"Today's post is probably the longest post I've ever put on Face Book, so don't try to read it unless or until you have fifteen minutes to spare. With the exception of a few modifications that keep it current, it represents an article I once wrote for the 'Social Work Today' magazine during the 1970's when I was a Probation Officer.
Born in 1942, the 1950's were the years I most remember. I grew up in a large household and was the eldest of seven children. Having spare money was not a concept that I became familiar with until my twenties. My parents had little money to spend after providing the staple diet of bread, jam and potatoes; lots and lots of potatoes! We ate so many potatoes, half of us grew up looking like spuds! We invariably wore clothes in our earlier years which were sourced from jumble sales or were handed down the line from older to younger sibling, until they became so threadbare that they could no longer be patched up or darned.
I would describe my family as being pretty representative of most families who were our neighbours on the estate where we lived. The father and only bread winner would tip up his unopened pay packet every wage day to the mother of the household. Mum's job would then be to juggle the books so that the family had enough food to last until the next pay day. Mum would buy food for the family 'on tick' from the local grocer, one week earlier than my father had earned the money to pay for it! When I think about it today, over sixty years later, almost all working class families were always one week's wage in debt from the birth of their children until they'd left school and were old enough to contribute to the household. Compared with the many thousands of pounds that the majority of individuals in the country owe today on loans and credit cards, I'd have to say that the large working class families of the 1950's with one wage earner only, managed their finances remarkably well in contrast to the families of today. We may have introduced the payment concept of the 'never never,' but we never meant 'never', literally. Bankruptcy of failing businesses would be avoided at all cost, and the one going bust would never get their pride restored until they repaid their debtors! Instead of starting up a new business under another name, most debtors felt honour-bound to discharge their debt before they died and preserve the family name.
Having left school to work in textiles, I progressed to the position of working foreman at the age of 23 years and became a mill manager before my 26th birthday, which was no mean feat in those days for a working class lad from a council estate. I had always been interested in clothing materials. Because clothes were then bought for the children of poorer households far more infrequently than they are today, when they were purchased, the most important criteria of the mother would be 'price' and 'durability.' The prime consideration asked at the point of sale by thrifty mothers were, 'How long will they last?' Subsequently, boots with tipped heels and reinforced caps were worn more than shoes, and cotton was king, particularly white cotton. Cotton was the most endurable of all natural fibres. It was spun into a yarn or thread to make a soft breathable textile. History informs us that the use of cotton as a fabric is known to date back to prehistoric times, and even fragments of cotton were excavated in mexico which dated back to 5000 BC; almost 7000 years ago.
Now, my mum and other mums of the 1950's did not need to make the cotton clothes we wore last anywhere near 7000 years, but they would be made to last until we grew out of them! We all lived in mend-and-make-do times. This usually involved the item of clothing being either darned or patched; not because they'd worn out 6,995 years before their natural life span, but because the children would have torn them playing rough games in the wild fresh air of their youth! Meanwhile, it would not be uncommon for the same cotton garment to have been handed down the family line from eldest to youngest child, before being finally remade into a dress to fit a peg doll for some child's Christmas present or a flour bag for mum's larder.
Despite the state of dampness and mould in many old working class houses of the times, cleanliness was still regarded as being next to Godliness. The mothers of families who had not yet been lucky enough to live in their own brand-new council house like we did, had to be born cleaners. These were the days when those on the housing list always moved up it month after month and eventually reached the top. Part of mum's everyday routine was to sweep down the path and wash and whiten the doorstep, so that it would be nice and clean when the muddy boots of the visiting coal man next stood on it! Does anyone nowadays worry about having the whitest of whites anymore or removing any debris from the road immediately in front of one's house? Not in this disposable society, I reckon, where convenience and celebrity are the only two things to preoccupy the mind of most growing children and their parents.
In my childhood, anyone would tolerate a worn shirt, but nobody would entertain wearing a dirty shirt in need of a good wash and collar scrubbing! One could always tell the newly wed women who'd yet to learn the ropes of wash, scrub, dry, sort, stitch, iron and darn. Their poor children's clothes would enter the wash tub one colour and because the novice mum still hadn't grasped the concept of 'sort to survive,' different coloured garments would eventually emerge from the tub after they'd been washed!
As for ironing clothes, in my day, every garment would be ironed, folded and sorted, ready for wearing the following day. When I first met my wife, Sheila six years ago, she told me she hated ironing so much that she never ironed. To get around this trait, she bought clothing material which did not crease up and therefore didn't require ironing. She even expected me to sleep upon bed sheets of creased synthetic material which I found alien to the touch of my delicate skin. Because of my 1950 upbringing, and because I learned to iron at the age of eleven years when I was unable to walk for three years following a traffic accident, little did Sheila realise when she took me on that she could now start wearing clothes of natural fibre that I would gladly iron. My motto has always been simple; 'if it creases, it requires ironing.' I even iron my underpants after washing! Needless to say, Sheila still does not do any ironing, but her garments today, both over her dress and under it, would not unduly embarrass her were she to fall on her bottom and reveal all to the passing crowd!
By the late 1960's and 70's wives and mothers became more liberated from household work. These were the years that the contraceptive pill encouraged more sex and enabled smaller families: a time when the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, electric kettle, toasting gadgets, along with a whole array of other household goods completely revolutionised the structure of the home. Within a short span of twenty years, fashion started to overtake function and instead of the mend-and-make-do society our parents had been raised in, we became a buy-until-fed-up-and-throw-away-society!
With the vanishing of the old days and its ways, the nucleus family also disappeared. Dear old mum was hastily dispatched into an old folk's home as soon as she showed signs of ageing and began to wet the bed too often, requiring a daily change of sheets (Synthetic sheets are hopeless for the carers of bed wetters as they retain the smell of urine, even after washing). My mum always said, 'You just can't beat linen, Billy!' The family meal, where everyone once sat around the same table at the same time, became a distant memory of days long gone, never again to return. The single child ate their bought-in pizzas alone in their bedroom as mum and dad also ate fast food from their lap. The only soap mum and dad regularly shared now, was no longer being found in a shared bath, but in what they viewed from their new bargain sofa as they watch television. Needless to say, their new sofa had been impulsively purchased on a wet bank holiday outing to the sales. They'd been attracted by its bright colour in mock leather, but what really sold them was the 'No deposit and nothing to pay for five years' offer' being made exclusively to lucky shoppers who bought that weekend only!
The importance of the marriage vows between man and wife quickly diminished as quickly as folk twigged that if you messed up the first time around and your spouse was no longer to your liking, then, you should get with it and get a new model. After all, you never saw your growing children these days, as they hibernated in their bedrooms playing with one thing or another. Let's face it, they'd probably have left home or got married themselves before they realised that mum and dad had split! Those sacred vows which were once expected to last 'til death do you part', could now be dispensed with after the first big row and a cooling off period of a mere six months had passed.
But what really killed off the traditional man-woman role and ruined most relationships wasn't the contraception pill, vibrators or easier access to sex gender changes on the National Health Service, but jobs outside the home! Heavy industry started to close down and was replaced by more shops and call centres. More and men started to lose their jobs as well as their manly pride that being the bread winner had brought them, and even had the men been prepared to compete with the women in the new work place to do 'women's jobs', there was simply no way that their trade union principles would allow them to accept 'women's wages' if they took them. With their wives being the breadwinner and the men being unprepared to do women's jobs in the workplace, they were instead obliged to become the new house fathers of their age and do women's work in the home!
With the introduction of all the domestic mod cons and fewer children to rear, housewives and mothers found their daily chores much easier and less demanding. In the beginning of this New World, women often got bored with being at home all day with time on their hands and little money to spend, so some sought jobs outside the home and their roles began to change more than they could ever have realised. Their work outside the home daily, now dispensed with the need for them to work in the home at all. All the cleaning, washing and ironing that required doing could now be undertaken by a new daily help. Women 'working in service' in the homes of the gentry between the 17th and early 19th century had not disappeared from society after the Second World War years. These women now served new employers and had merely moved jobs from one master to a more modern mistress.The working class women, who'd once deplored such class servitude had now turned Tory and began to depend upon their own domestic servants to keep their homes clean and children cared for while they worked away from home. An increasing number of the modern professional woman soon became disenchanted with their new lot in life once they realised the futility of their new roles. Every penny they now earned was spent entirely on paying for cleaners, child minders, baby sitters and eating meals out, besides maintaining fashionable clothes worthy of being seen in at work.
A new type of worker to the professional workforce had been born. This new woman now found herself in an ever pressurised job which prevented her seeing her own child as much as she wanted to, and the child would invariably be in bed by the time mum arrived home tired at the end of the day. The new woman of independence now had to work all the hours of the day, just as her own mother had done; the only differences being that she had chosen this preferred way of modern womanhood. She had experienced having grown up around her mother; not like her children, at a distance!
When the only child to the traditional new family today becomes a young woman, she will discover that all of the old ways of meeting boyfriends and possible partners for the future such as dances and other functions no longer exist. Her search for a husband is now confined to dating sites where few use their current likeness and proper age on their profile and progression to a first date never happens until you agree to exchange compromising pictures of yourself on your mobile with the current blackmailer in your life. Even if you manage to get a first date under your belt, unless the girl is willing to 'give it up' on the first night out, they'll be unlikely to be a second date in the offing. As to the prospects of holding out all you had to offer until your wedding night, forget it! You'd have more chance of getting your mum to cook you a proper meal and to sit around the family table with you as you eat it, or to persuade your unemployed brother to iron your blouse in his spare time!
As to the advancement of women over the years, I still remain unconvinced that true progress has really been made, or if it has, I wonder what has suffered in family dynamics as a consequence. Today, young men and women may still be living at home until their thirties. With the price of a modest house outside Bolton costing more than a lifetime's wages, even professional workers with degrees under their belt are unable to get on the housing ladder until their forties. Few graduates have paid their university debt off before they die and fertile women won't consider giving birth to their one and only child until they approach forty! And whether children marry or stay single in status, who will do their cooking, as their mothers who brought them up on fast food never taught them, and neither did their schools, as they used to teach them in my day? What a wonderful world we now live in!
My old mum would have died in her grave, had not all the children she'd given birth to, all the floor lino she'd scrubbed and polished, all the steps she'd washed down and whitened, all the cleaning she'd done, all the meals she'd cooked and all the clothes she'd made, washed, dried, scrubbed clean, ironed, darned and patched HADN'T PUT HER THERE!" William Forde: September 1st, 2016.