Welcome to my World: The thriftiness of the Pennsylvania Dutch

Carole Christman Koch
Carole Christman Koch

Reprint: Printed locally on Berks County TV website-2011

One of the characteristics of the Pennsylvania Dutch is to be thrifty. My mother called it “shift and make do.” With my older sisters help, we recalled the many ways Mom and others used what they had on hand, and how those thrifty growing up years affected our own lives.

As a young married couple (in the early 20s), my parents Mary (Kohler) and Herb Christman did share cropping on two farms in Maxatawny Township. The first farmhouse was old, dirty and run down. It had no electric and no water. The house was huge; only two rooms were sparsely furnished.

Mom, early on, already knew how to “shift and make do.” From a barrel, set under a water spout, she caught the water for the families use. Mom carried water into the house. When the baby came along, she melted snow to wash diapers in winter.


On the next share cropping farm, she cut up old coats to carpet the stairway. She also used old coats by cutting them in strips, braiding them, and then sewing them together for braided rugs. She wanted the babies to have a warm place to play on.

By 1935, Mom and Pop purchased the Monterey Farm. The older sisters told me that when they were little Mom made them clothes by altering others. When they were budding teenagers, they received their first bras from older cousins. Mom sewed down the center of the bras so they wouldn’t be so pointy. Anita told her, “Now you’ve ruined us!”

They also recall sheep on the farm. Pop sheared the sheep first, then took the wool to be cleaned. Mom put the wool to use by placing it in the middle of the comforts she made.

When ducks and geese were butchered and dipped in scalding water, the girls picked the feathers from the breasts. After they dried, Mom stuffed pillows---the width of a bed---with them.

Anita remembers when Mom had her teeth pulled. The new set arrived in the mail. Mom never went back to the dentist for adjustments. She filed them to fit herself.

For mostly the first five kids, Pop cut heels off shoes and the kids had to wear them like that.

My memories as a youngster, when visiting a family in Maxatawny with my parents, was their strange living room. The sofa had a sheet over it, while chairs were draped in towels. The carpeting was tacked down at the baseboard, but any open area was covered in running rugs. When I was older, I realized the thriftiness of the Dutch was “so it doesn’t get ruined.”

On other visits with my folks, there usually was only one heated room in winter and that was the kitchen. Always to save heat.

I think my sister, Anita, had the most unique thriftiness as we sisters became adults. Soon after her marriage, she moved to a small town in Nebraska, where her husband was the pastor of a church. This is where she made a quilt and had no batting so she used old covers in the middle of the quilt. If she didn’t’ have thread to embroider, she pulled threads out of material to make designs for dresser scarves. She used to save buttons; still does. She says, “I’m still a saver. I recycle everything. I also save rain to this day---it is the greatest soft water!”

My sister Dorothy told me her family once had colored Christmas lights on their house. One year her husband decided he’d like only white. Instead of buying new lights, he scraped off the color of each and every one of those bulbs. She also saves corks. I asked why.

She says, “I don’t know. Something might come up.” For the same reason she saves cardboard spools, “I might have something else to wind around them.”

I must say Dorothy makes good use of the Christmas cards we all save for her. She makes Christmas gift tags out of them and we’re the recipients of those pretty tags.

Jannetta ,81, says she can’t think any more, but her granddaughter, Megan, told me about her thriftiness.

“When Grandma gave us birthday presents, she didn’t buy wrapping paper. She used aluminum foil. I used to love how shiny the present looked. When I had my first bedroom, Grandma bought sheets that I liked and sewed everything in my room to match---curtains, quilted bedspread, pillow cases. It looked very professional and we didn’t have to go out to buy something expensive.

“Barbie clothes were expensive too. Grandma sewed a whole wardrobe with everything Barbie could want ---dresses, skirts, booties, and even tatted a hat for her. With Grandma around, Barbie always went out in style.”

My sister, Mary Alice, who has died, was thriftier than all of us put together. I think I’d call her a hoarder. She did not drink or smoke, but she was addicted to yard sales. She had jewelry, purses, shoes, sweaters, casual and cocktail dresses and coats. These clothes filled her bedroom drawers and closets, even atop dressers. The basement contained three large wardrobes filled to the brim. She also watched for sales at grocery stores. I usually have “one” extra item as backup in my cupboards. Mary Alice’s back ups for kitchen and laundry consisted of 4 or more of any one item.

Gladys has also died. Her daughter, Beverly, told me some things she did. “When Dad’s underwear wore out, she’d cut off the elastic and we’d use the cloth for dusting. Back in the 70s we didn’t have as much money with seven kids at home. When our jeans wore out, they were cut off for shorts and worn all summer long. If we ran out of milk, she had a box of dry milk. Since grocery stores weren’t open all night, she’d mix the dry milk in a pitcher and we had to use it on our cereal. Yuk!”

My brother’s wife, Millie, learned how to be thrifty from little on up. She places pieces of meat in small plastic sandwich bags. From there a lot of pieces go into a large plastic zip container. This way she can still reuse the large plastic bag.

She has saved every card since her marriage from any occasion. She even saved cards her father and her grandma received. She is also into buying colored Christmas bulbs at yard sales, scraping off the color and using for night lights.

This one is quite unique: She saves death dates. At the end of each year, she carries the death dates to a new calendar.

Now for me. Like Mary Alice, I’m a yard sale person. I think I’d go so far as to call myself a yard sale connoisseur (I like to use big words when it comes to my abilities). I just like the idea of a yard sale hostess paying the big bucks for her items and tiring of them soon after.

I’ve saved the cards (they fill up a large waste basket) my husband and I gave to each other over the 27 years we’ve been married.

My husband, a retired school teacher, saves the booklets where all his students grades were kept. I insisted “out” when we moved this last time.

When I write stories, I’ve never been able to type them up on a computer. I still write them out in long hand---on scrap paper, of course.

My husband once gave me a beautiful quilt made by my sister, Mary Alice. I had it hanging on a quilt rack “for nice” so it wouldn’t get spoiled. Since we moved, I decided how ridiculous it is not to use your nice things. I once saved place mats made by my sister “just for company.” I’m getting better. I use them often now.

Men, like my husband, can be just as bad as women in saving things.

\He has a hard time throwing away soiled, old hats. I begged him to throw out his PGA hat, which was filthy. He agreed, but looked at it forlornly. I asked, “Would you like me to leave the room so you can kiss it goodbye?” He ended up hanging it in the tool shed.

I know this thriftiness has affected my life. Has it affected yours?

Carole Christman Koch grew up in Berks County and has been published in numerous publications. She has a passion for writing and has many stories from growing up on a farm to raising children to humorous stories about her and her husband to everyday stories to season stories and more.