Saturday, February 21, 2009

21 & 22 February 1955 "Servants and Sewing"

21 February 1955: A Coy Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (DCLI), who arrived in Bermuda in 1954, paraded for HRH Princess Margaret in Hamilton.

22 February 1955 :British aircraft carrier Ark Royal sets sail. The new aircraft carrier was part of the new "Audacious class" aircraft carrier and were a class of ship proposed by the British government in the 1930s - 1940s. The Audacious class was originally designed as an expansion of the Implacable class with double storied hangars. However, it was realised that the hangar height would not be sufficient for the new aircraft that were expected to enter service, so the design was considerably enlarged and commissoned now in 1955.

In the New York Tims of 22 February 1955 there is an article on the inadequate car for the sick and aged. It discusses the problems of the 'senile' (which of course we know today to have dimentia or alzheimers). It looks as if most nursing homes and facilities were reluctant to take them. Again, much as today, the middle class seem to be the most affected. The article states:

"Wealthy families can hire companions or nurses and keep the patient at home...If the family is supported by welfare funds, or demostrably unable to pay for the care of teh senile relative public agencies will assume all or part of the burden...The average, self-supporting, middle-income family, however, finds it virtually impossible in New York City to solve the problem of long-term custodial care for a senile relative in a way commensurate with its pride and self-respect...Fees at a nursing home (if they are willing to take the patient) fees will be at least $150 a month for bed, board and nursing care alone. Medical care when needed will be billed separately."

So, for a middle class family that cost would be equivalent to $1, 187.00 today. I do know, however, that here in New England (2009) that cost is around $6000.00 a month. Both of these cost factors whether 1950s or now show what a heavy burden on the middle class. It is unfortunate, as the family may show that they have the money to pay, it wouldn't account for possible children to put through college, or the mere fact of needing their own nest egg. I am not sure why it always seems, since the Great Depression in this country, the heaviest tax burden and cost seems to always fall on the middle class. Very sad and unfortunate.

This was a rather nice Sunday morning as I had Gussie in. While she was working away in the kitchen, I was at the sewing machine. She was humming away in the kitchen, the clang and clatter of the pans mingled with Ruth Brown on the 'radio'. I had my sewing machine whirring and clattering along; fabric and pattern pieces spread out on the Dinning room table. (My sewing room is not even close to being usuable.) The dogs wandered in and out of the two rooms wondering who was most likely to drop a scrap of food. Hubby was slumbering away in bed, his day to sleep in. The sound of my small industry, the song of Ruth Brown, the smell of coffee and sausage all of it seemed rather normal to me. I had to stop and think, "Two months ago this would not really be happening."
Now it seems normal of a Sunday to have a large breakfast set before us by Gussie followed by her turning back into our friend and having a nice conversational breakfast. After breakfast we all help 'Gussie' clear the table and then hubby is off to his study and I to my sitting room.
Now, the cacophony of sounds include the rain, Doris Day and the random high-pitch squeal that the ole' Kirby as Gussie cleans. The Kirby will call out sometimes with a great ear-splitting squeal, as if it is giving out its great YELP to the heavens; calling to any old unloved vacuums to awaken from their slumber. It is funny to hear the normal jet engine noise of the Kirby punctuated by this screech followed by Gussies, "Oh my goodness, this thing is loud!"
Our relationship with Gussie as a servant is an interesting aspect I would love to study more. Gussie and I joke around and help each other out. Now, it is true that Gussie is actually my friend (so we are comfortable with one another)but I think had I a real Gussie in 1955 she would most likely have been with us since my marriage. She would have probably been released during the war time for war work ( I am including a funny article about this from my 1944 magazine) However, I am certain she would have returned with the wars end. I think the laughter we have while she is cooking up breakfast and I try on my half finished dress to get her approval would have happened. Also, as a middle class woman I would have helped her with meals and cleaning. She would not have been a servant in the upper class since of the world. I would not ring bells for her to come and 'wait on me'. A sort of commaraderie between the maid and the housewife would have been the norm I think. It is too bad this no longer exists, as my friend has stated that she wished what she did with and for us was her actual job, as she likes it. I am certain there would be people out there who would have been happy to live in and help out a wife and in a sense be a part of their family. A relationship one would not normally have with their boss and it would result in a friendly excahange. I think as with all things of the past, most people want to deem it bad. As if it no longer exists it must be a bad thing. When, really, I think there must have been many happy 'Gussies' who enjoyed their family, and got much satisfaction (as do I) from a clean kitchen and a nice meal. She would have recieved gifts on birthdays and chirstmas, and been, all around, another memeber of the family. This relationship between the middle class and their 'servant' would be an interesting project in and of itself.

It appears that the middle class servant was often the 'boss' of the house, yeilding a power over the family members in an almost reversal of boss/employee position. Probably not unlike a bossy great aunt or some similiar relative. She is responsible for the cleanliness and running of the house WITH the housewife and won't stand for any nonsense from the husband or the children. I love the little 'song' the husband sings in this story from my 1944 House Beautiful about their Maid, Gertie:

Gertie's gone to war,
And that's the final straw.
She ran the joint,
And here's the point-
Her word's no longer law!

Now, onto my sewing: Contrary to what I think some of my readers think, I have not really been much of a seamstress before. I have made a dress here and there in the past but with no regularity or feverent need as I do now. I have never had an official class to learn how to sew nor had I anyone (including my mother) to show me how to do it. At university in my early twenties I found my vintage machine I now have and managed a few things here and there, but it has been some time since I have really sewn. So, now I am slowly learning to address the patterns and their strange language much the way I am becoming increasingly familiar with the language of the cook book.This was one of the exciting bits, as with the cooking/baking, that I was looking forward to accomplish from this years project.
I think a woman of my class in the 1950s would have sewn. I am sure I would, as I do now, have had 'store bought' things here and there. I have my new fur coat. I would most likely have a few nice suits and some evening clothes I would buy on a shopping trip to the city, but to get a stylish wardrobe while not being wealthy, sewing would have been rather necessary. So, I am trying to become acquainted with it. Here I am again, faced with cram sessions on things of which a true 1955 housewife would most likely have had experience. I mean if not learning from a relative I would have had Home Ec in high school and most likely University level as well.

So, I think I will start documenting my progress more to share with all of you. Here is the pattern I am using now to make a dress. I am starting with the red number as its sleevless scooped neck top seems the simplest for me to get a handle on. I think if it turns out well, it can be a very good all around base pattern for me to add to here and there as my skill increases.

Here is the fabric I am using. It is not vintage (as I have ordered some vintage fabric but do not want to cut it up until I get better at my sewing). I think it has a pretty vintage feel, however. It is a simple cotton.

Here is how far I am as of this morning. ( Gussie took the pic for me and believe you me you would be glad I cut off my head in the pic, curlers no makeup does not make for a fun vintage photo!) You can see the top is not finished. I have not lined it but am going to instead pipe the neck and sleeves with bias tape. The bottom is also not yet hemmed. I am also holding it on myself as the zipper is not installed yet. These things will happen today.
I am using a vintage zipper, however. My vintage friend gave me this one! Don't you love the images on the back of the women. I am not sure exactly the date of this zipper but you can see from the clothing on the women on the back it looks at least late 1950's. I am going to attempt to make many of my future clothes ( as my skill increases) with vintage fabric and notions, so even if they are not actually vintage per se, they at least are made as vintage as possible.

Today's Sunday bake is going to be a pie. I think this one sounds rather yummy. I will post a pic and let you know how it turned.

I like that this pie breaks the class barrior as it "the choice of males whether they work in the office or the out of doors". A very diplomatic and delicious pie. And if you do not want to make your own crust I am certain this would be lovely in a premade frozen crust. Or, better yet, why not make your own crust in bulk and freeze a few for that busy day when hubby calls and an important client is to come to dinner, or unexpected guests drop by!


  1. I'm really looking forward to seeing the completed dress! Do you already have all your accessories picked out? Since you have different colors in your fabric, you could have a lot of fun with different looks depending on what colors you chose to bring out with your accessories.

    Hope you are enjoying a nice Sunday afternoon! :)

  2. I am enjoying it and I am actually about to write letters back to a few readers who have started writing to me via mail sharing recipes and things. It is nice to do this, as it feels rather vintage.
    I think for trim for this dress I am going to trim the neckline and the arms with a blue bias tape that matches the blue in the dress. Then for the hem, I am considering using a wide orange Blanket tape and then stiching the same blue as on the neck through the orange as a detail. Does that sound nice?

  3. Ooh, this would be a lovely spring dress! Paired with a bolero, perhaps... Or are those in yet?

  4. I have some patterns and have seen boleros in my magazines. This is a good transitional dress, too, as it will look nice with a cardigan in spring and then sleeveless and with sandals in the summer. I am really trying to focus on sewing spring/summer now.

  5. I love that dress too. Very pretty.

  6. I'm not sure a woman of your class would necessarily have sewn in 1955. My father's mother did a bit (she made all his Halloween costumes), but my mother's mother did not. My paternal grandmother was also 20 years older than my maternal one, so would have been in her early 50s in 1955.

    As for the housekeeping, I'd have to ask my mom if they had anyone "do" for them when she was growing up, but I do remember my maternal grandmother having a woman come in to clean once a week as late as the '70s. Nana used to frantically tidy and do light cleaning before we'd go out so the maid didn't find the place a mess. Even as a child I thought this kind of defeated the purpose of hiring someone! (um, but I'd probably do the same myself)

  7. Teru-that is funny about cleaning for the maid. I'd have to say I would too, but having help (even though it is only about 2 days a week and it is my friend) I could get used to and would probably soon not worry about what the 'maid thinks' about the condition of my house. Of course if I had a full time Gussie, I most likely would not have to worry about it as between the two of us we would most likely have it cleaned all the time any way. I am really becoming increasingly interested in the history of domestic service from 1900 to its pretty much extinction by the end of the 1950s except for the very wealthy. I have had a housecleaner come in, in the past in my modern life, but never on any particular schedule and always from an agency, no one I knew or got to know. It is an odd field that has gone. Now that we need more jobs and more people would like to get back to things on a community level and less corparate level, maybe the family middle class maid could return. An exchange for free room and board and a smaller wage might be another boost for economy, one never knows.

  8. Your zipper is probably ca. 1970. I was buying zippers like that shortly after I learned to sew. Most zippers were metal, but 'self-mending' was 'hi-tech'. One give away it the price. 70 cents was a lot of money in the '50's. Another give away is the zip code on the back. Zip codes did not exist in the 50's.

  9. 50sgal-

    No, I have never made anything with tongue. I look forward to your posts if you end up making something with it but, honestly I don't know if I can get over my squeamishness to try it!

    Thanks for telling me that you don't know what a King Cake is! I really do try to do links when I write about things that I think people may be unaware of but sometimes I'm going to goof like that. Here is a link about King Cakes

    I also try to stay away from the over packaging and single serving sizes. Occasionally I get put in the position of the smaller over packaged item being on sale for less per ounce or whatever than the larger size with less packaging. I really hate those times!

    I usually find at least one item that completely befuddles me at the grocery store. For instance, those frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Who buys those?!?

  10. Woman of that time did sew My Nanna whos children were all born in the 50's all 6 of them including twins(my mother)used to sew all the time she made all the clothes for her family and they were the best dressed in town.

    This later turned into a business for her in the 70's when she divorced my grandpop and moved her 6 children to the City (Perth, Western Australia)

  11. In the UK, at least, middle class women did sew, or they went to a local dressmaker. You often read about it in novels of the time. My nana wasn't a keen sewer, she was also working class, but she was a knitter.

    I think your thoughts on family relationships with servants are very interesting. I've often thought that American films from the 1940s (Meet Me in St Louis springs to mind) portray a maid as a kind of bossy aunt. A live-in woman, practical and down to earth.

    I'm not sure about the UK though, it took us a long while to come out of a very rigid social class structure, it's difficult to speculate how relationships between family and servants would have worked, as the household management books of the time (pre-war) insisted upon a very strict social demarcation between master and servant.

    However, I do have a few Victorian tracts where middle class families are portrayed as being kind and generous to the servants who worked for them, treating them with love and respect. I reckon it depends upon the could've been a living hell for a maid, or for a poor mistreated slum girl taken in by a good family, absolute heaven.

    PS. "This Happy Breed" was made in 1939 (I think) just at the start of WWII.

  12. Hairball-Ah, I misunderstood and thought you had made tongue. It is funny,as food like this does not make me squeamish. I remember watching Manor House (Edwardian Country House for UK/Australia) on PBS and was shocked by how upset the upstairs family was over being served pigs cheek sliced from the cooked head of the pig. I thought it looked beautiful and really, that is what the animal looks like. Maybe I should do my year 1905! Just for the food, though! Also, The King cake, thanks for the clarity. I suppose had I gone to Mardi Gras (which I never have) I would know of this. I am familiar with the Gateau des Rois the french use, but it looks a little different. I agree, really? You can't make your own sandwich and do you really need to freeze them, how much time does it take? Of course, I don't have to rush off to a high powered job, but I used to be a business owner and I still made meals and lunches!
    Yummy Mummy- U are right, as Teru had mentioned she wasn't sure, and then I got to thinking about it last night and realized in one of my favorite movies "Mr Blandings Builds a Dream House" (this is where I got Gussie's name)the Mrs. has a sewing room built and speaks of being able to sulk in it on rainy days. I think the war also made many things cross classes as everyone needed to pitch in and do during war time. However, I know a middle class family in england and usa who would have had at least one servant in the victorian times would also have sewn included their own dresses sometime. So, I can happily return to my 'sewing room university'. That is so interesting about your grandmother and her sewing business. See, have real home skills can help and save you in the end! She must have been a wonderful lady to pull that off, six kids AND a business. Sometimes I feel like a charlatan doing this year WITHOUT a child.
    Dulce-yes, the class structure was very pronounced in the uk, but don't you believe that the us never nor still did not have a class structure. We did not have royalty/nobles, but we had many wealthy monied classes who kept scores of servants and country houses and such. I would think in a home where their was a kind wife and a few 'stay at home' daughters, the life for a live in servant from 1900-1950 could have been rather nice. There are many people who do not want their own family nor cannot have them, and they would recieve love and kindness and not be alone. I think it is another case of "oh, that was the bad thing they did in the past" of course there was bad but really there could be many people out there now, alone and unsatisfied, that would be happy Gussies and glad of fulfilling work and appreciative employees and the comfort of a loving clean home.
    I really want to see "this Happy Breed" now, I wonder if hubby could order it for me.

  13. I've been reading your past posts this weekend -- just found your blog and am enjoying it very much.

    I signed up for newsletters from McCalls/Butterick/Vogue and just got one from Vogue announcing a two-day sale on their vintage patterns for $5.99. Quite a savings.

  14. Lovely dresses, especially the red one! I look forward to seeing photos of the finished result. I've just bough one from H&M that is much like it. I'll send you photos. I already know it will be a favourite the coming Summer.

    And a vintage zipper - that's SO great!

    Have a lovely weekend. We are going to a dinner party tonight and I've decided to dress up all vintage. :)

  15. Hello,
    I have just finished reading some of your {lengthy} posts,most of which I enjoyed very much. I also have an interest in all things vintage. The one that caught my eye was this post where you mentioned a middle class servant. It triggered my memory as I was recently refered to as a "servant" by a visiting guest to the house in which I am employed as a live in maid. It seems in some places it is still common for maids and domestic staff to be refered as servants, a fact I was not aware of untill now. As I wear what would be considered a styled uniform (maids dress and apron)this guest used the term servant when enquiring of my employer about my duties. It seems the social divide is alive and well in some places.


  16. Kim-how interesting. I would love your take on your place in the home. I think, at least in the 1950s still, that there were various terms and I do think one would consider domestic staff 'servants' and then you would explain your servants as 'the maid' 'the cook' etc or if you were upper class, you would most likely have 'a chamber maid' or 'upstairs maid' in the 19th c. and into probably WWI upperclass servants would range from 'under house parlor maid' 'scullery maid' 'ladies maid' etc but the staff, as a whole, or the class, themselves, would be considered the 'servant class'. Certainly, I think it is nice to give it a distinction, as people in this 'class' and 'employment' should and would be proud of their work and not feel inferior for being called a 'servant' any more that I would being called 'middle class' but an 'upper class' person. I am and would be in that class and certainly not ashamed of it. I am hoping one day, as I have had my friend help out in the position of a 'servant' somewhat, to see if anyone would like to try the project of being a live in maid for my continuing project. It would be interesting, to say the least. I think when someone had a maid who would come in sometims a 'day girl' that she was not considered a servant, as her position was not as good nor as highly placed as a 'servant' who lived in and she would just considered differently. I would love to know more about your position. For example, do you have a room off the kitchen, or do you have 'maids quarters' or do you have a 'servants basement' etc? I am honored to have someone of your 'class' to comment and help with any information for my project. YOu see, many people think to be called a homemaker or a housewife, is also not appropriate, but I find it an honor and take my position with pride. I think that element of pride in your work, say you are a grocer or a plumber, seems to be a sort of loss in pride of place, as if we are afraid to label people, but I think if we are proud of where we are in life and do a good job and don't fall for the idea that we all have to be Paris Hilton (God forbid!) than I think they are nice labels, what is your opinion on it?

  17. How interesting! I came upon this site by chance while I was trying to find information for a continuing dicussion / debate with my husband. He says women in the U.K. don't have "servants" (even if they are called domestic help or chars nowadays)and have not had staff in the home since Victorian times and even then only the extremely wealthy. In my understanding this is NOT correct as servants / domestic help was commonplace in all classes and homes except for the very poorest of the poor, until after the war when this began to change.

    Nowadays although most ordinary (middle class) people in the U.K. have some type of help in the home, it is usually live out, and only so many hours a week, not daily.

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