Remembrance of Things Past

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

[93] Hands that do Dishes …


[93] Hands that do Dishes …

You will remember Blog [74], which looked at personal cleanliness – or the lack of it. I want now to look at how we cleaned clothes, dishes and houses.


It was a little bit past the era of washboards and mangles but not long.

(You can read about mangles and washboards and skiffle groups in Blog [22])


Washing Clothes

By the 50s most households were no longer using washboards thanks to the invention of washing machines. But they were not the sort of thing you would recognize today! I can’t remember our first house but in the second one we had a brand new electric washing machine.

People from today would not recognize 1950s washing machines. They were called twin-tubs. One tub held the washing through its washing cycles and another for spinning – but these were not automatic. They were not even plumbed in to water and drainage supplies. Water would be fed in via detachable hoses from the sink and waste water would be taken out similarly. So the first thing Mum had to do was to wheel it over near the sink and attach the hoses!

But then washing was a major undertaking. Two days of the week – Monday and Thursday – were allocated to washing clothes, which took all day. (Of course Mum still had to do all the shopping, food preparation, cooking, washing up and looking after six children!)

Back to washing machines. After the lengthy fairly labour intensive washing cycles of the machine, the clothes were transferred, while still very wet, manually to the second tub. (The water left behind was emptied via more hoses looped over the sink.) The second tub acted as a spin-dryer. It was an improvement on the hand-tuned mangles, which twin tubs had made obsolete, but was far from today’s automatic washing machines. They took out some of the water but did not actually spin the clothes dry. The machines just did not have the speed to do much more than remove the surplus water.

In the sixties all washing still needed to be hung out to dry on the washing-line in the garden. (Washing dried outside was fresh and we had no such things as fabric softeners or conditioners.) Then it went into the airing cupboard for final drying beside the boiler.

Washing Powders

It’s worth pointing out two things about washing powders. Firstly they were just powders. Before automatic washing machines there were no liquids or capsules or gels, just powders that came in cardboard boxes.

Secondly, they were one of the major items of competitive advertising. This was notable with television but also applied to newspaper adverts and hoardings. It’s hard to imagine how washing powders could be different but they tried to convince us. There were various offers with temporary price reductions between the man brands – Omo, Surf, Daz, Persil and a few others of lesser significance. At some time in the sixties, Surf came up with the advertising gimmick that they didn’t do advertising gimmicks! They became Square Deal Surf – no special offers, just genuine quality at a fair price – and they kept to this for many years.

[OK, make that three. There was no such thing as biological washing and hence nothing sold as non-bio!]


In those days washing machines at home were not universal. Laundry services were used more than today (not just the dry cleaners). The invention which helped a lot people with their cleaning was the launderette (dating in practice from the early sixties) where people could take their clothes and use bigger and better washing machines for themselves. Large rotary washing machines were coin-operated. There were also what would be most peoples’ first experience of clothes dryers, which were not to become popular for home use in the UK until the 70s.

After the drying stage, all clothes needed to be ironed. (There were no drip-dry or easy care non-iron fabrics. Of course, clothes did not carry the laundry advice labels that are now universal. Mum had to know which ones needed special care or low temperature or washing separately – to avoid the colour spreading!) Ironing was far from today’s standards. Electric irons had quite recently come into use but we had still to wait for the steam iron to emerge.




House Cleaning

We did have a vacuum cleaner. I remember it arriving in its box with its hose and attachments. There were no upright models then just the old cylinder types, which were not easy to carry round the house – and up and down stairs. (They did not come into general use until the 60s and it would be a long wait until the cyclone models of Dyson would be invented.) It wasn’t that efficient and we also used a dustpan and brush. (Nothing like the picture because there were virtually no plastics. It would have been a metal pan and a wooden handled brush.)

I think Mum allocated one day each week to cleaning the house. She also used a plain yellow duster. Occasionally she might use polish for the furniture. This was before we had sprays and aerosols for polish.


For the kitchen and bathroom we also had Vim and Ajax. (Nothing like the picture above in a plastic container.) I don’t think their cleaning power was much more than a crude abrasive.

Now we have all sorts of cleaning products. I suspect that kitchen cleaners, bathroom cleaners and general cleaners are identical with different labelling. Then we didn’t go much for choice.



It will be no surprise to learn that 1950s houses did not have dishwashers. There was washing-up liquid, which does not seem to have changed much since then. (I expect that modern products are better at cleaning dishes but worse for environmental effects.) We even had Fairy Liquid but not in our household. We used cheaper alternatives.

[I can’t remember exactly but to me washing up liquid has always come in squeezable bottle. It may have been one of the earliest uses of plastic.]

Fairy Liquid was always advertised, especially on television, with a little girl admiring how soft her mother’s hand were despite washing up so much. Television adverts ended with the slogan: ‘Now hands that do dishes can feel as soft as your face with mild green Fairy Liquid’ (sung to suitably romantic music.)

Plates and dishes, cups and saucers, glasses and cutlery were all washed by hand in the sink with a dishcloth and put on to the draining board. Then they were dried with a teacloth.

Saucepans, trays and dishes used for cooking were more difficult. They were nearly all metal (but we had some ceramic bowls and oven-proof Pyrex glass.) They went through the same process with the help of metallic scourers, Vim and Ajax. You could buy Brillo pads even then, but they were an expensive luxury.

If you remember a little about how we cooked you will realise that we had a lot more cookware to clean then. Nothing was prepacked or prepared.

When it comes to cleaning up the kitchen there is not much to add to what I have said about house cleaning. But it is worth pointing out that there was no such thing as kitchen roll or paper towels. For spilt liquid we just had dishcloths and old rags. Bits of old clothing became rags for really dirty cleaning jobs.

Perhaps I should have said something more about our houses, clothes, floors etc. before looking at how we kept them clean. There is plenty more to come ….


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

3 thoughts on “[93] Hands that do Dishes …

  1. I remember mum’s washing machine before the twin tub which only came late in my childhood. On the back was attached a mangle which was powered by the washing machine’s electricity. The sheets were folded as we pulled them from the water and fed into the mangle; there must not have been any spinning in the machine.
    Alan how can you have not remembered mum using a scrubbing board!!! I suppose because you were a male member of the family and it was us girls who hung around mum on washing days. She went washing twitch a week, Monday’s and Thursday’s and wore a long blue rubber apron. The laundry was taken from the linen basket and stripped beds and tossed over the banisters. Part of the procedure was the fun of kicking the laundry down the stairs and through to the kitchen and then the work begun. Back to the scrubbing board. With nine people living in the house and no tissues yet in use there were an awful lot of handkerchieves and first mum had to put them in a large tin saucepan, kept exclusively for the job and boil the handkerchieves. Then thry were removed and transferred to a hot water filled sink with the scrubbing board on the side. Each handkerchief was then scrubbed clean using the green household soap, a drubbing brush and the board. Mum’s hands used to get scalding red from the procedure! I remember wash days so well as I toss today’s washing in a machine and simply forget it until the cycle completes its task! How lucky we are!


  2. Of course that should be scrubbing brush!


  3. Pingback: [97] Upstairs and Downstairs | Remembrance of Things Past

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