Culture

Smog Masks

By Bernie Bell

I’m watching a television series called ‘Back In Time For The Corner Shop’.  The idea is to take an average corner shop, and follow its fortunes from the Victorian era, to the 1990’s.  I like it – it has factual history, fashions, and music that I recognize from when I was young, including my Mum’s old favourite – Lonnie Donegan   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wI4nRD-DRpk

Also, the family who are being shopkeepers through all these changing times are pleasant people,  and are a family who work together and get on well, even in difficult circumstances.

Friday evening was the 1950’s and 60’s  https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000g6pl/back-in-time-for-the-corner-shop-series-1-3-50s-and-60s , and something in particular caught my attention – smog masks.  The ‘pretend’ corner shop is in Sheffield, and in the early 1950’s Sheffield was a booming post-war city of industry – it was some decades away from the Sheffield of the unemployed/redundant steel-workers of The Full Monty, queuing to sign on the Dole  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4wuH9pSSRo

This meant that there was a problem with smog, which is a thick, polluted kind of fog, which can kill people.  In the early 50’s, thousands died from smog related illness in London – and the other industrial cities of Britain didn’t fare much better.

The family in the programme were introduced to smog masks  – copies of those which were originally used –  and which, as Sarah Cox, the presenter, observed, looked like “Yer Dad’s Y-fronts” – and they did! 

The first face masks which me and Mike bought to protect ourselves and those around us from Coronavirus last Spring, looked very like the ones in the programme – like jock-straps or posing pouches!

Mike was reluctant to be seen out in them – but needs must, and, until we got something more snazzy, that’s what he wore a couple of times for our weekly shop in the Co-op.  Not nice, but wearing them wasn’t a fashion statement, it was….. vital.

People in the big industrial cities of the 1950’s had to wear face masks for some years, until the Clean Air Act of 1956, which introduced a number of measures to reduce air pollution.   They had to wear those masks or suffer the consequences – so – they wore them.

Then, time passed, the air of Sheffield became cleaner – cleaner still when cheap imports put an end to the steel industry. But that’s another matter.

At the present time, we wear masks because we need to – because they are vital to our well-being and survival, and to the well-being and survival of those around us.  At least these days we can get stylish/colourful/groovy masks and bandanas to wear ….

What’s to complain about?  Try living in Sheffield, or any other industrial city of the early 1950’s, and trying to breathe with or without a mask on.

It’s been worse, it’s been as bad, it’ll get better.

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