Henry Harrington, Recycling the Old Fashioned Way

The following excerpts are from a long article written by Henry Harrington especially to show us how recycling used to work in the years of the great Depression.

It is a very special article, questioning many of today’s values and education system among other things.  I have chosen a few pieces that can be fitted in here to give you the flavour of it. He covered a far wider range of skills, and topics. 


At the time I’m writing about, the country had gone through the Depression years, and was then coming up to World War II. No one had any money to spare for anything that wasn’t essential to life, but they didn’t get around looking glum, they worked for long hours for very little rewards, never wasted anything that they could see a use for, and if they didn’t have a use for it they stored it away until they found a use for it…

..They did not have great amounts of tools to work with but those they had were kept in good repair and were considered treasures, and you dare not touch anything in their workshops unless you put it back exactly where you picked it up from.

They worked hard for little rewards and few pleasures compared to today, and in general they were happy people…

Everyone grew a garden, and if they had excess of some vegetables they took it to their country neighbours as they went to town for their monthly shopping, most times the neighbours had something in their garden they were happy to swap for what was being given to them…

…Also everyone had their own varieties of vegetables which they treasured very much and saved seed from them regularly. Seed was another commodity that was swapped around when ever they went out and met new neighbours. When you lived quite a distance from your nearest neighbour you could seed anything in your garden you wanted to without fear of hybridization. But when your neighbours were just over the fence it was a different story. It all had to be planned out so that seed crops weren’t ruined by hybridization and decisions were made for one to seed their crop this year and the others to seed theirs the following year. This kept the seed pure, and knowing gardeners of those times, they grew several colours of carrots each year for the table but only one variety was allowed to seed. This kept our heritage varieties of vegetables pure for hundreds of thousands of years, just a little co operation between neighbours!…..

…another use for the long neck beer bottle was for jam jars. In those days there weren’t any jam jars as we know them today. They used to shape a piece of number 8 fencing wire to fit around the widest part of the neck of the bottle, then heat the wire up and then put it around the bottle to heat it up and then put the bottle into a bucket of cold water and snap the neck, cut cleanly off the bottle. Next a file was used to remove the sharp edges off it and you had a jam jar, pickle jar or whatever…the pantry shelves were lined with these and another piece of shelving timber was put on top of them to keep mice out. That piece of wire used to cut the tops off was a prized possession in the workshop, and no one dared touch it, for by keeping that piece all the bottles were cut at the same place and all turned out exactly the same height which meant that the piece of timber on top of them fitted snuggly and kept the mice out,

…..As there wasn’t refrigeration in those days, it was difficult to keep meat, so when a sheep was killed some meat went to their neighbours, who returned the favour when they killed one. Some of the meat was pickled in a large stone crock with salt and water, and used when nothing else was available.

Everyone kept fowl for eggs and meat and when there was a shortage of meat one of the fowls lost it’s head and ended up in the cooking pot. Most families reared their own chickens, and as half of a batch of chickens could be expected to be roosters there was a never ending supply of meat. At times there were excess roosters, these were fattened up and killed, pickled for future use. The same went for ducks which are delicious pickled. Geese were also kept out on the farms and were another source of meat. The goslings were at their best about Easter time and were often taken alive to friends in town as an Easter present which were very much appreciated. The breeding geese were put back onto their own territory and the goslings were shifted closer to where they could be easily caught when needed.

A pig was usually kept over the summer months when there was skim milk to feed it and Jerusalem artichokes grown to feed it early winter before it was killed for bacon and ham. Most people cured their own hams and bacon with salt, sugar and a little saltpeter. This kept well and was used all through the year until another pig was killed. The ham and bacon were hung up in an airy place until needed…..

…The elder woman of the district had a good knowledge of home remedies to use when you couldn’t get a doctor, and they freely passed it down through the generations so their skills were kept available to the whole district. …. District gatherings were a talking time for all this knowledge, as well as giving fresh seed and plants to others, and collecting some new ones to bring home.

…These skills weren’t learned at school or university, they were handed on down through the family, or learnt from friends in the community. When my Great Great Grandparents were born their parents weren’t capable of signing the birth certificate or even to read it. Even though they were illiterate, they knew how to do everything necessary to be good managers and thrifty people who could repair or make their own clothes and footwear, erect fences, build their own houses, and had a good knowledge of managing livestock. Most of them were very observant, and could detect stock health problems before they became a real problem…I sometimes feel that the trait to be observant has been bred out of a lot of today’s stockmen….

Today we live in a disposable world, and even though we recycle what we can, our waste (per head) is terrific in comparison to seventy years ago. I feel that when everything was made to last just a short time, then buy a new one, we took a step backwards in passing our knowledge down to future generations, and this to a degree has been the downfall of society as I knew then.

Henry Harrington