Use it up, wear it out

Growing up and living in my ancestors’ house has given me bins of memorabilia, a devastated checkbook, and changing perspectives and perceptions of their characters. The “how?” of what they did has often given way to the “why?,” not to mention the “what were they thinking?!”

Like most good early New England families, they routinely made do with what they had or made whatever they needed. That “make it do” mentality is clear throughout this house, and has been passed on through the generations.

Newspapers, for instance, were found providing insulation over the kitchen fireplace (hence the “what were they thinking?!” alarm), as well as helping to level part of the kitchen floor. Clippings of varying but indeterminate dates found themselves glued permanently into the old business ledger from the mid-1800s.

Generations later my great-grandmother Nellie rejected the old outhouses and put in the first indoor bathroom in our neighborhood. When my grandmother Winifred later replaced the original bathtub with a new, more comfortable clawfoot tub, my grandfather Rex in a very dry year hauled the old tub out to the pasture and placed it at the cows’ spring for their drinking ease.

I’ve often used an old rake to support plants in my vegetable garden…

This tradition of repurposing is apparently very strong in these last three parental generations, partly because of a “depression-era mentality.” I’ve often used an old rake to support plants in my vegetable garden, used pliable cattail stalks to tie up bundles of decorative cattails, or wrapped grape vines into wreaths, just as Grandmother Winifred did. Grandfather Rex used an old tube tire to hold water to catch sparks from the old grinding wheel. Old cultivators, side delivery rakes, and wagon wheels became planters or supports for trees growing up through them.

While we worked on This Old House, I discovered my husband straightening rusty old nails and saving old screws, just as his grandfather had taught him, and just as my father and grandfather had done. (I have yet to break him of that habit, no matter how many new nails and screws I buy!)

I think my father, Ambrose, was the most creative relative in his recycling efforts. He painted old tires and used them as planters (later repurposed as fill for the trash truck). Dad bolted an old Wisconsin engine to a trailer and used that instead of the pulley attached to the power takeoff on the tractor to start the wood saw. He could repair the water pump in the old milk room with Antiphlogistine and rags. When we had to replace our mailbox, we discovered that Dad had fashioned the post and brace out of pieces of an auto muffler.

My favorite, though, is Dad’s solution to the need for a new woodshed. He found what he wanted and, with a great deal of pride, placed it to one side of the garage: an old outhouse.

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

24 thoughts on “Use it up, wear it out

  1. Love these. My family has always done the same kind of things. My late husband fixed a muffler on our old car using an old can he cut and wrapped around the hole in the muffler using wire and tape. My mom always saved all the buttons from old clothes before they were cut up for the rag bag, and I continue the habit. My daughter knows she will inherit my button box someday. Worn out old socks make great rags for dusting or cleaning. “Waste not, want not” I always heard.

  2. The tradition of “use it up, wear it out” is still alive in my home even though I’ve added and enjoyed much new technology. I find that I have a very difficult time of it when items begin to accumulate and absolutely must be moved on. One solution has been yard sales in which others can purchase, and hopefully use, the item I am no longer willing to store. And recycling is a blessing since I am not just tossing items out for placement in a landfill. I always thought these ingrained habits were formed because I lived on a family farm where my parents had developed these habits and taught them to me as a result of living through the “Great Depression.” Maybe the history of this practice is much longer than I was aware.

  3. A delightful and perfect commentary for me here in New England, as I am in the midst of a blizzard…love your combo of facts, history, and sense of humor! Thank you.

      1. My husband, who grew up in the south, just pointed out that I should have said “maple syrup on snow” (a childhood treat) because we’re in the midst of a blizzard!

  4. My family may not have been as resourceful as yours, but our version of the expression was, “Make it do, use it up, do without,” which drives my wife, who’s not from New England, crazy.

    1. The entire phrase as I learned it was “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Those words can drive you crazy no matter where you’re from!

  5. The version I always heard was” Use it up,wear it out,make it do,do without” Wonder if Non-New England folks had a similar saying…..

  6. I have a scrapbook much like you describe, clippings of various items, occasionally a little obit or family notice, all pasted firmly onto an old ledger or at least onto pages that had a former life (and I would really like to see what is under there–some of it is handwriting). This from a second great grandmother who grew up in the South, so no New England habits.

  7. In our family the reuse of items was nearly a religious precept. My mother saved every plastic bag and butter tub. It reached its peak when she mailed me a hand knit sweater for one of my kids for Christmas. The sweater was made from yarn from a couple older sweaters, and she wrapped it in a plastic bag which had been recently used to wrap fish she caught for the freezer. I know this because unfortunately the bag had not been thoroughly washed, and bits of fish clinging to it had spoiled. It took a lot of washing to get the rotten fish smell out of the sweater.

  8. Jan’s and my maternal grandmother, Lula McLeod, slowed opening Christmas presents waaay down as she had to smooth, fold and save the wrapping paper from each gift before the next one could be opened.

  9. When my husband helped me clean out my parents’ garage in 2004, he laughed because the coffee can my father saved bent nails in to straighten was still on his workbench. Dad had died in 1988. My husband thought it silly to save nails when they were so cheap to buy. Several years later when my husband died, I cleaned out his work area in the garage and I found a can of bent nails. I remember laughing, but now wish I’d taken a picture of both of the cans. My brother still has the coffee can filled with the nails Dad removed in 1985 when he resided the house — and those I did take a picture of and took a few of as memories.

  10. Many of these made me laugh–especially the sweater that smelled of fish from the plastic bag it was wrapped in! My Norwegian grandfather used to apologize for the gifts he gave, as he had neither the money nor the physical ability to shop. My wedding gift was the remnants of the wedding china from his marriage to my grandmother, which took place July 7, 1907. The china was Limoge, a beautiful pattern with lots of gold. While it wasn’t a complete set, there were probably about 20 pieces, including a soup tureen with lid! Those gifts were infinitely better than something he could have bought me.

    I also remember the opening of gifts on Christmas, one at a time so that the adults could keep lists of what came from whom. That made possible the thank you note we had to write before we could use each gift. To say nothing of smoothing out each piece of paper, folding each ribbon, etc. It still irks me that my family no longer writes thank you notes. But we all do still save the paper, which reappears each year until it’s used on the smallest possible gift.

  11. Funny how things come full circle, and the reuse, repurpose ideas are new again (except for the newspaper insulation over the fireplace – yikes!)

  12. My family saves and reuses a lot of things but one of our more interesting saving habits is saving boxes for gift giving. We are now at the point that some of the boxes are from stores that have been out of business for many years and perhaps the “antique” boxes are worth more than the gift inside. Also no one ever knows what the are getting based on what it says on the outside of the box.

  13. This type of though has always been common among farmers. When something needed to be repaired on the farm, the money was not available so they used “their common sense and fixed fixit.

  14. I love my old button boxes from my Great Aunt and my Mother. If anyone else wants to part with theirs, I’m game. 🙂 I actually do use some embellishing quilted wall hangings. I especially love the non-plastic ones from shells, bone, wood, etc.

  15. Jan I just love all your stories, My Dad taught me how to straighten nails when I was young and I still do to this day. I get enjoyment and pride when I’m able to re-purpose or refurbish something and continue to use it. Growing up next to my grandfathers farm in Aroostook and my father being a carpenter/contractor, I learned many skills that I still use to this day.

  16. Jan, my Dad and Grampa taught me how to hammer bent nails out in the garage by our summer cottage in Antioch, Illinois in the 1950’s, I loved to join them when they were “puttsying” . Still use their tools in my picture frame shop. And over my workbench is a framed sign from that era, “Make it do…” and many jars of old nails, screw eyes, cup hooks…

  17. Living in a roughly 160 year old farmhouse in Vermont I have come across many similar re-uses of items. When we took up the new(er) floor in the kitchen to replace some of the sub-floor we found a vent that had been put in to let damp air escape from the crawl space underneath. It was made from the bottom of an old can with holes punched in it. My favorite though was when I took my truck to be repaired by the local mechanic – an old Vermonter. He had to disconnect the air conditioner and leave a hose unconnected. He plugged the end of the hose with an old sparkplug. It worked.

  18. We recently purchased a home built in 1900, and while stripping away 3 layers of flooring, discovered newspapers under the 3rd layer from November 1964. A treasure for me, as it was the Christmas issue advertising the toys of my youth! While tearing out an exterior wall, a 1948 newspaper was stuffed into the walls as insulation. We have only begun the restoration project, but can’t wait to see what other treasures are buried within the walls.

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