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 Never had it so good - 1950s History

1950s 'Never Had It So Good'
Then and Now Social History

By Pauline Weston Thomas for

1950s 'Never Had it so Good' - Then and Now Social History


Changing Times

Looking back on the fifties we see so many things that are familiar to us today, yet our lives are very different from people of the fifties.   This change in social manners and attitudes was first truly acknowledged at the time of the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977.  Sir John Colville noticed and developed the idea in his book the New Elizabethans 1952 - 1977 and wrote in 1977:-

"Whatever their station in life, the way people now conduct their affairs differs, voluntarily or involuntarily, in both opportunity and amenity from what was customary twenty five years ago. They feed and dress differently, they talk, live and spend their leisure differently, and they do so partly by choice and partly by force of circumstance."

You could write much the same about the last 25 years since 1980.  We are obliged to move forward with change at frightening pace compared to 1950.  Much of this change is to do with attitude change of what is acceptable and what is not and the speed of this acceptance has all been fuelled by communications of a global nature.

Britain in 1952

In 1952 Britain was still bearing the scars of a World War.  Evidence was everywhere in war torn Europe.  Open bomb sites with their crumbling buildings were set amidst a new kind of architecture, half built blocks of flats.  These were the first signs of redevelopment.  Throughout Britain, people still produced identity cards and housewives queued on chilly pavements, nursing their ration books.  Churchill, hero of the war, gave new hope to all when he was re elected to power under the Conservatives.

Newly arrived back in Downing Street, London, Churchill began his reign of office by looking at the austere diet of the country.  He called for one week's food ration to be set out before him.  He wanted to see just what the people really had to eat.  To his horror it was set out on a small tray.  The entire rations for one week were what he would normally have expected to eat at one breakfast!

Food Rationing

Rations for 1 Week for 1 Person


1oz cheese (Roughly about 2 inch by 1 inch by half inch cube, barely enough to fill 1 sandwich)

2oz tea (Equivalent to about 20 teabags today)

2oz jam spread

4oz bacon or ham

8oz sugar

1 shilling's worth of meat

8oz fats of which only 2oz could be butter

Later sweets and tinned goods could be had on a points system.  Bread was not rationed until after the war in 1946.  For many rationing was harder after the war in the late 40s and early 50s than during the war.

Rationing ended 21 Feb 1952.

Read more about clothes rationing lists of the 1940s and 1950s here.

Unable to immediately abolish food rationing, he offered instead a crumb of comfort.  On the 21st February, 1952 he abolished the personal identity card.  A small gesture, but something for all to build a dream on, a little bit of extra personal freedom.  Ironically there are moves today in Britain to reintroduce an identity card to the Britain of the noughties.

There was a delay of another 2 years and all food rationing ended in Britain on 4 July 1954.  I was a toddler and I recall the day it happened.  My mother came running out to where I was playing in the garden to say food rationing had finished forever.

This was important news even to me as I had a weekly sweet ration every Tuesday.  Even at such a young age making decisions about whether to have a small tube of fruit gums as against a small stick of fudge or a very small bar of chocolate and I mean SMALL, was a major thought all week and the subject of many changes of mind and conversations!!

A short while later that day she cleared the cupboards of old stale food goods (probably long past their use by date had such a concept existed) and gave me a tin of very old Bird's custard powder to play with in the garden.  My friends and I had never had anything more than plain water to use in the tea set before, so to see the bright yellow mix emerge has left an indelible memory of that moment that rationing ended.

The Rise of Television Media Influence in the past 50 years


Freedom came fast and furious in the years following.  The Church, which for centuries had held a vice like grip on the British nation had progressively lost its grasp, giving way to new forces, one of them being 'white light', more commonly known as television.  

British television has been referred to as the best of its kind in the world, selling classic programmes both East and West.  In 1952 the new baby the British now affectionately call the 'telly' could only be found in eight homes in a hundred, contrasting with fourteen TV sets in a hundred in America.  In the UK the cinema was still well supported.

Almost every home in Britain now has one or more colour television sets.  Today television is a major force in our lives; its speed of communication is almost frightening.  Celluloid fiction today is all too often a reality tomorrow. 

Topics too indecent to mention in 1952 were everyday conversation by the mid 70s.  Even so, no one ever believed then that the topic of the Lewinsky and Clinton trial would ever be discussed in their living rooms, nor downloaded in detail from the internet a further 25 years on. 

By 2005, to be shocked at anything, had become as rare as it was unfashionable.  By 2009 almost the last barriers of good taste had been broken and all through the medium of TV. The last taboo up for public discussion destined to shock after the 1990s Lewinsky details has been death.  Death and the nature of dying began its merger with reality style TV in the mid noughties. It reached a peak with the televised illness of Jade Goody in 2009. This intrusive attitude has developed because of the seemingly intimate relationship television engenders in every home.  In the 1950s people lined up rows of chairs to watch the TV and invited their neighbours to join them watch programmes if they had no television set of their own.  But what they saw on their screens in their homes soon became acceptable in real life rather than in soap opera lives.

In the early fifties, just one channel reached twenty per cent of the British population.  Viewing time was limited to an hour in the afternoon, an hour at teatime and three hours between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.  Television, did not, at that time interfere with people's lives; it was only in the sixties that the phrase "compulsive viewing" took on any real meaning.  By the 1990s many viewers used satellite dishes to access over hundreds of channels using the Sky or similar system.  People of the 1950s would truly have been in awe of this.

It is somewhat surprising then, to discover that in 1952 television was not really a medium of any influence.  Nobody realised its potential as a media, until millions worldwide raved over the live broadcast of the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. 

"Never Had It So Good"

Money Attitude in the 1950s

In the late fifties we were called the Affluent Society.  Mr. Harold Macmillan's phrase 'never had it so good' echoed throughout the realm.  Despite inflation, those few words have a meaning as true today as when they were first spoken. 

The shopper of the early fifties queued outside the now almost disappeared corner shop.  Shoppers paid for goods with cash or may have had a weekly account - tick as it was called.  Today supermarket trolley overflowing, the payment is made by bank card or instant debit to a cheque account. 

Expensive items such as carpets and lavishly upholstered suites, along with labour saving electrical equipment were paid for with a hire purchase agreement in the fifties.  Today they are currently more likely to be purchased with one cash payment at some huge discount warehouse set in seclusion, than with H.P. agreements. 

Money in the C21st

In the C21st hire purchase has fast become a thing of the past.  HP still exists, but newer ways of enticing shoppers such as interest free credit has become an advertiser's norm, with 'take away now and start to pay in 12 months' features.  This is such a normal way for many people to live that they have accumulated debts unheard of in the 1950s where the attitude was 'if you want something you save for it or take a HP agreement'. 

Now credit cards, as the advert states - 'take the waiting out of wanting', whilst adding to the number of people in personal debt and bankruptcy cases.  Whilst many people do let their debts get out of control, just as many others use the credit card system for convenience against carrying cash and use their card to their advantage and have interest free credit paying off their debt every month before interest accrues.

By the noughties mid decade, in November 2004, a monetary report published, indicated that Britain had more credit cards than it has people.  In 2005 at the time of writing (June) there are now over 67 million credit cards in Britain.  In the UK 65% of the adult population use credit and debit cards.  In the USA this figure is 85% of the adult population.

The United Kingdom is second to the USA in terms of card choice available to consumers.  Germany is the world's third biggest credit card user.  Italy is the third biggest credit card user in Europe, but use of credit cards throughout Europe is growing in popularity with the Finnish market racing onward.

The British carry more plastic cards than any other European country and also accounts for two thirds of all credit card transaction through Europe.  In the UK in the past 5 years alone, credit card lending has grown by 87%.  Today about 60 billion of unsecured consumer debt is owed on British credit cards.

These figures do not mean that ALL the British today get into more debt, but that they spend using different methods than their neighbours.  Differences with other European figures suggest that Britons borrow in different manner preferring to use credit cards for short term borrowing whereas Germans for example prefer to use bigger overdraft facilities tied to three times their monthly income.  Pay later cards which must be settled at the end of a month are popular in Italy, Spain and France.  This year Britain will spend more than 1 billion using cards rather than cash. 

Changes in the Family

In the search for a higher standard of living, women of the fifties and sixties gradually joined the ranks of the work force.  In most families the woman today is as vital a wage earner as her partner. 

In the 50s the woman was more often seen as the homemaker.  Women's magazines encouraged women to stay at home after the Second World War so that men were in full employment after being demobbed from the forces.  Her role was to be the perfect Stepford wife.  It was not that women had never worked before out of desire or necessity, but a general consensus that men deserved jobs more after fighting in the war and women would be child bearers to refuel the population.  The Oxo advert from the fifties of Katy in her pretty white apron as the perfect wife pleasing her man, to the empty nest adverts of a mid fifties man wearing a fleece making a casserole for 'drop in' adult children, are a great take on the social changes of family life in British society.

But as higher standards of living were directed at families with not so subliminal advertising, women of the fifties and sixties who 'wanted the latest labour saving device and nicer homes' gradually began to join the work force.  Initially in the 50's a woman's income was often for extra treats for the family or the home interior.  Now in 2005 that 'extra' income is essential for many who desire to maintain a certain way of lifestyle, own their own home and pamper away the stress of working with days at spas and beauty salons.

A marital relationship, legal or otherwise, is described now as a partnership.  In the fifties "living over the brush" as it was called, was very frowned upon.  Change was in the air and by the very late fifties society was loosening up, so that in the mid sixties those with a strong sense of self awareness, started to do what they pleased, setting up home in mixed sex flats in big cities, but in reality often cohabitating. 

Unavoidably, a woman's twofold role of home maker and wage earner meant that in the past 50 years the pattern of family life has changed.  For some this is a mixed blessing.  Whilst many women do feel liberated, just as many feel that women have become jugglers of time and are overloaded with tasks both in and out of the home.  Some would just love to be just like those desperate housewives of the TV soap again who can get their daily routine of ferrying children, organising meals and the home under their total control rather than having to catch up every evening, or weekend, or half term with chores that seem to start at 6am and finish at midnight.

For many today life today may look superficially 'have it all', but this is not the liberation feminists promised.

Average Family Size in 1950

The number of children per family was  2.2 in 1952 and 2.6 in 1960, but is now at 1.74 in the UK today.  More couples now delay child bearing until the woman is "mature" while the woman pursues a career or simply decides against having children so that their own standard of living is high.  More alarming though, is the fact that male counts are much lower today as men are subjected to the female hormone oestrogen via the water chain.

Accommodation in the early fifties was often rented, usually rooms, but the hope of home was nurtured in many a heart, even though the shortage of housing was desperate.  Things were quite different for Mrs. Average in 1952.  She thought herself well off if her floors were linoleum covered and scattered with the odd rug.

Then, for the lucky in Britain, a slow burning grate with a copper boiler behind it solved heating and hot water problems.  Domestic appliances were rare and those in existence were virtually unobtainable to the ordinary family.  The freezer was almost unknown in the UK.  Likewise only 15% owned a fridge in 1957 in UK, but by 1987 98% of the population owned at least one fridge with many keeping additional fridge/freezers in their garage.

Through the years domestic and personal life has changed.  Wall to wall carpeting or beautiful wooden flooring, several coloured televisions, one or more holidays either to exotic tropical or continental destinations, two or more cars, a telephone plus many room extensions and personal mobile (cell) phone, a cupboard full of alcohol, domestic and personal electrical appliances, home computers and the once little known freezer complete with half a carcass, are regarded by many as essentials, not luxuries. 

What is more, the community demands them so that many aspects of how we live today such as possession of a TV are regarded as basic standards of living and are even provided by the state to the underprivileged.

The wish for more and more in the way of material wealth has meant that family life, whilst benefiting, has also suffered the stresses and strains that result from a highly industrialized world.  In the 1950s the humble, but nutritious egg, shell slightly soiled, gold of yolk and fluffy of white, was bought from a butcher's shop.  Today it receives so much testing for freshness that by the time it reaches the shopping basket it is several weeks' old, all hint of being new laid removed.  Chickens, once succulent, plump and tasty, are now fatty and greasy from lack of exercise and as tasteless as the plastic wrap bags in which they are placed.


(For fuller details see my pages on 1950's Glamour,  50s Accessories, 50's Sewing Patterns, 1950s teenagers and Teddy Boys , 1950s Collecting Vintage)

Horses and carts are rarely seen now, and the rag and bone man is a sight no longer available.  In the fifties there were still those who made a living from old clothes, still mainly made from natural fibres and suitable for felting.  The bric a brac the rag and bone merchant collected was called junk.  Anything worth throwing away today is tomorrow's antique, and so a whole new trade has developed under the guise of car boot sales. 

The rags of yesteryear are also much sought after antiques, as fashionable as in the fifties and now called vintage.  Much of the evolution that has occurred in fashion is due to the youth of the fifties; they broke the rules and began a youth cult that swept through society and allows 10 year olds today to get as much attention fashion wise as an adult of yesteryear.

Back in 1952 the fashion world succumbed to the new sweater girl and the more casual looks of jeans.  Gradually the sweater was replaced by a T shirt and the almost universal dress of the young became denims.  The jeans of the fifties paved the way for a new kind of fashion that emerged in the sixties, ripping open the world of haute couture.

In 1952, Paris was still very much in vogue, albeit adapted by the design skills of ready to wear manufacturers.  Brand name clothes were becoming so good and so popular that Vogue magazine bestowed the ultimate accolade by recommending Jaegar, Dereta, Brenner Marcus, Rima, Mary Black and Susan Small to its readers. 

Clothing coupons had been abolished in 1948 so that by 1952 clothes were at last liberated.  Hemlines which had plunged rapidly with the new look, finally settled at mid calf length, eleven and a quarter inches off the ground.  Dolman sleeves, swing back coats and stand away collars were popular.  Skirts could be pencil slim or a mass of sun ray pleats.  Lots of these looks were achieved by using 1950's fashion sewing patterns.

Fibres, excitingly new, were beginning to appear on the market, and legs encased in seamed nylon stockings were a welcome pleasure.  Hats were still worn and they hugged the head like bathing caps, having every strand of hair tucked inside. With time the majority have stopped wearing them altogether, except on special occasions.

Since the fifties, which Vogue called 'the formative years of the century', fashion has never really been the same.  Mass production, the introduction of synthetic fabrics and the comparative prosperity of the late fifties enabled the average British woman to be one of the best dressed women in the world.  The young continued to demand clothes to suit a teenage market.


The scientific and mass production advances made during the second World War, meant that the fifties changed forever the way people lived in the C20th.

Page Added 10 June 2005, Updated March 2009.

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