RECYCLING, 1940s Version

by Margaret Penner Toews

My mother was ages ahead of her time. She was into recycling fifty-plus years ago, long before the term was ever invented.

She was addicted to bargains. My wise, frugal father would never peel off more than a few dollars for her on their forays into the city. He was not being stingy, only astute. The bargains she found were phenomenal: too-big dark blue flannelette bloomers, pails of raspberry candy dried into a mass that only a chisel and hammer could persuade to separate, or cases of cookies that went “for a song”. (All the neighbours had cookies for weeks!) She would often  spend all the money she had in order to save prodigiously.

Mother also had a keen affinity for auctions. Father had learned that to let Mother loose at an auction sale spelled a domestic situation. Imagine, then, his consternation when, just before leaving Winnipeg one evening, Mother sheepishly confessed that she had gone to some auction rooms while waiting for him. There were “some things” to be loaded.

Silently he followed her directions. Silently he eyed the loot. Silently he heaved it all into the farm trailer in which he had hauled a load of produce to market.  Poor Mother! My Father maintained his tight-lipped stance until after they arrived at home.

At the sight of the dozen or so motley boxes my sisters were verbally exasperated, while my brothers hooted with derision. I alone, the youngest and an exuberant eight-year-old, stood by her–totally delighted–as the booty was explored.

In short order our house looked like a bargain store. Dresses by the dozens were draped over banisters and chairs. Coats of every style, size, and vintage made a mountain on the couch. Seventy pairs of spike-heeled, triple A, outmoded lace-up shoes were dumped on the living room floor. One enormous box of odd plates, platters, pickle dishes, and tea pots was emptied. An over-sized carton of used stockings and another containing corsets for every conceivable girth were shoved into a corner beside the three rocking chairs and an oak chest of drawers. And all for the price of four dollars and some odd cents!

There followed busy days for Mother. The clothes were carefully sorted, washed, and pressed. The best were packed and sent in relief shipments to far-flung countries in need. The more ragged ones were cut into patches. For years Mother never ran out of material to create the crazy-quilts–warm and beautiful–that she sent to various charity centres for distribution.

The coats were dry-cleaned in a tubful of gas outdoors and aired for days in the breezes. Those that were too worn for use were made into car-robes. The best were stowed one late fall day in the back seat of the “Model A”.  My parents (Dad was a minister) went visiting among some poor people who lived some miles from us and by evening all these coats had been happily grabbed up by people they met on their “tour”.

Whenever little girls would come to call, Mother, with the crook of an inviting finger, would take them to a dark closet. There she would give them their pick of high-heeled shoes which which to play dress-up. All of them emerged with a glowing adoration of her.

We bought no dishes for many years. Many became gifts to elated ladies. One of the exquisite teapots was coveted by all her daughters. After fifty-some years a platter still graces a spot of honour in my own china cupboard. All of us gleaned favourite pieces from Mother’s find.

The stockings were washed, cut into strips, and braided into durable oval rugs to groom muddy feet at many  a country door.

The chest of drawers was given to a grateful aunt, replacing the orange-crate cupboards in her bedroom. Much later it was the most favoured piece at her auction, creating a small difficulty among her nine children. They ended up drawing straws.

Two of the rockers–with gorgeous hand-carved engraved designs–were sanded and varnished. For decades they graced our living room in old-fashioned splendour, and later were lovingly bestowed on newlyweds in need of functional furniture. The third one Mother sold for five dollars a few days after her acquisition. The buyer left with a smug look at the bargain he’d driven, a look outdone only by the gleam in Mother’s eye as she handed the money to Father.

Only the corsets were a dud. Dutifully, Mother scrubbed the whole smelly mess in numerous loads in the wringer washer. For days our basement was festooned from end to end with drying corsets, a veritable wilderness of flesh-coloured banners. She offered them for free to various friends in covert sales talk, but to no avail. There is something about used corsets…

One day I hunkered down by the furnace door while Mother systematically snipped off all the garters; she could not bear to see them go to waste. One by one she handed the corsets to me and I tossed them into the lapping flames.  Through the years Mother would, on occasion, whisper in Victorian fashion to women who who came to call, asking if they needed garters. She’d slip a set into their pockets with a smile, but her supply remained largely undented.

Time passed. The homestead was finally sold and an auction held.  “Who’ll make a bid on this box of garters? Dozens of sets of strong metal garters…” the auctioneer called. “Five dollars! Give me five…who’ll give me five?” he rattled apace.

This story was written by my dear friend, Margaret Penner Toews, now deceased, and reprinted here with the permission of her husband, Milton.
It was first published in the July ‘96 issue of Canaquest Friendship Newsletter for Women.

Margaret was a prolific writer.  Her poem books include:
Five Loaves and Two Small Fish; Fly High My Kite (a book of children’s poems); First A Fire; Fourth Watch
Her devotional books:
Through the Scent of Water; Threads from His Hem; The Winds of God

These are all available in the USA from Gospel Publishers, Moundridge, KS
In Canada from Gospel Publishers, Ste. Anne MB


4 thoughts on “RECYCLING, 1940s Version

  1. This may be my favorite MPToews essay ever. (Well, other than the story about touring a mosque in who-knows-where and receiving a cucumber from a Muslim friend with whom she never exchanged a single word.) It leaves me with a tear in one eye and a sparkle of laughter in the other. Thanks for giving me the chance to read it again.


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