Away Oot An’ Play: Children’s Activities in the 1940s

A post by Graham Webster

When I was single, I used to go and dance,

Now that I’m married, I cannie get the chance.

Oh, it’s a life, a wearie wearie life,

It’s better to be single than to be a married wife.

 (When I Was Single, song c.1930, verse added c.1940)


Whilst the youths had their fun in the dance halls, what was there for children to take part in? It would be true to say that the performance space of schoolchildren lay outside; in the nooks and crannies of unused land, on public stairways and on pavements and roads. Here, the imagination could provide an infinite play space for a number of children – the escapism a relief from the reality of the adult world. Playing with toys was much more of a domestic activity; and is a whole field of study in its own. Firstly, I will consider the folklore of children at this time; the songs, rhymes and games that turned the street into the playground, before looking at toys that children played with.

Records of children’s play from 1940s Scotland, and the wider United Kingdom, are well documented. The first realistic accounts come slightly later, however; in 1951, three teachers from a Leith school decided to make a film, recording the oral and visual testimonies of their pupils.

The Singing Street (available online to watch at Scottish Screen Archive), led by James T.R. Ritchie, gave 23 examples of songs, games, and rhymes that were popular at the time, passed down orally through generations. As Ritchie notes, ‘the favourite themes are love and death.’ This was especially prominent with the coming of war; World War II provided children with songs they had heard in the streets, from newly called up recruits. There was a mixed feeling of cynicism and hope; and the soldiers did not see themselves in a heroic light – as reflected in the verse;


Join up, join up, join up Churchill’s Army

Ten shillings a week, nothing much to eat

Big tackety boots and blisters on your feet.


A game, titled in many sources as Bombers Overhead (with similarities to what we know today as Port and Starboard), transformed the player into a ship, and they reacted to calls of a threatening bomber plane. Whilst stereotypically, the boys games and songs reflect the military actions of Churchill’s army, the girl’s represent life on the home front; most notably considering love and relationships; with a certain amount of divination. Skipping and ring games, for example, predict the future of a selected player:


She is handsome, she is ugly

She is the one from the golden city,

Tell me, tell me, who she loves

For the one and two and three


In The Golden City, the girls then nominate who will be ‘het’, and decide who their boyfriend was. On a greater scale, there is a clear reflection on the youth culture; and the separation between the ‘birds and the bees’. Of course, more innocent games exist, whereby children played as witches, flowers and Cowboys and Indians; or played at chalk-based games, such as peevers and hopscotch. These are difficult to explain in writing! But pop along to our Victory Kitchen Tea Party and you may see such activities in action.

To turn now to toys. There is a wealth of materials available to us in Edinburgh at the Museum of Childhood; however, we must remember that not all families could afford such luxuries in the 1940s, particularly those living in built up urban areas. Again, it may be said that there was a clear gendered division in the interests of boys and girls during the decade. Boys played with Meccano, and other tin, wood and metal toys, such as miniature cars and planes; however during the early years of the war, there was a shortage of such toys as many of the factories instead were asked to produce materials for the war effort. Girls, on the other hand, mainly played with dolls, and replicated domestic items; imitating the world of their mother. The most popular, and cheapest, ‘toy’ for a girl was the paper doll. These gendered divisions in play, although entirely sexist, are still continued in the world today with the likes of the Lego and Barbie franchises. In fact, neutral play came in the outdoors; balls, marbles, hoops, diablos, yoyos and skipping ropes were far cheaper for a parent than indoor toys, and meant that multiple children could play with them at the same time.

The reality of children’s play in the 1940s was simple; children made the most of what they had, imposing their imaginations on their surrounding environments. There was also an element of imitation in play – copying the actions of adults which surrounded them. Join us for our Victory Kitchen Tea Party on Sunday 18th May, between 3-5pm where visitors will get the chance to see more of these activities in action and join in the fun!



Lights, Camera, Action!

The student volunteers of One Last Dance had their moment in the spotlight with a photo shoot.  The images are beautiful and will be used for promotional material for our Festival of Museums weekend.

Thanks to Laurence Winram Photography for the fantastic pictures

For a behind the scenes of the photo shoot, see the video! 
One Last Dance ORNG6600 Pin-up and pout

Youth Culture in the 1940s

A post by Catherine McCann


During our group meeting the volunteers at St. Cecilia’s Hall often wonder how the youth culture of the 1940s compares to the one we know today. Did young people get dressed up like we do? Did girls carry two pairs of shoes with them when they went dancing? Did most people listen to same kinds of music or did different places cater for different tastes? A good place to start would be to understand a bit more about the youth culture in the 1940s.

If we look to historians to help us, historians such as David Fowler argues that the term ‘teenager’ was not coined until the late 1950s. This means that the young people that would have danced at St. Cecilia’s Hall were neither children nor adults. Youth culture, then, was caught in limbo between childhood and adulthood until the late 1950s. Youths had surpassed the age for compulsory education and took up unskilled and semi-skilled employment to earn a wage while they lived with their parents. They lived in a state of dependence and independence as they relied on their families for a roof over their heads but enjoyed spending the money they earned as they willed. It must be said that more young men than young women spent their wages on themselves as girls were pressured to contribute a proportion of their wages to the household for much longer than boys. It is clear then that the youth of the 1940s exploited their ambiguous status within society to varying degrees.



Youths did not spend their money on things that would distinguish themselves as a particular group like what can be seen in the 1950s and 1960s. There were no Mods and Rockers in 1940s but simply youths who wanted to have a good time. In fact, young people copied the styles of their parents because they did not see clothes as a way to express individuality as many young people do today. Instead they chose clothes that would make them look older because they wanted to move into adulthood as fast as they could rather than make the most of their youth while they could.

When the ‘teenager’ did appear in the 1950s it is apparent that this youth culture had decided to reject societal norms of respectability. Teenagers were to be a group that experimented and made noise because they did not neatly fit into childhood or adulthood.

Although the term ‘teenager’ was not coined until the 1950s the beginnings of the ‘teenager’ can be seen in the 1940s. Their high expendable incomes had meant that they were increasingly accepted as a distinct part of the consumer market. Youths had also become a visible part of society because of the disproportionate numbers in comparison to previous generations. Youths also became more visible in society because communal leisure activities such as cinema going and spectator sports boomed during the 1940s. More young people would have been seen during the evenings and weekends as they made their ways to these new forms of entertainment that catered to their tastes and suited their pockets. On Sundays, when these attractions were closed, the ‘Monkey Parade’ of young people made sure that these young people still turned heads. Dressed in their best to impress, young people walked up and down their local streets to catch an admirer’s eye. The Monkey Parade was an early way in which the youths of the 1940s would have courted one another.

The growing popularity of the dance hall in the 1940s was significant in this respect1940s_dance_party_vintage_photo as the dance floor became a new way to attract the attention of the opposite sex. The music that was played at these dance halls was very different from the clubs and DJs that we are familiar with in the twenty-first century. Live music was provided and only soft drinks would be served. There was no such thing as a bar in dance halls during the 1940s. There was, however, American dances and music that caused a stir. In some ways, the teenagers of the 1950s were destined to cause social anxieties whatever they did just as their births did as part of the baby boom.

To conclude, what it meant to be young in the 1940s would have been very different from the present day. Their taste, sense of style and attitude towards spending their earnings was completely different. They cared less about identifying themselves as a distinct group and more about having fun as part of that group.





Fashion in the 40’s: Style in time of crisis

A post by Claire Rochet

When referring to Fashion in the 40’s, you probably think about the words seductive, glamour, sophistication… anything but austerity! Apart from being a decade characterised by a killer style, it’s hard to forget that at the very same time one of the most atrocious wars of all time was taking place. However, despite being a very dark moment in history, fashion was still as important as before and it played a crucial role in many people’s lives.

More than ever, women started to take care with every detail of their appearance which allowed them not only to preserve their dignity but also to distract themselves with something fun and light-hearted. Needless to say that the notion of superficiality had a whole different meaning to now where it is negatively associated to the useless and flavourless.

 The clothes rationing regulations that were introduced by the Government on 1st June 1941 drastically limited womens’ possibilities with dressing but although they had to face a multitude of mitigating circumstances women tended to put much more effort into preserving their allure.

 One of the most fascinating inventions of that time relating to fashion was liquid silk stockings which consisted of painting your legs with a special product that would make them looked tanned as if you were wearing stockings. The more ‘coquette’ of them would even add the seams behind their legs by using a pencil or a specific device that would avoid any tremors.

Liquid stockings 2 Liquid stockings

With the lack of nylon and silks, paint-on stockings became a new source of business, entailing the creation/launch of dedicated cosmetics and more surprisingly, leg makeup bars!


With nylon and silk being used as the main material in the production of parachutes, the war forced a decrease in sale for stockings. As a crucial finishing touch to any wardrobe, women didn’t give up and employed their creativity to find cheap and innovative subterfuges!

If you want to learn more about Fashion in the 40’s and practice some original ‘Make do and mend’ tips, we recommend that you join us at St Cecilia’s Hall on Saturday May the 17th where we will bring the 40’s back to life and show you how create your own one off fashionable vintage piece! There’s no better place than the mythic Excelsior Ballroom, which made people swing between 1938 and 1959, to discover the “Mrs or Mr Sew and Sew”[1] that rests in you.

Everyone is welcome to this free event, whether you are a beginner an expert or just curious! So please don’t miss out on this one-of-a-kind opportunity. We hope to see you all there very soon!

[1]In response to the clothes rationing, the British Board of Trade created the fictional character Mrs Sew and Sew, who would issued precious ‘Make Do and Mend’ advice, through a series of utilitarian leaflets.

A Short History of St Cecilia’s Hall

A post by Tina Wennerwald:

If you walk just below South Bridge in Edinburgh to the corner of Niddry Street and the Cowgate, you’ll find St Cecilia’s Hall.  Over the Festival of Museums weekend (16-18th May), the building will be transformed into a 1940s dance hall once again for “One Last Dance”.

St Cecilia’s hall was built between 1761 and 1763 for the Edinburgh Musical Society and it is the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland.  The Musical Society was later forced to sell the building, and held their last concert in St Cecilia’s in 1798.  Since then there has been a great variety of owners and uses of the building from worship to learning and entertainment; a Baptist Church, the Freemason’s hall, Dr. Bell’s school, the Excelsior Ballroom.  Now St Cecilia’s Hall is owned by the University of Edinburgh and houses the University’s collection of bagpipes and early keyboard instruments.

As part of the Festivals of Museums weekend in May, the University of Edinburgh will host a number of events based around the theme of Edinburgh in the 1940’s.  During the 40s St Cecilia’s Hall was a dance hall named the “Excelsior Ballroom”.  It was opened in 1933 by Miss Magdalene Cairns, who had inherited St Cecilia’s Hall from her father, Andrew Cairns.  Miss Cairns had noticed that there was a growing interest in public dancing in Edinburgh at the time and decided to transform the concert hall into a dance venue.  The public quickly embraced this new dance venue and visited the new ballroom, making the place a success from the very beginning.

The Excelsior Ballroom was only one of a number of dance halls in Edinburgh during the 40s, all of which helped to provide an opportunity for public dancing and general entertainment of the locals.  As a space for social gathering, dance halls also had a series of more specific and very important roles at the time.  Significantly, many patrons got to meet their future spouse in a dance hall.

At the Excelsior Ballroom it was the music from the New Excelsior Band which resounded in the hall.  On Saturdays it was also possible to take dance lessons, which were taught by Miss Ena Linton.  The Excelsior Ballroom hosted various events such as the Hogmanay Ball and Novelty Carnival, and dance nights such as the Leith Hospital Dance and the Dance for the Fighters Fund in support of select causes.  Ballroom dancing competitions were also popular around the time and some of the competitions were held in Excelsior Ballroom.

In the late 1950’s Miss Cairns found that the demand for dance halls was in decline and in 1959 she decided to sell the building to the University of Edinburgh. The University then returned the building to the feel of an 18th-century concert hall.

Come and join us for the Festival of Museums weekend when St Cecilia’s Hall will be converted into a ballroom with dance, live music, and lots of fun.

Festival of Museums at the University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh is excited to participate in Museums Galleries Scotland Festival of Museums weekend.  We are planning an exciting schedule of events that bring the past to life through workshops, lectures, programmes, and a lively swing dance.

Check this blog for posts from our wonderful group of volunteers who are not only helping to organise the event, but also research the history of life in Edinburgh in the 1940s.

D52488 FOM SD (CS3)