It is cool in our modern-day society to be “green.” Who doesn’t like to pat themselves on the back for embracing the cutting-edge ideas of local foods and frugal living? I sure do. But is the concept of being green really as avant-garde as we like to think it is?
The answer is probably not. Our great-grandparents supported many of the same sustainable principles we do today, and may have even done them better back then than we do now. Their practices in food, household goods, clothing, homes and landscapes all offered fine examples of sustainability – which they perhaps would have called common sense. They also saved money along the way.
1. Food. Some of the food choices our great-grandparents made that society calls green include:
- They cooked from scratch. Breads, cakes, meatballs, stews and confections were made from whole foods bought in bulk, in contrast to today’s mixes and pre-made convenience foods which include lots of packaging.
- They ate foods that were local and in season. Instead of Granny Smith apples being shipped from Argentina and fresh summer squash in January, they relied primarily on what was available from nearby. They had fresh fare in season, and stored or preserved food the rest of the year.
- They grew much of their own ingredients. Vegetables, fruit, dairy, eggs and meat were often raised right in their backyards. It does not get much greener than stepping out the back door to harvest fresh vegetables and eggs for a homemade meal.
- Organic food was the norm. Instead of going out of their way to buy groceries that were free of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and non-food additives, they lived in a world where it was safe to assume most foods did not contain those things.
2. Household goods. Our ancestors chose well when it came to everyday use items in their lives. Some of their more notable sustainable practices were:
- There were not a lot of single-use or disposable goods in those days. Coffee singles, individual yogurt containers, blister-packed lunches, and Styrofoam cups of microwave soups were not on the market. Instead, our great-grandparents had more practical and reusable options.
- They homemade a lot of items, from tools to toys to accessories.
- What belongings they could not make themselves, they often repaired and modified as needed. Their go-to option was making the most of what they already had. Buying new was the last resort.
- Items were repurposed as much as possible. String was saved for reuse. Purchases and gifts were carefully unwrapped so that the paper could be used again. Containers were washed out and upcycled.
- They just plain needed less goods. Great-grandma and great-grandpa did not own smart phones, video games, electric fingernail buffers or paper shredders. They spent much of their time doing the work required to provide for their needs. What spare time they had was devoted more to simple pleasures and less to being entertained.
3. Clothing. Except for those belonging to the wealthiest people, wardrobes were modest. Clothing was kept until it wore out. Sweaters were sometimes pulled apart and re-knit into a new garment. Children changed into play clothes and shoes when they got home, in order to make their more valuable garments designated for school and church last longer.
New clothing was often purchased strictly for church and special occasions. When good clothing began to show wear, it was reassigned to everyday use. When it became tattered and torn and needed patching, it would be demoted again to farm and outdoor wear. When clothing items were no longer wearable at all, they would continue to serve as rags for cleaning.
4. Homes. People in our great-grandparents’ day observed “green living” in their homes by using less energy and more renewable materials and fuels. Some of the ways they did so are as follows:
- They used natural cycles to regulate heat and cold in their homes. During summer months, they opened windows in the evening to allow the cool air in, and kept blinds and draperies closed to the sun during the day.
- They adjusted themselves to the weather instead of the other way around. People wore sweaters in the winter and took care to stay cool in summer.
- They planned their cooking so as to use the stove minimally. Rather than heat the oven for bread in the morning, cookies at midday, and a roast in the evening, it made more sense to bake items back-to-back for maximum efficiency.
- They used the coolest water possible when washing clothes, and hung the wash outside to dry.
- They were diligent about using energy only when necessary. Leaving lights on during the day or in an empty room was a no-no.
- Homes were of sensible size. McMansions with over 4,000 square feet and four bathrooms were unheard of.
5. Landscapes. Like the homes themselves, yards were moderate in size and purpose. Just think about some of our lawns today. We add fertilizer to make the grass grow, herbicides to kill off the dandelions, and pesticides to eliminate the insects. Then the kids and pets need to avoid being on the grass because of all the toxic additives, so the only person who has any contact with the four-acre lawn is the dad mowing it on a lawn tractor while his kids are inside playing video games. Our great-grandparents did it differently.
I plan to continue doing my best to live “green,” and hope you do as well. But in doing so, let us all remember to thank our ancestors who paved the way by practicing common-sense strategies in their generation.
What would you add to our list? Share your thoughts in the section below:
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