Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[4] Modern Things


[4] My Lovely Mobile


I have decided that the time has come for a bit of general introduction. I will just paint a broad picture of how much things have changed without delving deeply into anything specific. I hope that readers will imagine themselves being transported back in a time machine. Watch for all the changes as you fly backwards fifty or sixty years in time. You will see many of the things that we now take for granted disappearing one by one. I hope that there will be surprises for my younger readers and perhaps nostalgia for the oldies like me.

Mobile Phones

Where shall we start? (OK, there was a clue in the title.) You may be reading this on a laptop computer but it’s more likely to be on a mobile phone or tablet, probably your favourite plaything, a small portable device that goes everywhere with you, something you use all the time when awake. Try to imagine life without your constant companion. You will have to forego not just the colourful apps, the games, the social media access and instant useful information. You will also have to throw away email; the easy, high quality camera facility; the text messages and, of course, being able to contact people by voice.

This will mean that, if you leave the house, you will lose all contact with those at home (and everyone else) until you return. When children go out to play on their own, as they did, their parents will just have to hope that they will be back home safely when they are expected to return. Until they return, the parents have no idea where they are or what they are doing.



Don’t start to relax yet, thinking that you can still manage easily. You may think that without those useful apps on your phone, at least you have your laptop back at home. But back home you will find no Internet for your computer, not a trace of it. Without the Internet, you have no WordPress, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Google, no Wikipedia, no eBay … So your sources of education, amusement and information will be slow and difficult to access and pretty scarce.

Without the Internet, don’t be misled into expecting home telephones to be of any use to you. (In those days, they were telephones, not phones. Abbreviations like ‘phone’ were a bit common or vulgar.) In the fifties, a telephone was a luxury device, almost for emergency use only. And they were not yet found in every house. We had those red GPO telephone boxes (a bit like the Tardis, but red) for general public use, for the millions without a home telephone.

Try not to panic yet – because there is a lot more to come. Things can only get worse … 


You may be thinking: Well, we still have some games on our home computers for entertainment. No chance! Home computers did not exist. There was nothing remotely like them. Also no printers, which you now also use for easy photocopying. If you are thinking of computer games, you should not be surprised by now to know that you will also have to throw away your Playstations, your Wii, your Xbox. To be honest, you may as well think of life without even any television. There was some broadcasting but it was pretty primitive!

As a minor diversion, anyone at school or interested in Mathematics might be interested to know that there were no calculators. Sums were done by mental arithmetic. If they were too complicated for simple pen and paper methods, you couldn’t do them.



OK, you are now sitting glumly thinking that life was boring and unexciting. Perhaps settling down to think it was not too bad, it was manageable. You could always pop out to Starbucks and buy a cappuccino or latte coffee with your credit card. Well, no, there were no Starbucks. What cafés there were would only provide primitive coffee. To be honest, you would be drinking tea anyway.

But when I said throw away computers, it was not just home computers. There was no such thing as a computer anywhere. All shops, businesses, hospitals, government offices and banks had to manage without them as well! So, when you went to Waitrose for your shopping, you didn’t have barcode scanning with instant printed till receipts and you didn’t pay with credit cards. The assistant had to work out the total cost and write down everything by hand and you paid in coins. You probably wouldn’t spend enough to need notes!

(Yes, I know, there were no supermarkets. I’m trying to break you in gently. You couldn’t find 99% of what Waitrose now sells anyway.)


You may need to take some time to imagine what banking was like – with no Internet, no automation, and even no cash withdrawal machines. Your bank account was managed by your local Branch who did the sums by hand. They may have had simple adding machines to help a little. Don’t worry about your automated bank standing orders. You didn’t need them for phones, Internet providers, gas or electricity and all the other things we now use them for.

But you may want to reconsider how you lived without credit cards, which meant no credit! For one-off use on special occasions there were cheques, which were not much used. (You may remember cheques.) Mostly you used cash, which you could only get by visiting your local bank branch. This is not the time to point out that banks were open for even shorter hours than shops. You were probably paid in cash anyway, and just spent it all every week. You may not have had a bank account.

Let’s not worry about high finance, stocks and shares, the Economy and government, all using paper methods for their sums!

Fabric and Materials

Now, as they say, for something completely different, clothes. Throw away and forget anything that you wear that uses man-made fibres. You may have to check washing instructions on each garment to see, but if it isn’t all cotton or wool, we probably didn’t have it. (No, of course we didn’t have washing instructions. Automatic washing machines? Pay attention. They went when we threw out computers!)

For anything manufactured, you can forget just about anything remotely resembling plastic. So more or less stick to metal, wood and glass. Just look around and see what the things we use now are made of. You may find that what looks like metal or wood is actually plastic!


Let’s end with food. As I have already hinted, most of the food products now found in supermarkets did not exist. (Don’t even think about supermarkets!) With the odd exception, forget all prepared food. Just stick to basic materials – meat, bread, fruit and vegetables, milk, flour, sugar, basic groceries. Manage without anything exotic and keep to home-grown foods. Keep to seasonal fruit and vegetables only for the few weeks a year when in season, when they grow naturally. Strawberries for perhaps two or three weeks of the year, an expensive luxury. Pineapple – no chance! Blueberries, avocado, kiwi fruit – never heard of them.

I have, of course, made some sweeping generalizations. I said I would. Some are over-simplifications, or not strictly true but this has been a very general, broad overview. Just as you may not be able to imagine life without your favourite little packets of lemon and garlic flavoured couscous, remember that in 1950 we had never heard of couscous. We didn’t have much call for garlic, and lemons were exotic fruits. We did have plain rice! But we probably managed with potatoes.

One final thought. Packaging – boxes, bubble-wrap, polystyrene, polythene. Forget about 99% of packaging. We just didn’t have it. I won’t go into the implications of that. Not yet.

I hope that leaves you waiting for the next instalment …

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

3 thoughts on “[4] Modern Things

  1. Pingback: [39] Just What I Choose it to Mean | Remembrance of Things Past

  2. Pingback: [45] How did we Manage Without … ? | Remembrance of Things Past

  3. Pingback: [50] Half a Century | Remembrance of Things Past

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s