Stories from the Great Depression
Greetings, friends! I’ll try not to make this into a rant :-), but with all of the modern technologies of today and media ads running amuck telling us we need this, that and the other thing, I think we often forget just how good we’ve got it. So, in order to lovingly remind you (and myself) of all of our blessings, I thought I’d share some tidbits of stories from the Great Depression. If you like these, you can find more at the Ohio Department of Aging Website.
Food, Cooking and Eating During the Great Depression
“We grew all our own vegetables. We had our own orchard. We had our own cows, had milk, made our own butter, did a lot of canning. My mother at one time had over 800 jars in the basement of jams, jellies, meat, fruits, vegetables, all these different things. We ate very comfortably because we ate from our own supplies.
Many of my classmates did not have families that were well prepared for the difficulties of acquiring food as our family was. Many of them had small gardens or none at all. There were things that we could share, but there was not much more we could do for them.”
– Dean Bailey, age 82, Lordstown
“Eating was different in those days, too. We didn’t come to a table and complain because the food wasn’t what we liked. There were not many choices. We ate or went without. Some days bread and gravy tasted very good.”
– Maxine Bartelt, age 85, Columbus
“I lived through The Great Depression and can remember eating beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner when I was four years old but at least we had something to eat. Others didn’t. ”
– Marty Bryan, age 82, Columbus
“One day while pushing me in the baby carriage from South Euclid to East Cleveland for a visit to my paternal Grandparents Lewis they passed a hot dog stand. Mother said, they could smell the aroma from a distance: ‘The closer we got the more hungry we were!’ She longed to try one or split one with my dad.
They searched their pockets for the required 10 cents to no avail. Passing the stand they could only continue their walk with their baby hoping for a snack upon arrival at grandma’s house. Many years later my mother recalled that day saying, ‘Now I can eat in any restaurant I choose and order anything I wish for, but when the memories of that hot dog stand revisit my mind, I must say, I wish I could be as enthusiastic now as I was then.’
– Marilyn Markle, age 79, North Royalton
Later, a friend I worked with said in the Depression he rode the rails and stopped to eat vegetables out of a garden. The owner said he would shoot him if he didn’t stop. My friend said ‘go ahead,’ as he was that hungry. ”
– James Randolph, Columbus
“I was 94 on Jan. 8, 2009. My son took 11 of our family to a local restaurant for lunch. I told him what that lunch cost would have bought seven or eight months of groceries in the 1930s. Food was a serious item. Plain and filling.
White navy soup beans was a favorite. We had a neighbor that liked to hunt, but he couldn’t afford the shells for his gun. My mother paid for his shells and he gave her the rabbits and squirrels he got – sometimes a raccoon. There were no deer or wild turkeys then. Everyone planted a garden. Some public land was made into garden plots – the Victory gardens were born.
Along the road were elderberry, black and red raspberries and walnut – paw-paw – chestnut trees. We gathered greens – dandelion, polk, water crest. We had a cookbook ‘100 Ways to Stretch One Pound of Hamburger.’
Depression Cake – flour – sugar – cocoa – baking powder – water – 9 x 12 pan – a heavy chocolate cake. When you ate a piece, it stayed with you. Home-made root beer – It was all very hard work and time consuming. But not too many were overweight. Mostly very healthy.”
– Margaret Smith, age 94, Barnesville
“We grew corn, popcorn, potatoes, tomatoes on one acre garden. We ate a lot of popcorn for dinner the first few years”
– Don Trietsch, age 89, Centerville
Schools and Education During the Great Depression
“Mother stressed education to all of us – when one of us received academic recognition, it made the rest work harder. I was the only one who won a scholarship and went to college straight from high school. The others worked one or two years, saved money, then went to college. Five of us attained degrees from The Ohio State University and one from Kent State.
My older sister had her two-year teaching degree, taught in a one-room school – paid for plumbing into the kitchen (our teenage brother dug the ditch) and finished her four-year degree during the summers.”
– Rita Anderson, age 87, Reynoldsburg
“What I remember most is my high school days 1932-1936. We never received new books issued to us. At the end of the school term, we would all get a book, scotch tape and eraser. It was our job to mend the book, erase any marks and make the book presentable so that the next class could use them without trouble.”
– Pauline Bandzk, age 91, Hubbard
“When I started school there were no yellow school buses. We walked to a one room school for eight years. The teacher had about twenty-five pupils, and she taught all the subjects in all eight grade levels. She received eight hundred dollars for eight months of teaching plus five dollars a month for being her own janitor.
We would go to a neighbor’s house near the school and get a bucket of water each day. We all used a communal dipper for a drink.”
– Mary Cole, age 91, Cadiz
“Mom and her siblings, except for (her brother) Paul, only made it to sixth grade, and then it was only part-time. They had to share books and clothes, so each kid could go to school one day a week, maybe even two weeks. Only Paul went back years later and got his GED… Mom was an avid reader until she died at age 80.
She read everything she could get her hands on. She even kept a small dictionary with her to look up words she didn’t know or understand. Her two favorite books were her dictionary and her bible.”
– Joyce M. Pack, age 69, Toldedo
Self-Sufficiency, Resourcefulness and Frugality
“For a refrigerator we used an empty gallon can with a rope tied to it, which we lowered down a dug well to sit on the top of the water. That would cool a pound of bologna… For a while before we had electricity, we heated the irons that we used to do the ironing on the cook stove. We bathed in a large wash tub that was also used to wash our laundry…
Naturally, this was before air conditioning. So, during a very hot summer in, I believe, 1936 or ’37 we slept on the front lawn. It was just too uncomfortable to sleep upstairs… Also, when our car or truck tires got a hole in the tread, we inserted a ‘boot’ which consisted of a piece of an old tire to cover the hole. That was before tubeless tires.”
– Lester Baiman, age 82, Colton, CA (formerly of Hamilton)
“During the Depression we had many door-to-door salesman. One singer sewing machine salesman, after a negative response to his sales pitch, offered to leave the sewing machine for a trial period. My mother sewed from morning till night all that week, turning my dad’s frayed shirt collars and cutting her cloths down to fit me.
When the salesman came back, she said she hadn’t changed her mind, she still didn’t want the machine. Little did he know how much it had been used.”
– Mildred Redman Dieter, age 81, Youngstown
Recommended Reading: Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man
“My dad and older brothers would set larger traps in the banks of the ditch that ran along the 1 acre of property in the fall and winter, every morning and evening. They would check the traps to see if they caught any muskrats or rabbits.
They would bring any animals like that home and carefully skin the animals and turn the skins inside out and put them on wooden or metal stretchers to dry. Then, when they had 15-20 skins dried, they sold them to furriers, men who bought them to make fur collars or jackets to keep warmer. Back then, you’d be lucky to get from 50 cents to $1 each.
Then, the meat was cleaned out and soaked in salt water and cooked, or there were people who would pay my dad 25¢ or 50¢ each for the meat.”
– Ruth Hahn-Shrayer, age 78, Holland
“During the winter, we disconnected the refrigerator to save electricity and kept spoilable food in a window ‘icebox.’ You opened the window to put food in, and then closed the window to keep it cold. We didn’t have freezers then yet.”
– Thomas Rosmarin, age 85, Columbus
“In the thirties, Mom and Dad had their hands full financially raising us five children. Dad only worked two days a week at Goodyear – these days they call it rotating. Mom was an excellent seamstress, but was short on funds for buying sewing material.
A friend of Dad’s worked at an auto wrecking yard. He volunteered to cut the headliner out of quality cars, so Mom had all the material she could use, thanks to Packards and Cadillacs.”
– Robert Schwalbach, age 82, Akron
“And, my mother made soap. The hard soap I remember had an unpleasant smell and was tan in color. The soft soap was a gelatin-like goo. These were used in the washing machine. We did have ‘store bought’ soap for our bathing.”
– Thelma Thomas, age 87, Port Clinton
“We had no cellar to store our canned food in and my dad would make a place in the garden where he would pile up straw or hay. He would put vegetables in a pile then he would put more hay or straw on them. Then, he would put burlap sacks and old coats on top of that. He would cover it all with some soil and in the winter he could dig in it and get vegetables to eat and they kept very well.”
– Charles Warrick, age 81, Barnesville
“An EVICTION notice! With a family of four boys and after nineteen years of backbreaking work, Mom and Dad had a huge new problem – EVICTION. Dad asked a friend who sold real estate, ‘Any farms you can’t sell?’ ‘Lots,’ the realtor replied. “Let’s look them over.” After a selection was made, Dad asked the realtor what his commission would be.
The realtor responded. “5 percent.” Dad had no money to pay either a down payment or a realtor’s commission, but offered instead ‘a note’ as payment-in-full for the 5 percent. This was a ‘first’ for the realtor, but he knew that if Dad ever got the money, he’d be paid, and if Dad never paid it, they’d at least had a nice visit together.
“They went to a savings and loan where the realtor said that yes, he had been paid in full and that amount met the required 5 percent down payment. The loan was completed. We had a house to live in. Our family then moved to eighty-three acres that could barely grow thistles and with a shabby house that the wind blew through.
All the household furnishings were moved on an open wagon along with what was left of the livestock, three weary horses and some heavily used farm machinery.
“Very quickly after settling in, Dad planned how to pay off his debts with no thought of declaring bankruptcy. First he went to the feed mill and asked how he could work off that bill. The owner was unsure; no one had ever made such an offer before. But, after months of Dad’s hard work, we had a clean slate at the feed mill.
Then, on to the lumber yard, where he received a definite ‘no.’ The owner didn’t need help because he wasn’t selling anything. Nonplussed, Dad asked, ‘Do you have any paint you can’t sell?’ ‘Sure,’ the owner replied. ‘Lots.’ Then, Dad asked, “If I scrape and paint all your buildings, would you consider my bill paid in full?”
They shook hands, and Dad started scraping and painting. He said he hadn’t realized how many buildings were in a lumberyard, but finally another bill was paid and he had made another friend.”
– George K. Weimer, Jr., age 77, Sebring
Recommended Reading: The Richest Man in Babylon
“My dear mother would cause us to laugh with tears when she would tell about the census taker who received a negative to every question: Do you have inside plumbing? Central heating? Running water? Refrigeration? Gas or electric stove? Telephone?” Finally, he asked ‘well lady, what do you have?’”
– Clark Biddle, age 82, Hilliard
“We learned to do so many things: wash, mend and sew our own clothes; grow and can food; plan ahead; stretch our money; keep warm; help each other. Other people helped us, too. Friends took us on errands when we needed to go where they were going (we usually had no car). Clothes were given to us, and sometimes food and garden surplus. And we tried to help others meet their needs, too.”
– Margaret B. Edwards, age 89, Gibsonburg
“We didn’t have much money to spend, but on the other hand there wasn’t much that we needed to spend our money on. Most every family had a garden. Fruit trees were plentiful, especially apples. Most were free for the picking. I remember an orchard on Libby Road where we picked apples that my grandma peeled for use in pies and sauces.
Chickens provided meat for Sunday dinner and eggs for breakfast. When a piece of meat was purchased at the butcher shop, the butcher would throw in a free soup bone and a piece of liver. Add some homemade noodles and a delicious meal was almost free.
Many of the expensive things we find so necessary today were either not available or not yet in such widespread use as to be considered a necessity.”
– John W. Straka, Jr., age 91, Maple Heights
“We felt so lucky. We didn’t know we were poor. We grew everything on the farm and butchered our own meat and smoked it or canned it. We made our own apple butter, churned our butter. We made cottage cheese and maple syrup, and bottled root beer. We had our underclothes made out of bleached feed sacks. We worked in the garden and shelled corn until our hands had blisters.”
– Maxine Vargo, age 80, Akron
“We really didn’t feel a lack of money in our young lives because we were raised to be satisfied with what we had. Recycling was a way of life for us. We could even make money by returning bottles to the store. My father used to sing, ‘The Best Things in Life Are Free.’ This was the philosophy that carried us through the Depression.”
– Manila Fellows, age 84, Youngstown
“My father cut logs and built a ‘temporary’ cabin where we lived for nearly ten years. It was 14 feet by 28 feet, and by the time my youngest sister was born there, it contained two adults and eight children. Dad built hanging bunks from the four corners; the center great room was the cooking, eating, living and entertaining space.
We managed. I remember the day we moved in, torrents of rain pointed out the unfinished holes in the roof. the windows were still only grain sacks, and Mother and I scrambled for all the pots and kettles to catch the dripping water.
Things improved, of course, as we all pitched in, kids gathering moss to stuff in the cracks and Dad continuing to finish things. We all have wonderful memories of the cozy family times there.”
– Margaret Vail, age 86, Mansfield
Jobs, Schemes and Other Ways to Make Money
“As I grew up, I had a variety of jobs. My father had three jobs at times, in a steel mill, a screw factory and did side work, concrete sidewalks and driveways and other things. My mother, while we were small, was a housewife.
I worked in a shoe shop, washed cars and worked in a bakery. I shined shoes on Madison Ave., from west 73rd St. to west 110th St. I would go to public square on weekends and shine shoes in front of the terminal tower. As I got older, I delivered all three newspapers (Plain Dealer, News, Press) at old St. John Hospital before and after school. On Saturday and Sunday, I would shave old men patients at the hospital.”
– Daniel P. Gentile, Sr., age 70, Parma
“We were a family of eight and my father was a carpenter. During the Depression there was almost no building going on. Because of this, my father had very little work. When he did work, the owner of the company was often unable to pay him. and my mother would go to him and have to beg for a couple dollars to buy necessities, like flour, to help her feed the family.
My sister and I peddled papers in Zoar. We also had to clean the two-room school every day after school. My oldest brother had to go to school early every day and build a fire in the downstairs and upstairs stoves so the school was warm when it started. In the summer, we would sell bouquets of wild violets for a nickel to people visiting Zoar.
Around 1930, the Zoar Dance Hall was built. At 15 and 16 years old, my sister and I got jobs working there selling tickets and making sandwiches. We would walk home alone at 2 or 3 in the morning. As with all our jobs, the money went to our parents. If we found a penny, we thought we really had something.”
– Irene Class Haueter, age 94, Bolivar
For real ways to make extra money, check out this article sharing 50 Great Side Hustles
“When I was 7 years old – my mother and dad opened a grocery store and ice cream parlor. My father was the first taxidermist on the west side of Cleveland. Mom and Dad were in the business for years. The best thing was that they were generous to people who were poor. Mom put their names in a book and how much they bought.
Some moved and never paid her back. Dad gave away deer meat, fish, rabbit and squirrel meat to anyone who came in his store and needed food.”
– Marcella Huber, age 85, Medina
“To make a buck, we would sell newspapers for the Telegram News. We would sell old rags and scrap iron, bottles and aluminum to the scrap man. We would caddie for doctors, attorneys and their wives. In early spring, we would rake the leaves and trim the hedges, and in the winter, we would shovel snow.
They would feed us and give us out-grown toys, such as bikes, skates, wagons and sleighs. They were good to us. Farmers would have work for some of us. They were cheap payers and we walked five miles to the farms. The little money we made, we gave to our parents to help out.”
– Joe Trolio, age 83, Hubbard
Family, Community and Kindness Toward Strangers
“We helped our neighbors and they in turn helped you. We went to church, I walked about three miles to go and my Mom and I would chat with our neighbors. Back then, everyone helped each other.”
– Patarica LeMay Hauger, age 81, Meigs County
“In fact, together (our parents) raised nine children, who may have lacked occasionally from material things. But, there was always food on the table, plenty of playmates and a piece of pie for anyone who stopped by. Mom and Dad worked hard to make ends meet and strove to instill the values of hard work, honesty, and morality into their brood.
To this day, Mom stubbornly refuses still to pick a favorite child, saying instead, ‘I love them all.’ And when a son or daughter might try to point out an occasional character flaw in Dad, her instant defense, with a twinkle in her eye, would always be, ‘I coulda done worse!’”
– Mary Inbody about her mother, Dorotha Inbody, age 94, Findlay
“My dad had a Victory Garden on Detroit Rd. during the Depression. From that, he loaded the tables for all our neighbors, and he loved it. It was quite a bit of work for his garden, as we had to haul large bottles of water out there to keep the plants alive.
I was a slim girl in those days, and the bottles of water were heavy… but when I knew that this garden meant so much to him, I gladly did it. I am now 88 years old, and still happy I did that.”
– Jean Lee, age 88, via e-mail
“My parents and I lived across the street from the ‘hobo camp.’ The neighborhood kids and I would go there and eat with them and listen to the stories they had to tell. They were family men looking for work wherever they could find it. They would come to our door asking for a potato or whatever food we could spare – Always offering to do work for it. We didn’t have much, but my mother always gave them a little something.”
– Jeannette Mellott, age 78, Plymouth
Lessons, Values and Advice from the Great Depression
“Am I glad to have lived through the Great Depression? Yes. I learned to appreciate the simple life and to have compassion for those truly in need.”
– June M. Baden, age 79, Westerville
“I wouldn’t change any of these experiences even if I could. It was more enjoyable than you can ever imagine. I have come to appreciate what a wonderful opportunity my family had to grow up poor in the back woods of West Virginia deprived of nothing that was truly important, and blessed with everything we really needed.”
– Betty Banta, age 80, Columbus
“I learned from my father that I should pay myself first and save a portion of everything I earn; to save not just for what I want, but for what I might need; to not spend what I don’t have – but to wait until I can afford it whatever it is.
I learned that before agreeing to work, I should know what I will be paid, to determine if my time and labor will be best spent in this endeavor. Finally, I learned that there are times when anyone, including me, might need help, and, recognizing this, when others need help, I must step forward, if I am able, and be the helper.”
– Stanley L. Blum, age 79, Dayton
“From these humble beginnings, each of us children survived and grew up to have families of our own. In my case, I helped raise three generations of children. Early lessons of the importance of family helped me maintain my perspective during these times. I am grateful for the love and support of my family during our current economic downturn.
The lessons of my life have taught me that things can always be worse and can always be better than they are today.”
– Marty Bryan, age 82, Columbus
“Yes times were tough and hard, but you know what? Between yesteryears and today, I would go back to that again because you learned how to survive.”
– George Campbell, age 74, Cleveland
Then v. Now
“Today we live in a disposable society: Use it and throw it out, buy more. Most foods are prepackaged. Immediate gratification prevails. We no longer know how to do very basic things for ourselves. We depend on money and others to make our lives fulfilling and happy. Financially, old times were tough, and I’m sure my parents worried, but basically I think we were much happier and healthier in that lifestyle.”
– Paula Deatrick Ashton, age 69, Toledo
“In spite of the hardships, which we were unaware of, we survived and thrived without public assistance. There was no social security or Medicare… There were very few beauty parlors, restaurants, motels. We never ate out, as it cost twice as much to eat out as to cook your own meals… Automobiles were scarce and a new one could be bought in 1939 for $810.
Today, people have two or three sitting in their driveways. There are many millionaires today, but during the Depression one could scarcely be found. Today, tour agencies can take you to far-flung places that we never dreamed of seeing. We were lucky to get to go to the county fair. There, everyone got all dressed up in the best.
Now, fairs are smaller and geared mostly to 4H exhibits. During the Depression, people were lucky to have two outfits to wear. Often, they were hand-me-downs or made from feed sacks. Everything was put to use. Today, most people have closets packed with clothes. Each season they go out and buy more…
People today take exercise classes for fitness. We got our exercise from the sweat of the brow. We got our tanning from picking berries or making hay. Children were brought up more strictly. There was a great deal of discipline. Today many children are allowed free reign. Back in those days, neighbor helped neighbor, borrowed machinery and the like.
Today, people would rather buy prepared foods or eat out at restaurants, where many of the patrons are overweight, and it is quite costly. Sports events are big time now. Coaches and players alike are paid millions of dollars, and thousands of fans seem to be able to afford seats to the events.
During the Depression, baseball games were held in farmers’ fields or on school playgrounds, with little money involved. You just had the price of the ball and bat.”
– Mary Cole, age 91, Cadiz
“A great gift of the era was to be able to lie on the grass under a tree, day or evening, with a clear mind and imagination – an experience unlike today’s technologies.”
– Helen De Gifis, age 83, Warren
“We did have a lot of company. People did visit more then. We didn’t have TV, and very few had radio. We also didn’t have a phone. We learned to save for things we needed. No charge cards. We had a grocer on the corner of the street where we had a bill. If we couldn’t pay for food, it was put on our bill and was paid whenever we had a few extra dollars.
Thanks to parents who taught us the value of hard work and saving what we can. We respected our parents and elders, which is lacking today.”
– Theresa Giallombardo, age 80, Maple Heights
“I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. We lived in a very poor tenement house. But in all of my memories, the one that sticks out the most was not the poverty, but the importance of honesty and trust. Locks on doors were not needed. No one stole from another. We helped, not harmed, other people.
The whole neighborhood was suffering together. We would not harm each other. Our family and our good name was what mattered.”
– Edna Hanson, age 76, Toledo
“I feel sorry for the younger generation, as they don’t know how to make do with nothing. My Mom taught me how to cook and I have taught my daughter and son to cook and do it without much. Thank God they have jobs, and I pray they will always have them until this awful mess is cleared up. Too bad most people now day don’t even know their next-door neighbors.
We are spoiled rotten and our grandchildren are, also. I can hear them say: ‘I want my kids to have more than I did.’ That’s natural, I guess, but I was 10 years old before I had a doll for Christmas; we always got a pair of socks or stockings which came up above your knee. I hated them and I would roll them down around my ankles.”
– Patarica LeMay Hauger, age 81, Meigs County
I hope you enjoyed this extra-long post. I never tire of reading these stories, as they remind me of what it is to be grateful for what you have, instead of always wanting more. They remind me that, not so long ago, this was an entirely different country, an entirely different world.
When the temptation comes to wish for what others have, or to lament that you don’t have enough, remember these stories from Great Depression, and remember that no matter what you have or don’t have, there are millions of people elsewhere who have it a whole lot worse. For people in many countries, stories like those from above ring all too true, even today.