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Like most American families during the depression years, ours survived by making the most of what little we had. Often, it took ingenuity and creativity to stretch things beyond their intended purpose. Today's "green" people call it "repurposing." We called it survival.
A prime example is the 100-pound bags of flour that my parents purchased on a regular basis. Yes. 100-pound bags! That's a lot of flour and, believe me, it went a long way for our family of four living in Middletown, Ohio. From my perspective of a 10-year-old, it seemed that Mom worked miracles with that flour, turning it into a variety of breads, pastas, noodles, dumplings, cakes, sweet rolls and donuts.
She also would scrimp and save so she'd have a dollar when the local farmers, desperate to get rid of their milk because people just weren't buying it as fast as their cows were producing it, would go door-to-door offering five gallons for a buck. Like the flour, the milk went a long way. Mom, of course, combined it with the flour for many staples and treats. She also crafted a variety of cheeses, even aging some for grating. That was my favorite, because it reminded me of our native home in southern Italy, which we had left just the year before.
You see, for our family it was a double-depression. We were immigrants to a new land, so unlike established Americans, we had no family to depend on. We had our church, of course, and that addressed many needs. But we lacked the financial and emotional support that many large, extended families shared. So, we had to make my dad's B&O railroad pay go a long way. He was one of the fortunate ones: He had a job that provided work at least a day or two per week. Indeed, times may have been tough; but with the flour, milk, our huge vegetable garden, a seemingly endless crop of dandelions and dozens of canning jars, we always ate well.
However, Mom's creativity extended beyond the kitchen. When the flour bag was finally empty, she would lovingly launder it, hang it up to dry and gently iron it. Then, the seamstress in her would go to work. I can still see her sitting at her foot-pedal, Singer sewing machine, stitching together, of all things, bras! Yes, my mother (probably like many others of the Depression era) had her own version of Victoria's secret.
The very fine, delicate cotton from which those flour bags were made was perfect for bras, slips, scarves and even café-style curtains for the kitchen. But I was most fascinated with the bras (or brassieres, as we called them in those days). I emulated my 14-year-old sister and couldn't wait to be old enough (and developed enough) to have my very own flour-sack bra. I just wonder how many women of the day wore undergarments with the words "Pillsbury's Best" and those recognizable four X's stretched across their bosoms!
Story collected for the Ohio Department of Aging Great Depression Stories Project 2009.
(Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)