Dress Down Sunday: 2 by Betty MacDonald

Anybody Can Do Anything 1950

Onions in the Stew 1954

both by Betty MacDonald

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[Betty and her sister Mary are office workers in the 1930s in Seattle]

The very closest we came to being fired … was a very hot summer afternoon and Mary and I, who had received a rather unexpected invitation to dine on board a battleship, were in Mr Chalmers’ private office freshening up. We had removed and washed out our underwear and stockings and pinned them to the Venetian blinds to dry. We had steamed out the wrinkles in our silk print office dresses with hot water, and hung them on the blinds.
We had washed and pinned up our hair and finally, in bare feet and petticoats, were taking refreshing sponge baths in Mr Chalmers’ basin, when there were knocks on the outer door, which we had locked….

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[the knocking continues at intervals, but Mary insists on carrying on regardless]

Spreading her make-up out on Mr Chalmers’ desk, she said ‘Stop being so nervous! You know we’re going to a lot of trouble considering the fact that all the Navy men I’ve ever met were liars, short and married!’ We both laughed.

Just then the door of Mr Chalmers’ office opened and in charged Mr Chalmers. He roared ‘What in Hell’s going on here?’

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commentary: Betty MacDonald has featured on the blog with her TB memoir The Plague and I (we had a whole raft of them here last year) and her children’s book Nancy and Plum. Her enduring legacy is The Egg and I, her amusing memoir of living on a chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula near Seattle: this was a massive bestseller, and gave rise to a number of films. As a result of this she could write whatever she wanted, and the results were these two books, and The Plague and I: all volumes of reminiscences about her life. They are written in a very casual and distinctive style, and give the impression that no-one edited them at all. They read like self-published memoirs in fact, they are all over the place. But they are still highly enjoyable – they just don’t fit known literary formats…

Anybody can Do Anything – from which the extract above comes – is about her life in Seattle during the Depression years. She had left the husband of The Egg and I, and came back to her family with her two daughters. The whole family’s finances were in a precarious state, and the book is a charming if slightly predictable parade of jobs gained and lost, brave attempts to keep going, and (as all these memoirists insist) a lot of ‘our family was so much warmer, nicer, braver and cleverer than anyone else’s, like yours, dreary reader, for example.’ That period came to an end when she was diagnosed with TB and sent to the sanatorium. A few years later she remarried and went to live on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, where her daughters went through their teenage years – amusingly recounted in Onions in the Stew.

I enjoyed reading all of them, although I found The Plague and I to be terrifying and horrifying because of the subject matter – but I do have to agree, to some extent, with those who also found it funny.

The other books are very entertaining (even though I lose patience with her sometimes) - helped by the fact that I know all the places she writes about quite well.

She is very funny about adolescent growing pains in Onions in the Stew. I am pretty sure it is Hilary McKay who told me that her family had adopted ‘Please keep Imogene until she is 30’ as a family catchphrase. The instruction is MacDonald’s idea of what the English –‘truly more civilized than we are’ – do to avoid their children’s adolescence: send them away to school from age 7 to 30.

I also like the young woman who explains why she manages to have so many boyfriends: ‘It’s because I like em to git fresh with me.’

And as ever, the details of life are fascinating. During the 40s, when the family first lived on Vashon, it is stressed over and over how poor they were. But they had phones, a dishwasher, cashmere sweaters and a variety of vehicles. In the UK at that time, all those features would be a sign of great wealth….

As a picture of life, and a source of funny stories, they are lovely, the kind of books you know you will like to take out and re-read every five years or so.

The splendid pictures are from the Clover Vintage tumbler.


  1. She was right about the English, wasn't she? And I love the idea of having "an office dress".

    1. Did you have an 'interview suit' when you were younger? That - hard though this is to credit - was also available for weddings. Fashions for both those events have changed much for the better. I don't know what I can have been thinking of.
      I suppose the Americans saved on the school fees, and that's why they could afford cashmere, cars and dishwashers...

  2. I've read The Plague and I, Moira, but not her other work. This one does sound like an interesting look at that place at that time. And I really like the mental images in the bit that you've shared (washing out hosiery and so on). She captures those details well, I think.

    1. Yes, the details are marvellous, and she writes in a way that makes it easy to picture the scene. And she's very funny...

    2. Most of MacDonald's books are available on openlibrary.org.

    3. I was in Seattle last week visiting my brother and SIL, and came home with more titles for my TBR list (we are a reading family), including "Sons of The Profits" which is a highly informal history of the Seattle area written by a long-time local reporter. Evidently life has always been a little "different" out there.

  3. Maybe her description of poor is just relative to others she knew. My family had little money when I was growing up (50's and 60's) and we did not have "a dishwasher, cashmere sweaters and a variety of vehicles". I did not have a lot of clothes and my mother had a very small wardrobe. My father took the bus to work every day and worked as a shipping clerk. On the other hand, my parents never felt poor and were grateful for what we had, so that probably spilled over to me, and I was often surprised when I realized others had more than we did.

    I had very little if any exposure to dishwashers until I was first married in the 70's and even then may not have had one. Dishwasher's have not been a constant in my life until the last 20 years.

    Getting back to the books, I am very tempted but probably won't add them to the stacks. I just finished Tales of the City, an entirely different look at life -- as you know, since I first read about the book here -- and plan to continue on that series as I have the time.

    1. Oh indeed. It's just always interesting to know which items are considered vital. Dishwashers only became common in the UK, I would say, a long time later than this. We didn't have one when I was growing up, and neither did any of my friends and relations. We went to visit a family where the parents were doctors, and there were a lot of children, and we were terribly impressed by the fact they had a dishwasher! But my mother said firmly that was because of the size of the family (maybe 9 children, compared with 4 kids in our family). Now I wouldn't be without one..
      Oh yes, I do love Tales of the City, and re-read them every so often.
      But I bet you there's a strong chance of Betty MacDonald books turning up at the book sale...

  4. " it is stressed over and over how poor they were."

    I grew up in an upper middle class, affluent suburb (other schools in the district referred to our high school as "the country club school.") I use to whine all the time about how unfair it was that we were poor, because the other kids in my class went on ski trips every Christmas, and got cars for graduation presents.

    Then the Marine Corps sent me to the Philippines...

    1. It is all relative. And fascinating.
      A friend's son said to her 'why do the X family have better TV and better games consoles and better cars than we have? Why can't we have all these things?'
      My friend said 'we think it's important to save money, not spend it all now, we are saving for your future, we want you go to college and get a good education.' And congratulated herself on giving a good explanation.
      Until she found out that her son had gone to the friend's house and said loudly and clearly 'I'll be going to college, YOU won't, YOUR Mom and Dad have spent all your college money on all this stuff.' Quite embarrassing...


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