Monday, April 14, 2008

My Stuff And What My Ancestors Would Think About It

Larry at Passing It On, has a great post which is sure to start the cogs and wheels in your brain spinning this morning: What would your ancestors think about your stuff?

He poses this question in light of how Americans buy, use and dispose of items and comparing such consumption to the practices of our ancestors. Well, it certainly got me to thinking!

I've noticed various consumption patterns among my family:

- my mother was a product of the Great Depression and lived with 11 other siblings. This meant there often was not enough to go around in terms of food. It also meant there were never any new clothes but hand-me-downs from older siblings. The most profound effect was my mother's purchasing habits later in life. As I cleaned out my mother's house over the past three years, I noticed that she had bought almost 10 of every food item, whether she needed them or not. Cake mixes, canned goods, spices, baking goods, etc. At first I attributed such consumerism to her early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. But then I remembered that Mom always shopped like this. And we never threw anything away! Much of the food had to be disposed of during the cleaning process: most food pantries would not accept expired dry goods, open items but would gladly take canned goods.

- my great-grandparents were definitely thrifty. I think my great-grandmother (Therese McGinnis Austin) still had the first nickel she ever received. They too lived through the Great Depression and my great-grandmother grew up very poor in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. The farmhouse that she and my great-grandfather (John Ralph Austin) purchased in 1947 as a retirement home was stocked with lots of items I would now consider antiques. And my great-grandmother was the first "green" person in our family as far as I was concerned: she had canvas and mesh shopping bags to take to the store; she would sort all the garbage and place organic items in the compost bin; she would make use of all the produce, nuts and fruits she could find near the house; an item was used until it was beyond death.

As I get older and more in middle-age, I find that not only do I not need as much, but I don't want much. And my trick to minimizing consumerism: downsize. At home here in Chicago, we live in a small 2 bed/2 bath condo with almost no storage space. This has forced us to justify each and every purchase and decide if we really need it and where we will put it.

Recycling has always been big with me after living in California for close to 20 years. San Francisco had a great program that worked very well. Chicago's program has been dismal up until recently. They had a "blue bag" program where you actually had to pay for the bags into which you placed your recyclables! Now, our neighborhood is one of the first to have tall, bright blue recycle bins. My only complaint is that they aren't emptied but twice a month and are constantly overflowing.

Finally, one way in which I've changed my consumerism is shopping at and donating to my local non-profit run thrift store. I use the Brown Elephant which benefits the Howard Brown Health Center here in Chicago. I keep a large bin in the hallway closet and over a three month period I will add items that I don't want or can't use anymore. Then I'll haul it up Clark Street and drop it off. I also shop at Brown Elephant especially when I need a book to read on a long trip or on vacation. They sell hard cover books for $1 and if I leave it on the plane I don't feel so bad about it. Also, if I finish the book, I'll either leave it at the hotel if they have a library/reading room or I'll drop it off at a local thrift store.

I think many of my ancestors who came before my great-grandparents would be amazed and even a bit outraged at the level of consumerism we see these days.

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