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The history of the Ideal Home Show

Published: 21 January 2022

Photographs from the Daily Herald Archive show model houses, domestic appliances, and the latest trends featured at the Ideal Home Exhibition from the 1930s to the 1960s.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

The images in this selection were all taken from the archive.

The development of the Ideal Home Show

The Ideal Home Exhibition was first opened in 1908 by Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail newspaper. It aimed to bring together everything you might need to create the ideal home, including the latest inventions for the modern house and latest housing designs. The show was vast; the first one took one week and over 3,000 men to build.

The event was initially conceived as a publicity tool for the newspaper, but the early years of the exhibition were also influenced by a time of social reform, stimulating debates around creating better housing conditions. Issues around child welfare, working-class housing and ‘homes fit for heroes’ were taken up during the first few decades.

The Ideal Home Exhibition was held at Olympia Exhibition Centre in London until 1978, when it moved to Earls Court. In 2009, after 100 years of the show, the Daily Mail handed over the reins to the multi-award-winning media company Media 10. Today, the event is known as the Ideal Home Show.

The development of the Ideal Home Show - gallery

An Englishman’s home

When the exhibition first opened, most of the British public rented their houses. However, as mass production slowly improved living standards, people gained more disposable income and access to mortgages to buy houses. This shift towards home owning led to more interest in interior design and events that would inspire home improvement—such as the Ideal Home Exhibition.

In the early days, visitors were awed by the full-size houses and gardens built at the exhibition. They could be both educated and entertained by displays of labour-saving appliances and show homes. The early exhibitions were divided thematically into Domestic Labour Saving, Show Homes, Food, Interior Decoration and Leisure.

The exhibition proved to be very popular. 300,000 visitors attended in 1924; this had doubled by 1937, hitting a peak in 1957 with nearly 1.5 million visitors.

Englishman's home - gallery

The Ideal House Competition

The Ideal House Competition was a regular feature at the Exhibition for many years. The Daily Mail invited designs each year and the winning schemes would be constructed at the exhibition the following year.

As well as winning the competition, builders were keen to secure sales of their houses, so many of the Ideal Houses were permanently built across the country. Examples include a modernist house from 1934 relocated to Skegness and the 1965 steel house winning design by Edward Drewery, which was re-erected at London Biggin Hill Airport.

Competition - gallery

Housewives and daughters

The Ideal Home Exhibition was traditionally aimed at housewives. As outlined in the records of the exhibition (PDF) held by the V&A, a deliberate attempt was made to appeal to the ‘mum in the street’ and her daughters.

Between the First and Second World Wars, only 10% of married women were employed outside domestic work in the home—although official figures often didn’t take into account part-time work. By 1951 the figure had doubled, but this was due in part to expectant mothers working until giving birth and women re-entering the workforce after a time working in the home. It’s fair to say that a significant proportion of married women worked solely at home in this period.

The Ideal Home Exhibition was seen as a focal point for the housewife to view the latest in technology. Domestic work was physically demanding and time-consuming and so any gadgets claiming to be ‘labour-saving’ were very appealing. Before the introduction of washing machines and effective detergents, for example, washing clothes would take all day and some items had to be prepped and soaked overnight.

From the 1930s, new gadgets and inventions were introduced and the exhibition became a launchpad for cutting-edge technology such as vacuum cleaners, electric kettles and toasters, and the Teasmade.

Women - gallery

Shifting priorities

Woman placing cans of Heinz soup on top of a large stack © Science Museum Group Collection
Heinz stand, 1936

The exhibition was suspended during the Second World War but reopened again in 1947, when visitors would have seen the first fitted kitchens and could be inspired by the concept of open plan living. The first microwave was also launched at the exhibition this year.

After the war, the emphasis shifted away from display stands to commercial stands which generated income during this period of post-war austerity. More and more working people were able to spend a higher proportion of their incomes on things previously seen as luxury items. In 1950 only 1% of people in the UK owned a television, but this had increased to almost 25 percent by 1965.

The public were influenced by the resurgence of the modernist movement, particularly in architecture, and were keen to embrace the new and look to the future. The Festival of Britain in 1951 typified this mood. It was seen as a ‘tonic for the nation’ that would lift the spirits and encourage the population to move forward with hope.

This shift to a more consumerist society was felt at the show, and the public, much more familiar with mass communication and entertainment, became less interested in traditional exhibition displays.

Two women demonstrating posable toy dolls Science Museum Group © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Women dressed as pantomime characters demonstrating ‘Grove’ Movie Dolls, which could be used as toys or by artists, 1948

Window shopping

During the 1950s and 1960s, the exhibition acted as a shop window for white goods and other new technology that shops did not have the room to display. Electric and automated devices were launched at the show in the 1920s and 1930s, but they were very expensive and beyond the means of most UK households. By the 1950s they were much more accessible; washing machines and fridges became very popular. However, superstores and commercial television took over this function in the 1970s.

Woman applying makeup using mirrored TV screen as a mirror © Science Museum Group Collection
‘Vanity Set’: a TV set which when switched off is a mirror, 1962

A touch of glamour

In the 1920s many European kings and queens designed gardens at the Ideal Home Exhibition. The British royal family have been frequent visitors to the show; Queen Elizabeth II herself has visited eleven times.

The rise of the celebrity in the 1950s and 1960s was felt at the exhibition too, with big names of the day visiting including Tom Jones, Eric Morecambe and Rolling Stones.

Celebrities and TV personalities from popular shows are now part of the event, providing visitors with expert advice on food, drink, fashion and lifestyle.

Touch of glamour - gallery

An optimist’s dream

The Daily Herald’s photographs of the Ideal Home Exhibition from the 1930s to 1960s offer a fascinating insight into the social and domestic history of this period. However, the photographs also reflect a desire for the ideal—a romantic notion of perfect houses and village greens that were, and are, ever at odds with the lived reality of many people.

Optimist's dream - gallery

Full circle

From the early days of social reform to the post-war consumerist society, these photographs act as a mirror to reflect how desires and attitudes have changed over the decades.   

In particular, the development of the Ideal Home Show has reflected changing attitudes to women and work. New technology introduced at the show helped to make domestic chores easier as more and more women, particularly married women, entered or re-entered the workplace outside the home.

However, higher expected standards of hygiene—including washing clothes more often and spending more time looking after children and pets—mean that we are spending about the same amount of time on chores as 100 years ago. With the help of labour-saving devices (like the ones introduced at the Ideal Home Exhibition), the work is less physically demanding, but we are doing just as much of it and, despite some change, women are still doing more than men.

In 2015 the show moved from Earls Court back to back to Olympia, where it continues to take place every year. Statistics from a profile of the Ideal Home Show 2010 (PDF) demonstrate that women make up around two thirds of the audience. The show still includes full-scale model homes, trade stands and the all the latest technology and innovations required to create the ideal home.

Model wearing hat with oversized brim Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix
‘Outsize in hats, 4ft across but quite compact when rolled up’, 1935

Further reading

Online

Articles

  • Peter Gurney, ‘The Battle of the Consumer in Postwar Britain’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 77 No. 4 (December 2005)
  • Helen McCarthy, ‘Social Science and Married Women’s Employment in Post-War Britain’, Past & Present, Vol. 233 Issue 1 (November 2016)
  • Deborah Sugg, ‘Redefining Modernism: Ideal Homes at London’s Design Museum’, The Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 1993)