Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Childhood Reminiscences No.1 - Household Appliances

This is the first in what I hope will become a mini-series as I think back about my childhood in the 1950's and 1960's in urban Scotland - times of immense change.

Over the years I realised that much of what was taken for granted in the 1960s was uncommon in the 50s hence this first post looking at household appliances which we take for granted now but back then .....

When young we did not have a: telephone, fridge or freezer, washing machine, television, central heating, electric blankets, gramophone, vacuum cleaner but, with the exception of central heating, within a few years, by the end of the 1950's, we had all these items. We did, at least, have an inside toilet, a convenience - yes, I know it's a pun - which some of our neighbours did not enjoy. As I sit and type this post surrounded by electric and electronic equipment I find it hard toimagine that in my early years we had virtually nothing although I'm sure all the appliances would be available for a price.

With no telephone at home, we had to use a telephone kiosk, the nearest of which was 5 mins walk away. It's hard to believe that we've moved from that to the overly ubiquitous mobile phone. Our first phone was a black bakelite model with no dialling - we had to go through the operaor for all calls.. Back in the 50's most phones, I think, were on party lines - ours certainly was - meaning that the line was shared with another person. If they were calling we had to wait. Sometimes we made a "mistake" and listened in to the other party's call!

I can't remember our first fridge arriving but I do remember, before then, the milk being kept in one of the colder rooms in a basin of cold water with a dishcloth draped over the bottles to soak up water and thus keep the milk cool. The butter too was kept in this cool room. Back then, all milk was delivered - ours was by the Co-op. Obviously, with no fridge all perishable shopping was done each day.

Before we got our washing machine the normal weekly wash was done in te sink in the kitchen but the spring-clean washing - blankets, beadspreads - was done in the wash-house which was attached to the house. Some wash houses were separate buildings. In the wash-house were two ceramic (I imagine) sinks with built-in washing boards and a concrete, I think, boiler. The boiler had a large bowl under which could be lit a fire. I remember the fire lit only once but just thinking about this makes me tired. How unbelievably hard-worked were mothers then!

Our first washing machine was a Hoover twin-tub which, as it name suggests, had two tubs: one for washing and the other a spin-drier. This must have been the second generation of washing machines because I remember my granny had a machine with one tub - for washing only - with a mangle attached to the side for drying the clothes or, at least, squeezing out a lot of the water.

No television for me as a young kid! It's amazingly hard now to imagine life without this tyrant box but then somehow we managed to amuse ourselves. I must try to remember what we did - I'll write about this in a later post. Eventually in 1956 our first TV arrived - black and white, of course- a Ferguson 14 inch. TVs were very unrelaiable than but were remarkably easy to repair. Normally a valve had blown but, with a few minutes work, an engineer had popped in a new valve. In a later post I may recall some of the early TV progammes I liked.

No central heating! In fact, we did without this until the late 1960s. I cannot imagine how we survived in a cold house with one warm room. I suspect that we have become softer over the years and our expexctations of warmth are such that a return to these days is impossible, although if fuel costs continue to increase rapidly we may well retreat somewhat.

A coal fire in the living room! This was THE source of heat in the house. Nothing compares to coorying around a roaring fire on a freezing day: this huge warmth wrapping itself around all of us. I remember in the mornings my father making up the fire to last through the day by adding dross and then pouring water over the fire to slow down the burn.

Witout electric blankets we used hot water bottles - still common today - but, before the rubber bottles we used ceramic bottles called "pigs". They would be placed upright which raise the bedclothes into a tent shape and thus much of the bed was warmed.

We had no source of music in the house other than the old valve radio, and not until about 1960 did we get a record player - a Bush 6 record player. Again, today there are so many sources of music that the younger generaton must find it hard to imagine survivng with no music.

The last appliance in my list is a vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately I can't remember anything about our first "Hoover" but I do remember rugs being hung on the washing line being beaten with what looked like a giant wicker tennis racket.

In future posts I will recall shops and shopping, the street environment, play, school, holidays and travel, and TV and radio programmes.

If you enjoyed today's walk through my memories please stop by again.


  1. My goodness, Calum, this post resonated greatly with me. So much of this sounds like my life growing up. But then I am considerably older than you so I am a bit shocked that we have similar stories.

    I wrote recently about no music in my life until basically in my twenties because we had one radio and no TV until just before I left home at 24. I married a man with a record collection. How lucky was that?

    We had the wash house with the copper boiler, no washing machine until long after I left home. We had an ice chest with the iceman delivering ice several times a week. (Australia, after all, the cool room just did not exist.) I was in my late teens when we got a refrigerator.

    Our heat came from an electric radiator and as you say hot water bottles. At least it wasn't as cold as Scotland.

    We never had a telephone or a car.

    Yes life was hard for women in those days. But I never forget that my grandparents left Glasgow in 1907 and sailed with 7 little children (my father, the youngest, was 7 at the time) to Australia to start a new life. How brave was that and how bad was life for them that they actually thought they would have a better life after that long journey. Sadly I did not know her well and wonder what stories she might have told.

    Yes I did enjoy the walk through your memories. More please.

  2. jmb

    I am delighted that you enjoyed the tour. More will come.

    The pace of change was relatively slow in the 30s, 40s compared with today and the war would have held so much back that post-war not only was their a baby boom their was development boom. I guess I was born / was brought up at the changeover between phases.

    That people contemplated taking 7 kids to Australia also shows how desperately hard times must have been at home.

    Thanks also for sharing your thoughts.

  3. It's amazingly hard now to imagine life without this tyrant box but then somehow we managed to amuse ourselves.

    I have no television - it was stolen.

  4. I thought you were younger than that!

    Did you have a food safe? A wooden box with wire mesh?

    My gran did the washing on Mondays and we had a mangle out the back along with a huge tub and a dolly. And washing line of course. I don't think she ever had a washing machine.

    I didn't live in a centrally heated house until after I was married so it must have been about 1980. We had a single coal fire in the living room.

    Telephoning from the kiosk, yes, and no television until very late on. So many memories.

  5. Liz

    "I thought you were younger than that!" If only!!

    I don't remember a food safe.

    "So many memories" It'svery rewarding to hear this and I hope you'll find more in later posts.

  6. I very much enjoyed reading this post. I was born in the 1960s, so obviously many things had already changed by then, but the first house I lived in was my grandparents' house which didn't have a proper bathroom. I remember very well how we used to set up a small tin tub in the kitchen, my grandmother would heat up water on her wood stove (which would also make the kitchen really warm and cosy) so that we could have our weekly bath.

    I can easily live without TV, we hardly use ours at all, but living without the Internet would be an entirely different matter. It really has become my lifeline to the outside world and to my friends and family overseas.

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