Bringing up baby, 1950s style
Child-rearing has changed more than you might imagine since the 1950s, as author Sheila Hardy discovered when she set out to write a book on the subject. Sheena Grant went to meet her
IT MAY be just a few short decades ago but childhood and family life have changed dramatically since the post-war baby boom of the 1950s.
For instance, babies born in the years of the mid-20th Century are likely to have been raised on a regime of rigid four-hourly feeds, were left outside in their prams for some fresh air each day in all but the most inclement weather and were often potty trained by the time they were less than a year old.
And such was the shortage of housing in war-devastated Britain that sometimes more than one family had to be accommodated in the same house – each allocated a certain number of rooms and taking it in turns to use the kitchen and bathroom.
These are just some of the fascinating insights into motherhood and child-rearing in the 1950s contained in a newly-published book by Ipswich author Sheila Hardy.
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A 1950s Mother: Bringing Up Baby in the 1950s is a nostalgic look at what it was really like to be a mother in the post-war decade and how the baby-boom generation was made.
It is Sheila’s 14th book and follows hot on the heels of a volume exploring similar themes, The 1950s Housewife.
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Both books represent quite a departure from Sheila’s usual subject matter of historical murders, intrigue and historical biographies, many with a local theme.
“They were not my idea,” says Sheila. “I had finished a biography I was working on and my commissioning editor said ‘I’ve got just the thing for you now. I want you to do a book on the 1950s’. I said: ‘Don’t be silly – that’s not history. You’re taking me out of my comfort zone’.
“It wasn’t the sort of research I had done before. I couldn’t go off to the record office and look through old papers, as I’d done for my other books, which are mostly rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. I remember the 1950s well myself but I wasn’t a housewife or a mother then. I was busy pursuing a career.”
In fact, Sheila’s experience of the decade was unlike most of her contemporaries. As many of them were settling down to married life and motherhood in the early 1950s, she was one of just three girls from her school year heading off to university and a career as an English and history teacher and lecturer. She went on to have her own children much later, at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s.
The irony of her situation and the fact that she should be documenting the lives of women at the time whose experiences were quite unlike her own is not lost on her.
“Actually, though, I think it’s better that I had no personal experience of motherhood and child-rearing in the 1950s when it came to writing this book,” she says. “I could be more detached, because I really did have no personal experience I could bring to the subject.
“I tried to think back to what it was like for my older sisters, but they had both married in the ’40s; so I then tried to recall my nieces and nephews and the family I stayed with when I was teaching in London in the late 1950s. They had a little boy and a baby while I was living in a bedsit in their house and I became part of their family. I saw a lot of those children, so I called on those memories; but that was of limited help, so I decided I would have to call on other people’s memories.”
And that’s exactly what she did, sending out questionnaires to women who were 1950s mothers and going to local women’s groups, including the Chantry Library 55 Alive group, where she could tap directly into memories of the decade.
“Women at these groups just sat and talked to me but I was still not convinced the book would have any wider interest whatsoever until, funnily enough, I attended a lunch group organised by some younger women and I found that they were all listening very intently to all the older ladies talking,” she says. “Afterwards one of the younger women came up to me and said how interesting she thought it was. That’s when I first realised there was more to the project than nostalgia. It was genuinely interesting to people of a variety of ages.”
The 1950s was a decade unlike any other, caught between post-war austerity, the hangover of pre-war child-rearing ideas and the emerging, more liberal, thinking that heralded the huge social upheavals of the 1960s.
Babies born in the 1950s would be dressed in matinee coats and bonnets and, as they grew, were expected to be “seen and not heard”. Children were expected to be well mannered, sit quietly and largely ignored when taken to visit friends and relations. They were told quite firmly never to interrupt the adults’ conversation.
“Mothers were told that children should not rule you and you should not give in to them,” says Sheila. “Children were to be disciplined from the start. You had this idea that babies had four-hourly feeds and you kept to those four hours, no matter what. Some people were so rigid that if the baby was crying with hunger a quarter of an hour before those four hours were up they would not feed the baby early.
“Babies were got up at 6am, had a feed and possibly went back to sleep before having another feed at 10am and then bathtime. The baby was then put in a pram – because there was a tremendous emphasis on fresh air – and put out in the garden, well wrapped up if it was cold.
“There was also a big emphasis on potty training. One of the books I read on the subject even advised that when feeding a baby as young as even a few weeks you should hold a receptacle under its bottom to encourage it to get the idea. It became almost like a badge of pride if you could get your child ‘dry’ by the time they were a year old.
“Set against that, of course, you have to remember that there was a very good incentive for early potty training. Babies wore towelling nappies, which had to be washed – and this was all in the days before most of us had washing machines. That was hard work. I think that might also be the reason why many mothers had their children very close together – they thought they might as well get the whole nappy thing over with in one go.” While most women were full-time mothers in the 1950s, there were some who carried on working, especially the further north you travelled.
Many young mothers also started their families living in a couple of rooms in someone else’s house.
“If you wanted your own place, you had to try for a council house because most of the building going on at that time was council building,” says Sheila. “To get onto a council house list you had to satisfy various criteria and most people did not get a council house until they had their second child. Even when they were allocated a home – and this was a real eye-opener for me – they sometimes had to share it with another family.
“One woman at a local library group I went to told me she moved into a house in Ipswich and was only allocated half the house – she had to share it with another family. One lot got the kitchen and the other the bathroom. It’s an indication of the times they were living in – a post-war baby boom combined with a housing shortage.”
Children nowadays may enjoy many privileges their 1950s counterparts could only have dreamed of, but they have also lost many of the freedoms youngsters of yesteryear took for granted.
“They could go out and play for hours at a time,” says Sheila. “In the holidays, there was no question about how you could amuse your children, as there is nowadays. Children went off on their bikes with their friends and no-one seemed to worry.
“The start of the 1950s was a hangover from an earlier period – there was still rationing, for a start. People were carrying on with the attitudes of the post-war make-do-and-mend period but the decade marked a turning point in life as we knew it. By the end of the ’50s attitudes were beginning to change and people were starting to think that they perhaps should have a bit more than they had had before.”
In a way, Sheila herself was a trailblazer for many of the forthcoming social changes.
Born and raised in Ipswich, she went to Nottingham University in 1952 with amibitions to be a teacher. Although she remembers rationing, she had little else in common with many girls her age, who were embarking on married life and motherhood.
“Not many girls went to university at that time,” she says. “In my school year at Northgate (Grammar School for Girls) there were only three of us.”
Sheila thinks her own ambition was probably driven by her mother, who had to work long hours to fund her daughter’s university education after she was refused a grant.
“My mother won a scholarship herself when she was a girl but she was one of 12 children and her father said she couldn’t take up the place. She became a lady’s maid in service at the beginning of the First World War,” says Sheila. “She regretted she did not get the chance of an education and always did the best for her own children. She married at 19 and lost her first husband at 24, by which time she had two young girls. She married my father later and had me, but was widowed again when I was young.”
Sheila thinks many of the changes in attitudes to child rearing that have taken place since the 1950s have been driven by baby-boomers who wanted their own offspring to enjoy a more relaxed upbringing than they themselves had.
“But I don’t think it hurt people to have some hardship in the 1950s,” she says.
“A lot of the women who were bringing up children at the time are now more resilient in their old age. They are self-reliant and, although not well-off, know how to budget their money – and they know how to cook, because it was something everyone did in those days. You bought your fresh food daily and used up your left-overs. In the 1950s there were still men coming home at lunchtimes for a midday meal.”
Having tackled the 1950s, Sheila is gearing up for her next book, which may even bring her further up to date, focusing on the 1960s.
For that one, she’ll be able to call on the memories of some of her former students from the period, with whom she has stayed in touch.
“It will be a real trip down memory lane,” she says.
A 1950s Mother: Bringing Up Baby In The 1950s is published by the History Press.