“Use it up/ Wear it out/ Make it do/ Or do without.”
Long before that slogan was coined by the War Advertising Council during World War II, thrift and ingenuity were hallmarks of American life.
Until 1900, life in America was largely agrarian. Some 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas and 40 percent of those on actual farms. With temptation to buy often deterred by distance, it was largely prompted by the occasional arrival of the Montgomery Ward or Sears catalogue—themselves reused as toilet paper. So, Americans “made do,” using household items until they were worn out or repurposed to serve again.
“There was very little waste on the farm,” remembered the late Frances Wohlfert of Canaan, recalling turn-of-the -century life in Maine for an interview. “You didn’t go out and buy new furniture every other year. Food scraps went to the pigs, coffee grounds into the garden and if your dress wore out, you used the good fabric left in it to make clothes for the children.”
Flour was purchased in 50-pound burlap bags and the burlap was washed until soft to use for towels or other household needs. Other foods—usually things that could not be grown on the farm—were packaged in paper by the merchant or delivered in wooden boxes that could be reused. It was a simple existence conducted lightly on the land.
That all exploded after World War II when Depression-and-war-weary
Americans, with money jingling in their pockets and goods again rolling
off the production lines, began to expand their consumerism. Americans
were eager to spend and the government, keen to boost the economy,
encouraged them to do so, praising the consumer as a patriotic citizen.
Inevitably, things got out of hand. Today, the United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population, yet consumes about a quarter of the planet’s resources. The consumerism of the 1950s, increasing exponentially with the development of plastics and chemical industries, embraced single-use items designed to be thrown away. Decades later, the throwaway lifestyle has led to packaging waste making up 30 percent of American household trash. In 2011, the average American produced 4.4 pounds of household garbage per day, twice as much as in 1960.
There have been consequences, both from the toxic production methods used and the waste that clogs land and sea. But now there is a move toward more conservative use of resources and a renewed awareness of the potential attributes of reuse and repurposing. The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) promotes “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of products (and) packaging … .”
Surprisingly, SWIA is not an unalloyed fan of recycling in the sense most Americans know it. Recycling and converting materials to new products is energy intensive which creates its own pollution and recycling encourages more consumption. ZWIA takes aim at the “take, make and waste” approach to production and consumption and encourages a “more circular approach to the way we use resources.”
A lofty goal, indeed, that will require a rethinking of the national economy, industrial adaptation and personal commitment from the citizenry. But it is not all a matter of onerous self-denial. Simple steps can make our home environment both beautiful and more sustainable. All it takes is an eye attuned to potential and the will to make it happen—either by ourselves or by someone with the requisite skills. Some projects can be as big as building a structure with recycled construction and demolition materials—the EPA offers fact sheets and guidance on this—or as small as taking Aunt Lizzie’s tatted doilies, attaching them to a linen base, and making an attractive runner for a table.
Inspiration can be found in the cast-off items sitting in own attics, barns and storage units or through visits to antiques and collectible dealers who often offer desirable prices. Or you can peruse the creations of experts in the field.
In Canaan dwells a couple with a creative eye, ready to seize the opportunity to turn trash into treasure. For many years, Michael Reagan and Ann Talmadge have taken the old, the discarded, the under-appreciated and crafted new objects from their parts.
“When we lived in Maryland, everything was repurposed,” said Talmadge, who with Reagan has operated the Old New England Market in Main Street in Canaan for the past two years. “We worked craft fairs with our products.” Among their top-sellers were the ubiquitous dome-topped trunks used in earlier days to pack the voluminous clothing carried by women on their travels. Under Reagan and Talmadge’s skillful hands, they found new use as bar cabinets.
“What else are you going to do with them,” Reagan asked. “They have curved tops, so you can’t put anything on top of them. But if you open them, you can alter them to hold ice and your beverages. It was all very pirate-looking and they were very popular.”
Now, he said, he works a lot in wood using everything from materials drawn from an old chicken coop to furniture stylish in previous generations. In their own home he took two heavy end tables popular in the 1980s, painted them, brought them together under a unifying top and made an under-the-stairs table. A similar inspiration led Tallmadge to combine a little cabinet and a deep bowl to make a chic sink for a small bathroom.
As with all other home styles, fashions change and the creators have to catch the wave. Reagan said that for a while old school desks were popular but have since faded. But the desks can still be repurposed. The decorative metal legs are perfect for making new tables with a certain panache.
Down in Kent, RT Facts has been taking antique items and converting
them into upscale creations for nearly three decades. A dynamic group of
designers and artists assist Greg and Natalie Randall in the
fabrication of elegant articles that will make any home a standout.
Half of their pieces are antique but are carefully chosen for what they call “the quirk-factor.” They mix these aged pieces with sleek, contemporary artisanal furniture made in their own shop and on view in their gallery at 8 Barn Road.
The firm’s owners draw inspiration from the classics and the natural world, balancing the character and integrity of the antique with the freshness of modern design, according to Natalie Randall.
“We’re inspired by history and attracted to the form, quality and soul of a piece. … We’re always listening and learning so we can make smart decisions about design.”
But, she added, it is a business that is always evolving. The artist cannot simply reflect what is already happening. “You have to have the audacity to create what is happening next,” she said on their website.
Over in Catskill NY, Chrisie Cordrey is shaking up the world of upholstered furniture at The Corduroy Shop. Originally from California, she brings a taste for the vibrant and colorful to the staid world of Eastern décor. Sometimes termed “an upholstery artist,” she scours the market to find just the right vintage materials to rearrange and reassemble in unique upholstery fabrics.
“It started with a love of textiles. It’s evolved to a riot of storied cloth on equally storied chair frames. And it goes on from there!” she said.
Once she decides on the combination of fabrics to work with, she pairs them with vintage furniture creating a new identity and a new life for an old piece of furniture.
“Things get redone, revisited, reimagined and reconstructed,” she says on her website. “We are passionate about mending time-worn textiles and find a new bold place for them on chairs, sofas, pillows or, occasionally, apparel.
She confesses to liking the extremes of “whimsy” and “edgy.” “The resulting feeling can fall anywhere between the two,” she writes.
These artisans are among the many who remind us of the admonition of Ecclesiasts: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.