Pauper arts

art gearThe twentieth century saw some radical cultural shifts for the western poor. We moved away from self-sufficiency, and towards consuming low cost goods. We stopped cooking from scratch and bought processed food. Many of the skills that had historically been essential for paupers, became lost to the vast majority. We’d ushered in a new era of prosperity and ease, and no one would ever have to cut worn bed sheets in half again to re-sew them for a re-use.

Now, many people are finding they don’t have the money to support the lifestyle they’d once taken for granted. It comes as a shock. Being poor is very hard if you have no idea how to do it. Let’s just consider food. If you can grow your own veg and fruit, make jam from the fruit, keep a few chickens, if you know how to re-use your leftovers, how never to waste anything, then you can eat for very little cost. It takes time. We’re used to throwing away a third of the food we buy. There’s a huge distance between those two ways of being, and the pauper arts are not reclaimed over night by people who find they need them.

The twentieth century taught the western poor to want all the same things the rich were getting. Of course we want fairness and equality, but we didn’t pause to ask on what terms we were getting it, or what it meant. Nor were we encouraged to, because turning us into an avidly consuming class drove the economy along. The more we can be persuaded to want, and the more willing we are to go into debt to have those things, the more vulnerable we are. We’ve been sold the idea of comfort and convenience, and now we have to work ever longer hours to pay for it, or the money dries up and we suddenly can’t afford to eat.

The cheap boom of the twentieth century was underpinned by low cost goods from abroad. The environmental cost of cheap food is huge. In another country, people are working in dangerous conditions for little pay to put cheap consumables in our shops. That’s a very high price, and just because we aren’t the ones paying it, does not entitle us to be comfortable. We can’t go on consuming at the current rate or in these ways.

What we need to do is stop being seduced by advertisers and junk pedlars. We need to stop accepting that we need everything done for us, by someone abroad, or by a machine. We need to reclaim the pauper arts that truly can allow us a better quality of life for less money. Much of that knowledge is still out there, and much can be re-invented. The important thing is to know there are options.

If you know how to do a good job of being a pauper, a little money goes a lot further. There is a sense of power and achievement in self-sufficiency, in being able to repair clothes, mend useful items, convert one thing into another. There’s a lot of use in cooking with leftovers and making compost out of kitchen waste. No one is going to pick all of this up overnight, but thinking creatively and imagining solutions is a good place to start.

In front of me on the table is the sorting and storage system for Tom’s art gear – an old, unwanted metal tea set, bought for a pound, and doing the job very well. Next to it is a plastic sweet box that I cheered up by collaging it with paper from old calendars, and am using to store my sewing kit in. We had fun with those, they will serve us well for a long time, and they cost very little. They kept a few things out of landfill, too. We’ve got a draught excluder made from a pair of worn out jeans. Bags made out of old curtains. Old curtains cut down to be smaller curtains suitable for these windows. It adds up.

What we all need is a new aesthetic; a sense that clever re-use is chic. If we only collectively decided that ‘make do and mend’ is a great look for this year, it would be easier for a lot of people to tackle poverty whilst feeling good about it, and to step back from the over-consumption that is pushing our planet to the brink. We need to declare re-use the sexiest thing imaginable. That it currently isn’t, is just a trend, and trends can change.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

22 responses to “Pauper arts

  • Julie

    I feel like I’ve seen re-use as a trend growing a lot in the past couple of years. Maybe it’s because I spend the last few years in Humboldt county, where we could all blissfully convince ourselves that “of course everyone shops at thrift stores,” and, “I’m sure everyone knows it’s cool to drink wine out of mason jars.”
    There’s a really big population of young adults who really are struggling for money who kind of accidentally created this shabby chic trend, this hipster thing. . . only they actually thrifted the clothes and used sewing machines to make them unique. They actually wash and reuse jars from the grocery store for cups, and they compost too.
    It’s frustrating, because while DIY look is getting trendy, of course corporations are figuring out ways to make it brand new and sell it for ridiculous sums of money. If you check out Urban Outfitters, for example, it’s chalk full of all of this “hipster” stuff that most of the kids I went to college with wore all the time, but got for 2 bucks at a second hand store, rather than $75 at UA.
    The trick now is to get the mainstream to realize it’s WAY cooler to make that shit themselves than to buy it at a chain store.
    Good luck to us all on that front, eh?

  • Judith

    What an excellent essay!
    I am a prostlyzer for ‘convert your lawn into garden’ since I live on the outskirts of a city and have converted my lawn. We ‘made up’ the term Urban Farm for our home only to find that it was a cool new movement. I also, being not-young, was taught cook-from-scratch as a girl.
    But best of all was the time that a friend (herself with a Uni degree in Art) named my art-form as ‘Found Art Artist’ when I described myself as making things out of horded junk.
    Re-use is an offering to the Goddess Earth, neh?

  • Chris

    This brings me back to Thanksgiving in October (Canada), My sister and I had watched an old Homesteading movie about life in the 1780’s in America. Watching their struggle and fight just to survive and living on nothing, Crop failures and harsh winters with not enough winter clothing and doing everything by hand until their hands bled. These people were seriously seriously poor – yet were happy because it was there place and land and they had each other. It had a real impact on me. I couldn’t believe how hard everything had to be.

    After some time, I posted on my Facebook how for this thanksgiving- I was thankful to live in 2013, How I don’t have to struggle like they did and that I can for example -go to a store and buy food instantly. I love that I can come home from work and cook supper in 15 min because we have the convenience of prepackaged food like bread and KD and machines like a microwave… because I hate cooking with a passion. It means I don’t “have” to Garden or make my own jam or pickle my own pickles- cause I can just buy them… lol. Taking the time to do these things is time away from doing other things I would rather be doing. Could I do the bread making and jam making and pickling… nope.

    So I am totally guilty of exactly what your saying. I see the point your making, and the importance of it – but, I don’t think I could or would give up my instant life. Unless it was forced upon me against my will.

    • Nimue Brown

      For a lot of people it is forced on them suddenly, and against their will though. Sudden descent into abject poverty is increasingly common as far as I can tell, without the skills to make it viable. A person can learn a few skills without maintaining them, it doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time. I know how to make a fire. Currently there’s an electric heater so I’m not buring stuff, but I like knowing, keeps my options open…. You can invest in learning a few things without dedicating to using them all the time.

  • Sylvia Pearson

    Succinctly, clearly as ever Nimue, thankyou. I have seen indications of a trend for this where clothes and interior design are concerned, the trouble with trends is it is just a trend, and doesn’t fundamentally alter consumer attitudes, another trend comes along. The things that hearten me are sewing cafe’s, knit and natter, an event at Black Book to take household items to fix, community orchards, guerrilla gardening-(veggies on the roundabouts, there is a co-op in London with a veggie garden on the roof grown by the locals sold in the shop. Knowing how to cook or not is the one where I share your concern, T.V. Chefs get on to it.

    • Nimue Brown

      I do like those grass roots gatherings, but hav trouble with winer evenings and hve neglected my local knit and natter rather. Love the community orchards round here (I made apple chutney!) guerilla gardening sounds splendid.

  • paulaacton

    I work in a supermarket and I have to say usually it is those with the least to spend who buy the most cheap processed food and although they are generally, though of course not always, who do not work at this point in their lives and have time they could spend cultivating veg gardens etc most have no interest, but there are so many issues that I think contribute, I personally grew some lovely tomatoes one year, left the tubs outside to ripen while I popped to the shop to find all the tomatoes had been stolen on my return, I recently bought a couple more Jamie Oliver cook books as one of my new years resolutions is actually to start cooking more new things from scratch other than the ones I cook all the time, but upon reading the first few pages you are assaulted by a list of equipment it is assumed you must have and a pantry list I would need an extra kitchen to house. I personally think the reality is for most of us that doing everything every day from scratch is an impossibility but rather I would advocate the idea of one day a week being that special day where not only do you create a special meal from scratch but everyone gets involved be it peeling or stirring and it being a time where the whole family gather round a table and eat together and talk with no other distractions, in my home it is usually a Sunday as it is the one day we all have off work, school, or other commitments.

    • Nimue Brown

      I’m an every day from scratch person, and I work a lot. It can be done, but that kind of ‘cookery’ book will just put people off. Grr. You need a chopping board, some saucepans, a frying pan, some wooden spoons. A mixing bowl and a grater are handy. That’s enough. The trick to cooking every day is to learn broad theoretical approaches – what maes a stew, or a vegtable curry, what you can tip over pasta, salad theories, things to do with eggs. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or fussy, but chefs sell food porn and its all about the pretty pictures, not about a realistic lifstyle choice. Trad English food = boil some veg, fry or grill some meat, serve. 🙂

      • Nimue Brown

        and some sharp knives. You don’t need to do anything in the oven, I did two years without an oven.

      • paulaacton

        I could cook every thing from scratch if we were all home at the same time to make it practical, my partner and I work opposite shifts during the week to reduce childcare costs and sadly he can burn water, i grew up in a mining village during the miners strike and learned far more than any child should ever need to about making things stretch out, but I would rather during the week use a packet of ready made pastry than spend time making my own from scratch and have those extra few minutes to spend with my child, I think everyone has to find a balance and I don;t think cutting a few corners is always a bad thing.

  • Nimue Brown

    It’s all about finding what works for you, really. And making a pie with a ‘cheat’ pastry is still most of making a pie 🙂

  • literaryvittles

    I don’t know what it say except that this is amazing. You are so, so right and it upsets me that I can’t grow my own food, living in inhospitable Chicago as I do. Inside herbs that can flourish with almost no sunlight are all I can sustain. But at least I am a fairly good cook and I already have a tendency to re-use things.

  • Sylvia Pearson

    For me knowing you could if you had to is part of the empowerment and if you live in Chicago you are doing good supporting a farmer who grows it right, surely? I have a friend in America who is promoting using brownfield sites in cities to grow plants for dying they cope with the toxicity,and wool gets coloured creatively.

  • janecolbourne

    My granny’s generation had to do all this as they lived through the world wars, and those habits stuck, even long after. I remember my granny not only reusing the bread wrapper to store food, but washing it out to reuse again. She cut up old cornflakes boxes for shopping lists.

    One of the things that concerns me is that poor quality convenience foods, full of artificial additives and low in real nutrients are cheap to buy and tempting for people who work long hours and have big families.

  • Kristie1007

    This was great! I am moving house soon and need a lot of furniture. There is a charity that runs what we call the dump shop, out by the waste disposal facility. I have bought great wooden chairs and am repairing and repainted and covering the seats. It’s amazing what you can learn how to do via the internet. Yes, it does take time, but the savings in both money and environmental impact are worth it.

    • Nimue Brown

      Sounds brilliant. It’s amazing what can be improvised, reinvented and saved from landfill. You get something totally unique and entirely yours at the end, and that’s wonderful too. I’ve just discovered fabric boxes, too. Cardboard coated in fabric and stitched together, very pretty, all re-use, slow but fun.

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