“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.
- 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.