The real origins of the 'life hack'

‘Life hacks’ is one of those interesting terms. I know what it means (thank you Starts at Sixty), but I don’t think I’d use it. It was a runner up in the Macquarie Dictionary word of the year survey along with ‘share plate’ and ‘selfie stick’, which I’m quite relaxed about using. ‘Life hacks’ have been around for a long time – for as long as the first mammoth was dragged into a cave and the women discussed about how best to deal with it.

My oldest collection of hints dates from December 1939, The Schauer Cookery Book, used in Queensland schools and available to the general public. It starts with this statement: “A housekeeper must understand the necessity for, and the benefits supplied by, food”. So far, so good. There are some dated hints, such as putting a sheet of iron over one gas jet to have several saucepans simmering at once. Amongst the many kitchen utensils listed were a billycan (I can remember getting the milk in one of those, a toasting fork (my job to do the toast at the fuel stove as late as 1963) and a slate and pencil to note food materials before they quite finish. I do mine on paper and pencil and transfer it to the memo function of my phone. And advice which I truly believe: clean up as you go: no one can work in disorder. Most of the recipes seem to finish with ‘Garnish daintily and serve neatly’.

Wartime Cookery by Sarah Dunne of the Herald Melbourne. Written in 1945, the introduction begins, “Without praise or glamour, medal or uniform, she holds the morale and the health of the nation in her hands”. The prudent housewife could make 20 cups of tea from one ounce, make tea from wheat by browning wheat in golden syrup, and make cutlets out of stiff porridge and cooking them in bacon fat. There are a number of recipes for eggless puddings when a cooked pudding was a meal essential. I actually used one of these to make a Christmas pudding for my granddaughter, who is allergic to eggs. Sandwiches could be made without butter by mixing ingredients in white sauce. Butterless cakes were made by substituting lard.

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There are any number of recipes for cooking rabbits.

Pride of place at a function could be given to the following: ‘Imagine a platter laid with individual tomato jellies, piles of grass green peas, sections of hardboiled egg in mayonnaise and crisp lettuce curls’.

Skipping to my own time as a young stay at home Mum in 1977, the Women’s Weekly produced a lift out on Super Economy House Cleaning. Vinegar cleaned everything, but I don’t think I used chlorine bleach in recipes. Nor did I find the time to sit with my elbows in half a lemon for 20 minutes to keep them young and beautiful.


What tips and tricks do you remember from when you were younger? What were some of the first ‘life hacks’ you knew? Tell us below.