1900 John and Jane
John and Jane are a married couple. John has a supervisory role in a coal tar distilling plant in the North of England, part of the largest chemical industry in Europe, while Jane stays at home.
Jane has been pregnant eight times, but only four children have survived. John’s factory makes effective disinfectants, but there is a lack of medicines.
They live in a Victorian terrace house with modern conveniences: piped cold water, gas lighting, a flush lavatory outside (not shared), a coal-fired kitchen range and a coal-fired copper to heat water for the weekly clothes wash.
For Jane, illness is a constant fear – of her husband being ill (which means no money); of the children (which could mean death); and most of all herself (which makes it hard to manage the house and family).
They no longer notice the fumes from the factory.
1970 Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill are a married couple living in the same location as John and Jane, but in a more modern house. The contraceptive pill means that they have been able to plan their family, which is limited to two children.
Modern materials, in particular plastics, have transformed their lives compared with John and Jane. As is typical of the time, Jill still does all the housework, but has appliances including a washing machine, spin dryer, gas cooker and vacuum cleaner. She works at a local office.
Jack is a graduate chemical engineer looking after production on the modernized coal tar plant. Most of the plant is under automatic control with clever mechanical and pneumatic devices.
Pollution control means that industry and homes emit much less smoke and fumes so clothes and life are much cleaner.
2020 Jasbir and Jasmine
Jasbir and Jasmine are a married couple living on housing development where the former coal tar plant was. They have three children: twins and another, carefully planned to fit in with their careers. Their ordinary 1999-built house and its facilities would have seemed luxurious to Jack and Jill, and fairyland to John and Jane.
Jasbir is a schoolteacher and Jasmine is a chemical engineer on a plant separating gases from the air. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Jasbir has had a lot of work providing some remote teaching but also looking after the children who have still been attending school. Jasmine’s plant produces medical gases, including oxygen which has been in big demand during the pandemic.
They appreciate the benefits of plastics, but are concerned at pollution by its waste, and worry for their children about the effect of global warming.
The industrial production of substances was at the heart of the changes which have transformed lives in this period.