‘Stay at home’: creativity and ingenuity of homemakers



Our community is well accustomed to staying at home: working, studying, parenting and caring. 

Despite living in an era of plenty and convenience, under lockdown we have experienced restricted access to consumer goods, prompting some to aim for increased self-sufficiency at home. 

In the 19th and early 20th century, ‘stay at home’ was the rule for many women, due to social norms rather than a global pandemic. 

‘Making do’, a temporary measure for us perhaps, was a way of life for these homemakers. 

Before clothing and household items became cheaper to replace than to repair, the home was a hive of production and creativity. Everything from food and toys to clothing and homewares was made or mended in the household. The range and breadth of skills required, and work performed, was enormous – and without the benefit of modern labour-saving devices.

Stanton Library holds many objects demonstrating the creative skill involved in such domestic production. For example, a large collection of household textiles, including clothing, table linen, jug covers and bed linen, handmade in the 1940s by a young Milsons Point resident. 

She recalls: “Most of the people in this street lived in rental accommodation with very modest incomes. My grandmother had her age pension and my aunt made men's ties at home. They taught me to sew and knit and I have never felt such a sense of community as this area held.”

Home beautification was not solely the domain of women, however. Josef Tomek, a Czechoslovakian post-war immigrant who settled in Cammeray in 1968, spent two decades continually renovating and redecorating the family home, to express his personal style and heritage. 

Josef’s ingenuity with recycled materials and strong ‘do-it-yourself’ ethic also spoke of the hardship experienced in war-torn Europe. 

Josef was a keen home cook, and Stanton holds an intriguing collection of his kitchen utensils, either worn almost entirely away, uniquely customised or ingeniously repaired. You can hear more about his story on the online architectural history exhibition athomeinnorthsydney.com.au.

In the later 20th century, greater affluence, and the mass consumerism that followed, meant that homemakers no longer had to ‘make do’. The traditional domestic role of women was also reshaped by their increasing participation in the workforce, together with profound social and economic change. 

Today, even in ‘normal’ times, many people are embracing a more sustainable lifestyle and exploring traditional art and craft forms. Whether in response to environmental, economical or (corona)viral impact, the modern mantra, ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’, would sound equally sensible to the ears of a thrifty 1950s homemaker. 

Ian Hoskins, Contributor, North Shore Living Magazine

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