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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1990

Country Living in the 1920's

Country Living in the 1920's

page 29

The Local Store

The local storekeeper who sold groceries is now a figure in history.

It is so easy, in our modern consumer society with Supermarkets and pre-packaged foods, to forget that this is a development of the postwar years. The cash economy has brought many changes.

Many of us, especially those from country districts, remember the grocer who sold a great variety of merchandise.

He really conducted a local trading post, buying in such things as eggs, buuer and sheepskins. There was little specialisation and, as well as groceries, such items as footwear, clothing and farm necessities were available for sale.

The storekeepers received their supplies in bulk, with sugar in 70 pound (32kg) jute bags, while flour arrived in 100 pound (45kg) calico bags. Flour could also be bought in 200 pound (90kg) sacks. For those customers who required flour of sugar in smaller quantities, these items were weighed out into brown paper packets. Many customers bought by the bagful.

Country store. Stewart Collection. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Country store. Stewart Collection. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Bags and Sacks

In the now unbelievably hard times between the two World Wars, when depression and then slump conditions prevailed, there were great problems for much of the country's population. But it was a 'Waste not want not' society, so the empty flour and sugar bags were washed and made up into a great variety of articles. As the flour bags were made of good quality calico, it was a really good material for clothing and household purposes. They served as pillowcases, tea-towels, page 30aprons, tablecloths and, Joined together, as sheets. Sugar bags came in for an even greater variety of uses on the farm, in the garden and in the home. After being washed, they could be used for making many different articles. Some of the women's groups had competitions, where people displayed things which they had made from the bags. These included aprons, towels for drying feet, kits, kneeling mats and so on. Oatina (porridge meal) bags were like fine linen. When washed and crocheted round the outside, they made lovely handkerchiefs.

The re-use of sacks and bags was normal practice on the farms. The writer grew up in a country district which was not a particularly prosperous mixed farming area. Times were hard but, when motor transport became available to and from the railway, farmers grew many acres of potatoes, which were railed to the city merchants. Grain sacks were used to hold the potatoes and held about 200 pounds (90kg). The full bags were not easy to manhandle. I was involved in a country carrying business and handled thousands of them. A change came after World War II, when fertiliser bags were available. These did not hold as much and were far easier to handle. A further development was the use of Cental bags, an overseas product. Originally intended to hold 100 pounds (45kg) of corn, they had been used in this country for handling bulk vegetables. They held 55 to 60 pounds (say 26kg) of potatoes and were easy to handle.

With the use of smaller bags, potatoes were often sold to retail outlets, or direct to householders. Sugar bags were a similar size and, until they became scarce, were the usual containers. Multiwall paper bags are now in regular use right from the grower to the consumer.

Kerosene and Petrol Tins

Sometimes on TV, or in magazines, we sec pictures taken in Third World countries of people carrying water in four gallon tins, sometimes balanced on their heads. It would scarcely be a comfortable load, but possibly the people in such places do not have wire to make handles.

With the fairly general use of plastic products, including buckets, it is hard for people to visualise the old square kerosene and benzine tins.

Before electric power was introduced, kerosene was in fairly general use for house lights. When petrol became an everyday requirement, it also was sold in tins.

Country stores kept limited petrol stocks to supply their clients. Motorists travelling long distances normally carried additional petrol but, unfortunately, some drivers just discarded their empty tins at the side of the road. As well as being unsightly, they sometimes caused accidents. Horses would take fright when they saw the strange shiny articles, which reflected the sunlight.

There was soon a surplus of tins and, naturally, they were put to many uses.

The old square buckets were very much in evidence around homes, in gardens, and on the farms. When used for milk buckets, wise people ran solder round the inside seams, to make them quite sterile, while some tins were cut down to a lower height, for feeding calves. One of the most obvious uses was for carrying water and, when potatoes were picked up by hand, what better container than a bucket. Contract picking of green peas was paid for at the rate of so much a bucketful. The tomato growers picked their fruit into buckets. Raspberry growers painted inside the tin buckets, which were used to collect the fruit from the smaller containers carried by the pickers. On farms, tins were used for the rendered down fat from the home killed mutton sheep. Country stores bought the full tins at prices which varied at different times, from say five shillings, down to one shilling.

The sheet metal from the tins was also used for a great variety of purposes. Sheds were sometimes walled with flattened out sheets of tin and, where a wall was tarred, it lasted fairly well, but otherwise it soon rusted badly. It was not a lasting material for roofs, but was an easy material to work with, and could be made into many different usable articles for house and workshop, including bowls and trays.

Tins cut in half lengthways were used as seed boxes in nurseries, and plants such as tomatoes were often sold in these containers. When my own people were buying their bulk supply of petrol in cases of two tins each, we saved the tins and sold them to the State Forest Service for one shilling page 31each, for use in their nurseries. Possibly one of the more unusual practical uses, was filling tins with concrete, to produce lasting piles when house building. Tins were not particularly good for toilet purposes and, when used for dunny buckets, they soon rusted out.

It is correct to say that many good uses could be made of what was an otherwise waste product. Perhaps one could make some comparison with modem times, when we see the great many uses that oil drums are put to. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but the convenience of a readily available article leads to invention.

Unlike plastic, tins did not lead to the waste disposal problem that we now have, as they were easily crushed down flat, and rusted away in a few short years.

Country stores installed petrol pumps when bulk petrol was introduced, but this meant that the pumps were locked when the stores closed up. Some storekeepers could be persuaded to supply out of hours, if the need was urgent. Eventually, country hotels also installed petrol pumps.

When the petrol came in tins there was not a great deal of competition, but the big companies each turned out a cheaper grade. Shell, who also supplied Big Tree, had Power in petrol, while Vacuum supplied Kalif, in addition to their high grade Plume brand. Of course, motorists had their own preferences. The Tadmor store had one of the few Big Tree bowers, and one man drove past the Shell and Plume pumps to buy Big Tree at Tadmor. He believed that his car ran better on that brand!

As time went along, Atlantic and other brands appeared and competition became more keen.

Store Vans

Store vans, four-wheeled vehicles pulled by two horses, travelled round the valleys making weekly visits to peoples' homes. The travelling storeman carried most essential requirements to supply to customers, and bought the eggs, butter and other thing which people had to sell. Sheepskins were loaded on the rack on top of the van, while poultry cages were slung underneath.


The farms were small in our district, so there was a variety of activities. Most folk hand milked a small herd of cows and provision of fresh milk and butter was an aid to the rearing of healthy families. My own folk owned a small, hand-turned Alpha Laval cream separator, but some neighbours used the wide milk pans to set the milk and then skimmed the thick cream, when it rose to the surface. We also had a small steel chum, which rotated at speed when turned with a handle. There was a beater inside, but I do not remember whether it turned in the opposite direction to the chum, or stood still. We used to like to have a drink of fresh buttermilk, when this was drained off the butter. The fresh butter had to be worked, to get all the buttermilk out, and then the right amount of salt worked into it.

The butter would be weighed either in single pounds (.454kg), or in a lump of greater amount, say ten pounds (4.536kg) or more. The pounds were wrapped in paper, while the larger lumps were wrapped in muslin. I well remember my mother being very hurt when the store owners sent out a letter to their suppliers, to say that some butter was under weight. My poor mother was scrupulously honest and always put a little extra on the pat as she weighed the butter out. The return for all this work was only a few pence per pound, but it was done to counter the cost of our household requirements.

Sometimes butter had to be kept for use through the winter. There was no refrigeration and extra salt was added, which enabled it to keep for some months.

Home Remedies

Every household kept a number of different medicines and remedies for most ordinary problems. One thinks of Senna leaves for Senna Tea, of Castor Oil, Perry Davis Painkiller, Epsom Salts, Kruschen Salts, Beecham's Pills, De Witt's Pills, Aspros, Lane's Emulsion, Bonnington's page 32Irish Moss, Doan' s Ointment, Vaseline, Cuticura Ointment, the list goes on and on. No doubt there were plenty more preparations for home treatment of all ills. With no local doctor or chemist, people did their own prescribing. The local stores would be required to keep a large stock of their requirements.


No doubt there were many different brands of soap available, but the two that I best remember were Lifebuoy and Sunlight. Soap was also sold in long bars. I remember that my Mother always used St Mungo powder for her copper washing.

From time to time, a supply of home made soap was boiled up in the copper. Freshly rendered down tallow was readily available on the farms, where mutton was butchered on the premises. This tallow became the main ingredient, but folk had recipes to tell them what other ingredients to use to produce a satisfactory product. I haven't a recipe to refer to, and the only ingredients which I remember were borax and caustic soda, obtained from the store. After boiling, the mixture was cut up into bars and squares, while still warm. When kept, it became very hard and was not suitable for personal washing, but was ideal for scrubbing and various other purposes.

Home Butchering

On the farms we were used to seeing the butchering done at home and even looked forward to the pig killing, which produced bacon. Of great interest, on the occasional trips to town, was seeing the butcher's shops with carcasses hanging up. Customers chose the joint of roast they wanted, and the butcher then cut it off on his large wooden block.


The weekly baking was one of the routine jobs for the homemaker, but it was a job which took a great deal of time. A really lengthy process produced good bread. Experience was required to know the right temperature to get the dough to rise and just when to punch it up again and put it into the tins for baking. Fortunately, we had a brick oven, which was heated by a wood fire inside. When sufficiently heated, the fire was drawn, the filled tins were slid in, and then the door was closed and sealed with clay mud. As far as I can remember, it took about one hour to cook the bread and there was a wonderful smell when the oven door was opened.

People made their own barm, as the yeast, or leaven, was called, which induced the dough mixture to rise. Hops bought from the store and potatoes were used in the process, and each week some barm was kept to get the next mixture to mature. My mother normally had two bottles filled, with the corks tied down very firmly with string. Sometimes one bottle would work too well, blow the cork, and the mixture would froth up and waste. Why did these bottles always choose to blow, with a loud bang, in the middle of the night?

A wonderful change took place when cakes of compressed yeast came on the market, and could be obtained from the storekeepers.

Eventually, baker's bread was delivered to most folk who were not too isolated. At first by horse vehicle, and later by motors. The loaves at that time weighed the full four pounds (1.814kg), but they were not wrapped. Wrapped bread is a much more recent development, made much easier with the adoption of light plastic bags. Ready-sliced bread was not available prior to their use.


There was always a flock of fowls, which ran loose, which lead to the problem of finding the eggs. Our home rested on river boulders for piles and fowls sometimes laid their eggs underneath. One of the worst things I had to do was to crawl under and find the eggs. I was rather a bulky lad and it wasn't always easy to get under the bed plates of the house foundations. Sometimes, I seemed to be stuck getting through and naturally I howled. It is only correct to say that I developed a phobia page 33about confined spaces and, although I have been in caves and mines over the years, I have never felt comfortable about it.

It was easy to tell the fresh eggs from those which were not. The good eggs were sold to the storeman at so many pence a dozen, but it was never a great price.

Household Water Supply

To collect water for household use, most homes had a red iron tank, with a capacity of four hundred gallons (1,818 litres), to store the rain water which drained off the roof. These square tanks, which were in general use, came into the country as safe containers for the shipment of crockery, or other fragile imports. As well, most homes had a hand operated lever pump, to lift water from an underground well, Even when a few odd windmills dotted the countryside, the red tanks were still in evidence.

With no running water, it was natural that bathing took place in a large oval tub, which was moved into the house for the occasion. Water had to be specially heated for the purpose, but bath time in front of a winter fire was quite an event. There may have been a mineral deficiency in our district's water, as many of us had rotten teeth as children.


As children, most of us walked to school on gravel roads, which meant having to wear boots, although we preferred bare feet in summer. The country storekeepers always stocked boots, but usually we each had one pair at a time, as we soon grew out of them. With the gravel roads and muddy playing grounds, the boots got pretty grimy, but these same boots had to be cleaned and blacked on Saturdays, to be ready to wear to Sunday School or Church on Sundays. There were two brands of blacking available, Radium and Nugget, and we always used Radium polish.

My folk were never well off, but they lived simply, paid their way, and provided us with a stable, Christian home.