Last month, when we visited our old home place, I saw a wild persimmon tree growing in the edge of Sally’s yard. It was full of persimmons, and some were ripe.
I had not picked any since I had lived there as a child and picked some from a tree near the end of the road. Each fall, I used to climb on a stump, pull the limbs to me and pick about a dozen. Now, I did not eat them, but took them over to the little store and knocked on the back door for Mrs. Goodbread. She gave me a big, shiny quarter for the dozen persimmons.
I picked six from Sally’s tree and hardly could wait to get home and cut into one and get the seeds. I wanted to split a seed and see what kind of weather we will have for the winter. This is an old folk tale, but I still wanted to see for myself.
Splitting the seed was not an easy job. Finally, I split it and saw the kernel inside was shaped like a spoon, which indicates that we will have a heavy wet snow that will have to be spooned (shoveled) away. If the kernel had been shaped like a fork, a light mild winter could be expected. A knife would indicate that we would be cut by icy, cutting winds.
Each persimmon has six flat, brown seeds, which were used during and after the Civil War for buttons. They were dried and had a small hole bored in each one and would last many washings. Sometimes, they even were strung for a necklace. I saw on eBay where one can purchase them for 50 cents each with two tiny holes already punched in them. We have a wild persimmon tree in our yard that must be 70 feet tall and is 48 inches around. Yes, I measured around it and guessed its height. We have never seen any persimmons on it, even though it is full bloom each spring. Perhaps the varmints eat them, and I cannot see that far up. Or, more than likely, it is a male tree.
Corncob soda was used by housewives during the Civil War after the blockade as a substitute for bicarbonate of soda to make their bread rise. It was discovered that corncob ashes, especially from red cobs, possessed the alkaline needed to raise bread. The corncobs were burned and the ashes collected in a jar, and water was added. It was left standing until the water was clear. Then, the cook took one part of this to two parts of sour milk mixed into the flour or cornmeal made them delightfully light. Sometimes, watermelon rinds were cut into tiny pieces, dried and burned into ashes. They were sifted and used for soda.
In 1940, tea sold for $40 a pound. The women had to substitute many things for their beloved tea. Blackberry leaves, spice-berry leaves, palmetto berries, sassafras roots, sumac berries and yapon shrub twigs were boiled for a tea substitute. Even dried persimmon leaves make a good cup of tea.
There were many substitutes for coffee. I recall a local lady from the Long County telling me how many times she used to parch cornmeal to make coffee during the depression years. Chicory, acorns, beans, beets, corn, cotton seeds, peanuts, peas, sugar cane seeds or wheat berries were parched, dried, roasted or browned to make coffee. Carrots and yams were diced into small pieces and dried, toasted and ground up for coffee. It is said that during the Civil War, soldiers would want coffee so bad that the forces would hold a truce long enough for the South to trade tobacco to the North for coffee.
Salt is a commodity that hardly can be done without. It was substituted during the Civil War by a pinch of wood ashes, a wild plant called coltsfoot or a dash of gunpowder by the soldiers. The women at home on the farm gathered dirt from the floor of the smokehouse where the hams being smoked dripped the salty water down on the dirt. The dirt was boiled in water, and a scum would rise to the top. It was skimmed off and dropped into cold water. The salt would sink to the bottom. Of course, if one lived near the seacoast, the salt water could be boiled down into salt.
Vinegar substitutes were made from beets, figs, honey, apples, molasses, sorghum and persimmons. M.J. Varkola described most of this in his book, “Everyday Life During the Civil War.” He said the hardtack that the Union soldiers took with them all the time was a small, hard square made with flour, water and salt. It was also called “teeth pullers.” The high salt content made it unattractive to rats and cockroaches, but weevils loved it. The hardtack could be tolerated if it was dunked in water and fried in hog lard. The Southern soldiers ate cornbread.
Dora Miller, a lady who lived in Vicksburg, kept a diary during the Civil War. She said many of the soldiers had spoiled greasy bacon and bread made from musty peas that had been ground into flour. She noted that most of the cats and dogs must have starved to death, but in reality they sometimes showed up as meager meals for families. Dora wrote that she sent $5 each morning to the market with her servant to get a small piece of mule meat. She said she ate milk and rice as she simply could not eat the mule meat.
One day her servant, Martha, told her about the many dressed rats she saw hanging for sale in the market. One person told her that when they were properly fried, they tasted like squirrel.
According to www.historyfarms, the motto during the Great Depression was, “Repair, reuse, make do and don’t throw anything way.” Socks were mended, and clothes patched over and over and handed down or passed on to others. Cardboard was placed in bottoms of shoes. Flour, chicken and livestock feed sacks were used to make dresses, slips and panties for girls, aprons for women and shirts for the boys.
I just washed a tan bag that held 100 pounds of Yukon’s Best Wheat Shorts for hogs. Miss Polly Parker made a jumper for me with one just like this when I was in the first grade, and it was pretty.
Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 for 10 cents for a package of concentrated powder. The Depression came and the owner cut the price down to a nickel so people could buy it. Spam was introduced during the Depression along with Ritz Crackers, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Bisquick, Jiffy corn-muffin mix and Kentucky Fried Chicken. This must have been for the rich folks!
Rufus Lester from Statesboro was asked about going to the doctor during the Depression. He said they used their own remedies. For a bad cold, they kept dried and cured hogs’ hooves in the cabinet. He explained that when a farmer butchered hogs, they would take the old hooves off the hogs, let them cure out and dry them and put them in storage. When one had a bad cold, a hoof was put in a pot and boiled and the tea was drunk off it. Lester said it cured a bad cold plenty of times. (I think I’d rather have turpentine and tallow!)
Many farmers did not have any money and had to trade their produce or animals for what they needed in town. Syrup and sweet potatoes were traded probably more than anything else. I thought of “bartering potatoes” when I was in the potato patch near Reidsville picking up four 5-gallon buckets full this week. They were nice and cost only $7 per bucket — a great buy today. I wonder how much they were worth during the Great Depression and how valuable they were after Sherman marched through Georgia and took all the people’s produce and stock.
World War II brought more challenges to America. In March 1942, all canned dog food was replaced with dry dog food. Toothpaste could be bought in a metal tube if the buyer turned in the old tube. Silk was needed for parachutes and medical supplies so there were no more silk stockings. Some took ink pens and drew lines down the backs of their legs to make it seem they had on stockings with the seams in them. Tin cans were in short supply. Tin foil was substituted for aluminum foil and never came back. Eggplants were used as meat substitutes.
Sugar was sold at a half-pound per person per week and coffee at 1 pound every five weeks. Kool-Aid sales went down to nothing because of sugar shortage, but it resumed in sales after the war. The smiling-faced Kool-Aid pitcher came in 1953. Meat was issued to men, women and children over 12 at 2 1/2 pounds per week. Pennies made in 1942 were made of steel and zinc-coated. In 1943-45, pennies were made from shell-casing scrap brass. Gasoline was rationed; you had to show why you needed it.
Most of the information about WWII shortages came from www.quora.com.
Today, we are so blessed to have a supply of everything we could possible want. Last week, when I wanted to make pomegranate jelly, I did not have to wait for my ration stamp to get sugar for it. I had plenty on hand to make two pints, which turned out pretty. Thank you, Lord, for all our blessings!