The Frugal 50s: Reusing and re-purposing

Jun 18, 2022
Reusing and recycling were big in the 50s. Source: Getty

Being the third daughter of four girls, I knew about living frugally. Dad had a huge veggie garden with fruit trees. We ate most of our vegetables in season. Mum made jam, pickles and preserves from the excess. Neighbours would swap their peaches for our greengages and so nothing was wasted. The roast lamb for Sunday lunch reappeared on Monday night, either cold with salad or fried up as bubble and squeak with the leftover veggies. If any was left over, it made sandwiches for our school lunches. Chooks gave us eggs, and I seem to remember that Mum’s visits to the local Four Square store resulted in a fairly small basket of things like butter, cheese and bread. The butcher next door provided our meat – budget cuts mostly.

But where Mum really excelled was in the clothing department. She was a creative soul, so managed to keep her four girls clothed well. I’m sure most of you remember pleated skirts made of tartan wool. They were attached to a cotton bodice. In order to get the most wear out of them, mum would put a tuck in the bodice which she’d let out each year as we grew. The same skirt would last for years that way. She would unpick woollen jumpers and unravel them into huge skeins of wool. She would get us kids to hold our arms up so she could wind it around. She would then reknit a new jumper or cardigan for one of us kids, or for Dad.

Being the third sister, I had the hand-me-down party dress made from a lacy nylon fabric. Mum would dye them a new colour to give them a new lease of life. By the time I got to wear it, it was a lurid shade of lime green. Hems were let down on frocks, and bed sheets that had worn out in the middle were cut down the middle and sewn back together so the seam was in the middle where the thicker fabric was. The seam was uncomfortable to sleep on, but we didn’t complain.

Dad refurbished our bicycles to be handed on to the next sister in line. We didn’t mind, it was all we knew after all. No plastic swing sets in the yard for us, but a rope and tyre swing gave us hours of fun. Mum sewed doll’s clothes for us to dress our dollies in after they’d been to the ‘doll hospital’ for new wigs and to have their faces repainted after being worn away. She made ‘topsy turvy’ dolls out of scraps of fabric – the doll would be black on one side and white on the other. Flip it upside down and you had a new doll.

Mum went to a millinery class to learn how to make hats, as they were a staple part of a lady’s wardrobe in those days. She made some gorgeous ones. Looking back, we never questioned living this way. All of the families around in our working-class suburb did the same. We were fed, clothed and housed. But, when I look at the heavily laden supermarket trollies of today filled with cardboard boxes of non-food, I find it so sad. The cheap clothing sold in the chain stores, made by slave labour and sent to landfills when not wanted any longer, is sad. I celebrate those of the upcoming generations who are starting to balk at our current throwaway culture. There seems to be a trend now to live more sustainably. What did your family recycle and re-purpose?

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