You may be wondering how we all managed to keep ourselves so clean and sweet smelling in those early times without all the conveniences of modern life. Well the short answer is: We didn’t (at least by modern standards, we didn’t.)
People were not motivated in the same way to maintain the perfect standards of cleanliness that are generally assumed today. This was at least partly because they could not have achieved such standards with the facilities available to them.
But before I look at washing ourselves and bathing I have to consider something else.
Houses were different. Plumbing was different. Toilets were different. Many houses still had outside toilets and only a few had inside toilets downstairs. Most houses were usually built with just one inside toilet upstairs. It may have been next to the bathroom but it was not in the bathroom. It was a separate little room with just a toilet, no facilities for washing hands.
[I am not sure of US terminology here, where the small room we call a toilet is always a ‘bathroom.’]
As I say, time and again here, were no plastics in the fifties. (At least in general use this is true.) Toilets were ceramic, toilet seats were wooden and all the plumbing, everywhere in the house was metal. The cistern was fixed to the wall above head-height, operated by a chain with a wooden handle.
As for many things, aspects of the picture above are too modern. It looks to me like a plastic toilet seat (much too modern,) plastic plumbing and luxury sixties toilet paper. But it does at least show typical cistern height with the chain to operate it.
(I presume that low level cisterns came in when the technology enabled efficient flushing without the pressure coming from height. Toilets integrated with bathrooms and downstairs toilets have come from revisions to Building Regulations. Standards now mean that as new houses are built there are downstairs toilets that include the plumbing for a small hand basin.)
I have to mention toilet paper. When Andrex came out, (perhaps in the sixties) it was a luxury product, softer, thicker and more comfortable. Even at the end of the sixties the old type was still in use – thin, hard paper. As it was semi-transparent, it could also be used as tracing paper.
When I started work in 1969, in a Government department, they had toilets with chains, hard toilet paper and big, chunky ceramic hand basins. We were all given a small hand-towel the size of a tea-cloth. Every week messengers came round to change the towel for a clean one and give us a tiny personal bar of soap. Soap dispensers and electric hand drying came much later!
A bathroom in a typical house had just a bath (US: bath tub) and a hand basin. Taps (US: faucets) were plain metal – separate hot and cold taps. (They were labelled HOT and COLD, not just tiny almost invisible red and blue markings as today.) Our bathroom cabinet was just a portable floor-standing cabinet and we didn’t have a fixed bathroom mirror.
Showers were just about non-existent although in the late sixties we had a rubber hose type spray attachment, which attached to hot and cold taps, mainly for washing hair.
There was nothing like liquid soap or shower gel or foam bath. We just used soap and water to bath.
We had Wright’s Coal Tar soap for baths, which seemed more luxurious than the ordinary soap for handwashing.
There were just a few other brands – Palmolive, Imperial Leather, Pears, all presented as relatively luxurious. Camay, soft and creamy, long advertised by Katie Boyle had an even more upmarket image and was presumably more expensive. (We never had Camay.)
[As always, pictures shown here are uncertain. These products had been around and advertised for many years earlier and all are still available today in similar forms.]
You have to remember, among other things, that we did not have constant hot running water in unlimited supplies. In general people were still in the habit of taking a bath once a week – as part of the weekly schedule. Perhaps the whole family would take the opportunity of using the boiler or immersion heater to heat water just once a week. (It would have been too expensive to have the immersion heater on all the time.)
Baths were functional and quick. Our bathroom did not have a radiator or a heated towel rail. In very cold winters the paraffin heater was there for us.
When we were very young children we shared a bath or (later) shared bath water sequentially. With six children the hot water was carefully managed.
People may have washed their hair more often than weekly, but certainly not daily. There were a few shampoo types available but no hair conditioners – we just managed without them. (Perhaps early shampoo did not have such a strong effect on hair that we need to restore it to its normal form!) Sometimes we used Vosene but sometimes there were cheaper alternatives, which I can’t remember.
Instructions on shampoo used to say something like ‘apply, lather, rinse and repeat,’ which implied that we had to do the whole thing twice. It took some pressure from consumer organisations to remove this part of the instructions.
Apart from an occasional hair wash, the only other thing that some men would put on their hair was Brylcreem. It may have kept the hair in place but when overused it looked as if the hair had been smothered in fat. It was fashionable and became particularly useful for the quiffs of the fifties. To be honest, I suspect that sometimes Brylcreem was a cheaper alternative to frequent washing (In the War, RAF pilots were known as Brylcreem Boys so it must have been fashionable earlier.) I have to admit to using it myself as a young teenager.
Even into the seventies we used safety razors, metal contraptions into which you could put double-edged, sharp razor blades. They could be used for a few days but rusted quickly. More expensive stainless steel ones came in gradually over the sixties. Disposable plastic razors, with double and triple blades, came later.
Electric razors, at first luxury goods, came in gradually. I think I was nearly fifty before I was converted.
Barbers sometimes used the older, non-safety razors.
I remember my father had a large, old wooden mirror, slightly magnifiying the image. It stayed on the windowsill by the kitchen sink, where he used to shave in the morning. Even with our dirtier habits then, there was a lot of competition for the bathroom in the morning.
Mostly, people used shaving soap in various forms, sometimes with shaving brushes like this to whip it to a creamy lather. Aerosol shaving foams came around the early sixties.
Toothpaste was either Colgate or Gibbs SR (the first product to be advertised on television in 1955.) It came in metal tubes, which were easier to roll than the modern plastic ones.
The only function of toothpaste was to clean teeth. There were no fluorides to prevent cavities; no mouthwash or teeth whitening claims; no coloured stripes. Hence there was little choice. (I remember in the early sixties reading articles in the New Scientist about the possible effects of fluoridation of water on dental health. It came in gradually, first in tap-water, then in toothpaste.) Aqua-fresh, now Aquafresh, came out in 1973 with just two stripes – white fluoride and blue ‘aqua’ gel for fresh breath. The third stripe came ten years later.
There were, of course, no electric toothbrushes. We had never heard of dental flossing!
We did sometimes have Eucryl tooth powder. While toothpaste hardly tasted pleasant, tooth powder was revolting and we didn’t like it. I expect we tried it because it was relatively cheap. You can still buy something similar
Barbers and Hairdressers
Back to hair again. Barbers for men and Women’s Hairdressers were different, always separated. Barbers only did haircuts for men and boys. We used to go to Packard’s at the other end of Beehive Lane, normally on the way home from school. He had two other assistants and we queued for our basic trim, which cost about a shilling (5p).
[As far as I know barbers were the place to buy contraceptives. I saw adverts for Durex without knowing what they were. There were no alternatives to Durex, which was always 3s 9d (17.5 pence) for a packet of three – don’t ask me how I knew that! They were not sold anywhere else, except presumably under the counter at Chemists, where most men would be too embarrassed to ask.]
Women’s hair styles in the fifties and sixties (as for the forties) were based on what hairdressers could provide. The Beehive Lane shops at our end had a Hairdresser. My mother used to have a ‘shampoo and set,’ about every couple of months. This was a long and quite expensive process, costing nearer to a pound. Dad would collect her in the car.
Less often (I’m guessing every year or two) it needed a ‘perm,’ or permanent wave. This was even longer and more expensive, about £2 to £3. (In those days that was a lot, too much to be done every month.)
It included a period of time with the hair in curlers under a hairdryer like the ones shown above. I have to be honest, I can’t be sure but a ‘shampoo and set’ may have had this stage as well.
[Of course, ‘fashion’ come into it. As far as I can see, women of the forties and fifties all wanted to look like their idea of fashionable film stars and they ended up more or less all looking alike with shortish curly hair and bright red lipstick. But then I am not a fashion expert and I have a lot of difficulty in recognizing faces.]
Choice of styles was small because women did not have the hair styling products of today. Only hairdressers had the products used to perm and set hair. Apart from simple shampoo (with no conditioner) aerosol hair spray was just about the only product available. In the fifties I expect this was an expensive luxury.
With no hair straighteners, the only electrical device for home use was a very basic hairdryer.
Early home hairdryers were very basic, made from bakelite, the early plastic used for those black telephones. They were much slower speed and lower temperature. (Modern hotels often provide similar low power hairdryers, presumable to control the amount of free electricity they provide!)
Women had hairbrushes and combs and a variety of hair clips to keep hair in place. These are the type that my mother wore, designed to be invisible. It should not surprise you when I point out that in the fifties and sixties they were metal not plastic!
In the sixties, bouffant styles, like the one shown in the picture above of Dusty Springfield, became fashionable. A lot of backcombing and hairspray were needed for this.
[The word ‘unisex’ first appeared in general use in the late sixties for places that combined cutting men’s hair and women’s hair. Like many things that we now accept without question, it was a revolutionary idea when it came in. They still manage to maintain the habit of charging much more for women.]
Now we have aisles in supermarkets devoted to men’s grooming, which didn’t exist in the fifties. What did exist were deodorants, shaving soap, shaving brushes and after-shave, a mild fragrance advertised as a necessary adjunct to the shaving process.
In those days men’s luxury toiletries were advertised and sold just before Christmas. Almost all were bought by wives and girlfriends for men in presentation boxes. Old Spice, from America, was just about the only brand until Brut in the mid-sixties. The famous English boxer, Henry Cooper was long associated with the advertising campaigns for Brut, suggesting that we should: ‘Splash it all over.’
Other varieties, like Lynx with its sexually provocative advertising, came later still.
The idea that men would ever wear fragrances (apart from a touch of after-shave) emerged very slowly from about the nineties. The same was true of other grooming products such as moisturiser.
Women and Make-up
The whole industry of beauty products for women has now grown dramatically with increasing feminism, more work equality, the move from housewives to working women, and consumerism and advertising. Women have a lot more to spend on themselves and there is an industry keen to take as much as possible of their money from them.
I have never been an expert on women’s makeup and I won’t say much in detail but back in the fifties housewives like my mother did not have a disposable income to spend on themselves. Dad gave Mum a housekeeping allowance that had to be managed carefully to provide food and clothing for a family of six children. Out of this allowance she took a tiny amount for things like makeup (perhaps with even less for clothing.) For most women in the forties and fifties I suspect that makeup meant a single, bright red lipstick, a little powder and not much else.
Maybe Dusty Springfield helped to popularize the heavy eye make-up of the sixties, when teenagers rebelled against the standards of the war years.
There are, of course, lots of sweeping generalizations here, based in part on how things happened in our household (and an almost complete lack of knowledge about women!)