Have you ever met someone who was alive during the Great Depression? They are changed people. The Great Depression left a great impression on their thoughts, their styles, and their habits. Many of them hoard money, become pack rats, and in general have trouble parting with anything that may possibly be of use down the road. And who can blame them? Many people ask how did people survive the Great Depression; I wonder how many times saving the ends of a loaf of bread or scraping the mold off of a brick of cheese meant the difference between eating and going hungry.
My grandfather was born in 1928 and grew into a young boy in the aftermath of the US economic collapse. Pop-pop remembers his parents opening up our hay barn for random people to sleep in on cold winter nights. He also remembers that he and his family were “not so bad off”; they were farmers so they had the land and the knowledge to grow most of the food they consumed. In fact, Pop-pop told me that anyone who spent the night in their barn was also given a plate of food for the night, which shows how valuable their garden truly was. His impressionable years during a time of great financial ruin impacted the rest of his life dramatically, from his hoarding of cash and mistrust of companies and banks, to his refusal to use air conditioners and instead spend his summers in sweat-drenched muscle shirts. When he died he left an inheritance for each of his children from a measly family dairy farmer’s income.
The Great Depression to frugal people holds the same intrigue as Sedona to New Age people, which is why I have chosen this time period as a small research project for myself. I have read of the bank failures, the stock market crash, the suicides, and the dust bowl, all of which have been written about extensively.
I have heard stories of bad credit loans, and how banks + people went under together during this time period. And I've seen my own grandfather's extreme frugality stemming from a childhood in the aftermath of this intense time period.
But a few burning questions of mine about this time period have never fully been answered: How did people actually survive the Great Depression? What sort of frugal habits came about? I want to learn how people made do with less and how people actually survived the day-to-day with little money.
Before I list some of the examples I found during my research, let’s put everyone into the mindset of the Depression era. Imagine this: the stock market has crashed and your money in it is gone. The value on your home has plummeted (that may not be difficult for some to imagine). You see a line forming outside of several banks and begin to wonder if you should get your own money out of them and stuff it into a mattress. Your job cuts your wage by 25%, but you feel fortunate to still have one. Except that six months later consumer demand is a speckle of what it used to be, so your job enforces furloughs. Unfortunately the money you had set aside in your bank is not liquid at the moment due to bank issues. What do you do?
Please note: As this article is meant to be useful to everyone as both an eye-opener to how comfortable people of today actually are (even those who call themselves “frugal”, which includes myself), as well as an inspiration to maintain our frugal habits, I left out the heart-breaking and destitute acts committed by families to survive. I don’t wish to sugar coat this time period and the suffering of others, so I’d like to mention that these include eating from the garbage, eating every other day, abandoning families, living in Hoovervilles, etc.
How Did People Survive the Great Depression?
- Sell Apples on the Street Corner: Pacific Northwest apple growers had a surplus of apples, and decided to sell a crate to unemployed people at $1.75 per crate. Selling the 60-72 apples on the street corner would yield $3.00, and after paying Pacific, a person could reap around $1.25.
- Roll Your Own Cigarettes
- Eat Food from the Wild: Such delicacies as blackberries, dandelions, and game were for the taking in the country but not in the city. Other people gathered corn kernels from fields and roasted them over fires, or picked fruit from people’s trees (I am not suggesting you do this).
- Substitute Other Things for Meat: Families ate more of beans, macaroni and cheese, pancakes, and other gut-filling foods that were less expensive than meats. One type of meat that became popular was sardines: introducing the mashed sardine and mayonnaise sandwich.
- Family Members Work to Supplement Income: This included mowing lawns, shoveling snow, delivering newspapers, baby-sitting, shoe-shining, passing out ads, selling door-to-door, mining, etc.
- Repair Your Clothes with Objects around the House: Shoes were often repaired with cardboard, scotch tape became popular, and coats were lined with blankets.
- Give up Your Telephone: Telephone service declined from 20 million in 1930 to less than 17 million in 1933. Long Distance phone calls dramatically decreased.
- Postpone Life Decisions: Divorce rates dropped because people could not afford the cost, and they needed one another to survive. People postponed weddings and having children.
- Practice Out of Your Home: Doctors, dentists, and other professionals who previously rented offices instead moved their practices to their homes.
- Leave the City: A chunk of people fled the cities and went into farming instead; at least they knew they would eat.
- Give up Your Car: The bicycle becomes a popular choice for transportation.
- Make Use of your Neighbor and Vice Versa: After many people’s water was shut off, they looked to neighbors to give them buckets or pails of water for cooking, washing up, etc. People also traded clothes with neighbors.
- Live/Sleep Elsewhere: People who found themselves without a home, apartment, or bed travelled the streets, slept on other people’s couches, in other people’s garages, in barns, lived in caves, and generally slept wherever they could.
- Pawn Your Belongings
- Use Socks as Gloves
- Trade Work for Food: Can you clean houses, babysit, cook, cut hair, etc.? People would trade their services for food instead of pay.
- Join a Food Co-Op: A group would purchase bulk food at a discount and split it up.
- Move in With Other Families
Did you survive the Great Depression, or know others who have? I’d love to hear stories and tidbits of how you/friend/relative survived, and what frugal habits you used. Also, check back on Wednesday where I will talk about products and services that became popular during the Great Depression.
The Great Depression: A Diary, Benjamin Roth, 2009
Hard Times, Studs Terkel, 1970
American Popular Culture Through the 1930s, William H. Young with Nancy K. Young, 2002
Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940, David E. Kyvig, 2002
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This was featured as the winning post in the Best of Money Blog Carnival # 87.