The metamorphosis is now complete. I swear, I’ve now officially become my mother.
Mom doesn’t just “come out of my mouth” on occasion. No, I’ve become her – well except that I’ll never fit into her literal clothes. In spite of the fact that fudge was mother’s favorite food and she believed religiously in first, second and third dessert, she was rail thin. How is this fair?
My mother was a child of the “Great Depression,” except the only thing “great” about the Depression was its decade-long duration. Beginning with a stock market plummet in October of 1929, drought followed in 1930 throughout the agricultural heartland of America. Investors lost everything, jobs disappeared, farms were repossessed, banks failed and closed and people were terrified, with reason.
This iconic 1936 photo taken by Dorothea Lange titled Migrant Mother shows a destitute pea picker in California. Florence Owens Thompson, age 32, mother of 7, hungry, dirty and not knowing where their next meal would come from represented the greatest fear that haunted all Americans. For many, it wasn’t just a fear, it was all too real.
The economic downturn which became the Depression began in the US, eventually encircling the globe. The Depression didn’t ease until the late 1930s and then was promptly followed by WWII which ushered in a slew of deprivations of its own including rationing.
Mother was born in 1922 in a crossroads town in northern Indiana. She was all of 7 years old when the Depression hit. She, of course, couldn’t and wouldn’t understand all of the underpinnings. What she was acutely aware of was that her father lost the hardware business, her mother’s job, such as it was, was the only thing that stood between her family and abject poverty. Income was critically affected, almost non-existent, without enough for even essentials. Mom’s maternal grandmother, Eva Miller Ferverda, loaned her son, John Ferverda, money and forgave the debt upon her death in 1939.
To make matters worse, mother was critically in during that time with Rheumatic Fever. Her father and grandmother cared for her while her mother worked. There was just no other choice.
Money was tight, very tight – but unlike so many others, they did not lose their home, thanks primarily to Mom’s paternal grandmother. Mom and her parents didn’t live on a farm, but on the very edge of a small town, not even large enough for a stop light. The town stretched a couple blocks in either direction from the main crossroads of two state highways. Businesses consisted of my grandfather’s hardware store, before that business closed, and the Ford dealership which sold both vehicles and tractors. Mom’s father, John Ferverda, worked there after he lost the hardware store, until there were no sales so no need for a salesman.
I don’t think mother realized how much the Depression influenced her childhood and formed many of her personality traits. In turn, she passed them on to me – although I’ve struggled to break some of those ingrained habits for years. This past month, or really just the past couple of weeks, they’ve come roaring back with a vengeance – apparently having been lurking just below the surface.
Some of these “quirky behaviors” are actually quite useful. Others make me smile with nearly-forgotten memories. Perhaps you carry some of these hidden depression-era traits too.
Before Recycling Was a Thing
In the 1930s, there wasn’t “disposable” anything. Throwing something away was simply wasteful, heresy, and it was never, ever done – not until its original purpose and a few repurposed lives had been completed and there was literally, nothing left at all that was salvageable. Then, and only then, could it be thrown away. By then, “it” was unrecognizable.
Let’s take bread wrappers, for example – the disposable plastic bread bags that we take for granted today, throwing them away without even thinking, although I always have a twinge of guilt. That never happened at my house when I was growing up. We routinely saved plastic bread bags and reused them for storage.
When we had too many, Mom would crochet them into a rug to pad the floor standing at the kitchen sink or the ironing board. One year, Mom even found a pattern to crochet a Christmas wreath from bread bags. I kid you not.
This recycling before that word was even invented was normal in our house.
We seldom got new clothes. Most of our clothes were hand-me-downs from either someone directly or a second-hand store of some sort. Being gifted with new old clothes was wonderful and nothing to be ashamed of! After we initially acquired the clothes, they were “taken in” or “let out” to fit a child as they grew or were passed to another child in the family. The sign of a great piece of clothing was a HUGE SEAM ALLOWANCE.
When grocery items began to be sold in glass jars, those were never thrown away either. Jars sufficed for everything. In fact, I still have a glass jar upstairs with “old silverware” in it that belonged to Mom, and perhaps to her mother too. You never threw anything away because not only was it wasteful and irresponsible, you truly never knew when you or someone else would need that item. During the Depression, and after, you simply found a way to make do with what you had.
During that time, chickens, wild berry bushes and a large vegetable garden saved the family. Mother cleaned the chickens that were butchered and sold. She was paid a nickel for each clean chicken. For the entire rest of her life, she pretty much hated chicken, except for fried chicken, and she utterly despised cleaning the chicken. I think she viewed them as her murdered friends and not a commodity food source. I inherited that soft-hearted worldview too.
However, during the Depression, you ate whatever you were fortunate enough to have. Period. There was no expectation that you would actually LIKE what was served – that was a benefit. Today when I see kids refusing to eat something, I think to myself, “you have never truly been hungry.” That’s the blessing of course, as is having food at all.
At home, after clothes could no longer be salvaged and made into anything else, they were deposited into the “rag bag,” a coarse brown bag fashioned from rough upholstery material salvaged from an old couch. The rag bag hung on a hook on a door in the closet that led to the attic. Rags were quite useful – for cleaning, for turbans around your hair from time to time – and also to crochet into rugs. Yes, Mom made just about everything into rugs. It was the last salvage of the nearly unsalvageable.
If there was any cotton fabric in the rag bag that wasn’t entirely threadbare and had any color left in the fibers at all, it was a candidate to be used in a quilt. You could always tell the quilts from wealthier, meaning not poor, families because their quilts were actually planned with matching fabrics. Not ours. We had scrap quilts, made by patching things together, which I always loved and continue to love to this day. Scrap quilts are a storybook of history and we always talked about the “life story” of the piece of fabric we were sewing – the pieces of clothing the fabric used to be, who wore it, how it wound up in the rag bag and so forth. Some of those fabrics were decades and literally generations old. How I wish I had written those stories down – but they didn’t seem remarkable at the time. Everyone had a rag bag. We were just making small talk, after all.
This quilt, made originally during the Depression by my great-grandmother, Nora Kirsch, used on my grandmother and then mother’s bed, has been patched now using my grandmother’s handkerchiefs. It had literal holes, but the thought of cutting that quilt traumatized my kids, so like my ancestors, I found a way to preserve it, one more time. By the time one of my granddaughters inherits it, such as it is, it will be connected through 6 generations over more than a century.
The Depression wasn’t just a defining event, it formed the culture in which my mother grew up. Frugality was ingrained by some combination of fear and guilt-induced obligation.
Eventually, I inherited the rag bag and used the items in that bag, along with the rag rugs, the bread bag Christmas wreath which eventually deteriorated and fell apart, along with decades worth of glass jars and things too “good” to throw away or pass on to someone else just yet. Of course, part of the “problem” was that as the economy improved, the need to obtain hand-me-down items from someone else to “set up housekeeping” was greatly diminished. Looking back, I’m not convinced that was a good thing, because I still have items from my mother and grandmother’s houses gifted to me when I moved to my first apartment. They aren’t “used,” simply accepted as second rate undesirables, but were and are cherished treasures infused with memories of a time, place and people long gone now.
You can take the child out of the Depression, but you can never take the Depression out of the child.
Those behaviors become generational. If you are the child of someone who lived through the Depression, I’m sure you have stories of your own just like these.
And just like me, those legendary stories might all have come rushing back during these past couple of weeks.
I used to think to myself when Mom did one of her “Depression Era” things that I understood. While I understood the genesis of the behavior, never until these past few weeks did I understand the fear that accompanied the scarcity and subsequent rationing that occurred during WWII.
The Depression hit Mom’s family with the same suddenness that the pandemic has struck our generation. We don’t know, as they didn’t know, what’s coming. How bad is bad? What businesses will be left? What will happen to all of those people? Can we hold on? For how long? How will we eat?
And what about toilet paper?
Toilet paper at that time consisted of the Sears catalog located strategically in the outhouse. I’m beginning to size up the different kinds of junk mail for “texture.” Obviously, something glossy isn’t good and neither is stiff and crunchy. Thank goodness I saved those old phone books – they look just about right! Mother would be proud!
Just 14 weeks ago, when this pandemic was still an illness in China that no one had heard about anyplace else in the world, my husband and I were leaving for a trip to Australia and New Zealand in the midst of their searing heat and bush fires. We purchased and took 4 boxes of face masks with us to protect ourselves from the smoke. We opened one box and put a couple of masks in our backpacks, but we never used any of them. I wanted to bring the masks home, because I am my mother’s daughter and we might need them someday.
However, I had purchased fabric and my bag was both full and heavy. My husband convinced me to leave the masks in the cabin. I told myself that the crew might need them to protect themselves from the bush fire smoke. I certainly hope someone got some use out of them and they didn’t just get thrown away. It pains me to even think about that – especially NOW that I desperately want those face masks.
Do you know how valuable 4 boxes of face masks would be? Not just monetarily, but for the medical professionals and others. It’s amazing now how valuable TP and face masks have become. We would have been RICH!
Mom’s vindicated. I’m vindicated. My husband is wearing a cloth mask instead of a stylish blue paper mask that we left behind😊 – and hopefully a crew member someplace is safer for those masks.
Ironically, I’m not sweating TP, because as a result of being raised by a Depression Era mother, I have years worth of lone socks that, in a pinch, will suffice as TP sock-mits. Just wipe and deposit in the washing machine. And NO, you cannot JUST THROW THEM AWAY, because you have no idea how long you might need them.
Before saying “ewwww” too loudly, remember when we used cloth diapers on babies because pampers didn’t yet exist? We washed those diapers every day and thought nothing of it.
I’ve also stopped using paper towels because who knows how long they will be manufactured. We might need paper towels for TP, you know, before we break out those orphan socks that I knew, just knew, I’d find a use for eventually if I just kept them long enough.
Soon enough, lone stray socks will be just as valuable as TP. Find yours now wherever they’ve been congregating for years, waiting for their new purpose in life redeployed as TP sock-warriors.
It’s All a Matter of Perspective
I’ve been sorting through things in the closets and put several items with rips in a bag in the laundry room already, but I’m trying NOT to call it a rag bag. I may last another day or two before I give in on that one.
Of course, jeans with rips are quite popular right now, so I’m wearing those again and am now quite the fashionista:) I even patched one of the jeans, strategically, with matching fabric from a face mask. A coordinated pandemic outfit! Everyone is going to want one!
Not only that, but I’ve sewn phone pockets onto my PJs and leggings. I’m referring to them as holsters for face-mask sewing warriors instead of PJ pockets. It’s all in perspective and marketing, right???
Mother and grandmother would BOTH be so proud, I’m telling you.
But that’s not all…
Another thing that has changed immensely in the last month is food.
Everyone likes to eat. My grandmother worked first for a chicken hatchery and then for the welfare office. In both cases, unlike other women of her era, she was not “at home” to cook, so she relied heavily on meals she would either make in advance or quickly in the evening.
I’m not quite sure why my grandfather didn’t cook when he wasn’t working during the Depression, but he didn’t and neither did my uncle. Back then, cooking was probably considered woman’s work. Mom began cooking as soon as she could reach the stove even though she was the youngest family member.
All things considered, it’s no wonder my grandmother was perpetually exasperated. Her husband lost the hardware store through no fault of his own, they were in debt, he next lost a sales job at the Ford dealership. She worked to support the entire family, AND performed all of the traditional “woman’s work” too.
No wonder she was chronically unhappy. While it wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” per se, it was still a fact that these unfortunate events had happened and for a decade, followed by a war, there was no way out except for sheer perseverance. That economic situation lasted for 15 or 16 years in total, almost a full generation – by which time my mother was grown, married and my brother had been born.
One of the favorite things that churchwomen did to liven up mealtime and to raise money for the church and charities was to publish a church cookbook.
True to form, the Methodist Church where my grandparents lived published a book in 1953 or 1954, and my grandmother is represented.
I think I might have found the source of my Mom’s favorite fudge!
Unlike the other women who contributed their “best recipe,” probably determined by how quickly it disappeared at pot-lucks or funeral lunches at the church – my grandmother’s recipe was how to make something called “Master Mix.”
Think of this as an early form of Bisquick which you made up in advance, dry, and used it as the base to make several dishes such as cookies, dumplings, pudding, griddle cakes and waffles.
All of a sudden, we too are suddenly stuck at home, without necessarily ready access to a grocery store – and if we can visit, they may likely be out of a large number of items.
We’re consigned to a type of “food challenge” which could reasonably be called Pandemic Cooking. You use whatever you have available, forgotten in the far corners of your pantry, and find some way to create something that results in an edible dish.
Everyone is getting quite creative.
I though it would be interesting to take a look at that cookbook published before I was born to see what my grandmother contributed. Hey, maybe something looks good. That cookbook was published before the days of exact measurements, which lends itself very well to “make do” cooking.
Next, I checked Mom’s recipe box where I knew goodies lurked.
Mom’s Recipe Box
Like all women of Mom’s generation, she had a recipe box that was a virtual goldmine of wonderful comfort-food with many recipes, finally committed to cards, that had been passed down for generations. Most of the time, Mom didn’t even have to look at the recipe when making our favorite dishes. Both of us knew that fudge recipe by heart, I guarantee.
There are references throughout my mother’s recipe box to a “pinch of” something and instructions to work the dough “until it feels right.” I learned to cook this way and always have – much to Jim’s chagrin.
“How much of that did you put in?”
“I don’t know, enough but not too much. Till it looks right.”
Yep, I’m my mother’s daughter alright.
The transition to mother’s double seems to be complete, because I pulled a spaghetti sauce jar out of the trash earlier this week and washed it, thinking “we might need this.” You never know what might happen and how long the ramifications of the pandemic might last. Who knows, spaghetti jars might be just as valuable for barter as TP one day.
The good news is that there’s only one bread bag in the house right now, and it’s holding bread. At least presently. Plus, I can’t crochet. There’s that. Don’t ask how I know, but you can’t use bread bags in quilts. (If you figure out how, please, just don’t tell me – OK?!)
I am however, jealously saving even the smallest scraps of fabric from making protective facial masks for medical workers because I might need those remnants for a scrap quilt.
Now, if I can just find the lids to all of the orphan Tupperware, or is that too much to ask?
Throwback Cooking and You!
You’re probably finding yourself in the process of attempting to cook with whatever you have on hand too. You may discover items in the back of the pantry that are older than your children.
Mom, like her mother, worked her entire life – so her recipe box also contained a plethora of yummy recipes, many of which were also quick. Most of Mom’s recipes, however, cater to her sweet tooth. It wasn’t until I was digitizing and creating an index that I realized that the recipes for chocolate and sweets far, far outnumbered everything else – put together.
Don’t believe me – check it out for yourself by clicking on the link below to download a cookbook of sorts that I created from Mom’s Recipe Box. Please download and enjoy.
A few years ago, for a family Christmas gift, I scanned the recipes in Mom’s recipe box. Perhaps you’ll find some new recipes to try, or a dish that perhaps you’ll recognize from a long-ago church carry-in.
If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find some comfort food from your childhood that you’ve forgotten about and you’ll have almost everything to make it!
Or, try Mom’s fudge!
Let me know if you find something fun here, or share a story.
By the time we exit out the other side of this pandemic, we’ll be cooking like our mothers and grandmothers, using whatever is on hand, not following any recipe exactly and “seasoning to taste.” 😊
Maybe this is a good time to scan your family recipes and document your memories. Seeing your ancestor’s handwriting and connecting with them as they survived trying times might just help you feel better.
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We’re in lock down in New Zealand. I’m considered an essential worker so am not completely stuck at home.
I’ve never been a throw away person. I hang on to pieces of clothing with salvageable fabric, keep buttons off old shirts, keep ribbons that come with presents and bunches of flowers, old tights, old socks, plastic bags (they’re pretty much not allowed here anymore), bubble wrap bags, feathers that have worked their way out of eiderdowns etc. I’m sure some of these ‘disappear’ into the rubbish bin when I’m at work sometimes.
And now for the life of me I can’t remember which of these ‘useless old’ items saved the day recently since the lockdown started. I was expecting an ‘eewww yuk’ response from my husband but instead he stopped for a moment and said ‘that’ll work’.
And right now, when I don’t want to visit the supermarket very often, I especially can’t abide wastage of food. My husband is a great cook and has been very creative, but he does create more waste than I do. He peels more off potatoes than I do – he is fussier about which parts of celeery are ‘good’ and I’ve finally convinced him that even if he doesn’t like spinach stalks I do so please save them – they’re delicious with pesto. At least some of our food scraps go in the compost.
I think ti’s because relative to my peers I had elderly grandparents, as both my parents were the youngest in their families. I spent lots of time with one grandmother who talked a lot about the war, but not so much about the Great Depression which I know was very tough for her as a mother with children to provide for and an unemployed sick husband who had TB.
At the large carpark at my work there are increasing amounts of discarded masks and gloves lieing around. That’s an infection risk, and when we get the next downpour they will wash into the stormwater system and either block the drains or worse – be washed into the sea. I’ve decided to take some old bread bags to the car park and use them to pick up these items, in the same way that dog owners should pick up their canine’s ‘deposits’. The pandemic might be good for the environment overall but unfortunately pollution from masks and gloves has increased.
And unfortunately it has given me an appreciation of the fear of infectious diseases that our ancestors would have felt. My children have ancestors who died of TB, cholera and syphilis.
Wishing you and all the readers all the best. Stay safe.
I’ve remembered the ‘useless old item’. I’d saved the plastic wrapper that 8pack of loo roll come in. If you open it at one end you’re left with a reasonable sized plastic bag which stands about 15 inches high. I’d been saving these hidden under a pile of towels in the linen cupboard.
When the human locusts cleared the supermarkets from February onwards we couldn’t get rubbish bags for the kitchen, but didn’t want to put all the rubbish straight into the bin. The loo roll wrapper worked rather well.
I look forward to flour in the shops again. Much of our wheat is grown in Australia, and the droughts and fires won’t have helped this season’s harvest.
My father was born in 1926 and so was raised during the Great Depression. His mother was known for being very frugal. I remember that she saved, washed, and reused pieces of saran wrap and aluminum foil. If a wash cloth got a hole worn in the middle, she would cut a patch out of another ragged cloth and make a patch to sew over the hole. She did this up until her death in 1970. My dad followed in her footsteps in many ways. The thing I remember most was that he tried to get as many shaves out of a razor blade as possible. There was usually a little piece of paper stuck up in the bathroom where he kept count for each one.
During the Great Depression my mother’s family lived on a farm. The land was paid for and they always had something to eat, although maybe not exactly what they would have liked. Clothing and shoes had to be purchased though, so there were lots of hand-me-downs. Some relative would send bags of clothing they no longer wanted, but my mother’s family was the last stop for that bag. Nothing much good was left by then. However, Mom said that her mother would pull something out, take it apart, cut it into pieces without using a pattern, and sew a whole new garment.
I have picked up the habit of not throwing things away because they could provide more uses. And I have boxes of scraps from past sewing projects that I have been going through in order to find pieces large enough for face masks. Aren’t we lucky to have had ancestors who knew how to “make-do” and survive adverse circumstances!
I was born in 1932 so have vague memories of the depression however I have vivid memories of the depression culture which was somewhat repeated during WW2. I have been a sewer/quilter for years and you the results of that hobby = lots of fabric leftovers. Recently in anticipation of moving into a senior apartment I have sorted my fabric. Cut some in 2 1/2 strips, gave some to my local charity quilters, sorted the remaining by size and color. I also had 2 years of iron on interfacing that was looking for a home. Wee guess what when the coronavirus hit my state I was looking for a way to help. I immediately started making masks for a local hospital. Then is became clear that everyone needed to wear a mask. My fabric sorting had a new purpose. After watching many UTube videos I decided on a pattern for masks for my family. The iron on interfacing gives the fabric mask as extra layer of protection. The first set of masks were color coordinated with one personality of each member. My collection of pieces of elastic was soon depleted however my daughter had a supply because she has followed me in keeping scraps. The second set of masks are not designed for each individual person. The only determine fact is what I have. I have paper clips, garden twisters, and pipe cleaners to make the mask conform to the nose shape. My stash of elastic is very close to be used as well as the interfacing. However the fabric supply is endless and more elastic is in the mail. This really proves that if you keep something long enough you will find a use for it. I have given up some of my saving habits. I no longer clean and smooth out aluminum foil, wash and reuse plastic bags, or cut up out of date clothing to make quilts. I never thought we would be in the pandemic we are now experiencing. This would happen in third world countries however not here. We have so many lessons to learn about living the life Jesus taught about
I thought you were going to say waxed paper bread wrappers. But you are too young. I can still picture a Wonder Bread wrapper.
What an incredible walk down memory lane – for me too! I have even read all of the comments. I have bookmarked this and am going to use it as my jump-start for prompts to record my own. Thank you to all for your fantastic story-telling talent!
I’ve enjoyed the comments immensely too.
I had to laugh. My mother, who made thee only bread we ever had, would often say, “It’s a wonder anyone eats that Wonder Bread.”
I was born at the beginning of the Depression and grew up during World War II. (Yes, I am old.) Some weeks ago my daughter-in-law gave me a book entitled “Grandma Tell Me Your Memories”. There is a question for most every day of the year. I have amazed myself at what I remember — and then it hit me — my teen aged grandson will not know what I am talking about and most likely neither will my children. Do you think they will know what to do with all those bread wrappers that are in the cabinet and the jars stored over the stove? I’ve already decided the L.L. Bean and Coldwater Creek catalogs are useless.
Thank you for sharing — I feared I was the only one!
My son gave me a book like that too several years ago. It sits beside my chair and I write in it at times especially now. Future generations need to know about us. My mother kept journals and my family love to read them
I wish anyone in my family had kept journals.
And remember the war bond stamps that we children bought in school. I still have mine. I wonder how much those bonds are now worth. My book is incomplete because the schools stopped doing that I guess about 1948 or 1949. My father was in refrigeration and like your mother, when an appliance or tool would go bad, my father would save every screw, electrical cord, everthing that could possibly be used in the future. I still have his junk box and I seldom have to go to the store. My mother would reverse the collars on my shirts when they became worn. We didn’t need big closets then beause we had few clothes.
The War Saivings stamp books originally held $18.75 in stamps.. They could be turned in at a bank and you would get a $25 War Bond. You had to save it fot 10 years for it to mature. I filled three of those books while in elementary school. The matured bonds paid for my first two years of college..
My great-uncle always had a supply of corncobs by the outhouse, both green and white. Don’t ask me why the difference. He later never felt confortable with an indoor bathroom.
Now I’m curious.
The green (or red, depending on which corn was grown), were used first. Then when you thought you were finished, you used a white to verify.
Thanks for clarifying, pardon the expression.
My great-grandmother had a supply of corncobs, too. By the time I came along, her sons -in-law had put a flush toilet in her home, So I never had to use them. She didn’t throw them away either.
Dorcas, I heard leaves work also. LOL
But our Canadian friend here has promised us t paper.
Just make sure not to get poison ivy leaves. Don’t ask how I know about this. 😂
“Thank goodness I saved those old phone books – they look just about right! Mother would be proud!”
No, no! They will eventually clog your toilet’s drain pipe. You must use your left hand instead.
Trash. I’ve heard about that right hand, left hand thing before. Just don’t get them confused. Hence, socks. 😂
“Huge Seam Allowance”
What a great title for a book or movie!
I’m in my 40s, so my Mom wasn’t even a child of the depression. I can remember us laughing as my grandmother washed aluminum foil to reuse it (and her recycled wrapping paper). I was running low on aluminum foil last week, and started washing (but then found some at the store, so I’m not being as careful about it).
Your comment about having things from your mom and grandmother that you got when you moved out… that resonated so much with me! I’m the eldest, so I have grandma’s cast iron pan, and mom’s old dishes from my childhood. I even had the glass pots and pans that mom got from her grandma (but I think they got dropped in a move and I chucked them; they made me nervous to use anyway).
I remember being jealous of my younger sister, because she got all new stuff when she moved out, but as time passes, I’ve come to believe I got the better deal. She’s also the one with the house built after 2000, and I’m the one with the house built before 1900, so I guess it influenced some of our core beliefs.
Funny story, I had an aunt say how it was too bad I had to have a second-hand house instead of a new one! My beloved house with gorgeous wood floors, built-in cabinetry and stained glass windows! Granted, at times I am jealous of my sister’s wiring that’s up to code and floorplan that makes sense for modern living (although right now all my friends with open floor plans are wishing for my Victorian warren of little rooms! With doors!).
Tastes and smells can really help us remember our mother and grandmothers.
I have just come into some early recipe books of my mother’s, and in tidying up some of my own stuff to make room, have encountered some of my transcripts from decades ago of some of her favorites. (On index cards used inappropriately as bookmarks.) One or two have kept cropping up in newspapers for the last century – and that’s probably where she found it.
Our national library in Canberra has a great collection of recipe books, some of which are online, and it is really interesting seeing what people cooked, including during the depression or wartime. And how old some recipes were: an 1810 Scottish recipe book containing curry as a Scottish traditional dish! Well they had been in India for several generations by then.
One book eludes me. A book of icecream recipes from around the 1850s, that an ancestor republished around 1861. I think it must have come with a most likely German or maybe English icecream churn, from the recipes, recipe names and some of the ingredients. My ancestor was not trying to sell churns, but ice. Fortunately a major library has a copy of his publication, and the recipes work quite well, as long as you remember to take out the cooling mix every so often to break up the crystals. But I am yet to locate the original. Equipment manuals so rarely survive.
Hi Roberta, I was born in 1943, so didn’t quite live through the Depression but inherited some of the habits of my extended family, as did you. I have just made face masks out of recycled quilting fabric, left over sewing supplies I kept, and elastic from slips too small to wear, or from the waist of extra underpants I don’t really need. As always your Blog is so interesting, so personal and hits me right at the heart level. Best to you, Karlyn Shedlowski
I confess, I save elastic too.
Don’t fear too much over toilet paper or towel paper supply. We make them in Canada, they are among the essential industries. We are on a steep learning curve about the virus thing, but we do learn. Things will get better soon, and there will still be toilet paper in the meanwhile.
My maternal grandfather died in 1918 of the Spanish flu. According to my grandmother, they went to bed and he seemed okay, and when she woke up he was dead in the bed beside her. As a woman with 3 little girls — aged 4, 3 and 1 — she had few options. As they were Catholic, she put the children in a convent school where they stayed until my mother, the oldest, turned 16. At that point — it was 1930 — she was expected to go to work to pay for her own and her younger sisters’ room and board, which she did. Of course, by then the Great Depression was in full swing, and a lot more was expected of a 16-year-old girl than what was listed in the job description, and there was a line waiting around the block of applicants ready to provide those additional services. My mother never told me in so many words, but she was almost certainly raped by her supervisor. Like you, I am my mother’s daughter, and her experiences most certainly informed the scripts of my life.
I can certainly relate! My parents grew up during the Depression. Mom wore dresses made of feed sacks. Dad’s family, with 7 children, became homeless for a while and often went hungry. I learned a lot, especially from my dad, my grandmother, and my mother-in-law about “making do.”
I still have some feed sacks from home.
As always, Roberta,a great article, and one that brings back many memories. I was born in 1933 when the Great Depression was getting pretty bad. We lived in Los Angeles, within a 15 minute drive of downtown, but you would never have thought were in the city. I was the only child until the Depression was almost over.
We had an extensive garden and numerous fruit trees, chickens for eggs and meat, a few rabbits for meat, a goat for milk and,my grandfather, who lived next door kept bees for honey. So we were pretty much self sufficient.
I can appreciate the “saving” of anything which might be put to use if needed. Chicken feed and flour came in cloth sacks. They were fastened at the top with a chain stitch of twine. As a child, I had a number of dresses made from those sacks The twine was carefully rolled up into a ball an saved, too It was great for kite string – the kite being made from old newspapers or previously used gift wrap paper, which was never thrown away.
My sister was born in 1939. That brought me some new chores to do. I wasn’t tall enough to reach the closeline, so my grandfather made a step so I could reach it. It was my responsibility to use the stomper to stomp the dirty diapers in a bucket of water before thy were put in the washing machine. Then, after they were washed, and using the step, I hung them on the closeline. This was usually done in the morning before I went to school. When I got home, I would check the diapers to see if they were dry and take them down off the line, bring them into he house and help Mom fold them. When my brother was born in 1941, just 6 months before Pearl Harbor, The number of diapers doubled. I knew it was my job to do. Everyone had chores.
The war brought its challenges too. A lot of things were rationed, not just food. Tuesdays were meatless days. You couldn’t buy meet in a store and you couldn’t buy a meal with meat in it in a restaurant.
Shoes were rationed also. You were only allowed 1 pair per person per year. That’s really hard with growing kids in the family. Like clothes which were passed down, shoes were also — even when they were badly worn.
Gasoline and tires were rationed also. You were designated in the A. B or C category according to how much driving you were required to do. Mom had a sticker with a large A on it on the windshield of her car. Her driving was mainly for shopping and taking me to school. Dad’s work required him to service a large area, so he had a C sticker.
At school, we all wore “dogtags”. It was a metal disk on a chain we wore around our neck every day. On one side was our name. On the other side was our parents’ phone number. We each had our own cushion with a loop on one corner for hanging on our hook in the cloak room.. When the bells rang for an air raid drill, we filed through the cloak room, picking up our cushion and our wrap, and went downstairs to the main hall and sat on our cushion, donning our wrap if necessary, and sat with our index fingers in our ears, our thumbs holding our nose closed, and breathing through our mouth.
This was supposed to protect our ears,if a bomb went off nearby.
this drill was practiced monthly and usually only lasted about 5 minutes. However, at least twice it wasn’t a drill and lasted for over an hour. Our school was in a strategic location directly across the Los Aneles River from the Southern Pacific Railroad yards, roundhouse and machine shops. We did have some real alerts while at school, but thankfully there was no attack.
We did have some real air raids. They were usually at night. I remember one of them. Mother had put us all to bed. I don’t know what time she woke us and told us to come with our bed pillow. She had put feather-beds on the floor in the hallway and quilts to put over us to go back to sleep. I didn’t sleep. Occasionally I would feel a vibration and the window screens would rattle. The next day, the headline of the newpapers and the front page pictures told the story. Several Japanese submarines had surfaced just off the coast and had been firing shells into some of the southbay neighborhoods. The pictures showed homes with holes in the roof or craters in the yard. The submarines had been sunk Immediately the beaches in the area were quarantined. If you asked why the quarantine was invoked, you were told that there was a leak from the sewage plant in El Segundo. The real reason was because the Japanese bodies were washing up on the beach. Later that summer, we visited friends who lived on the Strand at Hermosa Beach. My sister and I took a walk on the sand and made a discovery. I sent my sister back to the house to get Dad. I stayed nearby so we wouldn’t lose the location. What we had found was an unexploded Japanese shell. Dad turned it in to the Coast Guard who removed the charge and gave it back to Dad. For many years it sat on the mantle of our fireplace. When we moved from Los Angeles to the suburbs in 1954, it got packed away. I’ve been cleaning out a lot of old things recently and haven’t found it, but I will. That was another thing you didn’t thow away. It might make a good paper weight someday.
Thank you so much for sharing these memories. I had no idea about the submarines.
You entered my head and told my story. I am my mother!
Thanks for helping me recall similar stories.
Don’t forget the recycling of aluminum foil or tin foil as my mom used to call it. On a side note don’t put paper towels in the toilet unless you are using an outhouse :-). They will wreck havoc on the sewage system.
I have a septic and nothing goes down there except TP
One of my cherished family heirlooms is a daily journal my maternal great grandmother kept from 1932-1941. Though faded and in poor shape I have been reading it through this time as a reminder what it was like for them. They all (great grandmother, her mother, brothers, sisters and my grandparents, my other age 3) came to California and settled on BLM land in the East county well off the grid. What they had to do to survive is amazing. Though basically city kids from the mid west they soon adapted to life during the depression. Thankful for the WPA. The jobs they worked at. It was a tough life. In addition to the journal they took lots of photos of which I have scanned over the years and once maintained them on an old blog I had over 12 years ago. I keep them in mind daily during the covid-19 times. Thanks for your blog and this one in particular. Randy.
I hope you’ve scanned that journal. What a gift.
I spent a lot of time with both of my grandmothers when I was a child in the 1950’s. Both of them were very frugal, but generous in heart. I picked up a lot of their frugal habits and they just seemed normal to me! I spent the most time with my maternal grandmother.
We didn’t throw much of anything away as there might be a use for it in the future. Wastefulness was just not accepted! We all wore hand me downs. I remember my grandmother saved string. She had a big ball of it at the top of the stairs going to the basement, and every time she got some string, she would wind it around the ball. She also saved rubber bands in the desk drawer and never threw old fountain pens away. Guess what, I save rubber bands & collect fountain pens!
I have always had a rag bag and use them for dusting and cleaning and anything else I need a rag for! Yes, I even wash my rags and keep reusing them until they fall apart. The best rags are old cotton underwear and socks.
I used to use a wool string dust mop for the floors, but when it became unusable, I went searching for a new mop. I was horrified at the thought that anyone would buy a mop for the floor that you have to buy little replacement cloths for the mop and throw away after one use! Nope! Can’t do it! I found a mop that has a soft washable pad that I just toss in the washer when dirty!
My great grandmother had a recipe she made during the Depression called Eggless, Milkless, Butterless cake. I used to make it now and then and it was actually good!
Good memories! Thanks for taking us down your memory lane!
My husband made that cake last weekend. He called it “water cake.” It was an experiment. We had oranges so he squeezed some juice in there too.
I was lucky. My son-in-law works for an office supply store that also sells janitorial supplies. They have toilet paper, but you might have to buy a whole box, and maybe divide it with others. Hint. Who would have thought that office and janitorial supplies are an essential industry, but he is still working. People still need paper…and toilet paper and cleaning supplies.
If you have a can of pineapple and brown sugar, that “water cake” makes an excellent base for pineapple upside-down cake. I bake mine in the oven in a cast iron frying pan as a one layer cake. I am guessing other fruits can be used in place of pineapple.
Loved this article, and all the comments. My father was born in 1905 and so full-on lived through WWI, the depression AND WWII. He saved everything. Every envelope from every piece of mail that came in was scrap paper. No food was ever left on the plate. We had a huge garden and my mom canned or froze what we didn’t eat. I remember helping for hours in the kitchen prepping veggies, my mother and I would make up stories while we were working or sing songs in foreign accents.
I have spent the last few years trying to break myself of the hoarding habit. Even yesterday I could not put an old piece of pipe in the scrap metal pile because I could use it to support a plant in the garden!
My parents were raised during the Depression, and I learned not to be wasteful from them. As I grew older, I chose to forget some of those lessons. But I married a man for whom waste is an abhorrence, and I began to remember. A good example is cutting his old soft-sided suitcase into pieces to line our old wagon. The wagon had rusted through so we could no longer use it for it’s secondary purpose of planting flowers. The suitcase liner worked perfectly for several years until the wagon finally fell into pieces.
My parents were married in 1935 and I was a child of the depression and was 6 years old when WWII was declared. I remember all of the things mentioned here and still practice a lot of them.
My parents were married in 1935 and I grew up in a depression family. I was 6 years old when WWII was declared. I remember all of these things every vividly, I also still practice many of these things. Just ask my kids.
Thank you for telling us about your family’s experience of the Great Depression, of a period of time experienced by virtually all of our families in one way or another.
My grandmother, Anna Carstensen lived to be 101 years old. She was a nurse, which was something unusual for her time. But at the time the Great Depression hit she was a stay-at-home mom with four young children, three sons and one daughter, my mother. Growing up, I heard many stories from my grandmother about how the family survived during that time. I really think she was traumatized to some degree from her experience. They lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon in a house they owned and built. They didn’t lose the home, but the stories she passed down of saving everything and having a garden to help feed the family remain with me today. The saving everything part was passed down to my mother and even to some extent to me.
I would call my mother an “organized hoarder.” That probably sounds like a misnomer but Instead of throwing things away, she would just organize her drawers to fit in more stuff, keep dressers that lined the garage, and of course build storage cabinets for more stuff, rather than donating it.
I’ve done my own fair share of “collecting things” over the years, for which I have now worked hard to let much of it go.
As to your statement, “when this pandemic was still an illness in China that no one had heard about anyplace else in the world,” I would have to disagree with you on that point.
Like you, many had not heard of it at that point. I know some of my relatives had planned trips to go to Italy and Spain. I learned about it in January, when it was hitting China with great force, filling hospitals, people collapsing, and people who were not complying with quarantine were being forcefully removed from their homes. I learned about it in real time on Twitter. People from China where tweeting about it daily, including stories, pictures, and videos from their windows, in the hospitals, on the streets, including pictures of the young Wuhan doctor who blew the whistle on the virus and sadly died from it. It was all there for the world to see. Not to be political here, but for our President to try to claim he had no knowledge of it is utter nonsense.
I retweeted many of these pictures to my 8,000 followers on Twitter. I was surprised that no one seemed to take much interest in what was happening on the other side of the world. Apparently, it didn’t sound any alarm bells for them.
It did for me. I started buying extra items, including toilet paper, paper towels, pasta, frozen waffles, canned beans, etc., weeks before people started buying them here in the US. I had followed Bill Gates and his Foundation’s work on pandemics and on developing vaccines. I knew it was a just a matter of time before it would hit here. I’m just surprised that so few people made the connection about what was happening in China would also end up here.
It’s here now. It is experience for our generation to document for the next generation, as we live through it day by day, not sure what it is going to be like next month or next year. We will make it through, as our ancestors before us made it through the Great Depression. Thank you for your article documenting your family’s experience of surviving the Great Depression and putting that into context with what we are going through today.
Thanks Roberta – it certainly brought back memories of the struggles my mother and grandmother went through in Australia during the depression and later war years. I even practice some of the things that were followed at the time. Even in my lifetime, I can recall the telephone book pages haveing been cut up into smaller sizes and hung from a hook in the outside toilet which was emptied when the dunny man came around each week. Sadly there are now two generations in existence that have never dodne it tough.
My Mum was born in 1917 and spent WW2 bringing up a family in the UK. She never got over the food shortages and all her life kept a large store cupboard. Couldn’t believe her luck to get a deep freezer in the late 1960’s. Born in 1957 it was a trait I inherited. She would say it would always come in when times were hard, and it has when I became a single mum, when my husband had no job and now when it is risky for me to go shopping due to health issues. At least one of my daughters has also inherited the trait. And so it rolls on.
My mother was born in 1915, and I inherited that trait too. Keeping enough groceries and other necessities to last 2 weeks or more has kept me sane and my family fed through many problem times. It has always felt like the right thing to do. My daughter does not do this. I took her and her family a home cooked Easter dinner this afternoon because I wanted to do this.. She is a nurse, and taking online classes to further her career. She also has 3 kids and a very large supportive husband. I baby sit her kids, my grand kids. Truthfully, I am not sure about my daughter’s instincts, but I support her moving on. My mother, and I and my daughter lived in different times. So far, this is not the great depression, and my daughter can order take out or home delivered meals if she is working or has a test to take online. I want my daughter to have the chance to move on beyond the great depression mentality I grew up with. I want my daughter to move onto a new world we have not yet seen.
I really enjoyed your mother’s recipe box; the recipes brought back many comforting memories of my childhood. My husband and I lived on Sara Lee’s banana cake (and Dinty Moore Beef Stew) on a cross country camping trip in 1975. I wish Sara Lee still made that cake; it was delicious and I’m not usually a big fan of bananas. I enjoy everything you post and am amazed at what a productive person you are!
I had forgotten all about that banana cake until you mentioned it. It was always a treat for us. So was Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Mom hated it so I got to pick my dinner if she went out and I had a babysitter. That was almost always what I picked. Thanks for that memory!!!
What a great article!
Growing up in my Grandmother’s house (who was born in 1918) I learned a lot about how she grew up and how she practiced all the same things that you described. Nothing went to waste, you could find a use for just about anything! Always wondered where she came up with the idea of making a wreath out of bread bags from!
I’d bet there was a newspaper article or free pattern someplace for those wreaths.