Behind the scenes of Suzannah Lipscomb’s ‘Hidden Killers of the Post-War Home’

In the 1950s, following long years of austerity and sacrifice, ordinary Britons were suddenly better off than ever. Many used their newfound spending power to embrace both consumerism and modernism. This was an optimistic age of new materials, such as plastics and bright colours. But, as Dr Suzannah Lipscomb outlines in Hidden Killers of the Post-War Home, not all the items Britons purchased were as well designed as they might have been – and some were downright dangerous

Programme Name: Hidden Killers of the Post War Home - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: in 1950s kitchen. Dr Suzannah Lipscomb - (C) Modern TV - Photographer: Gary Morrisroe

BBC History Magazine’s TV editor, Jonathan Wright, caught up with her to find out more…

BBC History Magazine’s TV editor, Jonathan Wright, caught up with her to find out more…

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Q: We all tend to think of the home in the post-1945 era as rather safer than in years previous but they may not have been as safe as we think?

A: That’s right. This is the 1950s and the house looks like something one can absolutely identify, it looks like the houses of my grandparents, and it’s full of things we still have around. One of the astonishing things about this is that so much [of what we see] is familiar yet it is dangerous. In fact, some of the things that come out of this episode do constitute health and safety warnings today, things that we should all be aware of.

Q: What sorts of dangers are we talking about?

A: We’ve got seven hidden killers in this programme, including chemistry sets, plastics in the home, carbon monoxide that comes from having heaters or boilers in the bathroom, factory-farmed chickens, labour-saving devices – all manner of things.

Q: Can you tell us more about some of these dangers?

A: For example, they used to put the gas boiler or heater in the bathroom. The real danger of this is the bathroom is quite often a sealed room and, when the boiler is at work, if the fossil fuels don’t burn off completely it produces gases that go back into the room. And if there’s not enough oxygen, rather than forming carbon dioxide they form carbon monoxide, which is this odourless, colourless, tasteless, completely invisible – and deadly – gas. You can be lying in a bath feeling gently lulled, you think, by the warmth of the water, and you’re feeling a bit dozy. In fact, what’s happening is the gas enters your bloodstream and you’re essentially suffocated from the inside – absolutely terrifying.

There was also in the 1950s a real craze for chemistry sets, especially among little boys. So what do you want from a chemistry set? You want things that can explode and make colourful flames. There are things in these chemistry sets such as copper sulphate, which can be caustic. We do an experiment in the show with potassium permanganate, which is another substance you find in these chemistry sets. You mix it up with glycerol, which you can find in most household cupboards, and you get an explosion.

These things are fatal. There’s a story of a boy putting some of these chemicals in his coat when he went to the cinema and it burns through his coat and trouser pocket. In the US these chemistry sets would even include uranium dust and a Geiger counter – extraordinary, but apparently they didn’t sell very well because uranium doesn’t do anything very [visually] exciting.

Q: What’s the story of where we live in the 1950s, is it the idea of the ideal home becoming democratised?

A: We saw a massive expansion in home ownership at this time, and very much because of this optimism and feeling of affluence there was a sense of trying to make the home look a certain way. After the Festival of Britain in 1951, for example, there was a kind of ideal of what the home should look like, which drew on the modernism of the 1930s: a Bauhaus look, but a softer version – lots of bright colours, lots of abstract geometric patterns in the house, open-plan living, covering up old Victorian doors, taking away the doorknobs, putting in flush handles.

DIY came into its own in the 1950s, too. Dulux paint [entered the retail market] in 1953, Black & Decker started selling to consumers in 1954, The Practical Householder [magazine] launched in 1955, and you had Barry Bucknell, the king of DIY, on telly. It was a period where there was a great interest in domesticity and in making the home this bright, new, modern place.

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Suzannah Lipscomb’s Hidden Killers of the Post-War Home airs on BBC Four on Wednesday 25 May 2016 at 8pm.