By Candace Perry.
When you consider the Pennsylvania Dutch as a people, some qualities readily come to mind: industriousness, practicality, and self-sufficiency. The one trait, however, that most often is attributed to them is thriftiness. From architecture to furnishings, to clothing, and of course, food, the Pennsylvania Dutch found frugal solutions to their daily challenges.
Producing Flax and Wool
Let’s first take a look at how the 18th and early 19th century rural Pennsylvania Dutch clothed themselves. If you have visited the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival, you’ve seen the outstanding authentic interpretations of the clothing worn by our foremothers and fathers. The clothes and the cloth from which they are made are among the best representations of Pennsylvania Dutch thriftiness. Even though ready-made cloth was available, sometimes even at stores within their communities, the rural Pennsylvania Dutch persisted in growing flax and raising sheep for the purpose of clothing the family and for domestic textiles until the mid-19th century. The whole cycle of growing flax and processing it, then spinning it, and delivering the thread to the dyers and weavers was lengthy and labor-intensive. But it did save hard-earned cash. Eventually, Pennsylvania Dutch families decided to put the flax breaks away in the barn, and the spinning wheels “on the attic” to take advantage of the inexpensive mass-produced fabrics offered in their local stores.
Some Pennsylvania Dutch women made quilts in the late 18th century, but it wasn’t until prices for cotton fabric dropped in the 19th century that the quiltmaking grew among the wider community. The romance of the old patchwork quilt, made from scraps that were lovingly saved, is only partly true. Many quilts were planned with specific color palettes and necessitated a trip to the dry goods store.
In the 20th century, thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch women (and many others across the country) used the cotton material from feed and flour sacks for quilts, clothing, and other household textiles. When manufacturers caught on, they started to produce the sacks in vibrant colors and prints.
The demand for feed sack continued into the late 1950s. Many, many examples of quilts and clothing survive and attest to the popularity of feed sack fabrics.
Thrifty homemakers saved rags for woven carpets. As late as the early 20th century, weavers advertised that customers could provide their own rags for carpets. Rag carpet was the most economical, though not luxurious, choice for floor covering. Inmates at the Lehigh County prison wove rag carpet, and potential customers were invited to bring their own rags and choose from 25 different carpet patterns.
Braided and hooked rugs were other ways to upcycle rags. Commercially made braided rugs were a staple for the “Early American” style of decorating that became hugely popular in the 1930s and 40s and remained so for decades. Homemade braided rugs look deceptively simple, but a good rug requires patience and skill to make it lie flat and to hide the stitches that hold the braids together. Homemade hooked rugs, also made from rags, were less common in Pennsylvania, at least until the 20th century. Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, however, found a market for the old hooked rugs made in New England and Newfoundland. Local homeowners who wanted the quaint neo-colonial look for their homes—or as a 1924 Wanamaker’s advertisement said: “to adorn Rittenhouse Square mansions”–were their target demographic.
In past blogs, we’ve featured thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch foods such as potato filling, scrapple, and mush. These three dishes are all very economical, in one way or another. Especially where meat was concerned, the Pennsylvania Dutch found ways of using nearly every last bit of an animal. My father, for example, loved beef heart and filling. It appears to be most popular in Lebanon County, and we were from Robesonia in Berks, so a good heart and filling meal was usually available nearby. My mother sometimes made it for him, and I think she did a good job, even though she was raised in Bronxville, NY. She did not have a Pennsylvania Dutch bone in her body. In his later years, my father enjoyed it at Risser’s Diner outside of Stouchsburg, Berks County. That long-standing local restaurant served up heart along with other thrifty favorites, such as stuffed pig’s stomach–in the dialect known as seimaage, or jokingly, Dutch Goose.
And of course, there were all of those leftover animal parts that you could pickle. There’s the tongue, tripe, and pig’s feet. You could mix them together for souse, or head cheese. I fondly remember my father ordering pickled beef tongue as an appetizer in the dining room at the J & A Tavern in Robesonia. It was delicious. I don’t think I’ve had it since.
The Pennsylvania Dutch lived by the motto “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Though this is a common trait of many other hard-working ethnic groups, the German settlers of the 18th and 19th centuries in Pennsylvania embodied it. Many of their old ways are probably not workable in the 21st century. Still, many of them can be adapted to contemporary life. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, people are doing more for themselves at home than they have in years–from cooking and gardening to learning new skills. What have you been doing differently these last few months? Have you adopted any new thrifty ways?
Candace Kintzer Perry is curator of collections at Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center.