The Frugal Housewife

CWwindswinterThis is one long, cold winter. Brrr! It has driven me to go back to wearing turtlenecks and 100% wool sweaters. I pulled out my favorite Polo sweater and found holes! Moth holes! I pulled a couple more & the little buggers were chomping on most of my Polo and Izod sweaters. They love wool and here they’ve got good – expensive – taste but oh I was sooo mad! It is devastating to pull out a favorite sweater and find holes in them thanks to these little critters. What do people do today when this happens? After muttering a few colorful metaphors, the sweater gets tossed.

In today’s society of being constantly busy, we’ve become a throwaway society. Broken, buy new! But that’s not how people used to be…

Godey's FashionsFor centuries, many people did not have the wardrobes we have today. Unless you were royalty or titled, the majority had a few articles for everyday and one dressy piece for church or social gathering. During the time of the American Civil War, a great deal of men’s clothing was made of wool. Pants, frockcoats and waistcoats were wool. Why? Because wool is a great fabric. Made of tightly woven fibers, it held dirt on the surface unlike cotton, which absorbed it, whether it was mud or wine or anything, staining it. If mud got on wool trousers or skirt, it’d be allowed to dry then a fabric beater, like a carpet beater, would be struck on the item and the dried wool would flake off.

For ladies, with those long skirts that hit the floor, what did they do to make them not fray or mar with dirt? Many ladies put a ruffle around the bottom and it took the filth off the streets, sidewalks and home. If it didn’t wash out, the ruffle was torn from the skirt and a new one attached. A new ruffle made of another color or new trims, made the skirt look new. Or they lined the bottom with twill-tape, sewn on the inside so only a glimpse of it showed on the hemline. Colored to match the skirt, this piece save the hem from dirt and once it was beyond redemption, it was an easy to remove and replace.

CWSewingHomeFrontDuring the Civil War, Southern ladies had to become the Frugal Housewife and find alternatives as the Union naval blockade kept imports out. Therefore, fabric from the North or England wasn’t available, neither were many notions such as stays for corsets, etc. So they redesigned what they had. Fixed their hoops by narrowing them or not wearing it at all. They streamlined their skirts, cutting fabric to repair another area, thus making the skirt not as wide as fashion dictated. Pagoda sleeves were made narrow, cuffs and collars made from other scraps and they reversed the fabric to give it a ‘fresh’ appearance. Women already used shank buttons on their bodices. These buttons were not truly sewn on but the shank went through the slit at the buttonhole and was held there by a ribbon that ran the length of the bodice. To give a change of appearance, they pulled the ribbon, releasing the buttons and they threaded different ones in their place. Quite the ingenious way to make one outfit look like five.

Surprisingly enough, The Gone With The Wind portrayal of using curtains for material wasn’t that far off the norm.

Keep in mind, ladies changed clothing many times a day. During the winter, it may be 3-5 times, summer 7-9 depending. They had their morning gown, working gown, cooking, traveling, day dress as well as evening supper, evening party and ballgowns. It might sound insane to change but it was a way to keep the outfits cleaner than wearing one all day.

vintage-copper-wash-tub-leeann-mclane-goetzLaundry was a nightmare – an all day affair literally. Washed by hand with a scrub board and soap, it was a task assigned to Mondays. Whites were done in boiling water, colors in cold. Dresses were roughly 7-8 yards of fabric. A big piece to wash so they deconstructed it – bodice from skirt, sleeves from bodice – so smaller pieces to scrub and to dry. Drying was on clothesline outside. Whites placed in sunlight to bleach them whiter; colors turned inside out and hung in the shade to keep from fading. Ironing was with a cast-iron iron like we see for decoration today. It had to warm enough to iron but not hot enough to burn. Regardless of societal class, when they could afford to, they hired a 12 year old to do it for them. One way to make the load not as heavy, they changed clothes throughout the day so they weren’t soiled – I read an account of a lady who wore a new dress in May and didn’t wash it until August! Yet some had to be done and it was much easier to wash collars and cuffs, which get noticeably dirty, than the whole dress.

But what about those moth holes? They FIXED them. Women learned how to sew – whether they were good or not didn’t matter. They learned it enough to be able to repair things. Knitting was also a skill majority had. With that knowledge, and using things like cedar chests, they could keep most of their woolen fabric safe.

CW knittingSo what about my moth-holed sweaters? When my mother was alive, she fixed them.

My mother was a Depression era child. These children were educated about getting by on nothing and making things last. My mother was great at sewing. Made all my clothes I wore in childhood. I remember wishing for store bought clothes…difficult being the one with the pretty – and unique – outfit. She also knitted and for these, she knew how to get into the sweater and reknit the holes closed. Alas, I never acquired those skills…

So, I did the best I could – I used needle and thread to sewn them close.

IMG_1356There actually is a book on how to be a frugal housewife: The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated To Those Who Are Not Ashamed Of Economy by Mrs. Child, 1833. A fascinating read. Makes you wonder – could you become a “frugal housewife”?

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32 thoughts on “The Frugal Housewife

  1. Thanks for this post, Gina. This is very interesting stuff. It must have hurt to toss those moth-eaten sweaters. Here in S. Florida most everything I have is cotton, so my clothes are safe from those critters, but I do shake out my garments before I put them on because while we may not have moths to deal with, spiders are another story. The photo of the washboard brought back some memories. I remember my mom using one when I was little.

  2. Great article, Gina. Loved it. I was a frugal housewife for years when my kids were little. I opted to leave the workforce to raise my kids, so I sewed their clothes, made food from scratch and bought a lot of their things from thrift stores. We lived comfortably on one paycheck for 15 years.

  3. Fascinating post. I have the same problem – my mother is a Depression child and she never throws anything out and somehow does use it for something else. I can barely sew n a button!
    Tweeted.

    • LOL Daryl – I can sew – a little. Civil War undergarments – yes; today’s clothes? No! Should have learned from my mom…

      Thank you for the tweet! :)

  4. Great post! While we’re just learning to recycle, our ancestors reused things because they had no other choices. They reused material, washed clothes less so they’d last longer and utilized everything they owned in some way.

    It’s hard to imagine in our throw-away society.

    • I guess I’m a bit of a hybrid from the standpoint I tend to keep only to later go why? Cuz somehow, not the sort to reuse.

      Thank you for stopping by :)

  5. Loved the post! I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I am very frugal. Raised that way, yes, but I reuse almost everything. I learned how to sew pretty young, so I could have fashionable shirts. Even the store bought ones would eventually get modified, especially if they had holes.

    Again, great post!

  6. Enjoyed the blog. My grandmother made me long jeans. I liked them because I was very long legged and store bought clothes were always highwaters on me. But she’d make them touch the ground like I asked, assuring her with shoes they’d be fine. I in kind made clothes for my 38 barbies from slips that belonged to my mother. I’m not sure my mother knew where her slips were going… but it was for a good cause.

    • LOL about the slips. Funny, I had to have the other done for me on jeans – I’m way too short (I’m avg height for c.1850 – 5′) so had to shorten…

      Thanks for stopping by! :)

  7. Great post, Gina. Two years ago, I went to the festival of New France held every summer in Old Québec City. To make the experience more fun, our whole group rented costumes from the 1625-1750 era.

    My costume was a peasant dress. Since peasants were poor, women only had one dress. Actually, it was a skirt and a shirt. The skirt had yards and yards of fabric around the waist, ready to be loosened while pregnant or tied while not.

    It was a great experience.

    • Sounds like fun! I have a French peasant dress for 1804 – Lewis & Clark Expedition. That empire waist gets me after years wearing Civil War – stays too short so I felt like I was in a maternity dress over the hourglass figure of 1860. Too funny!

      Thank you for stopping by! :)

  8. I admit I’d probably toss out the sweater rather than mend it. Wool is hard to fix. i also don’t darn, but I do mend tears, sew buttons, patch jeans, repair stuffed animals and Halloween costumes. I used to make all my clothes, but don’t have the inspiration to sew that intensely any more.
    Great post.

    • Ah, but I love these sweaters – haven’t worn in ages cuz I couldn’t but now, lost enough weight to do so. They’re too much money to rebuy and many you can’t so I ‘fixed’ them as best I could. LOL I can fix stuff like you too (got the dog’s toy to repair next) but not talented nor patient enough to sew an outfit for me. Thank you for stopping by. :)

    • Wow! Soap – that’s a lot of work! Yeah, my mother saved everything so when she died, we had gobs to go through – and she’d already ‘cleaned’ it out a few years before! :)

  9. What a fun post. I remember my gram making dresses for all five of us girls. She loved to sew. We had dresses for Christmas and Easter. I used to sew clothes for my daughter. But I’ve given up with the new clothes. Now the lighter weight fabrics today seem to waste away quickly.

    • Thank you Melissa – and I so agree! What a way to market, huh? Make it pretty & cheap so need to buy more! That’s why I like these sweaters – they’re good quality & I like them plus can now wear them!! :)

  10. Great blog! We have it so easy these days. I do remember my grandmother having an old abandoned wash tub in her basement with two long round rubber bars across it. Clothes were fed between those bars to squeeze out the excell water. I was very young and couldn’t figure out why she’d ever use it when my mother used a washing machine. I think they were still using these into the 1930s. No wonder women seldom worked outside of the home. There was no time!

  11. Hey Gina,
    Those moth bastards got into my Irish sweaters, which I bought on my honeymoon. There’s a gaping hole on the sleeve of my cherry red and little dots of chawed wool on my moss green. It kills me! But, being the daughter of a daughter of the Depression, I can’t bring myself to throw them away. I’m going to take them to the dry cleaner and see what she can do. Personally, I have ZERO knitting and sewing skills. I’m so bad, my husband has been designated the official button, rip and tear mender.

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