Family life in the Forties - Scottish nostalgia
Liz Strachan recalls the wartime shortages that characterised family life in 1940s Scotland.
During World War Two our parents and grandparents had to be dedicated recyclers. There were no colourful wheelie bins in those days; we had a small galvanised metal bucket without a lid but there was little to put in it except ashes from two coal fires.
EXTRA READ: Primary school in the Forties
By 1940, there was a severe shortage of food and rationing was introduced along with the wise old sayings, ‘waste not, want not’ and ‘make do and mend’. As the war continued, paper also became scarce. When I started at Mile End School, Aberdeen in 1944, I wrote on a slate with a slate pencil. Mum made me carry a damp rag in a tobacco tin for cleaning my slate. Others spat on their slates and wiped them with their sleeves. When we were hard at work, all you could hear was the noise of slate pencils scraping across the slate. If we suspected that the teacher had a headache, we increased the volume of the scraping and scratching by several decibels, turning her headache into a raging migraine.
At home, the freezing cold lavatory on the landing had no hand basin, scented soap or pretty towels. It didn’t even have toilet paper. Nine of us in the mid level of our tenement block had to make do with the Sunday Post and the Press & Journal which were cut into six-inch squares, hooked on wire and hung on the wall. Even that was rationed as the Sunday Post had only eight pages and the Press & Journal even fewer.
Glass was also scarce. Milk bottles were rinsed and set outside for the next morning’s delivery. Lemonade bottles were always returned to the shop to collect the deposit. Eggs were rationed to one per week per person and often they weren’t very fresh. On one occasion, Mum was furious because two of our allotted six eggs were absolutely rotten. She put the stinking eggs in a jam jar and ordered me to take them back to the grocer. He duly replaced them and kept the eggs in the jar for disposal, assuming Mum wouldn’t want them back. However, although she didn’t want the eggs back, she certainly wanted her jam jar!
Clothing was also rationed and expensive. Unfortunately, I had no elder sisters or cousins to provide me with hand-me-downs so Mum bought everything at least one size too big. Sandals had to last at least three years. In year one, they were too big so the toes were stuffed with cotton wool, in year two, they fitted fine and in year three, Dad cut out the toes. Likewise, a new skirt always had a four-inch hem to start with. Mum considered that clothes which fitted perfectly at the time of purchase were the height of extravagance.
I had no toys except a one-legged doll called Doris. If only the girls were around, we played at ‘hospitals and nurses’ and our dolls were laid out on the pavement for treatment but Doris never did get a leg transplant. When the boys arrived, we played cowboys and Indians or stomped about on stilts made from string and two National Dried Milk tins. My skipping rope was a length of Mum’s washing line.
In the winter, we sledged down Craigie Loanings on tin trays, borrowed from the kitchen – with or without permission. My bike had once belonged to my big brother. Dad lowered the seat as far as it would go, and fashioned wooden blocks for the pedals. I had no trouble swinging my leg over the horizontal bar. By today’s standards, I suppose I was underprivileged but I was blissfully unaware of it.