Putting on the style
Then" was a drab time of heavy serge suits and glum fixed stares; life was lived in sepia. "Now" is a time of brilliant nylon fabrics and gleaming smiles; life is lived in primary colours. It's easy to come away from books of old photographs with the mistaken sense that only our era has the zest that is really due to faster shutter-speeds and chromato-technology.
This new series will need to be supplemented from time to time by teachers telling their children that we can't know everything about past lives from old daguerretypes. But it's an excellent series for all that. The In The Street scenes of shops and vehicles, crammed with little details of assistants in hats and moustaches, and gingerbread men and clown cakes, are cheerful and enlightening. The text makes explicit points about restrictions during rationing or modern developments in packaging that develop the implications of the images.
Toys uses a page format common to all the books. Three or four panels across a two-page spread illustrate change across various periods from the Victorian age to the present. Comments on changes in design or materials counterpoint continuities in use and function. The writing is simple but unpatronising. Appropriate words are usefully glossed and there is a truly thoughtful time-line which puts every object seen on previous pages into its appropriate decade-band. This is much more supportive of the chronological imagination than the perfunctory spread of random events and gee-whiz facts which too frequently passes for a time-line.
The quality is maintained in other volumes. The Doultons Improved Foot Warmer (the kind Mr Gladstone used to keep soup in) and the Activus lavatory bowl with their Betjemanesque charm are matched against Disneyfied hot water bottles and pastel-shaded bathroom suites. Brilliantine for twenties gents confronts styling gel for nineties lads. Brasso spans the generations with its enduring red and blue sunburst of a tin.
What we might have gained in convenience and brightness is seen to be balanced against losses in quirkiness and personalised design. There is no easy position of fogeyish nostalgia or of flash neophilia. The books say as much by implication and their junior school readers will be able to absorb the message.
Clothes introduces a greater variety of people, black and white and old and young, and the raincoats, underwear, shoes, uniforms and sports gear will provoke much identification, recognition and speculation. The perennial opposition between display and utility is one which children understand and enjoy; it's met with here in many vivid manifestations. The book, like the series, offers much to be learned and much to be enjoyed.