Domestic bliss? A history of how we did the housework

Domestic bliss? A history of how we did the housework

This is an exclusive feature from the now sold-out Issue 2 of Yours Retro. For more nostalgia, check out the latest Retro at

A host of appliances and labour-saving devices 
should have turned drudgery into domestic bliss 
– so why does the housework still feel endless?

The Fifties

  1. A clean and tidy house was something to be proud of, and ‘donkey-stoning’ was a Monday morning chore for many of us, cleaning the front step with a chalky white brick dipped in water.

  2. TV presenter Mary Berry’s first job was for the Bath Electricity Board showroom, showing customers how to get the best out of their new electric oven.

  3. It beats as it sweeps 
as it cleans… In 1951 
the team behind the 
new Hoover said they, “Took pride in the fact 
their products were saving millions of housewives from wearisome domestic drudgery.”

  4. In 1956, Taylor Woodrow advertised the ‘Home of Tomorrow’ at Crawley New Town. It cost £2,195, and at its heart was the kitchen, with built-in cupboards, an eye-level grill and a Formica-covered breakfast table. Though in the Fifties a fitted kitchen was still a rarity.

  5. You could choose an eye-level grill or a plate warmer, but 
to have a timer was the height of luxury.

  6. There was no automatic shut off on the kettle – if you forgot you’d put it on the stove it would whistle until it boiled dry.

  7. The refrigerator was fast becoming a necessity, but by 1956 only 8 per cent of us owned one and, if we did, the freezer compartment was so small it barely held a bag of peas – now we have fridges big enough to survive a siege!

It’s a fact: In 1951 the average woman did 75 hours of housework a week

Our cleaning cupboards were always full of products like this

Our cleaning cupboards were always full of products like this

‘Donkey stoning’ was a regular pursuit

‘Donkey stoning’ was a regular pursuit

The Sixties

  1. By 1965, 42 per cent of us still didn’t have a washing machine – if you were lucky enough 
to have one it would be a twin-tub with a mangle on top. After the clothes had washed they had to be lifted out of the hot water with large wooden tongs, fed through the mangle and then dropped into the spin dryer. The kitchen filled with steam as first the whites were washed in the hottest water and then the coloured clothes as the water cooled down.

  2. We could always treat ourselves 
to a new Kenwood Chef. In the 
1965 Green Shield Stamp catalogue you could exchange 
33¼ books for the mixer – although as each book contained 1,280 stamps, and you got 1 stamp for each 6d spent, that would mean you’d have spent £1,064.

  3. By 1961 more than half of all married women went out to work, but the ‘new man’ was nowhere to be seen. So we ended up spending all our wages on labour-saving devices.

  4. Toasters, which had been invented decades earlier, finally became commonplace 
– no more filling the house with the smell 
of burnt toast!

  5. It was still unusual for a man to cook, but who remembers going weak at the knees watching Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in the Ipcress Files (see left) slicing peppers and promising to “cook the best meal you’ve ever tasted”?

  6. By 1962 a third of us had a fridge and TV ads were encouraging us to splash out on convenience foods, including fish fingers and Arctic roll.


The Seventies

  1. The kitchen changed from the wife’s domain to more of 
a family space – somewhere to eat and relax, complete 
with orange and brown tiles and pot plants hung in macramé holders.

  2. In the Seventies, feminist Selma James led a campaign 
for wages for housework. She believed women deserved 
to be paid for their hard graft looking after the men who made up the workforce.

  3. By 1970, 40 per cent of us had swapped our gas cooker for a brand-new electric one – but did you regret it in 
the power cuts?

  4. Kitchens became more efficient – the new must-haves were a Kenwood Chef and non-stick pans, or for the ultimate indulgence, a microwave to heat the new TV dinners. When was your first Vesta curry?

  5. If we were lucky our kitchens now boasted a Breville sandwich toaster and Sodastream, while Saturday tea was 
a ham and cheese toastie (with a filling so hot you burnt your mouth) and a bottle of home-made cola, which was too sweet if you were heavy-handed with the concentrate.

  6. We’d upgraded our under-the-counter fridge to a fridge-freezer, and were filling it with batch-cooked dishes or convenience food from Bejam or Iceland.

We always had room in the freezer for an arctic roll

We always had room in the freezer for an arctic roll

The Eighties

  1. By the end of the decade half of us had a microwave despite the high cost – in 1984 a microwave cost £229.95, the same as a gas cooker.

  2. Cooking a conventional meal in the microwave was an act of military precision, but it ended up taking longer and tasting worse. No wonder we resorted to using it for defrosting and cooking ready-meals.

  3. Matching accessories were all the rage – Eternal Beau could be found on everything from butter dishes and placemats to toasters, kettles and tea towels.

  4. Vacuuming the carpets wasn’t enough any more – we needed to ‘freshen’ them too with a liberal sprinkling of Shake n’ Vac.

  5. No self-respecting housewife would be without a hostess trolley to impress dinner party guests. It cost around £100 from the Grattan catalogue with a plastic teak-effect finish and a stack of Pyrex inserts.

It’s a fact: Seventies households spent 
a whopping £180 million on frozen goods in 1972 and, by the following year, that 
had increased to £240 million

The trusty hostess trolley saw us through so many dinner parties    You can follow Yours Retro on  Facebook

The trusty hostess trolley saw us through so many dinner parties

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