I think it is safe to say, that most of our parents were either born before or during The Great Depression. So that you aren’t confused, I am talking about the Depression
that started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s, not the one that feels like its going on today! I remember how my parents would often refer to that time period and how difficult things were for them. In fact, it was an annual tradition for my Uncle Lou to tell us that Santa Claus died during the depression or that he shot the Easter Bunny for Sunday dinner!
As a result of either their parents or their own Depression experiences, my parents were
“green” before being “green” was considered cool. Of course, the reason for their recycling efforts was due to thriftiness as opposed to a concern for the environment and saving our planet. As an example:
- Shortly after the milkman became extinct, we began buying our milk in ½ gallon cartons that were made of heavy paper that was coated with wax on the inside and outside. The ones I would get for Mom at Kroger’s on Texas Ave. were sold as a pair of ½ gallon cartons joined together at the top with a cardboard strip with two carrying holes in it. Whenever the cartons were empty, my dad would rinse them out and save them in the garage for use during the summer. We had a built in barbeque pit in the backyard that we used quite a lot during the summer. Dad would take the milk cartons and fill them with charcoal briquettes and then place about three of them in the barbeque. He’d then just simply light the carton and allow them to act as kindling for the charcoal inside. By the time the cartons burned up, the charcoal was red hot and ready for grilling!
- During the holidays, a carton or two would be put to good use as a form for a holiday candle. It would be filled with crushed ice cubes laced around a long wick. Hot melted wax would then be poured into the carton. The wax would seep down through the ice and ultimately form a very pretty square candle with a lacy kind of pattern. We’d cut away the carton, pour out the melted ice and let it dry out.
- Of course, my Grandpa had quite a different use for the cartons. He had a
home at 3334 Duquesne Ave. in West Mifflin. He would spend a great deal of
time sitting in his rocking chair on his porch just watching cards go by. Ol’
George chewed mail pouch chewin’ tobacco, and by his side was his spittoon
which, in a former life, was a milk carton. Waste not, want not!
- When most of us were kids growing up in Duquesne, the question “paper or plastic” wasn’t part of the normal dialog that went on at grocery stores. Purchases were normally packed into brown paper bags or into corrugated boxes in which the products were originally packed. I’m sure the “recycling” that occurred to the bags was not unique to Duquesne alone, but since they’re our memories, who cares!
- I’m sure you all made use of the brown bags to make school bookcovers to protect your text books. It was always the first thing Mom and I would do at the start of the school year at Holy Name. Since the cost to attend Holy Name School was only a $5 “book bill,” it was very important to protect the textbooks as much as possible. During the first few days of each school year, our books never looked better. Couple that with the fact that we were allowed to buy a brand new Pee Chee folder, boy, were we stylin’! Usually, within a week or two, our pristine book covers began to show the ravages of wear from being stuffed into bookbags and desks, as well as being the target of countless doodles. By Christmas vacation, our book covers began to rival an Andy Worhal or Jason Pollack work of art! Along with taking down the Christmas tree and ringing in the New Year, my Christmas vacation usually ended with having to recover my school books with new brown paper bag bookcovers! Of course, I preferred to think of them as blank canvas ready for my masterpieces!
- Back when I was growing up, if someone mentioned a “hefty bag,” you’d probably think they might be talking about a rather plump cranky old woman. Paper grocery bags were everyone’s garbage can. I’m sure all of your homes used them as trash can liners or just stand-alone trash containers. Some habits die hard, and as a result of those habits, the paper grocery bag is still hanging around in grocery stores around Duquesne. I live in Maryland, and you couldn’t find a paper sack if your life depended on it. Shoppers in Duquesne however, can usually be seen exiting the stores carrying a plastic grocery bag by its handles AND inside each one, is a paper grocery bag being used as a liner. So much for saving the planet!
- I clearly recall one of my favorite smells growing up was the wonderful aroma whenever my mom would open a fresh can of coffee. She and my dad were Maxwell House devotees. I remember how the cans of coffee came with little keys attached to the top that you would have to breakoff and use to unwind a strip of tin around the lid to open the can. Of course, the edges of that tin strip were so sharp that that could probably have cut through a 2 x 4!
- Once a coffee can was emptied, it would instantly be put into use in some way. Often, workbenches would be lined with old coffee cans used to store miscellaneous nuts, bolts, nails and screws. Cans would be filled with turpentine and brushes would soak in them in order to dissolve the oil based paint they had just be used to apply. Our neighbors, Adam and Eve Oravich would use the cans to nurture tomato plants prior to the planting season. And in the absence of decorative units, the cans would sometimes serve as kitchen storage canisters for flour or sugar.
- I recall my Aunt Helen and Aunt Peggy using an empty coffee can to hold Christmas cards. They would open both ends of the can and then wrap brightly colored yarn vertically round the can until it was completely covered. Then, as cards were received they would insert the cards around one of the strands of yarn until the entire can was full.
Truly, our parents were quite resourceful and very diligent about repurposing items:
- On our patio, my dad had made an outdoor floor lamp out of spare auto parts and
- When my father was forced to close his garage on 1st Street during Duquesne’s Redevelopment, Dad took the overhead garage doors from the building and remade them to fit the garage at our home on Thomas Street.
- Today, in order to accomplish the simple act of dusting furniture, there are dozens of products that are made. Swiffer “this”, “micro” that, etc., etc. I am sure none of us will forget the humiliation we felt as our mothers would pull out our “tightie whities” that we had outgrown and use them to clean windows in front of God and the world! Of course, Windex was out of the question when there was vinegar and water to use.
- The life cycle of a simple coffee cup was always extended for hunkys as well. After it lost its usefulness as a coffee cup due to a broken handle or to a chip that could sever your upper lip, the cup did not get discarded. I think every one of my aunts had a broken cup in the back of their fridge that was used to collect bacon grease and any other frying “runoff” that occurred.
- Speaking of bacon grease, Mom would use the grease for cooking any number of wonderful things. Today of course, we all understand the dangers of cholesterol, and we take precautions. Bacon grease is out of the question to save or use, but oh, it was SO good!
I am sure I have only touched the surface of our parent’s resourcefulness, and I hope you have even more examples of “hunky recycling” to share with us. Please add your comments and your own recollections, we all love reading them.
In the meantime, I’m heading back to Duquesne in a few days. Be sure to let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to snap a photo of while I’m there. I will be sure to
fill you in on all of the treasures I uncover!!
Jim, My Mom also used to make candles from milk cartons. She made the ones you talked about but she also made solid candles and when they set and were cut out of the carton, she would “whip up” some more wax and ice the candle with the “fluffy” wax. Sometimes she would sprinkle confetti or little metal-like sequins or the like on the “wet” candle to add extra interest to the candles. We had a pot that was reserved just for melting wax. Her favorite color to make was a pale green just for Christmas. She even used perfume or the oil in the little bottles that were for food – like the anise she used for cookies, Later they started making fragrances just for candles and she loved them.
Also you forgot about using a tuna fish can with the bottom cut off to make biscuits because “why would I want to buy a biscuit cutter when I can have a new one every time we use a can of tuna?” Why, indeed.
Grandpa sitting on the porch watching cars go by reminds of the Sundays at Duquesne ave. We started the day of picking up Grandpa & our Aunts for church. Grandpa always picked a flower as he came down the driveway to give to my mother. After church we returned back to “the House” to eat lunch, Dads & Uncles had a beer (or 2!!). Grandpa used to try to give me some Mail Pouch but I settled for Ginger Snaps instead. Sometimes He broke out harminica (I still have one) & all the brothers sat on the porch drinking until the Ladies prepared lunch or supper. It was a very special time when when Uncle Mike & family or Uncle John came in from out of town. Thanks for the memories & enjoying your stuff.
My parents still have one of those coffee cans with the yarn wrapped around it for Christmas Cards. It’s almost as old as I am. My mom still stores flour in an old coffee can. My mom’s favorite use for the paper shopping bags, even today, is to dump the french fries in after they come out of the fryer, add salt and shake to take the grease off. Those are still the best french fries in the world!
Jimmy, I laughed out loud several times while I was reading this blog. Loved it! I can just see Aunt Peggy and Aunt Helen wrapping the coffee can with yarn! And I remember my father’s workshop with the lined up coffee cans filled with nails and screws. I had totally forgotten about the wax lined milk cartons – until you described them in detail. Now I remember them clearly!! But I don’t think that my parents ever did anything resourceful with them – I know my mother didn’t!!! 🙂 Fun memories! As always, thanks for putting so much time into this. I look forward to your blog!
And just to add to the coffee can story, my Grandmother also saved the coffee grounds. They would be thrown into her garden. She said they made the soil richer and broke up the clay soil in the yard. Nothing was wasted!! When paper towels came into use, my Mom would even dry them and reuse them if they were only wet from water.
This one may be hard to beat. My grandmother who lived on Library Place in Duquesne would wash the meat packing paper that came from the butcher shop, dry it out, iron it (!) and reuse it to package whatever. Nothing was wasted. My parents always saved grocery bags, refolded them as neatly as the could, and reuse them. I still do! I’ve never purchased garbage bags until only recently, always re-using old plastic shopping bags from Giant Eagle that my Dad kept for a long time. Also, while paper plates and plastic knives and forks were meant to be thrown away after one use, not in my family. We would wash them to be used until they actually broke into pieces. Paper plates, unless terribly stained or torn, would be hand washed…ready for another outdoor picnic. Ahhh, the good ol’ days.
Seeing the coffee can reminded me of something; your father was a mechanic, Jim, and probably had a specialized tool, but my father kept one of the “keys” handy for another purpose. Remember tires with inner tubes? Back in the day, all cars had them. If/when your tire went flat, it was common to remove the wheel, completely deflate the tire, bust it off the rim, (not as hard as it sounds because tire with tubes didn’t need a tightly sealed bead with the rim because a fully inflated, sealed tube held the air) , change the tube, and roll the tire to the closest service station, pump it up and remount the tire. That key? Well, if you cut in half just right, you used it to unscrew the valve on the tube in about 2 seconds. Otherwise, you held a small screwdriver on the valve to deflate the tire and that took much longer. And now the FUN: to this day, nobody has 2 spares, so it was not uncommon to seek revenge on the neighborhood grouch by using those ‘keys’ 4 hooligans, two hooligans & 2 lookouts, could QUICKLY deflate a tire on both sides of the vehicle! If it was driver front and passenger rear, that car wasn’t going anywhere soon….
Or maybe this is just another one of those urban myths we think we think we remember hearing about.
Lou, it appears that you know the details of this heist a bit too well! I think out check out the wanted posters at City Hall when I’m in Duqugesne this week! LOL