I’ve been reading this memoir about a boy’s life on the Canadian prairies circa 1920 – 1939. Many of his tales of overturning outhouses on Hallowe’en, cleaning coal oil lamps, learning in a one-room schoolhouse, and the frequency and severity of corporal punishment resonate as they are part of the collective memory of my family too.
Our “enlightened” culture preaches the gospel of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” but, as the author of this memoir reminds us, our forebears “made do” which is the same thing. Our world is faced with too much stuff so we need to find ways to dispose of it. Previous generations didn’t have enough so they found ways to make every thread and every morsel count.
Women made quilts from scraps of worn out fabric. Clothes, toys and shoes were handed down within a family and even circulated to cousins and neighbours. A trip to the store was difficult so the Watkins man and the Fuller Brush man came to call. Worn out woollens could be gathered up and sent off to a mill and returned to the homemaker as wool blankets.
One aspect of early twentieth century life that this book references is the “rag and bone man.” He was actually an early recycler, collecting worn out scraps of material, bare bones, old pots and pans, and bits of scrap metal. The rags were often sold to paper mills for rag paper. Bones could be used to make buttons and knife handles, or ground up for glue and fertilizer. Any left over grease was used in making soap. The rag and bone man was the epitome of the old adage “waste not want not.”
The term “rag and bone man” is familiar from English literature, but until I read this memoir I was unaware of the practice in Canada, perhaps because of the term “rag and bone.” In my world we were more apt to speak of the junk-man. As automobiles became more commonplace, scrap metal and used car parts soon displaced rags and bones as the most valuable discard from households. I once spent a few enjoyable hours prowling around an auto junk yard looking for a side window to a VW Beetle. It felt a bit like a treasure hunt and I was gleeful when I found the prize.
Our blue boxes and recycle depots seemed like a new thing when they were introduced. At that time it was the Yuppies who jumped on the environmental bandwagon hoping to save the world by finding a use for waste. Turns out it wasn’t such a new idea at all. Donating worn out clothing to a thrift shop, organizing a bottle drive for a charity, keeping garbage out of the garbage dump are all part of life in the twenty-first century, but they aren’t new and they lack the thrill of hunting through the junk-man’s cart.
The author’s “good old days,” have the golden tinge of time and nostalgia. Life was hard and precarious but for many who lived it, it was fun and exciting and “normal.” Anyone here ever turned a blue box into a bobsled?