Article 43


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Making Ends Meet in the Great Depression


By Joyce Wadler
NY Times
April 1, 2009

At a time when life in America is beginning to resemble a roller-coaster ride on the way down and everyone is trying to find ways to save money, it may be instructive both in terms of offering helpful hints and putting things in perspective ח to look at how people ran their households during the Great Depression.

Back then there was little money for food, let alone new curtains, but people found ways to cope. Backyard gardens were cultivated not because of a sudden itch to eat locally grown produce, but out of necessity; homeowners did their own repairs and found ingenious ways to make their homes functional and attractive.

Below, some who lived through the Depression share their memories.


Huntsville, Ala.

Thomas Moon, a retired electrical engineer, grew up in New Hope, Ala., 20 miles from Huntsville. One of six children of a sharecropper, he began working in the fields just as the Depression hit, when he was 7 or 8, earning 50 cents a day. At 17, he joined the Navy, where he served in World War II.

The house I grew up in, all we had was a fireplace for heat and a wood stove in the kitchen to cook with, and two kerosene lamps. The living room had the fireplace we had two full-size beds in that room.

In the winter the chickens would come up under the house and sit in the basement, so if we wanted a chicken we’d raise a plank up and reach down and get the chicken. (It was warm in the wintertime. The base of that chimney would be nice and warm; I dont blame them for going down there.)

There was nothing thrown away. WeҒd make soup out of the feet that was delicious. The gizzard, oh, man, that was choice meat, everybody loved the gizzard. We used to make featherbeds out of chicken feathers and geese, but wed pick the goose without killing him: all you do is pick him up, yank the feathers off when he was still alive. He don’t mind it. It grows back in two or three months.

In the summer, I took a washtub and put it on a little scaffold out near the chicken house and put burlap sacks around it to make it private. Youd fill that tub full of water in the morning, the sun would heat the water. I found a valve somewhere and I had a valve in the bottom of the tub, and that’s where we got the warm water. It held about 20 gallons. We might take one shower a week.

When you got hungry, you could take a walk out in the mountains. There was always something to eat all kinds of berries - and in the winter you got pecans, hickory nuts, walnuts. We used to eat bullfrog; thats a delicacy. And we used to eat squirrels and rabbits.

And possums. Ever eat a possum? Don’t try it. Ill never forget the first possum I ate.

My grandfather and his son invited me to have a possum dinner. You know how a possum looks at you with his teeth open?

When they opened the oven door, the possum’s mouth was wide open. I took one bite out of that possum, that was the end of my possum career.


Huntsville, Ala.

Annie Pezzillo Moon, Mr. Moons wife, who has been a homemaker for more than 65 years, grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one of 12 children ‘ nine of whom survived of Italian immigrants. Her father was a self-employed truck driver, she says, delivering fruits and vegetables in an operation controlled by the Mafia. If you didnt pay off the Mafia, they shot you,” she says. I guess my father paid. As a 13-year-old during the Depression, she sometimes sold shopping bags in the street. A few years later, she dropped out of high school to make 50 cents an hour working at Woolworths. She met her husband when she was 21 and he was a sailor on leave in New York.

Our house wasn’t nice. All we had was three bedrooms and a kitchen. We never had a living room, we never had pictures on the walls. My sister slept at the foot of the bed, and I slept at the head of the bed.

I went to the Madonna House on Cherry Street, where the nuns were; my father didn’t know this, but we needed food. The nuns gave me a ticket where I would get stale bread and stale cake.

For Christmas we got fruit, maybe a case would break and my father gave us a piece of it. We never, ever got a present.

At the Madonna House, they would put us on a bus and take us uptown to what we called the Rich Ladys House. I do’t think it was a house, maybe it was a club house. They would have toys on tables, and you could take a toy from every table. And at the end, they would give us a coupon and there was an Endicott Johnson factory and we would get a new pair of shoes.

My sister wanted to go roller skating one Christmas Eve. I wasnt doing nothing. I said, “Oh, heck, I’ll go.” My sister met these two sailors and brought my husband over to me. He didn’t pick me up, I’ll make that clear. That was Dec. 24. We got married March 11.

He was never on a pair of roller skates in his life. He fell down, they ran over his fingers. He said he was in love, so there was no pain.


New York

Merlin Nelson, a retired executive of American Machine and Foundry, lives in Manhattan. He grew up in San Bernardino, Calif., where his father, a onetime North Dakota farmer, worked in real estate. In 1933, when Mr. Nelson was 11, the real estate market had collapsed and his father bartered property in San Bernardino for an old house and some land in Salem, Ore., where he eventually started a chicken farm.

We spent the Christmas of 1933 in this modest house there. Dad drove the 1930 Chevrolet out in the foothills toward the Cascade range, found a tree, put it on top of the car, found some mistletoe and picked some sprigs of that and some holly and then some white berries. They popped corn and then you got a needle and thread, and that combination of fruit and popcorn basically was our decoration.

The next summer, we all went out every day helping restore this derelict house. We did things like lift the house up and put a basement underneath.

You got the neighbors to help you. There was a team of Belgian horses nearby; they helped pull the barn closer to the house. Farmers in those days knew how to do all kinds of things. You didn’t need much cash, you did everything on a swap.

My dad got the idea of having Rhode Island Red chickens, and they built a big coop for 200 or 300 chickens. He put in a trap nest system, with a board in front. If it laid an egg, I’d mark a plus on the board; if not, a minus, and after a while the poor ones were sold or eaten.

The male chickens we wouldn’t keep, wed sell them. I’d have to go and get one and chop its head off and pluck it. No big deal.


Nokomis, Fla.

Gladys Cole, a retired teacher and insurance investigator in Nokomis, Fla., was born in the middle of the Depression and grew up in Hartford. Her father was a mechanical engineer at a dairy there; her mother ran the boarding house where they lived. That meant keeping the tenants in linens and trying to make the house attractive when buying new things was not a good option.

My mother never threw anything away. If a sheet got worn, she would cut it up and put it together with another sheet for the people who lived in the rooms they didn’t care, they werent fussy about linens the way people are today. She mended towels, and when they frayed around the edges, she cut them up to make washcloths.

The sheets that got old and were worn out in the middle, they cut strips from the sides, narrow strips, and tied the ends together and put it on the loom and wove blankets. If they wanted color, they added narrow strips of fabric from old dresses.

You didn’t go to the store and buy clothing; you went to the 5-and-10-cent store, where you could buy fabric very inexpensively. You darned socks you had a special little wooden ball you put inside the sock; you had cotton yarn. You could actually weave it so it didn’t show. You cant do that today because the socks are synthetic; it doesn’t hold. My mother would make picture frames out of papier-mache, and she cut pictures from the Sears catalog and then would make the frames to go around the pictures.

They recycled everything, I tell you, everything.


Oakmont, Pa.

Anna Jane Nicholas, a retired arts and antiques appraiser in Oakmont, Pa., was luckier than many: While by her estimate, the families of 40 percent of her schoolmates could not afford to buy them shoes, her own father, who worked for United States Steel in Gary, Ind., kept his job through the Depression. Still, her family was always very careful with money, and her mother made the familyҒ‰s clothing and curtains herself, and even re-covered the dining room chairs. She would also line a wooden box on the back porch with burlap and leave dinner in it for migrants searching for work.

My mother would put food out there if she had an extra helping, then she would pull the blinds in the kitchen, because she didnt want my brother and I to be watching. We discovered later there was a mark in the alley that indicated there was something on the back porch.

My mother was a big-hearted woman. If she had a dessert, she always put a dessert out there. Sometimes they’d leave little notes: Thank you, Ma’am.

One woman came along ‘ I was surprised, it was usually men she said, “Your gingerbread was lovely. She had some sort of piece of paper, it looked like a piece of a bag, just a few words”, she said, “I always liked to bake gingerbread and your gingerbread was lovely.”


New York

Peter Holden worked for the New York City parks department for 35 years and still lives in Manhattan. He grew up in Raleigh, N.C., where his mother took a job as a cleaning woman for North Carolina State University when he was 7, after the death of his father, a brick mason. Mr. HoldenҒs home had electricity, but no water; water had to be drawn from a neighbors well or hauled from a stream several houses away.

We lived high up on a hill above the southwestern campus, and we just worked together and shared. There was a great feeling of cooperation and help, even among the poor whites and the poor blacks. My grandfather had a farm and most any time he would come in, he would bring enough for two or three days - corn or tomatoes, whatever the season was and we would share.

We ate beans maybe four times a week, boiled in salt pork. On Saturday or Sunday somehow or other we would have a nice meal. My mother would bring back a steak, that might have been 25 cents a pound. She was paid $8 or $9 a week, but at that time you could have more than a whole wee’Ғs groceries with that and have a little money left over.

She got laid off from the N.C. State job and there was just no jobs around Raleigh, so she went to Stamford she had a sister living up there - and took my younger sister with her. I finished high school in 1934.

My mother always told us you can be anything you want, dont come here telling me you can’t be this and they wont let me be that.

That first year, I didn’t think I would be able to go to college, but my mother sent $10 from Stamford. She said, “Boy, you take this to St. Augustine’s and see if they dont take this as a down payment, and if they don’t take it, you send my money back to me or I’ll come back to Raleigh and beat you all over.”

So I went out and tried to discourage St. Augustines, but they took me. I graduated college in 1938.

Like my mother said, if you really want to do something you can.


Posted by Elvis on 04/01/09 •
Section Dealing with Layoff • Section Personal
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