February 11, 2012
The Way We Were
BY BARBARA GUNN
Poke through the pages of a newspaper’s past, and you’ll find much more than a record of newsmaking events. You’ll also get a peek into the spaces we called home. At one time, in the days preceding stainless steel appliances, walk-in showers and marble countertops, the avocado green and harvest gold refrigerators were up there on our wish lists.
At another, wall-to-wall shag was huge. Today, on the occasion of The Vancouver Sun’s imminent 100th anniversary, we’ll take a bit of a stroll into yesterday and into the homes – and kitchens — of days gone by. An archival meandering tells us that back in 1975, Sun readers were being introduced to the kitchen toy of the time — a microwave. “In only seconds, it can defrost a TV dinner, heat a mushroom pizza or reheat some carry-out chicken,” said a story in the Homes section entitled “Every kitchen tells a story.”
Another trend of the day – and a residential feature described as “one of the latest status symbols” – was the bedroom kitchen. That’s right — the bedroom kitchen. “More houses are including second kitchens,” The Sun informed us. “Here, a couple can fix a late-night snack without waking the rest of the household.”
Wander further back into newspaper pages – this time, three decades earlier to 1949 – and Sun readers were told about the benefits of designing a custom-built home. Among them? The fact that a kitchen could be constructed to better suit the stature of the woman of the house, invariably the sole individual who would be whipping up Minute Tapioca and wacky cake. “At one time, kitchen sinks, counters, cupboards and tables were designed for women of average height,” says the article headlined “Homemaking easier in planned kitchen.”
“The little woman found she was chinning herself on the lowest shelf; the tall one developed curvature of the spine reaching down to the sink.” Also in that day’s paper – not far from a deodorant ad that reminded readers how important it was to “be nice to be near,” as well an advertisement for a brand of cigarettes that was “smooth all the way” – is a quirky, little filler item recording the estimated number of accidents in U.S. homes every year: 25,000.
“Despite this appalling record,” it said, “foolhardy Americans still persist in loitering about the perilous place, and even children are found there.” As Sun pages record, however, Canadians have tended to be as fond of that loitering as their American neighbours. Then, as now, we spent money on our palaces. But then, unlike now, you could get an awful lot more for less. In 1929, the sum of $30 — more or less what you might spend today on pair of decent towels — would get you the architectural plans for a five-bedroom bungalow. In 1949, $24.95 would make you the owner of a six-piece sterling silver dessert-sized place setting. And throughout the decades, the records show, we were pretty darned fond of our colour.
In the early ’70s, the renovated kitchen of a home that took a big spread in the paper was celebrated for its yellow dishwasher and yellow range, as well as its floral wallpaper in “assorted shades of yellow.” (One assumes the occupants wore sunglasses while consuming their pot roast.) Nothing muted about the colour scheme of a home that was highlighted in a subsequent issue of The Sun either, this one with red “wall fabrics,” red chairs and, yes, red shag carpeting. Of course, you would never have heard of anything approximating Benjamin Moore’s Rosy Blush or Corn Silk back then. There were only the primary paintbox colours, and often plenty of olive green.
Inasmuch as pages past give us glimpses into what we liked, they also offer insights into who we were: Mothers in June Cleaver getups, fathers in Mad Men apparel, and children — in one story, at least — who were best not underfoot. (That story from a late 1940s edition of The Sun described a home with a “special baby wing,” which ensured that the family’s three little ones could “play without disturbing their parents or, in turn, being disturbed by their parents.” So much for adult supervision.)
Those folks, and those sensibilities, have faded, and some items — like the avocado refrigerator — are no longer high on the wish list. Style and fashions change, as do the look of our residences, as The Sun’s pages show. But while the houses of days past differ sharply from the spaces we live in today, it’s clear they made us feel no less at home.