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           Home >  History  > Growing Up In NZ  :

Growing up in New Zealand 1925-1950

Part 1 - Household Economies And Food
Dorothy - 7/4/00

People who grew up in New Zealand in the second quarter of the twentieth century noticed many changes in daily life as they shared their memories for this series of articles.

Household economies
We could all remember our mothers' economical housekeeping. Either we remembered the Depression years of the early thirties or the economical habits retained from that time. Nothing was wasted. They saved the dripping from the Sunday roast and sometimes baked with it, or made it into soap to use in the laundry. Jan remembers eating bacon fat as a savoury spread instead of butter on bread.

They turned the collars on shirts, and cut worn sheets down the middle and sewed the outside edges together to make them last longer, or made pillow slips with the good parts. The sleeves were turned in hand knitted jerseys to postpone holes developing in the elbows, and when the jerseys wore into holes they were unpicked, the wool was washed and that wool was made into a smaller garment or combined with other wool for a striped jersey. Fair isle patterns were popular partly as they used up small amounts of wool.

The smaller children were often dressed in garments which were made from the good parts of bigger clothes. Helen remembers her mother having her tailored suit turned to show the new looking underside of the fabric. Sewing was still done mostly on a Singer treadle sewing machine, though electric sewing machines became more common near the middle of the century.

"Everything was mended", Jan commented. "Women would have a sock basket and mend holes while they chatted. We used a wooden shape with a metal clip round to hold the sock in place." Socks were made of pure wool which wore out at the toes and heels so holes occurred very often.

Sugar and flour bags highly valued
If the budget allowed, families bought sugar in large quantities - a 70lb bag made of jute. Joan recalls how much these bags were valued and remembers them being turned into aprons and oven cloths. They were embroidered and used for cushions too. The Women's Division of Federated Farmers had a competition for the most attractive article made from a sugar bag and lots of woollen embroidery featured in the prize-winning articles. This is why the time of the great Depression of the 1930s is often referred to as 'The Sugar-bag Years.' Large quantities of flour came in cloth bags which were used for pillowcases, stitched together for sheets or used to line children's trousers to prevent chafing by the coarse worsted fabric.

In her book, "Speaking a Silence", Christine Hunt recorded the memories of people living in Golden Bay. Madge recalled her life at Kahurangi Lighthouse and the economies they made.

They made a lot of things out of flour bags: petticoats, nighties, teatowels and tablecloths. They'd sew a few together and think nothing of it. Everyone did it. She described them as good quality material that would last for years. She even remembered making shirts out of flour bags. taking the brand mark out with washing soda and soap, or kerosene and soap, then boiling them up. The colour would come out and they'd be really white .

Shopping for food
On shopping Anne said, "Kincaids, a city grocer, employed a man who visited regular customers by bicycle weekly to take orders and to tell them about new lines of goods. The orders were delivered later in the week by electric van."

There were no supermarkets, and shopping was done in Christchurch at four city grocers - Wardells, Kincaids, Frank A Cook, and The Farmers - or the corner grocer. Many families had no car and needed a delivery service. Often the corner grocer provided this, sending a boy with a huge basket on the front of his bicycle.

Adele recalls, "Telephones were rare and our Four Square grocer called by bicycle on Tuesdays to collect Mother's grocery order and delivered the goods by cycle on Thursday. I think that Mother paid the bill when next she walked to the shop.

"The greengrocer called on a regular day in his van with his scales at the back of the van. The housewives gathered to purchase from the van. The greengrocers were frequently Chinese in the South Island or Indian in the North Island.

"Market gardens, usually run by Chinese, were close to cities and towns and sold their produce direct.

"We frequently cycled out to Belfast - several miles - to buy meat from the shop at the works."

Helen remembers deliveries being done by horse and cart in Wellington.

Flour, sugar, rice and other dry goods and plain biscuits were weighed out into brown paper bags. Pre-packaging of goods was not a regular feature and advertising was limited. Cheese was cut with a wire on a wooden handle from a large round cheese. The customer indicated the desired size and the piece was weighed and wrapped.

Joan, whose father was a teacher who taught in small towns and in the country, recalls that in the small towns the butcher or the grocer delivered the order when customers phoned in. In the country the bread was delivered with the milk. Other salesmen called to sell door to door, like the linen man, who brought a van full of household linen.

Series of milk containers
Series of milk containers
The milkman delivered the milk and in our younger years we remember putting out a billy (a metal container like a saucepan with a lid and a handle over the top). The milkman filled the billy with a measure from his large can of fresh, untreated milk. Tom recalls his mother 'scalding' the milk in hot weather - heating it to near boiling point to prevent souring.

Anne recalls the fishmonger coming to the street with a delivery van containing a huge slab of ice on which the fish were carried, then gutted and scaled for the buyer. Whitebait was offered in season, was reasonably priced and was usually eaten in delicious fritters made with egg, milk, flour, salt and baking powder and fried in butter. This meant that quite a small quantity would feed a whole family.

Most people bought bread from the grocer or had it delivered fresh by the baker. There was little variety in the breads available - just white or brown. Anne remembers, "The bread came in full and half size loaves, the latter being equivalent to today's normal loaf. The brown bread was not wholemeal, but coloured with molasses or treacle. In our home this was a treat for our lunch."

Kissing Crust
Kissing Crust
Dorothy remembers double loaves which could be broken apart leaving an uneven slice at the end of each loaf. We called these the kissing crusts and loved the taste of them when the bread was new. There was keen competition to get that slice. We could tear off a piece of it which tasted especially good as it often felt like a forbidden treat if taken when no one was looking. Her father believed that new bread was difficult to digest, so the family always had to eat bread which was at least a day old.

There was no sliced bread, but the bread came in many shapes - French, sandwich, Raised Pan, Vienna, Barracouta - all white. Brown bread came in smaller loaves, either light or dark brown.

Most women supplied their families with cut lunches to take to school or to work and each slice for the sandwiches had to be cut by hand. The ability to cut very thin bread was greatly prized and dainty bread and butter was often served for afternoon tea. Except in summer the butter had to be softened for easy spreading. It was possible to buy a butter softener, a round frame which could be filled with hot water and placed over the butter. This meant that the lunches could be cut more quickly.

Tea - and coffee of a sort!
Tea was the regular adult drink, usually with milk. Coffee was available only as coffee essence, a mixture of coffee and chicory, or in Nestles tins of coffee and milk, a very sweet mixture best enjoyed according to Peter on a mountain tramp where thirst and energy had both to be satisfied.

Anne summed up the attitude to food of most New Zealanders of the time. "Food science was in its infancy. Current belief lay in the nutritional value of our primary products - beef, mutton, fat lamb, milk, butter, cheese and refined wheat."

Some familes ate meat three times a day - bacon and eggs for breakfast, cold meat for lunch, perhaps with salad, and hot meat - stews, chops, sausages or mince at the main meal. Vegetables were served with the hot meat and children were urged to eat their spinach and become as strong as Popeye, the sailor of cartoon fame. Spinach was also served with a poached egg.

The range of foods was much more limited. A roast dinner midday on Sunday was mandatory, usually either lamb or a sirloin roast of beef, often with roast potatoes and gravy made in the meat dish with the browning and therefore rather greasy. This was followed on Monday by a shepherd's pie made with the cold meat, or cold meat and salad in summer. The easy meal was welcomed by our mothers on a Monday as that was wash day.

A starchy diet
A lot of bread was eaten, most housewives made scones regularly with white flour, and sometimes dates, raisins, sultanas or cheese, pies and dumplings were served frequently and many puddings were based on cereals. The good housewife always had homemade cake or biscuits in the tins.

The main meal was not considered complete without a pudding. Milk puddings were served most days in the week - rice, tapioca, sago and semolina puddings, junket made with Rennet, and yellow coloured custard made with Edmonds custard powder.

Bread Pudding
Bread Pudding
Egg custards were baked slowly in the oven in a dish of hot water to prevent curdling, and a variant was bread and butter custard, with jam or even sliced banana added as a special treat. These puddings were usually served with stewed fruit, frequently apple, but also stewed dried apricots, prunes and figs. Thrifty housewives preserved surplus fruit in jars in late summer. Steam puddings with dried fruit or jam for flavouring were boiled in basins with cloths tied over the top.

Pies, pastry tarts, and cream sponges were specialties for Sundays. Cream was served with the puddings on Sundays.

Coal ranges were widely used for cooking and heating the water, and the kettle was kept boiling on the stove ready for the frequent cups of tea. Often the range was installed in the living room, as distinct from the kitchen, and it would keep the house warm in winter.

In most cities there was a gas works and many households had gas heaters, stoves and lights. Electric stoves became increasingly popular. Some families ate a lot of fried food, but there were no electric frypans. Of course there were no crockpots or microwave ovens.

'Eating out' happened very rarely unless people were away from their home town. Food rationing during the war also made this difficult. Takeaways, were still in the future - except for the ever popular fish and chips, wrapped first in a piece of greaseproof paper and then a thick wrapping of newspaper to keep them hot. They tasted best eaten straight from the paper.

Read the next article in the series.

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