Recycling In The Good Old Days
Were they really “good old days”? Or is it just a nostalgic longing for our lost youth? A time when we thought life was better, or easier, because we didn’t have the responsibilities that come with age and maturity?
Two things are certain: (1) everyone remembers the “good old days” in a different way, and (2) not everything has changed. Lifestyles and technology have altered, of course, and the world is becoming more and more computerized.
Like all progress and development, there are both positive and negative sides. One current trend, which is very positive, goes back to the so-called “good old days.” While an actual concern for the environment may be new, recycling is not.
No, this does not mean the recycling of people, but people who recycled things. And they did recycle - whatever they possibly could.
How often do we hear people talk about “the good old days?” Life was simple, uncluttered, and unhurried. People made do with what they had, which sometimes wasn’t much.
Although the word “recycle” was probably unknown to most of them, the practice of recycling was a way of life, just something they did without question. Indeed, it was often necessary and sometimes a matter of survival.
Henry and Sophie Herridge witnessed a lot of this. Growing up in the late 1920's to 1930's, they saw what their parents and grandparents did. And they did it themselves. “You had to do it,” Sophie said. “No one could afford to throw anything away.”
They reused things because it was cheaper. Besides, throwing away anything which could be reused was considered wasteful and, therefore, sinful. It simply wasn’t done. “Waste not, want not,” they said.
“Everyone wore lots of hand-me-downs.” Outgrown clothing was always passed on to the next in line, according to age, size and gender. Sometimes things would be patched or “made over.” When clothing or bed sheets were worn out they were put aside and used as patches for making quilts, or cut into strips to make “poked”, hooked, or braided floor mats.
Of course, some of the things our ancestors recycled are no longer available. Still, I have no doubt that they would have found practical uses for many of today’s products which are usually thrown in the garbage.
“Necessity is the mother of invention.” Most of us have heard that saying but don’t fully appreciate its real meaning. Sometimes, some clever person came up with a new way of using something. Before long, others were copying the idea.
Years ago, people often made or created many of the things they needed. The reason might be that money was scarce. Or perhaps they lived too far from a major center and some things weren’t readily available. Then again, as I’ve often heard, “Why spend good money on something if you don’t have to?” Or, “Why buy it if you can make it?”
Boxes, Barrels, and Drums:
Such things as biscuit boxes, orange crates, apple and flour barrels, pork or beef barrels and molasses puncheons were often put to good use. They were recreated, transformed, or used in ways that were very different from their original purposes.
Biscuit boxes were strong, measuring about eighteen by twenty-four inches, and eight inches deep. Loose biscuits were shipped in them to small shops (stores). If you collected several of these boxes you were all set.
They made excellent “grub boxes.” All you had to do was disassemble a second box to make the cover. Sometimes these boxes were taken apart and used to build shelves.
The Herridges had a little cabin at Dog Cove, up in Long Harbour River (located in Fortune Bay, on the south coast). Their cupboard was a biscuit box nailed on the wall. Henry used boards from a second box to put in a couple of shelves so his wife could store the dishes, etc. “You’d be surprised at how much I could get in that little cupboard,” she said.
Orange crates were a little bigger, about twelve inches square and 24-26 inches high when stood on one end, but they weren’t as strong. However, the center partition provided some extra strength and stability. They made excellent storage bins for separating and storing vegetables in the fall.
Now these orange crates were very popular, especially with the ladies. A single crate became a lovely night table, while two crates together were transformed into a small dresser. Plastic covers with ruffled top edges were available, in single or double-crate size, from Eaton’s mail order catalog.
Apple barrels were also great things and, when recycled, could be found in the parlour. Half the barrel’s “staves”, or curved boards, were cut down to about half their original height, leaving the other half as they were. A seat was then installed, level with the cut staves, forming a chair with a comfortable, curved back. The seats were usually removable to facilitate use of the storage space beneath.
“A great place to store your knitting or sewing,” Sophie told me. Many times these chairs were covered with fabric and looked very elegant. There was always a cushion on the seat which probably explains why Henry knew them as “cush boxes.’ In other places they were known simply as “chair boxes.” Sometimes the chair would have rockers added to it. It is easy to imagine how “Granny would knit socks as she rocked in her cush box.”
On a lighter note, even mummers used apple and flour barrels occasionally. A hole was cut in the end so the barrel would fit over your head and rest on your shoulders. Henry can remember doing this several times. “I couldn’t get into some houses,” he said. “Some people’s porch doors were a little bit narrow and the barrel wouldn’t go through the doorway.”
Pork and beef barrels did not get such royal treatment and were often just reused to salt and store meat for the winter. But they too often found new purpose. Some were sawed in half to use as “wash tubs.” Two staves on opposite sides of the barrel were left longer than the rest,
to form the handles. These wash tubs often doubled as bath tubs for children.
They were often used to store partridgeberries for the winter. The barrel was thoroughly washed out first, to remove all traces of pickle from the inside. When the berries were put in, enough water was added to just cover them. “All you had to do was chop out a chunk of ice and berries,” Sophie recalls. “When the ice melted, you had your berries for making jam or pies.”
Other washed-out barrels were used as water barrels and kept in the porch during winter. It held about a week’s supply of water for an average family of four or five. A cover was made from the barrel-head to prevent dirt from getting into the water.
“I remember going to the well and filling the water barrel,” said Henry. “Then the dog would tow it home on a slide.”
Some barrels were taken apart to make sleds for children. Sophie knew them as “stave slides” while her husband called them “flat-bottomed slides” but they were the same thing. Two staves made a slide big enough for one person and “They could really go!” If you had a molasses puncheon you could make a bigger slide. A molasses puncheon was larger than a barrel, about three feet in diameter and approximately 30-32 inches high. Both barrels and puncheons made good dog houses. They were laid on their sides, with a few rocks placed alongside to keep them from rolling.
All barrels were used by fishermen for various purposes. Pork and beef barrels, sawed in half, became “half-measure tubs”, used on board the herring collectors. The staves of dismantled barrels were sometimes used to make “killicks.”
Somtimes a pork or beef barrel had holes cut in the center of both ends. A pole was pushed through these holes, allowing the barrel to be used as a sort of capstan for pulling dories up on slipways. Half of an apple, or flour, barrel was turned into a “bait tub”, or a “trawl tub.” Half a puncheon was used for salting, washing, and storing dry, salted codfish.
Drums that originally held kerosene or gas, were often used as “tanning drums.” “Many fishermen knit their own nets, and made their sails, then tanned them,” the Herridges told me. Their method was very unique. Strips of bark from fir or spruce trees were first boiled in a drum of water. Then the bark was removed and the nets were soaked in the hot liquid.
Stoves for sheds and cabins were also made from drums. “All you had to do was fill it half full of gravel, attach a stovepipe, and you were all set,” Henry said. Indeed, I remember having an outdoor stove made from a drum at our campsite not so long ago.
The Versatile Flour Sack:
Probably, the single most-recycled item in the “good old days” was the humble flour sack. The 100-pound, Robin Hood flour sack was made of very sturdy, durable cotton. Therefore, it had a wide variety of uses, especially for the poorer people.
First they were boiled in “lye”, usually homemade from wood ashes, to remove the lettering. The result was a very white, strong fabric. These imprints were later replaced by paper bands. When the seams were opened up, the piece of cotton measured about one yard square.
In the home these sacks were turned into many useful things. Embroidery and lace trim were all you needed to transform them into beautiful pillowcases. Four sewed together became a bed sheet. Some were cut to size and trimmed with lace to make dresser scarves.
Some people made bedspreads from the sacks. As Sophie remembers it, “They would put borders around them if they could get coloured cloth.”. Curtains and even window blinds were made from the cotton. “One end of the opened sack was nailed to a stick for rolling up on.”
They were very popular for making tablecloths. The number of sacks used depended on the size of your table. Some had coloured corners, borders, or strips, depending on the creativity of the seamstress. “You might see half a dozen of them on the clothesline and they’d all be in different patterns,” she said.
Flour sack cotton was often used for clothing. It was dyed different colours to make dresses or skirts for the women and work shirts for the men. Aprons were always white with a coloured pocket or border. There were white sunbonnets to wear while working in the hay garden or on the fish flakes. Some also made gloves with the wrists made from pieces of girls’ “long stockings.”
White sunhats for little girls were starched stiff with homemade “flour starch.” So were the collars of men’s “Sunday shirts.” “No man would go to church wearing anything but a white shirt with a very stiff collar.”
A more practical use was making “oil clothes.” When the pants and jacket were made, they were soaked in very hot linseed oil and hung to dry. This process was repeated three or four times until you had a suit of “completely waterproof oil clothes.” Sails were also made from flour sacks. The cloth was joined together and the sails cut to required size and shape. Then they were “tanned” by boiling in pitch.
Sophie spoke of watching one person make “cotton wool”, which was hard to get at the time. The edges of an opened seam were frayed. If two people held the fabric very tightly, and scraped along the edge with a very sharp knife, you got a very soft material, very similar to cotton wool.
Flour sack cotton was also used to make many undergarments. Sometimes it was hard to get the imprinted lettering out by boiling and you often heard comments like, “So-and-so’s got Robin Hood on her behind!”
One of the more unusual items was an undergarment called “splits”, often worn by older women. They were simply two wide legs, reaching from knee to waist, held in place with a buttoned waistband.
It may be nostalgia, but the “good old days” did have their benefits. We could learn a lot by studying and practicing some of the ways of our parents, grandparents, etc.
Many of the things our ancestors did out of necessity are classed as handicrafts today. Some of their recycling methods, such as the lovely hooked rugs, are part of our cultural heritage as well as history.
© F. Herridge
Published in The Newfoundland Quarterly, Fall 1999; Canadian Stories, February/March 2005
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