Legacies of War: Reading between lines of wartime magazines

Jackie Rees with her collection of First World War women's magazines.  PIC: Steve Riding
Jackie Rees with her collection of First World War women's magazines. PIC: Steve Riding
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The First World War brought unprecedented changes to Britain, right down to the humble periodicals which adorned the coffee tables of the growing middle class. Neil Hudson reports.

While the First World War brought about unprec-edented changes in technology and industry, its influence extended also, perhaps inevitably, to the humble periodicals which adorned the coffee tables of the growing middle class.

Magazines such as Home Cookery, Cycling, Woman’s World and Mother & Home, all of which had substantial followings before the war, ended up being caught in the propaganda of the day. Take a few moments to page through these aging journals and it becomes clear just how much an affect the war had on things like women’s fashion, cookery and even cycling.

Jackie Rees, 57, mother-of-three and grandmother-of-five, is an expert on the period and collects memorabelia from the era.

She said: “As shortages begin to kick in, you can see women’s hemlines go up by about five or six inches. It was the first time women really showed the lower parts of their legs. By the end of the war and into the early 1920s, you are looking at a much less structured dress for women. There is no waste material, no buttons, which was in complete contrast to the way women dressed before that - in 1914, hemlines were the longest they had ever been and dresses were quite often very elaborate with lots of support structures, meaning for some getting dressed and then moving around would have felt like wearing an ironmonger’s shop. I have some dresses from that period and they have the sub-structure of a ship and the weight was incredible.

“What they had not considered was that no woman wants to look like another - that was something they corrected by the time of the Second World War, even though they had limited materials.

“There was a practical side to it in that women had to step up and do many of the jobs which had before been done by men and so they just couldn’t wear elaborate corsets with metal in them, because, depending on the work, it could be dangerous - so women moved away from the restrictive corsetry they had been used to. While it’s probably true to say it was going in that direction, the war certainly accelerated the move.

“As an aside, they did try to re-introduce longer hemlines in 1919 but by that time women had realised the greater freedom which came with much simpler clothing and there was no going back to the days when dresses used to be so long they would trail in the mud.”

This newfound freedom, reflected in a much simpler, practical form of clothing, resonated with the notion of ‘dedication to duty’ which became uniform.

One advert from 1915 reads: “It’s up to you to wear this ‘Hawkey’ national dress... it saves 40 per cent on material, has no fastenings...”

Knitting, though ancient, was encouraged as the war wore on to the point it almost became a necessarily life skill. Anyone who thinks the ‘onesy’ is a modern invention should think again, as the cover of Mother and Home from November 27, 1915 proves.

Jackie continued: “The other things which visibly alters about women’s fashion is the dropped waist, which really came into its own in 1922/23, with a sensible length skirt and a much softer outline, with the waistline slightly above the waist but starting to move down towards the hips. That move was complete by the mid-twenties, meaning for the first time many women could make their own fashionable clothes.”

It wasn’t just fashion magazines which reflected the pervasive influence of the war and the need for economy at every turn.

Even with magazines like Home Cookery, when the war begins and through 1915 and 1916, you can see the outline of the publication changing.

“With magazines like Home Cookery, you can see the shortages begin to bite as the war continues... but you can see the same thing in children’s magazines and even cycling magazines, which start to have pictures on the covers showing soldiers using bikes and so on. It really was all-encompassing.

“In terms of how it has been carried through, there’s certainly a change post-1914 with all kinds of things, from fashion to cookery to the way people looked at life. You can argue things like the Suffragette movement were already in place but the war made brought it all to a head. Women’s fashion changed forever and so did women’s attitudes.

“There’s an all-pervading sense of patriotism. I do not know how readily people would conform these days but we have to remember these people were from a different era. I grew up listening to my grandmothers talk about this era, about the battles and the people and how things were.”

A copy of Woman’s World from October 1914 shows a line drawing of a mother tending children and juxtaposed uniformed men sat on boxes and laid on the ground. The caption reads: “Women’s World keeps the fire bright in the home while the father is away fighting for his country.”

Another from the same year shows a forlorn looking woman presumably imagining the horrors of the trenches. The caption says: “This girl has done her duty in sending her sweetheart to fight for his country.”

A copy of Mother and Home from November 1917 shows two children playing, one dressed as a Scottish soldier pointing a gun at the chest of another, arms raised in surrender, dressed as a German.

But it’s the cookery magazines which make the most intriguing reading, not least because of the substitutes they came up with for ingredients which were in short supply, most of which seemed to have involved dripping - one recipe even suggests using ‘rendered fat’ in lieu of milk.

The recipe for ‘creamed porridge’ suggests: “taking the dripping from the weekly joint” and adds: “render it carefully so that is may not have the very best flavour of meat and then beat a little of it into the porridge just before serving.” A cooking tip to go with that adds: “Serve the porridge very hot or the fat will cake on top and look horrid.”

If you thought that was unpalatable, you’d probably gasp at the recipe for ‘fried porridge’, which again involves copious amounts of dripping only this time allowing the porridge mix to set before carving into slices before frying. Still, they were a means to an end and as the recipe points out: “It helps to get down a lot of fat and the children rejoice in it.”
The ‘waste not want not’ mantra was well drilled in - one ‘economy in baking’ tip helpfully pointing out that after baking cakes (in flat Yorkshire pudding tins, as they take less cooking), one should always use the heat in the oven to render down fat, dry orange peel to be used as fuel, or add the casserole for tea.”

A recipe for ‘mock shepherd’s pie involves chopping up any spare vegetables, then adding curry powder and rice, before topping with potatoes.

The adverts from the time are also telling and some firms did not miss a trick, Fry’s being one, pushing its cocoa drink as “always on service”, showing pictures of grinning soldiers, bayonet in one hand and a mug in the other.

So while the bombs fell and hemlines rose, the world got used to living lean, making do so that even the clothes they wore and the flat cakes they baked meant they were doing their bit to save the empire.

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