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“Mom, these berries taste iffy,” Wyatt said of the strawberries that were starting to soften in the fridge.
“That’s okay, I’ll make them into a smoothie,” I said.
“Mom!,” Wyatt admonished.
“What you are witnessing is a new generation of Depression parent,” I explained.
My mom was a Depression-era mom: saving string in a ball, reusing aluminum foil, recycling boxes Christmas after Christmas. My dad worked at the Ford Rouge plant, located at the confluence of the Rouge and Detroit Rivers. The weekly employee newspaper was the Rouge News, which in its heyday had a circulation of nearly 90,000. The women’s section had a column called “Cutting Corners,” which featured the household tips of wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of Ford employees.
Eventually, the hints were collected in a book. My mom punched a hole in her copy and hung it from a string on a hook by the kitchen sink. I keep the book in the same place in my house today. The cover is gone and so is the copyright date, but it’s from the 1950s, judging by the artwork in the book.
Don’t Throw Away That Pickle Juice
Cleaning a lampshade? Removing a stain from a felt hat? Fixing a cracked vase? The Ford housewives had a better idea. When something wore out, they couldn’t take the car and run out to Wal-Mart and buy another one. Even if they had a second car, or a Wal-Mart, their Depression-era sensibilities wouldn’t have permitted them the extravagance.
Some hints from the cooking section:
• When you have emptied your catsup bottle, rinse it with a bit of vinegar and use this in your dressing for salad, This is especially good when added to French dressing, says Mrs. Gene Peron.
• Mrs. James Ward has a helpful hint concerning burnt toast. Instead of throwing it away or scraping it with a knife, try rubbing it on a grater. The burnt spots will disappear and so will the burnt flavor.
• Sandra Wenner suggests saving the waxed bags in which gelatin and puddings are packaged. She says they make handy leak-proof containers for lunch box pickles or other juicy foods.
• Mrs. Ralph Campbell says she never throws the sweet pickle juice away when the pickles have been eaten. She uses the vinegar juice in mayonnaise for potato and vegetable salads. It adds zest to the salads and also helps to save on mayonnaise.
Remnants of Gracious Living
The book publishes the household hints exactly as they appeared in the Rouge News, with the household address and the division in which the husband (or son or brother) worked. Today, some of those addresses are more than likely vacant. For that matter, entire neighborhoods of Detroit are gone. This book provides a glimpse of Detroit as a city of prosperity and gracious living, with marquisette curtains and embroidered dresser scarves and gleaming mahogany furniture. (Mrs. M.J. Polakowski cleaned hers with cold tea to keep it looking new.)
I realize that not all women in the 1950s lived the life of June Cleaver or Donna Reed. Abuse and addiction were closeted, abuse considered the husband’s prerogative, addiction stifled by stigma. Some women must have been bored silly, wanting to be the breadwinners instead of waxing book covers to make them easier to dust. But what these women did was important. They were the ultimate multitaskers, the first frugalistas, the forerunners of Martha Stewart.
Today the Ford Rouge plant is the Ford Rouge Center. It comprises 600 acres instead of 2,000 and employs about 6,000 people instead of its zenith of 100,000. Its eco-friendly architecture includes a green roof. The Ford housewives would undoubtedly approve of such thriftiness. They’d also agree that iffy strawberries make spiffy smoothies.
What frugalities do we practice today that will make our kids and grandkids say, “Can you BELIEVE they did that?”