1930s Housewife Challenge

28 July 2011

Although my heart will always belong to 18th century Versailles and the Victorian east end, there is a part of it that skips a beat around 1930s England – a period redolent of lipsticked debutantes, the Mitford sisters, Agatha Christie, royal scandal and the last whoop of the upper classes.

You can imagine, therefore that I was rather thrilled when Procter & Gamble asked me to pretend to be a 1930s housewife for the day as part of an event to celebrate their 80th birthday. Now, of course I would rather pretend to be a brittle, witty Nancy Mitford heroine for the day but I decided that Distressed Gentlewoman is probably more my thing anyway. I remember reading appeals for Distressed Gentlewomen in my grandmother’s copies of The Lady as a little girl and the phrase has always swept me straight back to a much earlier time of genteel poverty, Miss Marple and sloe gin drunk in chintzy front parlours.

P&G started off by sending me an immense parcel of goodies from their current range and I must admit that I was amazed by how much stuff they actually make. I’m a bit of a hippy when it comes to house cleaning and love products that contain herbs, bicarbonate of soda and, possibly, twigs, but even I have several P&G items in my Cupboard Under The Sink. One thing though – I’d got out of the habit of using fabric conditioner but the one they sent me was so nice that I’ve started using it again. Oops!

I’m not alone though – apparently nearly every household in the UK has bought at least one P&G product in the last year and they’ve always had their finger on the pulse when it comes to making our lives more comfortable and, well, clean.

Swift on the heels of the big fat parcel of cleaning loveliness, there came two more even bigger packages containing everything I would need to be a 1930s lady of not very much leisure. The difference in size ought really to have warned me of what lay ahead – clearly in the 1930s, housework involved a lot more elbow work and apparatus than we are used to these days…

My challenge from P&G was to spend a day doing household tasks that would have been familiar to the average 1930s housewife. Ooh, what fun, I thought. Oh, how wrong I was.

Task One: ‘Outer Beauty’

I don’t actually wear much make up but when I do, I do like to really slap on the MAC in the hopes that it will make me look like Siobhan Fahey in the video for Shakespear’s Sister’s ‘Stay’. It never does, but I live in hope.

In the 1930s, ordinary women were rather more restrained and would have used cold cream and plain old soap to cleanse their skin before patting on some pale ivory face powder, rouge on their lips and cheeks and then a tiny soupçon of solid mascara. I was a bit of a rebel and added some classic red lipstick as well, having decided that my 1930s Housewife was a bit of a movie fan.

As if that isn’t acetic enough, I also had to eschew using the shower, my nice paraben free shampoo and conditioner and pretty much everything nice that I use. I was asked to wash my hair with soap in the bath as my 1930s counterpart would have done, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it – sorry!

I had a good old go at the rest of the regime though! Did it make me look like a siren of the silver screen? Well, not so much.

Task Two: ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’

It was at this point that I really began to think wistfully of Mitford heroines, who never do any cooking and if introduced to a kitchen would probably sink to the floor in tears of woe before over-boiling an egg until it explodes.

The other problem is that I’m vegan, which isn’t something that was very commonly found in the 1930s, unless you were some mad mystic type or an eccentric writerly sort. However, meat was quite expensive back then and so the ordinary household wouldn’t have eaten all that much of it.

I gamely attempted to use the provided porridge oats to make breakfast for my children, but I’m afraid that the result wasn’t very appetising. For someone born in the wilds of northern Scotland, I really know how to waste some perfectly good porridge oats!

Later on, I would attempt to make the one pot vegetable casserole that was suggested as appropriate 1930s fare. This went a bit better and reminded me of the stews, redolent of slightly burnt potato and squishy carrot that my grandfather used to make over the fire when we had week long power cuts during the harsh winters of my childhood. This was sustaining no frills food that you wouldn’t exactly look forward to cooking or eating but which would easily get you through the day in a sleepy, carby sort of way.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAUH7Vr_Z3s&w=560&h=349]

Task Three: ‘Everything But The Kitchen Sink’

Now, I’ll admit at this point that I don’t actually do the washing up at our house. We haven’t got room for a dishwasher so my husband does it for us. This is because I have convinced him that I am allergic to both washing up liquid and also rubber gloves. Therefore, for me, doing the washing up involves nagging him in increasingly unsubtle ways until he takes the hint and begrudgingly gets on with it.

For this challenge though, I decided to do it myself – an unpleasant experience that involved both soap and much complaining. To be honest though, the end results weren’t bad but I didn’t feel confident that everything was really as super shiny clean as I like it to be.

Task Four: ‘Dirty Laundry’

For this part of the challenge, I was once again banned from using all modern conveniences so it was a case of rolling up my sleeves, getting out the rather pleasantly scented lemon household bar and the extremely exciting looking washboard, which had been residing in the most ominous fashion in our kitchen ever since its arrival.

This was so gruelling, oh my. I really gave it as much welly as I could, but it was seriously hard work and I think I would just have cried had I had to do this every week. I think that housewives back in the 1930s would have had a dedicated Laundry Day once a week when they just got it all over and done with.

Again, the results were adequately clean but I couldn’t face the hard work of getting stubborn stains out and came to the conclusion that people may well have smelt a bit back in the day.

Task Five: ‘Batteries Not Included’

Now, this task was going to be a real challenge! In common with most 1930s women, I am a stay at home mother type. Well, technically, I work from home but the point is that I am at home avec les enfants every day. Like a lot of women, I do really rely on the odd bit of television, DS games and all manner of toys and games to both entertain my offspring and also give me some breathing space to get on with my work.

How would we all cope without this?

Not too badly, actually! The boys were actually pretty happy to play with wooden bricks for quite a long time and the teddy provided got treated like a king and then a baby for a good few hours longer than expected. Would they be happy to play with so few toys for longer than a day? I very much doubt it but I must say that I enjoyed the atmosphere of gentle peace and quiet while they played with their toys 1930s style.

My boys are currently going through a pretty intense Harry Potter phase right now and so the Enid Blyton book provided went down very well as it was full of fantasy and whimsy. My husband’s grandmother was really good chums with Enid Blyton and apparently it’s all true about her not being all that fond of children, although his mother used to go for tea at her house so it can’t have been all that bad. I wonder if the teas were splendid, with piles of potted meat sandwiches, victoria sponge cake and LASHINGS OF GINGER BEER?

Task Six: ‘How Clean Is Your House’

Time to get on with the housework! Now, my attitude to cleaning is much better than my feelings about washing up and I do actually get on with it very cheerfully indeed. Would I be just as cheerful about 1930s style cleaning?

The first clue ought to have been the little pack of goodies provided for this bit of the task: baking soda; vinegar; carbolic soap; dishcloth; spray bottle and a lemon. Now, as I said before, I do like being a bit of a hippy when it comes to cleaning so this made me very happy but on the other hand, I’m a bit chronically adverse to the addition of elbow grease.

Cleaning the stove top and sink with a dash of baking soda and water wasn’t too bad and left everything with a nice clean gleam although you really need to give it some welly to get more stubborn stains off.

Scrubbing the floor with a mixture of lemon juice, water and baking soda was also surprisingly satisfying and left everything nice and clean, with a pleasing hint of lemon scent. I did this challenge just after moving house when I was temporarily without a mop so I did it in traditional char woman style, on all fours, by hand and with a scrubby cloth. Did my husband find this an enticing spectacle? I think not.

Finally, I was required to clean some windows and a mirror. Oh woe. I’ll admit that this was the bit that I was least looking forward to, anticipating newspaper print and grim all over my hands. Well, yes, I did end up with newspaper print all over my hands but after a jolly good scrub with a solution of water and vinegar, the windows were sparkly clean so that’s all okay. Watch out if, like me, you have a tendency to chew your fingers when nervous as vinegar in cuts is NO FUN.

Phew! I bet women slept well in the 1930s! If you didn’t have servants then life was clearly somewhat exhausting what with all the arduous chores that needed to be done. I’d have been miserable to be honest – I like things to be clean and tidy but want to expend as little effort as possible getting them that way as, frankly, I have much better things to do with my time than pummel washing so thank you P&G for making life a bit easier for we servantless women so that we can go off and write books, enjoy our families, knit, paint and um chat for hours on Twitter!

Many thanks to Procter & Gamble for the opportunity to do this, the lovely PR people who sent me goodies and Dave for his interesting camera work and video creation!

Anyway, I’ll be on my way to Camp Bestival by the time you read this and won’t be back until Monday evening sometime. Have a great weekend everyone! x

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