- The bath that came in from the cold: the rise of the modern domestic bathroom: part 2
I’ve been re-reading a great book about domestic life: ‘If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home’ by Lucy Worsley. I highly recommend this book for a fascinating, very accessible history of the home. Of bathrooms she says, ‘Bathrooms are now…the only rooms…with a lock on their doors, yet the activities that take place within did not always require privacy’.
The full immersion of the body into water was more of a ritual for spiritual purposes or for political allegiance than it was to do with getting clean. Soldiers would cleanse themselves before going off to the crusades – it was a setting aside of the physical and the spiritual self for the express purpose of going into battle for God. Knights bathed before receiving the conveyed upon them.
The concept of a room set aside (more or less) for the sole purpose of cleansing the body is a relatively new one. Previously, bathing was a communal, social activity. In the medieval times, both sexes enjoyed bathing in public bathhouses. It was not done to cleanse the body but for fun and relaxation. You could even get a meal sent in to you, and a few pints of ale from a nearby inn. Unfortunately the bathhouses where you could bathe, drink and be merry rapidly acquired a reputation for naughty sexual shenanigans, and it wasn’t long before bathhouses became brothels, pure and simple. There were other concerns too: sharing water with a large number of other people meant that bacteria lurked, and bathing became more likely to infect your body, not less. Bathing began to be regarded with suspicion and distrust, and consequently, people stopped doing it.
This gave rise to the private wash in the bedroom. We have probably all seen the large jug sitting in a matching china bowl on a washstand, a vital piece of furniture. Hot water was carried up from the fires of the kitchen or scullery by panting maids who must have had biceps and shoulders like a modern action movie hero. These days we still see these jug sets in homes, guest houses and boutique hotels, no longer for daily use but for decoration, used to convey a sense of homely comfort and traditional values.
But with bathing out, the emphasis was on the wearing of clean clothes. Underwear was invented, and it became the norm to change the clothes more often. Washing was done in the dim recesses of the servants areas of the large country house, with households employing one, two or sometimes a whole team of laundresses for this particular work. Labour was cheap, clothes were not.
And it wasn’t all about the nasty germs that you might pick up from bathing, nor about having enough staff to fill a bath or run up and down with hot water. From the middle of the nineteenth century more than half of Britain’s population were living in cities. The sheer logistical demands of bringing fresh, clean water into the cities was a nightmare. Remember these places still had open sewers until the beginning of the 19th century. Water, when piping began, was often rusty, or tainted, or just not available due to the inefficiency of the system or the lack of proper distribution. Piped water was often only available at set times, so households had to either manage without, or get used to collecting and storing it until needed. This all required management and planning.
But from the Regency period onwards bathing, at home and beyond, again began to be seen as an important part of everyday life across all social strata. If you watched the new adaptation/reimagining of Jane Austen’s unfinished work, Sanditon on TV recently, you would have enjoyed the sight of gorgeous young men emerging from the sea after a swim – naked, of course, but perilously close to where the ladies are bathing from bathing machines in a ridiculous array of clothing to swim in. In Jane Austen’s wonderful work Pride and Prejudice, the precocious Lydia says, ‘I’m sure I should love to go sea-bathing,’ whilst her mother responds with ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.’
There were still concerns about the dangerous effects of the action of the sea having a stimulating effect on women in particular, as ‘everyone’ knew that women were hysterical creatures at the best of times, and any kind of physical enjoyment was to be strictly controlled. I wonder if the birth rate went up nine months after a trip to the seaside? I guess that depends on whether or not ladies spotted someone like Sidney Parker (aka Theo James!) ambling out of the sea with not a stitch on.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland travels to Bath with Mrs Allen to take the waters for their health, and in doing so, they are participating in the huge trend that was sweeping the nation: it was once more a good and healthy thing to do, not to mention a vital aspect of the social calendar for the well-to-do. To go to Bath, to see and be seen in the various rooms of the spa was on everyone’s to-do list. Science – or natural philosophy as it was then called – touted the benefits to mind, body and spirit of warm water containing salts and minerals. They didn’t just bathe in it, either. It was drunk by the pint.
But what if you were too poor to be able to be seen at a trendy spa?
The poor, or even middling wealthy, could of course, always swim in the sea, or lakes and rivers, and were arguably less at risk of the rapid rise and fall of fashionable opinion. New coastal resorts sprang up from the Regency era onwards, and from the middle part of Victoria’s reign the railways took even the less well-off to the coast for a day’s relaxation, walking swimming and sandcastle building. But even at home, the tin bath would come out and be filled with hot water for getting off the week’s grime and starting a new week fresh and clean. Ish.
Faith played a part here. Religion determined your bath night. Did you believe that Sunday or Saturday was the sabbath? Was the start of the new week Sunday or Monday for you? Because that dictated which day of the week your family had their weekly bath. For many, the end of the week was Sunday, and that was bath night, but there were large numbers for whom Saturday was the last day of the week and Sunday the first, so they had their bath on a Saturday night. Scandanavian languages still carry this concept in the everyday word for Saturday – in Swedish it’s lördag, in Danish and Norwegian it’s lørdag, and in Icelandic it’s laugardag (which is the closest to the language of origin). But they all mean the same – pool or bath day. There was also a sense that bathing was a social duty – one had to consider the people aroudn one, and the idea of smelling bad to others was abhorrent.
For most people who were brought up C of E (Church of England/Anglican) Sunday remained the day when you had your weekly bath. And there was a strict order to who got to have the bath: starting with either the eldest or the ‘man of the house’ or main bread-winner (usually all three would have been the father of the family), and proceeding down the chain to the youngest. All using the same water. Can you imagine the state of the water by the end? There is a reason we have an old saying ‘Don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.’ I’m guessing the water was so murky it would be hard to tell if anyone was left in there, though I sincerely hope no mother would accidentally leave her baby int he water and forget about it. (Said the woman who once took a picture of her baby in her new coat, then left the house, and was halfway into town before remembering the baby was still lying on the sofa… sorry, Darling!)
In 1918, a law was passed in Britain to the effect that all new houses had to have hot and cold running water to a bathroom. But of course, this had no impact on the millions of older homes. Only as finances allowed would bathrooms be added to the terraces and villas across the nation. These days if you buy a Victorian home, you will find either a bedroom or two have been sacrificed to provide bathrooms, or a bathroom has been added on as a built extension to the back of the house, often downstairs.
Fast forward to the Second World War, and hot water was rationed – or rather the coal that was usually the means of heating it, and individuals were only supposed to use a depth of four inches of water per day in their baths. I’m not sure how anyone hoped to regulate this, or how much it contributed to the war effort, but like a lot of things at that time, it gave the community as a whole a sense of ‘doing our bit’ and made people think they were helping their nation to win the fight.
So that’s it, from there we went to actual baths in actual designated bathrooms, and the concept of a daily shower quickly became a normal part of our cleansing ritual.
I want to close with this lovely item. I took this picture at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. It’s a portable or travelling shower bath. The bamboo supporting canes can be removed, and the water tank at the top taken off, so that the traveller is left with conveniently-sized separate sections that can be readily reassembled on arrival at the destination. Always supposing you haven’t left vital screws, nuts or bolts etc on the dining room table at home. I like to think of it as a kind of IKEA device, with a Scandanavian-sounding name. Maybe The Lördag?
next week – the loo!
- The rise of the domestic bathroom: My childhood in the 60s
As you will know if you’ve been to this blog before, I’m a bit of a history nut, and in particular I love the history of the private home. I mainly write mysteries set in the 1930s, although I set my books in other eras too from time to time.
But the few short years between the World War I and World War II bewitch and intrigue me. These were the years that really created the world as we know it now, and the legacy of those years is still widely felt and experienced today. (To read a bit more about how I see this era, please click on this link to read a blog post from last year)
Because of my daft preoccupation with the first part of the twentieth century, I visit a lot of English country houses and I take LOADS of pictures. I’m particularly interested in the more ‘basic’ aspects of life. I want to know about how meals were created, how houses and clothes were cleaned, and how people cleaned themselves. So I thought I’d tell you a bit about my childhood, and also next week, a bit about the rise of the modern domestic bathroom.
I was born in 1960 in the South of England. Contrary to many peoples’ view, this was not a time of universal comfort and modernisation. Not that I was particularly aware of it as a child, but looking back now, I can see we were very badly off by modern standards. Yet we were not alone, and I doubt if our experience was a rare one.
From when I was about three, or a little younger, we lived in what can only be described as a bedsit, though in those days we gave it the grander name of a one-room flat. Mum and I slept, cooked, and relaxed in that one room in an old house, with many other such rooms. If you read books written in the 40s, 50s and 60s, you will often come across mention of these grand old houses gone down in the world and divided up into flats or bedsits. Larger private homes became unmanageable without a staff to run them, and after the first world war, wages rose, and labour was scarce, lured away by the higher wages and often shorter working weeks in the factories. We lived in one of those grand old houses, a handsome very square, white-washed Georgian villa over four floors.
We were on the first floor ( second floor to you guys from the States), and our room faced out the back where there were the remains of a beautiful garden. Our neighbours on the same floor were two men sharing a room. They were British but called themselves Pierre and Rene, and they worked as hairdressers. They were young, noisy and seemed to have a lot of fun. They gave me gifts and sent postcards whenever they went away. I realise now they were a gay couple. But not then. Then, we thought they were just good friends. Really good friends…
Next door to them was ‘Uncle’ Harry, an elderly refugee from the former Yugoslavia. He’d been living there for fifteen or so years, since the war ended. He gave me tinned fruit and cream as a treat, and told me stories. I think he was lonely. He had lost his family in the war. He proposed to Auntie Zonya regularly but sadly she always turned him down. It was normal for children to call adult friends Auntie or Uncle, even if they were no such relation.
Across the hall was Auntie Zonya. I adored her. She was a strong influence on my early years. I have written a number of short pieces about her, including Jazz Baby, Patrick’s Irish Eyes, Big Knickers, and others. More importantly, she bought me my first cat.
There were others too, who were out for most of the day or kept to themselves, so we didn’t know them so well as these four. Upstairs in what used to be the servants’ quarters in the attic, was Miss Lilian, who was the owner of the house, and I was always told to behave and be polite when she came down to our floor, as she had the power to throw us out onto the street. I remember her as seeming incredibly old, with very white wavy hair, and not much taller than me. I’d love to know more about her life and whether she remembered the house in its prime, when it was all for one family. There’s never a time machine around when you need one.
There were people who lived downstairs in the basement too, but I only slightly knew the couple with the little girl who I played with occasionally. They had windows that were below the level of the garden, with little dug-outs around them to bring in the light. These were presumably the old kitchen, scullery etc of the house when it was in its heyday.
There was a shared bathroom on each floor. I remember we shared our bathroom with at least three and sometimes more other families, though usually these families consisted of single people or couples.
It wasn’t unusual to be on the loo or in the bath and someone else needed to use the facilities. It wasn’t unusual for there to be no hot water because someone else had used too much for their own bath. (No shower!) Most of the time when I was having a bath, someone would come in to shave, or wash, to rinse some clothes, or to use the loo–not a pleasant experience for either of us!
One friend in the house–my Auntie Zonya–used a chamber pot until well into the late 60s. I found it (empty I hasten to add) under her bed once and thought she was putting out cups of tea for an invisible giant. (I was an imaginative child) I only found out what it was when I asked her where the saucer was, as the ‘cup’ was shaped and patterned just like a huge teacup. I’d say that the fact that I didn’t know what it was shows that usage of chamber pots was in decline by the 60s, although clearly not completely done away with.
Even when we moved from there to a house–one bedroom upstairs and a kitchen/sitting-room downstairs, with a toilet in the backyard under a lean-to roof and with no light and loads of spiders–we still had no bath of our own. That was around 1966 or so. But it was private, and cosy, and I remember I loved that house. I was about 6 when we moved in, and only about 7 when we left, so we weren’t there as long as it seems in my memories. It’s gone now: that and the house next door–that belonged to a blind gentleman who was a piano-tuner–were bulldozed to create something a bit nicer. Auntie Zonya lived in the house after us, when we moved on. She said the piano-tuner’s house was haunted. Then again, she said that about everywhere.
Hot water had to be boiled. Baths were not available at all–we didn’t have one of those old-fashioned baths you see in period dramas. We had a plastic washing-up bowl and used to put hot water in it, stand in it and wash ourselves down. I had long hair. Washing that was a nightmare. We used to take a torch out to the loo when we needed it. As a lean-to shack, the loo had no light, no windows, and was freezing cold – even in summer. And the spiders…
When we moved into a council flat (again, for those from outside the UK, I mean an apartment complex in social housing/government housing for the needy/low-income families) we had a big dining/sitting room, a separate kitchen, two bedrooms. AND–drum roll please–a bathroom!!!!!!!! Not to mention under-floor heating. (That was blissful) We had to go to the flat to clean it the week before we moved in as the previous occupants had left it dirty, and this gave us the perfect excuse to have a hot bath, which seemed to us the height of luxury and I can remember it even now, more than fifty years later.
The most exciting part of this house, apart from the bathroom, and the two bedrooms, was the coal door next to the front door. Basically if a thief timed it right they could get into the flat through this coal door and take whatever they wanted (not that we had anything!) and leave by either the front door or the coal door. Not a great feature from a security point of view. As an avid Famous Five reader, I loved the idea of the coal door giving absolutely anyone access to our home.
From there, we entered the modern world of running hot water, central heating and baths, then showers, of washing machines, then tumble driers, fridges, freezers, microwaves, toasters and colour television, computers, the Internet, eBooks and self-publishing…
But long before I came into the world, the common approach to washing, going to the loo, and in personal grooming had undergone massive changes. Read more next week!
- Revised release date for The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson book 5
Just a quick update to apologise to all the lovely people ‘out there’ who have pre-ordered my book, The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5.
Sadly I’ve had to push back the release date by one month for a number of reasons, and so it will not now appear on your Kindle until 30th November 2019.
I’m so sorry for the inconvenience!
- Woohoo…NaNo2019 Funsies!
At this time of year, everyone starts putting out their ‘Tips For NaNo’ blogs. As I didn’t want to be left out, I thought I’d add my voice to all the advice aimed at writers planning to participate in this year’s (Inter)National Novel Writing Month through NaNoWriMo.org in November.
What do you mean, ‘what is it?’? It’s
secondfourth only to Hallowe’en, Christmas and Valentine’s as the most celebrated season of the year. Whether you are a seasoned author or a newbie who’s never written a whole novel before, this is a great way to challenge yourself to write a complete novel—though it could also be non-fiction, if that’s your bag, baby—by taking the challenge to write a whopping 50,000 words during the month of November.
I’ve done it several times now, and still haven’t quite made up my mind whether or not to go for it this year, as I’m just doing a final proof of my latest novel which is out at the end of this month, and I am, frankly, exhausted. But I do have some ideas I’ve been mulling over, so who knows, I might—just might—do something rash and go for it.
Even if I decide to do the smart thing and take a break, I can say unreservedly that NaNoWriMo is a great idea and I really believe it’s a valuable writing experience. If you’re not sure whether to do it, then I say, maybe give it a go, what have you got to lose?
You could gain a complete first draft!
Even if you don’t manage to complete the challenge, you will have achieved something – if you only write 10,000 words, or less than that – hey, it’s 10,000, or 1,000 or 250 words more than you had in October.
So here are my top tips for a great NaNoWriMo:
- Prepare. Yes, make sure you do. Even if you see yourself as a ‘pantser’, make sure you hit the ground running on November 1st by having a good idea of what your story is about, who the main characters are, and key plot points. You will need to write a little over1600 words per day every day to achieve the 50,000 word target by the end of the month. Reread any notes you have, and get your Word docs or word processing files, or your Scrivener files ready on your computer of choice. Do any essential research necessary NOW, don’t leave it until November.
I recommend setting up 30 files, dated: 1 Nov, 2 Nov, etc, so they are in the correct order time-wise, type up your story every day. Have another file called something like ‘Whole Thing’, and every day you complete, copy and paste that day’s work into the Whole Thing file, so you won’t have to do this at the end.
If you struggle to get going each new day, leave yourself a few words of direction at the end of your writing session, so when you come to start the next day, you’ve got a starting point.
It is a marathon. And like a runner in a marathon, you will have to learn to overcome ‘the voice’ in your head that tells you to give up, that you can’t do it. It’s not just athletes: you will find that voice also tries to trip up writers. You must learn to be stubborn, bloody-minded even, and refuse to give in even when everything in you and around you says you will fail and that what you are writing is terrible. So what, you will say, I’m going to do it. Carpe Stilum. Seize the pen! (I think…Latin is not my strongest skill)
If you get really stuck, go back and reread what you’ve already written, try to figure out what your original vision was and how you saw the story developing. If that isn’t working for you, try writing isolated scenes , conversations between your characters, events, try writing description of the setting in your story. Anything to keep going. Collect some images that will help to inspire you or give you a push forward when things are tough. You can find some wonderful images for free on Pixabay. Create a folder of these images to look at when you need something to spur you on.
- Keep your daily writing typed up. This is important if it’s your first time. Type your work into a computer file, don’t only write in longhand. Because at the end of the month, you need to copy and paste all your writing into the NaNoWriMo counter to get your achievement verified. And if it’s only written in notebooks, no matter how neat the writing nor fancy the notebook, it just—doesn’t—count. So don’t do what I did two years in a row (argh, the pain! Why am I so forgetful???) of writing mainly longhand then not leaving enough time to type up my work before the end of the month. It’s no good telling NaNoWriMo you’ve successfully completed the challenge if you don’t upload your ENTIRE 50,000 words for verification by their robot. In addition, remember their robot may not count quite the same as you, so ensure you’ve got a couple of hundred words over the 50,000-limit ‘just in case’. Don’t fail because you wrote exactly 50,000 words.
- Don’t get distracted. There is so much to look at on the NaNoWriMo site, and so many useful talks, motivational speeches, helps, suggestions, support groups, discussions and so on, not to mention the merch, but DO NOT spend time looking at this stuff if you haven’t done your daily word count. It is so easy to become distracted and to think, I’ll just write a bit extra tomorrow. Then the dog breaks its leg, and you’re at the vet till midnight and before you know it a week has gone by and you’ve got to write 3,500 words a day just to keep up. So don’t get on that slippery slope. Write first, have fun later.
- Be realistic. The aim here is not to write and publish a great work by Christmas. Okay, I’m sure some wonderman/woman will do exactly that—there’s always a handful of literary stars. But most of us will be aiming to simply write a complete, or almost complete, first draft during NaNoWriMo. Don’t write your 50,000 words then think the work is over, that your book is ready to be unleashed on a waiting world. This is simply the end of the beginning. Once you’ve finished your first draft, pat yourself on the back because it’s a wonderful achievement. Then request your winners’ certificate from NaNoWriMo.org and take a well-earned break. Put your first draft away. Then get it out in a month or six, and begin the process of rewriting, crafting, polishing. Work on it alongside the NaNoWriMo revision camps and workshops, and take pride in getting it as good as it can be. And—while you wait—write another book!
- Keep going through the tough days. At first it’s exciting. It’s fun. You feel a wonderful sense of achievement, and as you reach the end of week one, you survey your 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 words with pride. It’s all so easy, it’s all so wonderful. You should have done this years ago, why do people say writing is tough? BUT…often, (and it won’t just be you who goes through this) you can hit a brick wall. You struggle to wring 400 words from your imagination. Things happen in life and it can be hard to find the time. Suddenly the blank page is staring back at you, in what can only be described as a hostile manner, and you begin to feel like giving up. Now, yes, now it is hard. Maybe it’s not worth it, your inner wimp suggests.
Okay, take a breath, dig deep, you can do this. Hang on in there as they used to say in the 70s. Write a page of ‘I have no idea what to write’ or ‘I am so &*%%£! off with this writing game’. Anything, just to keep writing. Just keep at it and slog through the tough times. This would be a good time to read or listen to ONE or TWO only of the motivational speeches or posts, just so you know there are others going through the same experience. Keep writing, it will come back, I promise. You can make that 50,000 words appear. It’s not inspiration, by the way, it’s hard graft that will get you through this. Hard graft, and ignoring your inner meanie who says it’s time to give up and go home. ‘There’s always next year’, your inner meanie says with a snarky smile. Kick that B*****d in the shins and write on!
Woohoo—you made it! You are a writing genius and should feel sooooo proud of your achievement. Congratulations! Print off your certificate and put it on your wall to gloat over.
One of my books came out of a NaNoWriMo draft. I’ve written a number of other NaNoNovels but they are still on a shelf waiting for some TLC. Not every NaNoNovel shines and reaches publication, and not every novel that shines and is published started life written in 30 days flat in November. But NaNoWriMo is a valuable experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It will do wonders for your self-esteem as a writer.
Now stop wasting time and write another book. Oh, and, please, let me know how you get on! See you on the other side.
- ‘So, where do you get your ideas?’
I know I’ve written on this topic a couple of times before, but it’s one of those questions that never goes away.
Where do you get your ideas?’
This is one of the first questions people usually ask me – and I’m pretty sure it happens to other writers all the time. It kind of makes me want to groan, because it’s next to impossible to give a sincere and considered answer to this question without boring the pants off everyone by talking for an hour. The short, somewhat trite answer might be, ‘Everywhere!’
But if we really want to answer the question, it takes a minute or two longer. Because really there’s no single answer. Ideas don’t come from one unique, unvarying source. Nor do they come in the same way each time. Anything from the world seen or unseen can come to my attention and lead me to think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’
Inspiration, which is what ideas really are, comes from everywhere and nowhere. A snatch of song, a news story, a little patch of colour on a card in the paint section of the DIY store, the turn of a person’s head making you think just for one split second it’s someone else, someone from another time, someone who should be dead. An unexpected view of yourself in a shop window, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know you.’
An overheard snatch of conversation, ‘Don’t lose my hat, man, my hat’s my identity,’ and ‘Of course she never did find out who’d sent it.’ A film, a book, a taste, a smell, a memory, a story your mother told you – you’ve known her all your life yet this is the first time she’s ever mentioned this particular incident.
I have based two full-length stories on dreams, three short stories and one novel on songs, a poem on a piece of art, a novel based on a documentary I saw on TV about ancient tapestries, (Opus Anglicanum: Latin for English work), and another about the Reformation. I’ve written a short story about an arrowhead, and another about ancestral bones and the relevance they might have to a Neolithic man, about a couple of trips to Skara Brae in the Orkneys.
I’ve written a whole series of stories about the fact that all too often people think it’s okay to take the law into their own hands. (I’m looking at you Cressida, MC of the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy!) I’ve written about work situations, about hopes and plans for the future, about family tree research, about children, and pets, and parents. About love. About the absence of love. About Faith. About fear. About books I read as a child. And books I read as an adult. I’ve written about identity and what it means to be who I am, who you are. I’ve written about death – loads.
I saw a gorgeous man on the bus many years ago and wrote a story about him, (The Ice King – still not ‘available’, but if you’re intrigued, here’s a link to a short bit about him.) I’ve read news reports and been inspired to create my own story around some of those. I’ve written in hospital having just given birth, in hospital awaiting treatment for cancer, at work during my lunchbreak when I felt so depressed I just wanted to run away and hide. I’ve written when sitting on the loo, sitting in the garden, on holiday, in bed with flu, and in cafes all over Britain, Europe and Australia. I’ve written on buses and trains and planes. I’ve written when someone I cared about has died. I’ve even got inspiration from sitting down at my desk every day and just making myself write. Sometimes I’ve written page upon page of ‘I don’t know what to write’, like lines that we had to do at school, and still nothing has come to me and I’ve gone away desperate, feeling that the well has not only dried up, but was only a mirage to begin with.
If you are a writer, you squirrel away in the eccentric filing cabinet known as your brain EVERY single thing that you ever experience, and a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle or creating a patchwork quilt, you keep trying pieces together every which way until something fits and makes a pleasing and meaningful picture. There’s not really a pattern to it, there’s not a system or a set of regulations to follow. You just do it.
That’s where I get my ideas.
- ‘Features’ of the 1930s.
I’m back to Betty’s Paper again. I wanted to have a look at the features that are inside the magazine. Tell me what you think – do they seem very ‘now’ to you? I was a little surprised by how similar these mags were to the ones we read today. I’m not sure if I expected something different, and if I did, what exactly? Seems like they nailed the art of selling and entertaining even then.
The first thing that caught my eye with these and with some of the others I’ve seen, is that alluring offer of a ‘Free Gift’ emblazoned on the front. That sent me straight back to the 70s and my copies of Jackie and other magazines designed for teenage girls. There was often a free eye-shadow, or a lip gloss or something. They still do that, dont’ they? That was usually the only reason you bought the mag – that and the pin-ups inside! Can I confess right here and now that I had a massive poster of Ben Murphy from Alias Smith and Jones on my bedroom wall?
So an offer of a ‘platinette ring’ with a ‘sparkling stone of sapphire blue’ is going to lure us in with our hard-earned cash, isn’t it? I love the creativity displayed just in that little offer – platinette – sounds a teeny bit like platinum – so it’s bound to be good! I wonder how many girls were told, ‘Marge, it’s just gilt, love.’ And Marge, faithful to Betty’s Paper unto her dying breath would immediately retort, ‘It’s not gilt, it’s platinette!’ And not just any old platinette, either, it’s got a sparkling stone of sapphire blue in it. (Blue glass to you and me.) Free gifts always had a massive appeal, and would undoubtedly have sold loads more copies of the magazine, at small cost to the publisher. Another ‘free gift’ of note from another issue: A butterfly-shaped dress ornament. I bet that was taken out and admired repeatedly, but never worn – because how many opportunities does a hard-working girl get to go out dolled up with a butterfly on her frock?
But apart from the free gift, what features did Betty’s Paper offer? A few weeks ago I touched on the ads which offered all manner of fortune-telling and astrology. But just like today, for the readers of 1930s Betty’s Papers, the combination of both astrology and celebrities were a heady mix.
There is a double page spread on exactly this topic: ‘Confessions of a Hollywood Fortune Teller’. It’s quite clearly a gossip column under another name, and yet again, I take my metaphorical hat off to the cunning and crafty imagineers who created the content for Betty’s. They knew how to get people’s attention. If I could only bottle that stuff…
We start with a section about a girl called Ruby. You’ve never heard of her, right? Me either. Her name was Ruby Keeler. The article goes on to say ‘It’s hard to imagine a lovely talented girl accepting stardom reluctantly and being doubtful about it, isn’t it?’ (as if we’d know) and then, ‘She had come to Hollywood not as a star but as a star’s wife. That was all Ruby wanted to be. She was completely happy just to be Mrs Al Jolson.’ Oh ok, now I’m interested. But I’m a bit of a cynic and I couldn’t help laughing when I read: ‘She had never quite got over the thrill of realising that anyone so famous and splendid as Al could have wanted her–a night-club and vaudeville dancer. ‘I think you’re marvellous,’ he told her.’
Aww bless. Lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Are you a lonely, single night-club and vaudeville dancer? You too could meet someone famous and splendid who will admire you and call you marvellous for no reason other than that you’re young, blonde, beautiful, and can dance and sing. Just write in to Betty’s Paper and you might win a lovely undie set. We promise not to use your real name and address unless you win. Or are featured in our loveliest readers competition.
Seriously, I hope they were happy.
The bit about Ruby ends with, ‘Ruby became a star–rather reluctantly–and although she’s a bigger star than Al these days, I’m thankful to say that it hasn’t spoilt her married happiness in the least.’
(naughty snigger: a comment later on: ‘I sometimes think that Dick is out of place in Hollywood.’)
Another feature in very much the same vein is ‘Untold Love Stories of The Stars’ – the byline says, ‘Intimate Gossip About Hollywood’s secret romances’. Not any more. Secret, that is. they talk about Joan Crawford, June Clyde, and of course, Ginger Rogers, Hollywood’s sweetheart.
”When I marry Lew, I’ll have to learn how to cook,’ Ginger said seriously.’ (Lew Ayres – yes I’ve never heard of him either. Soz Lew.) The caption to the photos of them (two separate ones – obviously Betty’s Paper’s Authority on Hollywood didn’t get close enough for a pic of them together) says ‘Ginger Rogers and Lew Ayres are married now, but kept the gossipers guessing for nearly eighteen months!’ They should have called in the person who did the Fortune Teller of Hollywood article.
I was thrilled to discover Betty’s did a problem page! None of that Ask Auntie stuff. the page is called ‘It Helps To Tell’ then adds, ‘write to Betty about that problem that simply won’t come right.’ The bait? Another freebie of course! this time a cute camisole and french knickers or something like that. ‘This Lovely Undie Set For A Reader’s Problem’. It doesn’t say one each, so I imagine this is for the most exciting, I mean, the most unfortunate problem of the week. All names and addresses will be strictly in confidence, we’re told, but send in your name and address, just in case you win the prize!
What kind of problems do the worried readers of 1935 have? Well, it’s boys, obviously. A worried 18-year-old from Manchester writes, ‘I’m in love with a boy who doesn’t notice me.’ Reading between the lines, it’s clear that said boy, having only recently discovered girls, is now walking out with that fast piece from number 26. ‘On no account,’ Betty cautions, ‘dear, must you do anything to steal this boy away from this girl he has chosen.’ Find someone new, is Betty’s wise advice. Other problems – ‘My friend and I are both unhappy in our home lives and want to go into service in London. We are both eighteen.’ Oh dear. That immediately triggers my maternal WTF response. Two young girls going off to London all alone…????? Take a deep breath, concerned mums, and read on:
What does Betty say in response? ‘First, dear, yes, you are quite old enough to go into service. As a matter of fact, there is a great demand for girls of your age (I bet there is!) But you will find it easier to obtain a position if you first obtain some experience int he province. Your local employment exchange will help you to do this.’
Phew. Looks like Worried of Bradford will stay out of trouble a wee bit longer, then!
Thanks Betty’s Paper for all the fun of yesterday, which seems so remarkably like the fun of today. My conclusion: we haven’t changed a bit. I hope you enjoyed this trip into the 30s. I loved it.
- The red and gold thoughts of Autumn
For me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings.
It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-four years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!
New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.
I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the music softened by distance and the soft evening breeze.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’
I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.
I’m thinking too of that moment when you come home and you know someone else has been there. Someone who shouldn’t have been there. The stillness—too much—and the silence that waits. Your house feels guilty, complicit, hushed as if someone had been speaking and just this moment stopped when you opened the door.
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, and I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?
If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.
‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.
Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.
- Stories for a 1930s audience.
Last week I took a look at the kind of advertising you might have found if browsing through an issue of Betty’s Paper, a popular magazine from the 1920s through to (I think) about the 1940s. It’s hard to find out much about the mag without doing some hardcore research (it might come to that), but I know it was at its peak in the 30s, and there are still quite a few issues left to be snapped up if you’re of a mind to buy this kind of memorabilia.
Betty’s Paper wasn’t the only one around. There was also Peg’s Paper (1919 to 40) English Woman’s Journal (1850s to 1910), The Gentlewoman (1890 to 1926), The Freewoman (1911 to 1912), The Lady’s Realm (1890s to 1914), Time and Tide (1920s to 1970s), Woman’s Journal (1920 to 2001) to name the most well known. There were others, often with a more targeted purpose, for example, campaigning women’s suffrage and letting women know what was happening in various groups. Mostly magazines were aimed at middle and upper class women, but Peg’s Paper, and Betty’s Paper were aimed at working class women, and had less educational and more purely entertaining content than other magazines.
Betty’s – and Peg’s – contained short fiction, sometimes as serials, that thrilled the imagination, and owed a great deal to the cinema. There were fashion and style tips, using actresses of the era as role models, and holding them up as examples of the right look to emulate, very much as all the media do today. We looked at the ads last week, and I concluded that, again just as now, many were fixated upon appearance: looking slim, budget fashion that stood up to scrutiny, easy health fixes for people who lived busy lives, working hard and with little time or money to spend on themselves. Perfect for the factory and domestic girls of the 1920s and 1930s.
But what were the stories like that were every week there to tantalise our girls as they took a quick tea break or read for ten minutes before going to sleep?
Firstly, I noticed that the stories were illustrated, a bit like a children’s comic. I know that still happens today, but these struck me as being more dramatic. The men often seem to loom over the women in a authoritative almost aggressive manner. The men also look very old compared to the younger-looking women. Pretty sure all these heroines are about 20 and all the heroes are about 48.
The headlines and taglines too were melodramatic and leaning towards the scandalous. I presume this was a good way to draw in readers and get them to spend their cash – Betty’s Paper was tuppence ‘Every Friday’. When wages were paid weekly in cash, I imagine this was one of the first ‘treats’ a girl would get herself before going home and giving most of her money to her parents.
Anyway – on to the stories. I’ve only got two issues (at the moment hahaha) but between these two issues of 36 pages each, there are eight stories, and seem to be serialised in two or three parts. Some of them masquerade as ‘real life stories’ (see me next week for more…) but the rest are presented as written by ‘well-known’ lady authors. The sensational headings are guaranteed to pique the interest of any normal woman: ‘One Hour of Love Then Tears’, ‘The Sin That Came Between Them’, ‘When Men Are Dangerous’, ‘But She Was Blamed’, and my particular favourite, ‘Back Street Blonde’, tagline ‘she was born to be a man’s girl’.
They read a bit like cautionary tales – be careful, be cautious, be modest, they seem to say. Keep away from MEN. And like Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, they seem to hint vaguely at the dreadful fate that awaits a woman without virtue. This was probably useful information for a young woman with a little bit of her own money able to go out with her friends in the evening in the wicked city and not come home until – ooh – ten? eleven o’clock? The stories are about trying very hard to make a marriage work, about being honest, and morally upright, about protecting your home and family. So they are aspirational, inspirational and improving. But they can be a bit juicy, as this picture seems to show: ‘Guy held her close in his arms. ”I don’t care about anything else–I want you, Dawn,’ he whispered.” Oh Dawn, get out girl, while you can!
Mostly I’m in awe of the writers. Week after week they turned out 5000 words or maybe more, and (I assume) got paid for it. I’ve tried Googling some of the authors whose work features in these magazines: Denise Egerton (Secret Bride), Louise Randall (One Hour of Love – Then Tears), Stella Deans (The Sin That Came Between Them), Cynthia Loring (But She Was Blamed), Jasmine Day (Back Street Blonde). Of these, I’ve found a number of books from the 50s and 60s by a Denise Egerton, and they appear to be romance genre, so maybe it’s the same woman? I haven’t been able to find out anything about the others–who knows–maybe they were all Denise? Or possibly all these ‘lady writers’ were simply the pen names of a grizzled editor with pages to fill and a talent for writing totes emosh romance? I can picture him, tapping away at his typewriter until all hours, cigar ash spilling all down his shirt. I bet his real name was something like Isaac Peabody.
I think these stories offer an intriguing insight into the values and aspirations of working women in the 1920s and 1930s. They’ve actually been the subject of study in a number of British and American dissertations and publications, for example, Peg’s Paper was looked at in Class and Gender: The ‘Girls’weeklies’ by Billie Melman, a section in ‘Women and The Popular Imagination in the Twenties.’ And in this article in The Guardian by Kathryn Hughes.
But lest we forget, what they really were was an escape from the drudgery of everyday life for women with little opportunity to do anything other than dream.
- A shameless plug to a captive audience.
The use of advertising media to sell products to customers is not something new, it’s been around for a lot longer than I ever realised. I think I vaguely knew that advertising ‘must have’ been used before I became fully aware of it in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and I suppose that most of us have seen those hilarious TVs shows featuring ‘how we used to be’ commercials from the 50s and 60s, showing a happy smiling housewife holding up a box of laundry detergent, or a pipe-smoking father in a suit sitting behind a newspaper.
A few years ago, it was so popular to collect old advertising boards, usually made of tin, or printed onto postcards, calendars, place-mats, mugs, mouse mats, you name it. Pears Soap ads appeared on tea-towels and even t-shirts. You know the ones? With the Millais-inspired pics of Victorian children, rosy-cheeked and curly-haired, with frilly collars or petticoats?
But until recently I hadn’t imagined that advertising was rife in the earlier part of the twentieth century, and I’m now convinced, even before that.
Last month I finally caved in and bought a few items I had been looking at a while – and I’m warning you now that this means you will have to look at these over the next couple of weeks. I’ve now received some gorgeous vintage items from Messrs eBay and Etsy.
These included two copies of Betty’s Paper: a magazine aimed at (young) (working class in the main) women from 1935, and one copy of The Picture-Goer. I love this vintage stuff, and as you know, I’m a bit obsessed with the 1920s, and even more so with the 1930s. I was so excited to get my hands on these items. And if you also like this stuff, they are usually not expensive, and there are quite a few of them around! But please don’t buy them all, there are still a few I’ve got my eye on.
Soon I’m going to have a more general look through Betty’s Paper, and maybe even, if you can stand it, through The Picture-goer. But right now, I’d like to take a quick look at some 1935 advertising, and what I discovered amongst the hallowed pages of these once avidly-read magazines.
Th first two pics I’ve shared are for ‘guidance from beyond our world’ – yep, clairvoyance was all the rage from the Victorian era up to…well, I think a lot of people still check their horoscopes and send for readings etc. Now we probably see more in the way of crystals and meditation, whereas back then it was quite literally written in your palm. Note that on the one hand a male figure offers information about the future in a pseudo-scientific manner, the maleness, the use of the title of professor adding authority to make the ad seem genuine and plausible. His odd kimono thingie is his robe of office, as is his hat. It all ties in with the late 19th century and early 20th century passion for culture and art from the ‘mysterious East’.
The second one, Madame Astral, looks far more like the contemporary modern young women’s look – if anything she looks like your sister who had a tent at the church fete last summer. So the reader is being invited to share a sisterly gossip about matters of the heart, just like a cosy and none-too-serious reading of the tea-leaves at home. Good old Betty’s offers coupons to give readers a discount!
I love this. We’d never do this today, would we? or would we? This is the Bettys’ Paper Loveliest Reader competition – complete with photos of the ladies, and… Wait for it – their names and addresses!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What on earth??????
It was definitely a different era. What, I ask myself, is to prevent any ruthless person rocking up to Miss Metcalf’s at 144 Wanstead Park Road, Ilford??? It seems naive in the extreme, but I can’t decide if that was perfectly okay for those days or was it the height of idiocy even then? Or was it Miss Metcalf’s design, in the hope that a gorgeous single man with a good income, good sense of humour, own home, would arrive on her doorstep with a bouquet of flowers and a pleasing smile? Mind you, the £10 prize money for the winner had to be a big bonus.
Speaking of a pleasing smile, in the corner of the Loveliest Reader comp page there was another ad – for toothpaste. Surely what we get from that is, if you want to be Betty’s Papers loveliest reader, and have strange men turning up at your door, you’d better follow the trend for wavy dark hair, perfect skin and you’d better have fabulous teeth too.
You can tell that Betty’s paper is all about appearance, inspiring women and showing them how to look Silver-Screen-great on a limited budget. In the first half of the twentieth century many young women were earning their own money and had disposable income for the modern commodities that science and technology had created.
So it’s no surprise that these ads are all about looking right. They address clothes, skin, hair and teeth, as well as the hope instilled by the stories and the ads for clairvoyant assistance. It’s all about looking as good as you possibly can – not for yourself, obviously, but so you can catch a man. These were not the days of sisters doing it for themselves.
When I first saw this next ad, with the woman drinking something and the slogan ‘slenderising and modish’ I assumed it was for some kind of diet or weight-loss supplement. But no. It’s for wool. To make your own slim-look sweaters and cardis. Not sure this ad would work so well today (leaving aside the fact that most women simply buy their woollens now) as it immediately sent me in the wrong direction. Or is that just me, coming to the ad with my 21st century eye? Again, here it’s all about looking right – and that means thin. Maybe nothing changes, after all.
Interesting that the slogan is a ‘quote’ from one Lady Georgiana Curzon – her title gives authority to her pronouncement, and yes, she is the wool manufacturer’s ‘fashion adviser’. Note also the family-empire sounding name – well, it probably was a family run business at least originally, but these days everything is General something, or Associated whatnot… no family businesses any more. Again, I feel, but this might be my contemporary perspective, but this sense of family-run, long-standing, aristocratically-endorsed seems to add to the authority and trustworthiness of the ad and the product.
Two more. One is an ad for the cheaper new stockings made from a man-made fibre rather than real silk. They ask,’Which is which?’And add that only your purse will know the difference. The use of the pictures of men to imply that males are looking at your legs, girls, and they’d better be worth looking at would doubtless have worked better if, a) they’d used different pictures of men and b) the men were actually facing the legs in question-or would that have been too risqué?
Lastly, my favourite ad of all. It made me spit coffee all over my t-shirt. Scroll down and take a look at the pinnacle of Betty’s Paper’s fine advertising material. It’s from the back page. It’s the one with the lady purporting to be over one hundred years old and still ‘enjoying’ good health.
Bless her. Mrs Elizabeth Clayton, she doesn’t look as though she enjoys anything. I know we all want to live forever, but this is funny. Again, I love the use of the lady’s address. Did people go there to marvel at the lady and her great age? Surely it’s fictitious, put in to lend credence to the advertisement? But part of me really wishes I could go there and witness the spectacle of Mrs Clayton enjoying life to the full and a hundred years old. I really hope it’s not just cynical advertising but that the old girl had a brilliant life and earned a fortune from companies using her face to astonish the world.
- People Watching
Inspiration comes from all different places. And I’m often asked where I get my ideas. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher.
I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.
I remember overhearing one yoof talking to another about his baseball cap. Yoof #2 was admiring the cap and trying it on. Yoof #1 said, rather anxiously, ‘Don’t you lose my cap, man. That cap is my identity.’
It’s these kind of scenarios that fuel my imagination.
Here’s what happened one day. I must just add, as a disclaimer, that all I saw were two people in a coffee-shop—my imagination, tawdry and cynical, and my love of detective fiction did the rest!
So I was sitting there with my cappuccino and my triangle of ‘tiffin’, in a Coffeebucksta Emporium in the town where I live. And I saw this:
A smart young man, late twenties, in a very modern suit, latest hair-do etc., all smiles and full of conversation. With him a frail and bent old lady in a wheelchair. She was also smartly dressed and her white hair was short and chic a la Dame Judi Dench. But she was way too old to be his mother. Grandmother? Great aunt? Great-Great-grandmother? I mean, she was OLD.
I’m already plotting a story around them. He parked her at a table and went to join the queue. She was reading the paper. I’m thinking, maybe she’s not a relative but his Sugar Mommy?
The idea appeals to me. I can remember several detective novels where scandal ensues due to an inappropriate attachment between a favoured young man and an older, vulnerable (or perhaps not so vulnerable) woman. I like the idea that even in this day and age, a young man can still cash in on his good looks, and an old lady can still enjoy having someone to dance attendance on her.
I decide she probably has someone at home to help with her personal care. And to take care of the cooking and cleaning. I’m picturing a large sprawling mansion, empty of people but stuffed with suits of armour and gloomy, grimy portraits of people who have been dead for hundreds of years. Glass cases of long-dead animals. Lots of wood panelling. Surrounded by vast expanses of grass and tall dark trees. Maybe some peacocks? An old uneconomical car, with her cosseted in the back under blankets, and him in front at the steering wheel.
And I don’t want to think there could be anything sexual involved (eww!) but that he acts as chauffeur, secretary, assistant, companion and entertainer. He flatters her, makes her laugh and she pays him for his smiles.
I think of the people that know her, local villagers? I imagine them talking to me. Or to a policeman sent down from Scotland Yard to investigate some awful crime. Perhaps she’s been murdered? Or him? Perhaps he’s the victim, not the perpetrator? Over our coffee, my informant tells me, (this is in my head, you understand,) “Well of course she gave out that he was her great-nephew, though I’ve never believed it. But she said it—you know—for appearance’s sake. He certainly is a charmer. And so patient. Well all I can say is, he’s worked damned hard for the money she’s left him. If there is any money. No one seems to be too sure about that.”
Was he a little too friendly with the nurse who looked after the old lady? Is that what they’ll say when her body is discovered? Did the old lady resent him giving those smiles to someone else?
Back in the real world, I’m picking up on tiny details. He returns with a coffee for her. Nothing for himself. Which seems odd. He sits. She leans forward and says something to him, and he takes her cup and has a sip of the coffee, and shakes his head. He returns it to its saucer. Too much sugar? Not enough? Does this taste a little odd to you? I’m not sure what is going on, but she doesn’t drink it.
They don’t stay long. I think he was actually in the queue longer than they sat over the drink that went almost untouched. Why didn’t she have her drink? Why even bother coming into the cafe? Why didn’t he have anything? Does she hold on a little too tightly to the purse-strings?
Even though he is smartly turned out, perhaps his shoes are showing signs of wear? Not quite as new or of such good quality as they first appeared? Perhaps she doesn’t pay him so well after all? Are there arguments over money? She thinks he spends too much, or asks for too much. He thinks it’s unfair that he has to beg and plead and justify what he needs, thinks she is too keen on having power over others. Perhaps it’s just not worth it after all? Perhaps it’s time for this ‘arrangement’ to come to an end?
For one mad moment I think about taking her cup for analysis before the table is cleared. Then I remember. Only in my imagination am I a detective. Here in the real world, I’m just another person sitting in a cafe. But in my mind, and in my notebook, I have the bones of a story.