Depression Era Recycling: Old Pots to Chicken Feeders

Illinois woman remembers recycling in the thirties, turning old pots into egg baskets and chicken feeders.

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No, Virginia, recycling is nothing new under the sun. We just did it so long, we delightedly forgot about it as soon as we could afford to. Now that it is fashionable again, maybe we need a few pointers.

What did we recycle in the Thirties? Everything we couldn't do without. Pans with holes got those wonderful new gadgets called Mendets - rivets with cork and metal washers. If the holes were too large for that, the item became a scoop, an egg basket, or, if large enough, a clothes hamper or a planter, a vegetable bin or a chicken feeder. Only when imagination gave out did you dare throw it away. Then your neighbor would pick it out of the trash and find a use for it.

Old clothes were patched to desperation, then became braided rugs, quilts, dish cloths, mop rags, or patches for something else. Hopeless stockings and socks lost their feet to cushion stuffing, and their legs became rag dolls, double-layered mittens, stocking caps. Aha! You didn't know why they were called that, did you? Shoes took half-soles as long as there remained enough of the uppers to hold them on. After that, they became thongs, hinges for wooden box lids, knee and elbow patches, tobacco pouches. Hand-me-downs were the rule of the day, unpopular though they were. Cut-downs meant shirts, skirts, and jackets for the small fry. All this is not to mention the popular flour sack, sugar sack, and feed sack. Those items went everywhere in a household. Ripped up, washed, and bleached, they took the place of yard goods for quilt backings, underwear, curtains, dresses, dish towels, shirts, aprons, sheets, pillowcases - you name it and it was made from sacking. They were embroidered, tucked, flounced, ruffled, dyed, stitched, whipped and crocheted around.

A sheet worn in the center was split lengthwise and the outside edges stitched together to form a seam down the middle, then the raw edges hemmed. A sheet too far gone for that treatment, or one subsequently outworn, became bandages, dresser scarves, little folks' underwear, diapers, curtains around recycled orange crates and apple boxes, dust cloths - anything a soft white cloth could be used for.

Sure, tin cans were recycled, too. They made temporary furniture repairs; door stops filled with rocks and covered with scraps of cloth; hassocks when grouped, padded with sock feet or other rags, and bound inside the good part of old overall legs. They made pencil and tool holders, racks for various scatterables, and a wild assortment of toys.

Grease was combined with lye and made into soap. Egg shells, at least in the country, went into chicken feed to extend the oyster shell supply. Table scraps were recycled through hogs, chickens, cats and dogs. Prematurely clabbered milk got cooked into cottage cheese, the whey joining the hog food collection. Stale bread was never thrown out. It made bread pudding, French toast, stuffing, extenders for meats and vegetables, and was often soaked in milk and sweetened for breakfast.

Bent nails were straightened and re-used. Broken harness was used for machine repairs as well as patches for other harness and for door hinges when no others were available. Old tires took on new life as swings, flower beds, "boots" in other worn tires, shoe soles, and door mats. Inner tubes made emergency rubber bands, powered sling shots, patched overshoes, and generally held things together.

Another recyclable was feathers. Never did you pick a chicken without saving the best feathers for pillows and featherbeds, wash and put them in muslin or sugar sacks, dry them thoroughly, fluff, and you were in business. If the old featherbed had outlived its day, the filling was transferred into pillow ticking or cushions. Good feathers, fluffed and aired, were just never thrown away.

Worn carpets were trimmed, bound, and made into scatter rugs. Woven rag rugs were treated the same way. When a broom had made its peace with the floor, the handle was sawed off and saved for any number of possible uses, including stirring laundry in a boiler, or lard in a butchering kettle, or hanging clothes in a closet. Broken glass was often used to scrape paint.

No, Virginia, recycling is not an invention of the nineties - not by a long shot!

Myrtle Pierson
Monticello, Illinois


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.