Mother and Baby

What was it like to be a mum in 1956?

Section: Relatable
What was it like to be a mum in 1956?

Could you bring your baby up the 1950s way? We asked one mum of two to step into a time machine and live for a week like it was 1956. How did she get on?

No disposable nappies, no dishwasher, no steriliser and worst of all…no children’s TV. When I was asked to live as a 1956 mother to help celebrate M&B’s 60th birthday, my heart initially sank. My husband Martin and I have a three-year-old son, Thomas, and a 15-week old baby girl, Imogen. Life is hectic. How would I cope without any time-saving gadgets?

But then I spoke to my mum, herself a 1950s baby. ‘Life was simpler back then,’ she told me. ‘There was no carting kids to art classes, no noisy soft play or trekking off for a play date.’ And with the promise of no soft play for a week ringing in my ears, I agreed. Picking up my copy of the 1950s manual Dinneford’s Dictionary for Mothers, my step back in time began…

Monday - using cloth nappies

The day begins with the part of my challenge I’m least looking forward to. Throwing Imogen’s last disposable nappy in the bin, it’s time for cloth nappies. I don’t mean the eco-friendly ‘real’ nappies you might use at home, with soft bamboo liners and bright waterproof outers. No, these are old-school cloth squares. How do I fold it? And exactly how close do I have to get a safety pin to my baby? Eventually, I wrestle Imogen into it, and fasten it with a huge, slightly terrifying pin. It isn’t quite as tricky as I’d imagined, but I can’t bear to think about cleaning them without my washer! 

Next breakfast, Martin usually does this, but ‘most men did little around the house,’ says one of my books on the 1950s. So, I race to get Thomas’s porridge while Martin has an extra half hour in bed. The microwave is a no-no, so I tip the porridge into a pan and put it on the hob. I try not to burn it, as glued-on porridge is no fun without a dishwasher.

It’s time to feed Imogen, but ‘men and younger children shouldn’t witness the process’

As Thomas tucks in, it’s time to feed Imogen, but ‘men and younger children shouldn’t witness the process,’ is the advice from the 1950s. Imogen and I are banished to the study. It’s only 7am and I’m already feeling distinctly put out. I have to put on a brave face, though. Mums in the 1950s were expected to keep smiling whatever happened, and to be perfectly turned out at all times. So no more slobbing around in jeans, it’s dresses and make-up for me. 

Often, on a Monday, Thomas, Imogen and I will head into town to do our shopping, and meet friends for coffee. To get to town we have to drive, but in 1956 cars were still a luxury, and most women didn’t drive. Even if you were one of the lucky few, there were no baby car seats as we know them, and the only ones that did exist were there to give baby a better view out of the window. Most people would put the baby in her carrycot, and put that on the backseat, possibly wedged in if they were feeling cautious. There were no seatbelts in the backseat until decades later. Mum might just hold the baby on her lap. Clearly both ideas are now completely illegal and insane, so we decide to stay at home. 

That’s what the manuals advise too: ‘Baby should nap in his own room with the door shut and window open from 10.30-2pm.’ That leaves me lots of time to do the cleaning, with Thomas helping out (I give him a duster and he’s well away). However, Imogen is having none of it and is awake within 30 minutes. I can’t believe all 1950s babies were that different and perhaps that’s why the advice was to keep the ‘door shut’.

Making the most of the time she does sleep, I have a tidy up, but I can’t run the vacuum over, as they were only just becoming popular in the 1950s. Luckily I have hard floors, so I can sweep up, and give my rugs a good shake outdoors to get the dirt off, and the house looks presentable again. 

After lunch, between all this cleaning and trying to feed Imogen without Thomas in the room (impossible), I’m wondering how I’ll make a 1950s meat pie without Googling it. Fortunately I can turn to my Mary Berry cookbook for advice, as the book might not have been around in the 1950s, but good-old Mary was. Stewing the meat and making pastry, plus cooking it, I’m amazed how long it takes. Then there are my preparations for Martin’s return…

‘Make one last trip though the main part of the house just before your husband arrives, gathering up children’s books and toys,’ my manual advises. ‘Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order.’ I’m also meant to be washing Thomas’ face and brushing his hair but if I’m to ‘greet my husband with a smile’ these will have to be foregone. By bedtime I’m exhausted and there’s no wind-down with a box set or Facebook. Martin and I have to talk instead, and I realise how nice that actually is. 

Tuesday - without a washing machine

6am, and it’s nappy time again. I’m getting better at putting them on, but the hard part comes when I take them off. The pile from yesterday is sitting in a bucket, and I’m going to have to tackle them. The nappies that are just wet aren’t too bad. As I’ve been going along, I’ve given them a quick rinse in the sink, then popped them in a bucket of disinfectant and water. The dirty ones are a different matter and I have to tip the contents down the loo. Yes, scraping is involved, but now it’s time to get them really clean. 

My mum says my grandmother had a lady who’d take the nappies away to clean them. Sounds like a good idea to me…

In 1956, washing machines were just being introduced in Britain, but most families didn’t have them until a few years later. So most early readers of M&B would have washed the nappies themselves. This usually meant putting them in a large saucepan and boiling them on the hob to kill the germs. I rinse them really well, then give it a go. After a few minutes boiling, they’re rinsed again, then go out on the washing line to dry. Apparently this bit is crucial to get them to come up white. With babies needing changing at least six times a day, and more when they’re younger, it’s amazing mums managed, and no wonder they got their babies potty trained much earlier than we do today. My mum says my grandmother had a lady who’d take the nappies away to clean them. Sounds like a good idea to me…

After spending the day in the house yesterday, and a morning boiling nappies, Thomas and I decide we need an outing. With the car off limits, we have to walk, so it’s time to get out the gorgeous, 1950s-style Silver Cross pram we’ve borrowed. Never mind a 1950s mother, I feel like royalty pushing Imogen around in it. We head to the park, and Thomas runs around, while Imogen nods off, thanks to the pram’s amazing suspension.

Sadly, we can’t be outside for long, as changing nappies or feeding in public was a no-no back then, so it’s back to the house when Imogen wakes up and gets hungry. Once she’s sorted, it’s her turn to stretch her legs. ‘Place baby on the bed with clothing and covers removed and allow to kick and have a short crying spell,’ advises my manual. Apparently this will ‘allow the parents to have a good night’s sleep.’ Perhaps someone should tell Imogen that!

Wednesday - no TV

What to do today? It wasn’t until the late ’50s that TVs became a household item, and I have to admit I’m finding entertaining a toddler without all my usual props a challenge. Thomas is used to a million different toys, an iPad, and lots of stimulation from classes and trips to farms, parks and the dreaded soft play.

I can’t help thinking his behaviour improves with no screen time

On the other hand I’m enjoying the lack of pressure to provide all of the above. I’m surprised how quickly Thomas has adapted to not having TV. Usually, if we’re at home and it’s not on, he’ll nag to watch CBeebies. Then we have a tantrum when it’s time to turn it off. With TV off limits, he gradually finds new ways to entertain himself. The card game Snap proves a big hit. I can’t help thinking his behaviour improves with no screen time.

Thursday - knitting your baby’s clothes

With Thomas behaving beautifully, and us spending more time indoors, you’d think there would be plenty of time for cleaning. Not so. Even popping a very awake Imogen on a blanket for an hour doesn’t give me time to complete all my chores, and I certainly don’t have time for making clothes for the children.

Knitting was huge in the 1950s, and while Thomas is looking quite ’50s in a shirt, trousers and braces, a hand-knitted tank top would finish off the look! Imogen looks lovely in a dress my mum wore when she was a baby, but I can’t believe how much extra work these clothes are. Unlike most baby things now, which you just throw in the washer and dry, these have to be painstakingly washed, hung out to dry, then ironed – I don’t care what they had in the 1950s, I’m using my electric iron! 

Friday - boiling bottles

Time to try some of the more interesting advice from my Dinneford’s manual. 

To help increase my milk supply I’m told to ‘sponge breasts with hot and cold water, always finishing with cold.’ I don’t think it works but it gives me a giggle. Mums probably wouldn’t have had to use this advice for long, though. Imogen, at 15 weeks, is still quite a long way off being weaned, but if she were a 1950s baby, she would have been munching away for weeks. Many were introduced to their first tastes of baby rice or puréed apple at just a couple of months old. Doctors even advised some mothers to start weaning at as little as two weeks old if the baby was particularly big!

Given the number of feeds Imogen has a day, I’d spend my whole day boiling either bottles or nappies

We now know it’s much better for babies not to be introduced to solids until they are older. I’m glad I’m still breastfeeding as well, rather than giving Imogen bottles, as they didn’t have sterilisers back then. In 1956, mums were advised to clean bottles with hot water and a bottle brush, then boil in water. The bottle should then be covered by a plug of sterile cotton wool. The teat should be ‘scalded’, dried and left covered in the saucer. Given the number of feeds Imogen has a day, I’d spend my whole day boiling either bottles or nappies.

Saturday - weekends at home

Ordinarily I count down the days to when I’ll have Martin’s extra pair of hands at home, but not this weekend. Instead, I’m meant to be running around after him so he can ‘relax’ in what should be a ‘place of peace and order’. What about my relaxation, I want to scream? I’ve been washing nappies, sweeping floors and walking everywhere all week, and keeping a big smile pinned to my face while I’ve been doing it. I don’t even get to go out at the weekend.

One of my books stipulates: ‘It is good for baby to see some outside people, but his eating and sleeping routine should on no account be disturbed. He can go visiting occasionally between 3 o’clock and bedtime.’ So no lunch with friends at Pizza Express! Besides, we wouldn’t get the pram through the door, so lunch at home it is.

Thomas does a very 1950s jigsaw, while I consider hiding in the airing cupboard with my neatly folded washing and a bottle of wine!

Sunday - in love with aprons 

The last day of my challenge and as I put on a dress and some make-up I decide this is definitely a part of the 1950s I will be taking away with me. It feels good not to be in jeans and my little charmer, Thomas (not Martin!), has told me I look nice every day. I’m also an apron convert. Usually I’m changing out of baby-sicked on, toddler-splattered clothes. The apron is an amazing invention and I have no idea why we don’t wear them any more.

The apron is an amazing invention and I have no idea why we don’t wear them any more

This afternoon we all go to the park and although the admiring looks are directed at the pram I allow myself to feel proud of my little family. Back home, Martin does more relaxing while I bath the children. Due to Thomas’ dislike of hair washing, I’m pleased by Dinneford’s advice to do it ‘once a week’.

I wonder if the manual has anything about fear of monsters, which is our other current problem. Under ‘Dark, Fear of’ I’m advised to ‘listen to what the child says about its fears and imaginings and not to dismiss them lightly’. It seems to work better than my usual ‘monsters don’t exist’ line. I sprinkle imaginary monster dust round Thomas’ room to ward off any pesky creatures and Thomas goes to sleep happily. Thanks, Dinneford’s!

Could you be a mum in 1956?

After finishing my week as a 1956 mother, I’m relieved (disposable nappies were invented for a reason), but there are aspects of the ’50s I will take into my everyday life. I’ll use the TV less, wear lippie more and buy another apron. Most of all I think I’ll appreciate how good I have it in 2016. Time-saving devices like the microwave are a godsend and the role father’s play now mean modern mums aren’t chained to the kitchen sink. 


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