Learning About Going Green From the Depression Generation


Today, it’s become popular to “go green” by recycling, avoiding the use of chemicals, and generally living in a manner that is more aware of and less harsh on the environment. One woman , Laura Vanderkam, shares what she learned about being environmentally conscious from another generation. I guess we all have a thing or two to learn from them.

It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Laura Vanderkam agrees. She studied the lives of people who lived through the Great Depression. What she found was that because they were forced to live on an extremely limited budget, they actually lived “greener” than we do. Vanderkam tells stories from the lives of women from the Depression generation. Each story offers a little practical nugget of “green advice.

Reuse. In her memoir, My Flint Hills Childhood, eighty-five year old Gail Lee Martin wrote….

“we traded sacks with our neighbors and relatives until we had the required yardage for dresses.”

This is what her family did simply because it was necessary, not because they read about the importance of reusing material. Vanderkam makes the point that in our day and age, we think we’ve really helped the environment when we do something like buy organic pajamas. That’s nothing compared to using potato sacks as dresses!

Recycle. Louise Lovison, age 79, called Chicago her home in the 1930’s. Her family was also motivated by saving money:

“there were chemicals to use for housecleaning, but who could afford them?”

What did they do? They threw leftover pieces of soap in nets, used vinegar instead of bleach, reused the water from cooking potatoes for starch and even recycled the laundry water for watering the plants. I guess they didn’t need all the books, speeches, and websites we now have to teach us how to be more environmentally friendly!

Recycle and Reuse. Leah Ingram tells her story in her soon to be published book called, Suddenly Frugal. Also from a family trying to survive during the Great Depression, she collected cloth to use as rags. She also did not let anything in her kitchen go to waste: drawer organizers were former Velveeta cheese boxes and drinking glasses started out as jelly jars.

The stories of the families from that era are both sad and inspiring. I’d like to think that we don’t need things to be financially stressful in order to be as smart about our environment and our home as was the Depression generation. In reality, the expression “necessity is the mother of invention” rings true. I believe that in our current economic environment many families are looking for (and finding) ways to reuse and recycle more as a result of financial pressure than any desire to be “green.”

In our household, what motivates us includes finances, health, and safety. So using vinegar in place of bleach may save us money, but with a newborn baby at home we want as few toxins in the air as possible. So regardless of any other factors, vinegar has become a staple in our home. I know that so many more families, motivated by a multitude of reasons, are also making changes of their own.

What I’d like to believe, though, is that as we move out of the economic crisis, what remains in our mindset and lifestyle is a smarter, greener, safer environment in our homes.

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