Australian Screen

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Bread and Dripping (1981)

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clip Raising children during the Great Depression education content clip 1, 2, 3

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Four women recall the hardship of raising children during a period of mass unemployment. The government provided a 'baby bundle’ consisting of poor quality clothing.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows Eileen Pittman and Tibby Whalan talking about raising children during the Great Depression (1929–39) in Australia. Eileen Pittman describes the 'baby bundle’ handed out at the government-run baby clinics and how arrowroot biscuits and condensed milk provided a staple diet for children. Tibby Whalan talks about the endless toil involved in running a household with no electricity, running water or money to buy new clothes and shoes at a time when domestic duties and child-rearing were seen as the sole responsibility of women. This is interspersed with black-and-white archival footage and photographs of women and children in the years of the Great Depression, showing them in run-down fibro or corrugated-iron huts, performing domestic tasks and visiting the baby clinic.

Educational value points

  • The Wall Street crash in October 1929 led to an international economic collapse; the period from the collapse to 1939 is now known as the Great Depression. Economic depressions, such as the Great Depression, are sustained periods of low economic activity characterised by continuing falls in output, high unemployment and a resulting crisis for communities all over the world, with many people suffering starvation and difficult circumstances.
  • Australia’s dependence on the export of primary products such as grain and wool and reliance on overseas loans meant it was among the countries worst affected by the Great Depression. Unemployment reached a peak in 1932, when 29 per cent of Australians were officially out of work. The working class was the hardest hit and many were left homeless and destitute.
  • As illustrated by the clip, many families endured extreme hardship and poverty during the Great Depression. Families unable to pay rent were evicted and forced to live in substandard accommodation, often with no running water, electricity or gas. Sometimes, several families would share a house, with each family crammed into one room. Others lived in public spaces such as Sydney’s Domain, in makeshift shelters constructed of corrugated iron and hessian sacks.
  • Even though domestic duties have long been undertaken by women in most societies, the Great Depression added a new layer of burden to these duties. During the Great Depression, domestic work was repetitive and relentless toil. Houses sometimes had only one tap, usually in the backyard; alternatively, women had to get water from nearby creeks. Bathing children and washing was often done in a communal outside tub. Those without electricity or gas had to collect and chop wood for heating and cooking.
  • The clip suggests that women had to improvise during the Great Depression, with family survival often depending on traditional women’s skills of mending and sewing and making do. Unemployment and low wages meant there was no money for new clothes and families relied on hand-me-downs that were constantly patched or unpicked and re-made. Children’s clothes, including nappies, were sometimes made of flour sacks or even hessian.
  • As described in the clip, child-raising and housework were seen as woman’s sole responsibility at the time. Although women were often working for low wages while their husbands left the family home in search of work (often referred to as being 'on the wallaby’), housework was still considered women’s work. Mothers frequently emerged as the head of the family, managing what money there was and keeping the household together. Some resorted to begging or hawking to feed their family.
  • In the clip, Eileen Pittman refers to 'baby clinics’ in the clip. The first state-funded Baby Health Centre opened in Alexandria, a Sydney suburb, in 1914 and was followed by other clinics in New South Wales and the other states. Run by nursing sisters, the clinics aimed to keep children healthy by educating mothers about infant welfare, particularly the importance of breastfeeding, personal hygiene and clean environments. The baby’s progress was monitored through weighing and check-ups. During the Great Depression, the clinics provided some free milk, food and nappies.
  • People frequently went hungry during the Great Depression. They often ate bread and dripping and 'cocky’s joy’ (bread and golden syrup). State government relief schemes kept many unemployed men and their families alive, and single men who could prove they were destitute were paid a sustenance wage (the 'susso’) to work on government-financed public work schemes. Others had to rely on charitable groups that ran soup kitchens or provided some limited monetary assistance and basic food rations.
  • The clip refers to the use of condensed milk and arrowroot biscuits in children’s diets. Infants were often fed arrowroot biscuits mashed with condensed milk, a substitute for fresh milk. Diseases associated with under-nourishment, such as rickets, were common.
  • Bread and Dripping is an example of the type of documentary produced by Australian women filmmakers between 1970 and the early 1980s. Like Bread and Dripping, many of the feminist documentaries made in that period focused on women’s personal experiences, favouring autobiographical discourse, oral histories and the absence of an 'authoritative’ or controlling voice-over.

This clip starts approximately 6 minutes into the documentary.

Pictures of women and children living in poor conditions. Eileen Pittman is interviewed in a lounge room. There are shots of the sisters in the clinic with children.

Eileen Pittman Raising children in the Depression. Using the baby clothes, the government handout. The little nighties they gave you, if you put them in the water, it was too hot, they’d go stiff and stand up on their own. And the nappies, were so rough, that you got – this was the government baby bundle they gave you. But you could go to the clinic. The clinic sisters would help you out with clothes and food. But the main milk was condensed milk. That was the main milk that we used then, and arrowroot biscuits.

Tibby Whalan is interviewed at a kitchen table. There are pictures of women washing and working around poor housing with children around them.

Tibby Whalan When I was first married, it wasn’t so much, just two of us, and then there was three of us, and then there was four of us. And I used to cook in a camp oven, I used to boil the washing up in a kerosene tin after I’d carried the water from the creek. And I had galvanised iron tubs to wash with. I bathed the kids in them, I bathed myself in them. It was pretty hard work. Many a time I had to go and chop the wood to start the fire to cook a meal, and I always seemed to be cooking and washing and ironing and mending, and I did that at night time by candlelight or lantern light or kerosene lamp light. Didn’t have any washing machines or electricity or anything else in those days. It was a very primitive life when you come to think of it, and it was a never-ending round of work. There was patching and mending. I can remember sewing patches together to make pants for my little girl, and darning and knitting, of course. I did a lot of knitting. And all the home crafts that you sometimes see today, they’re taught in tech. Well, you learnt those and you had to do them from sheer necessity. The only time I ever got any break from the children was when I went to my mother’s and stayed with my mother. But I didn’t get any emotional support whatsoever or any responsibility for the children. That was my job, I was the woman. The man did the outside work, the woman did the inside.

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  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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