Days of our lives: What our daily rituals really say about our social history

Eating breakfast

Traditionally, a "proper" breakfast is the one meal the British are supposed to do well. As early as 1952, culinary historian Arnold Palmer wrote that "about eggs and bacon for breakfast there still lingers, for many honest men, something of the sanctity of the Union Jack and Stratford-upon-Avon". But this timeless symbol of nationhood is actually a quite recent invention. It was not until the 1840s that breakfast came to be eaten on rising, and to have a menu of porridge, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade - a product of the more rigid routines adopted by middle-class professional men in the early Victorian era.

The mythology of the full English breakfast really developed only as this tradition was dying out. The modifiers "full" and "English" recognised that continental and American versions now existed. In 1961, the Times complained about this "new-fangled expression 'a cooked breakfast' - no one talks about 'a cooked luncheon' or 'a cooked dinner'."

The modern, two-course breakfast of cereal, followed by toast, established itself during the second world war, when bacon and eggs were scarce. Invented at the end of the 19th century, cereal was promoted vigorously to convince people to change their breakfast habits. There were two main types of cereal packet. First, there were the ones that housed traditional family cereals such as Kellogg's Corn Flakes. On the front there might be a primal scene of a prairie of wheat glistening in the sun; on the back a pleasing family tableau of breadwinner father, home-making mother and child of each sex, all tucking into their cereal.

The second, more garish, type was used for the sugar-coated cereals aimed at children, such as Frosties and Sugar Puffs, which both launched in Britain in 1954. These packets wooed baby-boomer kids with mail-in offers and free gifts, beginning with cheap versions of conventional toys: miniature bandsmen or "atomic" submarines powered by baking powder. Then the cereal companies linked them with children's TV series. The cheap free gift became a symbol of the tacky promises of consumerism, the disappointing content never living up to the delicious expectation. Designing tatty gifts for cereal boxes was the unfulfilling job that Tom Good (Richard Briers) gave up in the first episode of the 1970s self-sufficiency sitcom The Good Life.

Toast had long been a classic element of the full English breakfast, but the electric toaster and its corollary, sliced bread, were interwar American inventions. For many years, a toaster was the most popular wedding present in Britain and America. Adverts showed young women in bridal dresses, with captions such as, "Toast for the bride! May all your breakfasts be happy ones." But many Britons also associated instant toast with American vulgarity.

Feelings about the toaster were bundled up with anxieties about the evolution of British bread. During the war, the government banned refined white bread to save grain, and introduced a "National Loaf", resented for tasting of sawdust. In 1956, bread became the last food except milk to stop being subsidised. There was a wave of consolidation among the big milling-baking combines, and branded varieties such as Mother's Pride and Sunblest filled the shelves. One Manchester woman recalled: "The bread came all wrapped in paper, we showed it off in the street. No one could believe how many slices you got."

This new era of abundance was the point at which middle-class connoisseurs went off the white loaf and began to pine for freshly baked, unsliced bread. "For centuries, the working man envied the white bread of the privileged," wrote Elizabeth David, doyenne of English cookery writers, in 1977. "Now he may very soon grow to envy them their brown wholewheat bread." No wonder David judged electric toasters, indelibly associated with the white sliced, to be "machines with which I cannot be doing".

As late as 1998, Delia Smith was trying to teach television viewers the proper way of making toast, by placing it on a pre-heated grill, then slotting it into "this wonderful little gadget", a toast rack. The influence of Delia Smith on British cookery at the end of the past century was unequalled. She simply had to mention "rare" ingredients, such as cranberries, and the shops ran out almost overnight. But there was no similar run on toast racks. Instead, viewers seemed puzzled that she was trying to tell them how to make such a simple item as toast, and giving such a long-winded way of doing it. If Delia could not challenge it, the toaster's ascendancy was surely complete.

But the toaster was never merely functional. The designer toaster truly arrived in the Thatcher era. The British company Dualit had been making toasters since 1946, durable models aimed at the new wave of postwar Italian cafes. Then, in the 1980s, the Dualit became a modish yuppie gadget. It had nothing so vulgar as a pop-up mechanism but, more importantly, its generous dimensions could accommodate home-baked or unsliced bread.

Ironically, the rise of the designer toaster coincided with the decline of the classic cereal-and-toast breakfast and in 1984 the anthropologist David Pocock noted that breakfast in Britain was no longer eaten by the family together. For younger people, breakfast has become the "deskfast' - the portable snack taken into the office and eaten there. The default deskfast, the cereal bar, arrived in Britain from America in the late 1990s and within five years accounted for about a fifth of the total cereal market. Many of the newer "breakfast solutions" are American in origin: frozen fry-ups in microwaveable trays, bacon-and-egg Pop-Tarts and "Drink'n'Crunch" portable cereals. But even the humblest deskfast respects the integrity of breakfast, by compressing the different elements of a traditional breakfast into one package. The cereal bar is a dry, rectangular-shaped bowl of muesli, with yogurt substituting for milk; the all-day-breakfast sandwich is the traditional fry-up in cold, portable form. The full English breakfast is no longer a private, family ritual but a kind of public indulgence. It survives in hotels, for foreign tourists or the English on vacation, or as the weekend treat of brunch. But if bacon and eggs is still held up as a national archetype, it long ago stopped being part of our daily routine.

Office life

Billy Wilder's classic film The Apartment (1960) is, among other things, a narrative about the role of the desk in postwar office life. As the film begins, the camera pans across a huge office made up of serried rows of identical desks, all facing the same way and receding into apparent infinity. In America, this layout was known as the "bullpen". Somewhere in this endless sea of desks, the camera finds our hero, CC "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a lowly insurance clerk in a large corporation called Consolidated Life, working at desk number 861 on the 19th floor. Desk 861 is, like all the others, a descendant of the Modern Efficiency Desk, first made in 1915 by Steelcase Inc for the New York offices of Equitable Assurance. This desk, a simple, rectangular table with small drawers, replaced the cabinet-like desks, with their high backs made up of little drawers and cubbyholes, which dominated office life before the first world war. At their new efficiency desks, office workers could be watched, monitored and subjected to time-and-motion studies.

By lending his apartment to his seniors for their extramarital affairs, Baxter begins to move up the corporate ladder. Promoted to "second administrative assistant", he moves into his own office, one of the small rooms around the side of the floor, with large windows for easy surveillance of the bullpen. Eventually, he is promoted to the 27th floor, where female secretaries serve as gatekeepers to the male executives' hallowed private space. Baxter's final reward is a panelled corner office, with a leather swivel chair. That is what work desks used to be like. The British civil service, for example, measured the subtlest distinctions in service grades through precise allocations of desk type, carpet and square feet of floor space.

Around the time that The Apartment was made, however, the nature of the office began to change. The salaries of office workers had fallen behind those of many manual workers and, rather than trying to compete on pay, firms tried to brighten up their offices to attract staff. Much of the new technology was marketed at women, from lipstick-coloured telephones to Marcello Nizzoli's curvaceous designs for Olivetti typewriters. One 1960 typewriter advert showed a woman secretary dressed in black tie and tails at a typewriter blown up to the size of a grand piano: "You are the artiste ... Your touch on the keys, your virtuosity produces the accomplished results which ensure your Chief's 'applause' and a universal ovation!"

At around the same time, in the late 1950s, a German company was developing the concept of Bürolandschaft (office landscaping), which reinvented the office as a free-flowing, open-plan space. In America, the designer Robert Propst had a similar idea, developing Action Office 2 in 1968. Its chief innovation was the partition panel. For Propst, it was a way of giving workers control over "exposure overload" and the "continuous idiot salutations" necessary in bullpen offices where workers had to "invest in a recognition act every time someone goes by". Of course, the new open-plan office had another advantage: it saved money.

The open-plan office is supposed to sweep away outdated hierarchies and inefficient bureaucracy, fostering teamwork and creative interaction. The unsurprising reality is that, however our desks are arranged, our colleagues can be irritating as well as helpful, and the competition for status and hierarchy is as resilient as ever. At Hewlett-Packard, a pioneer of open-plan office spaces, one of the most common items supplied by the corporate nurse was earplugs. The partition panel became the raw material not for Action Offices but for cubicles, those universal signifiers of American white-collar alienation.

In Britain, there were other, unforeseen problems with communal offices. In the 1960s, when good secretarial skills were at a premium, women could demand a "modesty board" - a piece of plywood stretching across the desk front - as a perk and status symbol. Two out of three secretaries, the Daily Mirror reported, wanted boards "to stop the boss peering at their legs". A simpler solution - allowing women to wear trousers to work - did not arrive in most British firms until the mid-1970s.

IBM's launch of the personal desktop computer in August 1981 created a new type of desk: the workstation. And an unintended consequence of the arrival of the workstation was that it made office chairs more important. Before the 1970s it was generally believed there was only one way to sit in a chair, so designers focused on symbolising status rather than improving posture. The contrast between high-backed, throne-like executive chairs and small-backed, armless secretarial chairs for dainty ladies survived well into the 1960s.

This status-consciousness was complicated by the new science of ergonomics. The father of the modern, ergonomic office chair is Bill Stumpf, who in 1966 argued that "many of us spend eight hours a day in a chair that is uncomfortable, that restricts our movement and inhibits our performance". Stumpf's solution came in 1976 with the Ergon, which had all the essentials of today's swivel chair.

The ethos of ergonomics is egalitarian: a comfy chair is seen as an inalienable human right. But the distinction between basic operator chairs and smarter managerial chairs survives. Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf's bestselling Aeron Chair, first produced in 1994, is the ultimate, deluxe place to park your behind. It is "biomorphic" to adapt to the curves of the human body, and minutely adjustable with levers and pulleys. It comes in three sizes to accommodate (as the promotional material says, tactfully) "those in a broader range of the anthropometric scale'. Its back and seat are made up of a flexible mesh, which prevents heat build-up and adapts to the sitter's shape.

Even an entry-level Aeron will set you back several hundred pounds. In 2004, the Sun expressed outrage that the Ministry of Defence had bought an Aeron chair for each of the 3,150 civil servants in its main building in Whitehall. Infinite adjustability is all very well, it seems, but not for public servants at the taxpayer's expense. Give them an Ergon, and they can swivel on that.

Most companies have long been suspicious of desk clutter. Some firms do not even allow employees to have personal items on their desks, in case their mess scrambles the signals of the company's corporate branding. And these advocates of clean designer workplaces have found an unlikely ally in the fashionable mind-body-spirit movement. Guides to office feng shui advise workers that "keeping your personal space in order opens the flow of chi and stimulates your creativity". Firms of "deskologists" offer to cure you of "irritable desk syndrome".

Look around any office today, however, and you will see that this war against clutter has been lost. The main purpose of desk accessories is to subvert the functionalism of the office. There is a whole office supplies industry that answers to this need for uselessness in the form of banana-shaped pens and nose-shaped pencil sharpeners.

But our nesting instincts conflict with one of modern office life's harsher realities: our desk is no longer our own. In 1985, Philip Stone and Robert Luchetti wrote a seminal essay, Your Office Is Where You Are, in the Harvard Business Review. Stone and Luchetti came to bury what they called "Cubicleland". Offices should be redesigned as "activity settings", they argued, with a private "home base" for each worker, supplemented by access to shared facilities and communal areas. This article spawned a movement known as "Alternative Officing". It gained momentum during the economic boom of the late 1990s, when trendy ad agencies and PR companies redesigned their offices, dividing them up into quiet "chill-out" zones with bean bags and sofas, "chaos" spaces for exchanging ideas, and "touchdown areas" with breakfast-style bars and laptop connections.

The sworn enemies of the alternative office are territoriality and permanence. Office space needs to be adaptable to "churn" - the term used for moving workers or equipment around - the rate of which grew by 14% over the 1990s.

There is an architectural evangelism about alternative officing that assumes people's ways of working will be transformed by a curvy desk or a translucent work surface. But for all the revolutionary rhetoric, the British economy is dominated by small companies with limited budgets, which manage to get by with desks that are tediously rectangular.

The alternative office has suffered the same fate as the 1960s open-plan office: its loftier ideals have lost out to the more prosaic aims of saving space and money. One solution is for workers to share desks. In the system known as "hotelling", they book in each day with a "concierge" who takes their possessions out of a locker, wheels them in a portable filing cabinet to their designated desk, uses a Smart Card to reroute telephone calls, and sets up personal items such as stationery and even family photographs. Once the desk is vacated, the concierge clears and cleans it for the next occupant, just like a hotel room. In "hot desking", workers simply have to grab the first desk that is available. The sexy names given to these cost-effective forms of musical chairs suggest the libertarian, nomadic ethos of the alternative office. Certainly, "hot desk" sounds more exciting than "shared desk" or "no desk".

Watching the weather

There has been a forecast on the BBC almost every day since March 26 1923. The exception was during the second world war, when the radio forecast was suspended in case it was helpful to the enemy, though the government partially relented in October 1944, allowing information to be given about the weather the day before yesterday. "Most people," the BBC bulletin stated, laconically, on the day the ban was lifted, "will have cause to remember it because in most parts of the country it just rained and rained."

The forecast is now one of the longest-running programmes on British television and, despite all the competing sources of weather information, it remains popular. In any one month, 26.3 million people will see at least one BBC weather forecast. The problem is that viewers have always wanted clarity and predictability in a weather system that is essentially opaque and unpredictable. And how do you represent a dynamic phenomenon like the weather in summary form? Early BBC television forecasts used simple charts, with only a disembodied, Monty Pythonesque hand coming in from one side to point at the relevant bits. When George Cowling presented the first manned forecast in 1954, he and his colleagues would draw the weather symbols on cardboard charts with felt-tip pen. During the bulletin itself, Cowling scribbled over the chart with a charcoal stick to show the weather changing.

In 1985, the BBC replaced magnetic rubber symbols with a computerised weather map. What has really transformed the weather forecast in recent years, however, is not technology but the rise of the personality forecaster.

The BBC Met Office forecasters were (and remain) career civil servants with corresponding ranks in the RAF, but they also became celebrities by default, simply because they entered people's living rooms for a few minutes every day.

The launch of British breakfast television in 1983 was a key moment in the rise of the personality forecaster. The BBC had housewives' favourite Francis Wilson. ITV had a member of the old school, a retired naval commander called David Philpott. But it soon shunted him to weekends to make way for Wincey Willis, who would intersperse her weather reports with little anecdotes about her dog or her mother's arthritis. The new breakfast and satellite stations gave disproportionate time to the weather, because it was cheap and could be endlessly repeated for channel-hopping viewers. As the weather took up more airtime, the late 1980s saw a new breed of glamorous "weathergirls", such as TV-am's Ulrika Jonsson and Sky TV's Tania Bryer, cruelly nicknamed "Brolly Dollies". On the daytime show This Morning, the weatherman Fred Talbot gave a forecast from a floating map of Britain in Liverpool's Albert Dock.

The inspiration for such "weather-tainment" came from American television. In the 1950s, US weathercasters delivered the forecast in verse or with the aid of puppets. Gimmicky forecasting waned slightly in the 1960s, but American stations still dressed their forecasters in demonstrative costumes - umbrellas and mackintoshes for rain, bathing suits and flip-flops for sun - or sent them outside in gales and blizzards for comic effect. Often a dog or cat would appear as the weathercaster, dressed appropriately for the weather, with an off-camera announcer providing the voice.

When George Cowling once let slip in a 1950s forecast that tomorrow would be a good day for drying the washing, he received a reproving phone call from his superior at the Met Office. But in the 1990s, such casual asides became almost compulsory. The weather was no longer an abstract phenomenon; it had to be related to potential activities such as gardening or going to the Test match. The forecast became distinctly nannyish. We were told to "go slow on those motorways" and "take care on those icy pavements if you're out and about". The forecast also became a source of new, previously unconsidered anxieties about ultraviolet radiation, poor air quality and high pollen counts. But larger anxieties, such as climate change, rarely intruded: Britain's weather is actually a poor indicator of global warming because it is so unpredictable.

In fact, the forecast tends to inspire a certain resignation about the weather. As Mark Twain is supposed to have said: "Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it." The forecast is similarly fatalistic. Tomorrow's weather is an inescapable denouement, described in those strange, unowned verb forms ("rain spreading from the west ... strengthening through the night ... brightening up later ... turning colder"). The news involves us in its problems and dilemmas, and invites us to have a position on them; but no one is to blame for the rain.

In May 2005, the BBC revamped its forecasts, with a hi-tech, virtual-reality graphics system that moved around Britain to give viewers a kind of aerial tour. The dull scientific stuff, like those wavy lines representing air pressure, was dumped.

The switchboard was deluged with complaints. Some viewers were getting motion sickness from the fast-moving graphics. Most controversially, the map had a tilt to take account of the curvature of the earth, which appeared to downsize northern England and Scotland. It had long been a piece of popular folklore that the weather forecast concentrated unduly on the south-east at the expense of the regions, and here at last was hard evidence. One Scottish National Party MP tabled a House of Commons motion protesting at the tilt.

The controversy is puzzling because, contrary to popular belief, the British are not unusually obsessed with the weather. The American Weather Channel, for example, is regularly in the top 10 cable channels, but when it launched a sister channel in Britain in 1996, viewer indifference closed it down within 18 months. Lifestyle changes in recent years have also meant that the weather affects us less and less. Since we rarely need to know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, the television forecast is now essentially ritualistic.

Six months after the uproar over the BBC weather map, some confidential new Met Office guidelines for television forecasters were leaked to the press. They advised against overly gloomy descriptions of the weather: "chilly in areas" should now be characterised as "warm for most", while "isolated storms" should become "hot and sunny for most". Other terms to be avoided included "heavy rain" (now to be called "rain"), "occasional showers" ("mainly dry") and "often cloudy" ("generally clear"). An inappropriate spin on bad news, perhaps - but all these guidelines really suggested was replacing one set of vague approximations with another. A statistician recently worked out that, if weather forecasters used the standard, fuzzy phraseology, they could provide an accurate forecast for 41% of the time simply by repeating exactly what they had said the previous day.

© Joe Moran, 2007

· This is an edited extract from Queuing For Beginners: The Story Of Daily Life From Breakfast To Bedtime, by Joe Moran, to be published on May 31 by Profile Books at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.99, with free UK p&p, call 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.