Marianne Van Osch (Patrick Davies, 100 Mile Free Press photo)

Marianne Van Osch: A bag of rags was a staple in the old days

Few people remember a time when paper towels were not a staple in our lives

Every time there is a hint of possible shortages in those two most basic necessities, toilet paper and paper towels, there is a mad rush for the soft stuff aisle. The toilet paper part I will let be as it is. But paper towels! We can’t seem to live without them. They are often the first item on a shopping list.

Few people remember a time when paper towels were not a staple in our lives. What we had was just as good. Rags! Every household had a supply of scraps of fabric known as rags. Every home had a rag bag. Rags came in all sizes and materials. They were free and were used for all kinds of jobs. They were washable, re-usable and did not have to be packed out to a car in awkward gigantic plastic packages.

Rags were cut with scissors or torn into different sizes. Old towels were especially prized. They made excellent cleaning cloths that lasted for months. New facecloths could be made with a bit of quick hemming on a sewing machine.

Other excellent rags were pieces of flannel. Baby clothes that had become stained beyond bleaching made the best dusting cloths. And once a baby had passed the diaper stage, still-usable nappies went into a neat pile of rags. There was nothing better for dusting than a square of flannel and a bottle of lemon oil from the Watkins’ peddler.

Large flannel rags were important for making mustard plasters. Men, in particular, had faith in them as a surefire way to draw sickness out of a congested chest. Women used their mother’s recipe to make the plaster which was spread on flannel, applied to the chest, and carefully watched for over-heating. Old woolen socks were saved for wrapping around sore throats. The sock would be warmed and spread with anything from a paste made of coal oil and goose fat, to Vicks Vaporub. Harold Gangloff said that his father insisted the sock be an old one that had not been washed and had a strong smell!

Old sheets were a prime source of desirable rags. They were made of white cotton that could be made into all sorts of useful things. When Shirley Temple, with her head of bouncing curls, became America’s cutest child, many a straight-haired little girl was prettied up with rag curls. Your mother would tear a piece of a sheet into narrow strips, wind a damp strip around a section of hair and tie the ends of the strip together against your scalp as tightly as possible. In the morning, when the curls were freed they were perfect. You felt beautiful for a few hours. Then your hair got tired of the unnatural curls and went limp.

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Still-good parts of shirts and pants were saved for making patches. Clothes were passed down to siblings so many a pair of denim jeans had strange patches on them. But those were just your clothes and you really didn’t care. (Except for a neighbour who had to wear his sister’s jeans with pink material on the hems where his mother had lengthened them.)

Sturdy rags often found their way to a new life as rugs. They were cut into the longest strips possible and sewn in a continuous strip that was rolled into a ball. Three large balls of strips were braided together. Braided rugs stood up to years of wear, wet and dirt. Some of them made long ago are still being used. Then there were the special scraps of cloth that went into the quilting basket and became works of art.

Rags are still a staple with mechanics. A bag of rags is always welcome. On Saturday mornings, back in the days when young men were able to tinker with their vehicles and do their own repairs, two types of rags were needed, one for grease and one for the washing and polishing that had to be done before a date.

Rags were re-used until they reached the end of usefulness. When a rag was finally too saturated with grease or tattered on the edges it was good for one final cleaning swipe and ended its life of service in a garbage can.

Paper towels certainly have a purpose. They help keep much of the things we touch free of germs during this pandemic and it has been said that they were invented specifically for clumsy people. But why shouldn’t a faded t-shirt or a shabby towel have a new lease on life instead of ending up in a garbage bag? You would be recycling at its most basic definition.


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