A recent photo of Bowen and William’s chemist shop on Golborne Road had an advertisement poster for Zam Buk ointment. My mind flew back sixty or more years to all the products we used to use which either no longer exist or have been transmorphed into something unrecognisable.
Zam Buk was a universal panacea for sore joints, blisters, corns, chilblains (of which there were many in the damp cold winters) and insect bites. It had a peculiarly pungent odour that was difficult to ignore but was a very popular medication. I recently found a fascinating blog regarding its usage and the fact that it’s still available in Asian countries.
Also used for the removal of corns was Carnation corn caps which were sold in a pretty little tine with a picture of a carnation and the legend “unequalled as an efficient and painless remover of corns” I don’t know what the active ingredient was but, unless you were careful, not only was the corn removed but also a very large area of surrounding skin where the cap had shifted.
Another popular treatment for cuts and grazes was Germolene ointment. Bright pink and smelling strongly of oil of wintergreen it came in a pale yellow tin with bright blue writing. It was originally developed by Sir Henry Veno of Veno’s Cough Mixture back in the early years of the C20th.
To brush our teeth we’d use Gibb’s Dentifrice, a solid pink block that had to be scrubbed vigorously with a toothbrush to produce foam. Unhygienic as it may sound now, we all used the same block which seemed to last forever. They were one of the earliest companies to produce “Christmas Specials” and one year ion my stocking was a box containing Gibbs Dentifrice and a pack of ”Happy Families” playing cards. Tubes of toothpaste were available in the 1950s but were felt by Mum to be wasteful as it was too easy to squeeze out more than you needed.
“Keeping yourself regular” was considered very important and at primary school we were asked daily if we’d “been. If you said, “No” more than two days in succession you would be given a large teaspoonful of Syrup of Figs. I hated its flavour and quickly learned to say I’d been whether I had or not. As well as syrup of figs there was a proprietary medicine called Ex-Lax which came as tablets for adults and chocolate bars for children. I also disliked its flavour which was senna and tasted nothing like chocolate! Also used for constipation but also for indigestion and heartburn was Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia. This was a thick white, peppermint scented liquid that came in a beautiful blue glass bottle. Essentially it was magnesium hydroxide and was very difficult to swallow as it left a thick, adhesive film around one tongue and teeth. Needless to say I disliked taking it too.
Before the widespread prescription of antibiotics skin infections were common, especially acne, boils and carbuncles. Given the difficulty in keeping oneself clean in houses that had a common lavatory and no bathroom it’s a wonder there wasn’t an outbreak of bubonic plague. Acne was widespread and many a young lad had his chances of dating a girl hampered by a face full of angry pustules. There was a paste that could be used but needed to be plastered on thickly and seemed to eat away the top layer of skin. Sunray therapy was also very popular and the acne sufferer would have to sit, wearing goggles, in front of an ultraviolet lamp once a week over a period of months. The harmful effects of over exposure to ultraviolet was not realised then. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it was realised that acne was caused by bacteria and tetracycline prescribed that there was an effective cure for this disfiguring ailment.
Boils and carbuncles (a complex sort of boil with many heads) were treated with kaolin poultice to “draw” the poison. The poultice came in a large tin weighing about a pound (about 400gm in modern terms) and was a thick viscous compound with a layer of oil on top. It would be spread on a piece of lint which was then heated up on the top of a kettle. The lint was gingerly lifted off and whacked onto the offending boil. There was a real knack to getting the temperature of the poultice just right as too cold and it was ineffective, too hot and you risked blisters as well as boils. It was strapped or taped into place and left until the boil came to a head when it would be lanced with a sharp instrument (often a vegetable knife) and squeezed to rid it of pus. This was incredible painful and often ineffective due to cross infection.
Boric (boracic) acid was also used as a topical antiseptic and again came in a tin with a lid that needed to be levered off. No secure lids or Health a Safety gremlins then! It was applied either directly onto the skin or onto the ubiquitous lint and then bandaged in place. People, generally, were unaware of cross infection and the lint would be washed out to be used again . The waste not want not mentality was still alive and well even at the expense of wellbeing.
As well as keeping you healthy there were a variety of nostrums to make you look attractive. Unlike my cousin Christine, who had naturally curly hair, mine was stubbornly straight and fine. To overcome this flaw in her otherwise perfect offspring Mum would set my hair after it had been washed using strips of rag and a solution of sugar in water. My hair would be combed with the mixture and then wound around the strip of cloth leaving a long tail of rag. This would then be wound back up around the queue and tied to its top. This was repeated until all my hair was curled and I looked like a piccaninny (Yeah OK non PC these days but it wasn’t then!) and left to dry overnight. The sugar would stiffen the hair which then stayed in immaculate ringlets until next hairwash day. This worked well until one day Mum made the mixture too strong and instead of graceful flowing locks I had weird cardboard extrusions that took several washes with Vaseline shampoo before they once again resembled hair. I was pleased when Amami produced their setting lotion which washed out easily.
Vaseline shampoo was a powder that had to be dissolved in warm water and it needed a couple of washes before your hair felt really clean. Not having a bathroom, the weekly rite of hair washing was performed over the deep sink in the kitchen with a towel round your neck to prevent your clothes getting wet. Not that this was very effective but at least you had the towel to hand to wrap around your hair. No such thing as domestic hair dryers so the excuse, “I can’t go out tonight because I want to wash my hair” was a valid one as well as an excuse to get out of an unwanted date. I don’t recall there being a proprietary brand of conditioner but Mum used to use dilute vinegar after washing my hair to make it shiny. It certainly worked but left me smelling a bit odd too.
For men there was Brylcreem to smooth and shine the hair and leave dirty rings on the inside of hats and shirt collars. At most men sported a moustache but were otherwise clean shaven. A beard was considered “arty” or “eccentric” and stubble downright slovenly. A razor had disposable blades which came in packs of five or ten in dark blue wrappers. The razor head was unscrewed to insert the blade. Shaving soap came in either a large stick or in a wooden box and a clean shave was the order of the day. For a treat a man might go to the barber for a close shave with a cut throat razor but usually did it himself. It was easy for the razor to slip or inadvertently go over the top of a pimple and cause bleeding. There were two options open to stopping the blood flow, either a bit of toilet paper stuck on top of it or a styptic pencil which contained alum to contract the capillaries and stop the blood flow. Both had their disadvantages. It was easy to forget the toilet paper and go out wearing it. The styptic pencil stung and left a white tidemark around the cut.
There was a wide variety of makeup from which to choose, Coty, Max Factor, Bourjois, Cyclax, Yardley were probably the best known. Cyclax was always considered a good brand because it had the Royal Warrant of Appointment. It and Yardley were old, well established brands in Britain, unlike Max Factor which for a long time was considered “stage makeup” like Leichner. Coty and Bourjois were considered somewhat exotic and Bourjois’ perfume “Evening in Paris” was the height of sophistication.
One of the great problems with makeup then was that had a tendency to transfer or wear off. Powder helped to some extent keeping foundation cream in place but lipstick needed frequent renewal. The first lipstick I ever had was made by Yardley, either Dusty Rose or Natural Rose, a very pretty colour with a slight rose fragrance. Mum was a fan of Tangee indelible lipstick which was a very dark red and stained anything with which it came into contact. It was only a small lipstick and came in a black metal tube. In the late 50s/early 60s a new lipstick hit the shops. It was marketed as being the only lipstick you’d ever need as it would suit every skin tone. It was bright green but reacted to skin chemicals and changed colour to a fluorescent pink in my case and didn’t suit me at all. It also stained my lips for several days and left me in the unenviable position of explaining to my headmistress why I’d come to school wearing makeup. I was sent home and told not to return until all traces had gone.
Mascara came in a block with a small, flat brush. To apply it to ones lashes it was necessary to spit on the block and rub the brush up and down. Mascara was happily shared by sisters and girlfriends with little thought of contracting conjunctivitis. It only came in one shade, a blackish grey and was made from carbon pigment and a mild type of soap. Popular brands were Maybelline and Rimmel.
Perfume was favoured. I don’t remember deodorants being available until I was in my teens so probably they were a necessity to hide the less desirable body odours and that of infrequently washed clothing. My Nan’s favourite was Phul Nana, a floral blend. One could also buy Phul Nana pastilles, little sweets made from powdered sugar, gum Arabic and the perfume. Mum favoured Coty L’aimant while I like Mouche de Rochas with its musky undertones. It was later rebranded as Femme. Mouche means a beauty spot in French but its primary meaning is “fly” so considered unsuitable. Other available perfumes were California Poppy in its black and red container, Chanel number 5 and also 19 and 22 less commonly seen nowadays. Yardley did a range of pretty floral colognes including April Violets which I regularly bought Nan for her birthday and Christmas. Tweed and Blue Grass were also popular.
Women were in particular need of perfumes at “that time of the month” as it was commonly called. Although tampons, as we know them today, had been invented during the 30s they weren’t in common use and sanitary towels (STs) were the product of choice. I suspect part of the rationale was that using a tampon was akin to being deflowered and “nice girls” kept themselves “tidy” before they were married. Anything introduced to that orifice was frowned upon. Although nominally disposable STs had many disadvantages. They were bulky, they only held so much blood and frequently leaked. It was necessary to use a sanitary belt to keep them in place. This was an elastic band around the waist with a hook back and front on which the loops of the ST were fastened. One could wear rubber lined panties with them but these were sweaty and added to the bulk. Once an ST was changed there was the problem of what to do with the used product. At home one could wrap it in a bit of newspaper and put it in the dustbin but the problem with this was that dogs could scent the blood and would raid the bins. In public toilets there were incinerators but these were inefficient and clogged with unburnt cloth. If they did burn the STs there was an unpleasant miasma that lingered. There were also reusable cloth pads which could be washed and reused but, given the lack of laundry facilities, their use was dying out. One time someone’s “fanny pad”, as they were also known, found its way into our wash from the Bagwash. Although clean, it was stained and discoloured and hurriedly disposed of by Mum before Dad could see it.
Although men must have been aware of menstruation it was treated as a secret by women and girls were given little in the way of education on the subject. When I was about twelve I had a series of stomach cramps over a period of weeks. Eventually Mum took me to see the doctor but he could find nothing wrong. He told me to go out of the room and had a chat with Mum. When I asked later what had been said all I was told was that I was getting to an age when “bad blood” would come out of my bottom and to tell Mum when it happened.
“It” happened on Sunday when I was thirteen. Kensal Cricket Club, of which Dad was a member, was playing at home on the Northolt playing fields. I’d gone to the toilet and when I wiped myself discovered the paper was red. I tried to ignore it but next time I went there was more red and my knickers were stained too. The light dawned. This was “Bad Blood”. I hurried back to where Mum was sitting and whispered in her ear, “I think I’ve started”. She had no STs and neither did any of the other Kensal wives or girlfriends so she had to approach the women who were with the opposing team. Luckily one had a supply so the sisterhood’s secret remained safe. When we got home Mum took me aside for a little chat and told me this was going to happen every month but completely omitted the biological details. A few days later a “Facts of Life” booklet appeared on my bed but no other explanation was forthcoming. In some ways I was luckier than my friend Maureen whose instruction in the matter was that she wasn’t to get into a bath after a sailor had used it as, if she did, she’d have a baby.