The Dawn of the Plastic Era.

Plastic are in the news every day just now. Although the problem isn’t new there is now an increased awareness of the damage we are doing to the planet by continuing to use non biodegradable plastics.

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This is not going to be a historical or scientific post about the invention and use of plastics. Those facts are readily available on the Internet – and make fascinating reading! This post is about how I remember plastics arriving in our lives in the 50s and quickly reaching every aspect of our lives over the next few decades.

I do remember some of our toys being plastic. I also remember toys made of tin which sounds really odd now! On one occasion when I was quite young I was bought a small doll as a present. I remember showing my mum the letters and numbers embossed in the plastic somewhere on the body of the doll. I thought the doll’s name was Pat which was also my mum’s name. What I had seen was the patenting information which began with Pat but actually said ‘Pat. pending, Pat. applied for or Pat. number’ which seemed to be on a lot of items then.

Picnic ware from my early childhood was enamelled metal. Remember the white mugs and plates with a blue edge? Later on we had plastic beakers for garden and picnic use.

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My baby doll, which I received for Christmas when I was about eight, was made of pottery. She wasn’t a shelf doll, made to collect and display. She was for playing with and I had years of fun with her. I must have been quite a careful child as I still have her. Three years later my sister was given a baby doll and she was made of a soft pink plastic.

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Apart from the creeping in of plastic toys and housewares, there are other everyday differences which come to mind. Bread was wrapped in tissue at the baker’s, fish and meat wrapped in greaseproof paper and then an outer layer of brown paper or newspaper. Fruit and veg was weighed and put into brown paper bags. Sweets were weighed out from large jars into white paper bags. Packaged food came in tins, packets or boxes. All this shopping was put into shopping bags brought from home or brown paper ones provided by the shop. Larger quantities would be carried or delivered in a cardboard box.

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At home, leftovers were covered with an upturned plate or bowl to keep the, fresh. There was no such thing as cling film. Milk bottles and pop bottles were all glass and all returnable. No food was sold in plastic pots, bags or containers of any sort.

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How we Learned in 50s and 60s Classrooms.

In my primary school I remember that a lot of lessons involved learning things by rote or ‘off by heart’ as we called it. The multiplication tables were recited by the whole class in unison first thing every morning – after the Lord’s Prayer and the alphabet. Then we recited other tables such as measurement – “Twelve Inches to One Foot, Three Feet to a Yard, 220 yards one-eighth of a mile, 440 yards one-quarter of a mile . . . ” and so on. The same was done for capacity, money, area and weight.

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All our exercise books had these charts on the back.

Our exercise books had all the charts printed on the back for handy reference although the rote learning ensured we didn’t need to fall back on that often!I certainly never forgot them! I also remember learning poems off by heart. I can still recite Cargoes by John Masefield.

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Cargoes by John Masefield

The sad thing is that nobody talked to us about the meanings of the poems. I had no idea what half the words meant in Cargoes, which is a shame as it’s a beautiful poem.

Primary school education was very ‘British’ – and in my case, Welsh. We didn’t have separate subjects called History, Geography Science etc. The history I learned was about the lives of British heroes – Scott of the Antarctic, Nelson and, of course, Saint David. We learned songs like Hearts of Oak, Over the Sea to Skye  (which I can still play from memory on the recorder) and many traditional Welsh ones.

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A wooden school recorder.            The book which every school used.

Science consisted of nature rambles when it was fine in summer. We never had PE but I think that was our Head’s choice and lack of fondness for activity rather than the norm for the times.

In secondary school our learning was still largely based on memorising facts and writing down dictated notes in our exercise books. Individual research was non-existent.

In maths two pieces of equipment come to mind which are probably now obsolete – correct me if I’m wrong! One was the slide rule which was an ingenious way of doing difficult calculations using a calibrated ruler with sliding parts. The other one was the book of log tables. We all had them. They are a very simple way of working out very large multiplications such as four digit numbers X four digit numbers. Log tables do a lot more complex maths than that but I’m talking about how we used them in school. Calculators and computers have probably done away with the need for these but professional mathematicians might tell me different.

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A 20thC log table book.                         A page from an early log table                                                                                                             book.

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Cover of a 17th C log table book.                     A slide rule.

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John Napier.                                                 William Oughtred.

Both the slide rule and the log tables were invented in the 17th Century, log tables by John Napier and the slide rule shortly afterwards by William Oughtred.