A decade of domesticity: how the 1950s made the modern home
By the early 1950s, food rationing and utility restrictions imposed on household goods like furniture, textiles, clothing, and crockery during the Second World War were gradually being removed. Here, Janet and John Shepherd explain how bombsites and slums were replaced by new homes in many of Britain's major cities and the creation of new towns coincided with massive advances in interior design and household technology...
A young couple from the 1950s pouring milk for a baby sat in a popular Formica-branded baby chair. (H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
For many thousands of visitors, the 1951 Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank became synonymous with a period of regeneration and modernisation. The festival provided an advertising platform for architects, artists and designers who regaled visitors with an avalanche of modern designs, such as Ernest Race’s popular, ultra-modern steel-legged chair. Pavilion exhibits made extensive use of new dyes, and photographs of brightly coloured festival umbrellas, reproduced on millions of commemorative postcards, can still be found today. Once colour was incorporated into 1950s designs, there was no looking back to the dull, drab landscape of the wartime years.
An age of plastics
During the war, plastics had played a central role in the production of essential equipment such as waterproof tents, goggles, parachutes, electric wiring and even parts of atom bombs. As demand for these wartime items faded, factories that made these synthetic products moved into the domestic sphere. The 1950s witnessed the successful launch of many new products as Britain returned to a peacetime economy. Materials such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride), fiberglass, melamine, aluminium and vinyl were now used to produce polythene sandwich bags, plastic crockery, kitchen utensils and furniture all of which transformed domestic life.
A 1950s advertisement for a Formica kitchen. (Picture Post/Getty Images)
The 1950s has rightly been seen as the decade that produced a revolution in laminated plastic. Although the leading brand Formica actually dated from the US as early as 1913, it was the introduction of bright colours and labour-saving qualities in the 1950s that gave Formica its huge success in the domestic market. Hard wearing and “gleaming”, Formica said it provided work surfaces that “could not be burned, scratched or stained”. The company was so confident of success, it advertised using the phrase: “Whenever I think of surfaces, I think of Formica”.
A paint revolution
One household industry that was irrevocably changed was paint, as a wide range of relatively inexpensive, clean, and easy-to-apply emulsion paints replaced distemper, the age-old whitewash used since Victorian times.
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Colour could now be applied to walls easily; often one coat of paint would renovate a whole room. Even kitchens subjected to heat and steam could be transformed. As one Brolac kitchen paint advert boasted, it could even be applied while cooking was in progress. PVC acetate paints became available, like Magicote’s ‘one-coat’ gloss paint. Bright new shades received lively new names: Lemon Peel, Green Olive, Canteloupe, Mocha, Aubergine and (one that would remain popular for many years) Avocado. For those who could afford it, modern fluorescent lighting accentuated the vibrant colours.
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Meanwhile, the design of new brushes and the arrival of paint rollers helped transform home decorating. Change did not need to be expensive. One contrasting ‘feature’ wall, cheap to paint, became very popular. Walls could be painted white, with cupboards and recesses painted in bright colours. Individual choices altered but ‘contrast’ remained a buzzword for modernity throughout the 1950s.
Towards the close of the decade, previously unusual and daring ideas became more common. In 1958, one Kent bungalow kitchen was given a contemporary flavour with an internal red and white striped ‘shop style’ awning over the sink and worktop. Large, brightly coloured billboard adverts, very popular in the days before television advertising, also brightened up high streets throughout the country.
Patterned fabrics and ceramics
Wartime utility clothing and textile restrictions had been lifted in 1949, and the demand for colour and patterned fabrics was quickly apparent. Although traditional designs were still popular, change was underway. Original ideas from top-end textile designers like Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag and Marianne Mahler – initially exclusively intended for stores such as Heals – began to be reproduced cheaply for a new high street market that grew expeditiously as the decade progressed. Consumers were eager for new brightly patterned furnishing fabrics. The News of the World’s 1954 Better Homes Book was filled with fresh ideas, including using “tomato red or lemon yellow” curtains and bath mat to enhance a bathroom – a tip for those lucky enough by then to have indoor plumbing.
Design innovation was also very evident in the ceramics industry. Wartime utility crockery was generally plain white or brown. Decorated ware was only produced for the overseas markets. Yet once wartime utility restraints were lifted, the home population sought out vivid colours and up-to-date patterns.
Queen Elizabeth II visits the Wedgewood China Factory in Barleston, during a tour of the Midlands, circa 1955. (Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
British pottery firms in the West Midlands, including J&G Meakin and Midwinter, responded to the new demand and ceramics began to feature designs inspired by everyday life, holidays and abstract patterns. Pallisey’s ‘Regatta’ china was hugely successful, with its pattern of sea-gulls and a yacht being blown on a windy sea. Initially ‘Regatta’ was intended for the growing overseas market, especially the US. However, it became available in the later 1950s to British consumers through emergent mail-order firms, such as Great Universal Stores, where items could be purchased through weekly hire purchase. Crockery depicting 1950s innovations also grew in popularity. Targeting a younger market, Enid Seeney produced her ‘Homemaker’ china, decorated with drawings of thin-legged coffee tables, slim steel kitchen utensils and scatter cushions.
A revolution in the kitchen
The kitchen underwent more change than any other room in the 1950s, mainly due to the revolutionary introduction of coloured plastic. Even the simplest kitchen utensils were transformed. Washing-up bowls and buckets moulded from polythene had first appeared on the home market in the late 1940s, but the addition of colour in the mid-1950s rapidly boosted their popularity. Sales of alkathene, Imperial Chemical Industry’s (ICI) household polythene ware, rose from 1% of the market in 1948 to 40% by 1957.
Women’s magazines such as Woman and Woman’s Own advertised durable, light, rustless, bright plastic kitchen products like bread bins, sink tidies, cutlery drainers and pedal bins – quiet to use and easy to keep clean.
Venetian blinds and polystyrene wall tiles gave an up-to-date look for kitchen windows and walls, while chequerboard-patterned vinyl flooring became fashionable. Shelves could be lined with new adhesive-backed plastic fabrics, the most well-known being Fablon. The ubiquitous, cold to the touch, perennially popular 1950s plastic floor covering was linoleum, available in various thicknesses and qualities and in large sheets or tiles.
An advertisement from the 1950s featuring a housewife in an apron standing in a Formica kitchen. (SSPL/Getty Images)
The rise of DIY
All of these new domestic inventions coincided with an upsurge in ‘do-it-yourself’ or DIY from the mid-1950s. Tradespeople were often in short supply and expensive. The nation that had adopted a ‘make do and mend’ attitude during wartime privations took very readily to the idea of improving their homes themselves. The ease and low cost of using products such as the new adhesive Polyfilla encouraged many to attempt DIY, while in 1957 Formica became known as the DIY ‘product of the era’.
For the less experienced, help was at hand from increasingly popular new magazines like Practical Householder (from 1955). One enormous volume, Home Management, even set out, step by step, how to build a modern kitchen from scratch.
From 1955, the introduction of advertising on Independent Television (ITV) in the UK meant the nation could view new products from the comfort of their own sofa. The first ever advertisement was for Gibbs toothpaste, featuring a plastic tube of toothpaste held in a frozen block to emphasise it was “as fresh as ice”. Prior to plastics, toothpaste had been powder in a tin. Yet some radical new designs proved too avant-garde for the average consumer. At the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition, virtually the entire ‘house of the future’ was made of plastic. The general public was not impressed however, dismissing it as ‘science fiction’.
Tupperware became a popular addition to homes in the UK. (Gould/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Yet other new advances did feature on home owners’ wish-lists. In 1944, kitchen necessities had been listed as a sink, draining board, working surface, ventilated larder, and cupboards. Ten years later, in 1954, the most coveted kitchen goods were refrigerators, washing machines, electric cookers and stainless steel sinks. By then, reliable electricity supplies reached most of the United Kingdom, giving a boost to the insatiable demand for new electric products.
By the mid-1950s, Britain enjoyed full employment. A booming property owning democracy was emerging, and 45% of homes were privately owned. Many aspirational homeowners looked to the US for cutting edge ideas on home life and house improvements. Open-plan homes, kitchens with primary ‘bubble-gum’ colours and chrome gadgets, grew in popularity.
In 1959, the American cosmetics firm Avon ‘came calling’ door-to-door and a year later Tupperware crossed the Atlantic, with its new style, easy-seal plastic containers and kitchen gadgets that were to become a 1960s phenomenon.
British politician Harold Macmillan views a 1950s lounge set-up at the Daily Mail's Ideal Home Exhibition in London, 1953. (L. Blandford/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
By the end of the 1950s, a bewilderingly huge range of products was now available to the average shopper, and the mantra “buy, buy, buy” had heralded the beginning of a new consumer age. As prime minister Harold Macmillan famously told the nation: “Let us be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good.”
1950s Home by Janet and John Shepherd is published by Amberley Books and is on sale now.