One of the best things about the Orange Oral History group is the diversity of the backgrounds of its members.
We are a miscellaneous lot, both men and women, and together we stimulate our memories and our thoughts on all manner of things.
This month our subject was shopping - what we bought, how we did it and where it was done.
As usual the discussion drew forth a lot of interesting stories and much laughter.
Shops and the manner in which we shopped have changed enormously in our lifetimes.
The small corner shops which were often known as general stores have all but been taken over by large supermarkets, while the little shops specialising in one area of merchandise have been replaced by large department stores.
As a consequence much of the personal service has been replaced by huge areas displaying goods but with few actual human beings to assist the hapless customer.
The digital age has meant that, although it may be more convenient to shop online, we have lost a great deal of the face-to-face social interaction which was available in our youth.
The people in our group who were children during and after the Second World War have fond memories of the time before the great changes in retail took place.
We could all remember the corner shop and considered the time when the grocer would thrust his hand into the huge Arnott’s biscuit tin to fill your brown paper bag with broken biscuits, expertly taking the corners and swinging it around to secure the top. Then, with the same hand, he would delve into the lolly jar for a handful of your favourite sweets.
Did we suffer from more stomach upsets in those careless, and carefree days or were our immune systems trained to resist more germs, we wondered. Probably not, we just didn't hear about it.
We certainly didn't have to struggle with layers of impossible to remove plastic wrapping as we do today.
One of our group is Mick Fitzpatrick, who worked in Western Stores in Orange and remembers the crafty way the customers were enticed into the store.
“Every Friday morning we would grind up coffee beans and throw some on the floor behind the counter to make the shop smell delicious,” he said.
Mick started his working life with Gallaghers, delivering ice at 5 o’clock in the morning from a horse and cart.
“I'd go into the houses with the big blocks of ice and put it into the ice chest and take the money which was left on the kitchen table,” he said.
“I also delivered grocery orders from the top of Peisley Street out to Bloomfield and along the Bathurst road to past Duntryleague on dirt roads.”
Many of the group remembered the coupons which were issued during the war to ensure that everyone had an equal share of goods that were in short supply.
“I still shudder when I remember losing a whole page of coupons,” said Rosemary.
Bruce could sympathise with that and he mentioned the shelves in the grocers shop which seemed to go all the way to the ceiling. The grocer would slide a high ladder along the wall to find exactly what the customer wanted. He also wore a pencil cleverly balanced behind his ear to jot down important things.
Delivery men worked hard in those days. There was the milkman who drove a horse and cart and brought fresh milk to your waiting billy can on the front door step in the early hours, the baker with his basket of mouth-watering bread, and the grocer who sat in your kitchen taking your order while you went through the pantry to find what you needed.
“We lived four miles out of town,” remembered Elma, “and the butcher would drive out with the meat laid out for your inspection in the back of his ute. There was no refrigeration.”
Again we marvelled at the strength of our constitutions in those days.
Money had to be carefully managed and “my mother would send a list to Eugowra Woolworths and if it cost more than she could afford she would cross some things off the list, and go without,” said Pauline.
Goods could be put on lay-by, which meant it was kept for you until you had paid it off. It is hard to believe today.
“I wanted to buy a coffee table on ‘hire purchase’ in 1972,” said Leslye, “but although I was earning as much as my husband, I had to have his permission before I could go ahead.”
Others, like Reg and Tim, had occupations which required buying in bulk and surviving on the track as best they could.
“I was droving down from the Top End, mostly with pack horses, with one of them carrying the meat. The poor old horse was chased out of the mob by the other horses because of the way it smelt.”
Tim and his mates in the mustering camps had novel methods of making their own bread.
“The bread would have to rise,” he told us. “You’d stick it in a couple of sugar bags on either side of your horse to heat it up. It gave a really nice sweaty flavour to it,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.
Keeping the meat on a long ride was always difficult.
“We dry salted the meat and hung it on a wire between two trees. The cook would get it down when it was needed and bang it on the tree to get the maggots off and that was dinner. Our diet was so poor that we used to suffer from Barcoo Rot, which was another name for scurvy.”
As usual the Oral History group was able to conjure up stories of a past which has been nearly forgotten. This was a time when people relied upon their own skills to produce the food and clothing we needed. Most women sewed clothes for the entire family, we grew our vegetables and rarely dined out and consequently we lived within our means.
We never attempt to say that this was a better way to live – just different.
- The Orange Oral History Group meets at 10am on the third Monday of the month at Orange City Library