This is what diets and lifestyles were like in the 1950s

Stuffed lamb’s heart, anyone? (Picture: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images / Popperfoto via Getty Images / Alamy Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)

World War II may have ended in 1945, but its effects on women’s lifestyles lasted a lot longer, until well after Queen Elizabeth II was crowned.

Women were naturally more active as ‘helpful’ modern technology hadn’t kicked in quite yet and ongoing rationing meant people were eating plainer food and smaller portions.

Fewer refined carbs and lower-sugar fruits meant women consumed on average 400 calories fewer a day than we do now.

How far have we actually come in the past 70 years? What was fad or fab in the 1950s?

Read on to find out…

Exercise

‘Women were more active in the 1950s than today due to lifestyle differences,’ says vintage expert Kate.

‘They walked more, rode bikes (as they didn’t have cars), did handwashing (with cranked mangles and washing on the line), and carried heavy vacuum cleaners.

‘They didn’t have sedentary jobs, and enjoyed gardening and walking the kids to school. It’s thought that a 1950s woman burnt 1,000 calories daily, almost double what today’s women burn. This was before any actual exercise! The vibrating exercise belt was popular – going round your waist, vibrating so fast you lose pounds.’

Working at home and in the garden kept many women fit (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

Most exercises happened in the home. ‘They were solitary, although classes became more popular throughout the decade,’ says Kate.

‘Popular activities were hula-hooping, callisthenics (early aerobics) and dancing. The first TV exercise show started in 1953 in the US called The Jack LaLanne Show, which slowly would have inspired British women.’

According to Katherine from the National Archives, the importance of women keeping physically fit was highlighted by World War II, when women were involved in manual labour on the home front.

Eileen Fowler was an early fitness influencer (Picture: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

‘In the 1950s, the trend was continuing, but physical activity was still gendered – women were encouraged to get involved in “suitable” fitness activities, but were discouraged from involvement in more vigorous sports,’ she says.

‘Popular physical activities for women included tennis, swimming and dance. Organisations such as the Women’s League Of Health And Beauty organised fitness classes across the country, which become extremely popular. They also organised mass exercise demonstration, such as the one that took place at Wembley Stadium in 1950.

‘In 1954, fitness instructor Eileen Fowler broadcast the first of many radio exercise programmes, with as many as 500,000 people joining in at 6.45am!’

Food and nutrition

Post-war rationing still existed in June 1952 for a lot of products including tea, sweets, chocolate, sugar, meat, eggs, butter, cheese and cooking oil. Some families bought chickens to rear in their gardens for the eggs and meat.

Many people didn’t have a freezer or a fridge, so in the summer milk was stored in a hole in the ground, covered by a stone slab. It also forced families to eat more seasonally and locally, and because of the lack of foreign travel, foreign cuisine was rare, and meals were plain.

‘People ate more carbs than we do today (55% versus 45%), but far less fat (32% versus 40%),’ says vintage expert Kate Beavis.

‘Diets had a lot of meat, often from a can, and pasta didn’t start to become more popular until the 1960s, when cheaper package holidays were introduced. Weight-loss diets gained popularity in the 1950s.

Mealtimes Mrs Christine Dwyer, her husband and seven children sit down for a family meal in the dining room of their house in Dagenham, Essex in March 1958. (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images)

Families ate seasonal and local produce (Picture: Popperfoto via Getty Images)
Food rationing continued into the 1950s (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

‘Despite the end of rationing, women were now encouraged to trim their figures with beach-body diets, pre-Christmas diets and even the steak diet! The difference with previous decades was about being trim and having the perfect body. Many adverts reinforced that we should be slim for our man or look perfect to get one.’

Katherine Howells from The National Archives says the effect of ration books and information circulated by the Ministry Of Food even after the war ended had a profound effect on the way people thought about nutrition.

‘Food rationing continued into the 1950s, with sugar only being re-rationed in 1953 and meat in 1954,’ she says. ‘This meant, that in the early 1950s, most people ate similar diets as they did in wartime, with staples such as Spam and powdered eggs popular.

Weetabix was a staple for the first meal of the day midweek (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

‘Diets were generally healthier than today, with people eating more vegetables and milk, and far less fat and sugar. People were more aware of the importance of seasonal produce, having been involved in growing vegetables during the war.

As rationing came to an end, people began to include higher levels of sugar in their diets, being a trend that would continue for the rest of the 20th century.

‘However, despite the continued presence of rationing in the early 1950s, women were still encouraged to lose weight through dieting and exercise. Woman’s Own magazine published articles advising women on diet and nutrition and associating a slim figure with femininity.’



What we ate in a day: A typical diet in the 1950s

Breakfast: Weetabix with full-fat milk and a tiny bit of sugar during the week. A boiled egg and toast on a Saturday and bacon and eggs on Sunday.

Lunch: School lunches were small and plain, not what you’d want second helpings of: stuffed lamb’s heart, anyone? Weekends, the main meal was at lunchtime – sometimes a lamb or pork chop, mash and veggies, or a meat stew with root vegetables on Saturday, in summer – a salad with ham or cheese, salad cream and bread. Traditional Sunday lunch was usually roast chicken and plainly cooked veg, followed by a fruit crumble with Bird’s custard.

Dinner: Weekday evening meals were often more like snacks, given what was eaten at lunch. Beans on toast, poached eggs on toast, a bowl of soup, a cheese and tomato sandwich, or tinned salmon with cucumber and lettuce. Friday nights you might have a small piece of white fish, plainly cooked with boiled potatoes, peas, and salad cream.

Snacks: British fruit such as apples, pears, plums or berries in summer. Special treats weren’t common, but sometimes a small bag of Smith’s crisps with a little salt wrap inside the bag.

Activities and wellness breaks

Petrol rationing ended on May 26, 1950. More people could drive or go on bus tours to coastal areas for walks and swimming, so there was a big rise in outdoor exercise.

Popular UK coastal destinations included Bournemouth and Scarborough, ‘Doon the watter’ resorts, such as Rothesay on the west coast of Scotland, and all-in-one holidays camps such as Butlin’s at Filey in Yorkshire, Ayr and Pwllheli.

Fashion and beauty

‘With the removal of clothing rationing and the end of the Utility Clothing Scheme after World War II, spending on clothing increased as women embraced their new freedom,’ says Katherine from the National Archives.

‘The “New Look”, exemplified by French designer Christian Dior, offered more light-hearted and feminine styles with longer and fuller skirts, ditching the austere utility styles of the war. British trends in fashion and design were showcased at the 1951 Festival Of Britain, itself intended to mark the end of wartime austerity and establish an optimistic future vision.’

Katherine says many women still made their own clothes, following styles from magazines.

Woman and Home magazine is still in print today (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)
Ready-to-wear clothing was becoming more accessible to women (Picture: Popperfoto via Getty Images)

‘However, ready-to-wear clothing was becoming more accessible,’ she says. ‘In 1951, the Land Travelling Exhibition, an on-the-road Festival Of Britain exhibit, visited Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham. Models showed off ready-to-wear outfits from popular retailers, from sportswear to evening wear, mimicking everyday activities, like waiting in a shopping queue.’

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in June 1953 added to the celebratory feel. ‘Many women took inspiration from the new Queen’s classic look and paid further attention to beauty,’ says Boots archivist Sophie Clapp.

‘Some of the most-loved beauty brands were No7, Nivea, Yardley, Ponds, and Boots-own brand products like Glycerin And Rosewater. They’ve all stood the test of time and sit on shelves today.’

Nivea has stood the test of time (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

According to BUPA dentist Neil Sikka: ‘It wasn’t unusual for people to have all their teeth removed and dentures made if they had slight gum disease, which was poorly understood. It was thought that infection could spread rapidly throughout the mouth.

‘When the NHS was introduced in 1947, it was common for teeth to be filled if there was staining to prevent the spread of tooth decay – called extension for prevention. We now use a more conservative approach, with a watching brief on potential decay to keep fillings to the minimum size possible.’

Activewear

‘Women wore swimsuits and high-waisted bikinis in the 1950s in new fabrics. These had more support and they dried faster, meaning they became more fashionable,’ says vintage expert Kate.

‘Side-ruching was introduced for a flattering look, and back zips and boning meant that a woman’s shape was in keeping with her usual fashion.

‘Some were strapless, some with a smaller skirt, be it floaty or tight (similar to their girdles), and the patterns were bold. The swimsuit became a fashion item at this time and still influences what we wear today (without the boning).

The bikini came into fashion in the late 40s and early 50s (Picture: Norman Vigars/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

‘Iconic designs were the playsuit with shorts attached, the mini wrap skirt sarong made popular by Marilyn Monroe, and anything with a polka dot on. To exercise, women wore leotards, one-piece playsuits, shorts and blouses, with ballerina-style pumps on their feet.’

According to archivist Katherine: ‘Designers had been offering a wide range of colourful styles of sportswear, swimwear and footwear for women before the war, and these trends continued in the post-war era.

‘In the early 1950s, it became increasingly acceptable for young women with active lifestyles to wear trousers and other traditionally masculine garments.’

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