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How our Parents Shopped (Protagoras, January 28, 2008)
I want to recall for much younger readers, who probably cannot remember the vanished world we grew up in as children, some aspects of how life was lived. It has some current relevance, this, because we may all find ourselves living rather like it again, as we encounter Peak Oil, Credit Deflation, and other discomforts. This world was unpleasant in many ways, and many of us could not wait to escape from it. It was snobbish, repressive, authoritarian, conformist, regimented, filled with taboos and interferences. It had limited social mobility or opportunity and inherited wealth had enormous power.
But in one respect it was a healthier culture than today's: in its relation to shopping and to consumer goods, and to leisure time activities. To visit one of the many municipal dumps, which we now call recycling centers, is to see the results of the change. They are wastelands filled with broken items of thin sheet metal, fibreboard and plastic, products no sooner bought than needing replacement, impossible to repair, and bought and thrown out on such a vast scale that there is no longer anywhere to put it, when after a short time of ownership and deterioration it is recognized finally as junk. For this, households all over Britain have gone over their heads in debt.
There were no recycling centers in the world we grew up in, because there was so little that was thrown out. The world we grew up in was a world totally without shopping malls or supermarkets. Can you imagine that? None. Not only that, there were few refrigerators. My own parents did not have one until quite late in our childhood. Yet food had to be bought and prepared for a family three times a day. How on earth did you do it?
In a small town there would be three or four butchers, a couple of bakers, several groceries and greengroceries, an couple of fishmongers, and perhaps some market gardens on the outskirts where you could go and buy salad vegetables in the summer.
Every house would have a larder. The larder had shelves, usually a tiled floor, and a cupboard with a mesh fronted door and a stone slab on top. It also had a small window which opened inward and pivoted on hinges at the bottom or top, and in front of this window was a mesh screen. Outside air was allowed in, but flies were kept out, and there were metal stoppers for security to prevent anyone climbing in. Perishable food and all kinds of preserved foods and tinned foods were kept in the larder. There was a bread bin, a fairly sturdy metal box with a sliding door, where bread was kept.
Breakfast would be something relatively non-perishable, such as oatmeal, cereal, perhaps a boiled egg, with tea or later on coffee. Milk, full fat of course, was supposed to be good for children, and at that time the State provided every child in school with one third of a pint of full fat milk in the morning.
One of the adults would go to the shops at least every other day, and most likely daily, and buy whatever was going to be cooked and eaten in the next couple of days. People made lists in those days. They had a meal in mind, they wrote down what was needed to make it, and went and bought just that. And nothing else. The idea of doing what most people seem to do today, wandering around an enormous supermarket full of foods, with no advance idea of what you were going to buy, or what you were going to cook, would have seemed bizarre to the point of being incomprehensible. The idea of coming home with a huge cart of foods so that one only had to shop once a week would have seemed positively distasteful. The idea that you could come back with meals made in some factory that you simply reheated would have seemed unsafe. How could you control the cooking or the ingredients? The idea was to buy and eat fresh and waste nothing. But the daily shop was not simply from choice. If you wanted to eat fresh food, you had to shop frequently, because there was no way to store it.
Milk was delivered every day. In the summer, it was brought in as soon as possible to the larder and placed under earthenware coolers with small chambers in the top, which were filled with water, and the evaporation cooled the glass bottles underneath. Butter dishes worked similarly.
Food was simple. Lunch and dinner were both cooked, and would usually consist of potatoes, two kinds of vegetables, and small amounts of meat or fish or eggs. At tea time, there would be a slice or two of bread and jam. In working class households lunch was (and still is) referred to as dinner and was a main meal, and the evening meal, usually taken at around 6 or earlier, was called tea, and was substantial though starchy.
People baked. They did this not for a hobby, but because there were no prepared pies. There were no prepared meals at all. You could buy tins of stewed meats, ham, baked beans, spaghetti. But cook-chill had not yet been invented. There were no refrigerated trucks to carry prepared meals around the country. So if you wanted apple pie, you baked it from scratch using apples and flour. They bottled fruit themselves, because it was cheap in the late summer, and unobtainable or expensive in the winter.
There was such a thing as the 'hungry gap'. It occurs in the spring, before the new crop comes available, and the vegetables are mainly root and green leaf limited or absent. Meat of course came in from New Zealand or Argentina all year round, bread and flour and oatmeal were plentiful. It was the perishables that varied with the season.
There were local slaughterhouses. A town like ours had one, just off the market square, behind the banks and souvenir shops and the watchmaker's (he did really know how to make and repair watches) and the grocery stores and a few hotels for the tourist trade. The animals were brought in from the surrounding farms, slaughtered, butchered and then sold in the butchers' shops.
There was little waste. If there was left over meat from a roast at the weekend, it would be ground and made into shepherds pie, a sort of rich gravy with a mashed potato topping, baked till brown. Pieces of left over ham would find their way into macaroni cheese. Stale bread became breadcrumbs. One reads reliable reports that households in Britain today throw out about 30% or more of the food they buy. I doubt whether 5% was thrown out in our parents' time.
Little energy was consumed in all this. Most British households at the time had one warm room, heated, if that is the word, by an open coal fire, and unheated bedrooms and hallways. Cooking sometimes was done on a range, but mostly on standalone electric cookers in otherwise unheated kitchens. The cult of the Aga is an ancestral memory of this: houses with Agas were warm. They may have been absurdly hot in the kitchens in the summer, but in the other seasons they were warm. And they were dry.
Clothes were changed less frequently than now. Toward the end of my childhood, washing machines came in. Before that, clothes were washed by hand, wrung through on a mangel, and hung outside to dry on a clothes line. Baths were taken a couple of times a week. Clothes and bedlinens once dry were aired in a cupboard at the bottom of which the hot water cylinder stood. Houses had, mostly, running hot water. But in small copper cylinders, and it was common to be told, if you went to visit a family, when there was enough hot water for you to bathe.
Cars were not common. To get around town, or around the district, you walked, or you cycled, or you took a bus. Longer distances were by train. There were, can you believe this, no highways? Roads for the most part were two lane and ran straight through the centres of towns. The Great North Road was dual highway for much though not all of its length. But there was nothing like the German Autobahns or the American Interstate system.
What, you will wonder, did people do, in this strange world without cars or what we now think of as shopping? Well, there was no television either, to make matters stranger still, and even few telephones! They read, or they listened to radio, or they went to the cinema. In a tiny little town like ours, there were two of them. They went to dances. They went for long walks. They went and had tea with each other. They went to church. One thing they did not do was shop.
They wore their clothes until they wore out. That is, until they had holes in them and could not be mended. They thought about what they needed to buy, and then they thought again, and then they went and looked for it, and bought it, and nothing else. A couple of pairs of shoes, a couple of suits, a jacket and trousers, half a dozen shirts, a few ties, a couple of sweaters, and that was what you needed. You thought about it when you bought them, because they had to last. Knitting was not a hobby. It was a cheap way of getting nice warm sweaters for your family. This was a world in which people bought each other things as presents, and in which they were received gratefully, because you had very little in the way of pans, mugs, plates, glasses. It was not, as now, that the house is bursting with this stuff, and the dumps full of it. It was not, as now, an amusement to shop. It was a serious business. Getting your choices wrong would make a real difference to your life over a period perhaps of years.
You could not have explained to that generation the present ascendancy of shopping as a leisure time activity. People belonged to clubs or churches for their leisure activities - there would be photographic societies, walking societies, bird watching clubs, political clubs affiliated with the political parties, even correspondence courses. Teach Yourself Books thrived in those days. Local libraries were well stocked with books, not multimedia experiences. The WEA (Workers Educational Association) ran night courses.
The idea that one day, shopping would take over from all these would have seemed not only surreal, but also immoral. But it has, it has joined watching television, getting blind drunk and having random sex as one of the main leisure time activities in Britain today. That it would be a shopping based on enormous levels of debt in order to acquire junk that one had no real need for, would have seemed back then impossibly dangerous and bordering on the wicked. That was a world which could not, would not, happen.
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