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Random Observations pre-1960s


Formality in British society before and during the 1950s

Formality was a way of life in the 1940s and 1950s - and certainly also before I was born. I accepted it as normal. It only really struck me, when it started to change in the 1960s.

Addressing and referring to people in public

Before then, only the immediate family and children could be addressed by their first name. My mother, for example, would even introduce herself as 'Mrs Clarke', and because she had been brought up to formality, she always referred to and addressed all her acquaintances as 'Mr This' or 'Mrs That'. In this she was by no means alone.

Delivery men were addressed by their job. For example, my mother would address the coalman as "Coalman", the baker as "Baker", the milkman as "Milkman", etc.

Adressing people in letters and on envelopes

Letters to my father went one better. They were addressed as Mr. L. G. Clarke, esq. He was very proud of the 'esq' which was short for 'esquire' and - as I was always led to believe - meant that he owned property, albeit just an ordinary semi-detached house. Before he bought 9 Brook Avenue, Edgware, he was just plain Mr. L. G. Clarke.

I see that dictionaries give various other meanings for esquire, some being much more historical, but I can only comment on what it was like when I grew up in the 1940s and 50s.

I never knew of a woman having the appended title of esquire. Did you?

The use of the Mrs title

When I grew up, unmarried women were addressed as Miss, whatever their age, athough I know that in some other countries, they were addressed as Mrs as a mark of respect if they had reached some indeterminate age regarded as maturity. Married women were addressed as Mrs.

The Mrs title had another complication in polite society. A woman with a live husband was addressed as Mrs <husband's first name> and <husband's surname>, but if she became a widow she was addressed as Mrs <her own first name> and <husband's surname>. So, to take a hypothetical example, a woman would be addressed as Mrs John Smith while her husband was alive, but as Mrs Mary Smith if he died. This was already on its way out when I was growing up and I never paid much attention to it, but the older generation certainly did.

Needless to say, such use of Mrs was blatant sexual discrimination, but when you grow up with something like that, it takes a long time to realise it for what it is.

The term Ms was unheard of.

The beginning of informality

The informality of first names for just about everyone came in from America somewhere around the 1960s. I understood that the idea was that a managing director of a company was just 'one of us'.

About the same time, the usage of 'esq' was dropped.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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