Last week, along with some of our homeschooling friends, we visited one of our favourite places, the Cumberland Village Heritage Museum. Much like Upper Canada Village, Cumberland village is a living museum set up with homes, businesses and activities from the 1920’s and 30’s. There is so much to see and we were lucky enough to participate in one of their educational programmes teaching about thrift and prudence in years gone by.
In the general store we learned about trading for goods as well as buying them, a concept our children were very familiar with! Money is still a bit of an odd concept for kids I think, but trading for things you want is a comfortable concept. The simplicity of the store was very pleasing but when you consider how few choices there were, in stark contrast to today’s over abundance, it makes me wonder about our modern obsession with variety and newness. Could I be satisfied with so few choices? Or would I find it restful to know there is just one type of washing soap and stop worrying!
The homes we visited were simple but recognisable to our modern eyes. The kitchens had cookers and storage, the living rooms had sofas and items for decoration. Indeed these homes reminded me a lot of some of the homes of relatives or my grandparent’s neighbours that I would visit as a child. There was something there that tickled at my memory, perhaps the style of the furniture or the simplicity of the rooms, but I could easily imagine myself there. Indeed the lack of clutter was very pleasing when considering cleaning and home management.
When my mum described her grandparents house, she talked of helping her grandmother to hand wash clothes, wringing them out on a mangle in the garden. That life was one of physical labour and my great-grandmother had 10 living children, 8 of whom were boys who worked in the coal mines. I certainly don’t envy her that task.
The children loved seeing all the rooms and were enthusiastic about all the concepts our guide talked about. I think many of the children were more familiar with the ideas of thrift and home skills than is perhaps the norm. It made me ponder that the family cultures of our home schooled families are perhaps more removed from the mainstream than I had realised. The only thing that stumped our group was when our guide pointed out that there was no tv and asked the children about their watching habits, one of our parents had to point out that many of the children watch no or little tv, it was the only subject on which they had little to say!
Whenever I visit a place like this, a recreation of the past, I always visualise myself living there. What would it have been like? What would I miss from my life and what would I be glad to be rid of? Though I happily embrace the convenience of modern gadgets (the washing machine and the fridge being so crucial to good life quality) there is much I think I could do without. What would I really miss?
But then I think of my cosy house, warm and well insulated. I think of the freedom I have to call up my family on the phone or reach out to friends through the internet, I would not wish to sacrifice those things. I know from the stories I was told as a child, even of my own parent’s childhood that times and people were tougher in the recent past. I’m very grateful for heat in my bedrooms (something we lacked through my own early years), for double glazing, for a car. Even a simple vacuum cleaner that allows me to keep my house clean and hygienic in a relatively short space of time.
It’s easy to forget too the reason for all that thrift. The economic climate that plunged so many into abject poverty, a climate of greed and catastrophe not dissimilar to our own. Though we have seen so many plunged into debt and hardship it does not even compare to the widespread devastation that occurred in the 1930’s. More than that our expectations are so different now, what was considered a very pleasant life back then would be seen by many as a low standard of living now, is it possible for us to change those expectations and lead a more balanced life?
I believe it is. It’s what our family and many others are striving for. To reclaim skills that were in decline, to live with less stuff and more connection to the patterns of nature and of life. To work harder for what we have and hopefully appreciate it more. It gave me no small measure of pride to hear my eldest boy talk about feeding waste food to the pigs, canning vegetables and preserving food for winter. So many of the old ways were perfectly familiar to him. Our way of life may not yield the kind of leisure time many families take for granted but it gives us the chance at self reliance and independence; the kind our predecessors took for granted, the kind we need to claim back for our own well being and for that of future generations.
There is so much we can learn from the past, the way forward may even be found there.