1950's appliances

The only appliance which could be found in all the houses I knew was the cooker - gas or electric. Our own boasted an oven, four gas rings and a grill whose various components were usually lit by a match. Matches were an important part of everyday life in our flat, especially for essential early morning activities like boiling a kettle, setting a fire blazing or lighting the first cigarette of the day. A box of Swan Vestas could generally be found stacked on a pack of twenty Capstan Full Strength cigarettes, close to the dark brown bakelite ashtray in the living room. On very rare occasions when a match was lacking, a piece of paper would be lit from the electric fire in my bedroom and an adult would sprint like an Olympic torch bearer through to the kitchen. Sadly, I was never allowed to take part in the excitement.

There were only three other machines which lived in our kitchen, but they were hand-operated. There was the hand coffee bean grinder that my dad had bought for my mum from the Kardomah café as a birthday present. The coffee beans were poured into the funnel at the top, the handle was turned and the grounds appeared in a little drawer at the bottom along with a delicious aroma. Real coffee was only brewed on special occasions and it did fill our flat with a deliciously luxurious smell. I tried using the same machine to grind up a lump of Cadburys chocolate to put in a glass of milk, but all that got me was a severe telling-off – not the delicious drink I had hoped to create.

My mother’s washing machine lived under the draining board and was hand-operated. Once it had been dragged out, filled with dirty clothes, hot water and washing powder, the machine’s heavy metal lid would be dropped back on top and a large handle clipped to it. My mum had to keep heaving the handle backwards and forwards, moving around the clothes inside again and again until she was satisfied that they were thoroughly washed. The clean clothes had to be lifted from the hot water with her wooden tongs as they were simply too hot to handle. Sometimes she dropped the tongs into the scalding water and if that happened, the dog and I made ourselves scarce. Clean, steamy clothes arrived with a slap on the metal draining board, the dirty water was siphoned out of the machine and the clothes were rinsed by hand in a sink full of cold water, ready for the wooden mangle clipped on to the side of the machine. The mangle was hand turned and clothes were fed between the rollers one item at a time, folded in thick layers so that as much rinsing water as possible was squeezed out, back into the machine. It was heavy work and washing took most of a day.

The storage cupboards and drawers in the kitchen were home to pots, pans, plates and other dishes. For a time, they were also home to the other hand-operated machine – a potato peeler. This looked like a huge green cooking pot. In the middle of its fitted lid was a long thin handle. The user lifted the lid, dropped in the potatoes, replaced the lid and turned the handle by hand. Knives attached inside the lid removed the skins as they agitated the potatoes, making a horrible grating noise in the process. But my mother’s relationship with this gadget didn’t last long. All the issues which made potato peeling so disagreeable were still there. Potatoes arrived home from the greengrocer with earth still attached and so had to be washed thoroughly first. Skin removal was either too severe, leaving tiny vegetables or it was insufficient, leaving large potatoes only partially peeled, meaning the work had to be completed by hand. Potatoes have lumpy surfaces so even if the skin removal was generally good, there was still an amount of ‘hand finishing’ to be done.

There were very few other utensils in our kitchen cupboards or drawers. There was one ancient bone handled butter knife which my mother referred to as ‘my potato knife’. It was the only one she trusted to let her know whether boiling potatoes were soft enough to mash. If cooking was complete the knife slid gently into a selected potato as it simmered. The blade was long and very thin with a rounded tip so that it could also be used as a small palette knife.

We seemed to get through tin openers at a rate of knots. My mother always preferred the kind with a point that had to be hammered into the tin and which used a sawing action to remove the lid. (I was forbidden to use it for fear of the damage I would do.) They were hard to use and could be every bit as tricky as the kind of key openers that came with sardines or what my father called ‘bully-beef’.

There was a fish slice for cooking bacon and eggs and, occasionally, even fish. There were two pastry cutters, but the only rolling pin my mother used was a washed glass milk bottle, so her pies sometimes carried back to front imprints of ‘Stockport Co-op’ rolled into them from its raised glass letters. There was a lidded egg poaching pan with little round cups to hold the eggs, but it was seldom used as my dad said its finished products were like solemn, accusing eyes on his plate.

The only two electrical appliances we had were our radio and our television, which worked intermittently – often because the broadcasters had their own problems. It's something I'll talk about in another posting.

Our kettle was boiled on one of the cooker’s rings. Electric kettles were expensive and anyway, there were no power sockets available in the kitchen. Like the other families in our flats, we had neither fridge nor freezer and so food shopping was an everyday chore. (See my posting about shopping).

The sewing machine which came to live in our flat was one of my mother’s saleroom bargains and was a substantial piece of furniture in its own right. Nowadays it would be described as vintage. The machine rested on its own wooden table and was supported by elaborate cast-iron legs. When not in use it was covered by a wooden dome and relegated to the function of dumping ground, gradually disappearing under collections of everyday detritus.

Putting the machine to work was something of an art. The user didn’t turn a handle to sew, this was a treadle machine. The treadle was a flat wrought-iron platform underneath the sewing table and was connected to the machine by a series of strong cables(belts). Tilting the treadle backwards and forwards turned the machine’s flywheel and moved its needle up and down, stitching two pieces of fabric together. Learning to sew on a treadle machine was easier, in one way, because both hands were free to twist and turn whatever fabric was being stitched. The skill lay in fine controlling the speed at which the treadle was moved backwards and forwards. The faster the movement the faster it stitched. A clumsy or overconfident burst of speed could mean you stitched together fabric you never intended to, so you then had the painful job of unpicking your mistake.

Since our flat was a new building we arrived to find that a telephone was already installed. The bulky item I found on the floor was too heavy for me to move. It was made of dark brown plastic and there were numbers and letters under the holes in the silver dial. My parents explained how it worked. The part the user picked up and spoke into was called the receiver and when not in use it rested on a cradle on top of the solid box-like base. The base and receiver were connected by curly fabric-covered wires and the base itself was wired to a small box on the wall. Making or taking a phone call meant the user could move no further than the length of those wires. Discovering a phone in our living room was exciting but when I lifted the receiver and tried to attract its attention with repeated hellos it was disappointingly silent. My parents laughed. Apparently, it wasn't enough just to own the phone. It had to be connected to something called the exchange. But it was quite a prospect. Once that connection was created we would never again have to walk down the road to the phone box outside the chemist’s shop with the right assortment of coins to make a call. My cousin Kate’s birthday was in May and five years after we arrived in our flat, for the first time, I was able to call and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her on the actual day because her family now had a phone. Normally I wasn't allowed to use the phone so it was quite exciting to speak to the operator at the exchange, to tell her our number (Hulme Hall 3030) and the number I wanted to be connected to. Kate's exchange was Upholland. Some exchange names were quite inventive. The labs where my father worked were in Heald Green and so they had a number that started with Mercury (Hg is the chemical formula for mercury).

Although I wasn't generally allowed to use the phone at home, my parents had shown me how to use a phone box - in case there was ever an emergency. I knew once I had put my money in that pressing button A would connect me to the person on the other end if they had answered and that pressing button B would give me my money back if they didn't. When I was out with friends my parents gave me enough pennies to be able to make a call, although they had explained that by dialling O I could speak to the operator and ask them to make a reverse charged call. Luckily this wasn't something I had to do because I really didn't like phone boxes. The heavy metal-framed doors were extremely hard to pull open and the interior reeked of cigarettes. There was a built-in ashtray, but smokers more often than not just dropped their cigarette butts on to the floor.