Recent Department for Education statistics show that women today spend much less time on household chores than women in the 1950s and 60s – an average of 18 hours per week compared to 44 hours per week – but what about men and children? Do they do less or more around the house, and who does what?
Well, there are always exceptions, but it’s fair to say that housework in the 50s and 60s was deemed “women’s work” and girls at school were essentially being prepared for life as a wife and mother. The chores men did around the house were generally of the maintenance variety, rarely part of the daily routine, and it was “men’s work” to take care of the household finances. But what of the children, what chores did they do?
According to the Spring Chicken community, children growing up in the 50s and 60s had a list of chores to do every day, and they never had to be asked to do them, they just knew what had to be done. Everything from washing the dishes to polishing shoes, and from bringing in the washing to cleaning out the fire.
It was well into the 1970s before central heating began taking over from coal fires in British homes. Before then, getting the fire going was a daily task for everyone, and much as we might reminisce over the joy of sitting in front of flickering flames, heating a home with an open fire involved a lot of work.
Spring Chicken Facebook followers have a mixed bag of memories, but most remember the daily chore of cleaning out the grate:
I always had to do it as a child, and loads of other things that kids today would riot over if asked to do!
It was a chilly job first thing in the morning, but the grate had to be cleaned out and the fire set ready to light. Every household had its own method, but the most common system involved rolled-up sheets of newspaper, kindling sticks, and a shovel of coal: “It was my job to come home at dinner time (midday) and clean the grate out, lay the paper and sticks, and get it going before my dad came in for his dinner at ten past one Monday to Friday, then go back to school. On a Saturday, I’d light the fire about eight o’clock in the morning – and I was only about eight years old.”
Another common memory is the process of holding a sheet of newspaper in front of the fire to help it draw – effective, but not always very safe:
You’d get the fire to draw by holding a broadsheet newspaper up to the fireplace, and hoping the damned thing wouldn’t catch fire.
Of course, it often did.
Taking the ash out is not such a fond memory for some as a gust of wind was all it took to get a face-full of cinders, but the ash was always put to good use either in the garden or on the steps when it was icy outside: “We used to use ashes in our yard when it snowed. From the gate to the front door, and to the outside loo – bit chilly in midwinter, I can tell you!”
Clearing the grate, setting the fire, bringing the coal in from the coal hole or bunker, it was all dirty work – but a 1950s housewife remained immaculate throughout and did every chore with a smile on her face, right?
Well, maybe that was true for some, but not everyone looks back on the work created by coal fires with such nostalgia:
I hated it. Cleaning out the ashes at 7 am when it’s freezing… I don’t miss it one little bit. I love my gas central heating.
Many in the Spring Chicken community remember ice on the inside of the windows in the mornings, the front of your body getting toasted by the fire while your back remained frozen by the draft, and, “Oh, the dust!”. But, that’s the way it was, and whether it was women’s work, men’s work, or children’s chores, it just had to be done – and it was done with a sense of pride.