Wed, 22 Aug, 2018
Just how good were the ‘good old days’?
Just how good were the ‘good old days’?
Less than one in five of today’s population is old enough to have any real, or memorable, experience of our previous age. Were they really the ‘good old days’, or have we fallen victim to rose-coloured glasses and nostalgia?
So, what was it like back in the day? What kind of lifestyles did we have from the late 1890s to the mid-1960s? In general, it goes as follows.
A desire to own a home, preferably on a quarter-acre block, was core to the then household, which was more likely to be a family household (that is, with children) than today.
Owning a house signified security, freedom and modest wealth. Incidentally, the concept of a ‘quarter-acre block’ (just over 1000 square metres) for the family was promulgated by Captain Arthur Philip, the nation’s first governor some 230 years ago. He deemed the quarter-acre block to be the minimum amount of land on which a family could be reasonably expected to be self-sufficient, allowing room for some livestock, a vegetable garden and a modest dwelling and outbuilding(s). Today, of course, just the house, garage, swimming pool and BBQ could fill the entire quarter-acre block!
Dad went to work while mum stayed at home with the children, assuming home duties. Married women were virtually barred from the workforce in the Industrial Age. Even in the early 1960s, barely five per cent of the entire workforce consisted of married women.
Men had long careers in the Industrial Age; and most stayed in the one style of occupation all their lives, if not the one industry, trade or craft. Longevity of employment became common, especially with the emerging paternalistic and hierarchical corporations; and doubly so in the public service. The legendary inscribed gold watch was one of the prizes for a long and faithful career with the one firm; and only a lucky few enjoyed a pension.
My own father said to me in the late 1950s, when I was entering tertiary education, that I had a choice between a good job for life in the public service, where I would possibly face boredom and frustration, or a job in the private sector, with less security but possibly a higher salary and promotional prospects.
This was, undoubtedly, a tad too simplistic. But, as it turned out, I took the latter option, and went one step further into the even riskier realm of starting my own business.
In these ‘olden days’, swearing was discouraged; and any discussion of sex was a complete no-no. The rule about sex was simple: none before marriage, and sparingly thereafter. Not that many ever took that seriously.
The average family size was three to four children. Contraception was either non-existent or primitive, and was frowned upon by some religions that militated against smaller families.
Just about everything in and around the house was do-it-yourself (DIY); and children were expected to buck-in and help with more rostered tasks than today. This made for busy mornings, evenings and weekends for all. A list of the standard household chores from those days would make you want to go and lie down from exhaustion before you even got started!
It was not until 1927 in New South Wales that men got Saturday afternoon off from work; and they would have to wait another 20 years, until 1947, before they got all of Saturday off.
Free time and leisure was a precious commodity for most of the Industrial Age. More often than not, men would stop off at a corner pub after work. Closing time was 6:00 pm, so the final dash to the bar at around 5:50 pm could get ugly. There were no bottle shops; and women were not allowed in main bars, if they entered the pub at all.
It may shock some to know that sick leave was entirely at the discretion of employers back then. Today, many employees see the statutory two weeks’ sick leave as extra holidays, or days off during the year.
Sport involved fierce loyalties to teams, especially football of whatever code. Playing sport yourself, however, was an expensive business in terms of gear and membership fees — especially for golfers. So, most opted for swimming and fishing in summer. Borrowed or shared sporting equipment was common.
Sunday was a special day. For much of the Industrial Age, it was the only full day free of paid work. Women still cooked and cleaned on a Sunday — however, there were still plenty of jobs for the men to do around the house. (So much for the Sabbath, when resting was the Biblical dictate.) Churchgoing was much more common than it is these days, and an opportunity or requirement to dress up. A midday Sunday roast was yet another ritual, even on the hottest days in summer.
As with chores, entertainment was mostly do-it-yourself. Radio played a big part in leisure time when it emerged in the 1930s, as did television in the 1950s. But board games, playing cards and reading were common; and, for children, playing outside was more the norm.
Cinemas appeared early in the last century, and were popular with all.
Holidays were rare, as said earlier. Less than half of Australian families actually went away for holidays each year. One week’s annual leave was standard almost until the Infotronics Age began in the mid-1960s: a far cry from today’s four weeks, or Germany’s six weeks. Staying with friends and relatives was popular and even necessary, given the financial constraints of those times. For similar reasons, camping and, later, caravanning was also popular.
One thing that was increasingly valued in the Industrial Age was education. Compulsory education to age 15 — the ‘intermediate certificate’ — had been introduced in 1901; but completing high school, let alone going to university, was not common. The necessity of lifelong learning and education was not yet a concept.
What about technology in the home? Electrical equipment — including radio, television, washing machines (but no dryers) and electric sewing machines — became more common mostly from the 1930s, in the latter half of the Industrial Age. The rotary clothesline (the Hills Hoist) was a godsend to women, as was the Victa lawnmower to men; both of which also arrived toward the end of Industrial Age.
Today, we might feel nothing but sorrow for our grandparents: what a life. The oldest members, however, can be forgiven for having some fond memories and nostalgia. Any suggestion that those were the ‘good old days’, however, is misplaced. I, for one, have no desire to go back to those lifestyles: Today is the good old days, as far as I’m concerned.
This is an edited extract from The Future for Our Kids by Phil Ruthven, available at all good book stores including Dymocks, Readings or online at Wilkinson Publishing.