>My local newspaper did a front-page feature in the Sunday edition a couple of weeks ago that I thought was really interesting.
I’m copying and pasting it here because I think you would have to register with their site to access it now. I’m interested to hear what other people think.
Remembering the Great Depression
It started with Black Tuesday, the crash of the stock market on Oct. 29, 1929. For 10 dark, dire years, Americans suffered through the worst of times – the infamous Great Depression.
By Sandy Wells
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It started with Black Tuesday, the crash of the stock market on Oct. 29, 1929. For 10 dark, dire years, Americans suffered through the worst of times – the infamous Great Depression. Some chose not to suffer at all. Confronted with sudden, paralyzing poverty, they decided on suicide.
Most Americans just buckled down, tightened their belts to the pinching point and rode it out. Sacrifices shaped them, made them brave, prudent, grateful. Remembering the hardships they endured, they worry about people in today’s spendthrift society. Can they cope with repercussions of an ever-deepening recession?
Local Depression-era survivors in the community share anecdotes about the austerity of life in the 1930s.
She grew up in Brooklyn in the Roaring ’20s. Her father flourished in the lumber business. She went to private schools, wore the best clothes, lived in an elegant home furnished with the finest trappings his money could buy.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, her lavish lifestyle crashed with it.
“My father kept trying to hold out. He kept saying it would get better. Finally, he used everything he had saved. He got rid of the car. He had the house up for sale. He couldn’t take it.”
One Sunday morning in 1936, he got out of bed, went quietly to the basement and shot himself in the head.
She was 19.The memory haunts her to this day.
Ninety-two-year-old Florence Gentes monitors America’s current economic crisis with the fearful, knowing eyes of someone who survived the hardest of hard times.
“I see it all repeating itself. My father was in the lumber business. That’s construction. The same thing is happening now. It’s all stopping. There’s no money for construction.
“And this is only the beginning,” she said. “It will get worse and worse as more people get laid off. The way people in this culture squander money, I don’t know if they will make it. They live from payday to payday. People in my times were able to hold out longer because they had savings. We were a different breed of people, a much stronger people.”
Her strength was sorely tested as she scrambled to scratch out a future from the shambles of her privileged past.
“We sold everything we could sell. Oriental rugs, beautiful oriental lamps, crystal and china. My mother even sold her jewelry. She had beautiful diamond rings. She even sold her wedding ring.”
They rented the third floor of a friend’s home for $25 a month. She got a job as a secretary for $13 a week. On her meager salary, she also supported her mother who suffered for 11 years from severe depression. “I had no life. I worked and came home.”
City people suffered more, she said. “There are no cows on 42nd Street. Rural people did better than we did. They had farms and could grow food. We had to buy it.”
If they couldn’t buy it, they bummed it. “I would take the subway to my job in the city. You would see hundreds of people in the lines for soup and bread. For 10 years, I saw that.
“We didn’t have welfare like you have today. We used the word relief. You had to be broke, and I mean really broke, to get it. When I went to inquire about it, they said, ‘Do you have a job?’ I said I did. They asked me how much I made. I told them I made $13 a week. I told them I was also supporting my mother. They said, ‘We can’t help you because you have a job.’ “
If a husband had a job, the wife couldn’t work, she said. “A lot of women would take off their wedding rings and say they were single to try to get work.”
Any work was better than no work, regardless of pay. “I had a part-time job on Saturdays as a saleslady in a nice department store. I worked an eight-hour shift. My salary was $2.50 for the day.”
Things got worse. Her mother died. Her landlord sold the house. She moved to a rooming house. The house caught fire. She escaped with just her nightgown and a jacket.
A friend who owned hotels in upstate New York hired her for seasonal work. At the inn, she met cosmetics maven Dorothy Gray who asked her to help launch a new feeding formula she had developed for calves. She ended up selling the formula on the road. In one year, she doubled the business. Money poured in. Then, as milk prices plummeted, demand for the formula dwindled. Gray liquidated the business.
Gentes returned to hotel work until she retired. A friend lured her to Alabama where they developed the Huntsville tourist area. She worked there as a guide. In 1984, she landed in Charleston. A friend in Huntsville moved here to be close to her daughter and encouraged her to settle here.
Looking back on the convoluted journey, she said the lessons she learned as a Depression survivor helped her throughout her life. “I learned a great deal about what to do without. I learned that all you need is one pair of shoes. I always bought black shoes because they went with everything.
“The biggest thing I learned was how to handle money. Every week, I would put away a couple of dollars. Even when I was making more money, I put more money in the bank. That gave me the chance to travel the way I did.”The bottom line is, live within your means. I have always lived within my means.”
“My first day in school, we had the Depression,” said 86-year-old John Cavender. “When we went to the store to get food for the mule, the feed sacks were all pretty. My mother would let me pick the color sack I liked. She very carefully opened it up and dumped out the feed, and she would take that cloth and make me a shirt. She had a big gallon jar on her sewing machine.
“That was the button jar. She would take that material and get me six or seven buttons that would match. Any time we had a piece of material to throw away with a button on it, we always knew to take that button off and put it in that jar. We never threw any material away. It was put aside to make little Dutch girl dolls with big wooden shoes.”
During hard times, the resourceful Cavender kids found other uses for the buttons. “We would get that jar and get 12 black buttons and 12 white ones and play checkers on a homemade checkerboard that would have cost 10 cents.”
By the time he reached 18, things were looking up, he said. “People started getting jobs. I got a letter saying, ‘Your friends and neighbors invite you to join the Army.’ They started to draft me, but I beat them. I enlisted in the Air Force. They paid me $23 a day – once a month.”He ended up all right. “I stayed 35 years. I flew Mustangs and everything else they had. I made colonel. I was operations officer for the 130th up at the airport.”
“I was a country girl, so I didn’t know we were poor,” said 83-year-old Arlene Pettit. “We had pigs and cows and chickens and gardens, and my mother canned everything she could get her hands on”
Even in the leanest years, her mother found a way to make do, she said. “Mother could sew. At Christmas, she would make us dolls. She could afford to buy a doll from Sears for a quarter and she would make clothes for them. We got oats in huge boxes. She would take that box and make a cradle. She padded it and made little sheets and pillows, everything you can think of to play with your dolls. I’m sure that was one of those years when they didn’t have any money and that’s the only thing she could think of to come up with.”
Lessons in frugality stayed with her for a lifetime. A retired schoolteacher, she used to watch with dismay as students sharpened pencils down to a nubbin. “I would tell them that we were only allowed one pencil at a time. A pencil cost a penny. My uncle owned a grocery store. If we didn’t have a penny, we would take him one egg and that would buy a pencil.”My dad would not let us use the sharpener at school. We brought our pencil home and he would sharpen our lead every night, because it was hard to get even a penny. That sounds ridiculous, but that’s how things were in those days.”
“I was in high school during most of the Depression,” said 91-year-old John Mitchell. “I graduated in 1935, so I was right in the middle of the whole thing. My dad was a railroad engineer and he got cut back to fireman. He worked a couple or three days most weeks, and some weeks, he didn’t work at all. We had a big garden and we got by on what we raised.
“I remember that I was never unemployed. I washed cars for a quarter apiece. On Saturdays, I could make 75 cents or $1. I saved enough money, $3, to buy a pair of Thom McAn shoes. A neighbor boy and I hitchhiked to Wheeling to get them. The tax was 6 cents. The next year, we found out that the Thom McAn store in Marietta didn’t charge tax. We hitchhiked to Marietta to save that 6 cents.”Eventually, he saved enough to buy a car. “I bought a car for $35. I paid $20 down and $1 a week for 15 weeks.”
“I can remember people coming to our door to beg, hoping to get money,” said 97-year-old Ruth Shepherd. “[My mother] always felt they wanted to buy whiskey. She would tell them to come around back and she would fix them a plate. Sometimes she would find the food discarded. They had a way of marking the walk out front so the next one to come along would know this was a no-good place.
“She had an arrangement with Pat Withrow at the Union Mission to provide a bed for them and she would compensate him later, but very few showed up. They had to go through a church service first and they didn’t like that.”
She looked forward to the day when she could wear new clothes. Through the Depression, her mother made most of their clothes. “I had a sister about my age, and we swapped clothes. We went to different schools. I swapped shoes with a friend up the street. Our mothers wore the same size, and we would wear their shoes, too. It didn’t matter if they were comfortable or not.”
Her father died in 1922. To make ends meet, she rented out rooms in the big Virginia Street home she’d inherited from her mother. “My uncle moved in with us after his wife died and helped her remodel some of the property into small apartments that she could rent.”They also enjoyed some benefits of country life. “We had a cow and chickens in the back, and a cherry tree and an apple tree. A black man came every day and took our cow to the riverbank and tethered her with Col. Dickinson’s cow so the two cows would have company while they grazed.”
Ada and Frank Sayre
The Depression lovebirds couldn’t afford a fancy wedding. He could barely afford the $2 marriage license. But 70 years later, the bond remains as tight as their budget on the day they married.
She worked in a dime store in Parkersburg. He was a seasonal construction worker. Times were tough that August in 1938, but Frank Sayre decided to get married anyway. “One day at noon, I took off and went to the courthouse and bought a marriage license. They were $2, and $2 was hard to get back then.”
They married in a parsonage in Reedy. “We just called a minister and asked him if he was going to be home because we were stopping by. That’s how much notice we gave him.”
They set up housekeeping in a two-room apartment at Sixth Street and Hunt Avenue. Rent was $30 a month. Both recall walking to the A&P near Bigley Avenue and lugging groceries home in their arms. “We watched our pennies and made out,” she said.Her family in Jackson County got an early wallop of Depression wrath. “The thing that sticks out in my mind happened in the spring of 1929. My mother had to have surgery. One bill was $300. My father had that much in the bank. He wanted to take that out to pay the bill, but the doctor told him to just wait until he’d set enough aside. Just a short time later, the banks went bad and he lost that $300.”