1. Lifestyle, activities, incomes and households
2. Housing and housing conditions
3. Furnishing and use of space
4. Clothes, dress and fashions
5. Nutrition, diet and eating habits
6. Customs and free time: cultivation and cultural consumption


1. Lifestyle, activities, incomes and households

Lifestyle patterns of the pre-war Horthy period persisted into the immediate post-war period, with alterations, but proletarianization and downward levelling after the communist takeover caused ‘negative homogenization’ (to use András Kovács’s expression) of lifestyles, consumption patterns, social relations and norms of conduct.One basic issue is how the lifestyles and cultures of village and town related to each other. Did they move closer or further away from one another? There were certainly some tendencies for them to converge in the 1950s, due to direct political pressure and changes in the social structure, but the defining, underlying differences between rural and urban habits and ways of life persisted through the ten years after 1945. The first post-war decade, therefore, was one of surviving traditions, a moderate pace of modernization, and self-sufficiency (autarky). Although detailed time-budget studies are not available, household statistics show that the vast majority in Hungarian society led a work-centred life in the 1944–56 period. Some 40–50 per cent of people’s day was spent in activity that generated earnings. Then followed time spent on physical needs, housework (especially by women), entertainment and socializing.

The decisive factor affecting incomes and consumption after 1944–5 was the process of clearing away and restoring war damage. The first task in the 1945–9 period was to curb the hyperinflation and create a currency that would keep its value. However, the introduction of the forint in August 1946 and the subsequent financial stabilization created distortions in the price and wage systems that built many later tensions into the system. These tensions meant that the purchasing power of the forint declined by 40 per cent between August 1946 and December 1949 and 27 per cent between 1949 and 1955. The opportunities to earn money in the 1945–9 period were still governed by market forces, although the hand of the state weighed increasingly heavily on the economy and several elements of a controlled economy already applied. Efforts to confiscate wealth and property could be felt, although they did not become general or widespread until the turn of the 1950s.

Hungary’s per capita national income had been $120 in 1938—rather less than two-thirds of the European average. This declined due to the Second World War and only recovered its 1938 level in 1949. National income in the 1950s fluctuated wildly, but effectively increased slightly over the 1949 level.

Living standards fell consistently in the first three years of the decade: real wages in 1952 were 20 per cent lower than they had been in 1950. Taking the 1938 level as 100, real wages in 1952 were down to 66, because the proportion of investment rose by almost 30 per cent, at the expense of the standard of living. Much of this investment directly or indirectly served military purposes. Changes in economic-policy priorities in support of ‘socialist construction’ brought serious curtailment of personal earnings. This was mainly because wages were held low in a period of steadily rising consumer prices, drastic increases in taxation and compulsory produce deliveries, and practically compulsory subscriptions to peace loans. Peace-loan stock was issued six times between 1949 and 1954, and mopped up a total of 5.6 billion forints’ worth of personal income. Economic policy of the period treated personal consumption as a factor in economic growth. Under the New Course announced in mid-1953, personal incomes and consumption rose again until the first half of 1956, but the revolution led to an 11 per cent decrease in national income in the second half of 1956, accompanied of course by a fall in the consumption index.


Real wages

Real per capita income

Household consumption













Source: Klinger, András: Társadalomstatisztikai alapismeretek (Social Statistics). Budapest: KSH, 1998.

Efforts to level out wealth and income were prominent in the period. The ratio of non-manual to manual work narrowed in the early 1950s from 2.6–2.8 to 1.3–1.5. At the same time, earnings differentials based on qualifications were also reduced. The best qualified and hitherto best paid workers found that their wages increased least. The proportions were further distorted because many non-wage benefits and allowances became available to all employees, irrespective of their work performance. These effects were magnified by the pricing system of the period, when the prices of goods and services often departed significantly from their true prices, and this tended to favour those with low incomes.

The only legal way of investing savings in Hungary in the socialist period was the savings deposit. Savings deposits by the population totalled 289 million forints in 1950 and 5.5 billion forints in 1960. There were strong restrictions in the early 1950s on ownership of real estate and high-value articles. Private wealth capable of producing income had been eliminated by nationalization. Only private ownership of land remained, despite the collectivization campaigns.

There was continual change in the consumption pattern. The supply of consumer goods increased in the latter half of the 1940s and the period of scarcity during the reconstruction was not long compared with the scale of the war damage. However, the conditions of a war economy returned in the first half of the 1950s, due to the forced industrialization and concentration on heavy industry. Basic foods and clothing items became scarce or unobtainable from time to time. Manufactures were rarely obtainable, and if so, at prices that rose faster than wages. Food supplies were somewhat more regular in rural than in urban areas, as village households relied increasingly on their own production. Consumption behaviour changed continually throughout the period. Different articles at different times would suddenly become sought after and in short supply. Consumption, of course, was influenced by differences in living conditions, type of work, organization of work within the household, and the place of residence. These decided the consumption priorities—tools of work, or consumer durables for the home. With consumer durables, purchases of furniture, bicycles, stoves and cookers, motor cycles and radios were dominant in the second half of the 1950s.

There were significant changes in the size and structure of households as well. The multi-generation model of an extended family living together permanently gradually lost ground in the villages to that of a nuclear family. It became general and accepted for a young couple to set up home separately from either’s parents. There was an increase in the 1950s in socially heterogeneous marriages and therefore in the number of families and households with members from different social strata or backgrounds. Rural households lagged significantly behind urban households in changes in housekeeping norms and patterns. The two-earner family model arrived earlier and faster in the latter. Mainly for economic reasons, the traditional role of women in terms of family and household tasks gave ground in the 1950s to the notion of a working woman, doing daytime paid work like a man, while cooking, washing, sewing and raising children in the evenings. The author of a 1956 manual on housekeeping presented this as a victory for the equality of women, but added that the equality would not be full unless men contributed to the household tasks. ‘There are day nurseries, kindergartens, after-school centres, works canteens, household appliances, preserved foods, [longer] shop opening hours and many other things to help working women… The attainment of socialism will also take the burden of housework off the shoulders of women,’ the book argued. The reorganization of work within the household had a big effect on the country’s economy in the decade after 1945.

There were marked differences in the level of facilities in rural and urban households. This developed partly because rural families paid attention to obtaining farm tools, rather than household appliances. Motorization in Hungary came slowly and late, so that it hardly affected lifestyle or work organization in the 1944–56 period. There were 13,054 passengers cars registered in 1950, but the numbered fell by 5000 in the next few years. Sales of cars practically ceased in the first half of the 1950s, so that the number of cars in private hands fell to 1000–2000.


2. Housing and housing conditions

The three basic types of housing—middle-class, worker and peasant—persisted after 1944–5 with only small changes. The biggest and earliest changes after the communist takeover came in the bourgeois home. The way of life of the upper middle and middle classes became difficult or impossible to sustain. Blocks of rented flats and many large dwellings were nationalized at the end of the 1940s, which resulted in a rapid expansion of the state-owned housing sector, especially in urban areas, as one of the measures designed to minimize private ownership. However, this curtailment of the housing market had bad effects on housing mobility. Meanwhile the housing stock rose at a moderate rate between 1949 and 1960. Many large dwellings were divided up in this period, ostensibly as a measure of equalization, but in practice because of a shortage of urban housing that became widespread between 1949 and 1956.


The table shows the trend in the overall number of dwellings:


Total number of dwellings


2 397 499


2 466 514


2 757 625

Source: Census returns: Mikrocenzus 1996. Lakások és lakóik (Dwellings and residents). Budapest: KSH, 1996.

Most new dwellings (except in a couple of years) were built privately for owner occupation. Housing under the socialist system was ostensibly a social provision. Housing management was centralized, but marked inequalities arose through the mechanism of redistribution, with big differences between principle and practice in housing policy in the first post-war decade. In principle, everyone had equal access to housing, but in practice, the state subsidized only urban housing construction, not rural, citing the sizeable urban housing shortage.

In building materials, adobe gave way almost completely to brick. The occupancy rate increased from 365 per 100 dwellings in 1949 to 374 in 1955. Most dwellings had a single room, with partial or no modern conveniences. Full conveniences were to be found in some of the existing middle-class or rebuilt housing in urban areas.

Modern conveniences in dwellings (%)



Running water














Source: Statisztikai évkönyv 1960 (Statistical Yearbook 1960). Budapest: KSH, 1961.

So there was a moderate improvement in housing quality in the period, but heating was still mainly with coal or wood-fired stoves. The availability of electric power increased fastest, while access to running water, bathrooms and WCs remained limited. The housing shortage led to a proliferation of emergency housing unfit for human habitation and the conversion of Nissen huts and other buildings or even caves into temporary housing.

There was a marked change in the architectural appearance of most communities. The traditional village housing of earlier decades and centuries usually consisted of houses with an oblong plan end on to the road, divided into a room, followed by a kitchen and another room, and including a pantry. Changes in the first half of the 20th century meant there were relatively few open kitchen chimneys by this time. Houses were designed and built so that further rooms, stores or farm buildings could be added later. Architectural characteristics differed from district to district, although the internal structure of the dwellings was similar in all Hungarian villages. Traditional building methods became rarer in the second half of the century as beaten clay and adobe gave way to brick and thatch to tiled roofs.

The multi-storey buildings characteristic of urban architecture in the Hungarian were confined mainly to larger cities. Smaller provincial towns seldom had buildings of more than five storeys even in their centres. Three to five storeys were common and the flats in them had high prestige. Most towns showed four distinguishable zones of housing: central mansion flats, rented flats in blocks or estates, areas of ‘garden-city’ family houses and condominiums, and poor or slum housing areas.


3. Furnishing and use of space

Changes in building methods and the ways dwellings were divided brought with them changes in furnishing and use of space. The kitchen slowly became less dominant in worker and peasant homes and the number of rooms increased, so that activities could become more segregated.

Habits were clearly affected by the population movements and changes in social structure that began in the 1950s. Moving from a village to a town meant adopting a different way of life and adapting to radically altered living conditions. Possessions would be exchanged for ones more suited to the norms of their new environment.

The main items of furniture in a well-to-do peasant home in the 1950s were a pair of cupboards, a pair of night tables, a dressing table with a mirror, two beds, chairs and a table, all normally hand-made and arranged symmetrically or centrally. A symmetrical arrangement meant that the beds were along the outer walls, with the cupboards at the ends of the beds and the table and chairs in the middle of the room. A central arrangement put the beds protruding into the middle of the room with the table and chairs at the end and the cupboards along the walls. A third common choice at the beginning of the period was a corner arrangement, in which table and benches were placed in a corner opposite the street front of the house or next to the stove, with a cupboard or chest of drawers behind and beds along the opposite wall.

Even if the house were occupied by several generations, they would normally all live in one room. Only wealthier families with four or more rooms and a separate bedroom would give the younger couple a usually unheated room of their own. Children would normally sleep with parents or grandparents. Without a bathroom, washing and bathing took place in the kitchen, which also influenced the furnishing. The ornaments still consisted mainly of pictures of saints and family photographs.

Many urban workers’ dwellings were in blocks built at the turn of the century. They usually consisted of a kitchen and one room or possibly two. The modern conveniences were confined to a water tap and sink in the kitchen and occasionally electric light. The possibility of adding a bathroom or WC had not been considered when such dwellings were built, so that later modernization caused serious difficulties for lack of space. The architectural solutions meant that residents intruded into each other’s lives. Some of the ‘new workers’ flooding into the towns in the 1950s took over former bourgeois homes. Workers’ dwellings built in the late 1940s and early 1950s were usually in four or five-storey blocks and averaged 45–60 sq. m in area. They usually had some, or more rarely full modern conveniences. The idea was raised after 1945 of creating estates of family houses for workers, but these ideas were abandoned after the communist takeover as ‘inimical to the community’ and mass building of flats to standard designs was preferred. Most standard designs of 1948 had a single room, sleeping alcove, kitchen, entrance hall, bathroom and WC, totalling about 50 sq. m. In 1949, the sleeping alcove was enlarged at the expense of kitchen and hall, and by merging the bathroom and WC and omitting the larder. Areas in small one and two-room flats of the 1950s were often divided by curtains to produce a ‘nursery’ or assign part of the kitchen as a ‘bathroom’, or screen part of the living room as a ‘bedroom’ for the parents. Practicality and economic use of space were the priorities in smaller dwellings. Where there was still no bathroom, washing took place in the kitchen using a basin or dolly tub. Bathing happened once or twice a week, because heating water was awkward and time-consuming. Even amidst the changes in housing conditions, the fashions of the 1920s and 1930s persisted in urban working-class homes. Indispensable pieces of furniture in flats of one or two rooms and a kitchen were a double bed, a dark wardrobe for clothes, usually with double doors, and a dresser with space for both useful and decorative articles. According to Katalin S. Nagy (1987), ‘The strata of workers arriving in towns from a rural environment brought with them a bourgeois-peasant style of home. In part they followed this and in part the furnishings of the urban petty bourgeoisie became the pattern they wanted to follow.’

The use of space in flats with one or two rooms and a kitchen had to be optimized to cover sleeping, eating, recreation, washing and entertainment. According to a survey taken in blocks of flats erected in the late 1940s, ‘The flats were occupied by 2–14 persons, with an average of 4–7 persons… Where 8–10 people lived in a two-room flat, the men would sleep in one room and the women in the other… Family life took place in the kitchen, where they cooked, ate and washed, although a third of the residents spent time in the living room during the day: there the children played or studied and their parents listened to the radio. Some people even ate there,’ according to a study by Sándor Horváth. Family expenditure on furnishing the home was usually low in the first decade of the socialist period. In 1956, for instance, 90 per cent of families were unable to buy furniture, according to subsistence calculations. An average suite of furniture cost 8000–12,000 forints at a time when 50 per cent of households could not cover the annual 1200 forints of expenditure on furnishing taken as part of subsistence. Working-class families usually possessed only three or four blankets, but more than a third of families had fewer or no blankets at all. Some families, especially large ones, could not change the bed linen on all the beds at once, only one or two, while the rest of the family slept on rags or straw.

The interiors of urban petty bourgeois homes (neither peasant nor middle-class) were less associated with any specific type of architecture. They occurred equally on housing estates and in suburban houses of two or three rooms. Social status was conveyed by the furniture in the living room, which combined the functions of a dining room, a living room and a study, while the other room was used as a bedroom.

Changes in the furnishing and equipment of the home were also impeded in the 1950s by extremely short supply.


4. Clothes, dress and fashions

The post-war shortage of clothing steadily eased and the big fashion houses began to reappear along with the garment factories. Urban fashions soon became varied again and in touch with fashions in the rest of Europe. Up to 1948, attempts were made to keep up with these in Hungarian towns and cities, with the aid, for instance of magazines such as Asszonyok (Women, 1946–9) and its successor Nok lapja (Women’s Paper, 1949 onwards). Reports of a fashion parade organized at the end of 1947 by the Hungarian Fashion Designers’ Union point to the beginnings of a change of emphasis: ‘Working women naturally need different garments in daily life from “decorative” women. The task… of modern design… is to design for millions upon millions of women beautiful and practical clothes that serve the purposes of millions upon millions of women in life, at home, at work, in sports, and on festive occasions.’ After 1948–9, the demands of ‘working women’ had no further need of fashion houses, individuality or beauty that attracted attention. A period of uniformity in dress ensued, in honour of the puritan worker ethic. Everything not directly practical or purposeful was criticized, including neckties from time to time. Fashion magazines changed from exploring personal taste to praising products of the state-owned garment industry manufactured in runs of tens of thousands. These were less popular with buyers, however. In 1950, the officially inspired condemnations were extended from ‘self-centred fashion-mongering’ to stating that wearing hats or ties was ‘a despicable bourgeois, petty-bourgeois habit’, as were frills, plunging necklines, lipstick and nail varnish. The working man and working woman were the ideals to be followed. Working girls were often used at fashion parades, on the basis that wholesome girls, women and working wives made more appropriate models than attenuated, desiccated mannequins bred for the task. The choice of clothes narrowed in the early 1950s. Urban men dressed to resemble workers. Typical garments included green or grey loden overcoats, cloth caps and berets, and for women, print skirts and dresses and check flannel blouses.

The only attempt to challenge the uniformity of overalls and loden coats was made with ‘spiv’ clothes (tight-legged trousers, colourful shirts, patterned ties, thick-soled shoes, tight skirts). Meanwhile the fashion houses were replaced by the Garment Industry Design Enterprise (later the Hungarian Fashion Institute). The garment industry developed new products that were designed to squeeze out individually made clothes, but fashion parades were still held, to present the latest clothing products, and it seems amusing only with hindsight that the portraits of Rákosi, Lenin and Stalin would be displayed above the catwalk. Those who wanted to buy something after the show came up against relatively high prices, poor choice and indifferent quality. People often lacked the money to buy the clothes they needed. According to a report in the spring of 1956, 13.3 per cent of workers had no overcoat and almost half fewer than two cloth suits, while a third of women had one or no fabric dress.

For a while after the war, self-sufficiency in the villages extended also to clothing, with home-made linen an important material. It was still rare for the middle-aged to discard traditional dress, although the young were following custom at most in choosing colours associated with their status or age group or in wearing a headscarf. Costume remained part of local identity until the mid-1950s, denoting where the wearers lived, what real or assumed wealth they had, what age group and even what church they belonged to. There were strong differences between weekday, occasional and festive dress. Such costume also functioned as a repository of cultural values. Women’s clothes were much more complex than men’s. Women would usually wear a shirt, bodice, waistcoat, blouse, chemise, petticoat, skirt and apron. The other widespread style of dress indicated only a broader regional affiliation and had no value element. Its traditional ties were weaker and its inclination to innovate stronger. It embodied a distinction only between everyday and formal wear. Men’s dress in the villages was much simpler. Broadcloth breeches became general in the middle of the century, instead of the earlier linen ones. The other common garments were a home-made shirt, a waistcoat, an overcoat, and a short coat for colder weather. Boots were the usual footwear and a hat was always worn.

Abandonment of traditional dress was probably speeded up in the 1950s by the anti-peasant policies, as a defence. Another factor was that the fabrics and accessories required became hard to obtain and home production of materials declined.

5. Nutrition, diet and eating habits

There was a general shortage of food in the country after the Second World War, so that the diet of most people in the reconstruction period was inadequate, especially in the towns and Budapest. A survey of Budapest 500 secondary-school students made in December 1945 found nine-tenths were eating three times a day, but their breakfast consisted of a bowl of broth thickened with roux or a cup of black coffee or tea. Lunch was normally a plate of vegetables in sauce with no meat, or some kind of pasta or potato dish. There would be a single dish for supper again, usually made of vegetables or potato. Only occasional respondents reported consuming meat, eggs or milk regularly. A similarly monotonous, low-quality, deficient diet could be found widely in the first half of the 1950s as well.

Canteen eating at work spread steadily in the first post-war decade. Almost every large factory set up a kitchen and organized lunch for its workers. By the end of 1950, the specialist Works Catering Enterprise in Budapest was operating eight kitchens in large factories, able to serve 54,000 lunches a day. Meanwhile commercial catering hardly developed in the 1950s. The historic New York Coffee House in Budapest, for instance, served temporarily as a warehouse for sports equipment. Rapid development took place only in a chain of ‘people’s buffets’ intended to ‘provide for working people cheaply and on a wide scale.’

The decade after 1944–5 was marked by scarcity in every respect. Meanwhile traditions tended to persist in rural families. The biggest and most radical changes in eating habits came in former petty-bourgeois and middle-class families, whose living conditions were changing in many other respects as well. The habits and traditions of the middle class were imitated by recruits to the ‘new elite’ (cadres). Observations in the 1950s suggest that the diet in worker households followed a pattern established by bourgeois strata before the war. Differences in eating habits were perpetuated by income differences. Those with lower incomes would obviously spend less on their meals and give more emphasis in the diet to cheaper, high-calorie foods. Higher-income households were more inclined to experiment. Largely irrespective of social status, people adhered to traditional Hungarian dishes in their day-to-day diet in the 1940s and 1950s. The developments were towards rationalization rather than variety, with the times and content of daily or weekly meals strongly governed by the type of work done by the head of the household and by seasonality. This was most conspicuous in peasant households. Changes in living and eating habits were accelerated in the 1950s by the social changes and increasing number of women going out to work. This reduced the time spent on housework and cooking, especially time-consuming tasks. According to a 1962 analysis, ‘Bread was still baked’ at the end of the 1950s ‘almost exclusively by families receiving allowances of wheat and flour in kind.’

It continued to be common in the 1950s for a meal to consist of one or two foods, but these were eaten in larger quantities. The pre-war distinctions of diet between different rural strata became blurred. Irrespective of social differences, special importance was still given to the foods served at family celebrations. These reflected the difference in character from everyday meals and fulfilled a prestige function, even among those with the lowest incomes. There were strong changes in the menu for such festive occasions, notably weddings. The changed conditions tended to erode the importance of the midday meal as the main meal of the day, in favour of the evening meal, which might then consist of freshly or previously prepared hot food.

Cooking habits were influenced to a small extent by technical innovations. Some urban middle-class households in the 1940s and 1950s already had refrigerators. Ovenproof ceramic dishes gained ground at the expense of enamel cooking vessels.

Peasant families after the Second World War still followed traditional eating patterns and customs. Life centred on the work rhythm and so did eating habits. People ate twice a day in winter, but often four times a day in summer. A third meal would be introduced in the weeks before the spring work began and become steadily more substantial, as a preparation for the physical labour ahead. More nourishing, higher-calorie foods were consumed during periods of peak-energy work, such as harvesting. The number of meals returned to three in the autumn and these were smaller, except during the vintage. But foods vary also in how enjoyable they are. Country households were still intent on self-sufficiency and saw the production of the annual quantity of food its members required as the main farming task. The most important items were grain, fat, bacon, meat, mashes and vegetables. Even in the 1950s, the staple food in many households was bread, of which about four 5-kg loaves a week would be baked. The main dishes at a wedding reception would be a supper of chicken soup, lamb pörkölt (stewed and flavoured with paprika), oatmeal with milk or meat, and cakes and pastries.

The tradition of eating out of one dish in peasant households vanished in the 1950s. Thereafter everyone had a plate and the use of a fork became general. The slow departure from the traditional diet was due ultimately to changes in the social structure and way of life. The large agricultural combines produced by collectivization called for a different type of work organization, while younger people entering industry and women employed locally in increasing numbers could eat in canteens.


6. Customs and free time: cultivation and cultural consumption

The earlier customs in social life, communal contacts and recreation survived for a short time after 1944–5, with some changes. However, the communist-led Ministry of the Interior began in the second half of the decade to weed out clubs, circles and societies operating in towns and villages, so that the institutions required for communities to function steadily fell in number. By the early 1950s, practically all the voluntary institutions built up in the first half of the century had been dissolved. Never again would the regime and its politicians of various types and ranks look kindly on people gathering for events that were not centrally organized.

The main institutions in the villages in the mid-20th century were farmers’ and readers’ circles. These ran libraries, bars and clubs that offered members a chance for conversation and self-improvement. The ‘culture houses’ set up in their stead served other purposes and principles. Many villages in the 1950s still kept up the custom of communal Sunday strolling and playing. As a present-day historian puts it, ‘Young people would walk up and down in the middle of the village, while the children would play round games. This custom survived longest in the region of the Northern Uplands.’ Meanwhile most taverns had lost their broader social purpose and simply become drinking places. The complex system of voluntary work in the villages had a communal function that remained almost unchanged until collectivization had been completed. There were also big changes in the calendar of festivals and celebrations. Festivals associated with religious traditions and prescriptions were drastically curbed in the period up to 1956. Boxing Day, Easter Monday and Whit Monday were declared working days, for example. The least successful moves were the politically and ideologically motivated interventions in family occasions, such as births, christenings and funerals. According to the birth customs in the villages, and even in the towns, it was general to assist a mother in childbirth, especially in the month after the birth. Close relatives would help with the housework and look after older children. In the villages, it was common to provide food for the family with the newborn child. Special importance attached to the christening, or more rarely a secular naming ceremony. Christenings were normally held after the main Sunday church service, and after the ceremony, the parents of the child usually gave a lunch for the relatives. Similar importance was attached to other ceremonies in a child’s life, such as first communion or confirmation, or enrolment in school or a movement. Ethnographical observations confirm that wedding customs steadily changed as well. The principle of marriage according to social status and wealth lost significance, and so did requirement that couples should belong to the same religious denomination or ethnic group. Bachelor evenings and the spinning room as a courting venue slowly went out of fashion, leaving village dances as the main scene of social intercourse for young people. The main function of the wedding reception remained to introduce the young couple into society and celebrate the beginning of their life together. The form it took underwent alterations to do with changes in the country way of life after 1944–5: most wedding receptions came to be held at the weekend and they grew progressively shorter and simpler. The revelries became confined to eating, drinking, singing and dancing, while the games customary in earlier times were dropped. The costs of the reception were borne by the families of the couple.

The attitudes of people and society to death underwent a change in Hungary (as elsewhere) in the mid-20th century and after. The ‘one certain fact’ about life was pushed to the back of people’s consciousness. This was assisted by the changes in lifestyle, the development in health care, the altered notion of life, the change in how people related to their lives, and the secularization that was occurring irrespective of the ideological system being imposed. The scene of death, especially in the towns, moved from the home and the private sphere into the hospital ward. Burial customs (and official regulations) also changed. Bodies were generally laid out in state at home in the first half of the century. In the second, this was progressively replaced by a formalized farewell at the cemetery, with traditional rituals giving way to less personal, more mechanical customs that emphasized the need to repress grief. The chronically ill and dying would be visited daily or every second day by close or more distant relatives, friends and colleagues from work. When death took place, a close male relative of the deceased would wear his Sunday best to register the death with the secular authorities and the church. In most of the Hungarian-speaking area, even in the 20th century, the death would still be announced to the local community by tolling the church bell, a recent study points out. ‘The number of strokes of the bell conveyed the sex and age (adult or child) of the deceased and sometimes the social status as well. After the bell had rung, neighbours and others in the same street and everyone who had known the deceased would take their leave by going to the house to view the body… The bell was also rung to gather the mourners to take leave of the body: first it would be tolled with the news, then for the priest, and finally for the villagers. The coffin in most places would be drawn through the village on a cart and out to the cemetery, followed by the mourners on foot. The grave would usually be dug by relatives and friends… In a funeral procession in Hungary, the coffin was followed first by the members of the family, then the other relatives, friends and neighbours… Sometime after the funeral, a requiem mass would be said.’ Lesser events in people’s lives, like fetes and birthdays were celebrated in various frameworks in which custom and tradition survived. They were occasions for meeting closer relatives and keeping up with wider spheres of acquaintance.

As lifestyles changed and the pace of living speeded up, there were also changes in the way people spent their free time. Society in this period tended to centre on work, so that ‘idling’ was not thought much of, especially not in rural peasant communities. According to an opinion poll taken in November 1945, the most popular recreation among Budapest people was the cinema. This was followed in the case of the intelligentsia by the theatre, reading, concerts and the opera, while the petty bourgeoisie followed the cinema with reading, the theatre and sports. Among workers, sports, reading and the theatre took the second, third and fourth places, although a high proportion of them did not designate any free-time activities. A repeat poll taken in March 1948 found that Budapest people spent their free time most frequently in reading, going to the cinema and theatre, listening to the radio, and visiting friends.

In a survey taken in Budapest in January 1947 by the Hungarian Public Opinion Research Institute, respondents were asked, ‘If you had to do without culture for a lengthy period for some reason, which five books would you take with you?’ The Bible was mentioned by 38 per cent of respondents. Literary works featured in the following order: poems of Endre Ady, The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách, Shakespeare, Dante, János Arany, Petofi, Babits, Tolstoy, Kosztolányi, Dostoyevsky and Goethe. Two-thirds of the members of the intelligentsia who responded were reading a book at the time, as were half the members of the petty bourgeoisie and a quarter of the workers.

Significant changes occurred in the 1940s and 1950s in cultural consumption and the way people spent their free time. Sport had an ever more prominent place in mass culture, thanks to success by Hungarians in numerous European and world competitions. The Hungarians at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 won 16 gold medals, more than ever before or since. Meanwhile the country’s ‘golden’ football team was winning successive victories. Competitors were motivated all the more because sport was almost the only way to obtain sudden fame and financial rewards. Attending such events was a very popular pastime and radio sports coverage of foreign events was heard by masses of people. The country’s sports successes were useful to the regime in diffusing some of the social tension.

The image of culture and cultivation projected by schools and propaganda in the early 1950s differed sharply from earlier ideas, even the dominant concept in the short post-war coalition period, of humanity and democracy and the ideal of a national culture. Some of the changes were formal, being arrived at simply by adding the epithet ‘socialist’ to an existing expression. Thereafter there could be references only to socialist culture, socialist education, socialist literature, socialist theatre and socialist film. The more substantial changes involved augmenting or reducing the content of such ideas. Day-to-day political and ideological considerations came to the fore, and everything that cast the smallest doubt on the dogmatic ideas of socialism was excluded from the image of cultivation and from the curriculum. In 1951, an Institute of People’s Education was founded in an attempt to place adult education on a scientific footing. A network of ‘cultural homes’ was established, based on the existing institutions run by the Free Education Directorate, to encourage the development of a ‘socialist cultural revolution’. There were already 433 such institutions operating in 1950, and in subsequent years, similar ones were established in almost every community in the country. The Second Congress of the Hungarian Workers’ Party (MDP) in 1951 set a target of establishing 2500 such cultural centres by 1954, although this was not achieved. They were put in charge of the libraries built up by the voluntary reading circles, and they were the venues of cultural contests, winter-evening lectures sponsored by the peasant newspaper Szabad Föld, ballroom dancing events, and balls.

Museums in private or municipal hands were also nationalized. By the early 1960s, there was a national system of county museum directorates. The 2486 public libraries in 1949 increased to 8499 by 1957. The total stock of 2.2 million volumes in 1950 steadily increased. The same applied to other indicators of cultural activity:


The same applied to other indicators of cultural activity:


Books published

Volume in public libraries


Registered library users


Cinema goers


Theatre goers


Museum goers



Copies, millions


1 880


2 246


47 069

2 961

1 308


2 972


11 115

1 627

140 060

6 429

3 640

Source: Magyarország népessége és gazdasága—múlt és jelen (Hungary’s population and wealth, past and present): Budapest: KSH, 1996.

The number of book titles and copies sold in the decades after the Second World War increased continually at varying speed. There were 1880 titles issued in 20.1 million copies in 1950. A decision to establish the State Television Enterprise was reached in 1953. Experimental broadcasts once a week for an hour and a half to two hours began in 1955 and a regular television service in 1958, with broadcasts of three to four hours four days a week.

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This page was created: Friday, 30-Nov-2003
Last updated: Friday, 27-Nov-2003
Copyright © 1996 The Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

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