Keeping House: The Way Things Were

First research around the notion of keeping house, revealed a series of linked words defining a range of domestic materials, account books to catalogue household expenditure, and money given or granted on a regular basis to finance the running of the household. I read about differences across generations, expectations for raising children, keeping house and the marriage bar.

The marriage bar restricted employment of married women, and (as in the case of my maternal Grandmother), required the termination of a woman’s employment when she married. Seemingly, this practice was justified as a social policy to find jobs for men and single women and allegedly created a disincentive for women to marry. In 1946, The Spectator, published an article which presented reasons for the implementation of marriage bars. These included thoughts around married women not needing jobs as they were financially supported by their husbands. Schools prepared girls for this life of domesticity providing tuition in cookery, household management, darning, sewing and how to iron a shirt properly. Girls were taught to look after their house and husband, and once married their husbands were considered the head of the household. Clothes were often homemade, either sewn or knitted. Knitted items were re-cycled by being unraveled and re-knitted into something else. Allegedly, when collars on shirts became frayed, they were unpicked, turned inside out and sewed back on! And buttons from old clothes were saved for the button box.

I discovered a Housewife’s Button Box within the contents of a discarded sewing box for sale in a local bric-a-brac shop earlier this year. Of the original 72 plastic two-hole and four-hole buttons, 29 are remaining and 25 other buttons have been added to the box. Of these 25, 10 have 4 holes, 13 have 2 holes and 2 are shank buttons with a loop at the back for fastening. In reading about button types, I discovered correct and incorrect sewing conventions linked to button and fabric type. Whilst investigating stories surrounding button boxes, I happened upon the historian Lynn Knight who explores the narrative of haberdashery through lives of ordinary women. For Knight, buttons are tokens to recall the clothes they were made to fasten and embellish, the housewives and mothers who made and wore those clothes, and the lives they contained. Within her book, The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives, Knight writes about stories passed on from the women in her family, their changing prospects over generations and of clothes as self-expression, defiance and entertainment.

An article in The Guardian, written in February 2000, questions whatever happened to the housewife? It begins by presenting the view of a journalist some 40 years ago who wrote about suburbia as a good place to bring up children but a dull place to live! The original article apparently connected with readers and ultimately led to the formation of the National Housewives’ Register which aimed to unite housebound wives with liberal interests and a desire to remain individuals. Re-named as the National Women’s Register in 1987 it continues today, with groups meeting regularly to discuss everything except the domestic. The article notes that early members of the register admitted to fiddling the housekeeping to pay for the membership fee! A present NWR member, who is just 10 years older than I am, recalls having to give up her secretarial job when she got married because the company did not employ married women stating “it was the way things were”.

Alongside information about the roles of women within the house, I also found a WW2 sewing kit, called The Housewife, designed to contain all the materials a soldier would require to carry out any repairs to his clothing, including a thimble, two balls of grey darning wool for socks, 50 yards of linen thread wound around card, needles, brass dish buttons for battledress and plastic buttons for shirts.



Cleanliness, Thrift and Routine

For several years I have collected books that relate to traditional aspects of domesticity, therefore these editions became my initial point of reference. The books cover the periods from approximately the 1930s-60s, so are written for a different time, with the natural assumption that keeping house was the sole responsibility of the female of the household. The main theme of all the books across the 30 year spectrum appears to be thrift – recipes, shopping, cleaning hints, laundry, mending and how to budget the household finances efficiently.

“A housewife, to be really successful, must not only be a good cook, and house-keeper, but a good shopper so that she gets the best value for her housekeeping allowance’ The Modern Housewife’s Book

 KEEPING HOUSE: There appears to be an extraordinary amount of importance placed on ‘keeping a house spick and span and free from dust’ with several of the books offering suggested house-work routines which refer to the ‘fortnightly turn-out’ where tasks are rotated, through to entire chapters on spring cleaning and the military precision required to juggle housework with other duties such as cooking and looking after children.
HOUSE KEEPING: The same amount of order and precision is given to managing the household budget as to the cleaning routine, with all the books assuming that the housewife will keep weekly accounts of her expenditure, pointing out that “this not pointless drudgery, but the necessary routine of a well-managed household…” The Book of Hints and Wrinkles

There are suggestions of how to break down the household income and plenty of advice on budgeting, with hints on cheap shopping, menu planning and cutting down on household bills (avoiding unnecessary phone call and turning off the lights!).

As stated at the beginning of this post, these books refer to a different era, and it is easy to make light of the pedantic nature of the writings, however if you strip away the out-moded references, what is left are themes that we can still relate to; different pressures undoubtedly mean that we still, to various extents, rely on routine to manage our daily lives (which includes shopping, cleaning and cooking). Similarly there is probably more pressure to maintain our homes – DIY make-over programmes of the 1990s, the plethora of home magazines and social media platforms such as Pintrest encourage us to update our interiors on a far more regular basis than say my grandparents (who had the same furniture for their entire marriage).

Welford, Elkington and Winwick

The return trip from a making day in the North provided the opportunity to re-visit the last villages on my section of the Jurassic Way to search out possible starting points for the final stories.

The first visit to Welford with P some months before had led to The Wharf Inn and a notice board listing local walks.  Having read about The Welford Arm of the Grand Union Canal I was interested to find a story to represent this.  The notice boards and village website provided information about boatmen, business men and their lives.  I was drawn to the story of Mary Gilbert who ran the Inn and continued to expand the business her husband began after his death.

In Elkington I found the village notice board but little else!  Surrounded by fields and sheep only one or two farm buildings seemed to make up this tiny settlement.  After taking the photographs, I discovered farmers listed in Kelly’s directories and eventually happened upon a report examining large scale sheep grazing in the sixteenth century.  Apparently many flocks were pastured on deserted village sites such as Elkington and an individual called Sir John Spencer emerged as the most renowned at this time!

The tiny village of Winwick on the other hand was home to a church on a hill, a hall and a manor.  The village website and additional local history sites provided a wealth of information about owners of the manor, rectors and their families.  I became drawn to the story about Juliana Poole who started the Winwick Orphanage for boys in 1877.  Further detail about the orphanage, the school master and Juliana was found through online census listings.


Snapshots in time

Postcard messages from the early 1900s. The messages seem to be of a similar length – brief and to the point with a maximum of 30 words!

Dear Kim
I have not forgotten to send you a p.c. We arrived here after seven on Thursday eve, time is passing on(?). I think this is a pretty view of Stamford. Love from all to you all. Your loving Grandma

Dear Ethel
This is Bath Row at the bottom of our lane while the floods were on. Thanks for the things, & will send the bodice back when I write next time. Warren is going away for the holidays.

postcard back

Sent to Miss Chambers, 7 Cooper Street, Leeds
I am sending you another for the collection, I know you haven’t any like this and I think it much nicer to have them through the post. Love ?

Picture Postcard Conventions



Having chosen a postcard format to present research I have become interested to find out more about the origins and conventions of the picture postcard with a view to this potentially informing style and content.

First research led to the history of postcards on a series of websites (;;  These sites identified that postcards were first issued by the Post Office with a pre-printed stamp and plain front and back in 1870’s.  In the 1890’s a picture was printed on one side and the message was written around this picture!  By 1900 the divided back had been introduced so that the message and address were on one side and the picture on the other.    Postcards began to be bought as souvenirs and became the standard way to send messages to friends.  They were cheap and reliable with up to seven deliveries of post each day!  Messages were short and factual as is was considered unseemly to include personal messages which were open for all to see.  Postcards documented everything from national events to village fetes – anything and everything that was part of a community was a like subject for publishers to use on postcards!

The majority of photographic postcards were created in black and white with some being hand colored after printing.  Postcards were produced with printed messages, mottos or rhymes instead of an image.  These message cards included individual letters, names of places and people or language specific to a a category such as plants or flowers. Experimental postcard formats included:  hold-to-light postcards (which were made with tissue paper surrounded by a frame of standard paper to enable light to shine through), fold-out postcards (which had multiple postcards attached in a long strip),  linen postcards (which were printed images onto brightly coloured papers to look like linen fabric), and silk postcards (which  were constructed to include stitched sections combined with a printed image).   The silk card was either a design printed on silk fabric attached to a postcard back, or a card with silk fabric attached as a border or decoration.

photo 7photo 12


Postcards found in Oxford which may be used to represent characters on my section of the walk.  I’m also drawn to the idea of applying heightened colour onto a black and white image.


The real versus the imagined


A colleague who is familiar with our project recommended a blog today that he thought would be of interest – Socks for the Boys! By Alison Twells records the World War II diary of her great aunt Norah Hodgkinson. I was surprised when I reviewed my research that only 4 out of my 18 stories relate to either of the two world wars, certainly when making site visits, the war memorial along with the church and church yard was a key focus, and the discovery of so many airbases in Northamptonshire has meant that we could perhaps have produced an entire publication based solely on military inhabitants. I will be interested to compare T’s final tally of war related stories with my own. I was also disappointed to discover that only 6 out of my 18 individuals are women, I was hoping for a more balanced representation; but it does mean that we were correct to reject one of our initial ideas, which was to produce a woman-only based publication!

Socks for the Boys! is rich with Norah’s wartime memories, and alongside the actual diary entries there is often an imagined story that relates to specific facts – in one of her posts Twells does start to question this particular aspect of the writing:

The issue of how far we use our imaginations in writing history is very topical in the history blog world at the moment. Helen Rogers and Matt Houlbrooke have both written recently about their own use of styles of writing more commonly associated with fiction than academic history. So I want to explore here not only why I feel compelled to ‘fictionalise’ at times, but also to explore what ‘to fictionalise’ really means?
Read the full post at :

In addition to the diary there are also references to related works, and whilst I have only got part way through the entries, there is another key reference to a book by anthropologist Daniel Miller – The Comfort of Things – the book examines a London street and 30 of its households, it records the things and objects that are important to the inhabitants and their relationship with specific objects.

Reading a review of the book I was interested to see that someone had referred to the book as a series of ‘portraits’ – I like the use of this term and think it applicable to what we are doing – I have been referring to our research as ‘stories’ but I don’t think this is really appropriate – as it could be misconstrued as something ‘imagined’ – which they are not.

This thread of the ‘imagined’ is interesting – I feel somewhat contradictory in wanting our ‘portraits’ to be highlighted as real-life, when the visual language I have been exploring utilises found photographic imagery to represent specific individuals. The dilemma is that in a few instances I have found actual photographs of the named individual to use, so will a mix of the two sit comfortably together – or should they all be ‘imagined visual portraits’? (above: is the imagined Lady Villiers and the real Thomas Cook).