The thing about Ladybird Books … well, one of the things … there are a lot of things … but one of my favourite things about Ladybird Books is the way they capture domestic scenes in snapshot. Details of 20th century daily life, insignificant at the time, can pack a particular zeitgeist punch because they slip under our guard.
I recently posted a picture online of a tea table laid for a tea party.
It evoked lots of comments as people focused on the details on the table: the tea-cosy, the proportion of cakes to sandwiches, the home-made jam tarts (always either red or yellow and of indeterminate sweet taste) and the cellophane frill around the cake.
(In the era of The Great British Bake Off and Choccywoccydoodah many of us had forgotten that humble yet gaudy, fringed cellophane cake frill the jazzed up your party cake. It seems my family was not alone in using the same cake frill for years, carefully removing it as the cake was eaten and putting it in a kitchen drawer where it would shed small pieces of hard icing through the year until next called on for active cake service).
Eggs are another example of the spirit of the times lurking quietly in domestic detail. I eat eggs today; I ate eggs when I was little (in the late 60s). But looking through Ladybird Books of the late 50s to early 70s it’s clear that eggs today aren’t what once they were. Eggs loomed larger in our lives. Eggs weren’t about mayonnaise or quiche or souffle or even omlettes. They were about poached, boiled, fried or scrambled. Particularly, if Ladybird artwork and my memory are correct, about boiled.
Egg cups – every body had egg cups in their cupboard. Most people had their own egg cup which was fiercely defended. (Perhaps it once came ‘free’ with your Easter egg?) Timing eggs was important. You knew the difference in consistency of a 4 minute egg or a 6 minute egg. Egg timers were mainly used for timing eggs – not for playing board games. You knew, or thought you knew, or knew … whichever! … that it was (or wasn’t) healthy to go to work or school on an egg.
Boiled eggs might be the centrepiece of a salad.
Then how did you keep your egg warm until its time had come? You were invited to knit egg cosies, or to give egg cosies as presents.
And when you’d finished eating your eggs, egg boxes were the staple of Ladybird craft activity.
The egg is still with us – but the Ladybird artwork evidence suggests that its importance has waned. Once the egg was something – majestic in its simplicity. Now it’s more likely to be an ingredient, among other ingredients, on a long list in a complex recipe.