10.21.2010

Learn from the past

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As a vintage/history enthusiast, it is often funny to me how my generation takes credit for ideas, products, and even ways of life that are decades or centuries old. Spanx? Yeah. Thats a weak girdle.

Most people who grew up during the depression or the war are the "greenest" people you'll ever know. Only they didn't call it "green", they just called it life. It was a necessity for saving money, and making the most of rationed materials and guidelines. I know there are many ways modern culture uses the resources we have to conserve energy on a large scale: solar power, recycling plants, etc. But as far as having a green way of life, those people can tell you young whippersnappers how it's really done.

I have a few knitting and sewing books from the 1940s, and they are full of patterns for non-wasteful everyday things. Lots of reusable market bag patterns for instance. Plastic grocery bags were not in existence until the late 1970s, until then there was paper, and whatever cloth bag you brought with you.

Making new clothing out of old frocks was a necessity for almost everyone during WWII. It's now a fun way to take old unwanted clothing and make them into something new, but back then, it was the only way you would get a new dress, blouse, or hat. There are even patterns and how-to booklets for turning old into new, it was especially popular for women to take their husbands, fathers, or brothers suit, and turn it into something for themselves.

Homemade cleaning supplies are nothing new. They did wonders with vinegar, baking soda, and lemon.

Canning, buying food locally, purchasing dry goods in bulk, growing your own vegetables, keeping chickens, It's all been done.

Saving the last bits of soap bars, drying laundry on a clothesline, mending good clothes. They did it first.

My favorite online resource for helpful domestic tips and tricks from a pre-Martha Stewart era is Things Your Grandmother Knew. It is full of snippets from old magazines that will make you go "Oh! Thats amazing! Why didn't I think of that!"

Also check online, antique shops, and thrift stores for little booklets and hard back books that contain a wealth of "Make do and Mend" knowledge.

Honestly I think it's more difficult now to live a wasteless life since we live in a disposable world. We no longer have milkmen to drop off bottles of milk in the morning. Our flour no longer comes in cotton bags we can turn into blouses and dishtowels. Our snacks are conveniently pre-packaged in little plastic bags. Even our fruit can come individually wrapped. Toys come with a crazy amount of packaging, even books, books come wrapped in plastic.

What are your "green" methods of living?

40 comments:

Leanne of Folk said...

beautiful post!!! thank you for including that link...i can't wait to check it out!

Brooksie said...

Here are my green methods of living: I of course wear vintage. I do no own a car. I have my reusable bags that I take to the grocery with me. I have also started and experiment: Since I have moved into my apartment at the begining of August I am trying to see how long I can go with out buying tin foil, paper towels, Seran Wrap, plastic baggies or waxed paper and I have made it this far! I feel pretty good knowing there is just that much less stuff going in the landfill.

chloegirl said...

Yes if you would like to see how it was then just watch the early episodes of The Waltons. Season 1-4 are good examples of cutting costs and re-using. I love the Walton's and those girls wore some very cute dresses.

Anonymous said...

Spanx is a "weak girdle"? I can tell that you haven't tried to wear them.

Solanah said...

I can tell you've never worn the right girdle.

Beth said...

I'm lucky to still have my grandmother, who was a teenager when the Depression hit and remembers what it's like to have only one dress to wear. Whenever I ask her how she did it all, she just says "I have no idea-- I can't believe it either! At the time, you don't think about it, you just do it because you have to, to survive..." I think people underestimate their own resilience and creativity. When we live in a world of ready-made solutions, there's no need to solve our own little problems. We just have to buy the right products, and that will fix it. Right? I suppose so, if we want to be dependent on yet another product.

Anyway, for me, there are "green" things that work and things that don't. I use saran wrap. I don't use plastic grocery bags. I use a washer and dryer. I also make my own laundry detergent and use very little to clean other than baking soda, vinegar, and a bit of tea tree oil. I drive. I also plan a frighteningly efficient errand route. And so on and so forth. It's not one size fits all (well, except baking soda and its magical properties-- that one I'm a true believer in!), but it works for me and my home right now. :-)

Shady Del Knight said...

My mother and her three sisters were teenagers during The Great Depression. Mom often told stories of her family's frugal lifestyle. Clothing was passed down from sibling to sibling. All necessities of life were rationed and very little was thrown away. Cardboard cereal box tops were used to line the bottoms of shoes that were developing holes. A bar of soap was used until it was wafer thin and breaking apart before a new bar was unwrapped. The old sliver of soap was then molded onto the new bar so that it wouldn't go to waste. Tubes of toothpaste were squeezed, pressed and flattened until every bit of product was used up. Toilet paper was doled out at the rate of only three squares per customer. The children were given reasonable portions of food at meal time and were expected to clean their plates...no exceptions. My mother made clothing and hooked rugs all her life. People who choose to live green tend to be a lot happier than reckless consumers who leave a huge carbon footprint in their wake.

You have a wonderful blog, Solanah!

Betty2Tone said...

Thank you! It drives me crazy when people think "being green" is needing buying some special brand, or something marked as "green". You shouldn't have to buy anything to be green, you just have to not be wasteful

Mrs Cleaver said...

Fantastic post & so very true.
Love your girdle comeback :)

Rebecca Jean said...

My whole blog {Midnight Maniac} is dedicated to sustainable living, with a dash of vintage/thrifted fashion. Hey, it's green too!

I started going green three years ago which led to dressing vintage last year. More and more I find myself looking to the past for answers to the future.

My list of green methods is far too long to list here. Some of the highlights would be not using a plastic shopping bag, paper towel, or disposable feminine hygiene product in three years. I also shave with a double edged safety razor; air dry my laundry; compost with worms; keep my heat set at 60 degrees in the day and 50 degrees overnight during the winter months; buy local, eat organic, and cook from scratch; carry a glass straw, wrap-n-mat, bamboo To-go ware, and Klean Kanteen everywhere I go; clean with baking soda and vinegar; the list just goes on and on.

Mostly I avoid plastic like the plague and am generally more aware of the impact my choices make. And of course blog about it!

Thanks for this post.

♥ Rebecca Jean
Midnight Maniac

Robert Cornell said...

My grandfather used to tell me that a patched and/or repaired item had more character and beauty than something brand new. To this day, I still love an item that has been repaired, patched or re-purposed over a new item. This is especially true of books--I so very much prefer an old book, loved and pondered with someone's marginalia and underlines, to a new book.

Anonymous said...

BEAUTIFUL POST!
My Nanna has a thread over her kitchen window where she hangs used teabags, so she can use them again!

I own chickens, grow my own veg and I SHOP LOCAL! Once you visit your local market, and find out about all the resources available from your neighbours, you'll be addicted!

I swap eggs for dog training advice!

Flossy and Dossy said...

I love the "make do and mend" from the 40s. Last Christmas my husband bought me a reprint of the booklet "Sew and Save" which has honestly never left my handbag since! After reading this book I've made some rather fetching taffeta bras and cute slips. It also shows you simple pattern drafting as they were worried that paper patterns would run out during rationing. Its a truley amazing little book and I highly recomend it:)

and Solanah I love you blog and your lovely photography:)

Wendy x

Pixie said...

what a great post! we are on a very tight budget so we make do with what we have. I do my own sewing and mending if possible. I shop in charity shops and haven't bought a new piece of clothing for myself in almost three years. We re-use what we can, pick up pieces of lumber and metal on the side of the road (you can't believe what you find that way), we compost all kitchen waste (what doesn't get fed to the chickens). We grow our own veg and fruit and are seriously considering beekeeping. We recycle so much that we only have one bag of 'garbage' every two weeks. Hubby bikes to work and I olny take the car out one day a week.

delia hornbook said...

What a great post, it does amaze me how they survived and how everything really was bulit to last not like today, Which is one of my reasons for collecting and making my home a house to live in times gone by. I shop in chairty shops, and car boot sales for everything, i hardly ever by new things unless i really have to. I do buy new colthes for the boys, although my youngest son has always had his brothers clothes, ie coats, school jumpers, jeans. We separate and recylce all our household waste, we have bins for food, plastics, tins, cardboard, paper, shoes, clothes, garden waste etc so i feel better knowing im doing my bit. I always use secondhand curtains to make other items for the home, ie cushions, or throws, i get more pleasure as well than i would if i went and bought it new. Lovely post. dee x

Holly said...

I have canvas bags I take shopping with me, I don't have a car, I take my own cup to Starbucks, I re-use everything that I can. My desk drawer organizer, used to be a silverware caddy.

Brilliant post, I often wish my grandmother was still around so I could learn more from her than I already have!

la pie qui chante pour un oui pour un non said...

Lovely!

tunabake said...

A great post!

Living in Australia we are very aware of saving water so we plant native plants that are drought resistant (never have to water the garden), reuse the water from the washing machine on the vegetables we grow.

We have a worm farm so the little wrigglies can eat our food scraps and we get lovely worm 'tea' to put on the garden.

I make a natural cleaning solution to clean the shower and bath.

Have a bag I take to the shops so we don't need plastic bags and lastly buy vintage clothes - they last longer and are better quality ^U^

Many more tips I hope to pick up on the way.

Thanks again for a great post.

BaronessVonVintage said...

You make some brilliant points about the ways in which our ancestors lived "green" before their was even such a term or a perceived need to think "green." I have to say, though, that while many members of the generation you speak of were incredibly economical (at least many people of certain social classes were, by necessity, rather than by conscious choice to "go green"), many of the "technologies" used by people of the generation of my grandparents (who lived through the Great Depression and WWII, etc) were polluting and/or unenvironmentally sound: the gas guzzling cars, and other "dirty" methods of travel (i.e railways belching coal smoke), the oil furnaces in many houses, the freon based appliances, etc. Even polluting chemicals and toxic substances were in the paint, wallpaper, pipes, and walls of most buildings (asbestos, lead). People ate more out of tin cans, but those cans were lined in lead and I don't think they were recycled (not ALL items from the past were reused until they turned to dust, or we wouldn't STILL have some of it still cropping up in the modern age!). As well, MANY people from that era polluted the air around themselves and their families via smoking. I guess what I am getting at is that you do present an important case for the idea of recognizing that our way forward for a greener environment may be found in looking back to the way things used to be done...but SOME advancements (in fact, I would say, MANY) have been essential as well!

FoofandFaff said...

Great post - it is ridiculous how much waste is produced now, I'm always concious of it when I'm shopping or even just wandering around the flat in the darkness to save energy on lights haha! I do buy most of my clothes second hand now, and always use up toiletries/food before buying more. Cant part with some technology tho, like internet and car - I HATE driving but sometimes necessary! :)

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this very thing last night & I think the world would be a better & happier place if we simplified our lives & turned our back on this mass consumption that our culture promotes. Consumption of everything...gas,clothes,junk food, electronics

Miss1941 said...

"Honestly I think it's more difficult now to live a wasteless life since we live in a disposable world."

Soooo true!! That was a wonderful post!

Mr Buttons said...

And here I just thought the other week to make myself a shirt out of some vintage bedlinen that is too small for my duvet (amazing 60s floral print!)

Portland Ninkasi said...

Very thoughtful post. I live green by: not owning a car, shopping nearly exclusively at thrift stores, reusing sandwich baggies and saran wrap, cleaning with vinegar, water, and peppermint oil, and by purchasing local produce when I can.

Beth said...

This is an important green post that will hopefully encourage many to seek and adopt eco friendly practices in their lives. For me, I look back to the way my mom and grand-mom lived their lives, frugality was a necessity not a trait, and homespun was apart of life. Today my sewing is a eco friendly and sustainable as possible, that goes for the way I cook and what I eat. Eat as close to the ground as possible and buy local. Thank you for this thought provoking post. (Steps of soap box now)

Annie said...

This is such a wonderful post. I was just thinking about this a few days ago. Thnks for including the link!

Alma said...

love your blog.. and youre style! :D

http://icelandicfashionista.blogspot.com/

Casey said...

I have that book your picture is from! ;) It's one of my favorites...

I think there are quite a few lessons we can learn from the more economical practices of the past, when fused with more modern, environmentally friendly understandings we have now. One thing I am growing to dislike more and more about this society is the amount of consumption and waste. And yet, in some ways it's hard not to get caught up with it! I've been shopping second hand for clothes, books and the like since I was a kid. But as an adult, I've also become more conscious of recycling, using fabric shopping bags (which I need to get a lot better about!), and switching over to green/natural cleaning products. (At this point I basically clean my entire kitchen with just baking soda and vinegar! And a little of Dr. Bronner's soap too for the floor.) Sure, it takes a teeny bit more work, but I'm finding that it pays off in spades--and helps save some money too!

♥ Casey | blog

Solanah said...

Thank you for your feedback everyone! Very interesting reading what little or not so little things you do in everyday life.

Baronessvonvintsge, I know there were many pollutant things in the past, but I'm trying to say that on a small scale, we can learn from what our grandmothers and greatgrandmothers did during tough times. It's very popular now for people to "live green" and everyone is always looking for new ways to improve their lives in such a way. I just think we can look back at what they did and work it into our modern lives. We know more know about how what we do impacts the world around us, and can use that to better our environment, and there are many ways society does that on a larger scale. We know now of the poisons and pollutants, and those products etc are no longer on the market, and even illegal. I'm saying we can do more as individuals to be "green", looking to the past for ways to do it :)

Charlotte said...

Great post!

Most of us vintage-types are into "make do and mend" by default, since we buy old stuff and if it's not perfect we either 'make-do', or fix it, or alter it to fit. I'm proud to say I buy almost exclusively thrifted and vintage clothing. I've also just started making a concerted effort to sort out my fixer-upper pile (a 60s dress with a broken zip; a 1950s silk dress whose skirt is shredding but the bodice is still good; a 1950s taffeta ballgown with watermark stains around the hem...)

My sister is super into sustainable living - she grows vegetables and bakes her own bread - which would have been a matter of course 60 years ago.

I love love love all the little ideas in my wartime magazines for make-do and mending, re-making an old frock in "this season's" style.

xx Charlotte
Tuppence Ha'penny Vintage

Claire said...

We still have a milkman!

Maybe it's a UK thing.

Good post, though. Things to think about.

Watkins35 said...

fab post - for me it's using the knowledge gained from my mother & late grandmother (a tailor's daughter & seamstress); always buying loose fruit & veg; preserving anything we manage to grow; using bicarb & vinegar (still the best cleaners!); trying to buy good quality clothing that'll last for years, and mending, mending, mending! x

BaronessVonVintage said...

Hi, again, Solanah! Thanks for your reply. I wholeheartedly agree with you when it comes to the idea that the whole ethos of "mend and make do" is one that more modern consumers should embrace, especially when it comes to clothing. I too wish that the modern clothing industry hadn't been so successful at convincing people that we should want larger quantities of cheap clothes, as opposed to fewer higher quality items that will last for decades. I also agree that many of the strategies now being marketed as part of "green living" are totally not recent revelations and we should give our foremothers their due. I just wanted to point out the idea that there were a LOT of other very unenvironmentally healthy and un-personally healthy that I saw my grandparents' generation partake of that it may be worth noting if we're looking at a fully rounded picture of history--as you noted in your post, many people of modest means were what we would now call "green" because it was part of a need to be economical for financial reasons caused by historical realities. It would be interesting to know how many of the same people who lived through the depression and wartime rationing dealt with post-war prosperity (I suspect many embraced suburban sprawl, the cult of the ginormous car, the rise of fast food, the age of lots of energy guzzling innovations for the household, etc). In some ways, the way that people lived their lives and raised the children of the Boom generation contributed to the escalated hyperconsumer state of things we live in now. This comment is getting way too long and abstract now. 'Nough said. I love that you posted about this fascinating topic and I hope you see my comments as based on the spirit of friendly, well-intentioned discussion! xoxo

s. said...

Nobody has mentioned darning socks! I've done so for a couple of years (and gotten some very strange reactions--maybe repairing worn-out socks is just too much). I do only bother with mending the nicer ones, but the others get moved to the rag pile and reused, too.
I also have an enormous braided rug made of various sewing scraps, and I've wound up liking it a lot more than many of the "real" things I've made.

ihanuudet by fleure said...

Here in Finland it coud be quite easy to live very simple life and do so many things in a good green way.You coud grow your own food and pick so many things from the forrests...so many finns do so. I don,t have no car,i use a bike to go to work and busses if it,s needed.We also buy most of the clothes from fleemarkets and also sell the old ones in there too.We live in the building with sauna,that you can heet with woods.Many people heet they buildings with woods too.
Finland is quite ahead for doing things in greenway.We love simple life and we want to save the world in a good way for our kids.

Aundrea said...

Thank you, thank you! This is so very true. I get pretty annoyed myself at the whole "green" craze - I get Yoda in my head going, "Do or do not, there is no try." It's like finding out certain people/places don't just automatically recycle - you mean haven't done it your whole life? Whaaat?? I spent most of my childhood around my grandparents, both born just before the Crash and teenagers during the War. They are also Mexican, and came from pretty poor families. I remember it wasn't just about being able to re-use and re-purpose, but about saving and stretching as much as possible and making things last. It's definitely a way of life that doesn't have to be chore, that if it's made a daily habit becomes second nature.

Karen said...

What annoys me is how it is generally more expensive these days to make your own clothes than to buy them from a store (you can also begin to wonder how "green" the production of yarns, fabric etc is). In the same way, it's more expensive to buy locally produced food than stuff that's been shipped from Brazil or some other place far away (I live in Sweden).
I am not the greatest at green living, but I do try to buy organic/locally produced food as much as possible, I don't own a car, I air dry my clothes and try to bring a non-plastic carrier bag to the shops with me, or I re-use old plastic ones. I also make an effort to recycle paper, metals etc.

"The Golden Girl of the West" said...

Absolutely agreed on all points! It's always a hoot to see people who think they are doing something new and innovative, when it was tried and tested way before our time. As a little girl, I would just be completely mesmerized, listening to my Grandmother tell her stories and ways of life.

Over the years, I have collected quite a few of those handy little lifestyle books, they are full of so much useful information-nothing wasted! Make do & mend.....

~Syd

northwest is best said...

Great post, and I agree with you! My parents grew up in England in the 1950s, through post-war rationing. They've passed their austerity onto me. I make my own compost from food scraps, and then use that on the garden to grow vegetables. The circle of life!

LifeWithLouise said...

I know this post is old but I had to comment. What you described in your post, this is the way me and my boyfriend try to live. We try to live simple and do things the way our grandparents did them. We shop mostly at the farmers market or small local shops. Pretty much everything we own we've bought from thrift stores. We live in a way that is very different than most people our age(we're both 24). We like taking our time and using the resources we have. We enjoy making the most out of everything we have and being content. So many people these days just want more and more, and they want everything the easy way. If you are constantly always searching for more you'll never be happy with what you have. People need to learn to slow down and enjoy the daily routines in their lives. On top of that most young people don't even know how to take care of themselves these days and are so wasteful. Have a perfectly good shirt with a hole in it? They'll just throw it away and buy a new one. Simple things like mending they can't even do. It makes it very hard to relate to others my own age when they just don't "get it". It's refreshing to see other young people, like you, who do "get it".