Monday, June 17, 2019

Why did my grandmother have a problem with nostalgia about "the good old days"?

“Don’t you talk to me about the good old days!”
I can remember hearing my grandmother say that in the 1950s, when I was a child. She was responding to a visitor who was talking nostalgically about the horse and buggy era.

My grandmother would have none of that talk. She was a mild-mannered, softly spoken person, but she wanted people to acknowledge that the “old days” were not so good.

I remembered what my grandmother had said recently while thinking of how best to illustrate how economic progress had improved the lives of people in Australia during the 1950s. Rather than adopting my usual approach of reciting statistics, it occurred to me that my grandmother’s story might make the point more effectively.

Ethel Vernon was born in 1900. She had happy childhood memories, but her life changed radically when she was 17 years old. That was when she married Archie Bates, who was quite a few years older than her. By the time Ethel was 30, she and Archie had 7 children.

At the time, 7 children would not have been considered a particularly large family. The average for Australian women who were born in 1900 was about 3 children. About one-quarter of women born at that time had no children, presumably because the First World War reduced the number of potential marriage partners. That meant the norm was about 4 children per family.

Archie worked as a station hand and overseer on Woodlands, a sizeable sheep property at that time, located on the Wimmera river, near Crowlands in Victoria. I think the economic circumstances of the family would have been somewhere near the average for Australians in that period.

From the photo shown above, taken in 1925, it looks as though family members were reasonably well fed and had at least one set of respectable clothes. The photo shows Ethel and Archie at the centre, with their four eldest children and some friends and neighbours. 

During the 1920s, the standard of living of the Bates family, like that of most other Australians in rural areas, had more in common with that of most rural people in a middle-income country, like Brazil, than with the way most people live in rural Australia today.

For example:
  •    There was no running water in the house. When you needed water, you went outside and turned on the tap on the small rainwater tank.
  •      When you needed hot water, you had to heat it on the top of the stove, or light the copper.
  •      There was no refrigerator. Food could be preserved for a day or so using a Coolgardie safe that worked on the evaporation principle.
  •      When you wanted to use the toilet, you had to go outside and up the garden path to a dunny built over a hole in the ground.
  •       There was no washing machine. All clothes were washed by hand.
  •       There was no electric light – just kerosene lights and candles.
  •      When you wanted to go somewhere you had to walk, unless you were lucky enough to own a horse.

What my grandmother remembered when people talked to her about the “old days” was the drudgery of long days of housework, looking after a young family without the benefit of modern conveniences. I think she was probably also irked by being wholly dependent on the money her husband gave her.

My grandmother’s standard of living didn’t improve much until the 1950s. The depression and Second World War restricted economic opportunities for people living in rural Australia, as in many other parts of the world.

During the 1950s my grandmother’s circumstances improved markedly. She gained some economic independence by obtaining the franchise for the Crowlands post office and telephone exchange, but the improvement in her standard of living seemed typical for the times.

I saw all this happen because I was living with her:
  •     She was able to afford a new kitchen and bathroom with running water installed. She had a much larger water tank constructed.
  •     She bought a slow combustion wood stove that provided continuous hot water.
  •      She bought a fridge that ran on kerosene.
  •     Running water enabled a flush toilet to be installed using a septic tank system.
  •     A few years later she bought an electricity generator and set of batteries. That enabled her to use a washing machine as well as to have electric lights.
  •     In the early 1950s grandmother bought a Holden ute.  After that, use of the horse and sulky became a recreational activity rather than the primary mode of transport.

My grandmother was extremely grateful for the conveniences of modern life. She saw them as a blessing, even though she was not materialistic. She believed that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” and her heart was in cultivation of the goodness in herself and others.

In later life, my grandmother’s main recreational activity was voluntary work for a charitable organisation. That would not have been possible without the time-saving devices in her own home.

It isn’t difficult to understand why my grandmother objected to people talking nostalgically about the horse and buggy era. Economic progress brought about a remarkable transformation in the quality of her life.


Jim Belshaw said...

Lovely post, Winton. I have written on this from an historical perspective with a special focus on labour saving devices and domestic life. I should do a covering post that will bring all those posts together.

There seem to be two types of 50s nostalgia.

One harks back to a freer more secure life. Even when things were hard there was work and most people could expect to own their own home. There was also improvement. I think that you have referred to the second in your writing. I would put it this way: if you are struggling but expect things to get better, then you are positive. If you become comfortable, more comfort and better living standards, but feel insecure and expect things to worsen, then negativity is easy.

The second type of nostalgia as exemplified on the Armidale Families FB page are individuals looking back to their own childhoods and young adulthoods. Here time places a burnish because these are memories of what often seems in retrospect golden times. The two types overlap.

We live in an insecure and, or so it seems to me, increasingly fearful society. Our parents had been through two great wars and a depression. To them, the 50s were a period of advancement, of security made more welcome by preceding events. For all the advances in living standards, people today know that their jobs are insecure, that the majority of young will never own their own home, that unemployment and potential homelessness are a step away for many, that nothing is reliable, nothing can be taken for granted. All this feeds into fear and insecurity.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Jim. I look forward to reading the post you promised.

I think you are right about the two types of nostalgia for the 1950s.

When people look back at their childhood they tend to remember the happy times.

We also look back of the 1950s as a period of exceptional economic progress and stability. Advances in living standards have continued since then, with massive improvements in communications technology.

However, as you say, there does seem to be more economic insecurity today. In historical terms, I think that current economic insecurity is fairly minor in countries like Australia (we don’t have famines when the crops fail) but it does impact negatively on wellbeing. Someone should do some research to see how much income people are prepared to forgo to have greater job security.

Unknown said...

Thankyou for this nostalgic post! It certainly brought back memories of the grandmother we shared. I remember many summers holidaying with her at her home in the 60s. We had many discussions between working the telephone exchange about how tough it was for her and the family growing up at Woodlands. She certainly did not want to return to those days.
Our grandmother also had a profound affect on me and my attitude and understanding about how important governments are in providing hope to allow people to get a start with their economic future.
As you would remember our grandmother attributes her economic start as a independent female to the post war Labour Government who brought forward anti monopoly legalisation to give more people a chance to own land to establish a viable future. You will also recall that the large landowner in the district, who because of these regulations, was not able to purchase the parcel of land so went guarantor with the bank for our grandmother on the understanding that he would take over the property when she failed and she would have to sell it in a fire sale. That of course never happened. Without this government support our grandmother would have had very little chance of getting ahead and would have succumbed to the gender based prejudices that were certainly prevalent at that time.
As a regional and rural educationalist for the last 47 years, I have often reflected on how the life chances of our young people start with are reinforced and compounded over their life. Yes there are some exceptions but most continue as they started. Perhaps even now there is a place for some government intervention similar to what our grandmother enjoyed to give those that have very few prospects, some hope, security or even happiness rather than continuing the current paradigm of an accelerating societies wealth divide where the rich are getting richer and the poor battle to exist. Regards Vern Hilditch

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Vern. That is much as I remember it too.