How fashions do change. Years ago we were thought to be the oddballs because of the togs we wore. We were taught to wear long sleeves. Many dresses coming into style in our younger days had short sleeves, so we wore shirts or blouses with long sleeves under our dresses. Maybe we were not in style then, but with today’s layered look many women are wearing similar outfits.
Years ago people wore a clean apron, freshly washed, starched, and ironed, over their dresses, to save on so many dresses. There were many large families, so the dresses were passed from one to the other in the family. Women even wore aprons to church. For dusting, many wore a cap or hood over their hair, which was apt to be long. It was harder to wash it, but the hair was not washed daily. To have the hair combed and brushed and put up in long braids was very common for the girls of my day—until someone got lice and started to cut her hair. Many of us did not cut our hair, believing the hair was given for glory and should not be cut. That would make one look mannish. I have seen the long hair combed and the hair saved to recycle. Some was put into stuffing to make a pincushion. Or some might be used, as my mother used hers, to help add to her small wig in back because she had very thin hair. Even at age ninety Mama’s hair was quite long.
We recycled so many things when I was a child on the farm. Years ago there were many kinds of thread, on small spools and large, some for sewing on a machine and some for hand sewing. The spools were used again. Mama made tops for us by cutting the spool in half and shaving it down to a point. Then she added a small stick, whittled and round, for the spinner in the hole. We loved these tops and could spin them well, or start them and turn them so they spun upside down.
Feathers were recycled, too. The big feathers could be used as pens for writing. Others were put in bed ticks or in pillows. (Some people were allergic, we hear, but we didn’t know the word very well.) We bought ticking sometimes, but often we used the grain sacks or flour sacks. Flour sacks were our towels for wiping dishes, or we put them on a spool rack for use in the kitchen as hand towels. To make the spool rack we took the sewing thread spools and ran a heavy wire through maybe four or five of them. Then the wire was twisted to make a handle to hang the rack on the wall. The towel could go round and around the spools and stay on. Flour sacks had other uses too. We might cut the sacks open and sew a couple heavy sacks together for a drying rack for drying apples and other fruit or even vegetables above the woodstove.
Some sacks found their way into clothes. These sacks often became the undergarments for the ladies or children—not the dainty underwear used by many today but strong and durable. And a type of harness to hold on the clothes could be fashioned from sacks. Some of the fancy grain bags were made into dresses or aprons. This was a lovely fabric.
Often men had flat tires with their cars, and when the fixing was long gone, and there were old inner tubes, we made garters by cutting a round from the inner tube. We wore these garters to hold up our stockings. In winter we wore yarn stockings, of wool from our own sheep. In warm weather we wore cotton stockings, long before we knew about pantyhose. Our quilts were often homemade from clothes that seemed beyond use. The womenfolk would cut the fabric in squares or other shapes. These were put together for a patchwork quilt. Some had batting. We used the sheet-style blankets instead of sheets because they were warmer for the cold winters.
Because we had our own garden produce and local seasonal fruit to can, the glass jars were recycled and used year after year. We used the jar rubbers to take care of needs between times, such as putting the milk or cream into the wooden pail in the sink under the flowing water from the spring. Or for Jell-o etc.
When I was a child there were not as many newspapers available as now, and there was no problem of disposing of them. Newspapers and any catalogs we could get had their uses. Sometimes in the outhouse the catalogs were used instead of tissue. Some papers were used to supplement the roughage for feeding the hens—and, we hoped, to stop them from eating eggs or pecking one another. There were few coloring books for entertaining the children, so it was fun to cut the pictures of a family out of a catalog and let that be our family of fancy. We had as many things to add to our play as we could find pictured in the catalogs.
The ways we recycled things at Hillmount Farms are too many to list. We also used wood ashes in the outhouse to cut the odor as well as in making the lye for soap making. Men usually had a shaving mug and shaving soap, so we had no aerosol cans for disposal. Sometimes we used salt and soda for cleaning the teeth, not toothpaste from tubes. We ate little candy except at Christmas, and then from bulk purchases, so no candy wrappers were wasted. Eggs shells were pounded or crushed to feed to the hens, supplementing the crushed oyster shells.
We bought many things in bulk, so there was not much to throw away. We didn’t have all the individual wrapping and packaging now so hard to remove unless with shears. Games were often the home-style type. They were made in the playing. We didn’t have a lot of expensive boxed games soon destroyed by carelessness. When boxed products had been opened, we children used the boxes to set up our play store. We enjoyed many hours in those play stores and learned lessons in buying and selling. At our banquets there were real flowers, especially in the spring and summer. We dried some kinds of flowers and saved them for later. Herbs were cut and dried and used in winter for various home needs. Sumac bobs, or blossoms, were used to make cough syrups. Catnip and peppermint were dried for treating many ailments. Mosses were put in a dish and left on the dish drain board to add a sign of the season.
Before detergents came into use, we saved dishwater for the pigs, to go with their meal or middlings. Corncobs were used to smoke meat, mostly pork. The only good use for tobacco was to put it in a metal barrel with the winter clothes to discourage the moths. To discourage mosquitoes and black flies we would make a smudge—build a little fire in the bottom of a bucket, or several buckets, and when the smudge started to blaze up we would add grass to make more smudge. You would keep adding more as the evening wore on if you wanted to sit on the front porch.
Many weeds from the garden were good to eat, including pigweed, red root, red dock, and others. From the fields we ate dandelions, cowslips, and the peppertop that grows near streams. In spring, we ate the little onion-type part of the cattails, and, as the year went on, many parts of the cattails are good. Cattails are a survival food.
Most of our bread was made on the farm. Usually we ate it all, but leftover slices went into bread pudding or made crumbs but not for stuffing. We never had a turkey when I was still in the home. We didn’t raise turkeys. But we had hens, and we usually boiled the chicken or hen, and then fried it down in butter, or put it in a pan and roasted it in the oven. Mama usually saved the boiling stock from the hen to make hot dumplings, which she preferred over making biscuits.
Little of anything was wasted. The animals ate the potato peelings. The hogs and young stock had their share of the separated milk. Skim milk was good for animals and people. Much of it was allowed to clabber, and then we made it into pot or cottage cheese. We either set the pan on the back of the wood stove to heat slowly, or we poured hot water over it. We ate lots of it. Some of our cream went to Fairmount Creamery, Rochester, but we had what we wanted to eat for sour cream for our potatoes or whipped cream for our desserts. Mama used sour cream to make some wonderful food, hot biscuits, or desserts. Rinsings from the syrup pans and dishes were saved to make foods or for vinegar. Because syrup was plentiful, Mama made many delicious desserts using maple syrup or the maple sugar.
The few cans we used at Hillmount Farms were recycled for starting seeds or transplanting plants. We used some cans to make plungers for washing clothes. We used cans for toys or for bells, by adding a bolt or nut so they rang. Old felt hats became pen wipers when cut up. Coats could be turned and made to look like new. Hats could be remodeled. Socks and stockings were mended. Patches were put on dresses and men’s pants. Cardboard from the Shredded Wheat box became a motto as we printed a Bible verse on it, with a Sunday School card picture at one side. Tops of cocoa cans were cut off and painted to make another kind of motto with a Bible verse.
Reverend Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen wrote these essays as a part of her 1997 book Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack Farmer, about life on a farm in Baker’s Mills in Johnsburg, NY in the early 20th century. Selections from the book are published here with the permission of the Allen family. Special thanks to Kjerstia Allen, Ed Zahniser, Evelyn Schaefer Greene, and Jan Reelitz for making this available for publication. To order a copy of Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack Farmer, send $10 to Kjerstia Allen, PO Box 47, Bakers Mills, NY 12811.