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When a Biro cost half a week’s wages


The quotations are all from advertisements in the Geographical Magazine, the official journal of the Royal Geographical Society, between 1936 and 1947. It is still published monthly.

DID you know that you could buy a new Ford Ten in 1938 for £145? ‘The luxury car for the economically inclined’, they called it. For only £12 more you could have the ‘Double-Entrance Saloon,’ by which I think they meant four-door.

Ford also offered a larger, posher and more powerful V8. This was £240 and had ‘clutch action and gear-changing of an exemplary order’. Don’t imagine everyone had a car, though, because average wages were only around £3/9/- per week, or as we would say today, £3.45.

That same year you could travel by Cunard liner to the New York World Fair for £27/5/- return.

Round about the same time a Remington Home Portable typewriter was nine guineas, £9/9/-. ‘Why keep your correspondents waiting when you could reply so easily and so quickly?’ their advert said. The Spectator magazine (which had been going since 1828 and is still with us) was ‘for those who feel that a knowledge of public affairs is essential’ and cost 6d a week (2.5p). It’s £5.75 now.

In 1944 we were urged to take Eno’s Fruit Salt, at 2/- and 3/6d a bottle. ‘A clean bloodstream is to the body what high grade petrol is to the Spitfire’, their advertisement told us. It’s still available at around the £3 mark.

By 1945 wages were around £5 a week, which made the new Biro costing £2/15/- a daunting purchase. It ‘never floods, bends or splutters . . . writes for six months or more . . . and a refill can be inserted while you wait.’ By 1946 they were claiming that it ‘writes approximately 200,000 words without refilling’, and a year later it was ‘a boon to left-handed writers . . . and makes at least six perfect carbon copies’. (Carbon copies? To make six copies you had six plain sheets interleaved with five layers of thin black ink-coated carbon paper, then you pressed hard on the top sheet. If using a typewriter you had to really bash the keys to get through to the bottom copy.)

Did you know about the Windak? The illustration in their April 1946 advertisement showed what we would call an anorak. ‘The very thing,’ the ad said, ‘for golfing, cycling, walking or just pottering.’ It was apparently a ‘civilian version of the official Airborne Army Smock.’ Price 107/3d. This form of pricing was often used, presumably to make it seem more affordable than £5/7/3d. The ladies’ model was 75/- or £3/15/-.

By the end of 1946 air travel was well under way. British Overseas Airways Corporation was advertising Johannesburg by way of Tripoli, Cairo, Khartoum and Nairobi. They didn’t dare quote the price, but boasted: ‘6,837 miles in three days, including 39 hours on the ground to temper speed with leisure.’

I like that phrase. Maybe that’s good advice for the reckless pace of the twenty-first century: temper speed with leisure. Meanwhile, think how lucky you are that you don’t have to use pens which flood, bend or splutter. Your Biro type writing instrument can be found for less than 10p each, though at that price it may not write for 200,000 words before you throw it away.

The good old days? Maybe.

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Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams is a freelance writer and has been a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society since 1984.

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