On April 20, 2022

Remembering life in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s — before technology

By Mary Ellen Shaw

I recently came across an online article in which various people wrote about the way they remembered life from the 1930s into the ’50s. The general consensus is that everything was a lot more work back then. Today’s conveniences make many of the routine things in our lives easier but I think our brains are actually working harder! Modern day technology seems to have created a need for everyone to “put on their thinking caps.” If you are part of the work force you need technical knowledge in your job. If you are retired you need to know basic technology just to keep in touch with family and friends. But even retirees have branched out into some pretty complex use of the various devices on the market.

I think we all learn things better when there is something “in it for us”! There doesn’t seem to be an IQ requirement when it comes to figuring out a cell phone. How did everyone get so smart?

Let’s take a look back at various aspects of life “back in the day,” when technology didn’t rule our lives.

It was common to wash clothes by hand when you had just a few items. I remember we had a wooden rack to dry them on that was placed on the floor of the bathtub. If you had a lot of laundry it most likely was put through a wringer washing machine. We had one of those in our cellar along with “set tubs” for water. I think every yard on our street had a clothesline. Some people used a spinning clothes line that allowed you to stand in one spot with your laundry basket. You twirled the lines around so you could hang the clothes without moving the basket. The clothesline in our yard consisted of two heavy metal posts that were cemented into the ground at each end of the clothesline. Another metal post ran across the tops of the vertical posts and held five lines on which to hang clothes. Since each line was about 10’ long there was room for lots of laundry! I remember how fresh the clothes smelled when they came inside.

Many people didn’t have a refrigerator back in the ’30s. They had an “ice box” that had blocks of ice inside to keep the perishable items cold. Without the blocks of ice people would have to go to the store daily for meat and vegetables. Electric refrigerators were thought of as a luxury at first. By the 1950s, the price of a refrigerator had dropped to the point that it was more affordable for everyone to have one.

Instead of watching TV, families often sat and listened to the radio. They also played board games at a table with friends and family. Today’s computer games are an isolated event with individual participation even when taking part in an online game with others.

Fast food restaurants hadn’t arrived and eating at a restaurant was a special occasion for many. If children went to a restaurant they were on their best behavior and knew it was a privilege to be there. Meals at home were often prepared with the thought in mind of having the main course again as “warm-ups” or concocting some other meal out of it. Home cooked meals were the norm in most households. If you desperately needed a meal in a hurry back in the ’50s, then TV dinners with their tin foil covers were the solution. They were heated in a regular oven as microwaves were not an option back then.

When it came to making coffee it was percolated in a pot on the stove. There was no Mr. Coffee or Keurig with pods. I remember our coffee pot sitting on the griddle of the stove perking away! Eventually coffee was made in an electric coffee pot. Ours was silver in color and the coffee was poured from its fancy spout. There was always a jar of “instant” coffee sitting on a shelf in the kitchen cupboard. It must have been for “emergency use” when my parents needed a cup of coffee and time was of the essence. It didn’t get used very often.

In a future column I will take a look back at some other ways people did things “back in the day.” As simple as life was back then I doubt that most of us would want to go back to doing things the old fashioned way. We have been spoiled by modern conveniences. Some day our current ways will look old-fashioned. It’s hard for me to imagine what could possibly be next!

Mary Ellen Shaw is a graduate of Trinity College. She is the author of the book “Kittenhood 101” and is a freelance writer for several publications.

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