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On Aging: Back then -- The string savers

My mother, grandmothers and mother-in-law were string savers. So were many others back then. They saved every piece of string that living brought their way, for example, that which bound together flour or fertilizer sacks. Among tobacco farmers, remnants of the balls of twine used to fasten green tobacco onto sticks for curing in the tobacco barn were prized. There was always string tucked away in drawers or cigar boxes — the soft remnants of balls of tobacco twine or rolls of a few inches to a few feet string wrapped around short sticks, pencil stubs or fragments of cardboard.

If asked why they saved string, they replied, "You never know when you will need it." It had a thousand uses. It bound strips of soft, worn cloth around toes injured in the heedless pursuit of life bare-footed in the summer or around fingers nipped by pocket knives or mashed by farm implements or the mules that pulled them. Doubled three or four times, it attached the shoulder straps of cotton sacks to the sacks themselves. It tied together bundles of household records and letters from sons or brothers away at war in Europe or the Pacific. The things bound with the string were also saved, just like the string.

Sewing thread of any length was saved. Worn or torn work shirts and pants were in constant need of stitching or patching, as were blouses, skirts, aprons and dresses for women and girls. Hard work and play led to frequent rending and the need for mending because there was no such thing as buying new until the garment was worn out or outgrown.

It was not just string; they saved everything: nails and screws of every size, pencils more than an inch in length, dented pots and pans, wire of any sort and length, broken tools and utensils that maybe somebody could fix someday. Pins were tiny treasures. They were used routinely in sewing but could become emergency fasteners for ripped clothes until a needle and bit of thread could be found. Safety pins were the next thing to money because they fastened everything from diapers to malfunctioning underwear and would hold a rip in place for days if necessary.

They were string savers because they had to be. Everything was scarce because they got too little money from their crops. Their husbands and children looked to them for solutions in crises great or small. They were clothiers, nurses, comforters and teachers. Those who became adept at problem-solving were intelligent and industrious and knew how to find resources in a world or persistent scarcity.

Worn linens were kept for straining milk fresh from the cow and juice from fruit in jelly-making, for dish cloths, for bandages and to cover the chests of croupy children after they had been rubbed with Vicks Salve or Musterole. Cloth from flour sacks was used for the same things unless it was good enough for making shirts for children or work blouses for women and even underwear. After bleaching with lye soap and sunshine to remove product identification, such cloth could be fashioned into things that looked as good as store-bought. Some flour makers sold their products in printed bags, attractive clothing material.

Fertilizer came in 200-pound bags made of heavy, tough cotton cloth. They were used for sacks for cotton picking. They were unsewed (saving the string), washed and dried on the fence. These rectangles of strong cloth were sewed together with a large needle and strong thread (that had been saved earlier) to make sheets for marketing tobacco or to hold cotton when pickers filled their sacks.

This cloth was sometimes used for clothes. It was washed in strong lye water, pounded and scrubbed to remove color from print and labels and softened and dried in bright sunshine for bleaching. Then it could be made into pants and shirts. These were "hard times" garments for this cloth was of rough texture. No amount of processing ever made it soft. It rubbed the skin. It stretched when wet from dew, rain or sweat and farmers were always wet from one or more of these. Wearing these clothes advertised adversity, not a matter of great shame but not source of pride.

"Getting by" was a way of life back then, making do with whatever could be found to solve the daily challenges of living. There were always hopes for a bountiful crop year, one when nobody got very sick or died, when no mule sickened or died, one without unexpected expenses or losses. When things went just right, it was possible to replace broken things, buy some new clothes or a better used car. But mostly crops were "just middling" or markets for cotton, tobacco, cows or hogs were "off this year" or children "got the whooping cough" and maybe even died. Whatever the case, they were accustomed to "getting by," to living off what they could raise on the farm and coping with problems with the string they had saved.

The string savers were shaped by their history. Three epochs molded how they saw their world and responded to it. These were the frontier experience, the Civil War and political economy which followed-internal colonialism and the Great Depression. The frontier experience, marked by subsistence economy (mostly living off the land), was obviously one of scarcity and adaptation. As W.J. Cash wrote in "The Mind of the South," the Civil War drove the South back into frontier-like economic conditions from which it did not recover until World War II.

The Great Depression devastated everyone: North, South, East and West, but in the South, it followed another scourge, the boll weevil, which slashed cotton yields by as much as three-fourths. Farmers who considered alternate crops faced failed banks and heavy debts on their own farms. Since most of them had continued subsistence patterns established in frontier scarcity and post-Civil War destitution, they could produce and conserve most of their food, although the variety was often limited. They could make some of their clothes.

So, they saved: scraps of cloth for quilts and patches on worn clothes, scraps of leather to repair harness and shoes, fried meat grease from cooking cured meat to be used for more frying or as shortening and pins and broken things and string, because you never knew when you might need such things. In fact, they often did. I remember.

Many children of the Depression are still string savers. Decades of affluence and ready availability of nails, screws and string cannot erase the nagging uncertainty carved into the psyche by childhood want and the words and habits of parents who spent dark times wondering how they would feed and clothe their children. It will be the duty of offspring raised in boundless plenty to discard the "stuff" saved by those of us who are the last generation of string savers.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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