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The Scrivener: When I Was A Boy We Didn't Have...

Part 1

"Every day, you use a ballpoint pen. You watch television in the evening. Maybe you play a computer game. Perhaps you play a CD or a DVD. If you want a snack, you go to the fridge.
I did none of these things in the 1940s and 1950s. Here are a few of the items that we didn't have when I was a boy in England.'' writes Brian Barratt.

These notes were originally written for school students. I have revised and extended them for general interest, as a personal glimpse into recent history and a reminder of how we used to live. There is nothing new or startling here. Just a ramble along Memory Lane.

Dollars and cents

We did not have dollars and cents. We had pounds, shillings and pennies. Pennies were also called pence.

The symbols were not p, s and p, but , s and d. The symbol for pound, , is really a form of the letter L. These initials came from ancient Latin words. L stood for libra; s stood for solidus; d stood for denarius. A libra was a unit of weight used for silver. A solidus and a denarius were coins. This system goes back over 1,000 years.

There were twelve pennies in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound. That made arithmetic very difficult for me when I was at school (and later on when I had to study Accountancy). The Mathematics master (teacher) at grammar (secondary) school did not help in any way. As a Church of England clergyman, he threatened to cane me because I did not understand Maths. Education was different in those days, too. He achieved a result: I loathe the memory of him as much as I dislike Maths.

In the 1950s a good fountain pen cost one pound, fourteen shillings and eleven pence. That was written as 1 14s 11d or 1/14/11 or 34/11d or simply 34/11. An ordinary fountain pen cost six shillings and threepence, 6/3d.

There were also half-pence, called halfpennies. Halfpenny was pronounced like "haypny". A loaf of bread cost fourpence-halfpenny, 4d. That was the same cost as a bus ride from my home into town.

My pocket money was sixpence, 6d, a week. Later, my sister gave me an extra sixpence. When I was in my teens, my father gave me another shilling, 1/-, for cycling to his old workplace to collect his pension. I then had two shillings, 2/-, a week pocket money. A two shilling piece was also called a 'florin', An uncle sometimes gave me half a crown, 2/6d, as a treat. 'Crown' was another name for five shillings.

When I was 16, I had a job in the wages office of a sugar factory. My wages were two pounds eighteen shillings and sixpence a week. That's 58/6d.

Ballpoint pens and felt-tip pens

We used 'dip pens', which some people now call 'scratch pens', which had a slim wooden body like a pencil. We slid a steel nib onto the end. When one nib wore out, we replaced it with a new one. At home, we had small bottles of ink to use when writing with a pen. At school, each desk had a small hole into which was placed an ink-well. One child was given the job of checking and refilling the ink-wells. He or she was called an ink monitor.

Fountain pens, with their own ink supply in the barrel, became popular 120 years ago. You dipped the nib into a bottle of ink and used a small lever to suck the ink up into a rubber sac inside the pen. We didn't use fountain pens in primary school. I bought my first one when I started secondary school.
The first ball-point pens were made about 110 years ago but they weren't very successful. A Hungarian inventor named Biro made the first efficient ball-point in the 1930s. Other people and other companies copied his idea. Some of the ball-pens we used 60 years ago were not reliable. One day at secondary school, I had left my clothes hanging in the changing room while we went out for sport. When I came back, I discovered that my ball-pen had leaked all its ink and completely ruined my jacket.

There were no felt-tip pens, markers, when I was at school. We did all our painting with brushes and water-colour paints. Felt-tip pens did not come onto the market until about 50 years ago.

Compact disks

CD's did not come onto the market until early in the 1980s. They replaced long-playing vinyl records, which became available from about 1950. However, when I was a boy, records were large, heavy twelve-inch disks (12 inches is about 30cm) . You had to be very careful how you handled them because they would break if you dropped them. They records played at 78 r.p.m. (revolutions per minute). Only a small amount of music could be included on one side, usually just one song or a short piece of music.

My brother had a non-electric gramophone to play his records in the 1940s and 1950s. It had to be wound up before each record was played. It had a tiny steel needle on its playing arm. If you left the needle in for too long, it became blunt and damaged the record. If it accidentally skidded, it scratched the record. Listening to records was a special occasion, with my brother handling each one with care to make sure that he did nothing to damage them.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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