Eating Up World War II

(Image: Morguefile.com)

Could you live on 1 fresh egg every two weeks?

Could you live on 2 oz. of tea every week? How about 4 oz. of meat per week (that’s the size of 1 small steak, by the way), 2 oz. of butter (half a stick), 2 oz. of cheese, and 8 oz. of sugar (yep, just one cup A WEEK!).

These are merely a sample of the ration measurements for a single individual’s food for one week during World War Two in Great Britain. This, combined with the rations of other family members in a household, were the raw ingredients for breakfast and dinner. Lunch was often taken at school or a work cafeteria in order to stretch those portions.

Bread wasn’t rationed and neither were vegetables. To take advantage of fresh produce, many wartime Britons grew stupendous gardens – Victory Gardens. Likewise their American cousins dug in and planted – though rationing in the States was not nearly as severe. Vegetables made up a large part of the diet and were the main supply of vitamins and minerals.

The Ministry of Food was the government office in the UK that directed rationing and also provided creative recipes for using limited foods. Taking a turn through a cookbook from that era is a lesson in thinking outside the box. Replacements and substitutions were the order of the day.

Next up… how and what kind of meals did they create on such meager portions? Stay tuned!

(Ration facts courtesy of Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts From 1940-1954, Marguerite Patten OBE, Chancellor Press, 2002.)

Watching Storms from the Porch

(Image: Morguefile.com)

A Facebook post by a friend the other day got me in a nostalgic mood. The post was about front porches and the happy memories they hold.

I have lived in a variety of houses and some had porches, some did not. Some had decks and those have become more or less the replacement for good, old-fashioned front porches. The kind of porches that aren’t just a stoop, but have room for multiple people, a chair, a wicker sofa, etc.

Architectural history

Historical trends in architecture affect the people who live in them. We live in the era of box-like abodes with little square carpets of lawn, expansive back decks and front porches so narrow you have to skooch across single file. Maybe it’s because air conditioned summers are our norm that people no longer request a deep, shady front porch to accommodate a lemonade break and catch an occasional breeze on a hot summer day.

Maybe, on the other hand, it’s because people are less social in their neighborhoods than they used to be. Strolling the sidewalks in the evening was a hallmark of years past, but with the advent of automobile culture people are more content to park the car in the garage that has moved from behind the house to the very front of the yard thereby symbolically cutting off the expression of friendliness that a big welcoming porch used to express.

Porch adventures

Whatever the case, I remember one summer day during a big storm in the Midwest. It was the porch of family friends. A group of us kids were huddled under the stone columns of the porch to wait out the thunder and lightning. We played games and watched the clouds gather. It was exciting to hear the booms and see the flashes of light from under the protection of the porch, better than being inside where you could only hear muffled reverberations.

Big, wide porches like that were a fortress for little kids in all the games we thought of to play. Climbing over the sides of stone railings during a dangerous mission in the Alps was only a sample of the fun things you could do. Scaling a column during the course of exciting archeological discoveries was another. Even better was when a kindly adult would bring out something tasty to eat as we dragged ourselves in from the Sahara.

My history takeaway is this: If you are in the position to afford to build a new home, consider being a throwback and ask for a big, wide front porch to grace the front of your home. Who knows, you might be the one to start a building trend that has the potential to bring people together again. At the very least, it will look great to all those who pass by and enjoy it!

Reviving good things about the past can be a positive thing, as long as we recognize that the past can never be wholly re-created, only, maybe, improved upon.

– Amanda Stiver

Time Travel: Indoor Plumbing

I don’t know about you, but I have often wondered what it would be like to travel back in time and live in a different technological era. See how each day was shaped and view the variety of daily activities.

Running water, electricity, public utilities, cars, and computers are merely a small sampling of things we take for granted, but which shape our day.

How often do we get up in the morning and use the fancy indoor plumbing that inhabits small rooms throughout our houses? Everyday, multiple times! But imagine how different the day would be if we didn’t have those small rooms!

Instead we would resort to a chamber pot or an outhouse, no plumbing. How about showering? Brushing teeth? No indoor running water – instead we would have a big tub, a stove to heat water on, and a pump outside that we would wrestle up and down whenever we needed H20.

You know the old phrase “draw me a bath?” Well, people literally drew the water up through the pump and lugged it to the tub. Life was work.

Here is the history lesson: don’t take anything for granted. Knowing the details of how our predecessors struggled to make a living keeps us grounded.

– Amanda Stiver

Collecting History: Old Sayings

Some people collect antiques. Some collect old cars. Many collect old books. There are innumerable items to collect and most often we associate certain things with history, like antiquities.

As exciting as ancient pieces of statuary may be, they are expensive, often hard to move, and quite frequently illegal to gather. I have a solution. It requires no storage, no expense and is, as yet, quite legal. I urge you then to collect old sayings!

These are the short pieces of advice that have been around for centuries. Some are extremely useful and some are not.

Here are a few examples (taken from Wise Words and Country Ways: Traditional Advice and Whether It Works Today by Ruth Binney and Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish):

Weather –

“Ring round the moon, snow soon.”

“When swallows fly low, rain is on the way.”

“Rain before seven, fine by eleven.”

Health –

“Sit up straight.”

“Eat your crusts – they’ll make your hair curl.”

“Chew each mouthful twenty times.”

“Put vinegar on a wasp sting.”

“Eat a peck of dirt before you die.”

Education, gab and whatnot –

“Improve your mind each day.”

“What’s on her mind is on her tongue.”

“She’s got a tongue that’s loose at both ends and has a swivel in the middle.”

“I’ll be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

Kitchen –

“After melon, wine is a felon.”

“Don’t open an oven door while a cake is cooking.”

“Stew boiled is a stew spoiled.”

There you are. I’ve started you off with your own small collection. Add to it as you come by a funny old saying, factual or not. Listen for these from older family members and friends. If you don’t have access to these resources whose sayings will vary by region and nation, then look to books.

These sound bites are a direct link to history. They tell us how people thought in the past, what they believed, and how they acted. To keep the thread of history alive, start collecting today!

– Amanda Stiver

Putting Up with Food: Canning

I remember jars of preserves on my grandma’s shelves. When I was little and my family would go on our annual cross-country visit to my grandparent’s home in Oregon, I always looked forward to a yummy dish of canned cherries or plums.

Not the kind from the grocery store that swims in high fructose corn syrup. Nope, the good old-fashioned home-canned variety in its own juices, some additional water and a bit of sugar. Best of all in a glass jar instead of a metal can sprayed with plastic.

In a dark, back corner of the house was the pantry in which the jars were stored. By the time I was a youngster grandma was putting up less home canned goods because the stores were filled with affordable options. However, in past years she and many like her put in a great deal of work each year to grow and put up produce.

Great pride was taken in one’s beans, tomatoes, peaches, berries, pickles, and mincemeat, etc. One scene in the movie State Fair typifies this domestic skill and pride. The main character and her mother, Mrs. Frake, are watching a contest at the state fair in which mother’s pickles and mincemeat are up for prizes. As the contestants anxiously wait, more than a few smug looks are shared by the previous year’s winner, until she finds out she lost to Mrs. Frake.

Producing the most delicious home canned goods from one’s own garden was a big deal. Much more of America farmed and lived off the land at that time. People were tied into the earth and very proud of what they could produce. Proud they were of the self-sufficiency of which they were capable.

The next time you reach for a can of peas think about the task of putting food up. Think about what kind of work went into growing, harvesting, cooking and canning those peas so you could buy them at the store. Now, imagine doing all that work yourself! That’s history!

– Amanda Stiver

Making Your Own Keeps You in Stitches

– Sewing as an Historical Exercise –

When you think of a sewing machine do you imagine the hum of an electrical unit or the rhythmic thum-thum-thum of a treadle machine that is powered by foot and coordination? No, I don’t suppose most people often think of sewing machines.

I do, occasionally, mostly when I recall visits to my grandmother, who used the antique treadle version. She was a talented seamstress and would make little outfits for me when I would visit from half a continent away each summer. Full skirts that would spin when I twirled were generally the demands of a six-year-old girl.

Likewise would my aunt, also skilled with a needle and thread, make me lovely dresses. I recollect these memories here because I want to talk about the continuum of history.

What goes around, stays around

The history continuum sounds like something out of Star Trek, but as I see it, it is simply the importance of recognizing that there are some methods of daily living that have been around for thousands of years and ought to be preserved and rehearsed so as not to be lost. Actively live in the past to preserve skills that might otherwise be forgotten because of dis-use.

Skills are like tools: you don’t need them all the time, but you’re sorry when you don’t have the right one when you need it!

Sewing fits this continuum. It was a skill used frequently in the past but has fallen into dis-use among the general public because of the large-scale factory production of clothing and textiles. It is, in theory, more affordable to buy ready-made clothes at the store than to go to the trouble of making them yourself.

I agree, and I buy most of my clothes at the store, but sewing has a place. If you can sew on a button, stitch up a seam, or repair a rip, you are ahead of most people and you won’t have to toss out as many clothes that are only slightly maimed.

Stitch, not pitch

I recall family stories in which most items of clothes were made at home and, if they fell into disrepair, then they were simply “re-purposed.” Or, as it was back then, you “made-do” with what you had.

I’m sure this came of the Great Depression, but it reaches much further back. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries caused a spike in manufacturing. Thus, everyday items produced in vast numbers fairly cheaply would cost much less than before.

People could afford lots of “stuff,” however, not nearly as much as we have now. Therefore, they still didn’t waste what they weren’t sure they could replace. Overabundance didn’t really hit until the last third of the 20th century.

On a visit to Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum in that state, I remember observing a linen-making display (I highly recommend visiting the museum, by the way, great exhibits). The flax was harvested, soaked to soften, fibers separated from the stem, combed, and then spun into thread. Finally it was ready to be woven into fabric from which a seamstress or tailor would cut and sew a final garment. Imagine if you had to do all that just to have a new shirt – you wouldn’t throw it out in a hurry – that’s for sure.

The moral of my post – if you get the chance, learn your way around a needle and thread and a sewing machine. Not only will you save some money, but you will be participating in a thread of experience woven through the tapestry of human history!

– Amanda Stiver

Ice Cream, We Scream!

Ice cream is an American pastime ubiquitous to a hot, humid summer. And I do mean pastime – in the Midwest, in particular, ice cream stands and brands abound and elicit very strong opinions.

Whether you are a frozen custard or an ice cream purist will determine the store you patronize. National chains compete for attention with the homegrown article – and often lose! On this note, if you are ever in Ohio, visit Granville and try Whit’s – it’s excellent!

Then there are the mad scientists who like to concoct their own homemade varities. Even among this crowd is division. Are you an old-fashioned ice cream maker? Do you only use the rock salt and ice, hand cranked models? Or are you technologically advanced and prefer the self-freezing chamber versions that are electrified?

Frozen, in time

As with all my history quests, I want to know whether, and how, people made things in the past. So, what about ice cream – was it available in the days before electric refrigeration?

Well, if you’ve ever watched Meet Me in St. Louis you will discover that yes, it was, at least according to MGM’s version of the early 20th century. Ice cream was a special treat to be had in the summer, after all, who wants a freezing bowlful of cream in the dead of winter?

Likewise, ice cream and frozen custards were a specialty of the colonial era. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both aficionados of the tasty treat introduced to them by the French. Recipes from this era abound and their decadent sweetness was made possible by the construction of icehouses to store blocks of frozen ice through the summer (Alice Ross, “Ice Cream, a Colonial Delicacy,” Early American Life, June 2010).

Brrrrrr

Hauling ice to be stored was a going business until the dawn of electrical refrigeration. Each winter big blocks of ice had to be cut from frozen lakes, hauled to privately-owned icehouses or stored in a big, partially-subterranean barn. Packed in sawdust or straw, the ice would keep far into the summer.

Ice chips and rock salt were used to drop the temperature of the chamber in which cream, sugar, and fruit or an egg-based custard mixture would freeze. Hearty volunteers turned the handle keeping the ice cream moving in order to freeze evenly.

Finally, after all that work, was the finished product – smooth, homemade ice cream!

This is by far one of most rewarding historical re-enactments that you can pursue today – find a hand-cranked ice cream maker at a garage sale, marshal your ingredients, crank away, and slip into the past via a bowl of ice cream! Chipping the block of ice from a frozen lake and storing it all summer is up to you!

– Amanda Stiver

America: A Vision for the Present

Lately I’ve been reading David McCullough’s John Adams, upon which the recent HBO series was based. Although I won’t write a review yet (I haven’t quite finished it), some interesting observations can be drawn from this era of history.

As I read the comments in letters and writings of individuals like John Adams, Abigail Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Rush and others, I found myself reading sentiments of modern proportions.

Devaluation of money, excessive national debt, wartime alliances, and visions of America for centuries to come and not just as a mere 13 British colonies. After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, men and women worried about America’s acceptance with the British, if we were to be continually their enemy or treat for total peace and recognition. Whether America would be a collection of very loosely confederated, nearly autonomous states, a pure, overwhelming national state with a central government, or united in balance under state and federal establishments.

Policies and Politics

Mud was slung between politicians and between factions. Republicans (at that early stage) stood for continuous revolutions and applauded the bloody, messy French Revolution, while Federalists looked to a strongly central government.

These positions would switch back and forth between liberal and conservative parties through the centuries. Today a less empowered federal government is the aim of conservatives while liberals yearn for a highly centralized, intensively regulated state.

Adams worried about America’s future with dire forebodings about the continual practice of slavery. Constant was his worry about how the new nation would be received in Europe and if it would or should get involved in the wars of that continent.

Past and Present

This is how history affects us. The same worries tie us to an era whose daily life is so very different from our own. The industrial revolution had not yet begun in earnest and everyday life was much as it had been for thousands of years.

You traveled by horse, your house was unplumbed, electricity was a gleam in Benjamin Franklin’s eye, and cooking was done over an open wood fire!

And yet, the human yearning for liberty is not sequestered by physical environment. Despite the differences of our dress, manner, speech, and abode, we all still cling to the hope of freedom – to live a free and virtuous life full of opportunity.

For more on this, please read The Declaration of Independence.

– Amanda Stiver

Living like it’s 1873

Not long ago I finished A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird. The book covers her remarkable travels as an Englishwoman in the nineteenth century American West.

Bird was subject to ill health and traveled, as many did at that time, to different climates to restore her strength. Among other places she also visited Hawaii as well as Canada, Japan and China. In this case Bird was on a trip to reach Estes Park, Colorado.

Her journey begins at Lake Tahoe and she travels east from there into Colorado. Given the strictures of the time she was unusual as an independent woman who traveled alone and un-chaperoned through vast prairies and mountainous regions. With the exception of a few close calls she remained quite safe. After her return she compiled letters written to family into a journal of her travels and published it for sale.

The narrative is full of action and moves quickly, so it is a worthy read if you are interested in doing a little time travel and getting some firsthand experience in the “old west.”

Word pictures

Two things stand out from the book. First, is Bird’s ability to use language to describe her surroundings. The book is un-illustrated, but I was surprised at how little I missed photographs or maps. Her descriptions are precise and show a facility of language usage that is completely lacking these days.

Here are a few samples:

“The stars were intensely bright, and a well-defined auroral arch, throwing off fantastic coruscations, lighted the whole northern sky. Yet I was only in the Foot Hills, and Long’s glorious Peak was not to be seen (p. 229, Comstock Editions, INC., 1987).”

Who uses the word “coruscations” these days? (It means “sparklings and glitterings,” by the way.)

“Long’s Peak, 14,700 feet high, blocks up one end of Estes Park, and dwarfs all the surrounding mountains. … By sunlight or moonlight its splintered grey crest is the one object which, in spite of wapiti and bighorn, skunk and grizzly, unfailingly arrests the eyes. From it come all storms of snow and wind, and the forked lightnings play round its head like a glory. It is one of the noblest of mountains, but in one’s imagination it grows to be much more than a mountain. It becomes invested with a personality (pp.78-79).”

I know that a picture can speak a thousand words, but words like these can speak a thousand pictures!

At your leisure…

Secondly, the descriptions of life at this time in American (and British) history fill a need-to-know of mine. When I sit down in the evening to watch a television show or movie I sometimes ponder at the passivity of my modern habits. It doesn’t take much intellectual stimulation to watch a video (which is sometimes the point after a busy day), but on the other hand, how much of the human brain do we leave inactive for the sake of “entertainment.”

The following quote from the book gives a hint at the kind of end-of-day events common in the early 1870’s:

“After that we all sit in the living room, and I settle down to write to you, or mend my clothes, which are dropping to pieces. Some sit round the table playing at eucre, the strange hunters and prospectors lie on the floor smoking, and rifles are cleaned, bullets cast, fishing flies made, fishing tackle repaired, boots are waterproofed, part-songs are sung, and about half-past eight I cross the crisp grass to my cabin, always expecting to find something in it [based on a previous encounter with a skunk] (pp. 108-109).”

Life was not a piece of cake and leisure time was at a minimum. If you wanted to hear music, you sang it. If you wanted amusement, you played cards. Otherwise you were busy repairing your equipment.

Travel by book – I highly recommend this volume as your personal tour guide into the past!

The Great Depression and “Stuff”

A few months back I was blessed to be able to compile an article about survivors of the Great Depression. The article was an assignment for Vertical Thought magazine, which reaches out to a young adult and teen audience. My goal was to connect young people to the now elderly folks who lived through the Great Depression.

What was great about doing the article was that the subject fascinated me. Likewise, my interview material was everywhere! My relatives, older folks from the church congregation I attend, and from the community.

I think what has always amazed me about that era was that although so many people were barely scraping along; you will often hear them say that they didn’t know they were poor.

There was still an unspoken rule that if you had food to eat, a roof over your head, and a family with love – you were all right. Notice I didn’t say indoor plumbing, electricity, air conditioning, a new car, digital communication devices, digital music devices, etc. There are some basic things that all humans truly need. Then there are “necessities” that we are conditioned to “need.”

Binary Burden

To be fair, I, like the next person, use my fair share of these devices and benefit as a result, but I also find myself over-processed from them. In the same way that junk food is over-processed to the point that it doesn’t resemble its original components; I think over-digitalization is similar.

We lose ourselves in the crush of information, our ability to concentrate is tampered with, and we begin to feel like we can’t live without all the social networking, constant texting, and electronic gadgets. We’re addicted to a pile of things or worse, to the miles of information encoded in the vapor that is the web!

Tough as it is to imagine, we could all probably get along without the proliferation of leisure and time saving devices that drive store and Internet sales these days.

Maybe I’m a young curmudgeon in the making, but there is something to be said for daily physical activity that leaves you fatigued, but invigorated by the activity and accomplishment.

Walk the talk

My challenge to you – go find one of these elders and ask them about (if possible) their life before electricity. Ask them to tell you what it was like when each new device came into popular use. Ask them how they got along without all those things.

You will be intrigued by the answers, and more than that, you will have made a connection to their past, which is now part of yours. You will be an historian!