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Living Green Before Living Green was Cool: Throwaway Society

Updated on May 9, 2010

They learned to use everything

Copyright © G. Wasdin All rights reserved.

Before our age of conspicuous consumption nothing was thrown away until it had served with all the life it had. Then, too, most items were completely recyclable. Upon cleaning out my paternal grandmother’s home after her death, her application of conservation practice in running a household were found to be multitudinous. Her organization of resources was impressive. Everything had a place so she knew what she had and didn’t duplicate tools or supplies, a practice which saved on clutter, space and finances.

Nowdays people buy much more than they need, have multiples of the same tools and supplies and tend to buy new rather than to have items repaired. But then there are my recent forbears, especially those who lived through the Great Depression era. It was a time of severe shortages and rationing of the most basic items such as fuel and food products. These folks who included my parents and late grandparents saved things for a very different reason, namely, there might not be any more coming their way. They learned to use everything, even the packaging of some products…

Blatant wastefulness


Packaging as we know it today was unheard of in my grandparents early days. Throwaways such as paper bags, cardboard cartons, milk jugs and disposable glass containers would have been considered blatant wastefulness. Flour came in fabric bags and homemakers spent considerable time and thought in choosing bags that would serve their families’ needs for more than just containing this baking basic. Once the contents had been emptied, the bags were carefully ripped open at their seams, washed, dried and ironed to become material for making clothing or maybe curtains or other household needs. You can be sure that this precious fabric was cut to get the most use, too, and the scraps were saved to make quilts.

When going to market, the ladies brought along baskets for carrying their purchases home. The baskets were sturdy and lasted many years and when their useful life was over, they were totally biodegradable. As these thrifty women shopped, they didn’t pick up colorful cardboard boxes of processed foods and plastic wrapped fruits and veggies, no they selected their produce from wooden crates that were used over and over again and the most processed items they encountered were probably the patent medicines which came in reusable glass containers. The most prized of reusable containers were made of metal and were called tins. Even now I can recall seeing tiny snuff tins and fruitcake tins at my grandmother’s house that were used to hold buttons, seeds and other small items.

And speaking of buttons, when a garment had been patched, altered, passed down, hemmed and patched again and it was finally time for it to retire to the rag bag, the buttons were carefully removed to be used again. The rags were then employed for cleaning, stuffing cracks and holes in the walls, and for making rag rugs. A use of rags that is totally and understandably repulsive to modern women was that of feminine hygiene and as my maternal grandmother related to me, the rags were not thrown away, but were washed and used over and over.

Conservation and recylcling: A Way of Life

Water in days gone by did not come readily at the turn of a knob but was hauled up from a well or fetched from a nearby stream so no one was anxious to have to procure more than was absolutely necessary. One treatise I have read on wash days before automatic washers explained how the clothes were washed in order of how soiled they were and after the clothes were done the water was not just poured out. The still soapy water was used to scrub down the porch and then rinsed with the used clothes rinsing water.

These are just a sampling of items that were not considered disposable or in endless supply just a few years ago. It was a time when conservation and recycling were just a way a life. Our world today could learn a lot from these wise stewards who lived by these words: Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do or do without.

Copyright © G. Wasdin All rights reserved.


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