Old house lessons in recycling

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old House History

These days, recycling has become so much a way of life that most people do it -- and those who don't usually feel guilty about it. Recycling a hundred years ago wasn't so much a matter of saving the planet as it was a practical, useful way to simply help take care of our homes and families. Living in an old house and seeing the signs of those who came before us can provide an excellent view of a time when recycling was truly a way of life.

Creative recycling from years past

One of the best examples of this comes when you open up a wall in an old house. If that wall has been sealed for many decades, chances are the insulation will be quite interesting. That's because many homeowners turned to newspapers to fill in the spaces in the walls, thus providing a cheap and effective insulation. Pulling out reams of old, yellowed newspapers can lead to an afternoon (or more!) of enlightening reading.

Other household items were pressed into new life as parts of old houses. My grandfather laughed when he talked about the small chimney vent in the top of a house he rented in Chicago during his younger years. The little chimney turned out to be a repurposed Maxwell House coffee can. Not exactly the safest of ways to vent a fireplace, but it worked in a pinch -- apparently.

Creaky stairs or uneven bookcases might have been temporarily fixed with shims made of old books or strips of cardboard from various advertisements of the day. Knotholes in old wood might have been plugged with shiny marbles, not just for the convenience but for the spot of color as well. The same holds true for bottle caps or old corks from wine bottles enjoyed many years ago.

Need a flowerpot? That could be had with an ancient washbasin and a few holes drilled in the bottom, or an old tire settled in the right spot and filled with topsoil. Metal roofing patches were often pulled from things that were no longer used, such as that rusty car sitting at the back of the driveway or that old sign that used to hang in front of the grocery store. Old clothes were often tucked into walls in areas where the newspaper insulation trick just wasn't enough to fight against Mother Nature.

Reclaimed wood was the hot thing in home building years before it became the popular thing to do in our modern world. It wasn't unusual for a homeowner to use the remains of an old barn in the back field to create an addition to their home. Today's popular look of a gorgeous hardwood floor made of reclaimed wood is simply something that has been around for centuries now becoming "new again."

Recycling for a new generation

Today we are recycling things to use in our homes that our grandparents might never have imagined. Now we can turn glass shards into beautiful countertops, use cork for flooring our entire house or create plastic decking from industrial waste. We can even turn water bottles into carpet and look to recycled shoes to create roofing tiles. In hundreds of years, those who come after us will look back at the ways we recycled and smile at our creativity -- just as we do today when we pull those newspapers out of the walls of an old house.