Life in the ’burbs in the 1950s

Peter Harris is 71 and has energy to burn. He says his earliest memory was when he was either two or three, when his brother tipped him out of their toy pedal-driven truck. He loves to write and has compiled a wonderful list of how his world worked back in the 1950s and 60s. He shares some of them here.

We shopped pretty much on a daily basis at the local grocer or milk bar.

The milk was home-delivered by horse and cart around dawn each day in one-pint glass bottles. We left the money – and empty bottles – at the gate. The bottles were never vandalised and the money was never stolen. The sound of the horses at dawn was wonderful.

The morning paper was delivered by a kid on a bike who would get up at 5am to do the round before school for pocket money.

Chemist prescriptions were also home delivered by a kid on a bike after school. That was a prime after-school job because most of the chemist shop assistants were pretty girls.

Bread was delivered daily by the baker who would drive his van down the street. He would call out, “Baker!” and deliver warm fresh bread to the door. There were no sliced loaves.

The AMP family insurance man would visit once a month for our insurance payment which my mum would pay with saved cash. He would tip his hat and it was always “Mr” Pullen and “Mrs” Harris even though he called regularly for years. Those insurance policies paid for my brother’s and my 21st birthday parties.

The bottle-o would drive his horse and cart down the street collecting empty bottles every few months. He would call out, “Bottle-o!” and go around to the backyard to where Dad would have empty beer bottles stacked against the fence. The bottle-o would put the empties into hessian sacks, stitch the sack with string and carry them back to his horse-drawn cart and stack them up really high. I don’t think he made much of a living but in those days people worked hard at whatever job they had.

For the groceries, Mum would either shop daily or sometimes get the local grocer to home deliver. There were no refrigerators like today; we had an ice-chest. Two or three times a week there would be an ice delivery in the form of a block that Dad would break up with an icepick and hammer.

Lunch and dinner
Each Sunday we would have my grandparents for lunch or we would go to their place. We always had a roast, which was usually lamb or beef as chickens were too expensive in those times. Dinner on Sunday night was usually sardines on toast or soup and toast.

We ate at home pretty much every night and that was at the dining room or kitchen table where we sat until our plates were clean. We learnt to like all the food Mum prepared as we had no choice. “Eat what was served or go hungry” was the edict.

And we had to ask to leave the table after thanking Mum for dinner.

People weren’t able to travel anywhere near as freely as today. Very few people we knew had been overseas – and those who had usually went by ship – and not every family had a car. There were no credit cards. We used travellers’ cheques when overseas and cashed them in for local currency. I was never driven to school as I had a perfect pair of legs or a bike. No helmets were worn.

Cars had headlight dimmer switches which were buttons on the floor on the left of the clutch. Obviously there were no automatic cars until the1960s and `70s. We didn’t have stop lights or direction indicators, so we indicated stopping and turning with hand and arm signals from the opened driver’s window in all weather. There were no radios or heaters either.

Cracker night was celebrated on Guy Fawkes Day every 5 November. On that night we would fire off crackers and fireworks of all sizes and explosive power. If we didn’t let these off in our backyard, there would always be a bonfire somewhere in the local area. Great fun, but this was banned in 1980 as it was deemed too dangerous.

The laundry
Mum washed clothes in a ‘copper’, which was a clothes boiler. The water was heated by a gas flame under a massive tub. Mum would pump the clothes up and down with a broomstick which was so bleached that it looked like a piece of driftwood. She would then lift the clothes out of the copper with the stick and into the first of the two cement troughs where the surplus water would be squashed out and then the clothes were rinsed and squeezed through a hand operated wringer into the second of the two troughs. The clothesline was a wire strung across the backyard with a pole lifting it in the middle to suspend the clothes. Rotary clothes lines arrived in the 1960s.

Church and Sunday School
Every Sunday for years we attended church as a family.

The local church was very much part of our lives in the 1950s and 60s. We enjoyed Saturday morning tennis and Saturday afternoon cricket in the summer and went to Sunday school every week. This would last for about an hour. Usually Mum and Dad would then arrive for the 11am service, after which we would all go home for the Sunday roast.

At the movies
In the local theatres, before a movie session started we would all stand for the National Anthem. There were matinees at 12.30pm on Saturdays with Westerns for the kids. The theatre manager would come on to the stage and announce all the birthdays being celebrated and the whole crowd would sing Happy Birthday. We would take water-pistols and squirt water onto the kids a few rows in front. Sometimes we would wear our cowboy outfits and have our cap-pistols in holsters – always to emulate our on-screen heroes like Hopalong Cassidy, The Range Rider, Tom Mix, The Cisco Kid and of course, The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

After the matinees on Saturdays there was the intermediate session at about 4pm. This would be the place for teenagers to take a girlfriend and sit up the back of the theatre and kiss their way through the movie. In those days it was one of the few places where we could do this with all the time in the world.

Television came to Australia in 1956 in time for the Melbourne Olympics, but I was in my teens when we got our first TV, which was, of course, black and white. Transmission started at 6am and ended at 11pm after the National Anthem was played with a background of the Queen in full ceremonial gear on a horse. Then there was a prayer, The Epilogue, then a test pattern until morning. Most programs were imported, mainly westerns and family-targeted shows, such as Wagon Train, Rawhide, Bonanza, The Nelsons, Disneyland and Father Knows Best from the US.  We also had many daily and weekly live variety shows, such as In Melbourne Tonight, The Tarax Show, Sunnyside Up, The Hit Parade and Bandstand.

After-school play
Each day after school until we were in our teens, we would play – usually in the street with our mates. We would ride our bike or push our billycart to a mate’s place and get home before dark. We’d race or do time trials in our billycarts down hilly streets. We’d play cowboys and Indians or get serious with roles from World War II. This was in the mid-1950s and the war had ended only a decade earlier. Depending on the season, we would play football or cricket.

As we grew older we would hang out at the local park and play footy or visit a girl’s place and sit around listening to records, although we were nearly always doing some sort of outside activity.

The curfew would be around 5pm (street lights ‘on’) which gave time to get home before dark for dinner.

Do Peter’s memories spark many of your own? Were they simpler, easier times in your view? What do you miss the most?

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Written by Janelle Ward


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