callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

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Mistress and Maid: ramblings about housekeeping

For Christmas, I was given the Persephone Books edition of Kay Smallshaw’s How to Run your Home without Help, first published in post-war, rationed Britain in 1949. No, it wasn’t a subtle hint that an educated person could write their name in the dust on the piano. I asked for it because I am interested in these old housekeeping books. At first sight it seems a curious choice for Persephone, who publish mostly novels, but of course it provides very useful background for many of the books they have already printed. I enjoyed reading it and I must say that I am not one of those people who found it horrifying and instantly retitled it How to have a Nervous Breakdown. Someone has to do the housework and cluttering up the house with mottos like 'Dull Women Have Tidy Houses' or 'For This I Spent Four Years in College' can’t alter the fact. After all, the alternatives are a dirty house or paying some other woman to do the work and neither is an option for me. There has always been a lot of snobbery about housework as Jilly Cooper highlights wickedly in her book Class (1979) in which lower middle class Jen Teale keeps a spotless home while upper middle class Samantha Upward is rather a slut. It is fashionable to loathe and despise housekeeping.

Kay Smallshaw had been editor of Good Housekeeping magazine, which is still going today. In 1952 it looked like this

In the same year was published Good Housekeeping’s Home Encyclopaedia, ‘Compiled by the Good Housekeeping Institute’. I recently inherited my mother’s copy of this, which she has dated 1953. Many of the pictures are so familiar to me that I must have studied them quite often when I was a child. They show in detail the machines, tools and recipes which Smallshaw wrote about. My mother had previously handed over to me this recipe book from 1949

which she used to use. Yes, we did have birthday cakes in the shape of trains and toadstools made from a hard boiled egg with half a tomato on top, decorated with spots of salad cream.

The housekeeper has never been short of advice, from The English Hus-Wife by Gervase Markham (1615) through The Book of Household Management edited by Mrs Beeton (1859 – 61) to (less usefully) Shirley Conran’s Superwoman: every woman’s book of household management (1975). She has also been the subject of constant propaganda. In the nineteenth century she was The Angel in the Home. During the First World War she had to Keep the Home Fires Burning while in the Second World War, more arduously, she was fighting on the Home Front against the Squander Bug by learning to Make Do and Mend and feeding her family Woolton Pie. Today she is told that by giving her children chips, pizza and chocolate she is killing them and she should force Five a Day down their unwilling throats. Bring back Welfare Orange!

The patronizing nature of some of the advice handed out is astonishing. The National Cookery Book

by the Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, begins with ‘Why We Eat Food’. This was published by the National Manufacturers’ Coupon Association Ltd., so I assume that like Smallshaw’s book it was published after the war but was not intended for her middle class audience. Once the war was over the emphasis was again on woman as homemaker, despite the housing shortage. It is understandable that after long years of war people wanted security. Any number of advertisements featured Dad in his chair smoking a pipe, Mum knitting, two children neatly dressed in school uniform doing homework or playing quietly, with possibly the wireless on in the background. Take a look at the cover of Every Woman’s Book of Home-Making published by The Amalgamated Press in 1938.

The design looks like the work of Eileen Soper, doesn’t it? And reminds one of the family stories of Enid Blyton. This is the world many people (not just the government propaganda machine) wanted to return to.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 and the end of rationing in 1954 helped people look forward instead of back and ‘contemporary’ was the buzz word. This wonderful book, so you’re engaged

states ‘1954 edition’, so was probably an annual publication. It is full of advertisements and photos of ‘contemporary’ style. It even has a page listing ‘useful books on sex’. Home is no longer ‘a haven for hubby’, as described in Every Woman’s Book…) but a bright, shared space. This is aspirational, though. I’m sure the Good Housekeeping Encyclopaedia came closer to most peoples’ expectations. In the 1950s most houses were rented and until the end of the decade few families had a washing machine or a refrigerator.

I had never previously heard of Kay Smallshaw. Far more familiar was the redoubtable Elizabeth Craig, who proferred advice on every aspect of housekeeping. One of my favourite housekeeping books is her Keeping House with Elizabeth Craig, published in 1936. My copy was a school prize presented to my mother-in-law. Craig's ‘Daily Time-Table’ for the single-handed housekeeper is exactly the kind of thing Smallshaw first dismisses, then begins to follow herself. Example:
7 a.m. Draw curtains. Open windows. Clean dining room and living room.
And so on, with every minute of the day accounted for. As this is a pre-war edition, there is also a chapter on ‘Running a Home with Servants’. The first thing the reader needs to know, apparently, is ‘when to dismiss without notice’. Mrs (?) Craig was a very strict lady whom I always hear in my head as Scottish. This book is quite lavishly produced. Smaller and cheaper are the books in Elizabeth Craig’s Household Library, which I think were published after the war. The series included 1,000 Household Hints, Economical Cookery, Needlecraft, Housekeeping and Gardening. They are easy to pick up cheaply.

More up-market are the books of Constance Spry. Spry is a very interesting character; a woman of humble origins who became a style arbiter and successful business woman, founder of the school of cookery and gracious living at Winkfield Place. Famously, she ‘did the flowers’ for the Coronation in 1953. Readers of Smallshaw’s book will have noted that one of her time saving hints is to check the flower vases before going to bed. Note the plural: the flower-filled home was taken for granted. But flowers were expensive. Constance Spry showed how to make ‘arrangements’ from simple cottage garden and wild flowers, even incorporating cabbages and pumpkins into her designs.

How to do the Flowers is the Spry book you are most likely to come across. It is a slim paperback, published in 1953 with a foreword by Beverley Nichols, himself a great celebrity at the time. I think the book was available as a special offer from Woman’s Own, which shows that Spry’s influence reached far beyond the debs at Winkfield Place to the ‘ordinary housewife’. Her innovative use of containers, (‘get the blacksmith to line the box with lead’) and dramatic reconstructions of Flemish flower paintings were a revelation. She wrote many other books about flower arranging which are interesting to the gardener, as she used some uncommon flower varieties. My favourite is probably Favourite Flowers but Winter and Spring Flowers and Summer and Autumn Flowers are also very good.

The Constance Spry Cookery Book (1956) which she wrote with Rosemary Hume is worth getting hold of, as is, for its period interest, Hostess. This was also written with Rosemary Hume and was published posthumously after Spry’s sudden death. Constance Spry is the writer on household matters whom I see in the background of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels of middle class life, many of which have been reprinted by Virago.

Charming advertisement for Silvo polish, 1950s, loosely inserted in How to do the Flowers.

Fifty years on, are women better off? We must be thankful not to have to rake out and light fires every morning, or have a water heater in the bathroom that goes ‘bang’ every time it’s lit; to struggle with a recalcitrant old stove or even a range, do the household washing by hand every Monday and still provide three cooked meals a day plus tea. Since the Clean Air Act of 1956 (and others) our homes just don’t get so dirty. But as Kay Smallshaw says, ‘however you try to work it, beds have to be made, rooms tidied and dishes washed every day,’

For a much younger person’s perspective on this, read here.

Relevant books
Millions Like Us: British Women’s Fiction of the Second World War Jenny Hartley (Virago 1997)
The Provincial Daughter R M Dashwood (daughter of E M Delafield) 1961 & 2002
Private Enterprise Angela Thirkell 1947
Class Jilly Cooper 1979

Domestic bliss, 1937 style, from The Housewife's Book, Daily Express.
Tags: 1930s/40s/50s, cleaning, constance spry, elizabeth craig, flower arranging, housekeeping, kay smallshaw, persephone books, women's books

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