Speaking to people about their memories of this time, one is struck by the extraordinary impact that one domestic appliance has had on society, and in particular on the position of women. The washing machine. Before its invention, doing the family laundry was hugely time consuming. For Muriel Langford, living in a one-roomed flat above the High Street just after World War Two, washing for herself, her husband and their young baby was hard work.
We bought a big boiler (known as a copper, a ubiquitous piece of everyday domestic life then), a big pan with a lid, and I used to fill that with water. I’d put it on my gas ring in our main room, and when it was warm enough I’d do my washing on a little table. Once I had done it, I hung it up in our room and opened the window.
In the late 50s and early 60s, Alan Langmaid lived with his grandmother and his mother. While his mother worked fulltime as a teacher, his grandmother took on the role of full-time housewife. “That’s one of the reasons she was a housewife, because all of this was so time consuming. The washing was time-consuming, she was busy from morning until night. She didn’t stop until everyone had gone to bed”.
Vera Harvey also grew up with her grandparents, and the work of doing the family washing fell to her grandmother, although Vera and her sister were expected to play an active part. Their house in the centre of Totnes had a washhouse, which had two large bathtubs and was, initially, lit by candles. When electricity was installed in their house, they ran a cable out to the washhouse. The hot water was produced in a copper, and once washed, clothes needed to be put through a mangle. She recalls the arrival of the first washing machine.
As soon as we got a washing machine that was it. ‘I’m not going out in that wash house like Gran!’ In the 1950s, our first washing machine had a wringer on top. I remember when we used the washhouse, being out there with my Gran, and it was snowing, getting deeper and deeper, saying ‘Gran! We can’t stay out here!’. People worked so hard in those days.
Likewise, Marion Adams grew up washing her clothes in a copper and is similarly un-nostalgic about those pre-washing machine days. “We had a mangle, you had to mangle your clothes! It was terrible. Your feet and legs would get wet, it was hard work. Mum used to wash all our sheets by hand; they were all pegged out on the line. Monday was pegging out day, so on Mondays we had cold food, mashed potatoes and salad”. In time they also progressed to a twin tub with a mangle on top of it. Val Price has similar memories of Monday washdays, although she remembers her father having to turn the mangle, as her mother said it too hard for her. It is hard to overstate the importance of the mass proliferation of electric washing machines. It could deservedly stand as being the single most important invention of the 20th century, certainly as far as the lives of ordinary women are concerned.
Refrigeration wasn’t a part of peoples’ lives until the early 1960s. Muriel Langford recalls that until then, for her, a fridge was “a good pantry, and for milk, a bowl on the floor full of cold water with a wet cloth over it”. Ian Slatter recalls in 1959, working behind the bar at the Seymour Hotel (now flats), at the annual Police Ball. There was a raffle to win a small refrigerator, a novelty at the time. His fellow barman failed to turn up and it was extremely hectic. “This bloke came along, he said do you want any tickets for this fridge? I said get me a book of tickets to write out and I’ll pay you later on. At the end of the evening the band struck up when the draw was done. Who won it? Yours truly”.
The next day when it was delivered, he didn’t tell his mother what was to be delivered. He continues, “knock, knock, knock on the back door, and they said, “We’ve brought your fridge”. My mother said “Fridge?! Fridge?!” Nobody had a fridge. My mother said nice to have, but it was so new, nobody had fridges”.
In January 1947, the year of ‘the big freeze’, Muriel Langford lived with her husband and young son in a flat in Weston House in Berry Pomeroy, which had a gas geyser for heating water for baths, but disappointingly didn’t have an actual bath.
Baths were not easily available after the war, they weren’t being made and many of them had gone to be melted down into aeroplanes and so on. So we didn’t have a bath, we had a bathroom with a sink in it but nothing else, but we had a great brown sink, not very deep. I used to heat water in the gas copper, and then I’d pour it into the sink and I’d sit in the sink and Eric would come and sponge me down. You daren’t move too much, it’d lap over! It was good fun!
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