Today, as our country recovers from an economic down slide, many of us are looking for ways to stretch our dollars and prepare meals in more efficient ways. Did you know that our ancestors experienced similar downturns in their economies as far back as the early nineteenth century? They practiced the principles of thrift and used their personal resources and talents to discover new ways to feed and care for their families and communities. Using the collections of the Library of Congress, we can seek their advice and learn from their ingenuity.
In her 1829 book The Frugal Housewife, Lydia Child declared, "Perhaps there was never a time when the depressing effects of stagnation in business were so universally felt, all the world over as they are now." The Panic of 1825, the stock crash, and foreign speculative investments had resulted in a decline in the economy. Child strove to help families become more creative, imaginative, and inventive in finding ways to make ends meet and provided several suggestions for avoiding household waste. She cautioned families to attend to the rules she provided and not to "despise them because they appeared so unimportant." She advised, "look to the grease-pot, and see that nothing is there which might have served to nourish your own family, or a poorer one. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be. Many a little makes a mickle." Marion Harris Neil in her Thrift Cook Book recommended turning bread scraps into croutons or sippets for soups and using them in puddings or as thickening for sauces. Mrs. Julia Wright in The Complete Home suggested using milk left from breakfast to make custard. This, paired with leftover slices of cake and jam, produced an economical dessert.
Beginning in 1877, Juliet Corson wrote several pamphlets aimed at the hourly wage earner. Her Fifteen Cent Dinners for Workingman's Families and her Twenty-Five Cent Dinners for Families of Six helped working-class families make the best possible use of their meager funds. Corson suggested broth and bread for breakfast, mutton and turnips for dinner, and barley boiled in broth for supper. She provided directions for choosing inexpensive but good foods. Homemade soup was one of the least expensive and most nourishing dishes one could prepare. Thrifty homemakers kept a soup pot on the stove ready to receive leftover vegetables, bones, and scraps of meat, fish or poultry. The Thrift Cook Book noted that poultry feet, often discarded, contained gelatin that could be used to enrich the soup stock. Mrs. S. G. Knight's Tit-Bits provided instructions for making numerous economical dishes, such as "pig's head cheese," a favorite of my grandmother's. It was a gelatinous paté made by boiling a pig's head in a little salted water. The meat was then picked from the head, chopped, seasoned, and poured, with its juices, into a press or mold.
Dietary studies showed that careless handling and cooking of food, as well as improper serving sizes, caused much of the waste in households. The 1917 Official U.S. Bulletin reported, "Waste in any individual household may seem insignificant, but if only a single ounce of edible food, on the average, is allowed to spoil or be thrown away in each of our 20,000,000 homes, over 1,300,000 pounds of material would be wasted each day. The housewife must learn to plan economical and properly balanced meals, which, while nourishing each member of the family, do not encourage overeating." Amelia Doddridge, a Home Demonstration Agent in Wilmington, Delaware, wrote, "Husband your stuff; don't stuff your husband." From 1917 to 1919, the United States Food Administration produced a variety of posters to encourage families to conserve food. They were posted in public places and were effective visual reminders of the importance of household thrift.
Advice columns in women's magazines promoted utensils useful in avoiding waste. In 1907, Mrs. S. T. Rorer, a frequent columnist on thrift in Ladies Home Journal noted, "a small meat chopper or grinder costs but a dollar and a quarter and in less than a month will save its price in the utilization of scraps. A spatula costs twenty-five cents and "is sufficiently limber to take every particle of material from the inside of a bowl or saucepan."
The 1863 Confederate Receipt Book provided additional tips for preventing waste. It recommended putting a bowl containing two quarts of water in an oven when baking to prevent pies and cakes from scorching. In 1919, The Thrift Cookbook advised its readers to thoroughly grease the upper edge of a saucepan with butter to "prevent milk, cocoa, chocolate, or anything of the kind from boiling over." The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book of 1845 suggested putting apples in bins and covering them with dry sand to keep them from spoiling. It also noted that eggs could be kept fresh for months if rubbed with butter or lard, or up to a year if layered with salt in a keg with a tight-fitting lid. A 1920 Farmer's Bulletin provided instructions for preserving eggs for 6 to 10 months. The eggs had to be carefully placed in a crock that was filled with a solution of water glass or sodium silicate.
Janet M. Hill in her 1915 Canning, Preserving, and Jelly Making observed that "economic conditions of the age" required families to have a household garden to provide for summer needs. She stressed the importance of preserving the surplus vegetables and fruits for the winter months. Home gardens became a national movement during World War I with war gardens and World War II, with victory gardens. In Canning, Preserving and Pickling, Marion Neil advised canning was not only the easiest method of preserving fruits and vegetables, but also the most economical and the most healthful." Mr. O. H. Benson's Home Canning and Food Thrift noted home canning furnished "a better and more nearly balanced ration throughout the year."
>> Back to top of page
Drying was another common way to preserve food from the garden, field, and orchard. A 1917 Farmer's Bulletin from the U.S. Department of Agriculture entitled, Drying Fruits and Vegetables in the Home, noted that "fruits and vegetables may be dried in the home by simple processes and stored for future use--especially when canning is not feasible, or cans and jars are too expensive." In general, most fruits and vegetables were first shredded or cut into slices to hasten the drying process. Snap beans were "strung on threads and dried above the stove, cherries and raspberries dried on bits of bark, and green peas run through a meat grinder and dried." A number of women were awarded patents for their drying machines. Jennie P. Duval invented a dryer that was "simple and compact” and adapted to various types of stoves and other heaters. Food dryers allowed the housewife to save small quantities of food, such as a few sweet potatoes, carrots or a single rutabaga. Dried food took up less storage space and could be reconstituted in soups and stews. Some people actually preferred dried sweet corn to canned corn and found dried pumpkin and squash excellent for making pies.
As certain foods and beverages became scarce or too expensive, resourceful housewives experimented with substitutions. When the supply of tea was limited, they used sassafras roots and the leaves of sage, holly, blackberries, raspberries, or oranges. In The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Child recounted, "The first young leaves of the common currant-bush, gathered as soon as they put out, and dried on tin, can hardly be distinguished from green tea." David Dodge, in "Domestic Economy in the Confederacy," noted that some felt that corn-fodder had the same flavor as black tea. Mrs. Clay in her memoir A Belle of the Fifties recalled, "As times grew more and more stringent, tea and coffee proved to be our greatest lack: we were glad to drink potato coffee and peanut chocolate." To make chocolate, "peanuts, pinders, or goobers, as they were variously called, were roasted and the skin slipped off. They were next pounded into a mortar; when, blended with boiled milk and a little sugar, the drink was ready for serving, and we found it delightful to our palates."
In the 1863 Confederate Receipt Book, a substitute for a splendid cup of coffee was described as "ripe acorns, washed and dried, parched until they opened and then roasted with a little bacon fat." Cream for the coffee was the white of an egg, beaten to a froth, and mixed with a bit of butter. Ethel Alice Hurn, in her Wisconsin Women in the War Between the States, noted that many families "roasted dandelion-root with pure coffee," since coffee was so expensive. Hunt's Merchant's Magazine for 1854 reported that the ripe seeds of asparagus, when roasted and ground, made "a full-flavored coffee not easily distinguished from fine Mocha." Others used burnt rye or parched corn, wheat, sweet potatoes, peanuts, okra, watermelon seeds, or persimmons as substitutes for coffee.
The Department of Agriculture's 1917 Food Thrift series recommended substituting cottage cheese and soybeans for meat, and chicken fat, sour cream, and suet for butter. In 1907, a Ladies Home Journal column reported that a pound of peas was a good replacement for a pound of meat, since the peas were equally nutritious. Bessie R. Murphy, a Southern food expert, noted that beans "contain so much protein that they rank in value with meat, eggs, and cheese, and should be used more as a meat substitute." Clever housewives were able to make a bean loaf that looked just like a meat loaf. The monthly Delineator and other magazines published recipes for eggless cakes and cookies to help families economize when the price of eggs was too high.
When wheat flour was scarce, runt, bruised, or otherwise useless potatoes were used to make potato starch for baking. Ground rolled oats and flour made from peanuts or sweet potatoes also were used in place of wheat flour. Piecrusts were made from cornmeal, hominy, or potatoes. In the1866 Report of the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture, J. F. Wolfinger declared Indian corn was "fully equal and in some respects superior to wheat." Corn was ground to make flour for cornbread and the ashes of corncobs were used as leavening in the absence of soda or saleratus. Mrs. Goodfellow's 1865 Cookery as it Should Be provided recipes for over a dozen corn items including hominy pudding, corn bread, hoe cakes, and hasty pudding. When salt was in short supply, brine was scraped from old barrels and troughs and boiled into salt. Another method involved digging up the dirt floors of smokehouses and extracting bits of salt deposited by the dripping meats.
When white sugar was neither available nor affordable, housewives commonly substituted brown sugar, sorghum, maple sugar, molasses, and honey. Some used cornstalks and watermelons to make syrups. According to the 1888 A Blockaded Family, when Parthenia Antoinette Hague boiled watermelon juice, she "was rewarded with a syrup of a flavor as fine, or even finer, than that made from the sugar-cane."
In spite of their best efforts, there were times when families had no money at all to buy essential supplies. Some bartered, or exchanged goods and services, for what they needed. A South Carolina girl recalled reluctantly exchanging her stylish "garibaldi" shirtwaist for two turkeys to feed the thirteen women and children in her household. The Women of the Southern Confederacy during the War noted, "Some women walked miles to mills with two or three yards of homemade cloth in order to trade it for meal or flour." My grandfather raised chickens and exchanged fresh eggs for kerosene to run his tractor.
The willingness of families, friends, and neighbors to share with each other and to lend a helping hand brought many through the rough times. Some even extended their hospitality to strangers. In Women of the Southern Confederacy during the War, Mrs. Heriott recounted, "A woman and an old man came to the house wanting something to eat. I gave them of what I had--a little rice and milk. I told the woman I only had a bushel of rice and a ham, but they were welcome to half." In some communities, citizens united to perform tasks that benefited all. Canning centers were a good example. In American Women and the World War, Ida Clyde Clarke recalled, "women who could spare a few hours a day to help pick, sort, prepare or can the food were paid for their labor by a system of time cards, redeemable with either fresh fruits and vegetables at the time, or in canned goods later when the food shortage began to be felt."
As we have seen, our ancestors were resourceful in dealing with hard times. They learned to prepare simple, economical dishes, to substitute ingredients for those in short supply, to use their talents to make goods for bartering, and to invent new methods and equipment for preserving food. They banded together for the common good, opened their homes to friends and community for sharing meals, and engendered a spirit of caring through their hospitality. In the words of Lydia Child, "True economy is a careful treasurer in the service of benevolence; and where they are united, respectability, prosperity and peace will follow."
We invite you to explore the collections of the Library of Congress to gain a deeper insight into the creative ways that women have dealt with rough economic times over the years. Their ingenuity was commendable, and the methods they used to cope provide us with valuable guidance as we face similar economic recessions and lean times.
>> Back to top of page