As we start the New Year, I will have another go at a sort of introduction. At first glance, there are two obvious significant differences between the World of 1950 and the World of today. Technology was very different then, and attitudes were different. We have looked, briefly, at technology, seeing that in the fifties we had virtually nothing of what we now call technology.
I want to consider in some detail how and why attitudes to life were different then, which could take a few postings. But, to put the differences in attitude into perspective, we need to look further afield. I think the causes lie fundamentally in the information that we knew then compared to what we know now. Differences are only partly due to the fact that we did not have the technology then to provide the wealth of instant information that we have today.
We have already looked a little at life when we throw away all modern technology. In this posting, I want to throw away almost all of our information and sources of immediate information. To start with, forget the Internet, mobile phones, television, and let’s see where anyone could go to find information fifty years ago.
Newspapers were the main sources of information on a day-to-day basis. They produced news. (We still sometimes call them newspapers but they have long since ceased to function as providers of news. They are much too slow by modern standards.) We need to look at the processes of newspaper production in the middle of the Twentieth Century.
Newspapers were produced on low quality paper, using fairly low-quality ink, which meant that if you handled one for long, your hand would start to go black from the ink. They were printed by a process of typesetting – which involved physically selecting each character and placing it in the right place. This was quite a skilled job. It had to be done accurately and at speed. Type came in various sizes but was just letters, numbers and a very few special symbols. Almost all of the paper would be simple, black lettering. Front page headlines were just larger letters. Colour just didn’t exist. (Maybe this was why topless models had not yet appeared. Maybe not.)
(There was an expensive method of producing pictures as a number of black dots. This was a low quality picture and was used very little, certainly not every day.)
Once all the physical typesetting was done, tens of thousands of copies of the paper were printed at the press headquarters, all in Fleet Street, London. They were then physically delivered overnight by vans all round the country. Many people had daily papers delivered to their houses at about 6 a.m., before going to work.
Because this was a time consuming process, papers ‘went to press’ about midnight. They might produce two or three editions up to about 2 a.m. Only those living near to London could get the latest edition.
The Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror, the Times and the Daily Telegraph were available then. (The Guardian was a more local paper called then the Manchester Guardian.) Sunday papers were produced much earlier, before 8 p.m. on Saturday, but their content has always not been entirely up-to-the-minute news. A Sunday paper in the fifties was just a newspaper – no supplements of any kind, certainly no glossy magazine supplements!
The papers were the main source of information but, of course, could only produce what their reporters could find out. They were good for factual information like sports results, but not always accurate. For many things , for example crime and politics, they had to rely on what they were told.
News took time to arrive. For example The climbing of Everest, which took place on 29 May 1953 was not reported in newspapers until 2 June, the day of the Coronation.
So start by imagining a world in which everything you know comes from reading the papers, produced by these slow, cumbersome procedures. It’s a good first approximation.
The picture above shows The Times from 1788. In the 1950s it looked quite similar and had no news on the front page, just small ads.
It seems strange now to talk of the cinema as a source of information but it was. There was Pathe News, a weekly short film showing a summary of the news of the week. It lasted about twenty minutes, I think, covering sport and entertainment as well as news. Unlike the newspapers, it showed pictures, moving pictures. It was just a small supplement to what the papers showed and most people didn’t see it. (They certainly didn’t see it every week.)
Of course, cinema was different then. You always had two films, Pathe News and a short section of advertisements.
Radio and Television
I put these in for completeness but both were relatively new and not available to everyone. In the fifties, most people probably had a radio, with news bulletins of a few minutes once or twice a day. Like newspapers they were only as accurate and complete as their reporters could make them.
Television was newer and available to relatively few people, just one channel, black and white, on for a few hours each day, gradually gaining popularity and spreading to more general use. Television didn’t add much to what the newspapers and radio could say. It was a little more timely for weather forecasting and football results!
If you wanted information rather than news, you had to make use of books, perhaps library books. There were encyclopaedias and other sources of information. For example, for geography an atlas was useful.
If you had gone to the trouble to buy an atlas, it was almost certainly already out-of-date with country names, borders etc.
You might get all sorts of information from text books or encyclopaedias, Even the best encyclopaedia was far from complete, partly obsolete and with errors. Most people didn’t have the time, money or inclination to use books for their information. Reference Libraries were available.
(We did have telephones. You might be extravagant and talk to a friend living in the same town but the system was too primitive to serve effectively in disseminating information. Forget telephones.)
With nothing else to go by, people could pick up things from other people. Of course, with conversation, what you hear isn’t always true. Whether or not it is true, you may choose to believe it or not to believe it.
We will have to consider how much we learned about medicine and health from what doctors told us; about religion from the priests; and about everything from teachers.
I have only really looked at half the differences in information. Maybe next time …