nonfiction

Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations (foreword by Jill Norman)

Growing up, some of my favorite books were set during World War II or its aftermath (particularly Back Home by Michelle Magorian; you’ll hear me mention this all the time because it’s such a wonderful book), and all of those books mentioned rationing, the restriction of certain foods and materials because the majority of those items were going to the soldiers and the war effort. Those on the homefront had to learn to make do with what little they were allowed. Clothing and fabric were also rationed, and Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations (foreword by Jill Norman), a collection of British government-issued leaflets instructing the women at home how to make the best of what they had, shows the extent and the hardship of wartime rationing (British rationing was a lot stricter than what the US experienced, something that Rusty, the main character in Back Home, notes on several occasions).

I thought I knew a decent amount about rationing, what with my past reading (and even my reading this year; here’s my review for Ration Book Cookery by Gill Corbishley, which was super fascinating), but this book definitely expanded my knowledge on the subject and shows how much work it really was. The book starts off talking about how women should reinforce the seats of children’s underwear before the children wear them for the first time, and sock heels and toes should be knitted with a double strand of wool, because these are the areas most prone to wear. Collars can be turned, elbows should be patched and reinforced before they show signs of wear, and the insides of pants at the ankle should be reinforced with a small leather strip to prevent wear from rubbing against shoes. When your underwear wears out, save them; you can still patch together a decent pair of underwear from three or four old, holey pairs. Absolutely NOTHING should go to waste, because that’s basically the same thing as stealing from the soldiers and the war effort. Isn’t that an amazing attitude? The book also contains a lot of diagrams on how to mend clothing, including approximately 43782394284932 diagrams on how to darn sock holes. So. Much. Darning.

There are charts that show how many ration coupons each item of clothing would cost (obviously you’d still have to pay for the item, but ration coupons were only for what you were allowed to buy. Out of coupons? You’re out of luck). There were so many rules for using ration coupons; even secondhand items required coupons (for the most part. There were some exceptions). Pregnant women received 50 extra coupons, but they were encouraged to make do with their regular wardrobe if at all possible. And don’t think you could’ve cheated the system by making your own clothing; yarn and fabric (some of it, at least; again, lots of rules here) required ration coupons. Interestingly, this is when ankle socks came into fashion, because they required less yarn.

It wasn’t just clothing that was rationed, though. Coal was rationed and thus women needed to learn to be thrifty with how they cooked and heated their homes. Hot baths were limited to once per week, with no more than five inches of water (so much for a relaxing soak to take your mind off your wartime troubles). They were encouraged to cut hot meals down to a minimum, only heat one room of the house (“Make your kitchen your living room!” one leaflet suggests), and turn the heat off 30 minutes before leaving a room. And if you were going to use your oven at all, you were supposed to cook multiple things at a time in order to cut down on fuel usage. Rationing required a LOT of big-picture thinking.

There were a few things that weren’t rationed: jock straps (!), ballet shoes, shoelaces, suspenders, sanitary belts and napkins (Are you there, God? It’s me, WWII-era Margaret…), and luckily for me, specialty belts for sacroiliac disease (I have sacroiliac joint dysfunction; it’s painful and not very fun). So if you find yourself traveling back in time to Britain in the early to mid-1940s, go crazy with those items!

This book would be a fantastic resource for writers of WWII-era historical fiction, in order to have specifics on rationing. It gave me a few ideas on how to patch a set of sheets that my cats’ claws poked holes in, so I appreciate that. But moreover, it’s inspiration. The women on the homefront had to work so very hard in order to make ends meet; I can probably do a better job as well.

I’m pretty proud of all the things I *do* do to use my resources wisely, though. Case in point: my daughter’s pants I patched earlier this year (and hoooooo boy, did I ever have to do this with my son’s pants when he was younger. Six weeks in a new pair of pants, tops, and he was through the knees. Drove me NUTS). Holes in the knees turned into adorable heart patches. I have another pair of pants to patch right now, as well as the shoulders of a dress, and the shirt she’s wearing today (a plain red henley) has some unsightly grease stains on it, so I’m going to applique…something…on there to cover them up. The rest of the shirt is perfectly fine, so a little bit of decoration should make it wearable for another year or two.

How do you make do and mend? Are you the kind of person who fixes holes in socks, or do you just grab another pack at the store? How do you think you’d handle WWII-era rationing if it were put in place today?

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