What was it like during the Great Depression?
September 29, 2008 12:05 AM   Subscribe

What was it like during the Great Depression? University of Oregon Economist Mark Thoma links to interviews by Studs Terkel which deal with the Great Depression. All interviews in Real Player format. Interviewees: Gardner C. Means, economic adviser to FDR. Peggy Terry, a migrant farm worker (my favorite interview). Virginia Durr, civil rights activist. Ed Paulsen, dayworker. Emma Tiller, cook. Pauline Kael (yes, that Pauline Kael). Mary Owsley, farm worker. Much more in the Hard Times section of the wonderful Studs Terkel website, which has been featured twice previously on MetaFilter (1, 2) [via Obsidian Wings]
posted by Kattullus (30 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Here's to hoping that future books about the next few years won't be titled anything like Hard Times. I'm hoping that history books on the next decade will have names such as The Fluffy Happy Time of Wonderful Wonderfulness and Banana Chocolate Pie, Yum!
posted by Kattullus at 12:09 AM on September 29, 2008 [7 favorites]

Virginia Durr came to my house once when I was about nine or ten years old. All I knew was that she was some old lady who went to our church and wanted my mother to do some sewing for her or something. Oh, and that she had written a book. She gave my mother a signed copy, but I can't find it on the book shelf now. Mom probably got rid of it in one of her cleaning purges.

Anyway, had I known then what I know now, I'd have asked her a bunch of questions instead of hiding on the other side of the house like I always did when grownups showed up, fearful of getting trapped in a conversation with them and having to pretend that I was interested in what they were saying.
posted by Clay201 at 1:21 AM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Great Depression was very, very hard times for my mothers people. They ran from rural Kansas (think black and white Kansas in the wizard of oz) to Chicago, hoping; my widowed grandmother would bake bread, loaves and loaves of bread, and my mother and her sisters would go round the neighborhood selling it for a few pennys a loaf. (My mother continued to make it as long as she had a kitchen to make it in; I'd give a lot to taste that bread today, warm from the oven, or hot.) Not having money young had a profound effect upon her; she's spent her entire life in fear about money, looking for sales, watching her nickels, there was never enough, even when their cup ran over during flush times in my fathers construction business; Buick's and Cadillac's and nice houses didn't mean anything, it could all end tomorrow. Seems to me that her life was a quest for dung; she could find the dark side of any situation, obsess about it, fret about it. She always looked like she had gas. (To be fair here, honest, the look on her face might have been from being my mother.)

My fathers people didn't have a lot but my paternal grandfather did have a solid job; they may as well have been millionaires compared to my mothers people. My grandfather stayed in that job from the time he got it until he retired, probably with a gold watch. If you managed to get a good job you hung onto it and if you gave what they needed they hung onto you. His first son, my dads older brother, never worked for another company, spent his entire work life there, many decades working in the same company as his father; hard to imagine how it was then, employers taking care of their people and vice versa. When they spoke of their employer they had real respect in their voice, not awe maybe but respect, you could almost hear them capitalizing their bosses name.

My understanding is that Roosevelt was seen as a saint by people in rough straits; seems he gave a damn about people, and not just people who owned General Electric. He did what he could. A good man? I think so, probably.

Interesting times. I wish us luck
posted by dancestoblue at 1:56 AM on September 29, 2008 [12 favorites]

Thanks very much for posting this. It's good to be reminded of actual history, especially when you encounter the FDR-haters who downplay the Depression as some sort of recession that got bad PR.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:15 AM on September 29, 2008

There was one 'relative' in my father's neighborhood who fed a couple dozen kids every Sunday. For many of them (including my Dad) it was their only good meal of the week.
posted by tgyg at 2:18 AM on September 29, 2008

I wonder if we'll see an increase in class consciousness over the next few years.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:58 AM on September 29, 2008

Ah very interest set of links - many thanks for posting!!

A good book to read to get an idea of the overall environment leading up to The Great Depression is Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929. Needless to say, there are many parallels to the present, between stock market and real estate asset bubbles observed back then and what we're going through now (real estate and credit derivatives).

The US Banking system back then was very crude and inflexible - the dollar being based on gold for starters, there were other, more complex regulatory driven problems - and most scholars of the depression agree that a lack of reaction and general inability to respond by those in charge wasn't helped by some bad choices when regulators did respond.

Hopefully Bernanke and The Fed's rapid reactions will prevent such a backslide.

Clearly I haven't lived through The Great Depression, and although I've read many books on the topic - one of our economics class at Business School focused on historical depressions (1929 wasn't the first), their causes, etc - like dancestoblue my predominant view of such events is personal.

My brother and I were raised by our grandparents, both of whom lived through the Great Depression. While many people's outlook seem to have been negatively impacted by The Great Depression - hoarding, stinginess, etc - my grandparents, in many ways, were the opposite.

They were incredibly giving, and frequently would invite total strangers in off the street to eat with us. While Mrs Mutant is appalled at my willingness to approach total stranger and chat in earnest with them about this and that (I'm apparently "overly social") I do think I owe a lot of this character trait to the simple fact that most evenings I wouldn't know who was going to be dining to my left until dinner time. Or desert time, as some evenings hungry folks just kept dropping by.

You see, the markings that I never realised existed aside (more on that later) in our small town, if you were hungry and my grandparents knew this they were gonna feed you 'til you burst. Having lived through the depression, when government didn't help out as much as we might now otherwise like to think, my grandparents felt that everyone had to care for each other. If you were hungry they were going to help. End of story.

But even as they felt compelled to help those down on their luck, my grandparents did exhibit frugality and a common sense approach to money management - for instance, no personal debt other than the mortgage (30 year fixed thank you very much) and no credit cards.

Between the two of them I doubt they ever earned more than $20K, and yet by the time they'd both retired in the mid 70's not only were the house and cars were long paid off, but they also had several thousand dollars in the bank to augment their pensions.

EVERY extra penny they ever came into first went towards debt, and if there wasn't any debt to pay off the money was saved. Not spent. No gadgets, no expensive holidays. That money was SAVED.

Because they went through many, many lean years during The Great Depression, they felt compelled to be as self sufficient as possible regarding food, growing some of ours but purchasing as much of it as they could by the case. This is something that we all could emulate, no matter where we live. I've previously posted how I live very cheaply in London, and I'm proud to say that it only costs Mrs Mutant and myself a little over £10K a year to live (and well) in Central London. As I've commented before, living frugal is choice that few care to make.

My grandparents basement had been long converted to serve as a pantry for food, and they canned whatever they grew that we couldn't eat in season.

They composted long before I knew what the hell that stinking pile of goo was in our backyard. Although they both would habitually clean their plates leaving nary a scrap behind, some of our guests weren't so disciplined. Plates would be cleared into a slop bucket which was then composted according to some system they had in place (I wouldn't go near that pile!).

Clothes were another area for savings; they preferred to make ours and when this wasn't possible (it does take lots of time you know) they'd mend and repair until this was no longer a viable alternative. Then the clothing would end up in the rag bin, to be used to wash the cars or house windows,etc.

They never once paid anyone to paint or do any work around the house. My little brother and I spent far too many weekends doing chores about the house, and large portions of summer vacations painting the house and barn and that seemingly endless picket fence. Oh! Cutting grass was another time burner, especially so as we didn't use no powered mowers ("cost too much to buy and then you've gotta put gas in them") but push mowers and sickles out in the fields for the taller grass.

This generation has almost left us in their entirety; there are very few alive now who directly experienced the Depression and of those that remain the times are a distant memory. I think that's a damn shame. We can learn a great deal from them in many ways; not only frugality, or course that's important, but also how to treat others. I got the impression from my grandparents that folks cared for each other more, they looked out for one another, that community and your neighbours, longer term issues and shared values mattered more than the short term, than what you and you along wanted or could get NOW.

Working in banking, reviewing the events of the past few weeks and years in my mind, being aware of The Great Depression and those that lived through it, well, you know how they say that "Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus"?

I've often that that if my grandparents or others from the Depression era were to suddenly be reincarnated into 2008, they would, upon sizing up the situation, immediately say "We're from Earth and what the hell is this place?"

In too many ways we're that detached from their value system.

And those markings I mentioned? Well, it wasn't until long after my grandparents had passed away and we were closing up the house that I noticed the curb in front was covered in strange chalk symbols, almost hieroglyphics. Later that evening I pointed them out to a neighbour who had come by to help with the clean out, and he immediately knew what they were - hobo markings.

I had no idea what he meant, so I wrote a few down in my scrapbook. Only years later did I learn that they mentioned "kind people" and "meal available".
posted by Mutant at 4:31 AM on September 29, 2008 [60 favorites]

I'm hoping that history books on the next decade will have names such as The Fluffy Happy Time of Wonderful Wonderfulness and Banana Chocolate Pie, Yum!

Good news! According to the temporal vortex in my garage, one of the books describing the near future from the perspective of the 2040s will be The Teenies: The Early Years of Our New Overlords That We All Welcome, Part One: The Forced Mating Program.

One of the others isn't in English, but I've worked out that the title is To Serve Man.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:08 AM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Turned on the TV this morning for the news. First thing is a clip about The Great Depression.

By now I'm beginning to wonder if this isn't another version of The War on Terror in terms of media manipulation. And yet perhaps it's an authentic attempt to prepare people for what's ahead, don't know.

The via link Obsidian Wings, reminded me of Itzpapalotl, the obsidian winged butterfly.

Thanks for the excellent post Kattullus, am looking forward to listening to the stories on the Studs Terkel site.
posted by nickyskye at 6:31 AM on September 29, 2008

My grandfather was a hard working man from a hard working, "God fearing" type family. He came of age in the depression era so I asked him what it was like. He told me it was pretty much like any other time for him. He did his work on the farm, went to school to try and make something of himself and helped others when he could. The difference was that there were a lot more people in dire need of help.

(He also said that those same people that he and his staunchly Democratic family helped out, as soon as they got back on their feet and had a dollar in their pocket, went back to being Republicans. One of them even black listed him as a Communist in the McCarthy era.)
posted by Pollomacho at 6:48 AM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hope the next Great Depression, if there is one, will put real player out of business for good.
posted by Mach5 at 7:05 AM on September 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've been on a reading binge of books about the 1930's and can recommend any/all of these as easy to read, entertaining and interesting:

The Thirties: A Time to Remember (1962), Not So Wild a Dream (1947), Since Yesterday, the 1930's in America (1940),
Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression (2008), The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2006)
posted by stbalbach at 7:23 AM on September 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

I was born during that bad time and as a child, very young, I guess some of my habit reflect those times and find myself often answering people who complain about this or that: I was a Great Depression baby and that is why.

Best book for details on FDR and how he reacted, how the courts acted, how congress acted, and the various people behind his "brain trust"--

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man
in paper and reissued--a classic...the book makes clear that aristocratic FDR (possibly because of his illness) fully identified with the ordinary man and fought the money interests consistently.

The conservatives in the GOP have systematically been stripping just about all that FDR put in place, and now McCain would love to privatize Social Security.
posted by Postroad at 7:32 AM on September 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

"I wanted to know more, so one day I screwed up my courage and asked my mom, 'Mom... mom, what was living through the depression like?' And she froze, and this sad, mournful look came over her face... Turned out she's not that old." -Brent Butt
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:34 AM on September 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Both my parents were born to poor, farming families in the tail end of the Depression (1938). The standard of living was in general so much lower then. Both families had enough to eat because of living on a farm, but there wasn't a lot of variety. My mother's family lived on pork, fried potatoes, and applesauce. My mother lost her teeth in her thirties because of being malnourished as a child. They had no electricity, and no plumbing until they were teenagers and the houses were inadequately insulated. The house was so cold in the winter the houseplants froze and there was snow on the window ledges in the morning.

I used to hear quite a lot of Depression-era stories from my grandmother. She was a frugal, no-nonsense woman. She kept hens and sold the eggs for 2 cents a dozen. She made clothes for her family out of sugar bags. She knew how to make a number of crafts out of what would ordinarily be thrown away — footstools out of tomato juice cans, pin cushions out of hexagon-shaped scraps of fabric. And all her life she kept up her Depression-era mindset. She would not spend one unnecessary penny even though she was better off than she had been. She'd patch the seat of her dress. (She never did care much about aesthetics.) When she died in 1993, her one "good Sunday dress" that she was buried in was the one she'd bought for my brother's wedding in 1985 (it did still look quite presentable). She wouldn't throw anything away. I was raised with my mother's style of frugality, which meant that you only kept useful things and that things had to look nice as well as be affordable.

It seems to me that people have gotten used to a much higher standard of living now, and aren't willing to make those kinds of sacrifices. I think we've definitely gotten spoiled and could do with less, but not that much less.

I hope the next Great Depression, if there is one, will put real player out of business for good.

My hope is that Paris Hilton will drop out of sight forever. I don't think people will have the stomach to hear about her, much less to be confronted with marketing campaigns for all the crap she wants to sell us.
posted by orange swan at 7:37 AM on September 29, 2008

Hard times? Wachovia is up 4,900%!

(ok, it really isn't)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:15 AM on September 29, 2008

Virginia Durr came to my house once when I was about nine or ten years old. All I knew was that she was some old lady who went to our church and wanted my mother to do some sewing for her or something. Oh, and that she had written a book. She gave my mother a signed copy, but I can't find it on the book shelf now. Mom probably got rid of it in one of her cleaning purges.

Your family knew Virginia Durr? Wow! Did you know that Virginia Durr was a close friend of Rosa Parks, so close that she and her husband Clifford paid to bail her out of jail when she refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955? Virginia Durr was one of the most effective allies that the Montgomery bus boycott had.
posted by jonp72 at 8:20 AM on September 29, 2008

My grandparents have opposite Depression experiences. They're both from rural Oklahoma. My grandmother's family were farmers, and while they weren't well-off by any stretch, they had what they needed and made it through okay. My grandfather's family, on the other hand, were desperately poor. They traveled to California to find work and didn't have much luck along the way nor when they got there. He laughs riotously when he tells his stories of being shot at while stealing orchard fruit or getting stranded in the desert in the family's truck, but sometimes he lets his bitterness slip. Don't wear corduroy around him example. That's what poor people wore, he'll tell you angrily, and you've never been desperate enough to have to wear something like that.
posted by katillathehun at 8:21 AM on September 29, 2008

McElvaine's Down and Out in the Great Depression is also a great one, chock full of heartbreaking letters written to the Roosevelts and the government during the Depression.
posted by mynameisluka at 9:04 AM on September 29, 2008

My 84-year-old Dad (who grew up in Detroit) actually reminisces about the Great Depression and talks nostagically about how good times were then. Of course, he was a child and probably didn't understand what was going on. He was the youngest of 10 kids, and his memories of the Depression are going to the movies with his older brothers and then buying ice cream on the way home. (Like DancestoBlue's grandfather, my grandpa kept his job during the Depression and worked there for 30-some years afterward until he retired.) My Mom was born at the end of the Depression and remembers nothing about it; her "Depression-era" was World War II, when she recalls sugar rationing and oleomargarine with yellow color capsules and her Detroit family raising rabbits and chickens in the back yard for food.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:32 AM on September 29, 2008

The Forgotten Man is really good, but excellent background on FDR's personality and his views can be found in the very readable A First-Class Temperament, by Geoffrey C. Ward -- it tells the story of Roosevelt's life from his wedding day to the day he got elected Governor of New York in 1928. Very cool.

Thanks for the post, Katullus
posted by matteo at 10:31 AM on September 29, 2008

How weird...I was just looking at this Depression art gallery via StumbleUpon.

Great post.
posted by batmonkey at 12:18 PM on September 29, 2008

Wow, what a great post -- thank you, thank you, Kattullus!

I am still making my way through ALL of Terkel's interviews. (... don't miss the one by 'Doc' Graham ... quite humorous language ... his tales of being in the Chicago mob.)

Meanwhile, I have sent these links to my family. I realize now that my exposure to elders' stories really affected my whole world view. I am one of the elders now, and I feel that my younger siblings (and children) have just written me off as having 'hippie views' (anti-materialism, anti-capitalism, etc.). My frugality and warnings have not been popular in a consumerist culture. Still ... I could never really relate to 'hippie' ... I was far more attached to the '30s radicals. Now I can explain it to them.

BTW, it is worth noting the diverse ways that people have reacted to growing up with Great Depression stories. I have known many who fell into what Durr described -- a sneering rejection of "poverty mentality"; disgust and judgment of anyone poor; an increased lust for an over-abundance of material things ... and a complete denial of class inequity.

Fear is the common denominator.
posted by Surfurrus at 12:25 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh ... and on an election note:

Republicans, Can You Spare a Dime

... although I think they missed an opportunity to point out more about veterans (lright now at least one third of homeless males are military veterans.) -- not to mention voting records on vet care.

And, on a personal note, I'd like to return to all those people over the years who would remark on my visits to India, "How could you stand the poverty?!" ... yeah, Americans, like how many homeless bodies did you step over on your way to work today?"
posted by Surfurrus at 12:31 PM on September 29, 2008

"I hope the next Great Depression, if there is one, will put real player out of business for good."

That's nice. You really want to put several hundred people in Seattle out of work? Charming.

I know you were joking, but geez.
posted by litlnemo at 1:16 PM on September 29, 2008

Both my wife's parents grew up on Idaho farms during the Depression. When my wife was a teenager, she asked her mom if perhaps living through the Depression wasn't a good thing - people pulled together, worked hard, and helped family and neigbors. Her mother answered with an unequivocal no. There was nothing good about it at all. Everything from that era still packs an emotional punch for her. She still can't stand Depression glassware, the fashions of the period, even the cars. They all reeks of poverty and hard times.
posted by gamera at 2:54 PM on September 29, 2008

Reading through the memories others had of this interesting and chaotic time in our history, when people who had never imagined themselves poor were suddenly experience it first-hand.

My maternal grandfather had negative memories of the Depression, but his time in WWII helped him work through it and he had a fairly healthy viewpoint for the remainder of his life. He felt the Depression was unfortunate but inevitable, and he only wished that whatever could have been learned hadn't been erased during the '50s.

Maternal grandmother was fairly young during that time and she mostly learned to be frugal within reason - especially to stretch food as far as possible. She also had the perspective that it was an experience that taught many how to become survivors and she taught us to learn to do as much for ourselves as possible.

Paternal grandmother...well, we'll never know, because she ended up with progressive organic dementia and was incommunicado for the last thirty years of her life.

Paternal grandfather was in his early adulthood when it happened so had the most direct experience and ended up a hoarder. He felt there had been valuable lessons learned but that few people would remember them. He also felt people should do more for themselves.

Most of the other people I knew over the years who had been through the Depression were self-reliant people with a knack for turning nothing into something. I've only known one person ever who was intensely bitter about the entire experience (a long ago teacher), and it seemed to be because her family had been well off before but were worse than dirt poor after and they never really recovered from it.
posted by batmonkey at 3:56 PM on September 29, 2008

um...i shouldn't write when thinking of work; first sentence should be, "Reading through the memories others had of this interesting and chaotic time in our history, when people who had never imagined themselves poor were suddenly experiencing it first-hand, makes me glad my grands talked about their experience. I feel like it makes me more prepared."
posted by batmonkey at 3:57 PM on September 29, 2008

I have been led to understand that my maternal grandmother's family was quite well-off prior to the Depression, possibly the richest family in the North Battleford area (which doesn't make them the Rockefellers or anything, but still). Helping out many of my great-grandfather's destitute friends didn't bankrupt them, but it did bust them down to middle class, which is pretty much where the family has remained to the present day.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:38 PM on September 29, 2008

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