This little book is a new addition to my bookshelf, acquired on this year’s summer trip to London. After a walk around St. James’s Park we visited the Churchill War Rooms, the secret underground headquarters where Winston Churchill and his staff planned the war effort, safe from enemy bombs. The place is a claustrophobic rabbit warren of tiny rooms where Churchill and scores of staff often slept overnight during the Blitz.
I appreciated the museum’s focus on the ordinary staffers, many young women, who toiled in this dank basement for years. Individual’s stories were documented with photos and letters giving first-hand accounts of the experience as well as comments on the great man himself. I got a feel for how confusing it must have been for a new staff member to find her way around despite directional signs everywhere. I broke away from our group to find the restroom which I was assured by a guide was just around that corner. Twenty minutes later I was still looking, completely lost in the labyrinthine series of rooms and passageways and dead ends. I must have looked quite desperate when I finally found myself back at the entrance hall and saw the Toilet sign. What happened to the one “just around that corner” I never found out.
By now I was sure I would never be able to retrace my steps through the maze to rejoin my group, so I contented myself with some extra time in the gift shop. Of course there were the usual trinkets with the ubiquitous slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On,” but there was also a large collection of books, mostly histories of World War II and Churchill biographies. I found Make Do and Mend in a section with facsimiles of books published during the war years. A 1943 publication of the Ministry of Information, the little volume aims to help people “get the last possible ounce of wear out of all your clothes and household things,” according to the foreword by Hugh Dalton, President of the Board of Trade. That this is mainly a female mission he makes clear in his thanks to the Make Do and Mend Advisory Panel, a body described as “practical people, mainly women.”
The book is a window into the privations of life on the home front. Most of us are familiar with the history of food rationing. But clothing was also rationed, to save “much-needed shipping space, manpower and materials.” All the advice, which ranges from the obvious to the strange, has, we are assured, “been tested and approved” by the Advisory Panel. One imagines these earnest women working away in drab government offices, carefully testing different methods of darning, patching, repurposing, and washing to come up with the best advice. Many of the hints would have been well known to anyone who struggled through the Great Depression or came from a poor family. Now the upper middle classes and aristocracy would have to learn to “make do” as the lower orders had for generations.
When it comes to clothes anyone can make them last longer, but only “the careful woman can make them last well.” Throughout the book our experts battle the two great menaces of the wardrobe, moths and perspiration. It sounds like a full-time job to hunt down and destroy moth grubs hiding under seams and collars. Good housewives must be as vigilant for moths as the Fire Watch are for enemy bombs, and both are vital to the war effort. Mothballs aren’t mentioned, but daily brushing and hanging clothes out in the sunshine to kill the grubs. In the days before antiperspirants underarm shields to soak up sweat had to be removed from clothing after wearing and cleaned separately. Clothes should be hung in the fresh air to dispel any lingering odors before hanging them in the wardrobe. The tone is occasionally censorious, with questions like “when did you last wash your shoe brushes and polishers?” The many do’s and don’ts include the inexplicable: “never roll skin gloves into a ball” and “never wash rubber shoes with soap.”
One of the oddest pieces of advice concerns towels. Apparently they were also subject to rationing and towel coupons were jealously guarded. The book advises people to take their own towel with them if they stay overnight away from home to spare their hosts having to supply them. They should also take their own towel to the office and to the hairdresser. I can’t help wondering if this quirky historical detail inspired Douglas Adams to appoint the towel “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
One thing that places this book firmly in the realm of ancient history is the amount of space dedicated to the care of corsets. This was an age when it could be stated in all seriousness: “Now that rubber is so scarce your corset is one of your most precious possessions.” Women were advised to keep two corsets in working order and wear them on alternate days. An entire page is devoted to the correct way to put on and remove corsets of different types to avoid stretching them out of shape. “Never throw away corset bones” as they can be used to replace broken ones (for if you don’t remove your corset correctly you could break one). And of course “never mend a corset with a pin.” Not for the conventional reason, that you could be in an accident and embarrassed at the hospital when the nurses see you are so shiftless as to hold your underwear together with a pin, but because the pin will tear the precious rubber!
An entire chapter is devoted to the essential, now almost lost, skills of darning and patching for “a stitch in time now saves not only extra work in the end, but precious coupons.” If no matching fabric is at hand to mend torn garments, the diligent seamstress will create decorative patches for a touch of sartorial flair. No less important to extend the life of clothes is the correct way to wash and iron, detailed in another chapter. Hints are given for all kinds of fabrics including one I’d never heard of, marocain, a type of crepe. Many time consuming steps are prescribed, like unpicking the hems of dresses before washing to prevent shrinkage. And once again special care must be taken with corsets, “never rub them with a cake of soap.”
When despite all this care a garment is beyond repair, “turn out and renovate” for “no material must lie idle, so be a magician and turn old clothes into new.” There follow pages of ideas for cutting up old clothes and making something new from the least worn parts. Adult dresses and skirts can become children’s clothes including this helpful hint: “one pair of plus-fours will make two pairs of shorts for a schoolboy.” Likewise knitting. Unpick and wash wool and give “new life to old woolies.” My mother still practiced all these skills when I was growing up; all my clothes were handmade well into my teens. Now in the age of cheap imported clothing, washing machines, dry cleaning, and a throwaway culture, they seem part of a lost world.
There is something inherently ludicrous about government officials spending precious time giving advice about sewing and laundry in a time of national crisis. It smacks of the overreach of what in future years would come to be called “the nanny state.” But there is also something touching about this little book; a glimpse of a society enduring wartime privation with a spirit of “can-do” and everyone “doing their bit.” The woman at home with her needle and thread pitching in to repair a factory worker’s overalls (and perhaps her own corset) could consider herself just as important to the war effort as the women who worked in Churchill’s War Rooms.