Thursday, May 8, 2008

1930's Household Tips

The past is another country. They do things differently there. (L P Hartley: The Go Between)

The domestic history of the late Victorian, Edwardian and War years fascinates me. When my teenage friends were discovering New Order and blue mascara, I was visiting the kitchens of Cragside or riding the steam train at Beamish. (I grew up in the North of England).

I love old domestic manuals. This one, Selfridge's Household Encylclopaedia, was published in 1929 in London.

The fly sheet reads: Phyllis E King, London, 1930. I can see Phyllis reading this book, hair shingled, feeling the Autumn cold despite a cardigan (because the family wouldn't put the drawing room fire on until 5 pm at the earliest). She is engaged to be married (Samuel. A nice young man, if a little dull. Quite high up in a stevedore office on the Thames). She is reading the encyclopedia and trying to remember that to make fly papers she should take pieces of strong, thick paper, smear with treacle and scatter Persian powder over it. Except she won't be doing it. The housemaid she will engage after the wedding will see to details like that.

I bought the book here in Adelaide about ten years ago. Perhaps Phyllis and Samuel migrated here before the IIWW? Perhaps he, in an act of unparalleled adventure, suggested they sail out and stay with his Uncle Jim, who had arrived in the Twenties and was doing rather well for himself in Port Adelaide?
And the irony would have been that poor old Sam probably went back to Blighty to serve in a Naval frigate in 1941. I think he survived, though. Came home and saw Rosie, the chubby little girl born in his absence, and sister to the three older children: Ralph, Roy and Meg.
Phyllis, meanwhile, had little use for the etiquette surrounding garden parties (not quite the same in Adelaide, she found) that she'd read about in the encyclopedia in 1930. But the cure for flatulence (1 tsp bicarb in a tumbler of hot water) had relieved many an uncomfortable night. And there was never a housemaid. There was a Mrs P who came in to do the laundry once a week and an old man who did a bit of weeding in the Spring. But the rest was down to Phyllis.

Whilst I'm unfailingly philosophical about my own life's history being firmly behind me (as memory and events allow) I am constantly intrigued by the tiny details that ruled our predecessors lives.
Growing up in the 1970's, the shadow of the IIWW was still present in England. Almost obscured, yes, but still there, hazy, hanging on. Now, despite ANZAC day celebrations here in Australia, that day when we worship military history, it feels as though the Twentieth Century is fading quickly. I sense doors closing, secret gardens decaying and dust collecting on the top of glass cloches.
Those survivors of the early Twentieth Century are the ones who are fading. Their stories are being scattered, brittle in the clutches of time.
I hope Phyllis had a kitchen as lovely as this one. It's a make-over of an American 1930s kitchen, glossily new in bright white paint.
We can't bring all of the past with us. But we can collect a few of the crumbs.

ps: Despite my romantic teenage longing for things past, I still had time to love New Order.

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