Social aspects of shopping in 1940s war-time
Based on experiences in Edgware, north London in the 1940s.
Why shopping was a social activity
The types of headscarf that women wore for shopping
in London during World War Two. Enhanced details from contemporary photos on the
internet. Note how stressed the women look.
It is understandable that shopping was a social activity for home-bound
women in England during the Second World War. They had to trail from one shop to another to complete their purchases,
as there were no supermarkets.
More often than not, they had to stand in queues because everything was so
scarce, and as they could only buy what they could carry, they often went out shopping
several times a day. They carried their purchases in cane /
baskets, which themselves were heavy even when empty.
Women also carried string bags for shopping. My motherís string bag would have the veggies in it, mostly in
paper bags and it would then hang on the back of the pantry door with the vegetables in it ready to use.
Life was a drudge, with few pleasures, as the facial
expressions in the photos show. Stopping to talk provided some sort of
relief and a valid excuse to put
the baskets down for a while to rest arms. (There were a few baskets on wheels
around, but they were not common. I asked my mother why she didn't
use one, but she just gave her standard answer to questions she didn't like:
To add to the women's tedium, they only had each
other and their children to talk to.
All the men, apart from the elderly or disabled
or those in 'reserved occupations' were away from home for the war effort; the young women
were similarly occupied, and women all their children at school were required
to fill the jobs vacated by the men.
The Home Guard were men who trained
to defend the British coastline in the event of an invasion by Germany.
Most of them Home Guard were too old or in too poor health for the regular
Men in jobs considered vital to the war
effort did not go in the forces but were in what were called Reserved
Occupations. As they could be stopped at any time by the police to check
that they werenít deserters, they had to carry a paper everywhere with
them to show that they were in a reserved occupation. They still had to
join the Home Guard.
My father was in a reserved occupation and so required to join the home guard.
At one stage he was allowed to bring a real live rifle home. I was explicitly forbidden to touch it and it was placed in the back of the wardrobe in their bedroom. Needless to say at the age of probably five or six, this was a toy beyond my wildest dreams and I can remember opening the wardrobe barely daring to touch the rifle but in fact overcoming my fear and holding it. It was probably too heavy for me to lift anyway. Whether or not my father ever knew about this I have no idea but if he did, he probably would have laughed.
So the social life of
the women left at home consisted primarily of meeting one another while
shopping. The people they met were other mothers of children of pre-school
age, much older women and occasionally a few older men sitting
smoking on a communal
seat. So apart from the occasional outing to
visit friends and relatives, no social activities were readily
available for women with young children.
As shopping had to take place most days, the women bumped into one
another frequently, and there must have developed what could have been a
pleasant close-knit community. My mother's view was that it was a collection
gossiping busy bodies.
The social activity of shopping - chatting and gossiping
From my perspective, as a child out shopping with my mother, it seemed that every
few yards women wearing headscarves would be bumping into other women wearing
headscarves who they stopped to gossip to. Often curlers would be sticking out
from the front of the headscarves.
The women probably felt that there was no point in making the best of themselves with only other women,
small children and older men to see.
As my mother was of a nervous disposition, she seldom wanted to stop
to gossip, but it was expected. All the women did it. So I spent quite a lot
of time just hanging around waiting, and of course listening. The talk was
always of shortages and of the menfolk who were away, often no-one knew
where, because that was secret. "Pre-war" was a term that seemed to turn up
in every conversation. It seemed to have an almost a mystical significance.
If something was pre-war, then it was high quality, worthwhile or good in
some other way.
The pattern of gossiping in the street continued well into the 1950s,
even though the war had ended.