Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Repurposing

“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!

A spray-painted Band-Aids box used for crayons

A spray-painted Band-Aids box used for crayons

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?


16 thoughts on “Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Repurposing

  1. I made my own Barbie clothes from scraps of slips and clothing. My family could not afford to buy them therefore it lead me to learn to sew.

  2. I remember so many of the things you mentioned. My grandparents reused so many things. The scraps and coffee grounds all went in the garden. They made a game out of crushing cans for us kids. The can would be rinsed out and the other end would be taken off and we could stomp on them so they were flat to put in the recycle bin. Loads of baby food jars were filled with screws, nuts and bolts. Stacks of newspaper were used for kitchen scraps or wrapping paper. I actually have all my grandmothers buttons. She took buttons off of old clothes and put them in glass prescription bottles and also the plastic ones later on. She saved lace off of old clothing and ribbon. I have all of that too. When clothes had holes in them she used an iron on patch to mend them I just found a big piece of army green that she used on my grandpas army pants. All food that was grown was canned or frozen. An apple tree in the back yard made countless batches of applesauce and pies and apple fritters. Reused grease made the best friend chicken I have ever had. Grandma would sent grandpa to the store with coupons and ads to only get what was on the list and also a certain amount of dented label less canned goods that would be a surprise when they were opened. Sometimes it was dog food or cat food but she would just put it out for the birds or neighborhood animals. Lots of leftovers made it home with us as kids. And of course in repurposed cool whip containers. I could go on and on. I have these things instilled in me and I do my best to reuse things also. I will never be as good as they were but I sure do my best. Also tell your wife I made those wreaths with tissue paper and coat hangers too!!!!!! Thanks for sharing all your memories.

    • Eileen, thank you for sharing your own family memories. These were wonderful–yes, I do remember crushing cans! And I passed along your comment about the wreaths to my wife.

  3. Who ever threw food away? It was simply NOT heard of! I remember my mom making a dinner that we could and would have leftovers from, and then we simply used the leftovers to create a new meal. My mom designed and hand sewed clothes for my Barbie when I was small, and I learned to hand stitch from watching her and helping to make them too. How many people hand sew anything anymore? We had no sewing machine for many years, so when my dad bought mom one when I was 19 or 20, it was a big deal. I sewed clothes for myself while I was in college and after. From mom I learned how to “design” a top or skirt or costume. I recycled/reused old clothes and repurposed them into new outfits. Money was never in abundance, and we all learned to use what we had, and to be happy with what we could make. I am still “remaking” leftovers into new meals, but I haven’t sewn in a while. Looks like I should get started again. Thanks, Bob, for the blog. I haven’t thought about some of this in years, but it is still part of me. And I hadn’t heard Volunteers of America anywhere in decades.

    • I think part of this blog is an effort to understand some of the values and ways of looking at life that are a part of me as well. In recent years, I’ve come to believe they shape me more than I am conscious of. Someone has said that life is lived forward but understood backward. Thanks so much for sharing your own memories!

  4. I loved reading the comments above. Our house had an actual place for storing an ironing board in the wall in the kitchen but my Mom never used it so my Dad built shelves in the space. The shelves were narrow and just the right size for old Band-Aids boxes and small baby food jars. My mom had every kind of item stored in those band-aid boxes and jars – from nuts and bolts to sewing items. I still have all the buttons saved from my grandmother and my husbands grandmother, and I have the sewing stool that opens its lid and holds all my my mom’s sewing threads and needles and pins. (whenever a button is missing on a shirt I always have a spare). I also still have a band-aid box with name tape in it which my mother used to sew into my clothes so they wouldn’t get lost. My husband still has me save every glass jar for his shop in the garage, and we still have old cigar boxes holding a collection of pins. I can’t seem to get rid of them. Recycling is an art form that should never get old.

    • Thank you for sharing about this! Your last comment is one I really like–“recycling is an art form that should never get old.” Yes, my dad used to use baby food jars for all his nuts, bolts, nails and more.

  5. I grew up in two small towns in Illinois and have the same memories–my parents were in high school when the Depression hit, but both had frugal, saving parents even in childhood. I had play clothes made from feed sacks; Halloween masks were home made from brown grocery bags; bread pudding was a favorite dessert; garbage was buried in the garden; our blankets were my dad’s WWII issue, as were some of my brother’s clothes; new shoes were an appropriate Christmas gift, as were home sewn doll clothes made by my mother; I never had a cigar box in my school desk, but many kids did. Thanks–great memories.

  6. Oh wow! Such ,memories. My Nana taught me to sew with scraps of material. I made all of my dolls clothes. When I got older,I made my own clothes. Nana would give us girls her old purses and hats , and we played dress up. We saved every jar,and plastic tub,twisty ties, and rubber bands,because you never knew when they would come in handy. We used the net bags that oranges came in,to collect and save bits of soap left over from bath bars. All of our broken crayons went in a coffee can. I still have the very can of crayons that my dad and aunts and uncles used when they were children, I used them,my children used them,and my grandchildren use them still.. Nana would send us to Sparkle market every week to return pop bottles. We also used cigar boxes for everything we treasured,marbles and stones,pennies and half dollars,and trinkets of all kinds.I still have Papa’s jar of nails and nuts and bolts,it is under my kitchen sink. We reused everything. Nana used to say, ” I have done so much ,with so little, for so long, that I can anything with nothing”.I have her sewing box too.. Some of the items in her box are at least 75 years old if not older.. So many wonderful memories attached to these humble items.. They were used out of neccesity,but used with so much love… 😉 xoxoxo

  7. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Review Part Two « Bob on Books

  8. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Traditions « Bob on Books

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