1950s 'Never Had it so Good' - Then and Now Social History
Looking back on the fifties we see so many things that are
familiar to us today, yet our lives are very different from people of the
fifties. This change in social manners and attitudes was first
truly acknowledged at the time of the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. Sir
John Colville noticed and developed the idea in his book the New Elizabethans 1952 -
1977 and wrote in 1977:-
"Whatever their station in life, the way people now
conduct their affairs differs, voluntarily or involuntarily, in both opportunity
and amenity from what was customary twenty five years ago. They feed and dress
differently, they talk, live and spend their leisure differently, and they do so
partly by choice and partly by force of circumstance."
You could write much the same about the last 25 years since
1980. We are obliged to move forward with change at frightening pace
compared to 1950. Much of this change is to do with attitude change of what is
acceptable and what is not and the speed of this acceptance has all been fuelled
by communications of a global nature.
In 1952 Britain was still bearing the scars of a World War.
Evidence was everywhere in war torn Europe. Open bomb sites with their
crumbling buildings were set amidst a new kind of architecture, half built
blocks of flats. These were the first signs of redevelopment.
Throughout Britain, people still produced identity cards and housewives queued
on chilly pavements, nursing their ration books. Churchill, hero of the
war, gave new hope to all when he was re elected to power under the
Newly arrived back in Downing Street, London, Churchill began his
reign of office by looking at the austere diet of the country. He called
for one week's food ration to be set out before him. He wanted to see just
what the people really had to eat. To his horror it was set out on a small
tray. The entire rations for one week were what he would normally have
expected to eat at one breakfast!
Rations for 1 Week for 1 Person
(Roughly about 2 inch by 1 inch by half inch cube, barely enough to fill
(Equivalent to about 20 teabags today)
2oz jam spread
4oz bacon or ham
1 shilling's worth of meat
8oz fats of which only 2oz
could be butter
Later sweets and tinned goods
could be had on a points system. Bread was not rationed until
after the war in 1946. For many rationing was harder after the war
in the late 40s and early 50s than during the war.
Rationing ended 21 Feb 1952.
Read more about clothes rationing lists
of the 1940s and 1950s here.
Unable to immediately abolish
food rationing, he offered instead a
crumb of comfort. On the 21st February, 1952 he abolished the personal
identity card. A small gesture, but something for all to build a dream on,
a little bit of extra personal freedom. Ironically there are moves today
in Britain to
reintroduce an identity card to the Britain of the noughties.
There was a delay of another 2 years and all food rationing ended in Britain on 4 July 1954.
I was a toddler and I recall the day it happened. My mother came running
out to where I was playing in the garden to say
food rationing had finished
was important news even to me as I had a weekly sweet ration every Tuesday.
Even at such a young age making decisions about whether to have a small tube of
fruit gums as against a small stick of fudge or a very small bar of chocolate
and I mean SMALL, was a major thought all week and the subject of many changes
A short while later that day she cleared the cupboards of old
stale food goods (probably long past their use by date had such a concept
existed) and gave me a tin of very old Bird's custard powder to play with in the garden.
My friends and I had never had anything more than plain water to use in the tea
set before, so to see the bright yellow mix emerge has left an indelible memory
of that moment that rationing ended.
Freedom came fast and furious in the years following.
The Church, which for centuries had held a vice like grip on the British nation
had progressively lost its grasp, giving way to new forces, one of them being
'white light', more commonly known as television.
has been referred to as the best of its kind in the world, selling classic
programmes both East and West. In 1952 the new baby the British now
affectionately call the 'telly' could only be found in eight homes in a hundred,
contrasting with fourteen TV sets in a hundred in America. In the UK
the cinema was still well supported.
Almost every home in Britain now has one or more colour
television sets. Today television is a major force in our lives; its speed
of communication is almost frightening. Celluloid
fiction today is all too often a reality tomorrow.
Topics too indecent to mention in 1952 were everyday
conversation by the mid 70s. Even so, no one ever believed then that the
topic of the Lewinsky and Clinton trial would ever be discussed in their living
rooms, nor downloaded in detail from the internet a further 25 years on.
By 2005, to be shocked at anything, had become as rare as it
was unfashionable. By 2009 almost the last barriers of good taste had been
broken and all through the medium of TV. The last taboo up for public discussion
destined to shock after the 1990s Lewinsky details has been death. Death
and the nature of dying began its merger with reality style TV in the mid
noughties. It reached a peak with the televised illness of Jade Goody in 2009.
This intrusive attitude has developed because of the seemingly intimate relationship
television engenders in every home. In the 1950s people lined up rows of
chairs to watch the TV and invited their neighbours to join them watch
programmes if they had no television set of their own. But what they saw on
their screens in their homes soon became acceptable in real life rather than in
soap opera lives.
In the early fifties, just one channel reached twenty per cent
of the British population. Viewing time was limited to an hour in the
afternoon, an hour at teatime and three hours between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Television, did not, at that time interfere with people's lives; it was only in
the sixties that the phrase "compulsive viewing" took on any real meaning.
By the 1990s many viewers used satellite dishes to access over hundreds of
channels using the Sky or similar system. People of the 1950s would truly
have been in awe of this.
It is somewhat surprising then, to discover that in 1952
television was not really a medium of any influence. Nobody realised its
potential as a media, until millions worldwide raved over the live broadcast of
the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.
In the late fifties we were called the Affluent Society.
Mr. Harold Macmillan's phrase 'never had it so good' echoed throughout the
realm. Despite inflation, those few words have a meaning as true today as
when they were first spoken.
The shopper of the early fifties queued outside the now almost
disappeared corner shop. Shoppers paid for goods with cash or may have had
a weekly account - tick as it was called. Today supermarket trolley
overflowing, the payment is made by bank card or instant debit to a cheque
Expensive items such as carpets and lavishly upholstered
suites, along with labour saving electrical equipment were paid for with a hire
purchase agreement in the fifties. Today they are currently more likely to
be purchased with one cash payment at some huge discount warehouse set in
seclusion, than with H.P. agreements.
In the C21st hire purchase has fast become a thing
of the past. HP still exists, but newer ways of enticing shoppers such as interest free credit has become an advertiser's norm,
with 'take away now and start to pay in 12 months' features. This is such
a normal way for many people to live that they have accumulated debts unheard of in the 1950s
where the attitude was 'if you want something you save for it or take a HP
Now credit cards, as the advert states - 'take the waiting out
of wanting', whilst adding to the number of people in personal debt and
bankruptcy cases. Whilst many people do let their debts get out of
control, just as many others use the credit card system for convenience against
carrying cash and use their card to their advantage and have interest free
credit paying off their debt every month before interest accrues.
By the noughties mid decade, in November 2004, a monetary report
published, indicated that Britain had more credit cards than it has people.
In 2005 at the time of writing (June) there are now over 67 million credit cards
in Britain. In the UK 65% of the adult population use credit and debit
cards. In the USA this figure is 85% of the adult population.
The United Kingdom is second to the USA in terms of card
choice available to consumers. Germany is the world's third biggest credit
card user. Italy is the third biggest credit card user in Europe, but use
of credit cards throughout Europe is growing in popularity with the Finnish
market racing onward.
The British carry more plastic cards than any other European country and
also accounts for two thirds of all credit card transaction through Europe.
In the UK in the past 5 years alone, credit card lending has grown by 87%.
Today about £60 billion of unsecured consumer debt is owed on British credit
These figures do not mean that ALL the British today get into
more debt, but that they spend using different methods than their neighbours.
Differences with other European figures suggest that Britons borrow in different
manner preferring to use credit cards for short term borrowing whereas Germans
for example prefer to use bigger overdraft facilities tied to three times their
monthly income. Pay later cards which must be settled at the end of a month are
popular in Italy, Spain and France. This year Britain will spend more than £1
billion using cards rather than cash.
In the search for a higher standard of living, women of the
fifties and sixties gradually joined the ranks of the work force. In most
families the woman today is as vital a wage earner as her partner.
50s the woman was more often seen as the homemaker. Women's magazines
encouraged women to stay at home after the Second World War so that men were in
full employment after being demobbed from the forces. Her role was to be
the perfect Stepford wife. It was not that women had never worked before
out of desire or necessity, but a general consensus that men deserved jobs more
after fighting in the war and women would be child bearers to refuel the
population. The Oxo advert from the fifties of Katy in her pretty white
apron as the perfect wife pleasing her man, to the empty nest adverts of a mid
fifties man wearing a fleece making a casserole for 'drop in' adult children, are a
great take on the social changes of family life in British society.
But as higher standards of living were directed at families
with not so subliminal advertising, women of the fifties and sixties who 'wanted
the latest labour saving device and nicer homes' gradually began to join the
work force. Initially in the 50's a woman's income was often for extra
treats for the family or the home interior. Now in 2005 that 'extra'
income is essential for many who desire to maintain a certain way of lifestyle,
own their own home and pamper away the stress of working with days at spas and
A marital relationship, legal or otherwise, is described now
as a partnership. In the fifties "living over the brush" as it was called,
was very frowned upon. Change was in the air and by the very late fifties
society was loosening up, so that in the mid sixties those with a strong sense of
self awareness, started to do what they pleased, setting up home in mixed sex
flats in big cities, but in reality often cohabitating.
woman's twofold role of home maker and wage earner meant that in the past 50
years the pattern of
family life has changed. For some this is a mixed blessing. Whilst
many women do feel liberated, just as many feel that women have become jugglers
of time and are overloaded with tasks both in and out of the home. Some
would just love to be just like those desperate housewives of the TV soap again
who can get their daily routine of ferrying children, organising meals and the
home under their total control rather than having to catch up every evening, or
weekend, or half term with chores that seem to start at 6am and finish at
For many today life today may look superficially 'have it
all', but this is not the liberation feminists promised.
The number of children per family was 2.2 in 1952 and
2.6 in 1960, but is now at 1.74 in the UK today. More couples now delay
child bearing until the woman is "mature" while the woman pursues a career or
simply decides against having children so that their own standard of living is
high. More alarming though, is the fact that male counts are much
lower today as men are subjected to the female hormone oestrogen via the water
Accommodation in the early fifties was often rented, usually
rooms, but the hope of home was nurtured in many a heart, even though the
shortage of housing was desperate. Things were quite different for Mrs.
Average in 1952. She thought herself well off if her floors were linoleum
covered and scattered with the odd rug.
Then, for the lucky in Britain, a slow burning
grate with a copper boiler behind it solved heating and hot
water problems. Domestic appliances were rare and those in
existence were virtually unobtainable to the ordinary family.
The freezer was almost unknown in the UK. Likewise only
15% owned a fridge in 1957 in UK, but by 1987 98% of the
population owned at least one fridge with many keeping
additional fridge/freezers in their garage.
Through the years domestic and personal life has changed.
Wall to wall carpeting or beautiful wooden flooring, several coloured
televisions, one or more holidays either to exotic tropical or continental
destinations, two or more cars, a telephone plus many room extensions and
personal mobile (cell) phone, a cupboard full of alcohol, domestic and personal
electrical appliances, home computers and the once little known freezer complete
with half a carcass, are regarded by many as essentials, not luxuries.
What is more, the community demands them so that many aspects of how we live
today such as possession of a TV are regarded as basic standards of living and
are even provided by the state to the underprivileged.
The wish for more and more in the way of material wealth has
meant that family life, whilst benefiting, has also suffered the stresses and
strains that result from a highly industrialized world. In the 1950s the
humble, but nutritious egg, shell slightly soiled, gold of yolk and fluffy of
white, was bought from a butcher's shop. Today it receives so much testing
for freshness that by the time it reaches the shopping basket it is several
weeks' old, all hint of being new laid removed. Chickens, once succulent,
plump and tasty, are now fatty and greasy from lack of exercise and as tasteless
as the plastic wrap bags in which they are placed.
(For fuller details see my pages on 1950's
Glamour, 50s Accessories,
50's Sewing Patterns,
1950s teenagers and Teddy Boys ,
Horses and carts are rarely seen now, and the rag and bone man
is a sight no longer available. In the fifties there were still those who
made a living from old clothes, still mainly made from natural fibres and
suitable for felting. The bric a brac the rag and bone merchant collected
was called junk. Anything worth throwing away today is tomorrow's antique,
and so a whole new trade has developed under the guise of car boot sales.
The rags of yesteryear are also much sought after antiques, as
fashionable as in the fifties and now called
vintage. Much of the evolution that
has occurred in fashion is due to the youth of the fifties; they broke the rules
and began a youth cult that swept through society and allows 10 year olds today
to get as much attention fashion wise as an adult of yesteryear.
Back in 1952 the fashion world
succumbed to the new sweater
girl and the more casual looks of jeans. Gradually the sweater was
replaced by a T shirt and the almost universal dress of the young became
The jeans of the fifties paved the way for a new kind of fashion that emerged in
the sixties, ripping open the world of haute couture.
1952, Paris was still very much in vogue, albeit adapted by
the design skills of ready to wear manufacturers. Brand name clothes were
becoming so good and so popular that Vogue magazine bestowed the ultimate
accolade by recommending Jaegar, Dereta, Brenner Marcus, Rima, Mary Black and
Susan Small to its readers.
Clothing coupons had been abolished in 1948 so that by 1952
clothes were at last liberated. Hemlines which had plunged rapidly with
the new look, finally settled at mid calf length, eleven and a quarter inches
off the ground. Dolman sleeves, swing back coats and stand away collars
were popular. Skirts could be pencil slim or a mass of sun ray pleats.
Lots of these looks were achieved by using
1950's fashion sewing patterns.
Fibres, excitingly new, were beginning to appear on the market, and legs encased
in seamed nylon stockings were a welcome pleasure. Hats were still worn
and they hugged the head like
bathing caps, having every strand of hair tucked
inside. With time the majority have stopped wearing them altogether, except on
Since the fifties, which Vogue called 'the formative years of
the century', fashion has never really been the same. Mass production, the
introduction of synthetic fabrics and the comparative prosperity of the late
fifties enabled the average British woman to be one of the best dressed women in
the world. The young continued to demand clothes to suit a teenage market.
The scientific and mass production advances made during the
second World War,
meant that the fifties changed forever the way people lived in the C20th.
Page Added 10 June 2005, Updated March
To Top of Page
For more information about the 1950s Era and main links
to 1920s, 1930s and 1940s sections click on the titles below:-
TOP OF PAGE