Natural Wood Blog

Lillian Shiels attended the road show in Portlaoise and blogged about it for the Natural Wood Blog.

Have you ever thought about how much our kitchen appliances, tools and aids have advanced and improved so much in the last half century? I went to the Modern Life Modern Wife roadshow in Portlaoise last night. This exhibition is focusing on what life was like for women in the 1960s, it will culminate in a wonderful exhibition in the Print Museum in Dublin in July and August. At the moment, Dr. Ciara Meehan is travelling around Ireland showing some items from the museum, gathering more artefacts and of course, gathering stories.

Read the post in full here.

Advertisement in Woman's Way magazine, 1964

A Washing Machine in the House

Jennifer Meehan recalls the transformative effect that a washing machine had on her mother’s daily routine:

“She had washing for nine people, and she did it on a Monday. In those days everybody washed on a Monday. She did the washing in a tin bath, put on two chairs in the kitchen, with a washboard. She would rub the clothes up and down the washboard, which had glass waves across it.

All day washing

Advertisement from The Irish Housewife annual.
Washing machines were regularly advertised as ‘must-have’ modern technologies in women’s magazines in the 1960s.

She’d be exhausted by the end of it, but she accepted it because that’s the way life was in those days.

A washing machine came into the house in the late ’60s. It was marvellous. It cut her washing by half a day. She didn’t have to get water brought to the house. On a Sunday night two of the family would have to go to the pump to collect buckets of water. And then on Monday morning she’d put it into big pots to be boiled and then poured into the bath to do the washing. She didn’t have to boil up the water. The machine did all that for her”.

Contributed by Jennifer Meehan.

Jennifer & Patrick Meehan on their wedding day, 18 July 1978. Pictured with Jennifer's parents, Kevin & Kathleen Byrne.
Jennifer & Patrick Meehan on their wedding day, 18 July 1978. Pictured with Jennifer’s parents, Kevin & Kathleen Byrne.

Have a memory of the 1960s that you’d like to share? Found out more here.

When Kay Johnson won Housewife of the Year, 1967

Michael Keyes shares his memories of when local woman Kay Johnson won the Housewife of the Year competition in 1967:

“It is funny how one reacts when something pops up in your Twitter feed that actually resonates and connects with you. Someone trying to trace the winner of the 1967 Housewife of the Year competition. Wow! I remember that.

The winner was Kay Johnson.

She was a friend of my mother and she lived just across the square from us. The fact that I remember her winning gives some idea of how big a deal it was because I was only seven at the time.

But then in West-Limerick in the 1960s it took very little to create a stir. A win for the local hurling team would be cause for loud celebration. If Limerick beat Cork a cavalcade of flag waving, beeping cars went forth into the enemy held territory of Milford, a mile inside the Cork border. Television was only just penetrating our lives — we got ours in 1967 — but with television we felt we had a dog in other fights. Watching Eurovision became a matter of national pride and it made celebrities of showband singers such as Butch Moore and Sean Dunphy.

My mother drew her attention

The idea that anyone local would appear on television let alone as winner of a national competition was too much to hope for, but then Kay Johnson did it.

It was my mother who drew her attention to the Housewife of the Year competition. She took the view that Kay was an exemplary housewife (in the 1960s sense). She was attractive, she was married to a professional man, she had seven children who were a credit to her, and she was a marvellous cook and an entertaining hostess.

It was if we had won the All-Ireland

When she won, Dromcollogher was en-fete. Kay appeared on The Late Late Show and I remember being allowed stay up late to watch. It was like watching a neighbour win an Oscar. When she returned home from Dublin there was a gala night of celebration in the Green Bar on the square. Normal licencing laws were ignored and the party went on into the early hours; it was as if we had won the All-Ireland.

Those were very different times when the idea of perfect womanhood involved raising children, keeping house and supporting a husband in his profession. Kay certainly seemed to manage all that and much more besides. She played badminton, she organised Tupperware parties and she put our town on the TV. The tragedy was that cancer cut her life short in the 1970s before she could enjoy all that it promised”.

Contributed by Michael Keyes.

Have a memory of the 1960s that you’d like to share? Found out more here.



Morphy Richards Hairdryer Ensemble, one of the objects of display at the exhibition.

Morphy Richards Hairdryer Ensemble

This is a picture of a Morphy Richards ensemble hairdryer, which was extremely popular in the 1960s and even into the 1970s. Usually produced in either pink or blue, there were a number of variations. The most notable feature of the design was the hood.

I tracked down the hairdryer in the picture via ebay, and it’s still working! There’s actually still plenty of them out there; one woman kindly rang into the Dave Fanning show when I was on to offer a loan of hers!

Advertisements for Morphy Richards hairdryers and the model in the picture above will be on display at the exhibition.

Delving into the pages of women’s magazines

Being based in the UK limits my access to Irish archives and the National Library of Ireland. Thankfully, though, I’ve had the excellent assistance of David Kenny with collecting material for the exhibition. In this post, he reflects on the experience:

Delving into the pages of women’s magazines

by David Kenny

Historical Sources

Having an interest in history, and having studied the subject as an undergrad, I was aware of the importance, as historical sources, of various magazines, journals, and sundry periodicals. I have seen many lecturers and speakers, books and documentaries refer to information gleaned from magazines to illustrate or underline points when discussing major events, social changes, political affairs, etc — all detailed by (sometimes) contemporary observers and printed in magazines. I now note, however, that these were largely generalist magazines, perhaps covering or analysing news, or detailing a new trend. Used like that, magazines can illustrate a point, but do so in a sort of isolation which does not contribute to fleshing out the broader context.

I had never considered focusing on one specific publishing genre, such as women’s weeklies. It is possible that this is because I never engaged in a ‘specialisation’ in studying history, and if I had, it is likely that I would have used sources pertinent to the specific field.

Tracking Change

However, in collecting articles for the Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition from issues of Woman’s Way printed in the 1960s, I was struck by the usefulness of a genre such as this for examining in much greater depth, changes in and developments of specific facets of life. I was struck, even in looking through a few years of material, at how Woman’s Way (and, I presumed, other magazines) can serve as a means of identifying, tracking and detailing change: social, economic, political, cultural….or in some cases, lack of change. This was 1960s Ireland after all- where (as any amateur historian will tell you) the morals, values and mores of the Church dominated many lives.

Looking at a publication over its life span can thus provide a timeline for change, contained in one source, and (to a certain extent, given design or editorial changes) with a consistent approach to delivering information.


Reading Woman’s Way confirmed many of what I would consider to be stereotypical conceptions about life in the mid 20th century. It was geared very much toward the housewife. It underscored that her role was to provide for her husband and family in terms of cooking, cleaning, clothing et al. I was largely expecting this as I am fairly familiar with the sort of social dynamics extant at the time, and the changes we have experienced since.

Surprising Content

One thing which I was not expecting was that Ireland, and its housewives, were quite similar to those in the US or the UK in terms of how they were marketed. Perhaps it is that I had subscribed to notions of a backwards Ireland, or that much of the historiography focuses on aspects of ‘rural’ lives, which could often still be underdeveloped up to the late 20th century! I learned through the ads and articles in Woman’s Way though that Irish housewives were as concerned with the newest labour saving devices, in keeping bills low and running an efficient house, and, of course in making themselves look beautiful for men, by spending lots of money on clothes etc. (Some of the pieces on how to ‘win’ a man by being a simpering Norman Rockwell pastiche were terrifying!)

Society’s Expectations

The advice columns and letters pages illustrate an Ireland utterly alien to me, though. The expectations and rules which 1960s society imposed on women in terms of behaviour, morals, work, duty and every other aspect of their lives are staggering. Anything a woman did was scrutinised and expected to fall within certain norms of behaviour. Looking at the history of women in society from a contemporary perspective, these demanding expectations appear as what would today be considered ‘fringe’ behaviours. Women’s Way showed me though that these were mainstream societal rules, with Catholic social doctrine and standards being published in the leading weekly women’s magazine. One item that particularly stood out as an example of this was a feature run over several weeks on family planning. The first week, the feature ran with advice for women, which appeared to me to be relatively liberal for the time, and I thought I may have been seeing evidence of change. I was quickly corrected though. The end of the article informed the reader than the next instalment would be written by a priest. This was presumably so that the Church’s view was explicit and that the women writing the articles (including a nurse) would not be mistaken for experts on the subject of being a woman.

A Learning Experience

I only examined a few years of the magazine, but was able to see how a project like this is of use in monitoring change, or even in gathering data on items of particular interest to a project. Gathering these documents was a great learning experience, both in terms of the logistics and organisation of this type of research, and in learning more about social developments (or lack of) in 1960s Ireland, from a perspective of the role of women.

The big ‘take away’ lesson for me derives from the fact that vast tracts of the magazine every week were given over to knitting patterns. In the past, I therefore assume that nobody bought clothes and everything was knitted. Where the incredibly busy housewives whose lives were detailed in the magazine found the time to knit wardrobes for their family, my research did not reveal.

Sex Education

Woman's Way, July 1968
Woman’s Way, July 1968

One noticeable feature in the letters pages of women’s magazines in the 1960s was the lack of knowledge about sex and intimacy. The above letter to Woman’s Way from April 1968 about lovemaking in a car is just one such example of a lack of understanding about how pregnancy can occur. The letter to the right from a mature woman reveals how little some women understood about how their bodies worked.

Sex education was not covered in schools, and it is apparent from much of the correspondence that parents were reluctant to discuss the subject with their children. Information booklets were available, but they weren’t always accessible, particularly for those living in rural Ireland. For many, women’s magazines were a prime source of information.

Sex Advice in the Exhibition

This panel features in the 'Advice to Newly Married Wives' section of the exhibition.
This panel features in the ‘Advice to Newly Married Wives’ section of the exhibition. (Click on the panel to enlarge it).