Remembrance of Things Past

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

[22] ‘Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax’


‘The time has come – to talk of many things …’

A collection of short topics today – some things that have disappeared – some that were already obsolete when we were young.


We had candles, Price’s Candles. The company was founded in 1830 and by 1900 had become the largest manufacturer of candles in the World. But, of course, the need for candles disappeared over the first half of the Twentieth Century with the advent of gaslight and electricity. When I grew up, we still had them in our house. We had the familiar box of plain, white candles in the cupboard under the stairs, perhaps with a battery operated torch, for emergency use. Candles and Price’s candles were the same thing to us. Just occasionally, we had power cuts and the candles were needed. You could buy them in shops. (There probably were some fancy candles available, and I definitely remember those great big church candles, but I’m not talking about those ones.)

The company, Price’s Candles, has had some trials since then. It no longer manufactures candles in the UK and is owned by a foreign company. In the United Kingdom, the need for candles is no longer as a basic light source – they have become artistic or aromatic (or for use on birthday cakes!)

Sealing Wax

446631_6-Piece Sealing Wax Kit

OK, like candles, sealing wax may still be available but I bet you don’t use it in your house any more. We always used to have some in a drawer, and I can even remember once or twice watching it being used. Historically, for hundreds of years, sealing with wax was the only way of guaranteeing the secure transit of your mail through ancient postal services, making sure that it arrived unopened. It could also function as a certification of authority, with great ceremonial seals.

The red tube of wax was a bit like a candle without a wick. You heated the wax over a candle and carefully managed where it dripped. Then the still soft wax would be pressed with an engraved die, marking a pattern on the wax as it quickly dried. You would press it firmly to make the seal with the impressed pattern. It’s why we talk of ‘signet rings,’ originally bearing the wearer’s initials or a more complex heraldic device. [If the ring had your initials, the seal would be stamped in reverse, in mirror writing. Perhaps early rings had reversed engraved patterns.]

I can remember my grandmother wrapping a parcel in brown paper. (Brown paper hasn’t changed much.) Then she tied it with string, knotted the string firmly, and sealed the knot with sealing wax. It didn’t actually have the family arms pressed into the seal, but it would have shown if the parcel had been undone.



We did have hot and cold running water – for some of the time, on most days (from our reliable but expensive immersion heater). But, just as we kept candles, we also still had an old, metal bath. [US: bathtub] Actually we had two, one full size and a smaller one. Maybe my parents had used them the past. We just kept them for many years. They did get used once or twice when we had power cuts (and candles!) They probably eventually became garden ornaments – as a sort of jardiniere, as was the fashion for other antique containers that had lost their usefulness. (Yes, there were other containers no longer used!)




We did not have a mangle at our house, but I do remember seeing them. We will come to washing machines eventually but primitive ones were starting to come into use in the fifties.

But we did have a washboard, a device which changed its function dramatically in the fifties!


Washboards, made of tough glass, had a rough shape to help washing clothes by rubbing against them. Around the mid fifties, they found a new use as musical instruments – strummed noisily but rhythmically. At the peak of skiffle, around 1950, there were about 50 000 skiffle groups in Britain, each one making music with a guitar, a double bass and a washboard – led by the famous Lonnie Donnegan, with hits such as ‘Rock Island Line,’ and ‘My old Man’s a Dustman.’ [Probably more about skiffle in another blog …]



Asbestos is a strange mineral, made of long, fibrous particles, loosely held together. It could be made into a soft type of material with many uses, particularly in insulation. To us, the word ‘asbestos’ was synonymous with fireproofing. It was widely used in oven gloves; lagging for hot-water tanks; protective suits for firemen; in chemistry labs in schools; and in buildings to stop fire spreading. [Yes, I said ‘firemen.’ If you think I should have said ‘firepersons,’ or ‘firemen and firewomen,’ you really can’t have been reading my blogs very carefully! We were not politically correct.]

We had known about asbestosis, the disease caused by inhaling asbestos, since the early Twentieth Century, but it took a long time to appreciate fully its causes and effects. There are several different types of asbestos and in the 70s, 80s and 90s legislation has gradually banned all forms for use in construction and other areas. Removing asbestos from buildings that already had it was a continuing, hazardous but necessary, occupation. It has become a thing of the past.

(It may seem strange to talk of inhaling a mineral substance, but it was similar to the story of coal, coal dust and smog. Pneumoconiosis was a serious problem for miners in the same way as asbestosis.)



You have to imagine a drum containing a liquid and pump, like a sort of bicycle pump, fixed across it. By hand pumping this, you could produce a smelly aerosol spray of fine drops of this liquid, which you would aim at flies, wasps or other insects. These devices, brand named ‘Flit guns,’ were very common and very widely used, spraying out the insecticide called ‘Flit.’ They were our only way of killing unwanted insects (other than trying to hit wasps with a tea towel!)

They contained DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), which was then a very widespread worldwide insecticide. In the fifties, DDT was adopted in a campaign to eliminate malaria by killing mosquitoes throughout the World.

But it was discredited in the sixties, much as for asbestos and many other substances that had been used without thorough testing. It was shown to cause cancer and had had devastating effects on wildlife throughout the World, particularly birds. From the 70s and 80s, DDT has become effectively a banned substance.

The Flit gun also disappeared. We now have easier to use aerosols, with many other insecticides, which have not (yet) been discredited.



Mercury is a metal, the only metal to be liquid at normal temperatures. It is scientifically useful because its expansion and contraction makes it suitable for thermometers and barometers. When I was young, it was very widely used. For most everyday purposes, it was the only way of measuring temperature or air pressure. It was used everywhere in medicine. Doctors and nurses would take people’s temperatures by putting mercury thermometers under their tongues – mercury enclosed by very thin, fragile glass.

It was also widely used in dentistry as amalgam fillings (a mixture of mercury and other metals). I still have many fillings made from mercury.

Mercury has always been considered to be poisonous, but it is now seen as much more dangerous than it was then. It is no longer used in medicine and is not used now to make new thermometers or barometers. Dental amalgam fillings are not used commonly now and there is much dispute as to whether existing dental fillings are harmful. (Any possible advantage in removing amalgam fillings has to be balanced the danger involved in the removal process.)

Just for the record, we had a glass bottle in the chemistry laboratories at school. When the teacher was not there, we used to play with it, pouring it on to the laboratory surfaces and on to our hands. Then we would pour it back into the bottle. We just assumed it was safe! I seem to have survived safely.


My literary title is, of course, from The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll, from the book: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, written in 1872:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:

Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax

Of cabbages – and kings

And why the sea is boiling hot

And whether pigs have wings.”

You have had a bit of History, Chemistry, Toxicology and English Literature. Next time, the lessons will be about (wait and see) …


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

4 thoughts on “[22] ‘Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax’

  1. Pingback: [32] ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ | Remembrance of Things Past

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  4. Pingback: [112] Rock Around the Clock | Remembrance of Things Past

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