Owt for Nowt
by Jim Coulson
The government are very keen to point out that Britain is no longer slumped in recession. We’re told that the economy is back on track and that industrial growth is moving on apace. The only problem is that no one seems to have told the people who sort out the pay rises. Essentially we’re all still skint.
No matter how much free coffee they throw at us (metaphorically of course), we’re deserting the premium supermarkets and starting to frequent the budget ones with the funny European names (having stopped off on the way to pick up said free coffee from the posh store before promptly turning round and scurrying back to the car with credit card still securely tucked away in wallet or handbag).
It’s not enough though. We need more moneysaving inspiration and where better to find it than by evoking the wartime, Blitz spirit and taking a leaf out of Granny’s book? We’re not talking about sending the kids off to the countryside for a few years and sleeping in a hut at the end of your garden but, yes, that would bring your household expenditure right down. Rather, we should look at the tricks and tips that saw the old dear keep house so successfully with no luxuries, little food and, literally, bombs falling all around her.
Unless your Granny was stepping out with a GI, full of American bravura, charm and laden with nylons, she will have found it difficult to acquire stockings during the war. No reputable lady of the town would be seen dead in the queue for half a pound of tripe at the local butchers with bare legs, and trousers on women were still a couple of decades away from respectability so an ingenious solution was called for.
That great staple of the British diet, tea, was of a particularly poor quality during the Second World War so, once used in the traditional way, Granny would have no qualms about painting her legs with it to give the impression that she was wearing stockings, even drawing up the back of the leg with an eyebrow pencil to create a pretend seam. Clever huh? If it wasn’t much fun to drink it may as well serve some other use. That is essentially the beginnings of what Channel 4’s Kirstie Allsopp would call ‘upcycling’, it’s not just a 21st century phenomenon, you know.
If you’re constantly replacing laddered hosiery then you might reach the point where you start to believe you’re singlehandedly financing the Marks and Spencer staff Christmas do. Save yourself some cash, take a (tea) leaf out of old Doris’s book and, when people ask you what you’re wearing, you can proudly state that you’ve discarded American Tan, eschewed English Rose and have plumped well and truly for good old PG Tips.
During the Second World War, Barry Scott from the Cillit Bang adverts was just a twinkle in his Grandad’s eye yet still the drains needed unblocking and your house-proud Nan didn’t have time to waste dunking pennies into fish tanks full of corrosive chemicals just to see how much her currency could shine if she really tried. She solved the problem through a mixture of science and the contents of her pantry. In order to emulate her thrifty solution all you need to do is pour a
pot of boiling water down the clogged pipes, chuck in 100g of baking soda and let it sit for a few minutes. Next pour a mixture of 200ml vinegar and 200ml of hot water down the drain so it covers the baking powder and cover with the plug whilst it reacts. Give it five minutes to make sure it’s all done and then flush it out with boiling water.
Your drain’s unblocked, you’ve saved yourself some cash on a fancy product from the supermarket, you’re not sending anything nasty into the environment and you can legitimately force your teenager to clean the bathroom from now on, claiming that it forms a decent chunk of their GCSE Chemistry practical work.
Vinegar and baking powder don’t just team up down the drain though; your Grandma will have used them for so much more. This winning combination, this Paul and Barry Chuckle of pantry items was also perfect for cleaning the oven, making the stovetop shine, descaling the kettle and ridding the teapot of mineral deposits. If she hadn’t been able to achieve the latter just think how shoddy her ‘stockings’ would have looked. Vinegar on its own will have removed paint stains, lifted chewing gum off the floors (we’re back to those exotic American GIs again – not that we’re suggesting they made home visits, of course), prevented mildew, repelled insects if rubbed on the skin (and most people too), eliminated water and salt stains from leather boots and loosened a stuck jar lid. It also works fairly well drizzled on your chips. Granny knew all of this and now so do you. Forget the glitzy packaging, the shiny tiles gleaming on the television adverts, the
newly butch Mr Muscle (why change a winning formula?), all you need is a gigantic vat of Sarson’s and your house will be the glinting envy of the rest of the street, and all achieved in true 1940s style.
Make do and Mend was the watchword of the times and the government provided households with hints and tips on how to reduce waste and make the most of the materials available. Moths are still a real pest when it comes to ruining clothes but in wartime it wasn’t feasible to toss that lovely cardie aside and go grab another from Bon Marche. To dispose of clothes was practically criminal when resources were squeezed so a leaflet on handy ways to avoid damage from those critters was distributed to the public.
Apparently clothes are more likely to be nibbled if they are dirty so the first advice was to make sure you put away your garments freshly laundered. Housewives were encouraged to hunt for the little eggs or white grubs in their wardrobes, as the adult moths were much less inclined to chomp through your jumpers than their young. Should you spot any likely creepy crawlies in the depths of your long johns then the Board of Trade suggested pressing the item with a hot iron over a damp cloth so that the steam got right through the fabric in order to rid yourself of them (the moths, not the long johns).
If clothes were to be stored for a while then Granny was advised to wrap them in newspaper and fasten with tape or, alternatively, regularly air them on the line every month. Presumably the shops nowadays are full of convenient solutions to these age-old pest issues but they come at a price; in the battle with the moths your Nan managed without shelling out, so why can’t you?
We seem to forget the simple ways to keep house in this age of gadgets and technical wizardry. We tend to dispose of anything that isn’t quite right and that was all well and good when everything was financially rosy but less so now when belts are being simultaneously tightened worldwide and it certainly wasn’t in the midst of wartime rationing.
If your Nan had noticed a torn piece of wallpaper she wouldn’t have been straight onto the blower to Handy Andy demanding a 60-minute makeover. She knew all the best tricks to rescue the situation. She’d have cut a piece bigger than the hole that was to be covered and then torn around the edges, making it rough, irregular and inconspicuous once pasted over the blemish.
When a bed sheet began to wear it wasn’t convenient to stroll into John Lewis and replace the whole range of bedding with the new Orla Kiely print. Granny would cut it up the centre and sew the two outside edges together so they became the new middle. Once the new outsides were hemmed then the sheet had a new lease of life and all for the cost of a little cotton.
With a bit of lateral thinking, a thirst for saving cash and reducing waste and, it seems, a steady supply of vinegar, there are solutions for most issues you could face around the house and, if in doubt, ask your Granny.