Friday, 6 April 2018

Food shopping in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s

Over the Easter weekend our fridge-freezer died.  It is only two years old so will be replaced under warranty but, given my mobility issues, we are totally dependent on on-line shopping and keep most things in the fridge.  This episode made me remember shopping when I was a child and how much things have changed.  My husband’s comment was: ‘What did people do before there were fridges? ’ He could not remember but I certainly could so now I will share what we grew up with.

My mother said that we got our first refrigerator the week we moved into our house in Hastings and that she was not fully able to appreciate it because of getting both things at once.  In North Terrace my grandmother had a gas refrigerator with a pilot light in the bottom.  Home freezers were totally unknown.  I can remember that in Havelock North we had a meat safe which hung on a tree in the garden.  As far as I can remember everyone had something like this which was used to keep things cool.  Shopping was a totally different experience and reflected the fact that, particularly in Hawkes Bay, it could get very hot in summer. Bottles of milk used to be stood in a container of water and then put on a shady windowsill.   I think the main difference between then and now was that people expected to go shopping every day or two.  Also a lot of things were delivered.  Possibly I have more memories of how households were managed because we spent our holidays at Taupo where there was no electricity or piped water supply.  I have realised that although we were not really rural people, it was very different from city life.

First there was the milkman.  He came daily and delivered milk and cream.  There was a system of ‘milk tokens’, small pieces of metal which you bought from the milkman and put out, one for each bottle required, in the one of the bottles.  The milkman came very early and in Wellington when we went on holiday we were impressed because he had a horse and cart.  The bottles were put out at the gate in the evening and the milk appeared by breakfast time.  But I can also remember milk being delivered in a ‘billy’ can.  This was certainly what happened at Taupo and we hated the milk because it was unpasteurised and had to be boiled.  People were becoming very conscious of milk-borne diseases when I was little.  Milk was delivered to the gate because houses almost all had front gardens and you did not expect the milkman to spend time walking up the path.  By the 1960s when we lived in Wellington, the milkman sold a wider range of goods although I do not think it was like it was in Britain.  We had our bread delivered but I think it was by the baker.  It also came very early and was put in the letter box or on top of it.  In a society where everyone from school children to office workers had packed lunches it was wonderful to have fresh bread for sandwiches.  As a teenager it was my job to collect the bread from the gate and make packed lunches for four people before I went to school.

You have to remember that married women with families generally did not go out to work and I am not surprised when I begin to think about their household tasks.  In Havelock North we lived a mile out of town and I have no memory of how we received most of our food but once we moved into Hastings there were shops only a block away.  These included a baker (we had a famous story that my mother caught mumps from the baker!) who also made cakes, buns etc.  There was the butcher and the greengrocer and if you were lucky, a fishmonger but Hastings was inland and we very rarely ate fish.  I remember my mother went shopping practically every day at that point.  Later in Wellington she would still go and choose the vegetables but they would then be delivered on Friday evenings so we must have bought enough to last the week.  Groceries were generally delivered.  I can still remember my mother’s standard order because it did not vary from one week to the next.  Deliveries came in fruit boxes that the greengrocer and grocer had acquired when they bought stock from the wholesaler.  Most people had vegetable gardens and also bought direct from the market gardeners and orchardists, especially in Hawkes Bay.  You only bought what you could consume in two or three days.  I can remember my Wellington grandmother used the system of deliveries and choosing perishables.  The local grocer delivered an order given over the telephone but my grandmother used to go down into the city on the Cable Car and choose the meat and vegetables from shops there.  One result of all this was that housewives developed relationships with the shop staff.  It was also very safe which meant I was sent to do the shopping from the age of about six.  Obviously I only bought small quantities of things but I definitely went to the baker and the butcher.  I think my mother possibly phoned and ordered the meat.

The other main way to get your food was from people who had vans that were really shops.  I never knew this in Hawkes Bay except once when we had a beach holiday and various vans came round to the house.  In Wellington I knew people who used a mobile greengrocer.  As time moved on, more people drove so could get all their shopping on one trip.  My mother did not learn to drive until after I left home but in Wellington the shops were at the bottom of the street we lived in and she bought a ‘trundler’ so that she could bring the meat home by pushing it up the road.

Shopping hours were very different from in the UK.  No shops were open at weekends apart from ‘dairies’ (the equivalent of British corner shops).  Most of these were only open on Saturday mornings and there was a very restricted range of goods they were allowed to sell.  When New Zealand abandoned its very protestant shopping patterns they went straight to a continental model and I can remember being impressed on one trip back to NZ to find supermarkets open all day on Sundays.

We did, however, having Friday night shopping.  All shops stayed open until 9 pm on Friday evenings and people had adjusted to this pattern.  Friday night shopping included non-food shopping and ‘going into town’ on Friday evenings was very popular with teenagers.

I never saw or went into a supermarket until I moved to Australia in 1967. I can remember an American friend there teaching me how to use the supermarket although we were living in a university hall of residence with our meals provided so we only bought ‘extras’.  And I can remember being surprised when I arrived in Britain and found white English people working in greengrocery shops.  In New Zealand the Chinese community dominated both market gardening and the greengrocery trade and were later joined by Indians.  Europeans never worked in these places.

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