2  Everyday Life

Street vendor Street vendor
Everyday life in a middleclass household in those days went like this: People would generally live in a rental property with outhouses, which was where the kitchen would be and where food would be prepared on a kerosene stove. The adjoining room would be used to store herbs and such and then there were also one or more rooms which would serve as bedrooms for the servants.

Domestic Servants

It was common use to employ a single, older woman as a resident cook; we had one, too. Not only would she do the daily shopping for vegetables, meat and the like at the pasar – after having received instructions from my mother and money to pay for the shopping – and prepare the meals, she would also do various chores such as sweeping the garden.

KNIL rifleman with his wife and babu - Foto: Bronbeek
KNIL rifleman with his wife and babu - Foto: Bronbeek

As a second, also resident, servant, people would employ a younger woman to do the laundry, clean the house and, if the family had young children, to take them to and from kindergarten. In addition, she would also be the nanny, if required, whenever mum and dad were going out. In those days every house had, apart from a bathroom, also a well for doing the laundry and the dishes and for the servants to bathe 3 times a day. Servants stayed with one and the same family for many years, sometimes even until they passed away.


Every month our servants received a salary of 5 guilders, which was in fact more like ‘tuckshop money’ for them, as their meals and accommodation were, after all, included. My mother used to give them one guilder a month as spending money while keeping the remaining 4 guilders safe for them. After all, out on the street a snack or a drink wouldn’t cost more than 5 cents and you’d pay only 1 cent for 2 popsicles. More often than not, the guilder was spent on treats for the three of us children, as our Javanese servants spoiled us quite a bit. Once a year - or if they preferred: once every 2 or 3 years - my mother would call for the servants and let them use their savings to buy for instance a beautiful 22 carat golden ring or bracelet to keep for a rainy day. 14 or 18 carat gold jewellery was unknown at the time in the Indies.

Electrical Appliances

Television had not yet been invented and middleclass people would at best own a simple radio with which they could listen to stations with a strong signal. A dial was used to fine-tune the sound, which was visualized by a blue or green ‘cat’s eye’ that would neatly close when it was tuned in to the right frequency. Electrical refrigerators were an unknown luxury. People were more likely to have a timber cooler box, the size of a regular 140 cm refrigerator, which contained a zinc bottom and a water drain at two thirds of its height. Each morning, a man with a hand-pulled cart would do the rounds, selling blocks of ice. People would buy a quarter of a block, wrap it in a hessian bag and place it on the zinc bottom. The bottles of soft drink were placed on top and the area below the zinc bottom was used to store vegetables and such in a reasonably cool environment. Living economically was the motto, so the bottles of soft drink were exclusively intended for use by guests. We, the children, had to make do with cordial. Since the ants were attracted to all these sweet things, each one of the cooler box’s four legs was placed in a small container filled with water.

Flowers and plants

Flowering hibiscus plant
Flowering hibiscus plant
In the thirties, people had plenty of space around their home; apartment buildings were still scarce and when people referred to their yard, it was a large yard indeed. A yard with plenty of fruit trees and - inevitably - at least a couple of flowerpots with rosebushes and/or chevelures (maidenhair ferns), plus, whenever possible, even pots with orchids. Furthermore, the yard was usually bordered by a hibiscus hedge: the kembang sepatu. The lady of the house could be found watering the flowerpots daily and tending to the plants as her hobby. Something rather extraordinary – and actually, to this day I still don’t know why - was that once a rose in the flowerpot had withered, it was cut off neatly and the remaining top would be covered with an empty egg shell.

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