Archive for category 1949

Letters and telegrams

There were no computers of any sort in 1949 (when I was seven).  No emails, no internet, and no cellphones.  Phone calls from landlines were free in your local town, but expensive if you wanted to talk to someone in a different town, and very expensive indeed if you wanted to talk to someone in a different country.  So, people used to send lots of letters instead.

writing-a-letterYou would write your letter on sheets of paper, like in the picture.  There were no “biros” in those days, so you used what was called a “fountain pen”.  It was called a “fountain” pen because it had a refillable reservoir (a very small tank) within the barrel of the pen, and “reservoir” is one of the meanings of the word “fountain”.  (There, now you know!!!)

The ink we used in those days was a liquid, so you had to be very careful you didn’t smudge what you’d written before it dried.  It was particularly hard for left‑handers (like me), because your writing hand tended to smudge the words as you wrote them.

When you’d finished your letter, you folded it, put it in an envelope, wrote the name and address of the person you were sending the letter to on the envelope, stuck a postage stamp on the envelope (which you could buy from the Post Office, which was a bit like a modern PostShop), and put the envelope into a letterbox (usually at the Post Office).  Once or twice a day, postal workers would collect everyone’s letters from the letterboxes and send them on their way (by foot, bicycle, car, bus, train, or ship).


A letter might take several days to reach the person you wanted to contact (or weeks, if they lived overseas).  So, if you needed to contact someone urgently, you would either phone them (which was expensive) or send a “telegram”.  A telegram was a short message (similar to an SMS), but to send it you had to go down to the Post Office.  You would write your message on a form and the Post Office clerk would send the message for you (by phone, or by using Morse Code).

telegramAlthough telegrams were terribly expensive (they cost maybe a dollar or more per word, in today’s money), they were still cheaper than phoning, provided you only used a few words.  The picture shows a typical very short message.



A woman’s work is never done

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)!!!

toasterOur 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.


carpet-cleaning-machineSome 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 picturerug-beater 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.copper

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 “manglemangle-wringer”, 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.

clothes-lineThen 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!!!

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The “flicks”

dale-channelling-tom-mix-1949In 1949, when I was seven, we went to the movies nearly every week.  But we didn’t call them movies;  they were the “flicks” (because early movies “flickered”) or the “pictures”.  The photograph shows Grandad Dale in fancy dress costume, dressed up as a movie hero of the time, Tom Mix.

In Maungaturoto, movies were shown in the Town Hall, which was a big wooden building half way down the hill towards the dairy factory, where the Community Hall is now.  The same building was used for all sorts of different events (like dances and parties) as well as for the movies.  There were no comfortable seats;  just chairs and benches similar to those you use at school.

At the start of the evening, they would play a recording of the national anthem (“God save the king” — because we had a king then, not a queen).  Everyone would stand and stay respectfully quiet while it played.

Then the “shorts” would start.  The shorts were a mixture of very short films (each maybe 10 or 15 minutes long) and would usually include a news programme (like Pathe News), a comedy programme (like the Marx Brothers), and sometimes a travel programme (like this one on Egypt).

And, to encourage children to come every single week, they would show a serial for we youngsters.  These were always action-packed and very exciting indeed.  Something particularly exciting would always happen at the very end of the episode (like the hero appearing to fall into a pit of snakes) and you would have to come back next week to find out that, actually, he just managed to grab hold of the edge of the cliff and save himself!!!  (This is why we say that “it was a real cliffhanger”, meaning that, at the end, you still weren’t quite sure what would happen next.)  Here is a serial from that time:  Batman.

There would be a break when the shorts were over, for the grown-ups to have a cigarette (practically everyone smoked in those days) and to buy Jaffas and chocolates and ice creams (no popcorn, though).  And, then, finally, the main film would start.

All the films were all in black-and-wcasablanca-posterhite (we didn’t get colour films until the mid-1950s).  British films of that time were often war films (it was only a few years after the Second World War) and comedies.  American films were often cowboy films and romantic comedies.  We didn’t see any films made in New Zealand, apart from some of the “shorts”, like travelogues and newsreels.

But the main thing I remember is that we just loved going to the flicks.

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In 1949, when I was seven, there was no TV in New Zealand, and no DVDs or cassette recorders.  The main entertainment in a home was listening to the radio.  But the radio programmes were very different from today;  there was no talkback, no Drive Time, not much popular music, and lots of serials (the radio equivalent of TV programmes like Shortland Street and Coronation Street).  And, during the daytime, there were lots of shopping and housekeeping programmes.

Here are some examples of the type of radio programmes we listened to (click the links to listen):

Aunt Daisy (a famous programme advertising household products and giving housekeeping tips)

Dad and Dave (an Australian serial that also played on New Zealand radio)

Portia faces life (an American “soap” that played on New Zealand radio)

There were also special radio programmes for kids, which played between 6:00 and 7:00 in the mornings in the weekend (kids got up earlier in those days!!!).  Here are some examples (click the links to listen):

Sparky and the talking train

The happy prince

Flick the little fire engine

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Taking photos

box-brownie-filmThere were no digital cameras in 1949 (when I was seven) and cameras used a roll of “film” instead of “digital memory” (see the picture).  The film had to be changed in a very dark room to avoid exposing it to light, which would have ruined it.  Films were also quite expensive, so you tended to take just one shot of a scene, rather than many.  Colour film wasn’t available at that time, so all your photos were in shades of black-and-white.

You could fit maybe twenty photos onto a roll of film.  When it was full, it had to be removed from the camera (in the dark) and taken (in a package that light couldn’t get into) to a chemist or camera shop to be “developed”.  The development process involving putting the film into liquid chemicals (in a room lit with red light) and then printing the image onto special light-sensitive paper.  It took maybe a week to get your photos back.

Cameras didn’t have a “flash” to deal with very poor light, so you had to light the room in some other way, or not take the photo, or put the camera on a tripod and use an extra-long exposure (hoping that nobody moved!!!).  Flashes didn’t become available on ordinary cameras until about the 1960s.


box-brownieA very popular camera at that time was the “Box Brownie”.  It had been invented in 1900, but was so cheap and easy-to-use that it was still being sold in 1949 (half a century later).  Here’s a photo of one:

And here are a couple of videos showing how to use a Box Brownie camera (you’ll see that it’s much more complicated than modern digital and phone cameras): (how to load film into a Box Brownie) (how to take photos with a Box Brownie)


bellows-cameraHere is a slightly more sophisticated camera from that the time.  With this one you could manually change the focus (to make sure the person you photographed didn’t come out blurry) and change the “aperture” (which meant making the little round hole the light went through larger or smaller, to deal with poor light or bright sunlight).


Tripod camera.jpgMy father, Alf Lacey (known as “Grampy” to his grandchildren), was a  good photographer and was also very interested in the history of photography.  I remember he owned some antique cameras, which he kept in the basement of our Maungaturoto house, similar to the one in this photo:

These old-fashioned cameras made a picture by exposing a sensitised glass plate to light.  The glass plate was slid into a slot at the back and you “took the photo” by removing a cap from the lens at the front.  If you were photographing people, they would have to stand very still for the whole time the cap was off (maybe five or ten seconds).

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