‘She made me stand on a wooden board when ironing…’ Suburban Domestic Life in 1930s Ireland, By Rachel Sayers

Our latest blog post mixes family, domestic, and Irish women’s history, and is written by Rachel Sayers.

My maternal Grandmother, Doris Moran nee Hamilton, often recalled to me her experiences of growing up in 1930s Dromore, County Down a small market town in the North of Ireland. These re-collections often centred around the excitement of her mother, my great-grandmother, Mary-Agnes Hamilton, bringing home new electrical appliances such as an iron, toaster, a kettle or the much sought-after wireless radio set. My great-grandmother was often ‘afraid’ of these new devices; a common fear since early electrical devices where sometimes shoddily made with loose wiring and electric shocks a common occurrence. This was the era of privately-owned electrical supply companies in County Down with poor connections to domestic users; one gentleman remembers electrical wires being ‘clipped along under the gutter’ which would make for unreliable, if not downright dangerous electrical wiring within the home. She would often do what we modern readers would deem as ‘silly’ things like make my Nanny and her siblings stand on wooden boards whilst ironing or using the electric kettle lest the electric current should run through them!

These personal familial memories touch on broader themes of the professionalization of domesticity from the 1920s onwards and the increasing affordability of the suburban dreamland for housewives and families alike. My great-grandmother was lucky enough to obtain one of these houses, as herself, her husband Charles Cully Hamilton and their growing family moved into a three-bedroom and indoor bathroom suburban villa in the 1920s. My great-grandparents were extremely lucky to afford the rent on this property that remains in the family to this day; Dromore was a relatively poor farming town with little in the way of modern luxuries.

However, we must not use politics of nostalgia to cloud our judgement in relation to the perceived notion that my great-grandmother had an ‘easy life’ as invariably, although there were parts of her life that were comfortable there were other aspects of life that were not. Whilst she had access to an electric iron she still had to hand-wash and mangle clothes for up to twelve people at one time in her married life as she had ten children over an eighteen-year period. My great-grandmother was fortunate that her husband and subsequently eldest sons had secure, well-paid factory jobs that led them to have a more comfortable life than their counterparts. However, these jobs did not mean that they were so financially secure that they could afford larger electrical items such as an electric washing machine or refrigerator. Certainly, my Nanny clearly remembers her father and older brothers operating the heavy mangle for their mother on wash day as she was unable to operate the mangle alone. Whereas labour saving devices such as an electric iron saved time heating irons on an open fire the obtainment of a washing machine was still many years away for women like my great-grandmother.

A current exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life entitled ‘Kitchen Power’ explores how electrification across Ireland in the 1940s onwards changed people’s lives forever. There is an emphasis on the Republic of Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board’s central role in rural electrification through a re-created 1950s kitchen, pamphlets, film clips and electrical items from the Electricity Supply Board’s archive. Though the exhibition deals with a later era than this article concentrates on, the broader themes within the exhibition are still relevant in reference to how and why electrification changed women’s lives and how they felt about the advantages of electric power within the home.

One participant, Maureen Gavan, in the accompanying oral history project to ‘Kitchen Power’ remembers her mother describing the installation of electric in their family as, ‘Heaven…. this has to be heaven,’ as electric took ‘the drudgery out of the hard work people had to do.’ The move away from hard physical labour to the use of labour-saving devices is often described by older women I speak to as part of my work as an historian as ‘heaven’ or sometimes even ‘bliss.’ In particular, the women I spoke to often describe how using their new washing machines meant there were no longer ‘all-day’ wash days and that washing could be done on any day with just the flick of a switch. The ‘Kitchen Power’ exhibition is part of a larger project entitled ‘Electric Irish Homes’ led by Dr. Sorcha O’Brien that looks at the role electric had in the changing role of Irish both inside and outside the home in the 1950s and 1960s.

It is important to disrupt the somewhat nostalgic view we have of 1930s domesticity and the ‘happy housewife’ enjoying her new electrical items as demonstrated in illustrations from the Electricity Supply Board archive when this was far from the reality for many women in Ireland. My work as a historian seeks to disrupt this happy housewife trope by inserting difficult and alternative histories of women in Ireland into the canon of Irish history. By doing this I am offering a challenge to the paradigms of an established history in Ireland that up until the 1970s largely focused on the male experience of Irish history with little mentioning of the female experience. Through re-establishing female histories, we can offer a more well-rounded view of history and how political, social and domestic events in Ireland in the early twentieth century not only affected the men of Ireland but how they simultaneously affected women of Ireland.

With particular thanks to Dr. Sorcha O’Brien, The Electricity Supply Board Archives and my family for information and details used in this blog post.

Rachel Sayers is an early career dress historian, blogger and curator currently living in the North of Ireland. Rachel’s work as a historian concentrates on how the domestic, social and dress history of early to mid-century Ireland affected the lives of Irish women with an emphasis on the inter-war and World War Two periods. Rachel currently works as a curator for the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland and has worked for the National Trust for Scotland, HMS Caroline, Marks & Spencer Archive and The National Trust in the past.

Image Captions:

  1. Black and White Postcard of Dromore, County Down. c. 1900-1910. Courtesy of Dromore and District Local Historical Group.
  2. Excerpt from ‘The House You Want’ illustrated information pamphlet c.1920s. Electricity Supply Board Archives.
  3. Excerpt from ‘Aid to Beauty in Distress’ illustrated information pamphlet c.1920s. Electricity Supply Board Archives.

Websites and Sources:

Jonathan Bell, ‘Ulster Farming 1930-1960,’ in Ulster Farming Families 1930-1960, Cromwell Press, 2005, pp.15-23, p.21.

Electricity Supply Board Archives: https://esbarchives.ie/

‘Kitchen Power’ Exhibition Website: https://www.museum.ie/Country-Life/Exhibitions/Current-Exhibitions/Kitchen-Power-Women-s-Experiences-of-Rural-Electri

Electric Irish Homes: https://electricirishhomes.org/

Dromore and District Local Historical Group Journal: http://lisburn.com/books/dromore-historical/Journal-3/journal-3-1.html

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