Learning Frugality From Our Grandparents

Making five meals from one chicken is a good idea again.

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When my sisters and I were growing up, my dad never missed a chance to tell us about my grandparents' frugality. If we left anything on our dinner plates, he pointed out that his parents, who raised their four sons in post-World War II England, wouldn't have allowed him to waste food like that. If one of us suggested driving the short distance to the grocery store, he reminded us that his father would certainly have walked.

My sisters and I usually rolled our eyes and proceeded with our wasteful ways, but now, as our generation ex­periences its deepest recession, those lessons aren't looking so antiquated. In fact, tips and tricks from the Great Depression and earlier eras of thrift are experiencing a renaissance of sorts. According to Jed Lyons, chief executive of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, guides to living frugally are so popular that he's reissuing decades-old books. Among them: The Guide to Good Cheap Hunting, Green House: Eco- Friendly Disposal and Recycling at Home, and Candlemaking.

In the spirit of such self-reliance, I went in search of other long-lost lessons from those who experienced the Great Depression firsthand. I found myself repeatedly awestruck by the depth of their resourcefulness -- and wondering whether many of us could replicate their techniques if we had to.

Simple pleasures. Cecile Oblow, 78, of Delray Beach, Fla., says she never had a doll when she was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Instead, she remembers jumping rope Double Dutch; and playing tag for hours or wrapping herself in a towel and pretending to be a princess. "Everyone became very innovative," she says. And talk about resourceful: Her mom could make five meals from one chicken.

In addition to that kind of creativity, flexibility is a theme. In his memoir Railwayman's Son, Hugh Hawkins, my former history professor at Amherst College, recalls that it became increasingly common for grown sons to delay marriage and remain living in their parents' home to save money, as his own older brother did. He also re­ members his mother brainstorming about ways to earn extra money, from opening a restaurant in her home to raising chickens.

In Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, Mildred Armstrong Kalish describes how her family made things that most of us only know how to buy, including leather, shirts, quilts, bread, and soap.

Sometimes, the secret to living on less is to relish the pleasure that comes from the most ordinary activities. In My Own Two Feet, Beverly Cleary remembers one family who delighted in simple nightly meals, such as one dish they called "smells to heaven" casserole. No one seems to have been eager to run off to separate rooms, as kids -- lured by computers and video games -- tend to do today.

As romantic as those days sound, I wouldn't want to return to them and give up today's luxuries, such as the Nintendo Wii and other family-friendly innovations, which can provide hours of quality bonding time. But somehow, I think my grandparents would have rather played cards. Luckily, that's one skill they passed on to their grandchildren.

For another Great Depression survivor story, read "I Worked for Shoes."