Farm Life in the Early 20th Century: Avoiding Waste

Although the Great Depression made farm life even more difficult, many rural families found creative solutions to their problems. When an animal was butchered every bit of it was used. Chicken feed sacks were made into used to make dresses for the women and girls. Water was used sparingly. For many, baths were once a week in the winter with family members sharing the same water to conserve. Many of those who lived during the Great Depression retained their thrifty ways as they grew older.


Nothing was wasted, ever. When a chicken, hog, or cow was butchered, nearly every ounce was used. Meat from a hog was chopped and ground, odd pieces made into sausage. Hams were prepared for curing. The carcass also yielded pickled pigs feet, and also headcheese and rendered lard.  At mealtime children were taught only to take on their plates what could be eaten. Anything left in the pans and bowls was stored for another meal. In those days families couldn't afford to turn up their noses at leftovers.

Philip Ingmanson: "In the Depression, you knew the value of a dollar. If you had a dollar, boy, you had something. You could buy a couple of meals with a dollar. You could buy a sack of candy for 5 or 10 cents. Money would buy a lot of things."

Wasting water was a sin too, especially during years of drought. The typical kitchen either had a small pump leading to a cistern  or a water bucket with a dipper that was brought to the house for drinking, cooking, and washing dishes. Considering the trouble it took to get water to the house, bath time only came around once a week, except in the hot, sticky summer. Early on Saturday nights, before the family went to town to trade, water was heated for baths. The children went first. Then more hot water was added to the same bathwater so mother could take her turn. Finally, since father was usually the dirtiest, he bathed last in the same water.

Patty Doak: "We just kind of laugh. We always think of our parents, how gross it had to be for them. The older you got, the worse it would be because there would be another person in front of you. But at the time it didn't seem one bit unusual or strange."

Sharing bathwater would be hard to swallow today, but once a family had experienced drought, water was not taken for granted. Perhaps that's why so many persons raised in the '30s and '40s are still so careful to wonder if food would last all winter or if the well would keep going all summer.

John Vermazen: "It makes you thrifty. You probably noticed that in people of my age bracket. They stop and think every time they let loose of a dime. It's not that they won't spend money, but they like to get their money's worth  and be sure there's a good reason for buying stuff, compared to some of our offspring that figure that money is going to corrode if it lays around in their billfold over a couple of days."

Excerpt from "The People in the Pictures: Stories from the Wettach Farm Photos," Iowa PBS, 2003


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