Use it Up, Wear it Out, or Make do Without

19 ways the printed newspaper did double duty during the Great Depression
Shelah A Johnson

Shelah A Johnson

The recipient of 9 awards from The Society for Technical Communication, is also a published photographer and has produced and directed more than 40 lifestyle broadcast segments focused on eco and small space living.

19 ways the printed newspaper did double duty during The Great Depression

“The earth is a fine place and worth fighting for,” Ernest Hemingway

In the 1930s, more than 16.21% of all Americans read the newspapers, compared to 7.3% in 2022. Many households still did not have radios, and many lived without electricity, making newspapers the primary source of news and information. The world was in financial depression, with over 2 million Americans homeless and over 12,800,000 unemployed. To make matters worse, there was the dust bowl, and WWII loomed in the background. Resourcefulness was needed to survive.

When Resourcefulness Meant survival

There are countless upcycle examples from the ‘30s; flour sacks into dresses, lard into soap, hot engine blocks used to cook dinner, tires to mend shoes. One of my favorite examples is an account of a woman who used the lining of a casket to make a dress. Another is replacing a fan belt with an old rope. I witnessed my grandmother use a paper napkin four times before it met its fiery death. She would often keep us children occupied by coloring the imprinted outline of flowers. These original table art pieces were then used for their intended purpose, a table napkin. After dinner, the napkins were collected and placed in an old coffee tin where they could be used to wipe grease out of an iron skillet, then placed into a different container where it would be used to start the wood burner on cold mornings.

The first North American news sheet was printed in Mexico in 1541, and described an earthquake in Guatemala.

In the book Perpetual Gloom, there is a scene where young Monroe is given a bucket of handmade swatters made from old baling wire, a screen from an old door, and bits of colored thread. He stood outside a small Tennessee country store and sold them for five cents each as his father sat in the shade drinking something amber out of a shared jar. This is a classic upcycle move during the depression where the motto was “Use it up, wear it out, or make do without.” But one item that quite possibly had the most reuse was the humble newspaper.

The printed pages of the newspaper were arguably the most versatile, or at least run a close second after metal. They could be found almost everywhere in abundance – a dramatic difference from today. According to a recent report on the state of local news from the Medill School of Journalism, America saw the loss of an average of two newspapers per week between late 2019 and May 2022. Consequently, many of the aftermarket usages of the ‘30s have been replaced with less environmentally friendly products that ultimately cost more than the printed newspaper itself.

While there are many twenty-first-century advancements that we would not want to trade for the frugal 30s, insulation, bird cage liners, and curtains come to mind. But there are many uses that make environmental and economic sense.

Surprising ways to reuse newspapers

Here are 19 ways from the Great Depression newspapers – many in use today. Feel free to add them in the comment section.

  1. Insulation
  2. A cheap curtain
  3. Swatter (this is way Monroe did not sell many swatters)
  4. Reader, homeschooling
  5. Shelf liner
  6. Drop cloth
  7. Bird cage liner (not recommended due to the ink)
  8. Firestarter
  9. Weed barrier
  10. Seed pods
  11. Kites
  12. Cleaning glass
  13. Plug holes and drafts
  14. Pee pad
  15. Drafting patterns
  16. Stuff in the toe when a shoe is too big
  17. Storing whole fruit and vegetables for extended periods
  18. Packing fragile items when moving
  19. Party (pirate) hats

Whilst we may not be pushing a piece of newspaper into shoes, people still find hundreds of ways to upcycle newsprint. One of the most popular uses is creating pulp to create new paper – a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Fujiwara Tamiko was the lover of the 10th century Seiwa Emperor. After his death, she used his old love letters to write sutras for him and passed them out to their close friends and families.

Can you think of other ways to upcycle newsprint? Leave us a comment.

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