“What does a cigar box have to do with Youngstown?” Someone in a Facebook group where I posted last week’s blog on going back to school asked this question. It’s a good question. Cigar boxes reflect a value of working class people who came through the Depression of the 30s and salvaged everything they could. Why buy a pencil box when dad or an uncle had perfectly good cigar boxes laying around waiting to find a new use? What amazed me after I wrote this post was to find out how many people still had these cigar boxes!
People did this all the time. My wife’s father built a picket fence out of scrap lumber a neighbor was getting rid of. We have spray-painted old Band-Aids boxes (the metal ones with hinged lids) around the house that served as crayon holders when the cardboard boxes they came in wore out after a month. One of them is on a shelf in my garage filled with sockets for a socket wrench. Old tires and a piece of rope tied to a tree limb made a great swing. Or a tire filled with sand made an instant sandbox. Old inner tubes (when tires still had inner tubes) made great floats on trips to the lake.
My dad would pick up a case of Stroh’s beer every couple weeks at the Mahoning Wine Shop. He’d always exchange a case of empties for a new one. Often, I’d buy a bottle of pop at the local Lawson’s and sit beside the building and drink it so that I could go back and get my deposit. Moms had a rag bag of worn clothes to patch jeans or even make patchwork quilts. My wife still regrets that she didn’t get her mom’s button jar. We collected newspaper to take to the Volunteers of America, bagging them up in brown grocery bags or tying them up with twine. We had a separate refuse can for empty metal cans, probably going back to World War II when tin, copper and other metals were in short supply. Somewhere in the 60s we stopped doing this and just threw the stuff in landfills.
Dad was a saver. Old wire, string, pieces of wood, all sorts of nuts, bolts, screws, nails, wrapping paper, cardboard and more. He’d say, “you never know when you might need this.” At Christmas, he would make Christmas trees out of old cardboard from the cleaners (that they would put into folded shirts) and old wrapping paper, he’d poke holes in the cones, put an old string of lights in and make a mini Christmas tree. My wife used to make Christmas wreaths out of coat hangers and tissue paper.
In many of our homes in working class neighborhoods it was a sin to be wasteful. You didn’t throw foil away that could be reused. You didn’t buy something at a store if you could adapt something that was laying around to serve the purpose. You saved coffee grounds and egg shells and vegetable scraps and put them into a compost pile and turned it back into the garden. Who needed fertilizer?
What I think this reflected was growing up in a time of personal and national scarcity. And at a family level, this was never too far away–if you could build a bit of cushion of savings, it might carry you through a strike, a job loss, or an illness. And so you looked for every way you could to economize.
Somewhere along the way, we got careless about all this. Aluminum cans and plastic bottles that could be tossed into the landfill came along. All of a sudden we discovered that we were awash in a sea of trash and using up non-renewable resources. As working class kids, we actually knew better. In recent years we have rediscovered in the mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” the things that were common sense wisdom among our parents and grandparents. It seems to me that this is one of the good things in our Youngstown cultural memory.
How did your family “repurpose” when you were growing up?