Make Do and Mend
I love domestic history and experimental archeology which means the BBC’s “farm series” is one of my FAVORITE TV shows to watch on repeat. If you’ve never heard of this series, it is a collection of several documentaries that follow archeologists and historians in their attempts to recreate history. I think truthfully I love the series because it’s as close to time travel as we can get. Had I known experimental archeology was a job, I might have reconsidered my career path.
Now, I love the Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm and Wartime Farm equally but it is the Wartime Farm that has been truly fascinating in the light of our current quarantined state. “Make do and mend” was the rally cry of many British citizens during the Second World War. It was not only a necessity but viewed as a patriotic duty. What started out as make do and mend your clothing became a concept for all parts of life. You see, during the First World War, Britain was nearly starved into surrender by blockades so when the Second World War began they knew serious and divisive action would be needed to keep that from happening again. Just like us, the UK was under heavy rationing but unlike us, as the war went on, they lost access to some of the most basic items. For example, soap was a very popular Christmas gift because it was so hard to come by.
The series “Wartime Farm” focuses on the struggles of country folk in Britain during this time as they fought to double crop production while handling other wartime tasks. Alex and Peter focus on the farming aspect while Ruth gives an honest look at the domestic issues many faced. Make do and mend became a part of everyday life. No blankets for the townsfolk now sleeping in your barn? Make blankets out of scraps. No new machinery available for the farm? Melt down scrap iron laying around and figure out how to build it yourself. Milk gone bad? We can’t have wastage so turn it into cottage cheese.
You always hear those who lived through WWII described as “The Greatest Generation” and they were but often we only think of the soldiers doing their part but in reality everyone down to the housewife making “murkey” (That’s mock turkey.) for Christmas were truly amazing! The can do attitude was incredible and their resourcefulness and creativity was unmatched. And it wasn’t just the necessities that got this treatment. There were all kinds of articles teaching you how to make fake glitter and ornaments for Christmas, how to recreate a stylish hat out of your husband’s old trilby and how to make fake orange juice for recipes. They weren’t willing to just struggle and get by but rather they wanted to truly make the best of every situation. Remember, this is the country where red lipstick became the must have item in a woman’s arsenal because Hitler hated women with red lips. Oh the sass!
All of this has got me to thinking… First, in the midst of just a few weeks it has become obvious that we have lost so many basic skills which are very valuable in tough times. As a whole, we can’t sew, cook or be resourceful in a way that doesn’t require Google. I’m SOOOO thankful to have access to a plethora of information on the internet but I wish we put more value on grandmother and grandfather skills. Skills that our grandparents knew how to tackle as second nature. Technology is wonderful but completely writing off older ways of doing things is a bit foolish because we are not guaranteed Amazon delivery to save the day as we have very quickly learned.
These small bits of knowledge literally saved a nation during World War II. Production in many factories ground to a halt or was switched to war related tasks so these old fashioned skills came back into the limelight and it’s so cool to see how doing your bit could literally change the tide of the war which leads to my second thought. I think the idea of everybody pulling their weight has been somewhat lost on society. We are so used to functioning independently because we don’t do a lot of tasks that rely on the help of others. You don’t need your neighbor to help you raise your barn anymore and it seems we only come together in times of crisis. Personally, I love the stories of the war that come from the ordinary people making small contributions towards victory! The battle wasn’t just fought on the front lines. It was in the fields, in the factory and in the home. I also love that this generation kind of just got stuck in to the tasks at hand. They weren’t dragged kicking and screaming into helping one another. Many spoke of this time with great joy and pride in all that was accomplished. (Would we do the same?)
The WI (Women’s Institute) made jams and jellies to put into the food system. There was a national pie scheme that literally saw women showing up in fields carrying platters of meat pies to feed laborers who were doing other crucial tasks. Pigeon fanciers became critical to the dissemination of secret and critical information. Women (and men) who were brilliant at math went to work for Bletchley and farmer’s wives tracked German bombers, lit decoy fires for Operation Starfish, passed secret messages on to the Home Guard and more, all while getting supper on the table!
So, as you are stuck in quarantine why not try to be resourceful and creative. Contribute to the good in whatever ways you safely can, even if that only means writing thank you notes to the mail carriers, police officers or medical staff in your area.
Finally, why not try to get old fashioned. Try to sew a button on or hem some scrap fabric? Try to make bread, tea cakes or some other easy recipe that doesn’t require opening a can or package. Whittle a stick or a bar of soap…anything that gets you (and the kids) using your hands in a way that doesn’t require technology. Make it a time travel game if you must but try something new. If nothing else maybe, we will learn something that will keep our hands busy in the midst of this time and will make us productive later in life.
During this time, if you are looking for something to take you to a different time and place, might I suggest the above mentioned “farm” series. Most of the “farm” series and similar documentaries employ the same structure and many of the same presenters. They cover the Medieval period (Secrets of the Castle), Stuart period (Tales from the Green Valley), Tudor period (Tudor Monastery Farm and Tudor Christmas Feast), Victorian period (Victorian Farm and Victorian Pharmacy), Edwardian period (Edwardian Farm) and the period of the Second World War (Wartime Farm). My personal favorites are the ones that include Alex Langlands (archeologist), Peter Ginn (archeologist) and Ruth Goodman (historian). You can often find them on YouTube or off Amazon. (They also have complementary books but I haven’t read them yet.)