|Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991|
By Ellen Gray Massey
Lebanon, Missouri, resident Ellen Massey has spoken throughout Missouri this year for the American Mirror program of the Missouri Humanities Council. One of her topics is the subject of this article.
One hundred, seventy-five, even fifty years ago if you had asked people from the Ozarks if they made any crafts, they would probably have said no. The word, "crafts," as we know it today, did not apply to them. What they fashioned out of scraps and native raw materials for their own use they didn't consider to be crafts. Depending on their ingenuity and the resources of the land, they created what they needed, then repaired and reused everything in any way they could, because if they couldn't make it do, they would do without.
Saving worn-out clothing, no matter how faded, women cut the material into strips which they tacked together and then wove into long runners. The runners, sewed together into a carpet and padded with fresh straw, added softness and color to a drab parlor and served the useful purpose, as well, of keeping the cold from seeping in. But that wasn't the end of those "useless" rags. When the warp that held the rug together wore out, they washed and mended the rags and wove them into still another rug. When too far gone for reweaving, pieces could be used as a saddle blanket, a bed for the dog, or a stopper under the door to keep out the cold.
Using the plentiful oak or walnut trees, men built straight chairs. They "bottomed" them with available materials such as hickory bark strips or dried corn shucks that had been soaked in water and twisted into ropes. The original chair lasted many years, for when the seat wore out they wove another, making it do for several more years. This sturdy piece of furniture was more than a chair. Two placed apart with a board across the top rungs of the back was an ironing board or, before funeral homes, a place to lay out the dead to cool. Four of them in a square made a perfect support for quilting frames. The chair's straight design allowed it to lie flat on its back on the floor, the front legs the right height for a youngster just learning to walk to hold to and push across the wooden or linoleum-covered floor. And for grandpa? Upright, the chair's solid footing and light weight made it a handy "walker" long before the modern aluminum versions were designed. Moving the chair in front of him for support, he could go to the garden or barn, sitting down in the chair when he became tired.
Nothing was wasted in the strict economy of the Ozarks people. They made their own soap, for instance, from carefully saved grease that had already been used for cooking, and lye leached from stove ashes. To add some beauty to the product though might pour the soap into molds, or color and perfume it before it set. Money was scarce, with what little there was needed for taxes, medicine, and staples that could not be locally produced--baking powder, salt, thread, fabrics for making family clothing, hardware, and horseshoes, for example.
Just as the word "crafts" was not used to describe the handiwork of the early Ozarker, neither was the term "recycling" well known, although the concept was certainly practiced. To get the boards to build a shed, for instance, a farmer might have cut his own trees and had the local sawyer bring his portable sawmill to the farm (often giving the sawyer logs in payment for his work). Years later, when the farmer tore down the shed to make room for a new barn, he pulled and straightened every nail (the nails might have been the only store-bought part of the shed), and saved every board to use again. The solid boards and pieces of planks too small for use in the new building were stored carefully and next winter fashioned into rolling pins, spoons, or playthings for the grandchildren. Lumber, rotten or too small for any other use, was burned in the stove to produce heat and ashes (which in addition to use in making lye, had antiseptic and other farm and household uses). Nothing was thrown away.
A woman bought a piece of yellow print to make herself a Sunday dress. If she cut the dress out carefully, she might salvage enough material to make a baby garment. What about the tiny pieces left over, some no more than an inch or two? She added them to her box of color-coordinated scraps, the bright color being just what she needed to complete the flower garden quilt she was piecing.
Were they artists? They didn't consider themselves such. The rolling pin gift to a daughter on her marriage was a practical gift, built with solidness to last a lifetime. But it did have a satiny texture and pleasing lines, and in time the thousands of pie crusts it rolled out, and the oil from the housewife's hands, created an object with a patina and charm unmatched by most purchased articles.
A quilt, with its mathematical precision, complicated designs, and original color coordinations, pieced expertly together and coming alive with the tiny stitches of intricate quilting pattems, is an art form as great as a painting. But because the products of these home crafts were utilitarian and made of scraps, and because they were done by common people, they seldom received the status of art.
Disceming people like Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey, rural correspondent and poet from Taney County, recognized the pride in homemade, make-it-do craftsmanship in her 1930s poem:
If I'd a-had a bit uv pink
My aster quilt would be I think
As putty as the ones I seen
All flowery gay in pink an' green.
But I jest use what scraps I find
In my scrap bag, an' to my mind
My aster quilt is jest as bright
As if I had all colors right.
Many modem Ozarkers have retained pioneer values of economy and self-sufficiency. They carry on the traditional craftsmanship of the early settlers who made what they needed by adapting their methods and materials to the region's natural resources. They produced useful and beautiful items at little cost. Perhaps their success was that with each possession, they were willing to use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without--in contrast with modem practice which seems to be, "Don't fix it, but why be without? Buy a new one, pitch the old one out."
Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back a little to the values that created the crafts in the first place. Following the old traditions, groups of ladies continue to meet together to quilt. The newer phenomenon of arts and crafts fairs attract men who remember how to make paring knives from old saws, baskets from white oak, or rope from binder twine. To perpetuate crafts knowledge, apprenticeship programs are placing interested young people with master craftsmen. The old philosophy is earning a new place in a society so inundated with "things" that a mammoth problem has been created--what to do with all the stuff we throw out.
Just as the pioneer used the materials that were available to him, so do the modem crafts people
use what they have, creating something useful and beautiful out of "trash." I've seen beautiful
mats crocheted with the colorful plastic bags most of us throw away. I've seen plastic
toothbrushes carved into needles for use in sewing rugs. Though traditional crafts enthusiasts may
disdain these modem materials, are not those who use them following the traditional philosophy?
Will crafts boosters 50 years from now value the items made from plastic as we value those from
wood? The philosophy is the same; use whatever is available to make something needed, and
make it pretty as well.
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