10 things we learned from Mass Observation

Bob Geldof and Margaret Thatcher

Mass Observation, the social research organisation dedicated to recording the minutiae of British life, has moved its huge collection of documents to a new home - a purpose-built, climate-controlled archive centre in Sussex called The Keep. Here are 10 of the most intriguing findings from the records.

The project began in 1937, aiming to capture the tiniest details of everyday life by recruiting an army of volunteers to simply watch and take notes. It stopped in the 1950s, but then restarted in the 1980s. Today's Mass Observers answer four emails a year - but their answers are also printed out and stored in paper form.

"We do keep them electronically as well. But there's a lot of debate at the moment about how we can preserve our digital lives. We can't guarantee emails will be available in 15 to 20 years' time," says Fiona Courage, curator of the archive.

Here are 10 of the more curious observations.

1. "Real coffee" started making an appearance during the Christmas of 1986. "The archive shows up historical shifts you wouldn't have otherwise noticed," says Dr Lucy Robinson, a historian at Sussex University. Observers were asked to write a Christmas Day diary in 1986, and for the first time many of them stressed that "real coffee" was served. "I think if you're noting that it's real coffee then you're really making a statement," she says.

2. Pint-drinking times featured in one 1930s project. The enduring image of the Mass Observer is of someone sitting in the corner of a pub, furtively scribbling in a notebook. And it really did happen. Findings included that the average time taken to drink half a pint of beer in pubs on a November Saturday night in Brighton in 1938 was 7.3 minutes. The study of pubs in Bolton, Blackpool and Brighton in 1938 found that people drank their pints slowest on a Tuesday evening and fastest on a Friday evening. Perhaps these findings are less surprising than the fact that someone actually wanted to ask the question. Mass Observers also collected data on how many cigarettes were smoked per pint.

3. Custard powder, it was noted in the 1980s Christmas Diaries, was being abandoned as people decided to make their own. "I think it shows the influence of Delia Smith," says Robinson. "But it also shows other things. You can see people trying to reconnect with the past, and with family traditions, at a very difficult time."

4. Bob Geldof was one of the most important figures of the 1980s, according to many people - but they couldn't all spell his name. "When observers were asked about charity in 1986, no-one mentioned Band Aid or Live Aid," says Robinson. "Only after Geldof gets knighted later that year do people start to write about him. But they all spell it Geldorf or Gelderf." By 1990, however, when they were writing a review of the decade, they were spelling his name correctly.

5. Winston Churchill wasn't everybody's favourite speaker. The archive shows attitudes towards public figures changing gradually. Listening to what is now considered one of Churchill's great wartime speeches, one observer noted his aunt's response: "He's no speaker, is he?" Likewise, views of Margaret Thatcher changed gradually over the 1980s. "She's hardly mentioned in the first year of the 1980s archive. It changes after the Falklands. But you see people's mixed emotions," says Robinson. "They're impressed by her strength, but at the same time worried about her politics, or are touched by her emotional connection with the families of the fallen but uncertain whether the war was a good idea."

6. Marriage - what makes a happy one? We have known since 1943, thanks to the Mass Observation diaries. As war raged, observers were polled on what keeps couples together. "Liking" your partner was the top factor (61%), while love came a poor second at 23%. Intelligence and education were only deemed important by 4%.

Image caption Doing the Lambeth Walk in New York, in 1938

7. Doing the Lambeth Walk... in Prague. In 1938, Mass Observation investigated the popularity of the Lambeth Walk dance. They noted that it was so popular that you could find people doing the Lambeth Walk in Mayfair ballrooms, suburban dance-halls, at Cockney parties and village hops. An observer who visited the Isle of Arran noted its popularity there, while another observer reported that it caused a stir in the dance-halls of Prague. One attentive observer made scrupulous notes about where, exactly, the gentlemen were holding the ladies.

8. The project's interest in bizarre data was still going strong five decades later. In the 1980s it was calculated that the average time to eat Christmas dinner among the panel of observers was between 1pm and 2pm, and that most people went to bed after midnight.

9. Pets during the war was one subject Mass Observers made copious notes on. One recalls a leaflet issuing guidance on how to treat animals for hysteria and shock. It also goes through the basics of taking a dog for a walk in the blackout, and having your pet evacuated. But it didn't always run smoothly. One observer noted how Skippy, their pet rabbit, went missing. Years later, they wrote about discovering that they'd been served Skippy for tea as a way around rationing.

10. Stories of wartime evacuation abound in the archive. Favourite among the archivists is the irate father who wanted to take his child home again because he was being taught "fancy manners" and would not be the same when he returned. Unfortunately, what happened next is not recorded.

Image caption Files at Mass Observation's former home

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