This is a guest post and entry in our non-fiction writing contest by MtWoman
(Note: the numbers in certain places are references to the links and info provided at the end.)
Recently, there was a discussion here on the SBlog (as I like to call it) about what knowledge and wisdom our parents and grandparents may have to share with us from their experiences during the depression. I decided to “interview” my father on the subject, using the specific questions that Hunker-Down and Bam-Bam proposed, and expanding from there using my own questions.
It was a very good experience for me. My father is a tough German man, and is seldom open to such things, especially because having to ‘think back’ reveals to him how his memory is failing. But I was gentle and patient and this time he opened up quite a bit. I learned a lot about him, other members of our family, and myself. Discussing my family of origin, and what their lives were like has given me a better understanding of how I am, and what life was like ‘back then’…and what I can do to ‘prep’ for my own future. I’ll share with you here what I found out.
First a little history:
It seems that my father, who was born in 1925, making him 4 years old when the market crashed at the start of the Depression, didn’t have a very hard time of it, really.
His parents were German immigrants, who had been “sponsored” (1) by some other family members to come to the US. In those days, immigrants had to be “sponsored” for a year, which meant someone vouched that you would not become a “burden to society” and they would cover your financial needs until a job was found. There were other requirements, like taking the “umlaut” (those two little dots over some letters) off your name if you had one, which my grandparents had to do. My grandfather came over first (1922), and my grandmother came a year later. They were married here in the US in 1924.
When my father was born and through his childhood, my grandfather worked, and my grandmother was a housewife. They had a small house in Minnesota (one of my most favorite places to go in the summer as a kid). It had a couple of bedrooms, a kitchen, a ‘sitting’ room, and – my favorite – a screened in front porch where I would sleep on a cot sometimes in the Summer, and watch the train go by on the tracks just across the street.
There was electricity in the house and running water and ‘flush’ toilets. They had an apple tree, a good garden, and a ‘cellar’…a space under the house with a hardened dirt floor. I remember there being bushel baskets of root vegetables down there and some jars on shelves. My grandfather had some barrels at the corners of the eaves of the garage which gathered rain water. Their house was 1-2 miles from downtown.
Here is my interview with my father:
Q: Dad, I’m writing a piece about helpful lessons from the depression, and I’d like to ask you some questions about your life during that time, ok?
A: Ok. But I don’t know what I’d have to share.
Q: Well, let’s start with the situation today and how it compares with back then, as in the economics changing, recession, food prices, etc, and the impact that is having on our society and had then.
A: It’s different today, and you can’t really compare. Those were the best times of my life. Everything stayed the same. There was no new phone every week. No new autos all the time. People have all kinds of goods now. How many cell phones does there need to be anyway? Back then, people’s attitudes were different. They worked together more. Now they’re ready to shoot their neighbor. Back then, that wasn’t the case. And not everyone had a gun and a sack of ammo. We had to cooperate to survive. Besides you couldn’t shoot your neighbor for food, ’cause he didn’t have any either. More people were in the same boat. Now there’s more spread between statuses. Back then there was haves and have nots…no middle class. What’s going to happen, no one knows. It’s too complicated now. It was simpler then.
Q: Was there any ‘bartering’ or trade of goods?
A: Not really. We just co-operated and just helped, not really for trading. If someone needed something done, we’d just help. And they would do the same for us. But this didn’t come up often. Most everyone had basic skills, like sharpening, woodwork, stone work, whatever. People knew these things. Had to. My uncle was a stone mason, and he helped my father build the garage and enlarge the cellar.
Q: Were there people who’d come around to sell things or do chores? A “rag-man”? Do sharpening?
A: Occasionally a farmer would come by in a wagon with produce. And yes, there was a “rag-man” too. Milk & ice were delivered. No one doing sharpening…everyone did their own of that. You could sharpen on an old piece of concrete block.
Q: Did Grandma & Grandpa deal with any of these vendors?
A: Sometimes with the farmers, but not the rag-man.
Q: Where did you get your food? Did Grandma & Grandpa have a garden? Or animals?
A: No animals. Had a small garden and an apple tree. Pretty much everyone had gardens. Even the city people had gardens. But we got food from the store.
Q: So there were grocery stores?
A: Mostly shops, like a butcher and baker. But there was a grocery store. I was sent to do the shopping sometimes.
Q: How was food kept?
A: We had an ice box (2) for things.
Q: How often was shopping done?
A: Once a week.
Q: Where did the food in the stores come from? Local providers?
A: Yes. There was no imported food, except maybe in New York and a little from Canada. There was no Chinese crap. Even gas was from the USA. 5-10¢ a gallon. 99% of things were US made.
Q: What did Grandma cook? Did she can foods? Did she bake bread?
A: She sometimes made jelly. And she baked sometimes, but not bread. Usually rolls and sometimes cakes. We ate roasted meats and vegetables…a common German diet. Pork, chicken, beef, in that order. Very little fish…only what we caught, and we didn’t fish often. Sauerkraut. Rye bread from the bakery.
Q: Did Grandma make the sauerkraut or was it store-bought cans or jars?
A: Store-bought. But sometimes it would come from other people.
Q: Did you ever eat noodles? Did Grandma make noodles?
A: No, no noodles. Grandpa was a meat & potato man, that’s all they had in Germany, and not much meat.
Q: Did you eat salads?
A: We’d have cucumber salad. Cucumbers and onion with vinegar, black pepper, sugar, and water. It would be made some hours or a day ahead.
Q: What about desserts? Didn’t Grandma make puddings?
A: She didn’t make puddings until later in life. Well, she made rennet puddings(3). But we didn’t really have desserts.
Q: What about snacks? Did Grandma make cookies?
A: There were no snacks. You ate at mealtime, and that was it. Except for eating fruit off the trees in the neighborhood. Sometimes there were cookies at Christmas.
Q: How many meals did you eat then? Breakfast , lunch, and dinner? What did you eat for breakfast and lunch?
A: We had three meals like now. I didn’t eat much breakfast after I started school. We’d have sandwiches for lunch, or just a small dinner type meal.
Q: People ate less back then didn’t they?
A: Yes, but not because there wasn’t food. They just didn’t eat as much. They eat more now because of those damn advertisements. And because they don’t prepare it…it’s all already made.
(My response: I think people eat more now also because food is less nutritious and people eat, but then are still hungry.)
Q: What kinds of vegetables did you eat?
A: Mostly root vegetables: rutabagas, turnips, celery root, carrots, potatoes, onion.
Q: What about fruits?
A: We went to the countryside in season, and picked grapes off government land. And we kids would eat lots of plums from neighborhood trees.
Q: What about grapefruit and oranges? Bananas?
A: No bananas. And grapefruit and oranges were only at Christmas.
Q: Was the bulk of your vegetables store-bought food or home-grown food?
A: Up until I was maybe 15, it was mostly home-grown, then there was more from the stores.
Q: So Grandpa grew the root vegetables?
A: Yes, some.
Q: Did he grow cabbage? Or green beans?
A: I don’t remember if he did or not.
Q: Was the cellar used for food storage?
A: Yeah for some.
Q: What did you drink? Did you ever drink lemonade?
A: Water. Or hot tea. I drank milk when I was little, but not later. Grandpa must have drunk coffee ’cause he didn’t drink tea. No lemonade, but Grandma used lemons somehow for washing dishes. I remember there was always a lemon by the sink.
Q: Did people visit much? Was food shared?
A: Sometimes on Saturday or Sunday, people from the old country would come. But Grandma cooked very seldom. There was no money for it.
Q: Did they ever drink beer? Or wine?
A: Sometimes beer, but rarely.
Q: Did you ever go to a doctor?
A: Not unless you were really sick. Even if you had measles, you stayed home. Grandpa went for a TB test once. He didn’t have it.
Q: What did you take for medicine?
A: Grandma used Vicks vapor rub(4) if I had a cold, and that’s about it. I was sick once when I was 7-8. I stayed in bed, but didn’t see a doctor. Once they swabbed my throat with iodine when I was in second grade. Grandma took something for nerves, maybe Lydia Pinkham’s tonic(5). Hucksters would come by to sell it.
Q: Why did they swab your throat?
A: For a sore throat or cold.
Q: Did you take vitamins?
A: Well, Grandma had some Vit C ..some rutin (6) and we took garlic.
Q: Where did you get them?
A: They were sent from Germany.
Q: Do you remember anyone dying when you were young?
A: Yes, my aunt when I was 10-12. And my Grandfather when I was 8-9.
Q: Did you go to the funeral?
A: Not my Aunt’s but I think I went to Grandfather’s.
Q: Were the funerals like they are today? Was there a “showing”of the body? And was it in a funeral home or a personal home? Did neighbors take food to families who’d lost someone?
A: Just like they are today, in a funeral home. No…taking food was more of a Southern thing. People in the South were more scarce than up North.
Q: Did Grandma make things? I remember that she tatted (7)…did she crochet or knit?
A: Yeah. She knitted socks, stockings, scarves and Winter hats and mittens.
Q: Where did she get the yarn and thread?
A: From the store.
Q: I know she sewed because she taught me how on her treadle sewing machine (8). Did she make clothes for you?
A: Sporadically. She made some of her dresses. Mostly we bought our clothes at Montgomery Wards.
Q: Did she mend clothes?
A: Yes, lots of mending. And she darned socks (9).
Q: Did the house have electricity and/or gas? A flush toilet?
A: Yes we had electricity and gas. They came from city lines. And we had a flush toilet.
Q: Where did your water come from?
A: City pipes, and Grandpa had barrels to catch rainwater that he used on the garden.
Q: What appliances were there in the house?
A: Electric Maytag wringer washer (10). No dryer. Clothes were hung outside to dry. And there was a toaster (11), which had the sides that came down to put the bread in, and the coils in the center.
Q: Did Grandma use a washboard (12)?
A: Yes for really dirty things.
Q: Where did your furniture come from? Did Grandpa make it?
A: No he didn’t. Most of it came from saving up Green Stamps (19). The table there (pointing to the drop-leaf table in the DR) was gotten with Green Stamps, and the desk and other things. The washing machine came from Green Stamps. And maybe the sewing machine and toaster.
Q: Was there a telephone in the house?
A: Not until I was 8. It was a tall one with the receiver hanging on the side, that sat on a surface (13). It didn’t have dial because we just rang the operator. We had it mainly because of Grandpa’s job.
Q: Did you use store-bought or homemade towels and cloths?
Q: Did Grandpa have a car?
A: Yes, a 1925 Hupmobile (14). He drove himself to work.
Q: What did Grandpa do?
A: He worked for Ford Motor Company at first, for $5 a day. Then he went to work for a grocery manufacturer, in charge of shipping. He worked long hours. Later he worked for a paper company, driving a Mac truck with solid tires, picking up scrap paper to recycle. Everything was recycled back then.
Q: What was your first car and when did you start to drive?
A: The Hupmobile. I’d drive Grandma around. I was probably 14. I didn’t own a car of my own until after the war. That was a Dodge or Plymouth. It developed a leak in the roof, so I put a rubber boat on top of the car.
Q: Like a rubber raft?
A: Yeah…a deflated rubber raft.
Q: Was there ever a shortage of gasoline?
A: No. Not until the war, when it was rationed.
Q: Did you work when you were a young man?
A: Yes. I once sold magazines house to house when I was 8 or 9. The Saturday Evening Post and Liberty Magazine (15). Sold by issue not subscription. Then I worked for a druggist, delivering prescriptions and ice cream. I bought 2 bicycles with my own money.
Q: Did you give Grandma & Grandpa any of your money?
A: Yes. When they re-mortgaged the house, I gave them a little…a dollar or two…each month to help with that. The government made it easy to re-finance mortgages to lower payments.
Q: How old were you when you did that?
A: 8 or 9.
Q: How much was the mortgage payment?
A: $5 to $15 a month. Houses cost $3-5000.
Q: What did you do for “entertainment”?
A: We kids played outside, in all seasons. We listened to the radio (16)…”Ma Perkins”, “Fibber Magee and Molly”, and a program that played a song list. We played pick-up ball games, and when I was younger, played hide and seek. And we made coaster wagons (soap box car) and had derbys (17). Once we made one, and had to leave it at the race place overnight the night before. Someone came along and clipped the steering cables. I had to hold the cables while we raced. We didn’t win. If there wasn’t something to do, you invented something.
Q: What were the soapbox cables connected to before they were clipped?
A: A steering wheel that came from a car Grandpa had junked and used for parts.
Q: Did you have toys?
A: Once at Christmas I got a toy fire engine, and another time I got a “Stanlo” set (18), like an erector set. You got 1 toy at Christmas and clothes, not like today. The kids today have so much, none of it is special.
Q: Did you have pets?
A: Not really any pets. Oh, there was a cat around sometimes. There was one that Grandma fed with a broom because it would attack her if she tried to give it food. And there was a dog named Teddy that belonged to the girl next door. But you couldn’t run around the dog. It would bite then.
Q: Did you have a gun? Did Grandpa?
A: No guns. Grandpa did go hunting a couple times, but used someone else’s gun.
Q: Did ‘hobos’ ever come by, looking for food?
A: Yes, but not many. We lived right on the train tracks, and the train hub was just a couple miles away. They would come and ask for work and/or food. They would be glad for just a piece of bread. One young man came and he was invited in to eat. He wasn’t a hobo, just someone without any money who was traveling the trains.
Q: Did you ever travel a train?
A: We would use it as a street car. We’d hop it in front of the house and ride it uptown, where it had to go slow through town. We’d go to Montgomery Wards to get parts for our “coaster wagons”. You could get individual parts then, like one bearing ball…you wouldn’t have to buy a whole part. With 25¢ you could get all the parts you needed.
Q: How old were you when you did this?
A: Oh, around 9 – 10 and after.
Q: Did you read much?
A: I read the magazines I sold and the druggist had a lending library. I read some of those books. And I read newspapers.
Q: Did you get books from your school library?
A: No. But I knew it was there because I was a crossing guard and we had our meetings there. They trusted kids in those days to be things like a crossing guard.
Q: What was your neighborhood like?
A: It was a mix of people, all kinds of people…Americans, immigrants, different cultures. Mostly Americans with pockets of immigrants.
Q: Was there ever trouble between Americans and immigrants, or between immigrants?
A: Not really. You were dependent on your neighbor. Everyone was busy working to get by. The problem today is this (points to computer screen)…is technology. Everything is instant and people are thinking too fast or not thinking, just reacting, and making instant decisions. Everything was simpler then. If a Tsunami happened in Japan then, you might learn of it in a week, not a minute. And anyone in the neighborhood could discipline any child, not like today. They could paddle them or smack them, or they would call the parents if it was bad enough. Everything is topsy-turvy now.
Q: Was there ‘racism’ then?
A: Not really. In high school I had a black friend. I didn’t think of him as different. It was only after I came to the south (Texas) that I came across that. The street cars were still segregated and had a sign in them saying the negros had to sit behind the sign. I would sit behind the sign or move it. The driver would stop the car and make me move or move the sign back.
Q: Were you aware of the depression in any way during that time?
A: It didn’t make a difference in my life. Not having much money was normal to me. I hadn’t known a time before that was better or different. I was aware that there was no money. And I heard about it on the radio and from newspapers. When I was 10-12, I started paying attention to the stock market. I kept records to try to understand it. But I never did. I had no mentors.
Q: Dad, how would you summarize how people handled those times:
A: Simplicity, frugality, and cooperation. Life was simpler and you were busy working to get by. You were dependent on your neighbor. You co-operated. People now are isolated by technology. No one knows their neighbors. Back then, you knew each other and would relate. And a generational gap didn’t exist then like it does now. There was no knowledge gap. Information flowed more smoothly between generations because it moved slower then. And you could expect next year to be pretty much the same as the current one. Until the war. Then that changed.
Q: Any words of advice to people today in how to handle these tough and getting-tougher times?
A: Co-operate. Those that don’t learn to cooperate won’t make it or will be shot.
I told him this was for a contest where I could win something, including buckets. He said: “Buckets are fine, but you’d better enter a contest to win a wheelbarrow, ’cause you’re gonna need one to carry your money with this inflation”
Just to add a little bit, here are some of my memories from my visits with Grandma & Grandpa when I was a girl, that I think relate to the theme of this piece:
- -Grandma used cloth rags as “pads” for her menses.
- -She used pine tar soap as a ‘shampoo’.
- -She boiled milk no matter whether it was already pasteurized or not.
- -She kept a really clean house.
- -She gave me a spoonful of brown sugar after dinner as a treat.
- -My Grandfather was always tinkering in the garage, and made some of his own woodworking tools (my dad still has some of them).
- -Grandma would always sit in back when Grandpa took her to the store, even with just the 2 of them in the car.
I have gained quite a few ideas from this that add to my prepping plans, but I am not going to break down any specific things here. I’m more interested in what all of you have to say about what you get out of this piece. I will respond if there are any questions.
Bam-Bam and Hunker-Down, I hope there are some answers to your questions here.
(1) “Sponsored immigration”: “In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which did away with quotas based on nationality and allowed Americans to sponsor relatives from their countries of origin. As a result of this act and subsequent legislation, the nation experienced a shift in immigration patterns. Today, the majority of U.S. immigrants come from Asia and Latin America rather than Europe.”
(2) Ice box: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icebox
(3) Rennet Pudding: http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1940,148168-255201,00.html
(4) Vicks Vapor Rub: http://www.ehow.com/list_7601699_things-do-vicks-vaporub.html
(5) Lydia Pinkham’s tonic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_Pinkham
(6) Rutin: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-270-RUTIN.aspx?activeIngredientId=270&activeIngredientName=RUTIN
(7) Tatting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljXBGDVwEIU
8) Treadle sewing machine: http://www.tri-stateantiques.com/temp/sewing.html
My Gma’s is like the “STANDARD BRAND TREADLE SEWING MACHINE IN CARVED OAK CABINET” that is shown on this page, and is sitting right now here in the DR.
(9) Darning socks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nY1jTVyBE0&noredirect=1
Darning tools on eBay: http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_nkw=darning+tool
(10) Maytag Wringer Washer: http://www.shorpy.com/node/3955
(11) Toaster: http://www.toastercentral.com/toaster20s.htm
(12) Using a washboard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duJr4owjpOE&feature=related
(13) Candlestick telephone: http://telephonesofpastcentury.tripod.com/id1.html
(14) 1925 Hupmobile: http://roaring-twenties.com/id172.htm His was a “soft-top” car, not a convertible. Dad’s was a simpler model than this. This one is a coupe, his was a sedan with 4 doors.
(15) Liberty Magazine (still around!): http://www.libertymagazine.org/index.php?id=15
(16) Radio programs:
“Ma Perkins”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma_Perkins
“Fibber McGee and Molly”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibber_McGee_and_Molly
(17) Soap box cars: http://rivet-head.blogspot.com/2011/05/photo-of-day_19.html
(18) Stanlo set: http://www.moah.org/exhibits/archives/constoysmotion/stanlo.html
(19) Green Stamps: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%26H_Green_Stamps
This is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest where you could win:
First Prize) Winner will receive a Stealth Body Armor Level II vest courtesy of SafeGuard ARMOR™ LLC and a $150 gift certificate for Wolf Ammo courtesy of LuckyGunner.com A total prize value of over $600.
Third Prize) Winner will receive copies of both of my books “31 Days to Survival: A Complete Plan for Emergency Preparedness” and “Dirt-Cheap Survival Retreat: One Man’s Solution” A total prize value of $28.
Contest ends on June 5 2012.