Writing your family history – small domestic tasks

I had a great session with my Family History Writing Group; we are exploring how to tell the story of the past, our past, our forebears and ancestors. Sometimes their lives were mundane and ordinary, sometimes incredible and extraordinary. But how do we write about them? How do we make accessible all the work we have done on our genealogy?

My group ponders and thinks about this. Today, as a starter, I gave extracts from a selection of 1940’s and 50’s books which explained all about domestic tasks, just ordinary everyday things which we do now, and the people who came before us also did – but differently.

Here’s a selection of extracts from a variety of sources (including me):

  • How easy for me, and how hard it was in past generations; the mum and daughters would be up early to light the fire under the copper to heat the water – in even earlier generations I guess it would be pans of water over the fire, or just using cold water from the pump or nearby stream or river. Once the water was hot, then the clothes could be washed – or in case of whites, boiled, along with some powder or soap to get the marks out. Things would have been scrubbed, washboards used, things pounded on slabs, or stones by the river. To get rid of excess water the washing would be squeezed and wrung and passed through a mangle. Then the laundry could be put on a line, or thrown over a bush, or laid out on clean pasture. Wooden pegs, wooden clothes props, and wooden clothes horses… I do have wooden pegs, but I have a whirligig clothes line and plastic-coated, metal clothes horse.
  • Recipes From an Old Farm Kitchen – Sue Robb
    When farmhands were in plentiful supply those who did not sleep in the loft over the kitchen had to be in the yard by 6a.m. That meant a long walk in the eerie morning light, and potholes were like a magnet to the steel toecap of a big nailed boot. Putties were unrolled every morning and bandaged from boot to knee cap. They were part of the farm workers uniform in the days of earthen floors, ash pits and brass knobbed kettles. The fire in the hearth or the big black range had to be lit, then to wait patiently until it was well kindled before putting on the outsize pan filled with thick slices of home cured salty bacon, soda farls and yellow yoked eggs.
  • The Happy Housewife Ruth Drew
    • when putting clothes through a wringer, see that the buttons and trimmings are folded inside for protection
    • berets and caps can be dried successfully on plates or basins of the appropriate size –
    • Do not peg corsets or girdles for drying by shoulder straps or suspenders. Hang lengthwise
    • Getting really dirty collars clean – Wet the collars overnight. Massage in some soapflakes, or detergent powder. Roll each up tightly, like a Chelsea bun. This loosens dirt gently
    • To wash delicate old lace – pour some suds made with the best quality detergent into a jam jar or wide-necked bottle. Pop the lace into the jar, cover the top, and shake really well. Rinse thoroughly and roll in a towel to absorb the moisture
    • To wash corduroy at home – the bath is the best tub! Move the corduroys up and down in a rich lather. Don’t rub or twist. Go over very dirty places with a soft nailbrush. Hang to drip dry – no wringing please
  • The Happy Housewife Ruth Drew
    Rugs for the bedroom or nursery can be made from oddments of unravelled wool. Either work in firm double crochet using the wool double or treble, or work in garter stitch, again using the wool double or treble. The needles should be fairly fine compared with the thickness of the wool, to make a firm fabric. Alternatively, several thicknesses of wool to make tufted rugs or mats, a delightful multi-coloured spot effect being obtained by making every tuft a different colour.

Unravelled wool is as good as, and sometimes better than new wool for darning, and a collection of oddments is invaluable when trying to match colours for mending or embroidery.

  • Constance Spry
    • if you don’t have a double sink supplement your single one with a rinsing bowl
    • use soap flakes not detergent (if you have to use detergent take special care with rinsing so no smell is left behind)
    • a slice of lemon dipped in salt will remove tea stains from cups
    • use a little vinegar in your rinsing water
    • do as old-fashioned housewives did – boil your silver spoons and forks, dry while hot, and polish with a leather (this avoids cleaning with ‘plate powder’)
    • dry mustard rubbed on the blade of a knife removes the smell of fish or onions
    • fine wire wool and soap is the best way to clean saucepans (wire wool once used becomes rusty so keep it in a jar of cold water – you can also add left over bits of soap to the water)
  • Constance Spry – washing up: what you will need:
    • fairly loose-fitting, rough-surfaced rubber gloves
    • one or possibly two papier mâché bowls
    • a rubber scraper
    • a roll of rough crêpe paper, sold for the purpose of wiping crockery or cutlery clean before washing
    • two or three mops
    • tea and glass cloths
  • Historically most ordinary households wouldn’t have had sinks; water would have been brought in buckets from a well or pump and then decanted as needed. Then a bowl to contain water to wash dishes would have been the only way to do it; later such chores as  washing clothes would have moved from an outside activity in a stream or river, to an inside activity, using a sink – then it would have been important to have a separate bowl for dish washing. The first sinks would have been made of some hard material, some sort of stoneware or ceramic and it would be easy to accidentally break dishes or cups against the sides, so an inserted tub or bowl would have been practical from that point of view.
  • Recipes From an Old Farm Kitchen – Sue Robb
    • onion porridge to cure a cold – 3 large onions, peeled, soaked in water then chopped and 1 apple chopped added to ½ teacup of water, 1 teaspoon honey, 3 cloves, water salt and pepper all simmered together until tender and eaten at supper time
    • an old-fashioned remedy for exhaustion – two fresh eggs beaten with a little warm water… apparently “inside 15 minutes the eggs thus taken all turned to nourishment…
    • celery milk for rheumatism – wash, trim and chop sticks of celery into small pieces, simmer in water and milk for an hour, pound then strain through a jelly bag and use as required freshly made

Packing the suitcase

maybe it was because I did so many jigsaws as a child, but I am really good at fitting things – packing suitcases for example, packing the car boot to go on holiday, filling the car/van when someone (son/daughter) is moving house… I’m just really good at it! However… I daresay my heroine, Ruth Drew was infinitely better. Ruth was a journalist and broadcaster who died very young, too young, but her broadcast scripts and writings were posthumously published.

Her is a selection of her advice on packing suitcases:

  • air the case by an open window or out-of-doors several days before packing is due. Brush the inside thoroughly
  • would cases benefit by treatment with leather soap or hide cream? Are all handles and locks secure?
    If a pleated skirt is part of your holiday kit,cut the foot from a worn-out stocking and pack the skirt sausagewise within, without folding. The sausage can, if necessary round a corner in the suitcase
  • don’t risk the disastrous jar and bottle breakages (she suggests tough, slightly pliable, light plastic containers, now to be had in every shape and size)
  • a good way of economising with tie-on labels is to write one’s surname at the top, in large clear letters just below the tag. At the other end write the destination. Then, when packing is done after the holiday, the label’s end can be snipped off and the home town inscribed above the snip!

Ruth also has a system for packing items in the case:

  • on the bottom of the case pack all heavy objects, keeping the layer as level as possible, wedging crannies with small objects
  • follow with woollies and underclothes
  • suits and bulky dresses go in next, folded to fit the exact size of the case and well-lined with double tissue paper to diminish creasing. Buttons and fastenings should be done up; and if the pleats are pinned or lightly tacked,so much the better
  • use more tissue paper for the top layer of fragile things such as light dresses and blouses

I must bear this in mind… although many of the things Ruth packed, pleated skirts, suits and woollies, I don’t possess. let alone take on holiday!


Washing-up liquid

I sometimes find myself puzzling about very ordinary, day-to-day things… I was talking to a writer friend today and we talked were rambling on about stuff, and we got to reminisce about childhood, and the sort of ordinary household activities we watched (and helped, I hope) our parents do. I started thinking about washing-up, it started with one of my odd topics, washing-up bowls, and I began to wonder what my mum and dad used to wash dishes with. Did they have washing-up liquid then? Or powder? Or did they grate hard soap into hot water and agitate it to make a froth – I know a friend’s mum did…

Start with Wikipedia, and this is what it says:

Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is used for dish-washing, and may be used in areas with hard water. It was used for dish washing before detergents were invented in Germany during World War I. Liquid detergent used for dish washing was first manufactured in the middle of the 20th century. Dish washing detergent producers started production in the United States in the 1930–1940’s. Teepol, the first such in Europe, commenced production in 1942.


But what did my parents use? I have vague memories of some sort of powder which was dissolved… But maybe I am imagining it or muddling it with some other product. There was something called soda which I seem to remember was in crystals, or maybe flakes – was that used for washing up? Of course washing dishes changed forever with the availability of liquid detergents which could be squirted into hot water.

I have looked through all my old cookery books, and in ‘The Happy Housewife’ by Ruth Drew, and although there are literally pages and pages, and hundreds of instructions for cleaning all manner of things, I cannot find any plain simple instructions for washing up.

Here is what I wrote about, thanks to Constance Spry, previously:


And so, it seems to me, everyone has their own methods… here are some of the things I have observed:

  • some people scrape everything left on plates into the bin, then wipe the plates with kitchen paper before washing them
  • some people use the drains from the sinks as waste-disposals, and everything which can go down a plughole does. This includes fat and grease from cooking (sometimes softened with hot water)
  • some people have both of the above to some extent – scraping off most left-overs, but letting the more liquid stuff go down the drains
  • soaking everything in hot water before running clean water, adding detergent and washing up
  • similar to above, but rinsing every item under the hot tap before washing up
  • washing up with detergent, then rinsing everything in clean water (sometimes hot, sometimes cold)
  • washing everything all over again in hot water with no detergent
  • leaving everything to soak in hot water, (after washing)
  • leaving everything to drain dry
  • drying up and polishing everything
  • washing up in a set order: glasses, cutlery, side plates, dessert dishes, vegetable dishes, plates and soup bowls, saucepans, frying pans, bakeware… for example!
  • changing the water regularly, not changing the water at all (I think this may be older people who grew up when water needed to be heated, rather than coming hot out of the tap)
  • cleaning the bowl and sink meticulously every time when finished, and the draining board, or cleaning it as deemed necessary. Sometimes cleaning everything again before washing up next time.

I came across this:


… and here is something I wrote about washing up bowls:



Wringing, drying berets, pegging corsets… and other washday tips

As I’ve mentioned before, nearly every time I do those repetitive household chores, like washing clothes, hanging them out, ironing them… I think back to my mum doing the same. This makes it sound as if neither my dad nor my husband ever did/do those things, well, yes they did/do, it’s just for some reason I think of my mum!

Glancing through Ruth Drew’s amusing, useful and historically interesting book, The Happy Housewife, it’s interesting to see aspects of these everyday chores which are  so different – usually because thanks to modern technology and modern cleaning materials and detergents, most of these things are so easy – oh and in the case of laundry, the easy-wear/wash/iron fabrics we have.

Here are just a few of the differences I saw today when I was reading her book for the umpteenth time:

  • when putting clothes through a wringer, see that the buttons and trimmings are folded inside for protection – Good advice – but no-one these days has a mangle or wringer, surely!
  • berets and caps can be dried successfully on plates or basins of the appropriate size – I shall bear this in mind… except I don’t think I’ll ever have a beret, and should i have a wet cap I will put it in the airing cupboard or on a radiator
  • Do not peg corsets or girdles for drying by shoulder straps or suspenders. Hang lengthwise – I do not have either item of clothing, not even my mum had a corset or girdle – and why would either have shoulder straps? I am bemused!
  • Getting really dirty collars clean – Wet the collars overnight. Massage in some soapflakes, or detergent powder. Roll each up tightly, like a Chelsea bun. This loosens dirt gently –  I’m guessing these are detachable collars… maybe collars don’t get so dirty since fabrics are better, people are cleaner, and hair products are often wash out-able
  • To cope with handkerchiefs… I don’t want to go there, use paper ones and throw them away!
  • To wash delicate old lace – pour some suds made with the best quality detergent into a jam jar or wide-necked bottle. Pop the lace into the jar, cover the top, and shake really well. Rinse thoroughly and roll in a towel to absorb the moisture – OK… should I ever have a piece of old lace in need of washing I will remember!
  • To wash corduroy at home – the bath is the best tub! Move the corduroys up and down in a rich lather. Don’t rub or twist. Go over very dirty places with a soft nailbrush. Hang to drip dry – no wringing please!  – once again, modern fabrics and detergents make life so easy – and if in doubt, I would take them to the cleaners – if I ever had any corduroys!


Spring cleaning… do I have to?

As it’s the vernal equinox, and I guess the first day of spring, and as I seem to have neglected housework in favour of writing maybe I should properly think about doing a traditional spring clean. The inner child in me whines ‘do I have to?’… and yes maybe I do, because our house really is lacking a bit of love and attention. I actually don’t remember my mum having a session of spring cleaning, she just did the housework as far as I recall, but maybe she did and just didn’t make a fuss of it!

Consulting Ruth Drew’s ‘The Happy Housewife’, I find pages and pages of helpful hints and instructions… ‘with spring cleaning on the map, it is necessary to sit down with a pencil and make a proper plan of campaign. it pays hand over fist, especially if you have other things to do beside housework…‘ Well, yes, I do have other things to do!

Luckily one of the first things Ruth suggests is that you ‘don’t try to do too much in a rush,’ and suggests its spread over several weeks – would several months be ok, Ruth?

She mentions chimney sweeps and clutter, comfortable shoes and handcream and of course, a dust-preserving handkerchief tied round the head! … and then has paragraphs on specific areas of spring clean need:

  • cupboards, selves and drawers
  • paintwork, carpets and rugs, upholstery and floors
  • turning out rooms, cornices, alabaster, glass, plastic, parchment, silk, rayon, nylon, paper buckram
  • general points including lampshades and lamps
  • curtains – brocades and damasks, chintz – both permanently and non-permanently glazed, cottons, Holland blinds, muslin and lace, net, rayon, terylene, velvet, washable velveteens and chenilles and similar

Odds and ends about shoes… and airing them…

I didn’t know shoes needed airing… Maybe in the 1940’s and 50’s when Ruth Drew wrote her articles and broadcast on the BBC and shoes were made differently with more natural and organic materials then it was important. here she adds some ‘odds and ends’ of information about shoes, including the Golden Rule number one priority…

… put your shoes on shoe trees as soon as you take them off – trees which fit properly so the creases of wear are smoothed out. If you don’t possess such things, at least you can scrumple up newspaper and pack it carefully in the toes.

This rings such a bell for me! When I was a child, and right through to when I was a student living in ghastly bedsits and so-called ‘flats’, I travelled about mostly by walking, or cycling, or catching a bus which often involved waiting at bus stops. Especially when I lived in Manchester, on the west and wet side of the country, I often arrived home soaked and would take off my shoes and scrumple up newspaper and stuff it into them  just as Ruth describes. When we were children we didn’t have central heating, so the shoes would be to the side of the fireplace where it was warm but not directly in front of the fire, on newspaper, slowly drying out. Nowadays I put newspaper filled wet shoes in the airing cupboard… which brings me onto Ruth’s next piece of advice:

Then you probably know the shoes need airing. For this reason they’re best parked on a rack in an airy place. But as a matter of fact, strong as it is, leather is quite temperamental stuff. It’s sensitive to extreme mes of temperature, for one thing. For another, it’s affected by perspiration. There are acids in perspiration which have a rotting effect. That’s why the importance of airing shoes must be emphasised – to give them a chance to breathe and get rid of this acidity.

I think there are only trace amounts of lactic acid in sweat… but even so, I’m sure Ruth is right to advise shoe airing!

Another point about equipment

As you may know, I find ordinary domestic details from the past absolutely fascinating. Ruth drew, a journalist, writer and broadcaster, sounds a real character – I never heard any of her live broadcasts, but I have the collection of some of her work which was published posthumously in 1964, four years after her untimely death. She writes so informatively, and yet humorously, quirkily, who would have thought an article about shoe cleaning could be interesting?!

Another point about equipment: it’s important to work with clean tools, shoes don’t like dirty clogged brushes, and dusters any more than noses like dirty powder puffs. And a shampoo for them only takes a few minutes.

What she says is patently true, clean tools are important for any job. Yet, the analogy dates this completely – she is writing for women, women who will be cleaning the shoes, and women who in those days all had compacts and powder puffs. (I mentioned a few days ago about ashtrays – that most young people would see a domestic ashtray from the past and think it a little dish for something, something edible or just for bits and pieces. In the same conversation with my friend about ashtrays we talked about powder compacts and powder puffs, who has a compact these days?) Back to Ruth:

Now you may well say this is all very well for people who trot about on town pavements. But what about shoes which come in plastered with country mud? Well, sometimes, when the mud’s dry, it can be brushed off. otherwise the answer’s first a wash with plain water and then a careful slow drying in an airy place not near radiators, or toasting like crumpets in front of the fire. All the mud has to be shifted before the shoes are dried and polished. if not you’re left with crusty blobs of dried mud rising reproachfully under the polish. And no amount of guilty rubbing’s going to see the back of them.
Warmth is a help when you’re polishing shoes. If you work with slightly warm dusters and brushes the polish comes up quickly and can save you time and elbow grease.

What lovely images – shoes toasting like crumpets, crusty blobs of mud rising reproachfully, guilty rubbing… Who could not find Ruth endearing?