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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

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