‘Make do and mend’ – St Neots’ handmade Christmas

Upcycling and reusing are now fully on trend, but turning old into new is not a recent phenomenon by any means…

What sort of Christmas presents will you be giving this year? In line with a government initiative, people in Huntingdonshire are being urged to ‘Shop Local’ to help local businesses recover from the pandemic. St Neots Museum has always sought to champion local artists and makers, and as usual, we’re hosting our annual Winter Craft and Gift Fair, which showcases locally made items including jewellery, paintings, ceramics, crochet and delicious scented candles (have we tempted you yet?..)

The ‘Shop Local’ initiative is by no means a new idea, so how did people respond to similar schemes in the past? The Curator has taken a look back at magazines and newspapers in the museum’s collection to find out…

Exert from the Home Companion, 1916 detailing how cotton fabrics could be re-used

Exert from the Home Companion, 1916

‘Make do and mend’

The Victorians were pros at homemade toys and presents, and the tradition of gifting a homemade Christmas present carried on into the First World War. The Home Companion of 1916 recommended that when the ‘season for cotton frocks is ended’ the embroidered parts of an old summer dress could be made into a teapot cosy, a tray cloth or a nightdress case, fancy! Alternatively odd pieces of stripped silk could be used to make a new collar for a dress.

During the Second World War, the people of Britain were plunged into a fresh crisis, limiting supplies of all raw materials to the UK. Once again, people had to reuse, recycle and repair as they had done in the past. The government launched its ‘make-do-and-mend’ campaign in 1943, and in the St Neots Advertiser of June 1945, Mrs Sew and Sew urged everyone to patch their clothes carefully to make them last longer (and that’s not a face we’d want to disobey!) Cotton and wool were considered particularly valuable, as vast supplies were needed for military aircraft and uniforms.

Mrs Sew & Sew gives advice on patching clothes, from St Neots Advertiser 1945

Mrs Sew & Sew gives advice on patching clothes, from St Neots Advertiser 1945

In the Christmas 1942 edition of Woman and Home, the magazine gave simple instructions for making a wooden boat as a child’s Christmas present. In 1944, instructions were given for making a doll’s pram from a wooden packing case, with a pillow and ‘coverlet’ made from fabric ‘unsuitable for salvage’. The magazine also suggested making a dolly for the pram from an old stocking!

Shopping local

However, if your ingenuity didn’t quite stretch to remaking your old clothes into new costumes, or giving a new lease of life to a wooden packing case, then you could always turn to the newspaper to find out what local businesses had to offer.

St Neots Market Square’s drapers shop, Armstrong’s (now Haart’s estate agents), advertised Christmas gifts in December 1921, including ladies tan leather gloves from 5s 11d (30p!) and pretty ‘crepe-de-chine’ (a lightweight fabric, normally silk) jumpers in all colours. Larkinson’s on the High Street (now Molby’s) claimed to have a suitable gift for any member of the family; from toys, books and fancy goods to calendars, china and glass. In their window they also showcased a magnificent display of ‘Meccano’ models, built by the boys of the St Neots Meccano Club – how do we join?!

Instructions for making a wooden doll's pram from a packing case, with a pillow and coverlet. Woman and Home 1944.

Instructions for making a wooden doll’s pram from a packing case, with a pillow and coverlet. Woman and Home 1944.

If you were looking for a turkey or goose for Christmas lunch, then the place to go was Ekins livestock auction yard in New Street, who held their Christmas sale on Thursday 15th December, 1921. The prize show and sale featured bullocks, sheep, pigs, and of course, turkeys, hens and geese.

Plum and Son, the High Street bakery and café, offered their customers ‘a splendid assortment of chocolate boxes’, crackers, plum puddings, Christmas cakes and mincemeat (we’re hungry just reading about it!) Alternatively, the International Stores (now Costa Coffee on St Neots High Street) were selling ‘good things for old and young’ including; dates at 1/- (5p) per box, mincemeat at 1/1d (6p) per jar, Christmas cake at 2/6 (12p) and crackers from 1/- to 5/6d (5p – 27p).

Plum & Son's Café and Cake Shop in St Neots High Street, 1920s

Plum & Son’s Café and Cake Shop in St Neots High Street, 1920s

By December 1940, Barratt’s store offered ‘useful’ presents including: gloves, scarves, socks, overalls and aprons; while jeweller C. C. Spencer urged locals to ‘say it with diamonds’, with gifts priced from 30/- (£1.50) up to £50!

And today…

This Christmas, we don’t find ourselves with a war to contend with, instead we find ourselves facing new global emergencies. A worldwide pandemic, driving us all to focus more on local community, and the ongoing threat of global warming, brought about by world industrialisation and our own over-consumption of vast amounts of ‘stuff’. This year we can all try to shop more locally, or, perhaps, be inspired to make our own handmade gifts. If it all goes pear-shaped, you can ALWAYS drop-in to St Neots Museum’s Winter Craft and Gift Fair to save the day!

Happy making!

Barrett's Christmas Advert - St Neots Advertiser 1940

Barrett’s Christmas Advert – St Neots Advertiser 1940