History and Hope: When Green Was Called Frugal

by Kim   |   August 26, 2008


Any time America experiences an economic downturn, people use the Great Depression as a yardstick: What shade of gray is our today compared to Black Tuesday? 

Poking around the internet I was surprised to see how many articles popped up proclaiming the next Great Depression…some of them dated 1o years ago, all offering their own proof for why things are even worse than we thought, and are just going to go downhill from there.  

My interest in the era of Hoovervilles and bread lines was not sparked so much by the desire to join in this fray of economic doomsday-ism, but rather by memories of my grandparents. It came to me one day that it would be great to start blogging about Lost Arts: you know, the things that our grandparents did but that somehow didn't make it to our generation. 

To me, much of the green movement is not like a hydroponic vegetable (engineered under high-tech conditions); it's like an heirloom tomato. It's getting back in touch with our roots—and traditions that are either ours or that we can make our own.

In "Our Parents Have Always Been Green," a great article comparing her parents' wartime thrift with her own modern-day green aspirations, British journalist Alice Thomson writes about her father: "When he comes to our minimalist house, he feels uncomfortable. 'What have you been throwing away now?' he wants to know." 

Her parents' thrift was based upon a valuing of the intrinsic worth of things: they simply can't imagine wasting things because wastefulness in itself is not acceptable. Thomson contrasts this view to our present-day acceptance of short-lived electronic gadgets and quickly-obsolete technology. Do we get the goods that we deserve? Are our flimsy cell phones the result of an attitude that accepts them?

Depression-era folks saw their own environmental disasters: the dustbowls. They must have had a sense, like ours, that not all progress takes us forward; that humans can force the hand of nature only so much. That's why it's fascinating to look at photos and stories from that period in our nation's history. 

One source for archival materials is the New Deal Network. "When I was a child to be frugal was one of the highest virtues," writes contributor Judy Busk in her memoir Frugality: The Legacy of the Great Depression. "Gifts were carefully opened, hands delicately loosening the tape so the wrap could be neatly removed and folded to be used again. A ball of string graced our kitchen cupboard; it was made up of hundreds of shorter pieces tied together." 

Taking such care with scraps of string is almost unthinkable to our rushed modern lifestyles, just like I can't imagine ironing pillowcases and underwear the way my grandmother used to. She elevated ironing to an art form—there was no such thing as "permanent press." I've come to admire that level of care for one's belongings. Maybe we would all buy fewer things if we took better care of them.

Thankfully, thrift is not genetic: we can all improve upon the traditions that were passed down (or not) in our families, borrowing from other cultures in our search for the gentlest way to live on this planet. It's interesting to note, however, that much of what is new is old, in the green movement. It's suddenly "in" to buy fresh vegetables after several generations of relying on canned or frozen, and people trade bread recipes that were nearly abandoned in favor of fluffy white store-bought bread.

Please share your own stories about traditions from a time when "green" was just another color. There are many lessons to be learned from the past, among them, hope. As environmentalist Lester Brown says, if we were to dedicate the same amount of resolve to fighting global warming as our country did to mobilizing for World War II, we could green our economy within an astonishingly short period of time.