Ancestors, Legends & Time

You didn't notice you were poor because everybody else was

Jeanne Newby

Going through some old files, I loved reading the memories of Wilfred Smith. He had so many interesting items to share. I singled out the following story to share again. Many readers have told me, “We were poor but didn’t know it.” Or, “We didn’t realize we were poor because everyone seemed to be in the same situation.”

Wilfred Smith shared his memories of living through the Great Depression and how a large family “made do” during a time when almost everyone was in the same boat.

What do you do with your dishwater? Throw it down the sink? Back in the ’30s, if we had a hog, we saved the greasy dishwater and fed the sudsy mixture to the hog or pigs; they relished it! We also would throw a hunk of coal over the fence to the hog, and it was quickly devoured. Evidently, there is a chemical in the raw coal that swine need and savor.

Rain water was saved to bathe in, wash clothes on Monday morning and wash the ladies’ hair. Bath water was saved until at least three Smith boys used it. Good, fresh water was scarce at our house because we had to buy water off of Jack Gibbon’s water wagon once a week. He would deliver the water to the house (on North Main Street just past the railroad tracks across from Independent Gravel Company) and put it in the three barrels sunk in the ground and covered with upside down wash tubs in our front yard.

Rags were saved and Mom used them to patch our clothes, make quilt tops and the really warn out rags were put in a smudge pot and lit to make a lazy smoke to ward off skeeters in the summer time, when we sat on the front porch in the evenings. You always wanted to sit upwind from the smoke.

Old wheels, car tires and iron rims were used by us boys for toys, pushing them with a stick, metal rod or our bare hands down the road. We used old skate wheels to make our own wooden scooters. We saved evaporated milk cans to stomp on with our shoe heels so they would cling to our feet, and we walked around making clanking noise.

We were always in need of old boards and scraps of wood to use for repairs and kindling for the wood burning heat stove in the kitchen. Every time mom cooked a meal she had to start a fire unless she was lucky and had embers left from the previous fire. That was just one of the evening chores for us boys, making sure Dad had wood and kindling for the heat stove and Mom had them for the kitchen cook stove. Wooden shingles made the best kindling as it split easily with a hatchet and was quickly ignited with a kitchen match and some paper. Behind Mom’s kitchen stove was a huge wooden box for the wood and it seemed it was always near empty. In the winter time if it was very cold, in the morning there would be ice frozen in the water bucket on the wash stand in the kitchen.

We picked up and saved nuts, bolts, washers, nails and screws as we came across them. They could always be reused. I still, 75 years later, do that even though I’ll never use or need them now … force of habit … waste not, want not!

Mom had a jar of stick (straight) pins, safety pins, and bobbie pins she saved, and they were used frequently. All members of our family knew where that jar was because if you didn’t have time to sew, you could always have a quick fix with a pin.

I wonder how many people today know what is a darning egg? It was a glass or stone shaped like an egg that women used to darn socks back in the good ole days. Back when we used to repair the sock instead of just throwing it away. The darning egg would go inside of the sock to allow you to stitch the hole without going through to the opposite side of the sock. If you didn’t have a darning egg, you could use a porcelain door knob (which was also used to trick a sitting hen when you took egg from the nest.)

In Dad’s used lumber business when he tore down an old house with plaster walls, he would shovel up and save some of the plaster, mash it up into a powder and spread it out over the garden and hot bed. It had lime in it and was especially good on his big onion patch. We saved a lot of garden seeds to use year after year. I still save seeds of a certain strain of pumpkin. I got my original seeds from my father-in-law, who got them from his father, etc, etc. I’ve only seen pumpkins like this two times in my lifetime, once in New Castle, Indiana and once in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. This pumpkin is special to me and makes the best flavored pies you ever ate. My youngest son now plants them and keeps the strain going.

Do you save and use the cotton that comes in some pill bottles? I still do, and I have never had to buy cotton.

Whenever I see the movie “Grapes of Wrath” it reminds me of the way things were when I was growing up during the Depression.

Thank you so much, Wilfred, for sharing your memories with us. I know my dad and grandmother both said that if you grew up saving and reusing items during the Depression era it is a hard habit to break. When Dad passed away, he left a garage full of drill bits, screw drivers, hammers and lots of other bits and pieces of tools that Dad just couldn’t turn lose of if they could still be used! Most of Dad’s rusty tool collection had already been thrown away at least once or twice by someone else and rescued by him. My mother-in-law never threw away the foam trays that meat came in. She scalded them and used them for paper plates. She saved all the plastic containers. Plastic and paper sacks were always set aside for future use. They did not live in our disposable society of today. And those of us left behind to sort and throw away remember every item they saved.

Wilfred Smith shared his memories of living through the Great Depression and how a large family “made do” during a time when almost everyone was in the same boat.


Jeanne’s new book, “The Zinc City, Webb City, Missouri” is now available at Webb City Chamber office and other local retailers, such as Maggie Jane’s Gifts, at 8 S. Main St.

Jeanne Newby

A lot of us appreciate the Bradbury Bishop Fountain, but Jeanne actually worked behind the counter making sodas while she was in high school. She knows everything about Webb City and is a member of the Webb City R-7 School Board.