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Lessons from a Wartime Teenager

Updated on August 16, 2015
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Life as a teenager in World War Two

My mum was eleven years old and living in rural England when World War 2 began in 1939.

For the next six years - you could say her formative years - she lived her teenage life during a period of rationing, shortages and hard work.

If she was still around today, she'd say that today's teenagers can't imagine what it was like.

She married my dad a couple of years after the war - he was stationed in North Africa until 1947 - and had to wait for several years before they could afford for mum to give up her job as a waitress and start a family. There was no maternity leave or maternity allowances in those days.

I often smile to myself when I'm doing something thrifty and I think 'Mum would be proud of me for doing that.'Mum's wartime habits and way of life continued though in that she couldn't bear to see waste.

I'm not sure that the word 'recycling' was even used in those days but most of us today could take a leaf out of her book.Sometimes I smile to myself when I look at my home and realize that I'm the lessons she taught me. Sometimes I think she would be proud of me.

Thanks Mum.

Fuel and water

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Saving fuel and saving water were always high on my mum's agenda.

  • Of course, the dishes were always done by hand. Even when I was older and we had a dishwasher in the kitchen, it was rarely used. After the dishes were done, they were left to air-dry on a rack. Then the soapy hot water wouldn't be poured down the drain, it was used to wash the kitchen floor. (Or a passing child's dirty face!) Then it was used to water the vegetables and herbs growing outside the kitchen door.
  • There was never, ever a light on in an empty room. If you were going up the stairs, the lights on the staircase could be switched on for a moment but then switched off again at the top until you needed to come back downstairs.
  • Laundry was always dried outside on the line using solar and wind power. I still do that today. We have a communal laundry room in our condo building and the drier is coin operated. Line drying saves me about $5 a week. That's not much? That's $260 a year and I can think of better things to do with $260 than put it into a hot air machine. The laundry smells nicer too.
  • The expensive-to-run oven would only be used once or maybe twice a week. Once for the Sunday roast and the other for a baking day. And whenever it was on, it was jam packed with cooking food - none of that precious heat was wasted.
  • During the war vegetables grown in England were plentiful but imported food was not. Most people brought up in the war realized the advantages of buying local, even after the war had ended.

Make do and mend

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No throwaway society

  • Every respectable housewife had a sewing basket and a tin of buttons. When old clothing was completely worn out, the fabric was cut into rags to be used for cleaning. Any sizable pieces were saved to make patchwork, decorative items or to patch other clothes. Buttons and zippers were carefully removed and added to the button tin to be used again.
  • Bed sheets wear in the middle. The canny housewife would cut the sheet in half through the worn section. Then put the two outer, unworn edges together and neatly stitch them together. That way, the worn, weaker parts of the sheet were at the outer edges. This would double the life of sheets. When they became too worn to use, they were cut down for sheets for the baby's crib, cut into suitable sizes to dry the dishes or used as handkerchiefs.
  • The same thing happened with shirt collars. When they became frayed, they were removed and sewed back on with the inner frayed piece now on the outside.
  • Once knitwear was no longer in good condition, the wool was unraveled and wound into hanks. This was then hung in the bathroom with a weight on the end so that the wool would un-kink (thanks to the steam) and could be knitted into a new garment. Odd balls of wool were knitted into woolly scarves or children's mittens.
  • My long hair was much in demand. You see, during the war sheer nylon stockings were almost unavailable (unless you knew a GI) so if you had a pair with a run, they were mended. Mum continued to do this after the war and my long hair was used as superfine thread.
  • Shoppers were encouraged to take their own wrapping materials. They would save paper bags and newspapers and taken them to the shops instead of expecting the shopkeepers to supply unnecessary paper. Pieces of string were never thrown awaybut knotted together for further use wrapping parcels.
  • Newspapers were also used to make paper sticks to light the fire. I am still brilliant at making paper sticks! Newspapers were also dampened, formed into brick shapes and, when dry, used as fire logs.

Food

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Not a scrap wasted

  • Mum had a hand-cranked meat mincer for making meatloaf and so on. And with her method, there was no way that one single scrap of meat would be wasted. First, put the meat through the mincer. Then mince an onion into the bowl - this would force any scraps of meat through. Finally, run a slice of bread through to get every last drop of onion. Mix, season and there's your meatloaf mixture or seasoned meat and onion for Shepherd's Pie.
  • Stews invariably contained lots of cheap but tasty dumplings. And extra dumpling mix was make to be boiled in water later - they were a tasty dessert served with the famous English golden syrup.
  • As far as my mum was concerned, any part of an animal was fit to eat. Liver, kidneys and heart were very cheap. My parents would also eat brains, 'sweetbreads' and pigs' trotters. (OK, that's probably why I don't eat meat now!)
  • On Sundays the water from boiling the vegetables was always saved and used to mix into the juices in the bottom of the Sunday joint's baking pan. Add a little cornflour and you have a delicious gravy.
  • Mum would save the bacon rinds that she'd cut off rashers and put them in the fridge. Then, when she had enough of them, she'd put a frying pan on a low heat with no added fat, then add the bacon rinds until the fat ran out of them. Then she'd turn up the heat until the rinds were brown and puffy. She's save the bacon fat for frying other foods and then give us the puffed up, crispy rinds as snacks. We loved them.
  • I always smile and remember my mum when i crack eggs for cooking. I remember how she used to run her finger round the two broken halves of shell to make sure that not a bit of the egg white was wasted. Yes, I still do it automatically.
  • Mum was the pressure cooker queen. She realized that pressure cookers cook food in a fraction of the time. It was great for cooking almost-costs-nothing haricot beans for soups and scrumptious baked beans. She often used to cook cheap cuts of meat in them as they would quickly become tender in the pressure cooker.
  • We used to be sent to the hedgerows to pick blackberries when they were in season. Free food! We'd return home with purple mouths because we'd eaten almost as many as we picked. Mum used to make delicious blackberry and apple crumbles with the fruits of our labors.
  • Mum would laugh to see that organic dandelion leaves are now available in grocery stores - ours came from the garden! What I find strange is that the ones you can buy today seem to me to be too large - the young, small leaves are the tastiest. The garden was also raided for nasturtium leaves as these are delicious in a salad. More free food!
  • Oh, I nearly forgot butter papers. Some people think I'm distinctly strange because when I've used the butter, I always save the paper is was wrapped in. I keep them in the fridge. Why? Because even if you've scraped the last scraps of butter from them with a knife, they are still useful - and very convenient - to grease baking dishes. Yes, I have butter papers in my fridge right now.

Girls in the Second World War

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Just one of my mum's tips

There were so many but this is one that I use almost every day. My mum had the most beautiful skin on her hands. This is despite that fact that she never wore rubber gloves, she did the dishes by hand and everything else to abuse her skin. The secret was olive oil and sugar. I guess you could use any cooking oil. Hold one of your hands palm upwards and pour a teaspoon of oil onto the palm. Add a teaspoon of sugar. Now rub your hands together as you would if you were using hand cream.When you've done, rinse your hands in warm water and your skin will be wonderfully smooth and exfoliated. Try it - it's brilliant!

Further reading

There are lessons for all of us in these fantastic books. Although none of us would like to go back to the privations of wartime, we can still take a leaf out of the wartime book (literally) and learn more about good, healthy cooking, recycling and more. For people during the war, this was essential. It's not essential for us (yet) but we can learn a great deal about how we can help our families, our bank balances and the planet by adopting simple wartime methods.

ID cards & ration books

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This shows my mum's national identity card from wartime and my dad's clothing rationing book. The other piece of paper is from after the war but still interesting. It's from the Welfare Foods Service and gives free 'vitamins' for the baby (me!)

The vitamins were simply ... cod liver oil. This document also allowed my mum to buy orange juice for the baby for fivepence a bottle; that's probably less than one cent in today's money.

Photograph © me.

Mum's favorite appliance - the pressure cooker

Sometimes, it seemed that everything my mum cooked was made in the pressure cooker. It was a fierce, steaming beast that would hiss and splutter quite alarmingly! Today's wonderful models are completely different but one simple fact remains; they cook most foods quickly (to save electricity) with all the goodness in the food.

They're not just for stews and casseroles either. I remember my mum making truly delicious foods of all kinds using her pressure cooker. Take a look at today's versions - they are a great way to cook and perfect for today's healthy diets.

Appliances that don't need electricity

I remember my mum using all these appliances. When did we become so lazy that we had to rely on electricity to perform a simple task like beating a few eggs for example? I have the egg beater shown below and it's excellent - it can be used for so many jobs in the kitchen and is a lot easier to clean than a mixer or blender.

My Mum in the Second World War

That's my mum on the left. The photograph is undated but she was born in 1928 and war broke out in 1939 when she was eleven, going on twelve. I think she looks about fifteen in that photograph, don't you?

Her mum, my grandmother who is on the right died in 1944 which was before the war ended so that helps to date this picture.Also you see my lovely granddad who I only just remember - I was six when he died - and mum's brother, my Uncle Tom - born just a few years after Mum - who at time of writing is still going strong.

My mum died in 2006 just a year after her great-granddaughter had been born (almost to the day). I like to think that she'd chuckle to see that I still keep her frugal and planet-friendly wartime ways - she taught me well.

If only these had been available

My mum would have loved these, especially the solar oven. She was an expert at filling the regular oven to the absolute brim - squeezing potatoes into every available space to be used later. Oh, and after she'd finished using the oven, a brick would go in there. Why? Because it would absorb the heat and, wrapped in a towel, would be used as a bed warmer!

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      A fascinating hub - I love reading about how the English managed their rationing. My grand parents used to send food parcels from Australia - the English weren't too sure about passionfruit pips, but they ate them, for nothing was ever wasted. Rationing was also a time with little obesity, and overall health was pretty good, if not better than the average Brit's (or Aussie's) today. Thanks for sharing - I love the photo of your Mum.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      yeah. i do the oven thing, butter paper grease, but i'm not good at sewing =(my grandma used to piece the scraps and make us a quilt though

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Stuwaha: It really is, isn't it? Thanks to my mum I can knit, darn, cook from scratch and MEND things! Few people repair items now - they just throw them out and buy new.

    • Stuwaha profile image

      Stuwaha 4 years ago

      I love reading pages like this one. People were so resourceful then. It's depressing to think of how many basic skills (like sewing, knitting and home cooking) are being lost or considered unnecessary as convenience and wastage dominate our society.

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      tonyleather 4 years ago

      Interesting post!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Adventuretravels: Thank you. It's very true what you say. People looked after their belongings in those days. And you're so right about the decline of businesses like cobblers. I remember a successful business in Barnsley - a man who repaired clocks.I doubt people have their clocks repaired now - they just buy new ones.And I remember darning - when socks or sweaters had holes,they were darned to repair them (I can still remember how to do it with a wooden 'mushroom'). I remember unraveling old knitted garments so the yarn could be used again ...and button tins. We really need to return to that mindset.

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      Giovanna Sanguinetti 4 years ago from Perth UK

      Hi what a very interesting lens. My mum and dad were from that era too, and of course my grandparents. They all knew how to save and mend and make things - and make do. Have you noticed that shoes don't seem to need the cobblers any more, and that shirts don't need their collars turning? Nothing seems to wear out because we're always throwing things away long before we should. My grandparents had one coat each and one pair of best shoes each - and the looked after them as though they were the last on earth. Times have certainly changed! How did we become such mindless consumers? Great lens thanks.

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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @KathyMcGraw2: Kathy, you probably would :)

    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 4 years ago from California

      It is amazing how so many of the things your Mum taught you are actually good today, especially by those hit hard with the recession. Also, when I was living in a foreign country for 4 years, I had to be very inventive with food, heat, etc. I think I would have been a good war mom :)

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @opatoday: Thank you - my mum WAS amazing :)

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      blanchella 4 years ago

      This is like a history lesson, life in the World War 2, so many things I didn't know and so many things to learn. We are soooo lucky these days. Thanks for putting all this information together. I think your mum should be very proud, if you don't mind me saying.

    • opatoday profile image

      opatoday 4 years ago

      Just amazing

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @blanchella: Oh, what a lovely thing to say - thank you.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @MissMalaprop: Thank you! I really think there are some valuable lessons we can take from those wartime years.

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      MissMalaprop 4 years ago

      I wish I had asked my grandparents more stories about their experiences during WWII. The stories I have heard are pretty inspiring though. I love your lens!