Recycling down on the farm 1880s style

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By Rick Palsgrove
Southeast Editor

Messenger photo by Rick Palsgrove
Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm worker Rachel Brooks preparing to recycle used dishwater in the farm’s kitchen.

People on Ohio farms in the 1880s lived a frugal lifestyle that embraced recycling in a more in-depth way than we do today.

According to information provided by Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm, located at 1375 State Route 674 North, Canal Winchester, a 19th century saying sums up our ancestors’ outlook: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”

Farm families of the 1880s did not live in a disposable culture. They could not easily make frequent trips to town to the store for needed items. They labored long hours to earn their money so they reused as much material as they could on the farm.

“Everything was used,” said Slate Run Living Historical Farm worker Rachel Brooks. “There was little to no waste.”

Brooks cited the butchering process as an example where meat for food was salted and smoked, animal fat was used to make soap, bones could be ground up for other uses, and animal hides turned into leather.

“They tried to get as much use out of a product as they could,” said Brooks.

At first glance, some things seem unlikely for reuse, such as ash leftover from burning wood in the farm’s stoves. While soap from a store was available, the pioneer farmers often made their own soap by pouring water through ashes to create lye. The lye was combined with clean animal fat and then heated and thickened into a soap for bathing and for laundry uses. Ashes could also be combined with sand to create a scrubbing cleanser for skillets and such.

Cleaning wasn’t the only use for leftover ashes as the substance was also used by 1880s era farmers to fertilize the garden or fields as well as being dusted on broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower to ward off insects.

Turns out a lot of things on the farm could be reused as fertilizer to enrich the soil in the fields, including ground bone meal, straw, corn cobs, and manure.

A farm in the 1880s could plant up to 60 acres of corn, which would produce thousands of pounds of corn cobs. Nothing will eat a corn cob, so other uses were found for this abundant item, including using it as a scrubbing tool or turning the cobs into toys. Cobs could also be cut into discs and used as checkers for a game of checkers.

After threshing time, straw was abundant and could be used for stuffing horse collars, made into straw hats, used as mulch, made into livestock bedding, or twisted into a rope.

Turnips, beets, potatoes, and carrots were protected during shipping by packing them in sawdust. Sawdust could also be smoldered to produce smoke for smoking meat. Hickory or apple wood sawdust was used to add flavor to the smoked meat.

When it came to the livestock, the hog was the ultimate example of reuse on the 1880s farm as almost every part of the animal could be used for something. The old saying goes, “You can use everything but the squeal.”

Farm recycling in the 1880s was not limited to the barnyard as the farmhouse kitchen also was an active place of reuse for various items.

Eggshells could be crushed and fed to the chickens to enrich their calcium levels.

Apples were primarily for eating, but their peels could be boiled and then the juice strained and cooked to be used in jelly. The remnant boiled peels were then fed to the hogs.

Stale bread and cake crumbs could be made into puddings and dressings.

The kitchen’s “slop bucket” would contain scraps, odd leftovers, peelings, and other such things which would be fed to the hogs. The hogs were sort of the 19th century version of a garbage disposal.

Used dishwater was not poured down a drain. Instead it was gathered up and used to water plants.

The farmhouse would also have a “rag bag” of odds and ends pieces of cloth that could be used for washing windows and lamp chimneys, as well as for other household cleaning. When these rags became too worn for further use, they could be sold or traded to be used to make paper. Rags could also be fashioned into toys, like a rag doll.

“It’s interesting to look back and see what lengths our ancestors could, and would, go to in order to reuse things,” said Brooks.

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