In 1949, when I was seven years old, life was very different for women and girls. Even though New Zealand had been the first country in the world to give women the same voting rights as men (see Women’s suffrage), they were still treated very differently from men and boys and were socialised to expect a very different life.
After their schooling had finished, most young women would work for a few years and then get married and have a family. Hardly any women worked once they had children.
Now, you might think that staying at home and being a housewife wasn’t a very demanding occupation. After all, you’d just have to give the children their breakfast, whip around the house with the vacuum cleaner, throw any dirty clothes into the washing machine and, when that was finished, dry them in the clothes drier. Then you could sit back with a nice cup of coffee and enjoy the rest of the day!!!
Well, actually, it was rather different back then.
Making breakfast was more complicated, for a start. For example, the modern “instant” form of porridge wasn’t available then, so, if you wanted porridge for breakfast, mum would have to put it into the oven the night before. She would turn the temperature down really low and cook it very slowly all night. Next morning, with a bit of luck, it would be lovely (or, with a bit of bad luck, really gluggy)!!!
Our toasters didn’t “pop up”. Instead, you’d cut two slices of bread (no pre‑sliced bread back then), put them into the toaster (like in the picture on the right) and close the little doors so the bread was right next to the heated elements. When that side was toasted, you’d open the doors, turn the bread around, then close the doors and toast the other side. Trouble is, if you left it a bit too long the toast would burn and you’d have to throw it away and start again!!!
And there were no tea bags, so you had to make a pot of tea each time you wanted a cuppa.
Some people had electrically‑powered vacuum cleaners, although they were very heavy and didn’t do a very good job. But many people still had to use what were called carpet cleaners, like in the picture on the left. They had rollers underneath to pick up the fluff and dirt, and the harder you pushed them the better they worked.
Some people even had to use rug beaters, like in the picture on the right. This Rug beating video shows how you used them (flick through to the 30 second mark).
Most women did their clothes washing on Mondays and it took most of the day to do it!!! That’s because, although some people had early versions of electric washing machines, many people were still using what were called “coppers”, which looked like the one in this picture.
I can still remember watching one of our neighbours doing the washing in her “copper”, which was set into a wooden frame in her tiny laundry. (It was my “Auntie Maida”, who lived in the house directly opposite us in Maungaturoto, but I’ll tell you more about her another time.)
Auntie Maida started by filling the “copper” with water and lighting firewood underneath to heat the water. (It was made of copper because that particular metal conducts heat very well, which helped the water heat quickly.) Then she mixed in some washing powder and put the dirty clothes into the water. There was no “agitator”, like in a modern machine, so she had to take a big wooden stick and stir the clothes herself. It was really hard work and she was soon sweating from the heat and the exertion.
When the clothes were clean, Auntie Maida put them through a “mangle”, which was a machine for squeezing excess water out of wet clothes (see the picture on the right). You put one end of the wet clothes in between the mangle’s two rollers then wound the clothes through, using the handle. It was really hard physical work and, if you had the pressure too tight, there was a safety lever that would spring open with an almighty clang giving you a terrible fright.
Then she pegged the clothes out on an old fashioned clothes line, which looked something like the picture on the left. When the clothes were dry, she would bring them in and iron it all. All of it!!! There were no drip‑dry fabrics, in those days, so you couldn’t just put a shirt on a hanger and expect it to look nice when it was dry.
Then, having finished the laundry, the housewife would do the “darning”. Because clothes were much more expensive in those days, housewives would repair any frayed clothes (to avoid having to buy new ones). For example, they would use a needle and thread to patch socks that got holes in them. Some housewives would also repair frayed shirts by “turning collars”. This was done by unstitching the collar from the shirt, turning it around, then stitching it back on again (which hid the frayed bit). It needed a lot of skill, but was worth doing as it doubled the life of the shirt.
And, finally, there were no disposable nappies. Soiled nappies had to be cleaned (yuk!) and washed and used again.
So, after all that work (much of it very physically tiring), the poor housewife would make a quick cup of coffee and sit down and relax. Nope! No instant coffee in those days. In fact, no coffee of any sort. They hadn’t developed the technology to make instant coffee granules and we didn’t have espresso machines.
There used to be a saying that “a woman’s work is never done”. Now you can see why!!!