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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

"Country Girls Don't Work."

     My mother was, if anything, a workaholic, but there were two aspects of her life on the Riverina on which she was adamant. The first was that country girls don't work. They had "a lovely time doing nothing." The second was that her family was unusual in that they valued daughters just as much as sons.
     Perhaps this was because her parents had two sons, Jack and Alf before they had her, and whatever might have been the principle applied to daughters working, it didn't apply to sons. Jack and Alf had no chance to attend the school break-ups; they were always pulled out of class early to assist with the harvest, which took place in November, and had to be finished by Christmas. To them fell the task of rolling, which meant hitching a team of three or four horses to a "roller", a spiked cylinder attached to a driver's seat, and rolling it over the field to break up the clods following the harvest.
      Now, it obviously takes a bit of skill and concentration to do this properly, but it didn't strike me as particularly heavy work, so I asked why the girls couldn't do it. Her reply spoke a lot for the social conventions of the time, because the question took her off guard, and left her momentarily lost for an explanation. Well, you had to sit and drive the horses. So? It wasn't women's work. It was men's work! But why? Was it too heavy for girls to do? Finally, she stated: "Dad considered if a man got his wife or daughters to work, there was something wrong with him. He couldn't provide." The girls, however, did go and remove the collars off the horses and stack them, so you can't say they didn't do their bit.
     The boys would also be set to cutting the chaff. As mentioned before, Alf used to board in Wagga Wagga while he attended high school. At the end of term he would come home on the wagon which carried the first load of wheat. He would be granted one day's grace to rest - that was considered a great concession - and then be set to sewing bags with the men, but without their wages. These days grain is stored in bulk in silos, but in the olden days it was bagged. Indeed, at school we used to be taught: 60 pounds to a bushel of wheat, 56 pounds to a bushel of barley. (And, for those who are interested, there are 2.2 pounds to a kilogram.) Our schoolteachers never informed us why it should be different for different grains, or what possible practical significant it might have anyway. The point, of course, is that a bushel is a measure of volume, the size of a bag, and each grain has its own specific density. Sewing bags was tough and hard, because the grain had to be pushed and packed in firmly, and the edges of the bag sewn up tightly. Alf wasn't put onto the machinery, such as the header.
     In their younger days, it appeared to have been all fun and games. Before the age of ten, "I think we got away with doing nothing." They were "supposed to bring the wool in, and things like that." However, she did recall how, once when she was quite young, she and Olga got on top of a wagon of firewood and completely emptied it, by each taking one end of a log  and rolling it over. Of course, when their grandfather visited, he put all of them to work, and at least handed out compliments if they did it right. He would even make them stand on a box in order to reach the sink to do the washing up. (And remember, there was no hot running water. Cold water issued from a tap connected to the rain tank. If you wanted hot water, you heated it on the wood stove. Also, there were no detergent powders, just soap. When detergents finally came on the market, housewives were aghast because they produced no suds, and they had blithely assumed that it was the suds which did the work. The manufacturers had to add completely useless and unnecessary sudsing agents to satisfy them. They still do.)
     The boys were also required to set the table, bring in the firewood, and feed the fowls. Alf also milked the cows before going to school in the morning. Of course, the girls were completely idle. They would try their hand at cleaning up the house and ironing, but "don't ever believe that girls work in the country." And remember, she finished school at age fourteen, so that left a certain amount of free time. "Getting ready to go to a dance  ... that was work!"
New Responsibilities
     Just the same, the family was growing, and at about the age of fourteen, she took on some of the responsibility of taking care of the younger ones. (As you may have noticed from earlier chapters, there were not an inconsiderable number of ways young country children could get themselves injured, so I suppose having them tended by someone who had survived to the mid-teens might be an advantage.) A workmate of mine who had ten children once explained that every one of the older children had a younger one for whom he/she was responsible in the areas of dressing, feeding, and preparing for school, so I posed the question: "How did you organize that enormous brood of yours?"
     "Well," she replied, "you don't have a brood just thrust upon you." It developed gradually. No-one really organized them, and at the age of sixteen, when her youngest sister was born, Mum spontaneously took over the tasking of tending the laundry. She herself was energetic, and so were Lil and Hilda, when the time came, but it took her a couple of years to get Olga, the daughter next after her, to pull her weight. "Aunt Olga," she claimed, "was the laziest creature alive," although she had got into the working habit by the time she was married. But I will say nothing further against Aunt Olga. When I was a boy we were very poor, and she used to assist us financially.
Laundry
     Washing clothes: you have no idea what it was like. Yes, there were such things as washing machines - they had been around in one form or another for a long time - but apart from being expensive, they had to be plugged into the electricity mains, something distinctly absent from the farm on the Riverina. No, washing clothes was definitely a hands-on activity. What Mum particularly hated was the men's dungarees, or jeans. Heavily stained with the rich soil on which their livelihood depended, they could only be cleaned by forceful scrubbing on a corrugated washboard prior to soaking. The initial dirt having been removed, everything would then go into a big copper vessel known, appropriately as a "copper", along with soap (no detergent then) and boiling water. A big, heavy wooden stick would then serve to poke them down. (I remember such a copper and stick from my early boyhood, but before I was very old, it was replaced by a machine.)
     Soapy water was precious; it had to be recycled for other washing. Then the washing would have to be rinsed in clear water, and the water squeezed out of the clothes by forcing them through a pair of rollers called a mangle. Again, I remember such devices from my own boyhood. (Also, according to my mother, the well water was very "hard" when it came to washing.)
     Of course, when we talk about boiling the clothes, let's not forget that there was neither electricity nor gas to heat the water. It all had to be done with firewood. The woodheap in front of the house is also part of my memories of my visits to the farm, but I must admit, it never occurred to me to ask where it came from. I gather it could be collected from the paddocks, although they were practically treeless as far as I could see. The trees had been mostly ringbarked and chopped down in the early days of the homestead. Indeed, I was informed that, although the farm had been cut out of a subdivided property, the whole area had been timbered when Grandpa took over, and he had to remove them before he could even consider cultivation.
     Much to my surprise, chopping wood was not a task limited to males. Mum herself confessed to never being much good at it, but her own mother could make the chips fly like a man. It was not as if she initially intended to do it, but she practised it before she was married. (As for me, I'm like lightning; I never strike the same place twice.)
Ironing
     By now you will have realised that washing clothes was pretty much an all-day job. And since wash-and-wear garments were yet to be invented, the next task was ironing. Now, remember, no electricity! Instead, they made do with a flat iron - but the very latest one, with a clip-on handle. Actually, there were more than one; they came in three sizes: baby, medium, and large. And they had to be heated up on the stove, which implied that ironing was one more task assigned to the kitchen. But how would you know that it was the right temperature: hot enough to remove the wrinkles, but not too hot to scorch the cloth? "Well, you use common sense." On you could put it up against your cheek; she had watched her mother do so. Or you could spit on it. When the iron required cleaning, beeswax could be applied.
     When Mum was her late teens (ie in the late 1920s), her mother acquired a petrol iron. At this point, I wish I could copy the tone of voice my mother used when I asked her what on earth that was.
     "Don't you people know anything?" she wailed.
     "No!"
      She then provided a detailed description which I could not follow - and the occasional pictures you can find on the internet are of little help. Essentially, it came with an attachment for petrol and methylated spirits. The latter, when lit, served as a primer to heat up the petrol, and the attachment clipped on, in order to provide an even temperature over the iron. "That was very modern - just before the war," said Mum - which tends to contradict her previous statement. Mum had already left home in the years just before the war.
Other Activities
     As far as beds were concerned, I assume that the older children made their own. The only information I could obtain was that, with nine children, there could not be nine beds. Presumably, doubling up was necessary. Anyway, by the time Doug was born, Alf was attending high school and boarding in town, so that was one less sleeping place to worry about - until he came home.
     You might, however, be interested to learn about the drinking water. Of course, these are the days of the plastic water bottle, but their limitations are obvious. When you've taken a walk in the hot sun, or are cavorting on the beach, and you feel the urge to quench your thirst, you discover that the water has turned luke warm from the same sun which gave you the thirst in the first place. In the olden days, the men went out into the paddocks with a larger water bag made of canvas. Since canvas is porous, it would be permanently damp with the water seeping through and evaporating. This was not a defect in the plan, but its whole purpose. You would lose some water, but what remained would remain refreshingly cool.
     Well, the house itself possessed a much larger canvas bag - of the order of a metre in length. In the morning it would be filled with tank water, and then hung up in the shade - most likely on the verandah - to provide a cool drink to any thirsty soul passing by. Mum also found it she could set jelly in it because, remember, these were the days before refrigeration.
Lunch for the Men
     Back in 1969, I went on a bus trip with my mother, and I remember how she would glance at the fields we were passing and provide a quick estimate of the number of sheep present in each. So when her own father needed to count the sheep, he was prepared to let his daughters round them up and bring them in. But they weren't allowed to visit any such rough places as stockyards, and she always resented never having been present at a stock sale.
     However, when the girls had become teenagers, it suited them to ride out into the open paddocks to deliver lunch to the men. Nevertheless, her own mother considered it unladylike. "All right," said her husband, "I'll just get a lunch boiler." That cured her, because it would have meant more work for her. But the men were not allowed to see the girls barelegged.
    Mum, remember, was born in 1909, so at this point, you will need to know the standards of female attire applicable to the era. I shall therefore quote from that expert of the time, Barbara Cartland. As she explained in We Danced All Night,
Pictures of the twenties show us with short skirts. But these, like everything else, developed slowly and took some years to rise. Here is the actual rate:
     1919-23: Skirt just above the ankles.
     1924     :  Up to the calf.
     1925     :  Just below the knees.
     1926     : To the knees, but no further!
     On the farm, as teenagers, they wore dresses, not split skirts, and certainly not trousers. My mother even made her own underwear, constructed of stronger material than the run-of-the-mill panties, because riding tended to wear out such panties. You will also appreciate that you cannot ride a horse clad in an undivided skirt or dress without the garment riding up to some extent, so stockings were de rigeur. In fact, Mum never let her father see that she was going to town without stockings until she was about forty. But they were a nuisance at home. Mum would deliver the lunch about 9 o'clock, then ride home, remove her stockings, and throw them over the bed, or whatever. But one day, when the time came to return, she was unable to find one of them. Propriety insisted that the hired hands never see her unstockinged legs, so she rode in such a fashion that her bare leg was always turned away from the men. They must have wondered what she was on about.

     So there you have the relaxed life of the teenage country girl of the the 1920s. But Mum was planning her escape. She wanted to see the world, and the best way to do so appeared to become a nurse. Of course, she hadn't been to high school, so she spent her time researching the information she'd need for her entrance qualifications. Her father didn't approve, of course. He had been in hospital in his youth, and he had seen how hard the nurses worked. It wouldn't be so bad, he suggested, if she could board at some religious institution set up for young ladies. Eventually, he agreed that she could go when she turned twenty-one. In fact, she waited until she was twenty-two.
     After that, she really had to work.

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