When I was a boy in Stamford Connecticut, it was common to see old men mowing their lawns and doing other outdoor work, while wearing tattered business suits, white dress shirts and black wing-tipped business shoes. These men had grown up during the Great Depression, and to them wasting anything was considered an actual sin.
People dressed very formally to go to work. There was no such thing as “business casual”; not even the occasional “casual Friday.” When people’s formal business clothing got too worn and frayed to wear to work, the suits did not get thrown out. These old suits, shirts, and dress shoes, became the outfits men would wear while working in the yard, painting their house or fixing the gutters.
As children, we used to secretly laugh at these old guys toiling in the Summer Sun wearing white dress shirts, black socks and black wing tips. If it got too hot, some of the old guys would doff an old formal business hat, the kind you see in Humphrey Bogart movies.
Of course, we kids could not even imagine what the pain and hunger of the Great Depression had been like. The idea of not have enough food in America was beyond our comprehension.
All of the old men had come out of poverty many decades before and the United States was prospering as never before. The old guys all could have afforded to simply throw out the old suits. They could afford to hire other people to mow the laws, paint houses or rake the leaves, but they did not. It was a matter of pride for people of that generation to never pay someone else to do something you could do yourself.
The women who grew up in the Great Depression had the same mindset. My Grandmother was a fantastic cook, yet she never threw anything out. If she made rice one day, the extra rice never went in the garbage. It became rice stuffing or part of chicken and rice soup, or even rice pudding. Not a single grain was wasted.
Almost all of the Great Depression generation is gone now. Frugality has given away to conspicuous consumption. In my Grandparents day, people were taught to never show off how much money they had. In fact, to the people of that generation one of the rudest things someone could do was to ask someone else how much money they made. If you did that, the immediate response would be, “none of your business.”
As a kid, I made fun of these old folks. Now, looking back, I realize that their way of life had real value. Never wasting anything and never buying more than you need might be a happier way to live. The 2008 housing crash and subsequent financial crisis would not have happened if people had not bought homes that were many times more than they could actually afford. People of my Grandparents generation would never have done that. There is also real value in never showing off how much money you have and never asking anyone else about their financial situation. Living like that you learn to view people based on their core values, not their relative wealth.
The company where I work went to business casual long ago, and yet I still have a closet full of suits. Some are good enough to wear out to dinner or parties. Quite a few are rather worn and tattered but I have never gotten around to throwing them out. I just can’t put the old suits in the garbage without thinking about how upset that would have made my Grandparents. This time of year, my yard is full of sticks and leaves that need raking. It seems to me that one of my old suits would be the perfect outfit for that. Perhaps with a pair of worn-out black leather shoes.