Depression. We did without so many things, rationing during WWII hardly made a difference, except...my mother told me how much I would love butter, if I ever had a chance to taste it. (Postwar, I tried this desirable butter, and hated it. So used to oleomargarine and the little packets of orange stuff we used to color it. What fun!)

I still have my family's ration books, as well as a partially filled stamp book, good toward owning a War Bond. Gasoline, too, was rationed--it seemed most things were. We had our Victory Garden at my grandparents' 10-acre farm, so grew our own food (including chickens, sad to say). We sewed our own clothes--I also learned on my grandma's treadle machine, which I still have, and could thread blindfolded, I believe.

We had a party line phone, a wringer washer, a "cooler" built into a kitchen cupboard, with cool air coming up from the cellar. Plenty of radio, with dinner-time listening to Red Skelton, Fibber and Molly, Bob Hope--real entertainment! Saw television in the hardware store window, but didn't own one until 1950, the year I graduated from high school. No clothes dryer until I was on my third baby, and I'm sorry, ladies, but NOT having to line-dry diapers was the ultimate blessing.

Please stop me before I bore you some more...and thanks for the memories.

Reine said...

Lenita, I think your memories are fascinating and wonderful. Thanks for posting them here.

Ellen Kozak said...

Lenita, thank you for mentioning that cooler. I went to visit an elderly friend once, about 25 years ago, in Berkeley, and she had a cupboard in her kitchen that had a screen, rather than the wall, behind it (on the north side of the house, in the shade of a redwood), and I thought it might be some kind of pie safe, but perhaps it was a cooler not unlike the one you spoke of. No one I've ever mentioned it to has ever heard of anything like that till you mentioned the cooler.

Reine said...

Ellen and Lenita, I recall my great-grandmother making a cheese cooler out back of her camp. She dug a hole in a stand of white pines and buried a galvanized tin box with lid. Over that she had a thick piece of oak that set in flush with the ground level. She kept all her cheese in there until it got too cold. But then she could keep it safely in the camp.

Grandma Cootie said...

I didn't grow up in England nor during the war, but I heard fascinating stories from my mother and grandmother about how things had changed, and I am old enough to remember the days when we did not have many of the things Phyllis mentions.

What struck me is how now we not only have to have all this "stuff" but we have to have it in multiples: each member of the family needs one, or we need one in every room, or we need a spare for when the first one breaks or runs out. My grandchildren are amazed at how we managed without so many necessities.

Susan Meyer said...

What a wonderful piece! Thanks, Phyllis and Susan! Yes, lots of people in the UK still hang clothes out on the line. We did a few years ago when we were living there and so did lots of the neighbors.

Phyllis Schafer said...

I just want to thank everyone who responded so positively and (let me admit it) kindly to Susan's posting of my account. I realize there are still questions I haven't taken up. We bought soap at the chemist's shop (pharmacy!). Toilet paper? Very hard to find! One more use for the daily newspaper, reduced to a couple of pages! (It had to provide the basis for coal fires, any wrapping that needed to be done, etc. No other sheets of paper available. No bags for fruit, etc. Everything just went into the shopping basket after weighing.) Ah me. About to take about ten pairs of shoes from my neighbor to a homeless youth center near here. TEN PAIRS OF SHOES!