NOSTALGIA: The Labour-saving Device

The 1950s Ideal Home Exhibition was the ancestral home
of the gadget

The first Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition took place in 1950, and after a few years there was a northern version based in Manchester. As a local cloth merchant of some standing by then, dad used to get preview tickets. My plan most years was to find an excuse for not going, but mum revelled in the futurama laid before her each year: for people moving up, by 1957 the Exhibition had become a recgonised aperture into that future.

Nothing gave a better view of quite how amusingly imperfect the future was going to be than the labour-saving gadget. But at the time, such innovations weren’t seen like that at all: every new way of doing things was seen as progress. After all, if DDT could mean that the boll weevil was doomed, then anything was possible.

The first of these inventions with which mum returned home was an electric potato-peeler. At the time, peel was seen not as the main nutritional value of potatoes,but rather a useless and dirty packaging format which had to be removed before your pomme de terre was fit to be put on any hungry husband’s plate at 6.01 pm.

The electric potato peeler consisted of a large plastic Wall of Death thing which took up most of the kitchen work surface. Inside this bowl of technological promise was a heavily pockmarked surface. When you plugged in the device, the spuds were mercilessly chucked about inside, and the peel scratched off by crude friction. The whole process took, oh, less than four hours – and used up a gigawatt of electricity. It gave the subsequently boiled potatoes an odd consistency, and a size a fraction of that of the original raw input. It took mum about six months to finally admit defeat, and put it the infernal thing into a dark cupboard somewhere. By this time, the drains were blocked up with raw mashed potato, but at least we could get back to eating potatoes that didn’t look like obese peas.

Another belter was the ironing board/breakfast bar combo. Mum had seen this demonstrated at the Ideal Home – there must have been a thousand or more demonstrators there every year – and at this particular event (I’d guess it was about 1959) the general view was that the breakfast bar was going to transform everybody’s life. There was no limit to what the breakfast bar might do: tables would become extinct, and a whole new enforced intimacy would be added to morning meals the length and breadth of Britain.

Mum’s triumphal entrance with the dual-purpose ironing and rice krispies consumption surface was a surreal affair. Flatpack was an invention still far away in the real (rather than imagined) future, and so it was a struggle to get the thing through the front door. Dad smiled while describing the task of getting it into our two-tone Zephyr Zodiac, a process that seemed to have involved many hand signals, and the use of very quiet roads.

The next day when I got back from school, mum was ironing in the kitchen – something I’d never seen her do before. The problem with our kitchen at 43 St Margaret’s Road was that it was about thirty yards narrower than the set at the Ideal Home Exhibition, and the first room one encountered after opening the back door. The following morning, the four of us held cereal bowls to our faces in the manner of Chinese coolies eating rice. The smell of damp clothing was overpowering. There was some discussion of blocking up the back door and other structural alterations; but soon the breakfast bar was consigned to the garage, and mum went back to ironing in the boxroom. I think dad made a television cabinet out of it. It was what dads did in those days.

My mother was a model of rational organisation and wonderfully broad mind in most things. She was also a vocal critic of pretension. But gadgets were a mild form of mental illness for her, a little bit of science fiction to be grabbed and sustained in the hope of something better than the grey austerity that had marred her years as a young war mother. It’s hard for anyone in 2010 to understand what this transition from post-war rationing to You’ve Never Had it so Good was like – and getting harder for those who were there to remember – but there’s no doubt that the Daily Mail was onto a winner the minute it invented the Ideal Home Exhibition.

The Teasmaid alarm clock, the solar car, the miracle ice-cream maker, the combo nutmeg grater and corkscrew, and even the yellow lady plastic vinegar sprinkling bottle: all these played their part in a tableau called ‘The future will be better’. Like so many mums of the era, mine bought into this concept lock, stock and rotating buttermilk barrel with attractive mock teak churning-handle feature.

What are we looking forward to now? Well, today’s news choice – picked at random – includes Chinese computers doing twenty-seven trillion things a nano-second, human-built not quite human life, sovereign bankruptcy, babies designed to order, and cameras that can swivel through 360 degrees and observe us 24/7. My mother would have recognised much of it in the works of Orwell and Huxley. I’m not sure it’d give her the same sense of optimism she had in 1955.