Tagged: World War II

Dec 15

Christmas at War

I’m going to be making-do-and-mending with the Museum of Bath at Work this Saturday, helping them to celebrate a World War II-style Christmas. Pop by between 10am and 4pm on Saturday 17th and you’ll likely find me wreathed in brown-paper chains with a ton of darning mushrooms and other selected vintage notions, including some gorgeous Fair-Isle knitting patterns. The museum’s usual entrance fee applies, but you’re guaranteed to really get in the mood; re-enactment group the Blitz Buddies will be there, and I hear there will be music and dancing to make the experience come alive. Incidentally, this event kicks off the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Bath Blitz next year. Bath was bombed as part of the retaliatory Baedeker raids on 25th and 26th April 1942. You can find out more at the Bath Blitz Memorial Project. If you have memories of Bath during the war, the museum would be delighted if you’d come along on Saturday and share them.

The Christmas at War organisers have broken it to me gently that I’m expected to dress the part. I’ve decided to go land-girl style, sporting a Fair-Isle tank top. Fair-Isle knitting was a great way to use up stray odds and ends of yarn (one had to unpick worn-out knitted garments and re-knit) but its popularity during World War II possibly owes as much to an interesting rationing loophole: whereas knitting wool was rationed (two ounces of knitting yarn took one precious clothing coupon), mending cards not exceeding one ounce were exempt. Yarn producers cottoned on to this and duly produced mending cards in an array of colours to meet the demand. Cunning, eh?

Mrs. Sew-and-Sew darns

There were, of course, five Christmases celebrated while the nation was at war. The festivities of 1939 weren’t so different from those pre-war, though new blackout restrictions ended the sight of lit Christmas trees in front windows. Rationing hadn’t kicked in yet, and people spent quite freely on gifts, in spite of the Chancellor’s injunction not to be wasteful.

1940 was the first real wartime Christmas. Britain was under siege. The Blitz had kicked off in London in September, and November had seen the devastating bombing of Coventry. Food rationing had begun in January. Practical Christmas gifts were in: gardening tools, books, bottling jars and seeds, with the most popular gift that year being soap.

Clothing and textiles were rationed from June 1941, and food rationing increased to its peak by Christmas. Petrol and manpower shortages prevented home-delivery of shop goods, so people now had to carry their purchases. Wrapping paper was very scarce, and toys were in short supply and (when they could be found) shoddily made and expensive. Home-made or renovated gifts were the thing. Yet this was an optimistic time because, with the Allies now in the war, Brits felt they would definitely beat Hitler.

By Christmas 1942, two popular gifts had succumbed to the ration: soap and sweets. In order to prepare for the festive season, food coupons had to be saved for months ahead. Homemade decorations were the order of the day; the Ministry of Food made the helpful suggestion that, though there were ‘no gay bowls of fruit’, vegetables could be used instead for their jolly colours: ‘The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich crimson of beetroot, the emerald of parsley – it looks as delightful as it tastes.’

Christmas 1943 saw shortages at their height. There was little chance of turkey, chicken or goose, or even rabbit. Much Christmas food was ‘mock’ (i.e. false): mock ‘turkey’ (made from lamb) and mock ‘cream’ and ‘marzipan’.  Make-do-and-mend presents were the order of the day; magazines printed instructions for knitted slippers and gloves, brooches made from scraps of wool, felt or plastic, and embroidered bookmarks and calendars.

Mending threads

Vintage mending threads

Christmas 1944 was probably the least joyful of the entire war. People had hoped it might be all over by Christmas, after the Allied Normandy invasion of June,  but mid-December saw the Ardennes Offensive with thousands killed on both sides. German air attacks (now V1 and V2 rockets) began in June, with 30 hitting England on Christmas Eve. One surprise benefit of the pilot-less doodlebugs was that blackout restrictions could be lifted, so churches lit their their stained glass windows for the first time in 4 years. DIY gifts were once again a necessity; the book Rag-Bag Toys gave instructions for making a cuddly pig from an old vest, and a doll from old stockings.

The unconfined joy of VE Day 1945 suddenly makes a lot more sense to me. I think I will be relishing my Christmas turkey and tree lights as never before this year!

The Museum of Bath at Work can be found on Julian Road (the Lansdown Hill end), tucked behind Christ Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nov 04

Temporary spool

I’m throwing myself into World War II re-enactment mode. My son will be dressing up as an evacuee tomorrow with the rest of Year 6 at his primary school. I’ve booked him in at the barber’s for a short-back-and-sides this afternoon. There’ll be a brown label round his neck – held on with green garden twine – and he’ll be wearing some old wire spectacles, a hand-knit sweater (shame it’s not a fair-isle tank-top), short trousers (which he hates) and he’ll be grasping an old leather suitcase and his teddy for dear life.  I’m supposed to dress up appropriately in order to wave him off, chipper and bright, with not a tear shed. Keep the home fires burning…

I have quite a few war items of haberdashery which I hope to show the kids, but I thought I’d give you a sneak preview.

Make do And Mend

Make Do And Mend, reproductions of official WWII instruction leaflets, Michael O'Mara Books, 2007

Nothing flashy or majorly propagandist. No images of Hitler or reminders to keep your trap shut while you’re darning. But some good, honest examples of the austerity environment, and how ingenious manufacturers managed to reduce packaging while not skimping on the quality or quantity of the product itself.

Temporary war spool

Coats' temporary war spool with its regular demob cousin

For example, the two Coats thread spools above carry the same amount of thread. I don’t know about you, but I am really tickled by the idea of a “temporary spool”; it holds the same surreal place in my affections as “vanishing day cream” or “universal primer”.

Wartime Sylko thread

Regular Sylko thread and austerity version

While Coats’ spools got taller and thinner – much like the average land girl, I would guess – Sylko’s spools got squatter. The boxes shrank, but still held 12 spools of 100 yards of thread, thanks to the clever folk at Dewhurst’s. Here I must add the disclaimer that I’m not entirely sure which war the smaller Sylko box was made during, so it might be even older. If anyone knows, do get in touch. There’s a picture of the wartime lettering on the side of the box here.

British Snap

Snap to fit, austerity style

The British Snap people had a geometrical field day, arranging their haberdashery into lines instead of triangles. If only today’s packagers would take note.

Little Scraplet will be carrying this authentic World War II blanket in his case.

War Emergency Temporary Spool

Grace's utility blanket

It belonged to my mother-in-law and has been in constant use since she had it as a girl. It still sports its wartime utility label, her girlhood name tag (in lovely red deco lettering) and evidence of mending. But I’ll come back to wartime mending another time. There are some more pictures of this blanket, not to mention more of my haberdashery, on Flickr. I’ll also come back to the great little Make Do And Mend book at a later date.

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