Learning to find satisfaction in everyday things, making a little go a long way and finding creative expression in crafts – Good discovers what the generations before us knew about living well
We’ve come a long way in 80 years. By rights, we ought to be immeasurably happier than our great-grandparents. We don’t have a World War or a Great Depression to cope with; tuberculosis and polio are distant memories. We can cross vast distances quickly, find information at the click of a button and, as women, open credit accounts without the permission of our husbands or fathers. Vacuum cleaners are no longer novelty items for the lucky few, and neither are bananas or oranges.
But while we may enjoy smarter technology and greater social freedom than our forebears, arguably not all the developments over the last 80 years have been for the better. “There’s a temptation to look at the past and to think that we know so much more, that we’re somehow more enlightened – I think it’s a real trap,” says Frances Walsh, author of Inside Stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890–1975. “Women had a vast wealth of knowledge – there was a sensibility about reusing and being very modest about the way you lived your life. It was about walking lightly on the earth. They kind of had to.”
Our great-grandmothers knew how to repair broken household items; keep the home spick and span, often using cleaning products they’d made themselves; create filling meals on a budget; treat potentially fatal childhood diseases; make clothes for their families; relax without going shopping; and to keep their spirits up under what could be very challenging circumstances. In their spare time, they campaigned for social change, wrote short stories, crafted rugs, bathmats, tea cosies, curtains and bedspreads, and had the neighbours over for a cup of tea.
If our great-grandmothers were around today, what secrets for happy living might they pass on?
Living lightly and saving money
‘Watch the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’
We may have switched to dollars and cents, but the concept remains the same: a healthy budget starts by keeping an eye on even the smallest expenses.
‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or go without’
This was the mantra of more than one household during the Great Depression of 1929–1936. Discarding something that could still be used was unthinkable: toothpaste tubes went through the wringer in order to extract the last drops, overripe fruit was preserved, and old stockings were cut into strips to tie up the tomato plants. Brown paper bags were carefully folded and put away for later use, as were rubber bands and scraps of leftover fabric.
Everything can be used twice
‘Repurposing’ wasn’t a hobby back then – it was an everyday practice. According to tips from the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly in the 40s, packing crates with a lick of paint made excellent side tables, old powder puffs were ideal shoe polishers, cardigans could be transformed into warm, woolly socks, and white flour sacks, bleached and softened, came in handy as pillowcases, napkins or even children’s clothing.
Shopping isn’t recreation
When your great-grandmother was young ‘retail therapy’ was unheard of; the term wasn’t coined until 1986. When things were built to last, and there was an expectation that you would fix anything that was broken, purchases were made infrequently, and with care. “You didn’t just go out and buy crap all the time,” points out Frances. “Up until 1975 you couldn’t even buy that much. That had an enormous effect in limiting people’s material expectations – you had to be quite creative and inventive.”
Advertising is there to be ignored
Throw away catalogues and advertisements without even looking at them, recommended one American Depression survivor when asked for tips. Psychology professor Roy Baumeister would agree; according to his research, we have only a certain amount of willpower, and if it’s constantly challenged, it’ll crumble.
Spend only what you have in your pocket
Many Kiwis couldn’t meet the mortgage payments during the Depression and subsequently lost their homes. As a result, credit was approached with extreme caution: you bought what you could afford and not what you expected to be able to afford in the future. “In the old days, it was considered a sin to buy what one could not afford to pay for in hard cash,” ran a 1934 advertisement for Hay’s Department Store, Christchurch – which offered a layby service for “the most stubborn of consciences”.
Plan for a rainy day
Having suffered through several large-scale economic upheavals, the Depression generation didn’t trust the tide not to turn again. Thrifty habits were continued even in times of prosperity, as people prepared for future storms.
Spend winter evenings together
Heating an entire house was (and still is) costly, so families would cluster in one room to read, listen to the wireless, play card games or work on crafts.
Make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear
Knitting, crocheting, lace-making and embroidery were outlets for creativity as well as an opportunity to make something useful. “It’s sometimes overlooked that ‘making do’ can be so creative – and very rewarding and satisfying,” says Frances. Typically projects wouldn’t start with a trip to a supplies shop, but with something left over: children’s toys or elaborate quilts made from scraps of fabric are classic examples.
Making friends and being neighbourly
Be a joiner
Back in the day, there were many organisations to choose from: the Country Women’s Institute, Arts Societies, the Women’s Land Army, the Housewives Union, the Playcentre and Plunket movements, the Maori Women’s Welfare League, community groups, and social get-togethers to play the top card game of the times: euchre. Such groups afforded women opportunities to meet, share gossip and learn new skills or crafts – and, as Robert Putnam and other social researchers have since established, such groups help form the backbone of a connected and civil society.
Welcome the advice of others
A common story in early 20th-century women’s magazines was that of a young woman struggling to manage her home and doing everything badly – until her older, wiser neighbour turned up to give her some tips. Women were keen to share their knowledge, and these same magazines were also filled with their wisdom and advice.
Share and share alike
Then, as today, there was always someone else who could use what you didn’t need. If you had fruit trees, you’d invite the neighbours to help themselves to the surplus. When rationing was introduced during World War II, farmers donated extra butter to the community. “[In] the wardrobes of your household are many things outgrown or laid aside as useless; how many a poor child would be warmed and gladdened by them?” prompted one mother in a letter to Daybreak magazine in 1895.
Garden for victory
The women of Auckland’s Co-operative Vegetable Corps cultivated donated land and grew produce for the community during World War II. At the time, most suburban homes had a veggie patch or fruit trees; many city folk raised chickens.
And when women couldn’t lend a hand to a cause, they sent food to do the job. Shortbread was posted to family members around the country, while Anzac biscuits were famously mailed to the troops during World War II. (See pages 75 and 80 for more.)
Campaign for change
“Women pushed to improve the lot of all women,” says Frances. In 1912, they protested against the cost of living; in 1926, the League of Mothers and Homemakers was formed to improve conditions in the home; and women’s groups were strong supporters of the Plunket and Playcentre movements.
“At the end of the 1930s, Michael Joseph Savage, in an open letter to the New Zealand Home Journal, talked about how housewives needed to buy local because that was how they were going to ensure their children had jobs,” says Frances. “If you were buying from outside New Zealand, you were propping up dubious labour practices!” During World War II, housewives organised boycotts of goods from Japan and Germany.
Being the queen of the kitchen
The recipe books of Aunt Daisy, the popular radio broadcaster from 1930 to 1963, are also dotted with eggless and butterless recipe variations. And even more helpfully, the 1944 NZ Woman’s Weekly included a recipe for ‘Failure Cake Pudding’ – a clever way to ensure precious rationed ingredients such as butter, sugar and eggs weren’t wasted.
Meat and two veggies
Whether it was ‘Four Mince Dishes’ or ‘Twelve Ways With Chicken’, home cooks knew how to keep things interesting when the budget required the same ingredients to be used over and over again. Housewives were all too aware of the importance of healthy food. In a 1938 exposé of school tuck shops, the locally published magazine Woman Today pointed out that pastries and pies weren’t the best option for growing kids, and that they needed a balanced diet that included fresh produce.
Managing the home and getting through the housework
Make friends with routine
The 1895 edition of The Southern Queen, another local women’s magazine, was full of praise for the humble clock. “Few people have any idea of the wonderful power and value of exact habits,” it proclaimed, adding that daily routines “are the secret of all ease and comfort and the source of much health”. Many newly-minted wives struggled with the volume of housework before the advent of electronic appliances; routine offered a way of remembering tasks and getting through everything efficiently.
Worst things first
The 1935 New Zealand Home Journal was scathingly critical of the disorganised housewife. “If the habit of ‘leaving things begun’ belongs to you, say goodbye to it as quickly as you can… Things get worse and worse until your house won’t be a home any longer. It will be a pigsty!”
The idea was to discipline yourself to do the most difficult or unpleasant tasks first, leaving the more enjoyable chores as your reward at the end. Flowers were considered to make a house a home – and the final touch to a freshly cleaned home was an artful arrangement of fresh flowers for the living room. Magazines included tips for arranging and trying different combinations of flowers or greenery picked fresh from the garden or nearby land.
‘It will never be seen on a galloping horse’
To dispel the misconception that the women who went before us were impossible overachievers, this popular saying suggests our great-grandmothers also knew when something wasn’t worth fussing over. A small fault such as a repair or stain wouldn’t be noticeable unless you pointed it out. Few women are as miserable as the perfectionist, proclaimed Woman’s Viewpoint in 1963. The ideal of a spotless home leads to frustration, endless toil and a bad temper, it advised; better to accept the inevitable and become “decently slovenly”.
Our forebears had an expert eye for styles that had lasting power – and styles that didn’t. “A well-cut, perfectly plain coat is smart for years, whereas a coat with tricky cutting, complicated details on sleeves and pockets is boringly recognisable to everyone after the first few weeks of wearing,” noted the New Zealand magazine Femina in 1950.
“When I go into a shop, I have this tape of my mother playing in my head, asking, ‘Do you need it, or do you want it?’” laughs Frances.
Hats and handbags
For much of the 20th century, a huge asset in the home was a sewing machine, says Frances. Home dressmaking wasn’t just a way to look smart, but for some it was also a source of income. During the 40s, you could send away for free patterns from the NZ Woman’s Weekly; more than one woman launched a cottage industry within her community, creating made-to-measure garments.
The well-dressed woman was never without accessories, and up until World War II no self-respecting woman left the house without a hat and a handbag. Later, outfits were jazzed up with brooches, shrugs, boleros, hairpieces and scarves women had created themselves.
Make do and mend
We all know the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra, but our grandparents would have added a fourth: repair. When clothes became frayed it didn’t mean they were done for. Hems and holes were repaired and frayed collars and cuffs unstitched, turned inside out and resewn into place. Old dresses were refashioned into home smocks or pinnies and best frocks saved for trips out. When children’s jumpers got too small, they were unpicked and reknitted, complete with contrasting stripes to increase the size. Men’s trousers were reconstituted as smart women’s skirts, coats were cut down and unfashionable jumpers became on-trend knitted tube tops. The final destination was the ragbag, or a rag rug – but only after any buttons were carefully snipped off for the button box.
Because things needed to last the distance, items were chosen for their longevity, rather than their instant appeal. It’s an idea that has regained currency in today’s concept of the whole life cycle. “We older women sigh for the good old days, when our choice of materials was restricted to those made from the four main natural fibres: wool, silk, cotton and linen,” reminisced a reader in 1963 in the local magazine Woman’s Viewpoint.
Staying happy and healthy
“Before antibiotics became widely available after World War II, women had to be very knowledgeable about how to keep their kids alive,” says Frances. “There were nutty solutions offered – but they also knew a hell of a lot about prolonging life.” From clearing the drains to keeping the home clean and sanitary and ensuring the kids ate right, women kept up with anything that could improve their family’s health.
Tonics for the times
Modern research has shown the efficacy of natural scenes to reduce stress and increase a person’s ability to concentrate on difficult tasks. And back in 1900, at least one physician was extolling the power of the mind. He suggested in the local magazine The White Ribbon that women calm anxiety by contemplating natural scenes such as “meadows with sheep grazing in them” or “shady paths under the light of the moon”. When something’s stressing you, “resolutely shut your eyes, and think of the mountains – immense, immovable”.
In 1909 agony aunt Maureen recommended that frazzled women try the ‘Fresh Air Cure’, for its benefits for both health and looks. Quaint language aside, it’s a simple remedy that remains relevant today (see over page).
By the 50s, housewives were suffering from what had come to be called ‘suburban neurosis’ – mental distress that was probably a result of the frustration of being confined to the home. Women of the day were advised to broaden their minds by learning a new skill or embarking on a creative pursuit. “Let us add to our interest by grasping every opportunity to learn a new handicraft,” opined Robert Louis Stevenson in his Lay Morals. “It is always better policy to learn an interest than to make a thousand pounds.”
According to psychiatrist Dr Fraser McDonald in 1975, the remedy for a woman suffering from suburban neurosis was hidden inside herself. “Help her find out what she really likes doing,” he advised. “This is surprisingly hard. So many women have spent so much time doing what they have to do, or feel they should do, that they’ve forgotten what they like doing.”
Duty first, feelings follow
For our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, happiness – and respectability – was understood to lie in strong ties with family and friends. Despite the social revolution since those times and the diversity and complexity of modern positive relationships and happy people. Likewise agony aunt Maureen often advised women to calm their anxieties by focusing on simple things such as diet and exercise – advice that is as sound today as it was then.
We know that simply putting on a cheerful face won’t fix deep discontent – but it can lift your mood. Women were encouraged to be upbeat for their families in difficult times, and this may have resulted in them actually feeling happier. The stiff upper lip or ‘fake it till you feel it’ approach may seem hopelessly outdated today, but research suggests it’s not without merit. In her 2009 bestseller The Happiness Project, author Gretchen Rubin discovered many recent studies which confirmed that pretending to be happy often leads to an upswing in mood.