frugal

Sprucing Up a Brown Cotton Dress

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A normal teenager in the early 1940s.
A normal teenager in the early 1940s.

It was the beginning of the 1940s, and we were still in recovery from Oklahoma’s worst economic hard times, which was compounded by drought and dust storms. My forever-frugal mother, knowing brown wasn’t my best color, found the brown dress I’m wearing in the picture on the right on a clearance rack. But to her credit, she splurged a little and bought a piece of white lace to trim the collar and a strip of white taffeta ribbon for a matching hair bow. I had just learned how to coax my very soft hair into the then-trendy high pompadour style, which was not an easy feat in that pre-hairspray era.

A large bow anchored with bobby pins behind the pompadour and wearing a blob of red lipstick were the mark of teen fashion consciousness that linked us in those days to the big world. Just being a part of local teen look-a-likes also may have given us a healthy feeling of a cohesiveness that subsequently quelled a bit of the gloom of WWII.

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Self-Reliance and the 1930s Frugal Farm Woman: Denim Quilts

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Since I only briefly mentioned my mother’s quilt making and her creative money-saving cooking in my book THE DIRTY DAYS, I would like to share a little more information about these two endeavors. First, I’ll comment on denim quilts in this April 15th post, and in my May 1st post, I’ll share my thoughts about her Vinegar Pie. Both writings, I believe, are examples of women’s self-reliance in the 1930s.

Mothers of the Great Depression, especially those in the 1930s Dust Bowl, were often artistically ahead of their times. For instance, when I was a teen in the late 1930s I thought my mother was rather cool when she saved the relatively new-looking backs of the legs of my father’s and brothers’ worn-out blue denim bib overalls to use in her quilt-making.

She also saved scraps of the flour sack floral print material left over after she made me or my sister a dress. She would creatively incorporate the colorful floral pieces with the denim pieces. The contrast of the two materials made a strikingly attractive quilt.  I noticed that my friends’ mothers also recycled coarse blue denim overalls material and gave it and the pretty print flour sack scraps a second life in the creation of their quilts.

I like to think the denim overalls material symbolizes the men’s persevering labor and the flour sack print speaks for the roll women played in the family’s survival of the 1930s hard times.

In retrospect, there was nothing backwoods about a quilt made of squares and triangles of faded denim overalls material interspaced between pieces of floral flour sack prints.

Pictured below is a denim jacket I bought about ten years ago, which to me is a take-off on the denim quilt idea. Women of the 1930s could never have imagined that oday’s woman might wear a denim jacket with big earrings and high heel shoes--a trendy look  that would be quite a contrast to the dress standard of their era!
Pictured above is a denim jacket I bought about ten years ago, which to me is a take-off on the denim quilt idea. Women of the 1930s could never have imagined that today’s woman might wear a denim jacket with big earrings and high heel shoes–a trendy look that would be quite a contrast to the dress standard of their era!

Today, in boutiques, department stores and trendy mail-order catalogs one can find numerous items made of denim with floral print trim, beads, embroidery, and any number of innovative and funky decor adorning all sorts of jackets, skirts, purses and home decorations. Yes, those artistic, quilt-making mothers of the 1930s were decades ahead of their times!

Frugal Farm Women Made Flour Sack Dresses

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Poor farm women during the 1930s Great Depression didn’t have much time or money for sewing clothing. Time was especially precious to the women of the Dust Bowl because there was almost constant dirt causing problems or requiring their attention. Without enough water, or any modern conveniences, cleaning chores were tediously planned and performed. Scraping together enough ingredients to make a meal took time to execute, as well.

But those cited examples are only the tip of the iceberg as far as demonstrating Dust Bowl women’s resourcefulness and self-reliance. For sure, there wasn’t much time for flexibility in their routine. And finding time to make a garment demanded extraordinary flexibility.

Traditionally, a woman’s time with a needle would have been spent in mending, or altering their children’s old clothing, or making quilts. And any cash in pocket was slated mostly for costs of running the farm, a few food staples such as flour, or very possibly for shoe repair. Often a significant amount of money would be needed to pay the doctor for delivering the next baby.

So it was a godsend when the flourmills began to package flour in cotton sacks made of attractive floral print material. The women took a liking to that immediately. So, since my mother and most of the other moms who lived in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression were also frugal women, they saved the print materials from flour sacks to sew dresses for their daughters.

A picture of me wearing a flour sack dress Mother made in material with tiny blue flowers.
A picture of me wearing a flour sack dress Mother made in material with tiny blue flowers.

Dress patterns were an extra expense, and the women often designed their daughter’s dresses by changing some of the detailing of an old or borrowed pattern. They also made the dresses with extra-wide hems, and when it came time to lengthen the skirt, my mother and some of the other moms sewed a narrow, bright colored trim, or lace, on the faded line where the old hemline once was.

The old saying Where there’s a will, there’s a way surely fits my resourceful, self-reliant Mother and the many others like her in the Dust Bowl and throughout our nation during one of our most historically difficult times.

For more information about those times, see my book THE DIRTY DAYS.