ends up donated.
If you have ever considered yourself to be ever so slightly past it, please be consoled. You cannot possibly be more past it than passed-on technology. How capacious is your drawer of music cassettes? Do you still remember how to use a pencil to wind the tape back in again, when it has snagged in the machine?
We are not talking classic cars here, though they won’t be quite as classic when the petrol runs out. The OH is betting on hydrogen, which I think will prove to be an interesting way of making rain explode.
The Father-In-Law, bless him, was wedded in equal amounts to assembling drawers full of gadgets and specialised gadget improvement, sharpening, enhancing and storage items. One of the first things I noticed in my boyfriend’s parent’s kitchen was the rack for storing Tupperware basin lids.* It was fastened to the wall on a special, almost metal, doodad which had a lengthy chromed double pole with notches that extended, on the extension poles, to the edge of the kitchen workbench, handily rendering that part of the workbench unavailable for working on. The many, many round lids were hooked on the poles in order of size. The titchiest one, the size of half a crown, invited the mind of the viewer to boggle at the modest size of receptacle which the lid would fit. It may well have been the very handy, one-pickled-onion saver. This was nested in all the other bowls and taking up at least half of the cupboard beneath. Conveniently anyone wishing to utilise the biggest bowl lid would only have had to remove the other forty five lids to access it. This whopper was large enough to seal the bowl big enough to keep a whole sheep’s head in, so handy for broth and inconvenient for the sheep.
And yet I married into this family, fool to myself that I am.
When the M-I-L had sadly passed on, the F-I-L took to visiting with gifts. My newish husband received his school plimsoll bag with its cargo of ball bearings with less joy than you might expect. My tin-like heart had already been tempered by the pre-nuptial gift of a nineteen thirties toaster, boxed and in working order if you ignored the so-called electrical wiring, which was unravelling like hairy string. The metal appliance had drop-down sides, in each of which you placed a slice of bread. When the bread sides nearest to the unshielded electrical curly wires, (which heated up when you plugged the appliance into a wall socket, sometimes before you switched it on,) had reached the requisite shade of black, you could turn the bread by grasping the Bakelite handles and opening the sides. The bread slid down, flipping as it slid, so that putting the handles back up permitted both sides to be carbonised.
When we married, then being in possession of multiple toasters**, we donated the gadget to a museum of wartime life. Six months later, dropping by to see our donation on display, we found it unavailable to view, unless you were invited in to the curator’s kitchen, where they were using it to make toast.
Step-M-I-L made donation of her intended’s treasured early vacuum cleaner a condition of marriage, wishing to keep her ankles intact. The cleaner had a business end shaped like the head of a hammerhead shark. The ‘ears’ were twin exhausts, capable of scorching both armchair legs simultaneously, whilst failing to suck up even light dust. As a safety measure the, for want of a better description, electrical lead, was nice and short, enabling you to rearrange fluff in at least a foot radius of the socket. I was always surprised there was not a nineteen-twenties maid in a black outfit, pleated pinafore and starched Art Deco cap in the broom cupboard with it. The vacuum went straight to a museum. The F-I-L was quite indignant at the amazement expressed by the museum staff at the existence of the artefact, ‘It was,’ he spluttered, ‘still working. It could do lino, you know!’***
The unalloyed joy with which donations of ancient conveniences are received by museum staff is directly in reverse to their numbers. A friend who worked in museums assures me there is no museum left that would welcome a flat iron. Starting in the seventeenth century, the wonderful convenience of a solid lump of metal with a flat base, the base resting on the outside of a stove with a fire inside and rows of iron shelves round it, was the imaginatively named flat iron. Each cooling flattener was replaced on the stove to warm again and a freshly snatched hot iron pressed into service. Consequently flat irons were never singular items. In time, self-heating iron interiors were various. The friend was at the museum when it was donated a gas iron. The genuine burning gas flame inside the hollow metal lump being kept supplied by a rubber hosepipe, was, naturally, only as safe as the perishing hose. How widely irons were used, when clothes were only washed at the end of a season, you may wonder. The over-all pinafore visited the laundry with a frequency not enjoyed by the clothing underneath. Washing the goodness out of woollen combinations was thought to promote the likelihood of catching chills. Therefore all the clothing between the inner, unwashed, layer and the outer, starchy white pinafore or smock, could hardly be considered besmirched at all. In a letter to her sister, Jane Austen bemoans the disintegration of a blue silk dress, stored in tissue over the winter and blames the failure on the silk, sold as washing silk not being ‘washing’ silk at all, not that she had tried to wash it.
Photographs of eminent Victorians feature concertina trousers. There is a well-known one of Dickens, looking freshly pulled through a hedge backwards and one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel with a massive hat and fold-a-long trousers, though he was, of course, one of us, the undertall, in fact he was shorter than I am. If he’d starched his trousers, and then applied a flat iron, he might have been able to look me in the eye, until it rained.
Along with the handy gas iron, capable of setting the ironing board on fire with ease, the gas poker was a popular household convenience. In the semi in which I grew up, there were four open fires, each with a handy gas point next to the hearth and one gas fire upstairs which was considered amazingly modern for cutting out the middle man, so to speak, by burning the gas directly, rather than using it to set fire to coal. The startling modernity of the gas fire, coupled with the extremely handy way in which all the rooms already had the wood floors painted black for a foot in from all the walls, was a major selling point; moreover the coal house in the back garden had a random outdoor cupboard joined on to it as an extra, for storing your wood. There was also a large rainwater barrel. Washing your hair with rainwater was known to make it much softer, once you’d picked the cobwebs off it. There was also a half door at the back, for the fishwife to rest her basket on while she was filleting, and carpet up the middle of the stairs, already. I moved into this marvel of the atomic age when I was three, but survived. My mother used to light the lounge fire with a gas poker, paraffin, screwed up newspaper and a flat sheet of paper held across the front of the fire to help it draw. What it often drew was the sheet of newspaper, alight, up the chimney. They chose white and gold wallpaper, so must have been young enough to be optimistic. I have inherited the picture which was above that fireplace. Dark it is. A portrait, possibly.
I have personal experience of the fragility of gas mantles, having stayed in my aunt’s gas-lit caravan with a friend. The noise the mantles make when breaking is: crick, whoof. The black mark up the wall is quite distinctive too.
At the back of my wardrobe in a box there’s an early nineteen eighties ladies’ electronic razor, conveniently the size of a shovel. It is rechargeably cordless and the charge will last long enough to do one and a half armpits, or half a leg. I have the original store receipt, the carboard box and cloth for polishing the plastic case of this expensive item so handy for any lady weightlifter with the leisure to shave half a leg at a go. I am biding my time to donate, waiting until I am certain no owner of my Father-In-Law’s stripe is still using one. Then I shall swoop with my donation, using subsequent visits to observe the state of the curator’s legs, if the wondrous gifted item is not prominently on display with three spotlights.
It is difficult to say when, exactly, the laughable technology of yesteryear either becomes a valuable antique or gets reinvented as the latest thing. No one would have bet £.s. d. on the Victorian mangle being electrified and re presented as a die cutting machine for hobbyists and craftsmen, but it has been. Other has-beens have possibilities, think of a new use for a Poss stick, an internal combustion engine starting handle, or a dumb waiter and you could be behind Mr Dyson in the queue at the bank.
Describing my refusal to espouse social media, smartphones or even my lack of facility with the TV remote, I am inclined to cite dislike of technology. This is not strictly accurate, Victorian technology I find fascinating and on Tudor wood technology I can wax positively lyrical.
I like a bit of time to catch up, because I’m not past it at all, just timely.
*The Queen, famously, keeps her breakfast cereal in Tupperware boxes. If she has the top-of-the-range box lid storage thingy it will not be as quaint as my In-Laws’, it will be regal. In time museums will fight for it, obviously.
**Modern Wedding anniversary gifts.
1st. Toaster repair vouchers.
2nd. Bed leg castor glue.
3rd. Carpet stick tape to stop mats wandering around.
4th. Dishwasher door seal replacement.
5th. Take-out dinner vouchers.
6th. Private detective gift certificates.
7th. Twin lawyer consultations.
8th. Social media slag-off templates.
9th. Put-you-up single bed.
10th. Engagement ring.
11th. Toaster repair vouchers.