Make do and mend – the real revolution

There’s a deeply moving and little-known Bruce Springsteen song about falling on hard times, released on the 2012 album Wrecking Ball. Many of the songs on the album are about the bleak world caused by the 2008 market crash. The words of Jack Of All Trades go like this (but I urge you to listen to it):

I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof, to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a jack of all trades, honey we’ll be all right

I’ll hammer the nails, I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops, when they’re ripe and grown
I’ll pull that engine apart, patch’ er up ’til she’s running right
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right

The hurricane blows, brings a hard rain
When the blue sky breaks
It feels like the world’s gonna change
We’ll start caring for each other
Like Jesus said that we might
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right

The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again, yeah they’ll bet your life
I’m a jack of all trades, darling we’ll be all right

Now sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood
We stood the drought, now we’ll stand the flood
There’s a new world coming, I can see the light
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right

So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right

Pause to take in the classic Springsteen shock of the third last line. And then think about the preceding two lines: “So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do, You take the old, you make it new”.

These are words that my grandmother understood – mending socks, repairing dresses, using sheets until they got so thin they needed to be turned into pillowcases. Her thriftiness was partly hewn out of living through World War 2, but it was mostly what you did when you were raising four children on one salary. And also what everybody did: you did not throw things away if they could be fixed.


My grandmother passed these habits to my mother, and she passed them to me.

I make do, I mend, I see if something can be fixed. These things seem to me to be part of the way we should live on our planet: in a spirit of good husbandry, in the old-fashioned, dictionary sense of “the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals; the management and conservation of resources” – derived, says the OED, from Middle English, where husband meant “farmer”, a meaning that is now obsolete.

(That was so interesting I looked up the origin of husband: Late Old English in the senses “male head of a household” and “manager, steward”, from Old Norse húsbóndi ‘master of a house’, from hús ‘house’ + bóndi ‘occupier and tiller of the soil’. The original sense of the verb was “till, cultivate”.)

In that spirit, I am deeply encouraged to find that my son and his cousin think that buying new clothes is just plain wrong – they are both frequenters of thrift shops. And they and all their friends borrow and share clothing, rather than buy new.

Cosmetics tube cut in half

See – cream in the bottom of the tube!

Small changes

To make big changes in the world, we need to start with these small things: we need to see what we have as resources to be husbanded, to be maintained for as long as they can.

I pass on one small tip. Almost all cosmetics these days come in plastic tubes with a lid at the bottom. And at a certain point, it becomes impossible to get anything more out of the bottom of the tube, no matter how many times you shake it. I was so once irritated by this that I cut the tube in half.

Reader, you will be unsurprised to learn that there was a lot of cream still in the tube.

So now, when I get to the point where the tube will no longer give of its bounty, I cut the tube in half and continue using it, using the top half as a lid.
Storing a cosmetics tube that has been cut in half.
The tube of cleanser in the pictures – post dissection – has lasted a full month and is still going strong. Meaning that I don’t have to buy a new one for some time yet, and ultimately meaning that there will be fewer of these being discarded into the world, from our household at least.

And also: Clicks is going to have to wait a little longer to get money out of me. (Because of course, these tubes are manufactured in this way precisely to make it difficult for consumers to get at all the product).

Which makes this a deeply satisfying make-do trick.

I am with Springsteen in his anger at the bastards who mess up our world. But rather than shoot them, I think we just quietly find ways of going back to husbandry, to conservation, to thrift.

Because that’s how we save the world in the end. In fact we don’t save it. We keep it going with consistent, steady care.

Main image: A month’s darning, Enoch Wood Perry, Jr (cropped).  Donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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