“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. Throughout our community there seemed to be a quiet competition to see who could be the most thrifty.”
— Mildred Armstrong Kalish, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
I have always been drawn to stories born of survival, because I believe it says so much of what capable creatures humans really are when in an extreme situation. Those who say we have become soft are correct in both observation and concern, but without the pressure cooker of extreme need, it stands to reason how we’ve arrived here.
We live now in the land of plenty, delicious Thanksgiving feasts, a reminder of how lush life can be. Our ancestors who lived through the Great Depression not only knew how to live on scraps, they also prevailed over physical pain with whatever means available.
The author Mildred Armstrong Kalish describes watching her grandfather suffer with a toothache. Knowing he couldn’t spare the time, gasoline, money and energy to go to a dentist in the nearest town, she recalls him climbing a ladder to the uppermost shelf in the kitchen cupboard.
A tiny, square, brown glass bottle with a bright red skull and crossbones was retrieved, the glass stopper removed. A snippet of white cloth was dipped into the carbolic acid. Using a toothpick, her grandfather would touch the solution to the nerve root of his aching tooth. He saved the $4 fee that would have been charged by the dentist for another need.
My grandmother told of using every single bit of an egg, including the membrane inside it for skin cleansing, and as a remedy to draw splinters. A fresh egg could be used on hair to make it shiny. In Kalish’s book, she touches on this, and notes the importance of rinsing with cool water, not warm, or bits of cooked egg would create a challenging mess.
More extreme skin issues could be treated by pulling a red beet from the garden, cutting it in two, using a spoon to scrape bits of the beet, gathering about a tablespoon, then applying it to inflamed skin sores, covering the area with a white cloth bandage made from strips of worn-out bed sheets.
Almost always, the drawing power of the red beet worked overnight to make the problem disappear. If not, a repeat of the entire process usually did the trick. There are surely many who wouldn’t know how to grow a beet, let alone to use it in this way.
For those who wish to criticize the young who wouldn’t even know what a beet is, we need to remember it is not their fault. We don’t know all the hundreds of things we don’t know. So much has been lost over the march of civilization, through no fault of today’s populace.
Being grounded to the earth, whether through the planting of a small garden or hundreds of acres of crops, is often seated in where we were born, and who influenced our early years. I consider it an extremely lucky break, one over which I had no sway and no say.
From my heart to your home, I wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.
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