Vintage Garden History:
Amateur gardening was a popular pastime in the 1930s, with rows of neat flower beds in the front and back gardens of the newly built suburbs. These quickly turned into allotment styled gardens in the 1940s as the government asked us all to “Dig for Victory”. Before now a lot of food came from overseas which was stopped during World War 2 so the need to “grow your own” was needed more than ever. This was done by the women who also kept livestock, swapping eggs for vegetables with their neighbours adding to the wartime community spirit.
The 1950s saw a return to the 1930s garden with the men of the house taking over, growing prized Dahlias as well as marrows. The lady looked after the house but outside was clearly his domain along with his garden shed and greenhouse. Children enjoyed being outside too, spending most of their time here after school.
With the introduction of garden centres in the 1960s, families could for the first time buy anything from ponds to tools making the process of gardening easier. Gardens could be built in a weekend complete with fully grown shrubs, pastel coloured crazy paving and a cheeky gnome. The love affair with the great outdoors and making sure you had the best garden on the street has continued to the modern day however we now are looking to the past for inspiration using materials such as old railway sleepers as well as using vintage storage as planters.
Vintage Garden Furniture
Deck chairs became popular in the 1920s as they were used on holidays rather than at home. Rows of wooden framed chairs with brightly striped canvas were positioned on the deck of ocean liners, so the affluent traveller could look out to sea. They were also used at the seaside on promenades and piers; hiring out a deckchair by the hour became the perfect pastime in an age of enjoying life and spending time with loved ones.
With the rise of camping trips in the late 1950s, families sat on folding metal chairs still with striped canvas. These were more portable and could easily be thrown in the back of the car. By the 1970s the fabric had changed to large flowers and had matching sun loungers and footstools.
Another favourite chair in the 1950s was the woven tub or bucket chair on metal legs. These would have been indoor chairs taken outside on a sunny day, almost like conservatory furniture. All make great furniture now giving your garden that vintage feel.
Don’t leave vintage garden chairs out in the rain or over winter as they will fade or rot.
Vintage Garden Picnicware
In days gone by, when the sun came out, families packed up the car or the baskets or the bikes and went for a picnic. Picnics in the 1940s and early 1950s were eaten from china plates accompanied by proper cutlery. Brexton and Sirram made perfect sets in small, hard suitcases with pretty china held in place by leather straps. They would always contain a flask for your obligatory cup of tea, drunk from a pretty teacup. A blanket was thrown down, with the adults sitting on folding chairs and the children on the ground. The Morris 8 car had leather seats that could be removed for the adults to sit on. The youngsters ran off to pick wild flowers which were placed in a vase in the middle of the rug. Sandwiches were wrapped up in greaseproof paper and ham eaten straight from the tin as plastic storage had not yet become popular.
The ladies wore summer dresses, the kids flew kites and the men watched on, dressed in a suit. Even on beach trips the men would be quite smart, with their trousers rolled up to paddle in the sea.
Things really changed in the late 1950s with the increased popularity of plastic. As families started to enjoy camping trips rather than staying in traditional boarding houses, they fell in love with the durable, fun, coloured melamine made by Melaware and Gaydon Melmex.
The TV dinner concept took over the camping/picnic world in the early 1970s with stacked trays, plastic cutlery and a space for your drink. The Pac-A-Pic is by the far the funkiest way to eat outside with its layers of orange and white trays.
Many of the cased sets are sold without their original contents. While this is OK for some, this should be reflected in the price. A Brexton set would have had its own branded cups and plates, even the cutlery was theirs. It’s rare for the flasks to be original as these would have rusted over time so if you find these intact the set is more valuable.
Even in small vintage garden spaces you can follow the 1940s Dig for Victory campaign. Grow vegetables and fruit in reclaimed items such as 1930s enamel kitchen storage instead of terracotta or plastic pots. Large bread bins and flour jars are perfect for simple shrubs and small fruit bushes. A low enamel bath tub is perfect for shallow rooted lettuce leaves. All will need holes drilling in the base for drainage.
Swap modern watering cans with metal ones or white enamel pitchers; these will look great left out as garden ornaments adding to the vintage garden feel.
For a larger raised bed use an enamel full sized free standing bath. Plant lines of carrots and spinach as well as flowering plants such as courgettes to add colour. Maybe use a vintage ladder for small bedding pots.
The Belfast sink was redundant after the launch of the fitted kitchen in the 1950s. Position these outside the backdoor for easy to pick herbs or individual rocket leaves. Add some gravel or broken terracotta to the base to help with drainage.
Create an outdoor wash basin perfect for your wellington boots. Choose a large, shallow sink and position below your outdoor tap. This needs to be raised above ground level with some allowance for drainage from the plug hole. This could mean positioning it on grass or gravel. Alternatively use a plug!
This is from my book Style Your Modern Vintage Home
Read more on the subject in my blogs 5 ways to enjoy a 1950s Vintage Picnic and How to make an upcycled garden feeder