Historically Speaking: Making do during the Depression
During the Great Depression years, it was an art to “make do” and to “eke out” a living with what we had, could find or had given to us.
As far as putting food on the table, living on the farm was certainly a plus. Yet we had to economize to make things to around, such as roasting yellow split peas in the oven to make our “farm coffee”. How well I remember the lingering smell when the kitchen range was too hot, and a batch of peas would be burnt beyond use. Do you remember the “tiny” potatoes that we boiled with the skins on? They were too small to peel, and in this way they did not go to waste.
Of course, since my father was a hunter, trapper and fisherman, in season there were treats of partridge, rabbit, duck, venison and all varieties of fresh fish direct from the Wisconsin River. Mother was an excellent cook, and prepared tasty meals, regardless of the ingredients she had available. These feasts were in between sparsely prepared meals, usually with not much meat, but lots of vegetables.
Thrift was important; we saved everything! We kids saved balls of tin foil, balls of string, old car tires (these could be sold to the junk man for a few pennies). Old syrup pails became lunch pails and in the summer they were used as berry pails. All sizes and shapes of glass jars were kept and reused for jelly making.
Newspapers were saved until we had a good-sized stack, and then they were soaked in water, rolled into balls and dried in the sun. This became fuel for the kitchen stove (of course, the wood-box was the primary source of fuel for the trusty kitchen range). Old newspapers could also make newly-washed windows shine without streaks.
There were no coupons for savings, but the Sears Roebuck and the Montgomery Ward catalogs provided some good sales. Do you remember the “free” gifts found in oatmeal, soap, etc.? They could be dishes, towels and even toys. Jelly glasses became drinking glasses, and the pattern of style of these glasses would be offered for a time, so we were able to accumulate a “set” of pretty matching glasses.
We saved our own seeds for the next year’s planting. This was a great saving, but I do remember several times when the seeds did not grow when planted the next spring. If we were careful, however, and gathered the seeds from the prize plants, we were successful.
A new garage was built one summer, and we hauled rocks from a nearby gravel pit to fill in the forms for the foundation (we did not have any rocks on our property). This lessened the amount of concrete mixture needed in the foundation. Our father seemed to know just how many rocks we could throw in the forms so that the foundation, when completed, would have the needed strength to hold up the new building.
Whenever necessary, our father would get out the old hair clippers (they “pulled” something awful) and he would cut our hair. He even cut his own hair using a mirror, and did a neat job. If I wanted any curl in my hair for a special occasion, the old curling iron was used, heating it over the kerosene lamp, and I would be transformed, for the time being at least, into what I “thought” resembled Shirley Temple. There were beauty and barber shops in town, but there was no money for extravagances. Once in a while when we were in town, our father would get a shave and a haircut and the barber shop. When he came out, he smelled of talcum powder, and was so handsome!
Mother did a lot of patching and darning. I still have the “old darning egg” that she used almost daily as she darned our socks. Much has been said about the flour sack dresses, and they were a reality to me, as my mother was an excellent seamstress and created some lovely outfits. Out of these pretty sacks she also made curtains, pillow cases, table cloths and aprons for herself. Rugs were braided from strips of material, and we had a loom that my father had made. On this many rugs were woven of bright colors and different patterns. Old dresses became blouses, outgrown boy’s trouser became girl’s skirts with the use of my mother’s treadle sewing machine (a pair of trousers could easily become a 4-gore skirt).
As sheets were wearing out, they were cut down the middle, joined together with the outside edges inward, and then they could be used a while longer as “new” sheets. When the sheets could no longer be used, pillow cases were made of the best sections of the old sheet. Collars on shirts were “turned” when worn extensively, and long-sleeved shirts were transformed into short-sleeved shirts. No dry cleaning establishments were nearby, and spots were removed by using Energine carefully.
Chicken feathers and goose down was saved for pillows. Do you remember the homemade paste we made from flour and water? We were really up-to-date on our tooth care-using baking soda for brushing our teeth, and sometimes a mixture of salt and baking soda. How we’ve gone full circle!
Rag dolls were favorites with the girls, and every boy and girl had a pair of stilts. (It was quite a trick to walk on them for a distance.) Gourds were made into interesting animals and toys for younger children. Apple baskets (of wood) had many uses after the apples were gone, as did orange crates. A little paint and perhaps a fancy little curtain, and we had a utility storage unit.
Our father was a cobbler out of necessity. He had a complete set of iron shoe “lasts” of all sizes, and he mended many a pair of shoes, not to mention many half-soles, soles and patches he put on our shoes, boots, galoshes and leather mittens.
It certainly was a time of “making do”, but it was an age of hard work and cooperation between all members of the family, and a time of learning and appreciation of the comforts of life that we were able to enjoy, simple as they may seem to us today.