Updated date:

Ghosts Of The Great Depression - 1930s Poverty

The Great Depression

Rochelle Frank’s article called Survival in the 1930s is an eye opening account of survival that many people born after 1960 probably cannot imagine -- Unless they were born into the poverty of the poorest Appalachian regions, the most destitute part of a rundown inner city, or a third world country. I hope you read her Hub.

I can only add a few short stories, and most of them second hand at that.

Family in the Great Depression living in a makeshift tent.

Family in the Great Depression living in a makeshift tent.

Waste and Fear

Having never met my grandparents, who were members of the generations born before the Greatest Generation, I was not able to hear their stories. They were born during the Missionary Generation (1860 – 1862) and the Interbellum Generation (1891 – 1900), but I do have some memories of Tales of the Depression, as it were. These stories came from parents that were themselves grandparent-aged, great aunts and uncles, and employers that lived and worked through the 1930s and 1940s.

One employer survived and even thrived in the Depression by accepting employment after high school with the new Kroger company grocery stores. He told us that he always had a job and spending money, was able to save part of it, and was able to drive friends on excursions in his Ford automobile (everyone walked or used bicycles, otherwise). He made a lifelong career of the grocery and merchandise business and owned a convenience store after retiring from Kroger.

My boss never wasted anything, but did not hang on to what really needed to be thrown away. Younger convenience store owners at the time would slice cheese down to a certain point on a loaf or large round of cheese and throw away over an inch-and-a-half of good Colby or pepper jack cheese. My employer cut these end pieces into chunks and sold them by the pound, often discounted. This built business.

Peppers and Eggs

Terror in the Face of Starvation

On the other hand, a relative of mine grew up during the Depression in a rural area with her grandparents. They received Relief Orders as a family, which must have been something like today’s Food Stamps. She related that she was sent to a farm market at the corner of the nearby intersecting roads every evening to purchase a single piece of meat and a couple of potatoes for dinner for the three of them (just the day's necessity). Vegetables came from the garden. If they were careful in food spending every day of the month, on the last day they could have a larger meal.

Waste was not permitted and if she did not eat at a meal, she was served the same food at each following meal, until she did eat it. She said sometimes it resulted in illness.

As an adult, this woman was afraid of wasting food and suffering the resultant shouting from her husband for it, so she served food that should have been thrown out, to her children, who would not eat it. I remember at a gathering, hearing her yell at the older of the two kids that he would sit there all night until he ate the food or she would get it out again for breakfast. He sat there silently and did not eat. Another adult threw the food down the garbage disposal and ran it, because the food turned out to be a piece of 100% gristle.

The Depression was horrible for many people in a number of ways and later, for some their children.


Poorman's Feast

Banking at Home

The mother of a friend refused to throw anything away and refused to buy anything not "on sale." She gave threadbare cothing and valueless scrap materials left over from building projects as Christmas gitts.

If milk curdled in the refrigerator, she still put it in her coffee. She also ate freezer-burned foods and meats that were frozen for over two years. She was beginning to open swelled cans of green beans to eat one day when my friend stopped her from consuming the botulism inside those cans. She felt it was a sin to waste anything, but this was going too far. It reminds me of the times my father ate burned foods for the same reason.

As for money related behaviors in the Depression, some of these were strange as well.

Some individuals really did bury money in the back yard in a coffee can, or hide the can in the attic. Others hid money under the floorboards of a particular room in the house, or sewed it into a stuffed animal or fabric doll that was displayed in a case in a breakfront. Above all, they spent as little money as they could, expecting another national financial crisis at every turn.

Public Health Nurse visiting the poor.

Public Health Nurse visiting the poor.

Survival is Not Enough

Some banks fared better than others during the Great Depression, and I heard stories of those who used a bank for half of their money and hid the other half somewhere at home. Some never trusted checking accounts and credit cards and refused to use either of these. My mother never learned to write a check. My father carried money with him and paid cash for everything except the house – and this included new cars. After the first new car, he decided that depreciation ate up too much of the value of the vehicle the first year and he began to purchase autos at the end of the year, right before new models came out, in order to take advantage of the good discounts.

Some individuals kept half their funds in the bank and hid the other half in the Family Bible. Others hid it in envelopes among a variety of other records in a tightly packed desk drawer that was rarely opened. Still others climbed a ladder and hid it in the highest cabinets over the refrigerator – cabinets that held special serving pieces used only once a year. My father used a cadre of venues – two banks, a savings and loan, hiding places at home, and the practice of carrying cash. He did not trust the FDIC insurance on the banking accounts and spread his money around so that he would not lose too much if one of the financial institutions went bankrupt.

He also refused to spend any money on entertainment after I saw two circuses and one movie as a child, and when I entered high school, he cut out restaurants and my small allowance. Little did I know that he was retiring from work and did not trust Social Security, either; even though he drew a large pension from his employer as well as SS. He and my mother never went out to a restaurant or a movie once in 30 years, but he always had three cars. He felt that for necessities, one should purchase three of everything, as long as they were good, sturdy long-lasting brands found at a good price. No books or magazines, no hobbies, no church or social groups. No friends. No vacations unless it was to accompany him on a 3-day business trip with no entertainment except a motel TV - which was interesting at times. No health insurance.

Permitted expenses: mortgage, groceries, autos, taxes, some good tools, a few appliances (no dishwashers, blenders, or electric can openers), very few clothes, new carpeting or a couch if the old one wore out completely, minimal healthcare -- The rest of one’s income was to be saved in a bank or hidden. His one break in the week was grocery shopping and visiting a discount store on Saturdays, in the tradition of his father and grandfather going to town for supplies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Occasionally, he watched a television show. This cannot have been fun for him; it was not for me. And the money he saved was not put to good use, but paid heavy medical expenses later on that could have been avoided.

I hope we as a society can make an adjustment between spending too much and saving too much, and be happy in a common-sense median. Survival, only to be miserable, is not a good end.

© 2009 Patty Inglish MS


Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 02, 2011:

Thanks for all the comments...

A friend's mom died a a few years ago, but I remember her drinking sour milk and eating rancid meath rather than to throw it out, because of her experiences in the Depression.

Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on May 02, 2011:

O My Goodness.!!!! l thought l was sometimes over the top about not wasting food, ever since we spent some time in India amongst the local people and saw how they lived.

BUT l am a wastrel compared to some of these people who survived the Depression.

You always write wonderful articles and l always learn something l didn´t know before,

l really appreciate your work,. Thank you.

RunAbstract from USA on August 10, 2010:

I suppose fear can drive a person in any direction. But this sounds incerdibly extream! I'm so sorry you experienced so few joys growing up. I think also there is a big difference in being secure, and being obsessive. I am a very fugle person, but money...? To me it's only paper and ink. What we must use to play the game.

A friend of mine lost over $90,000 last year in the economic downturn. One day it was there, and the next day it was gone. Poof! It just disappeared with so much of other people's money. Nope, money isn't all it's cracked up to be, in my humble opinion.

Thank you for a thought provoking read!

P.S. LOVE the videos! I've been watching this lady and learning from her for awhile now. Glad you put her on here!

myawn from Florida on February 05, 2010:

My mom made me eat evrything on my plate when I was small so as not to waste food. I don't waste any food she taught me not to. I hope things don't get any worse today.

free4india on November 05, 2009:

The way things are going at present with computers taking over jobs and the effects of so called globalization... I am afraid of an everlasting depression!

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on September 30, 2009:

Great Article.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on August 21, 2009:

You're right, James. No one I know takes an actual vacation anymore.

James Ginn from Ohio on August 21, 2009:

I miss the days when only dad had to work and he made just enough money to take us on one two week vacation per year. To me, that was success. Now, we deal with excess. Thank you.

asalvani from London, UK on August 10, 2009:

What a nice Hub. I now know how happy I am today.

ale on March 25, 2009:

cool...luv it..

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 12, 2009:

Those are good thoughts, Ashley Joy, and I do see people doing these things. Spending had gone out of control for some people, but had to be reined in.

Ashley Joy on March 12, 2009:

Personally I think that for many there is some good coming of this. Everyone is learning to come together and help each other out. Plus we are all learning to be more content with what we have and to take care of those things.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 02, 2009:

I was pleasantly astounded when I found the videos. It's a great series. Thanks for visiting and posting, Wendy!

Wendy Henderson from Cape Coral on March 01, 2009:

I really enjoyed this blog. I watched every video. I hope I have this kind of energy when I'm 93. Wonderful blog.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 01, 2009:

Hi Debnet! - I remember doing that in the 1990s too, as we began losing benefits at work, and then holidays, then pay was cut, and then our company closed down. 8 years or so we have economic changes like this.

I think sometimes parents tried to feed their kids too much in one sitting during WWII and after, as well, which resulted in leftovers they did not want to throw out.

Debnet on March 01, 2009:

Great blog ... you brought back memeories of my childhood when I was served up food that I'd not eaten at the previous meal time. I used to try and feed it to the cat when my mother wasn't looking! I guess that was a throw back to her days of rationing during WW11. It is possible to eat healthy and cheeply when on a really tight budget. I know because I did it during the last recession in the 90's.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 01, 2009:

Tony - Thank you for posting. I think there may be some real dangers coming, but I don't feel a sense of panic. I really do believe that all the petroleum-based and other non-green jobs can be replaced with green jobs.

I am concerned with the announcement I heard that charitable deductions are to be eliminated by iRS. If church offerings decline, friends from janitors to pastors will be out of work as well. But services could held in parks and homes. Important foundations that help those in need might also close, but hopefully will receive grant funding.

Jerilee Wei - I see what your husband is going through in a few people I know and feel very bad for them all, and also see purposeful waste by others who consider it "stimulus." My "hobby" has become recycling - almost a militant recyling that I think I take too far at times. Thank you for your post and experiences as well.

I suddenly remember my father telling me at a meal once - Better eat now, because you never know when you're going to get to eat again.

Jerilee Wei from United States on March 01, 2009:

I think that those living through the times who could not overcome their fears, long after it, left a mark on future generations. My husband is one of those children whose parents and other relatives never got over it. At 66, he still feels a tremendous need to save things that others would throw out, right down to picking up and saving metal he finds when he walks the dog. He will eat rotten food or eat way past when he's full rather than see food wasted. It's a challenge to keep him from getting ill doing so. Great hub!

Tony on February 28, 2009:

I know that things are very much different now to the depression days. We have a lot more media connection, telephones, internet etc. Not just in teh USA< people all around the world can be aware of what is going on, what jobs are available, where there are problems etc. I hope things don't end up getting as bad as they did in the depression years. I think with the increased population and today's society that things could get very ugly indeed.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 28, 2009:

"Reset" is a good way to put it. USA Today is running a series of articles about economizing during the recession. One family could no longer afford their iPhones and had to give them up.

One problem that I have had with salespeople since I was a young child of 5 years is that I always thought they were lying about every product, just in order to get money out of a person. Now I know that is not always true, but I still have the emotion of nontrust with them. I've seen too many bait-and-switch, company bankruptcies and many other problems.

I am always surprised at the money beliefs of some youth and even some adults. As a volunteer martial arts instructor, I am flabbergasted when famlies ask to be paid for enrolling their child in a free rec center program or youth tell me that they expect me to give them money and once - even pay for their college.

Jacquie The Underground Goddess from NC on February 28, 2009:

These stories teach a valuable lesson on keeping a balance in any economic time. It really shows me that going to any extremes can work againest a person. This economic downturn may act as a sort of "reset" button for younger folks who thought the money would always flow freely and consumption was ingrained in there personal culture. Thank You

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 27, 2009:

C.S. Alex - Thanks for posting. I hope more of us that can remember stories of the elders will share and keep them alive from decade to decade. Hard times do teach fascinating lessons, but they can be forgotten in a dozen years. I hope to be as active as Clara at that age!

C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on February 27, 2009:

Clara's cooking kept me riveted to your story. I love the elders. This was interesting and motivating in a strange way! I enjoy the stories and there is much to learn from hard times. Thanks for this one!

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 27, 2009:

Hi Rochelle - the curtain rod immages are free graphics, so please feel free to copy them for dividers! I forget the site name but search "free divider graphics." Your family sounds strong and common-sense oriented as well as full of love!

Maren - Thanks for the interesting stories. Myown mother would not drink milk or eat cream sauces because her family stetched everything with milk (sometimes curdled), cream, and water. I know people today that purposely buy things from QVC and Macy's and throw them away so people will think they are rich and important. I hate waste.

TOF - Yes, I've seen that Hub and will re-read it. Thanks for reminding me of another important story.

The Old Firm from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand on February 26, 2009:

Patty, read Jerilee Wei's hub, " Living in a ghost town." The reality of elderly previously well off people having to beg for bread and selling their treasures to survive is heartbreaking.

Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on February 26, 2009:

I can relay a few stories from my family's lore.  My  maternal grandmother made a meat pot pie that was almost entirely filled with potatoes.  The meat was just a few raisin-sized pieces spread stingily through the dish.

Also, my mother, born in 1928, was so resentful of eating soup day after day during the depression that she did a complete turnabout when she became a successful and financially well-off adult.  She became a grand consumer and a tad wasteful.  I think she wanted to put the Depression era habits and memories as far behind her as possible.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on February 26, 2009:

Thanks for the link, Patty. I guess a lot of people survived with a little PTEDs (Post traumatic economic depression) that affected their thinking forever after. I think my parents came through it pretty well, but they were young and in love. They stayed in love for a lifetime. My Sis and I were pretty much expected to clean our plates. Food, and pretty much anything else, was not to be wasted. Mom was a bargain hunter, and very good at getting good value for every cent she spent. Nevertheless, they were very generous people. They gave many gifts, helped a lot of people who had less, and they did enjoyed the rewards of their hard work with their world travels.

(P.S. Where did you get those cute little "curtain rod" thingys?)

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 26, 2009:

Hi laringo - Thanks very much for your story. Economies cycle, but I too think recession can be prevented. Lack of financial understanding may have something to do with it. Thanks again.

laringo from From Berkeley, California. on February 26, 2009:

Patty, a very mind opening view on what many people did to survive in a bad economy. I don't think we are near depression, but to many in this country they have already and have been living in. I just don't understand how this has happened without earlier intervention.There has been signs for a long time whith business closing down or filing for bankruptcy. As a country, we got to greedy and weren't responsible. I was born in the 50's and we were a family of 8(6kids and our parents). We were not rich and never relied on any public assistance. We never went hungry and never wasted food. We all went to Catholic school and at one point or another help out by doing jobs to help pay part of our tuition. Greed selfishness, disrespect and loss of values has permeated our society to a point of no return. I wish everyone could just stop, take a breath and count their blessings. Thanks for writing this Hub Patty

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 26, 2009:

Thanks for the comment. I am reminded that manypeople have lost all or at least part of their retirement in the last year.

retirementhelp on February 26, 2009:

The Depression was a tough time. We have a ways to go to back there again. That doesn't mean we can't look at things and make changes to help avoid that. Great hub, especially in these times!!

Related Articles