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Using Narrative Sources from the Mass Observation Archive to Study Everyday Food and Families in Hard Times: Food Practices in England During 1950

by Abigail Knight, Julia Brannen and Rebecca O'Connell
Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University College London

Sociological Research Online, 20 (1), 9
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3579

Received: 6 Aug 2013 | Accepted: 12 Jan 2015 | Published: 28 Feb 2015


By using examples from food and domestic life in England during 1950, this paper examines the use of narrative archival sources as a methodological alternative to researching everyday food practices by traditional research methods, such as interviewing. Through the analysis of three diaries written for the Mass Observation Archive, and the everyday food practices expressed in these diaries, we consider the benefits and challenges of using narrative archival diary data to gain insights into food and eating during times of austerity. Before presenting and discussing the cases, we outline some of the challenges of researching food practices as a result of the muted, moral and mundane aspects of such practices. We then describe the study on which this paper is based, including a discussion of our methods and the reasons for using diaries and selecting our cases. Following this, we set the scene for understanding food and eating in 1950s Britain, such as contextual background about rationing during the Second World War, government policy and propaganda of the time. In our analysis of the three diaries, we discuss some of the ways in which the data have enabled us to 'get at' and provide insights into habitual food practices.

Keywords: Food Practices, Families, Diaries, Mass Observation, Narrative

Introduction: Researching everyday food practices

1.1 By using examples from food and domestic life in England during 1950, this paper examines the use of narrative archival sources as a methodological alternative to researching everyday food practices by traditional research methods, such as interviewing. Defining the 'everyday' is problematic: what constitutes the everyday varies across contexts and is highly subjective. The everyday is characterised by what is mundane, unremarkable and familiar, by what is routine and habitual (Scott 2009). In this paper, we are concerned with a specific aspect of the everyday: food practices. A subset of social practices more generally, 'food practices', like 'family practices' (Morgan 1996), have been the subject of considerable research attention within the social sciences. Whilst it is now relatively common to find research projects which seek to examine 'food practices', the latter are rarely defined or cover a multitude of practices. For the purposes of this paper, and drawing on a number of research projects which aim to address 'food practices' (e.g. DeVault 1990; Wills et al. 2008; Punch et al. 2009; O'Connell 2012), a broad definition conceptualized by DeVault (1991) as food provisioning can be said to include the following food-related activities: planning, procuring, preparing, synchronizing, serving, eating and clearing up.

1.2 It has been well documented that habitual social practices, including those that involve food and eating, are challenging to investigate, especially when using commonplace research methods, such as interviewing (DeVault 1990; 1991; Power 2000). Studying social practices, including those involving the preparation of food and eating, poses challenges for researchers. Bourdieu argued that because dispositions are subconscious, it is difficult for people to reflect on what they do since 'what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying' (Bourdieu 1977: 165). Since everyday practices involve habitual and routinised behaviours, which are often carried out unreflectively, without conscious thought they are often difficult to recall or explain post hoc in the context of a research interview.

1.3 Food practices are also steeped in normativity and accompanied by strong emotions such as shame, status, morality and guilt. Food practices may therefore be considered 'sensitive subjects' and as such can be difficult to study through interviews and surveys, because people tend to under-report 'bad' behaviours and over-report 'good' ones. Making the case for ethnographic observation, Miller suggests that 'mostly what people say is the legitimation of what they do, not the explanation or the description' (Miller, cited in Baker and Edwards 2012:31).

1.4 Recognising issues such as these, recent research about routine food practices has combined interviews with ethnographic approaches. Wills et al. (2013), for example, used a range of qualitative methods and repeat visits to study kitchen practices in a study of food safety at home, while Punch et al. (2009) used semi-participant observation ethnographic methods to study food practices of children in residential care. O'Connell (2012) focused on the food practices of working families with young children by interviewing parents and children; the interviews with children were facilitated by using visual methods, such as drawing and photo-elicitation techniques. Meah and Watson (2011), in their study of domestic cooking, used a variety of qualitative methods to access food practices. These included focus groups, life history interviews, 'go-alongs' (Kusenbach 2003), videoed kitchen tours and meal preparation.

1.5 Both Hitchings (2011), in his studies of workplace routines and use of outdoor space, and Evans (2012), in his research about food waste, questioned the extent to which people are able to talk about their everyday practices in research interviews. Evans took a methodological approach that located talk within on-going and situated action, which meant using some ethnographic methods, such as 'hanging out' in people's homes, observing behaviours, diary records, cupboard rummages and fridge inventories. Although Hitchings concluded that interviews as a method of researching everyday practices should not be discounted and that people are often able to talk about their habits and routines, the methodological challenge of researching everyday social practices remains; Martens (2012) suggests that whilst interviews are good for understanding the social relations of social practices, they are less good at getting at the activity itself.

1.6 Some researchers have used secondary analysis of previous research to study food practices and this method is the most similar to our approach. Bishop (2007) revisited two different data sets: 'Mothers and Daughters' (Blaxter and Patterson 1982) and 'The Edwardians' (Thompson 1975) in order to examine attitudes and practices about early forms of processed forms and about sociality and food choices at meals. Jackson, Olive and Smith (2009) carried out a secondary analysis of material from three archived sources to study family meals: Paul Thompson's studies, 'The Edwardians' and '100 Families', and the Millenium Memory Bank. Furthermore, Nettleton and Uprichard (2011) scrutinised data from a Mass Observation Archive directive and menus from 1982 and 1945 to find insights into the ways that food practices reflect and absorb broader societal changes. Common across all these previous studies involving secondary analyses, the topic of food was included or central to the primary research study.

1.7 Another possible way of addressing the methodological challenge of researching food practices, we suggest, is by using narrative archival data in which food was not the central topic of concern but embedded in accounts of everyday life. In this study we examine three diaries from the Mass Observation Archive written in 1950 in the aftermath of the Second World War, in the context of continuing food shortages, to examine what insights they might provide about habitual and routine food practices.

The Study

2.1 The study titled 'Families and Food in Hard Times: Methodological Innovations' formed part of NOVELLA (Narratives of Varied Everyday Lives and Linked Approaches), a node of the National Centre for Research Methods, funded by the Economic Social Research Council and based at Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education. The study aimed to advance knowledge about how to research the 'disconnect' between behaviour and constructed meanings in habitual family food practices, to examine both the cultural meanings of food in particular contexts at particular historical moments and to explore the methodological issues in the analysis of narrative data from different sources. The project did this by exploring the usefulness of narrative data in food research and through the re-use of archival data of different types: diaries from the Mass Observation Archive, oral histories from two community oral history archives and visual and ephemeral sources, such as recipe books and photography. This paper focuses on the first form of data we analysed, diaries from the Mass Observation Archive.

Narrative Data

2.2 By narrative data, we are referring to the stories that people tell about their lives that capture how they make sense of the world. Stories offer rich insights into the constructed meanings behind everyday behaviour and actions. Narrative data can appear in different forms, such as oral histories, life history interviews, auto/biographical writing, such as letters and diaries and visual narratives contained in photography, video or pictures. The aim is to see where and how food emerges in narrative accounts of everyday life in contrast to data collected from direct questions about food practices. We decided to use narrative methods because, as Riessman (2008:10) states, 'connecting biography and society becomes possible through the close analysis of stories'.

2.3 The study is therefore methodologically innovative by making links between history, sociology and biography (Wright Mills 2000 [1959]) in its focus on historical and archival narrative data to study everyday food practices. In doing so, it seeks to address a number of methodological questions. These include the availability of archival material for the analysis of family food practices, dilemmas faced by researchers conducting secondary analysis, including the question of cultural or historical distance and proximity and how this shapes or influences our analysis, and the importance of and process of contextualisation. In relation to food practices as a substantive area, the study also seeks to gain greater insight into the role of food in the narratives of everyday lives, how food appears to mediate social relations, what strategies families report in coping during times of economic austerity and how these conditions seem to affect their food practices. Moreover, the study aims to address questions about how we, as researchers, construct stories about family food practices based on archival material.

Mass Observation Archive

2.4 During the first year of this study, we focused on narrative sources, namely from diaries held at the Mass Observation Archive[1]. According to two of the founders of Mass Observation, Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson (1938: 32), one of the reasons for establishing the movement was because:

We are continually impressed by the discrepancy between what is supposed to happen and what does happen, between law and fact, the institution and the individual, what people say they do and what they actually do, what leaders think people want and what people do want" [our italics].

Furthermore, inspired by Madge and Harrisson's vision (1939: 8) 'to get written down the unwritten laws and to make the invisible forces visible', we thought that these sources had the potential of uncovering some of the more muted aspects of mundane everyday food practices.

2.5 Since its conception, The Mass Observation Archive has been extensively used by both historians and social scientists to study the everyday lives of ordinary people. Whilst the diaries have been used mostly by historians (e.g. Hinton 2010; Kynaston 2007; 2009), journalists (e.g. Garfield 2005) and other writers (e.g. Malcomson and Malcomson 2010), sociologists have generally been more interested in the directives and what they can tell us about the attitudes and experiences of ordinary people on a range of topics (e.g. Savage 2007; Nettleton and Uprichard 2011; Casey 2014). Sociologists have been interested in the time diaries (e.g. Southerton 2009) and have also commissioned new directives (e.g. Smart 2011; Kramer 2014).

2.6 We decided to concentrate on the unstructured writing in the diaries for our analysis, to gain insight into the family food practices of the time. One of the reasons for this is that the contemporaneous nature of diary writing is more likely to produce accounts of the muted aspects of food practices compared with direct forms of questioning. This is in part because, unlike other methods such as oral history, diaries do not require the narrator to review the past. Rather the benefits of the diary approach are as Plummer has said (2001:48):

Each diary entry – unlike life histories – is sedimented into a particular moment in time: they do not emerge 'all at once' as reflections on the past but day to day strive to record an ever-changing present.

2.7 Our interest in the Mass Observation diaries started after the team read the edited diaries of Nella Last (Malcolmson and Malcomson 2010). We decided to focus on the year 1950, for a number of reasons: first, material from Mass Observation during the period of the Second World War had already been extensively studied by other researchers but the post-war period less so. Second, the year 1950 was a particularly difficult time for ordinary people with rising prices, including food, and the continuation of rationing. Third, the Mass Observation Archive includes directives from 1950, in which correspondents were asked for their views on topics relevant to food, for example, on standards of living, food costs, attitudes to continuing rationing and housework tasks. We thought that this information could usefully supplement and facilitate contextualisation of the diary data.

Analysis of the diaries

2.8 To study food practices in 1950, we read all the diaries written during this year; fourteen diarists wrote regularly during 1950 – seven men and seven women. The diaries from 1950 were not digitised at the time of our analysis so it was therefore necessary to use the original non-digitised data. Although this meant more time was needed to visit the Mass Observation Archive at Sussex University[2], the process of accessing and reading the data in their original form leant a materiality to the research process in analysing the original documents and enriched the experience of doing 'fieldwork in the archives' (Brettell 1998; Moor and Uprichard 2014). The diaries varied considerably in their format: some were handwritten and while some were very easy to decipher, others were not, especially in cases where the ink had faded; others were typewritten and therefore easier and quicker to read; the paper used varied from small lined notebooks to very thin foolscap paper, commonly used during the Second World War. Because the diarists had not been given any instructions, the form of narrative also varied considerably: while some wrote several pages each month, recording what they did and saw on a daily basis, others wrote only a few lines for the whole month, sometimes in note form; some wrote detailed accounts of their everyday lives and their views and experiences while a smaller number saw their role as recording their observations of others, such as overheard conversations.

2.9 Social scientists commonly focus on a small number of cases from which to extrapolate theoretical, methodological or substantive conclusions (eg. see Gomm et al. 2002). For the purposes of this paper, we have concentrated on three diaries, all written by women in 1950. Although this is a small number, they were drawn from a larger pool of the fourteen diarists who wrote regularly during 1950. The three diarists we focus on were selected because as women they had recorded detailed observations and told stories in their diaries about food practices, such as shopping, preparing and eating. It is notable that, with the exception of descriptions of growing food and the occasional phrase referring to eating, such as 'had dinner', none of the male diarists gave accounts of domestic or food practices, such as shopping or cooking. We do not claim that these diarists are representative of the fourteen diarists, much less of the general population in Britain. All three were middle-class women as were most Mass Observation correspondents at that time (Savage 2007). These diaries are, as some Mass Observation Archivist specialists suggest, 'slices of life that are viewed as representations of everyday life' (Bloome, Sheridan and Street 1993: 17). Through the writing of these diarists - Mrs Perks, Mrs Upton and Miss Allen[3] - we will demonstrate how people managed food and eating in difficult times and reflect on using diary data such as these as a research method when studying food practices.

2.10 We took an epistemological standpoint that emphasises the importance of context in the analysis of the archival sources we are using. By this we mean, rather than taking the data at 'face-value' and giving the narratives contained in the Mass Observation diaries and directives, as Atkinson (2005:4) has noted, a 'privileged or special quality', we aimed to contextualise the stories in a number of ways. These included historically situating the data and filling in the wider context by reading other historical accounts of the period as well as supplementing the data with contemporaneous snap-shots, such as photographs from post-war Britain and other Mass Observation data (e.g. menus and a structured survey of working class women's time use, Mass Observation Bulletin 1951). However, as Andrews (2013) argues in discussing secondary analysis of her own data collected some years earlier, as analysts we are always 'in the moment'; we can never fully understand or/ make sense of something contemporaneously. Quoting Brockmeier (2006), Andrews says that 'all data' only live and breathe in the present'. In terms of current experiences of austerity in Britain, the data are particularly compelling.

Setting the scene – food and eating in England 1950

3.1 Food and eating in England was dominated in 1950 by continuing food rationing, some food shortages and the high cost of prices. The rationing of food and other consumer goods, such as petrol, was introduced in the UK in 1940 during the Second World War (1939-45), to cope not only with shortages but to ensure equitable distribution of scarce supplies (Burnett 1979; Murcott 1994). The first foods to be rationed were bacon, butter and sugar; foods such as milk, eggs, fish, and fresh fruit were controlled more loosely with the result that their availability varied (Zweiniger-Bargielowska 1994). Bread rationing was introduced between 1946 and 1948 and potatoes were also controlled between 1947-8. Another form of rationing, called points rationing, was introduced at the end of 1941; this was designed to guarantee equitable distribution of certain luxury goods such as canned fish, meat, beans, fruit, biscuits, rice, oats and other cereal products, cheese and condensed milk, dried fruit and pulses and certain preserves. The points functioned like an alternative currency. This scheme ended in May 1950 – many of the diarists mentioned this event in their narratives – while rationing of foodstuffs was not completely over until 1954. Although the view that the Second World War and the post-war years saw a levelling of classes has been questioned in regard to income levels (Summerfield 1986), the narrowing of the gap between social classes in regard to food and calorie consumption, as a result of state control of food, is well documented (Burnett 1979; Zweiniger-Bargielowska 1994).

3.2 The political context of the early 1950s includes the return to power of a Conservative government in 1951. Whilst the crisis of the Second World War had 'spawned a more socially inclusive, equitable and progressive ideological basis for policy' (Lang et al. 2009:28), the introduction of new rations after the war 'made acceptance of these privations increasingly difficult' (Zweiniger-Bargielowska 1994:179). Rationing and austerity did not affect everybody equally however. 'On the one hand, the higher income groups suffered disproportionately and, on the other, the increasingly arduous task of running a household fell mainly on women' (Zweiniger-Bargielowska 1994:18). Food rationing meant that the dietary standards of the upper third income group were lowered temporarily, resulting in a marked increase in the standard of living of the poorer third of the population (Burnett 1979). The successful Conservative election campaign targeted disaffected housewives and the campaign's propaganda material exploited discontent with continued rationing, shortages and controls under the post-war Labour Government (Zweiniger-Bargielowska 1994).

3.3 We now analyse material from the three diarists who wrote for Mass Observation during 1950 before discussing the implications of what they experienced for the researching of food practices.

Mrs Perks (D 5475)

4.1 A retired filmmaker living with her husband in rural Dorset, Mrs Perks was aged 61 when writing for Mass Observation in 1950. Her diary entries were typed and she wrote one or two paragraphs on most days. The style is mostly in report form with considerable detail concerning the availability of particular foods and growing food. Her diary also provides the occasional insight into international events and her own views. Although she and her husband did not have children of their own, Mrs Perks' diaries detail visits made to her by her sister-in-law and her children during the holidays as well as some local families, meaning we are offered glimpses of the lives of children as well as adults. The diary entries that we concentrated on, covering March-August 1950, include descriptions of activities such as selling a boat, buying a greenhouse, visiting an agricultural fair and Mrs Perks' various ailments. Referring to a visit to the Doctor, she draws attention to the recent establishment of free health care 'my first call on the health service' (4/5/50). Such comments are lumped in with arranging for crazy pavement to be delivered as well as more everyday and habitual activities involving food.

4.2 Shopping trips, mainly for food, but occasionally for other items such as 'shoe buttons, which are extraordinary rare to come by' (15/8/50) took place every few days and particularly when ration coupons were used: 'got rations in morning. Glad cauliflowers a little cheaper. There is not much else and they have been a very high price' (31/3/50). Collecting rations are clearly part of Mrs Perks' habitual routine: 'went into Wareham for rations and weekly shopping' (21/4/50) and on 28th April 'two extra jobs in Wareham this morning, besides the ordinary getting of rations'.

4.3 In April 1950, her experience of not spending all her rations appears to challenge the need for them: 'I don't seem to spend all my points these days. Got new ration books – no waiting as no one else there (21/4/50) and later that week, she reports in her diary 'considerable points changes. Will suit me very well, as I have not been spending all lately, owing to increase of alternatives' (23/4/50). Yet by August 1950, she is thankful food is still rationed enabling her to get some foodstuffs she needed during the holiday season:

Went in and got rations this morning. A good thing that some food is still rationed, or, this week, prospects of getting any would be pretty thin. Only two eggs, while I have been getting six, no cereal, Nescafe, pies or sweets. I think it is the holiday rush rather than seasonal shortages, as the camping and picnic goods seem shortest of all (25/8/50).

The 'holiday people' are also blamed for some shortage, rather than post-war rationing earlier in August when Mrs Perks goes shopping and can't get 'sausages and pies' (11/8/50).

4.4 Mrs Perks also comments about the possible impact of rationing and food shortages. In June 1950, she writes about an outing with her sister-in-law and some children when they had 'a reasonably adequate tea with gooseberry fool, cream cheese, jam and home-made cake'; she comments that two of the children ate much of the tea but another child, Elizabeth, was less interested. Reflecting upon the impact of rationing on moments in the life course, Mrs Perks wonders whether this fussiness is because 'the noble appetites and unfussiness of the others are a result or aftermath of war-time shortages which this little one has not experienced' (28/6/50).

4.5 Mrs Perks mentions cooking or eating a meal, from time to time but, unlike the description of the tea given above, little detail is normally given about what was eaten or cooked: 'in the afternoon did a batch of cooking' (7/4/50). However, we are given glimpses into the sorts of foods that had been in short supply during the war and were becoming more plentiful again: on March 5th 1950, for example, Mrs Perks writes, 'cooking in morning. Nice to be able to rely on grapefruit again, for light sweet after dinner'. And on April 14th 1950, 'tea is the only item on which we seem to get short, now that eggs and milk are plentiful'. In August 1950, Mrs Perks receives a parcel from her brother-in-law in London containing '1lb of mate tea'. She goes on to explain that they always used it with the other type of tea, and which 'is now useful in making rations go a little further'. 'Fruit is more plentiful and cheaper' too by this time (25/8/50).

4.6 Gardening and, in particular, accounts of growing food, are central to many of Mrs Perks' diary entries and offer insight into her diet, the methods of preparation and conservation of food (jam) as well as the temporal cycles of her life. On 15th April, she writes:

Today had first-fruits of garden, lettuce thinning and cress for salad and enough rhubarb to make at least one serving each. Think this will go on for a long time, as it is reported to be a late variety. Peas sown out-doors coming up as well (15/4/50).

4.7 A variety of home-grown produce is picked and eaten for meals, such as 'loganberries for lunch' (30/6/50), mushrooms, and on 9/8/50, Mrs Perks writes that she 'had a dish of sprouting broccoli at mid-day. Doesn't seem the right time for it, but there it was, and very nice too.' She describes growing strawberries, raspberries and tomatoes and in August, writes: 'the sugar peas go on and on, a wonderfully hardy two purpose crop. Picked enough for meal at midday' (2/8/50) and the next day 'started cooking plums from old trees'.

4.8 Some produce is shared, such as 'a picking of beans' given to Mrs Perks' sister-in-law (1/8/50). Growing fruit and vegetables to meet any shortages in supply led to frustration when the inclement British weather sometimes ruined a crop:

Rather a depressing day – the early potatoes seem to have been touched by frost, also the Japanese wineberries. Don't know why this should be as heavier frosts two or three weeks ago didn't touch them. I suppose there is now more leaf. One lives and learns. J. cut down the berries, as was done to the raspberries. Perhaps this should have been done before (19/4/50).

4.9 Much of August is taken up with the process of preserving fruit and this is described in several diary entries. Mrs Perks collects blackberries and apples and different varieties of plums; she mixes 'half czar and half egg plums to put in Camden solution' and plans to 'do a batch by the deep water method' (22/8/50). The end of August is spent blackberry picking, both in the garden and 'on the moor', sometimes with local children.

4.10 Like shopping, Mrs Perks describes cleaning jobs in the home in relation to daily and weekly temporalities: 'chores for most of morning, weekly clean-up' (15/4/50), with a very occasional 'special clean-up, polishing metal oddments and cleaning silver' (7/4/50) in time for visitors at the Easter weekend. Her accounts also give insight into how chores are sequenced and synchronised. Clearing up sometimes coincides with baking and appears to reflect a positive day: 'bright and warmer. Quiet day, welcome after yesterday. Clear-up and cooking. The baker had brought me some yeast, and I made good batch of buns. Found first buds of our new roses' (30/4/50).

Mrs Upton (D 5447)

5.1 Mrs Upton, housewife, aged 47 in 1950, lived in Sheffield with her husband, who was a timber merchant. They did not have children. From the diary entries we concentrated on, from June to September 1950, it emerged that Mrs Upton was originally from South Africa, where she still had connections, and had married in Australia. Her diary entries were type- written every few days and were quite lengthy compared to some diarists, sending Mass Observation several pages of her diary each month. Her narratives are detailed and colourful with stories from her local everyday life, such as helping her Hungarian neighbour to learn English, having a hair-do which went wrong and making a silver anniversary cake, interspersed with comments about contemporary domestic politics and international affairs (the 'Korean business'). She voices particularly strong political opinions about social inequality, is disapproving of the Royal family's love of horse racing, critical of the BBC weather forecasters and would like the opportunity to 'talk to top Socialists. A pity such chances do not come to ordinary folk' (11/6/50).

5.2 Deeply embedded in these narratives are descriptions of food and eating and these are often dominated by comments about the effects of rationing, high prices and food shortages. These accounts contrast with Mrs Perks' descriptions of readily available food, perhaps reflecting the differences between how food shortages were experienced in urban and rural areas at this time and that Mrs Upton grew her own food. Mrs Upton's diaries from early June 1950 start with descriptions of a heat wave and her house being decorated – she is just starting to 'sort myself out and getting some sort of routine into my life again' (5/6/50). On June 5th she tells the reader that 'points rationing' has recently ended and writes that, 'it is good but I wish we could get a bigger variety of things. Oh well, patience will do it'.

5.3 Mrs Uptons' accounts also suggest the ways in which people had to improvise during shortages and rationing. The heat on 6th June means Mrs Upton makes a 'fruit meal for tonight with tinned apple pulp and fresh lemon juice'. Later that week, she explains how she sold her meat ration to a neighbour:

…a lump of uninteresting looking lean beef. We'll have our bacon ration with the [broad] beans and new potatoes and that suit us much better. 4/7 d that beef cost, and I resent paying that much as we'd eat about a 3rd and give remainder to stray cats. That is what happened last week and many times before (10/6/50).

5.4 Mrs Upton often writes about the high cost of particular luxury foodstuffs in her diary, and these comments are in given in the context of her observations that 'money may not go far these days, and it doesn't but still, folks have it to spend. That is better than not having any. It is the desire to save which is snerped these days' (13/6/50):

I paid 3/11d for a tin of asparagus tips today. They used to be 1/3 d. I wonder why they cost over 3 times as much today. It seems to be outrageous allowing for all differences. Maybe there are people who can afford them often but to us they must be a luxury for eating about twice a year while the price is so high (13/6/50).

5.5 She also writes about her frustration that she has not 'had a tin of salmon from grocer since points scheme started, as I could never afford the points'. Now that the points scheme has finished, she exclaims, 'there is NO chance of me ever getting a tin'. She wonders why Canada cannot help by exporting more, given they were 'so helpful about the dollar situation' (13/6/50).

5.6 Mrs Upton finds the prices so high for some foodstuffs, including strawberries and tomatoes that, 'we are having tinned vegetables this weekend. I just cannot pay 2 /- for a cauliflower and there was nothing else, not even a fresh carrot. We are also having old potatoes' (15/6/50). This appears to contrast to another diary entry on 23rd June when after shopping for a hat in Birmingham at C & A's, Mrs Underwood exclaims: 'must fly and fry sole and cook new peas and potatoes'.

5.7 Descriptions of food and eating often follow comments about international affairs as noted in Mrs Upton's diary. Later in June she comments about France's government which has 'gone again. Well, it lasted 8 months and for them that is good going', following this with mundane detail about what they had to eat that day, the availability of foods and the popularity of a particular vegetable:

Today we are having spinach for lunch. I brought it back on Thursday from my brother's garden. It is years since we had spinach as it is never sold in shops here. I asked greengrocer why yesterday, and he said if he got it, it would not sell. People prefer to stick to cabbage, cauliflower, sprouts the year round as offering. Same with tomatoes. Those nice little yellow ones in bunches have no appeal. Pumpkins also. (24/6/50).
Mrs Upton poignantly concludes from this that 'people with ideas who have no gardens, have to eat as those with no imagination do'.

5.8 In her diary entry in late June, Mrs Upton gives the reader a breakdown of her daily routine that in many ways appears typical for a middle-class housewife at that time. She writes that she:

washed and, being a good drying day, also ironed; been to the library, bought rations, typed a letter, had 2 cups of tea, and here I am. Shall presently see what the Dale family[4] have been up to and as I listed change into housecoat, sans corset, and relax properly (26/5/50).

5.9 She voices the tedium of the household work routines noting that the only benefit is the housewife's control over housework in that:

a woman can do it in her own time and leave it if she wishes. That is the only things about it which makes life bearable to a woman such as I, who hate housework and to be ever driving myself to do the bit I do. Ugh. (27/5/50).

Her reply to the directive of March-April 1951 on housework expands some of these attitudes. Above all, she writes, 'the MONOTONY of housework gets me down', revealing yet again her political views in her remark that this is in 'a country where servants did it all'.

Miss Allen (D 5240)

6.1 Miss Allen was a single woman, aged 53 in 1950, living alone and working as a teacher in Watford. Her diary entries were handwritten, in a very clear and artistic hand; they were short, with only a few sentences written for each month of the diary she sent into Mass Observation. Miss Allen writes her diary as a series of observations and little stories about everyday life going on around her and in this sense, she clearly saw her role as a 'mass observer' of others rather than expressing her own attitudes and experiences. However her entries also provide some insights into food practices in this post-war era in which rationing continued but some foods were becoming more plentiful. For example, in February 1950, she writes:

the plain scones that I like at tea time now have very much more fruit (sultanas or currants), more sugar and much more fat, for the bag is greasy by the time I get home (18/2/50).

6.2 During her diary entries of 1950, Miss Allen also shows how a greater variety of food was becoming available on public transport. On a train journey to Yorkshire, she comments:

there was a choice of four main dishes, of biscuits and cheese or pudding. The meals were ample compared with pre-war when a second helping would often have been welcome. The food was well-cooked and nicely served, and the attendants very much more pleasant than pre-war (13/4/50).
On the way home from her trip to Yorkshire, Miss Allen again comments that there were 'more good meals on the train' and has a similar experience in July, when 'during a meal on a train, I was offered "chicken suit". I had some to celebrate the first time of being able to have chicken on a train: it was very good' (8/7/50).

6.3 Upon visiting the butchers one Saturday in April, Miss Allen is surprised to find that 'there was only pork left' and because she did not eat pork, 'I had my ration in corned beef. There were enough for two meals, at midday on Saturday and Sunday' (7/4/50). During her trip to Yorkshire, she describes a fish stall at a market in Rotherham 'announcing no rise in prices'. She tells a story of a stallholder calling over to another one in 'a semi-disgusted humorous voice: "I know a market where there's plenty of money. I'm going to Grimsby market tomorrow" (Fish prices just decontrolled) (17/4/50). In May, she reports a conversation she overhead between her neighbours about 'the high price of oranges and said that they did not mean to buy any at 1/6 a pound especially as those in the shops seemed to have such thick skins' (8/5/50).

6.4 Miss Allen's short diary narratives are dominated by her experiences of shopping trips, her observations of others and the conversations she had with shop-keepers and other customers:

Ben [the butcher] again. The queue at the butcher's was very long, with a wait of 30 minutes or so for each person. One woman started teasing Ben, who until then had been too busy to joke. He said: "Seeing so many women all at once shows you what a harem is like". The woman answered: "And you know you'd love to be in one!" (8/4/50).
Ben the butcher served an elderly woman with a fine looking piece of beef, and remarked, "the gravy will be nice, even if you don't eat the meat (6/5/50).

6.5 The personal nature of shopping at this time and the practice of delivering food comes through the diary:

Ben again. A woman with two ration books asked for a leg of mutton. "Shall we send it for you?" asked Ben. "it'll help to have it sent in all this rain" (25/4/50).

6.6 Intrinsic to the shopping trips at this time was queuing which she comments about in August:

The crowd at the greengrocer's was just too awful, as bad as yesterday's. So I waited and went later, when the queue was small. A young woman was talking to an elderly lady about the long queues for potatoes. "Oh, are they short?" asked the old lady in surprise (11/8/50).

Post-war food practices

7.1 These narrative archival data, while not providing great insights into the life stories of the diarists, are rich in small stories (Bamberg 2004). These diaries selected from the Mass Observation Archive illustrate a number of food practices that were commonplace in 1950, a time of continuing food shortages and rationing.

7.2 First, in relation to the focus of the paper they tell us much about the temporality of women's everyday lives and how rationing and its consequences interrupted 'normality' and helped to establish new practices. One example is the collection of rations that was very much part of the temporal cycle of women's everyday lives. The practice is described as embedded in other mundane and less mundane activities: 'got rations this morning, and looked at a local stone mason's yard…' (Mrs Perks 14/4/50). The diaries reveal both the extraordinary aspects of daily life created by food shortages and rationing and the ways in which managing becomes integrated into the temporality of everyday practices.

7.3 With the continuation of post-war rationing in 1950, the practice of shopping, as described by these Mass Observation diarists, was, perhaps inevitably, dominated by queuing, shopping on particular days when specific goods were more in abundance and when coupons were available to spend. The extracts from Mrs Perks' diaries clearly show that the bulk of her shopping took place on a Friday when her rations coupons could be used. This is confirmed by the survey of 100 married working-class women, carried out by Mass Observation in 1951 called The Housewife's Tale, which found that more housewives said they had specifically gone out to shop on Friday, Saturday and Tuesday (in that order) than on any other weekday. The mean expenditure on the Tuesday was roughly only one third of that for the Friday or Saturday, when a mean value of 29 shillings and 30 shillings were spent. Furthermore, roughly twice as many housewives said they had bought rationed groceries on a Friday as on any other day.

7.4 Second, in the context of the established materiality of the coupon currency from the early part of the war and the practices that arose in the context of using ration coupons, the diarists from 1950 are attentive to, and reflective about, the practice. They express their experiences of and sometimes political views about, rationing. Instead of shrouding their accounts of rationing in narratives of hardship and austerity, they sometimes depict rationing as not always having detrimental effects on them, but as a necessary policy and practice to ensure fair distribution of food. Mrs Perks says that rationing is a 'good thing' ensuring she can buy enough food when the holidaymakers are around. And in her diary of March 1950, Miss Allen ponders whether increases in food prices and less availability of some items was because 'my sister does not now have her margarine and cooking fat rations and I do not have my egg ration'.

7.5 Third, the narrative data are sometimes particularly graphic in the diarists' evaluations of the interpersonal aspects associated with food rationing. Food shortages and rationing heightened loyalties to particular shopkeepers and cemented people's personal relations with them and other shoppers. People had to purchase goods in specific shops where their coupons were registered. This meant shoppers got to know these shop-keepers well, as Miss Allen's diaries illustrate, in which she frequently refers to 'Ben', the butcher. One of the most striking themes in the diaries was the social element of shopping in that period, in part a spin-off from queuing for food because of shortages but also because food was sourced from small local shops. As a result, talking to or eavesdropping on other shoppers was common. Loyalties to particular shop-keepers, a practice that was already established before the war, were also evident in home visits carried out to deliver foodstuffs, for example, when 'the baker had brought me some yeast, and I made good batch of buns' reported by Mrs Perks. The diaries illustrate the last days of shopping in separate shops as the advent of the supermarket on the high street was just around the corner (Hamlett et al. 2008).

7.6 A fourth aspect of post-war food practices demonstrated by the diaries is that they show clearly how people 'made do' with what was available in times of shortages necessitating a number of imaginative and innovative practices such as using more unusual foodstuffs, such as 'exotic' vegetables: as Mrs Perks wrote in her June 1950 diary, 'mange tout, which I have never tried', and frozen foods, which had grown rapidly in popularity since the 1940s. Practices also involved not wasting food and using all that was available even if this resulted in a very simple meal. Mrs Perks described having broccoli for lunch though she considered it not the 'best time for it' and using old plums from the trees. Mrs Upton and her husband had stewed fruit for tea. In contrast, for Mrs Perks, generally food shortages were less – fruit was plentiful and cheaper in Dorset where she grew a lot of produce and did not spend all her rations, reflecting the difference between availability of food in rural areas and an industrial city. In her diaries, Miss Allen shows how particular foods were becoming more plentiful in 1950 and thereby having the effect of changing habits again; she refers several times to having a the greater choice of food on train journeys and this is accompanied by a more positive attitude of the train 'attendants'.


8.1 We suggest that in seeking to study food practices, the researcher must take account of their muted, mundane and moral character. First, in relation to morality and issues of socially desirable reporting; one question we might ask is whether diary writing is less subject to normative constraints than solicited interview accounts, that is, are diary entries less constrained by issues of status and shame? Of course one answer is that diary writing is, like talk, limited by convention and additionally, depending on the intended or imagined audience, the diarist may self censor or consciously or unconsciously seek to represent a particular version of events or themselves. However, it could also be argued that writing a diary, in contrast to being asked direct questions in an interview about everyday life which includes food and eating, allows the writer to have the time and space to reflect on what has happened in the short term, and to think and write freely. This was particularly the case for the Mass Observation diarists as they were deliberately given no special instructions on what or how to write. For example, whilst Mrs Perks writes about a child's fussiness about food, and blames the 'holiday people' for some of the shortages they experienced, another diarist, Miss Ferry (a 58 year old single woman, working as civil servant) confesses in her diary of February 1950, that she was offered bananas that were 'under the counter!' by the local greengrocer.

8.2 We suggest, therefore, that whilst normativity is likely to be reflected in a face-to-face interview, the distance between the reader and writer facilitates freedom of expression and maximises potential for disclosure; the fact that the diarists were guaranteed anonymity and knew they were not going to be asked to elaborate or defend what they had written perhaps enabled them to feel safe in saying exactly what they thought. As Hinton (2010) has pointed out, because the diary entries were posted to Mass Observation rather than being kept in people's houses, the diarists were sometimes more prepared to reveal things to Mass Observation than to their families. This short extract from the diary of Mrs Mason, a 65 year old housewife from Gateshead, illustrates this point nicely. It suggests that narratives are shaped for different audiences, are always developing and never complete, and how other possible versions of stories are excluded in the process of narrating (Loots, Coppens and Sermijn 2013). Mrs Mason was writing in response to a note from Mass Observation about the importance to the organisation of her (and others correspondents') diaries:

I was very pleased to hear my work is of any use and appreciated. The human mind is strange. It contains many secrets. Someday I'll perhaps say things here I've never mentioned to a soul. I'd love to write my life and the people I've met. It would …not be fiction. (D 5296 Diary from May 1950).

8.3 This quotation seems to show that some of the diarists felt a certain sense of freedom from the need to meet social norms in their writing. Therefore, we suggest that the diary, akin in some ways perhaps to the self completion questionnaire, potentially avoids some of the pitfalls of socially desirable responses.

8.4 Second, and related to this, is the issue of mutedness. It has been suggested that the concepts of social science and hegemonic discourses do violence to everyday experience by limiting possibilities for expression (Ardender 1975); one reason given by some for 'open' or unstructured interview methods (DeVault 1990). One question here might be whether diaries provide a space for thinking or writing from 'concrete experience'? Here we would suggest again that whilst diaries are to some degree constrained by the conventions of the genre, it would seem, given that the diaries varied considerably in their style and length, that the diary did not determine the structure or content of what diarists wrote. On the other hand, as shown above, diarists did not always write about their own experiences at all, as is the case with Miss Allen's diary, in which she did not write about the personal, nor did she discuss her emotions and opinions. Further, in relation to their muted character, it is also important to note the methodological issue of those whose diaries are absent from Mass Observation Archive, (working class women and men, for example) as well as what is glossed over/ taken for granted in the diaries, such as men's accounts of food practices outside growing food.

8.5 Finally, regarding the issue of the mundane character of food practices, one question might be how far our use of historical diary data addresses issues of lack of salience and the problem of uncovering that which is taken for granted. As already noted, as Plummer (2001) suggests, diaries that are written contemporaneously can address issues of 'recall'. Indeed this is one reason they are used, for example, by food researchers in recording food intake. Diaries of everyday life have the advantage of retaining the social and personal dimensions of food and eating which are lost in more straightforward recording of food eaten as carried out by in nutrition studies.

8.6 In terms of revealing the mundane an advantage for us was that, since 'the past is a foreign country' (Lowenthall 1985), as 'outsiders' we were alerted to what must have been taken for granted by the diarists. Thus we saw it as an advantage that these writers belonged to a different age. What to them seemed familiar and hence not worthy of comment, to us as researchers living in a different age seemed strange and unfamiliar. Even though only one of us had any memory of the 1950s we were aware that the post-war period is not like our own present; even though it is also a time of austerity, we do not share the largely political consensus and greater social equality, partly as a result of rationing, of post-war Britain (O'Connell et al. forthcoming). How we make sense of these data therefore may well be different again in the future.


9.1 The interrogation of some of the Mass Observation diary data from 1950 has led us to understand food practices in the particular context of post-war Britain and to show the different ways that food fitted into the everyday lives of women in that time. We have suggested that narrative data drawn from archival sources are one way of accessing habitual food practices and allowing us as researchers to see the deeply embedded nature of food and eating in the everyday. The narratives of the diarists and the accounts in the directives are a reflection not just of the personal, everyday and micro-level. As Shove et al. (2012) suggest, social practices emerge, flourish and disappear and so are integral to understanding the processes of social change. Practices constitute the meso-level connecting the micro (personal performance or experience of practices) to the macro-level of social structure and cultural beliefs, reflecting the relationship between agency and structure and the connection of individuals to society (Southerton 2009).

9.2 In this study we have suggested that food practices changed in response to the changes caused by war and state control of food. However, following Shove et al. (2012) we would argue that the practices themselves develop trajectories in the context of changing meanings, competencies and technologies surrounding food. To conclude, we suggest that researching the place of food in people's lives involves understanding that it is not straightforward or self-evident. But rather food is embedded in everyday social routines and relations and therefore concerns matters which are mundane, moral and often muted in discourse. Looking back at diaries written by people in the wake of two world wars and the continuation of food rationing provides one lens that illuminates the everyday while inevitably much remains invisible. Narrative data, like all forms of data, are provisional.


We are very grateful to Curtis Brown Group Ltd on behalf of The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive for granting permission for us to quote extracts from diaries from 1950. We would also like to thank the staff at the Mass Observation Archive for their help during our study.


1The Mass Observation Archive was established in 1937 by an anthropologist, Tom Harrisson, a sociologist and poet, Charles Madge and a film-maker, Humphrey Jennings, to carry out 'an anthropology of ourselves'. Ordinary men and women were asked to keep diaries to record their everyday lives. Between 1939 and the early 1950s, about 500 men and women kept diaries, but because no special instructions were given, these varied considerable in their length and substance. The men and women were also asked about three or four times a year to answer questions relating to a broad range of topics in the form of 'directives'. These topics included their views about British foreign and domestic policy, how the war was effecting them, social class, growing older, rising prices and food.

2The Mass Observation Archive has since moved to a new venue, The Keep, in Falmer, Sussex.

3In this paper, the diarists' names are all pseudonyms in order to preserve anonymity.

4Here Mrs Upton is referring to a popular BBC radio programme about a middle-class couple, called Mrs Dale's Diary.


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