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A 1950s Mother
Bringing Up Baby in the 1950s
By Sheila Hardy
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Sheila Hardy
All rights reserved.
The words 'pregnancy' and 'pregnant' were not in general use amongst the majority of the population in the early 1950s. Instead, a woman was described, even on official forms, as an expectant mother, while her friends and relations all busily reported that she was 'expecting'. The word pregnant had been in popular use in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century but fell into obscurity during the Victorian era, possibly because the condition was not considered one to be discussed in general conversation. A young scholar of the 1950s was more likely to come across the word 'pregnant' only in its literary context of describing a dramatic pause.
Most of those who have contributed their memories became pregnant within eighteen months to two and a half years after marriage. Some of them were still limited to living in two rooms in someone else's home and having to share the kitchen and bathroom. For others, the advent of a baby meant that they were able to progress a bit further up the waiting list for a council house. Certainly the incentive to have a proper home of their own became stronger once the realisation struck of what having a baby would entail.
In those days before pregnancy-testing kits, most women waited until a second period was missed before visiting their doctor to have their suspicions confirmed. Once he, and most doctors at that time were men, had examined her thoroughly and given her a date for her confinement, he then directed her to the antenatal clinic to make arrangements for where the birth should take place. The doctor also provided her with the necessary certificate to take or send to the local Pensions and National Insurance Office, which would ensure that she was provided with the extra care given by the State. During the war years of the 1940s, when rationing was introduced to ensure fair shares of food supplies for all, there was, according to Nurse Patterson who gave expert advice in a magazine, 'a universal improvement in children's health. Britain's Bonny Babies became a by-word. Expectant mothers had the first call on the nation's larder and priority for milk.' One result of the doctor's certificate was that expectant mothers were issued with the same distinctive green ration books that were allocated to children. (This made life hard for any woman who, for one reason or another, wished to keep her condition secret.) The green ration books contained special tokens, which allowed the mother-to-be extra milk at a reduced price, as well as extra coupons to help with the baby's needs.
During all or part of the period of 1950–54, meat, bacon, sugar, butter, tea, eggs, cheese and sweets were still rationed. In 1950 canned and dried fruit, chocolate biscuits, treacle, golden syrup, jellies and mincemeat had become available without points but supplies were still subject to availability; some parts of the country fared better than others – the equivalent of what in the twenty-first century has become known as the post-code lottery. Petrol and soap were also decontrolled later that year, so the mother-to-be was assured that she would have adequate supplies of soap flakes and washing powder to wash the nappies (or napkins) she would need in a few months' time.
Those nappies, as they were commonly called, made of terry towelling and fine muslin, were among the many other items that would be required. Few of those who were about to give birth at the very beginning of the 1950s had the luxury of going off with their husband to a specialist baby shop and buying whatever they fancied, or could afford, for the dreaded 'dockets' were still in existence. While most people are aware of the food rationing that existed during the Second World War, it may surprise some to learn that furniture was among many other commodities that could not be bought freely. During the war most manufacturers were directed to produce those items necessary to the war effort, while others were left struggling to produce essential goods against acute shortages of, in the case of furniture makers, both home-grown and imported timber. Thus there was very little new furniture available to meet the demands of those who had to replace the homes they had lost in the bombing, as well as those who were setting up home for the first time. So furniture rationing had been introduced under the government's Utility scheme. Selected manufacturers produced the best quality they could, using designs that harked back to the simplicity of the Arts and Crafts movement. All these pieces were marked with the CC41 Utility emblem.
The maximum number of units or dockets allowed to a married couple furnishing a new home was sixty, with another ten for each child. But since demand was so high not all the units were available for use straight away. Recipients would be informed when they might use them. For those young married couples who moved into two rooms in someone else's house, where they were expected to provide their own bedroom furniture, they would receive a maximum of twenty-five units which was sufficient for a large double bed, a wardrobe and a tall boy. Those moving into prefabricated houses with built-in furniture would have their allowance scaled down accordingly. The Board of Trade leaflet UFD/6 Utility Furniture & Household Furnishings makes awesome reading but does also throw light on the advantages and fairness of the scheme. To start with, all Utility furniture was free of purchase tax (331/3 per cent at that time). There was a fixed maximum price for both new and second-hand pieces (which were also subject to units having to be surrendered), and traders were permitted to offer Utility furniture on hire purchase or credit sale agreements, provided that the full payment was made within two years.
Mattresses, bedding, curtains and flooring were all included in the scheme requiring units, but Utility nursery furniture, that is cots, playpens and high chairs, could be bought without a permit. However, the Board of Trade leaflet warned that as these were still in short supply there was little likelihood of there being enough for everyone who might need them. Therefore people were encouraged not to buy new chairs or cots, if they could make do with an old one, so prospective grandparents searched their lofts for any baby equipment that might be scrubbed, repainted, mended and brought back into service. Alternatively, the small advertisements in local newspapers and cards in shop windows proved a useful source for slightly more modern second-hand equipment for sale.
Clothes, too, continued to be rationed for a number of years after the war ended. The annual clothing coupon allowance had more than halved by 1945, which meant that the era of make-do-and-mend carried on well into the early 1950s. Girls who had learnt to knit socks and scarves for servicemen while they were at school were now making themselves jumpers and cardigans to wear for work. One clothing coupon was required for every 2oz of wool purchased. The only wool that did not require coupons was that designated as being for darning purposes. This came in small hanks made up of pieces cut to about 12 –15in length. The ability to make a neat darn was a necessity in those days; if a sock wore thin at the heel, one either re-knitted the whole heel or carefully darned the thin area before the hole appeared, thus prolonging the life of the sock. Similarly, any other knitted garment that had a hole or a weak spot was repaired with a darn. The hanks of darning wool were sold in assorted colours, grey, brown, navy and black being the most popular, but white and pastel shades were also available for mending children's clothes. Such was the ingenuity of the women of the period that at Christmas many a little girl found her old doll had a new wardrobe of clothes: vest, knickers, jumper and skirt, coat, hat, socks and shoes, all knitted with strands of darning wool, carefully joined together. The basic navy of the main garments was enlivened by the introduction of inserts of a coloured pattern.
In the twenty-first century it is hard to believe that knitting wool was sold in 1oz skeins that had to be wound into balls before knitting could begin. 'Holding the wool' was an operation that was learnt by quite young schoolchildren. Though it was thought by many to be a tedious process as it meant sitting still for some time, for others it was an opportunity for a quiet chat. For those who have never seen the process, it went something like this. The skein holder and the winder sat facing each other about 2–3ft apart. The holder stretched out his or her arms with the palms of the hands facing inwards, thumb erect. The winder, who was usually the knitter, then took the skein of wool, which was twisted in a loop, shook it out until it formed a circle and then placed that on to the holder's hands. It was essential that the holder kept the skein taut at all times. The winder, having located the beginning of the skein, started making her ball, carefully wrapping the wool a number of times over the fingers of one hand. When she was satisfied she had enough to form the centre of her ball, she slipped this off and continued winding until the skein was fully wound. It was necessary for the holder to develop a rhythm that matched that of the winder. This meant tilting the hands one way and then the other as the wool was wound. Woe betide – an expression much used in the 1950s – the holder who let the skein slacken or who failed to tilt at the right time. A knitter with no one available to help her wind was forced to make do with using the uprights of two kitchen or dining room chairs. With their backs facing and placed the correct distance apart to stretch the skein of wool, winding could commence, but it was an even more time-consuming process. How much better, if the young expectant mother could persuade the father-to-be to act as her holder – having first made sure that his hands were thoroughly clean!
As the mother-to-be progressed through her waiting time, the likelihood was that she would put on weight, though the powers-that-be urged her to disregard the old wives' tale that she should eat for two, stressing that her weight gain should be only a little more than the expected child would be. However, even if she did not put on a great deal of extra weight, her shape would alter significantly and eventually she would be forced to find new clothes suitable for her condition. In the January 1951 edition of Mother magazine, there appeared a knitting pattern for what was described as the 'cleverest maternity jumper'. Made with fine two-ply wool it had a lacy pattern. What earned it its superlative was the fact that it was knitted on a yoke onto which the two overlapping front pieces were pleated, thus allowing for, as the pattern had it, 'an adjustable bust measurement'.
In the 1950s there were no chain stores dedicated solely to the needs of mother and baby. Large department stores in towns and cities often had a nursery department but clothing for the expectant mother would, in the main, have formed part of the stock-in-trade of drapery and dress shops. As for baby clothes, these were often to be found in what were termed fancy goods shops, those that sold mainly wool or all things associated with embroidery. It was an appealing display in such a shop window that tempted Jean's husband to venture inside and buy the delicate little christening gown for his new daughter, an impulse buy that has had regular use within the family for sixty years.
In the main, most pregnant women did not spend a great deal on special maternity clothes. Wrap-around skirts were ideal for coping with an expanding waistline. The simplicity of their design meant they could be made at home or purchased at a reasonable price. A couple of skirts with two or three oversize blouses or smocks were usually sufficient to get the woman through the last few months. Some women resorted to wearing their husbands' shirts when they could no longer fit into their own clothes. Certain items of new underwear became essential as time progressed and there came a need for support garments too. But in many cases, the woman could get away with wearing her existing winter coat right to the end, especially if, like Mrs SJ's, it was one of those fashionable swagger coats which she had bought a couple of years earlier as part of her 'going away' outfit.
Most of the 1950s women continued at work for as long as possible for, as they were reminded by all the books and magazines of the period, as well as the staff at the antenatal clinic, 'Motherhood is a natural normal event and not an illness. Old wives' tales should be scorned as belonging to an ignorant past.' So wrote the sensible, down-to-earth Mabel Liddiard in The Mothercraft Manual. A State Registered Nurse and Midwife, Liddiard spent her life in maternity nursing, becoming nursing director of the Mothercraft Training Society, which was based on the principles of the late Truby King. The first of these was the importance of fresh air. The period up to and including the 1950s was obsessed with fresh air. The theory was that everyone, not just pregnant women, should spend as long as possible outside breathing in good, fresh air. One book actually stated that pregnant women needed to breathe for two, not eat for two! No matter what the weather, being outdoors was essential at some time during the day and linked with this was the necessity to take exercise. Being pregnant was not an excuse to stop taking part in sports if one normally played them, but every woman should take at least one walk a day regardless of weather; with stout shoes and warm clothing she would come to no harm. In fact she would be 'less likely to have colds than those who coddle themselves'. The emphasis on the importance of breathing fresh air was carried into the home and, in particular, to sleeping with the window open. Those of us who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s remember what it was like to sleep in a bedroom that was totally unheated in any case, yet was made even colder by your mother's insistence on having the window open at least 2in to allow the passage of fresh air in and the stale air out. This had, no doubt, been very sensible advice in the days when a bedroom accommodated five or six children in a small room.
The working woman who took plenty of exercise walking to and from work or when shopping daily – in all weathers – did her deep breathing and slept with the window open, should remain healthy and happy. Any minor complications or troubles that occurred were not natural but, said Liddiard, it was best to know a little about them and the example she cited was morning sickness. We of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been accustomed to film and TV depictions of a young woman hanging her head over a lavatory bowl as a way of conveying that she was pregnant. Liddiard would not have approved of this over-dramatisation. Listen to her no-nonsense sensible advice.
'Sometimes during the first three months there may be a feeling of nausea every morning and sometimes actual vomiting; this is commonly called "morning sickness". When this unpleasant condition exists it is best to have something to eat before rising and to get up slowly. As little attention should be paid to it as possible; it usually passes off after the first three months, if not sooner. Food should be taken as usual.'
She then goes on to recommend a successful cure: half a pint of milk mixed with half an ounce of Mead's *Casec or *Plasmon, to be taken before rising and last thing at night for three or four days. The two asterisks denoted that neither product could be obtained during wartime. The first, which seems to have been a form of magnesia, was imported from Canada, while the second came from Italy and is still used in prepared Italian baby foods.
Those who raised a wry smile at the foregoing, even thinking that Liddiard had obviously never experienced the condition herself, may be amused by a further direction that the mother-to-be should 'not give way to morbid cravings for one particular food about which there are many foolish superstitions'. We have all heard the apocryphal stories of the women who ate small pieces of coal or licked the distemper off the cowshed walls because they had a calcium deficiency or a need for charcoal in their diet, but there is no denying that most pregnant women do have sudden strange cravings for kippers or porridge, ice cream or salt and vinegar crisps. Liddiard uses the term 'morbid' in the medical sense of 'unwholesome'. Yet her advice on diet, generally, is wholly in accord with that of the present day: three well-balanced meals daily made up of a little meat, fish, eggs, cheese and butter, with plenty of vegetables, fresh fruit and salads. Tea and coffee were to be taken sparingly – many women in fact found that they became intolerant to both during pregnancy. Instead it was recommended that 1½–2 pints of milk should be taken each day in some form or another. On the subject of alcohol, Liddiard found it necessary to quote Sir Truby King himself.
Excerpted from A 1950s Mother by Sheila Hardy. Copyright © 2013 Sheila Hardy. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
2 The New Baby Needs ...,
3 Baby and Mother Should Live by the Clock,
4 Baby's Carriage,
5 Customs, Practices and Old Wives' Tales,
6 Baby's First Year,
7 Brothers, Sisters and Friends,
8 The Premature Baby,
11 What to Wear?,
12 Mother's 'Me' Time,
13 Childhood Illnessess,
14 Training the Child – The Early Years,
15 Endings and Beginnings,
Significant Events of the 1950s,
Popular Names in the 1950s,
Popular Advertisements from the 1950s,
By the Same Author,