EVERY WEEK WE SORT BOTTLES and plastic jugs, cardboard and newspapers, and pack food scraps and other wet garbage into expensive plastic bags and head off to our local solid waste transfer station. If we didn’t, we would be buried in hundreds of pounds of waste material each month. This time of year, and the holidays make things even worse. Wonder what people did fifty, or a hundred years or more ago?
When we were a more agrarian society there wasn’t much thought about waste piling up because almost anything leftover had a purpose and a place. Recycling as a term did not yet exist; it was just practiced. My parents and grandparents and older generations often lived on the edge of survival and had to be frugal and saving. There weren’t plastic containers or many disposable items. Some medicines came in glass bottles, which were put in a small dump area on the farm. It has been interesting to dig through these areas to discover bottles once containing horse liniment, Lydia Pinkham’s female herbal remedy (alcohol content 40 proof), and very rarely a wine or other spirits bottle. Some of them were salvaged and today the blue Bromo-Seltzer, blue-green Palmer’s hair oil, and brown or white medicine bottles decorate our windowsills.
Most bottles could be washed and refilled with vinegar, wine or other liquids. Father kept a long-necked bottle for “dosing” horses or cows with liquid medicines. The animal’s head could be held in an elevated, restrained position, and the long bottle neck was inserted in the mouth away from teeth, and the contents poured down the throat. It worked surprisingly well. It was washed and ready for the next dosing.
Grandfather Kern had some dairy cows and a milk delivery route to Philmont. One or two forty-quart milk cans of raw milk went into the horse drawn wagon and customers came out with their tin milk pails of several quart capacity and the milk dipped out with a ladle to fill them. All were washed and ready for the next time. At home, the milk was kept cold with ice from the icehouse because there was no electricity. It was local and farm fresh. Pottery crocks, glass jam jars, and canning jars were reusable containers. Sauerkraut was made from shredded cabbage and salt and kept over winter in pottery crocks as well as some wines and pickled meats.
Barrels held cider and vinegar. Everyone canned fruits and vegetables and meats. Hams were salted, rubbed, smoked, and hung on poles so few mice could get to them, and slices were cut off as needed. In our 1750 farmhouse was an upstairs closet with a wooden pole placed up high and this was where the hams were hung. That closet always smelled wonderfully smoky.
There was no waste. Apple peelings, food scraps, and other edible material went to the pigs and the chickens. They particularly relished these during the winter. Papers were used to start fires and burned in the stoves or fireplaces. People had root cellars and cold basement areas where the fruit and vegetable harvest could be stored. There were reusable wooden bins, barrels, boxes, burlap bags, and baskets for storage.
Sometimes a deer or side of beef would be hung in a cold shed area for the winter and pieces cut off as needed. Uncle did this occasionally with a leg of venison. Some family members wouldn’t touch the often blue mold covered meat, but it could be washed off or trimmed, and it was so tender and more flavorful. Delicious grilled. Meat scraps might go to a dog. Cats and dogs kept the rodent populations down without use of cardboard sticky traps or much use of poisons.
A family farm was a wonderfully balanced existence with each part dependent on another. There was an understanding of nature and interconnectivity of all life that we are finally recognizing again today. A return to an existence based on common sense and less waste; a modern version of our “old time recycling.”