My Grandmother on the ‘Universal Food Chopper’ and Domestic Labour

Below is a short piece written by my Grandmother (Eileen Mayes, 1906 – 1993). It was initially published in ‘John Barnett’s All Ways on Sunday File’ in 1989.

This piece interests me not only for its familial connection and posterity, but its relation to recent trends questioning the new domesticity and women’s labour

Picture from a Mail Order Catalogue

Eileen Mayes 

Some time ago I found a mail order catalogue among old papers. There wasn’t much left of it, no cover and lots of the pages missing, but among those that were left I found a picture almost seventy years old.

She’s wearing a long dress with a frilled hem, a high-boned collar in pre-1914 style; she’s got a flower tucked gaily into her piled-up hair. She could be somebody’s Great-Aunt Gwendoline and she’s smiling sweetly as she demonstrates a Universal Food Chopper-Mincer to you.

It’s had a lot of use, this old catalogue, the pages worn and dog-eared with being turned over and over again and I wondered how often Great-Aunt Gwendoline had thumbed through them. Poor deat, even with her Universal Food Chopper she didn’t have much in her kitchen to smile about. Compared with modern kitchens, it would rank as a labour camp.

Oh, she had a refrigerator, at least that’s what the catalogue calls it – ‘Holds 66 lbs of ice’, and if she wanted ice cream there was the ‘Gem’ freezer with ‘solid oak bucket’ to provide it – and plenty of exercise in the making! However, she had one advantage over us today: her cooking utensils, though primitive, were cheap; a nutmeg grater cost a penny, a rolling pin was ninepence or a ‘Colonial’ one could be had for sixpence. Her glass preserving jars came from America and her knives, says the catalogue, were ‘best English steel’. These, of course, had to be cleaned constantly by hand on a knife board, price sevenpence in the catalogue. An English Knife Cleaner was a bit more expensive. This was a circular contraption in which you stuck the knives and then turned a handle. The catalogue says ‘As used by the King’, conjuring up a delightful picture of a portly King Teddy stashing his gold-plated knives into the machine and merrily turning the handle.

Poster for Landers, Frary & Clark, the “Universal food chopper, and a few of the things it chops,” New Britain, about 1899.
Poster for Landers, Frary & Clark, the “Universal food chopper, and a few of the things it chops,” New Britain, about 1899.

Husbands are conned into ordering a cake-mixer: ‘Every newly-married husband should buy one. It turns a poor cook into a Good Cook.’ This little miracle worker, hand-driven by the ‘little woman’, naturally, costs no more than the marriage licence, a mere seven and sixpence.

There’s a complicated little number illustrated, an apple-peeler-corer-slicer, which, although it costs only two and threepence looks as though it might need a mechanic to set it up each time.

And then a item that recalls a quiz show. What is a Turk’s Head? A brand of tobacco, the name of a pub, or the upper part of a decapitated European? It’s a brush for sweeping walls, ‘All hair, price five shillings.’

And what a trial of strength washing day must have been for Great-Aunt Gwendoline! Whilst the water heated (she could use the bellows, price two and tuppence, if the fire was sulky) she’d collect her tin tub and the rubbing board (latest American, 1/3). She’d fill the troughs (best Karri) and perhaps get out a packet of Wyandotte ‘invaluable for washing clothes as it takes the place of soap’, then goes on to add somewhat ominously, ‘It also removes paint.’

What marvellous muscles Great-Aunt Gwendoline must have developed!

First there was the washing machine, clumsy, on four wooden legs looking as though it might serve as a churn in an emergency, and with a large wooden handle propelled – how did you guess? – by woman-power.

Finally when all the shirts and embroidered petticoats and drawers and household linen was starched and dry, there was the ironing. Flat irons cost a shilling, polishing irons to add further lustre – our Gwen must have been a tiger for work – at one and three. The man who made the irons was called Saddler, and his irons as ‘Sad’ irons. How appropriate.

Above the wood stove, on the mantle shelf, is the American alarm clock, price two and threepence, telling the long day is over. The hanging lamp, not so pretty as the one of flowered china and dangling glass pendants in the parlour, is lit and strkes an answering glow from the beautiful copper kettle. ‘Very best copper, price eight shillings.’

How incredibly hard you worked – and how lucky we are to be living in 1975 with all its labour-saving devices! And yet, I wonder – was Great-Aunt Gwendoline? – But that’s another argument and nothing to with a Mail Order Catalogue.

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