In 1929, a rapid fall in the U.S. stock market resulted in the decline in value of shady investment trusts and pyramid schemes. Ensuing panic caused a run on banks that left the American and European financial systems in economic ruin.
During the first few years of the 1930s, there was a decrease in the number of jobs available, and many people went without wages and even food.
The average standard of living in the 1930s was very different from today. Not everyone had electricity, and much of the population lived on farms or had access to land on which to grow food. Life was much less urban.
Among us today are men and women who lived through the trauma of the Great Depression. Recently, several survivors of that difficult era described its effects on their lives. Their lessons provide insight for us today.
Tom and Jean Jackson remembered growing up on farms in the Midwest during the 1930s. Their recollections include:
Milk was delivered by horse-drawn wagons at 5 or 6 o’clock every morning. Blocks of ice weighing up to 50 pounds [approximately 23 kilos] each were delivered to homes to keep food cool in the icebox. Coal furnaces heated homes, and there were no dishwashing machines.
A 10-cent taxicab ride could take you any place in town. Restaurants had a complete meal for 35 cents, and gas cost 9 cents a gallon.
Interurban trains powered by coal-fed locomotives connected small towns. No one traveled widely or frequently back then. Roadways were made of brick, and streetcars often ran straight down the middle. Schools were located only a few blocks apart, so no buses were needed.
Grocery store clerks waited on and gathered groceries for each customer. Ladies and girls wore hats and gloves when they went out to shop.
Some movies were still silent. An organist played music in the background, and words appeared on the screen for dialogue.
Naomi Stiver, who grew up in the West and the Pacific Northwest as a child of the 1930s, recalls how families made do with less.
Vegetable gardens provided produce. Surplus eggs, cream and veggies would be bartered for other items or for money to buy things that couldn’t be made at home, like salt and sugar.
Children could expect one new pair of shoes per year. Those shoes would later be resoled at home to save money. And slits were cut in the tops for growing toes in the summertime.
Neighbors helped each other. Groups of families would buy 50-pound sacks of flour and give the sacks, made of colorful printed material, to a designated family each rotation for making clothes, dish towels and tablecloths.
An ice-cream cone cost 5 cents. Each sibling would get a sparkler and one package of firecrackers to celebrate Independence Day.
Johanna Jaspers, who spent her growing-up years in the Netherlands, remembers the 1930s and 1940s in Europe.
Times were tough, and you made your own clothes. During the war, coupons were required for rationed food purchases, and an extra coupon allowed the purchase of a small bag of candy for a little girl.
Shopping was done at tiny specialty stores: the butcher, baker, green grocer, etc.
You worked hard and saved hard. It was the only life we knew.
Indoor plumbing was scarce, and bath time was in a big metal tub at home or at a public shower facility in town.
In 1945, toward the end of World War II, the German occupiers refused to let food and coal into cities in the Netherlands, so in winter people burned trees, doors, even house frames to keep warm.
Freda Spruance lived in an urban Midwestern setting during those years and recalls practical methods of making do and saving money.
We ate a lot of cornmeal mush and big pots of beans, which were plentiful and inexpensive. My mother and dad also hunted for meat to add protein to our diet.
Oranges were scarce, but local fruits like apples and peaches were readily available. For snacks we ate open-faced peanut butter, mustard or ketchup sandwiches. A special treat when having friends over was a big bowl of popcorn.
To make money I began babysitting at age 11. My parents saved by resoling only the worn portion of the shoe in order to save the cost of an entirely new sole. In order to afford new bed frames, my mother would earn money by scrubbing floors for other families.
Slacks weren’t allowed at school, so I had three school dresses at a time. When I got home I would immediately change out of my school clothes and into play clothes and shoes to keep my dresses clean and less worn.
In 1938 my dad lost his job and was without work for six months. Our lowest moment came when all we had to eat for dinner was a small dish of cooked cabbage and a heel of bread. Even then we tried to pretend we weren’t hungry. Soon thereafter my aunt came with $15 and groceries to help us get along. We were later able to return the favor in her time of need. However, by the beginning of World War II, jobs were much easier to find.
Principles for today
Even though our society is much more complex and dependent on vast distribution systems, there are principles from the Great Depression that we can apply to help us deal with today’s economic downturn. Here are some keys to surviving in difficult times:
Simplify your life. Start with a positive mind-set and appreciate what you have right now. Also think about how to live a fulfilled life without so many material things. Visualize being content with less.
Think creatively. Imagine what it would be like to go back in time and live like the survivors of the Depression era. Learn how people lived on less. Ask about the experiences of older folks and family members.
Pray for faith. Learn about family histories of God’s intervention and provision in desperate times. We are never alone, and God promises to sustain us, though not always luxuriously.
Be thankful. God expects us to be content with what we have and in whatever state we find ourselves. Being grateful helps us handle adversity and is a sure antidote to the corrosive effects of materialism.
Why are these keys so important? Because the world is always cycling from times of plenty to times of scarcity, and our current world is on a downward turn. The past year has seen the beginning of financial crises with the potential to eclipse the Great Depression. It is always better to be prepared. With God’s help we can make it through.