Sunday, September 28, 2008

MEMOIR: Memories of the Great Depression

The current financial crisis, generating fears that the U.S. faces a serious depression, has triggered my memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

My earliest memory was seeing my young, unmarried aunt, who lived with my parents, coming home from work one evening sobbing hysterically. I can still recall that she carried a newspaper emblazoned with a huge headline printed in red, reading: "Stock market crashes!"

The paper was undoubtedly the now-defunct New York Journal-American, a Hearst newspaper that routinely published red-ink headlines in large type to stir up reader excitement.

But this was no routine story. It was 1929, and the Great Depression had begun. I was five years old, and I still vividly remember my aunt's behavior that night. She had invested her meager savings, earned as a secretary, in the stock market. Now the savings had been wiped out.

She and other relatives, all people of modest means, had been encouraged by a stock broker/cousin to buy stock. That I can still recall the incident about my aunt and the newspaper headline so many years later demonstrates how traumatic the experience was, even for a young, impressionable boy.

I have other painful recollections of that era. In the early 1930s, my father's business collapsed. My father, who had not invested in the stock market, had operated a small shop in New York, manufacturing men's clothing in partnership with an uncle and brother-in-law.

Over the next decade, he was often unemployed, frequently holding down only temporary jobs as a salesman, usually in the men's apparel or food industries.

I always wondered how we were able to maintain our two-bedroom apartment during those years. We lived very frugally, but I do not recall that we suffered the severe economic indignities that afflicted so many others during the Great Depression.

But I do remember depending on hand-me-down baseball gloves, sleds, bicycles, and roller skates from a more affluent cousin whose father's business survived the nation's economic meltdown.

Only in recent years have I figured out how my parents were probably able to maintain our home during the Great Depression. I have a cousin who has an inordinate interest in genealogy.In his research, he discovered that the New York Times published probate notices at one time in its classified advertising columns. He found one notice revealing that my maternal grandmother (his great-grandmother) had inherited $5,000 from a wealthy older brother.

My grandmother had lived with my parents since their marriage. The inheritance, which she received about two years before I was born, was an enormous sum of money in that era. I can only assume that the funds wholly or partially produced the rent for our apartment when my father was unemployed. By then, my aunt had married and moved out.

When I was a teenager, I played a vital role in my father's search for regular employment. He was brought to this country from Poland at the age of nine, but never had a secular American education. Until he was 18, he attended a religious Jewish seminary where such subjects as English grammar did not figure prominently in the curriculum.

So he turned to me to help write letters applying for work. I remember spending Sunday afternoons with him examining the "want ads" in the New York Times. When he found what seemed to be a suitable job opening, I would compose and type letters for him on my second-hand typewriter, spelling out his qualifications.

My letters produced several salesman's jobs. Among his employers that I can recall were Beech-Nut and Colgate-Palmolive. In each case, however, the jobs proved to be temporary, for he was laid off in the personnel cutbacks that were so commonplace during the Great Depression.

The Great Depression ended only when World War II broke out. The U.S. quickly began to expand its armed forces, defense spending soared, and my father was hired by the War Dept. as an inspector in factories manufacturing military uniforms. That was his first solid job since his own business had collapsed.

My father was always struck by the irony that it took a war to get him on his feet economically. Whatever satisfaction he derived from finally having a good job, however, was offset by his sorrow in seeing his only child going off to war as a soldier.

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Blogger Ingrid Kast Fuller said...

My mother worked in a factory during WWII assembling army weapon belts. She was from Bronx, NY. My father, an immigrant from Germany, enlisted in the US Army. I only wish they were here to ask more questions about the times of the 1920-40s. Do you think we are repeating history? A stock market crash and then a war to get us back on our feet?
My website is at:

Sunday, September 28, 2008 3:38:00 PM  
Blogger Sylvia K said...

Always excites me when I see a new post by you! And your memories are so vivid! I was born in 1933 and the depression was already well underway, but during my early years we lived with my grandparents as my father continued to look for work as many of the jobs were shortlived or temporary.

Sunday, September 28, 2008 3:56:00 PM  
Blogger Mari Meehan said...

Ironic isn't it that this time it is a war preceding the depression! It makes me wonder if the government in it's infinite wisdom will wage yet another to stimulate the economy.

Sunday, September 28, 2008 4:43:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I'm going to have to ask my dad if he remembers anything at all (he was born in 33) or if he can recall the stories tht were told of the depression. I know that it affected the behavior of many elders when I was a little kid. They threw nothing away that might have been of value. My old boss used to make notepads out of the used paper in the office. There was a box where we employees placed the paper that was still blank on one side. The boss would come in on the weekend in his old clothes, stack all the month's scrap paper, blank side up, cut it into quarters, back it with cardboard (also saved) and then put rubber cement on one side of each of the quarters to create the note paper.

As I was born in 62, I thought this was a quaint hangover from more frugal times.

I may go get a bottle of rubber cement . . .

Monday, September 29, 2008 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger Darlene said...

Being your age, Mort, I vividly remember the Great Depression. Nothing was wasted or thrown out. Our recycling was to make stew out of leftovers, pass on usable clothing and toys to others, ride the bus and save the car for a Sunday drive, etc.

Waste not, want not was more than a slogan. I am accused of being a 'tightwad' by my children, but I tell them that I am 'thrifty'. I think my children who made fun of my leftover depression habits may come to emulate them.

Monday, September 29, 2008 1:24:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Your memories of those times are so vivid. I was born in December of 1929, the year the stock market crashed. We lived in a small college town in the south which did not seem to be greatly affected by the depression. I remember my Mother telling me about families who had to come begging for food and clothing. She always gave them something and my brothers gave them some good clothing of their own. My Father died in 1939 when I was 9 years, Our hard times began then since my Mother was left with no insurance and no income. When WW2 started and my 3 brothers went into the service we got small allotments from each of them. I never really felt poor because during the War since everyone had to do without. Even shoes were rationed so the fact that I had only one pair of shoes for three years in high school was no big deal.

Remember how we had to save up to buy any and everything before the advent of credit cards? At first there were store credit cards and then the advent of credit cards in the 1950's . My husband got his first American Express Card in 1958, the first year they were issued so he is a charter member.

There was layaway in the stores. You could pick out a dress, coat or anything and the store would "lay it away" or hold it until you paid the full purchase price. A few dollars a week.

I also never had a bicycle, just roller skates which I would use until the metal wheels were worn down to the bearings. Then my brothers would take the skate wheels and make a scooter with scrap wood.

We played "Kick The Can" in the street. Jump rope, HopScotch, flew homemade kites and made swings from old tires and ropes.

An ice cream cone was a real treat. We never kept ice cream at home No freezer.For a long time just an ice box. So we walked to the drug store and bought a yummy cone. The same for candy bars.

I sat outside at night with my mixed breed dog and gazed up at the clear night sky. Filled with stars. No pollution. Not many cars.I chased after fireflies and put them in a jar with holes punched in the lid. Took them inside for a magic lantern in the house.

We walked most everywhere. Only once do I remember being driven to school. Walked downtown to the picture show. Walked to the city swimming pool in the summer. Walked to friends' houses.

Long ago and far away.

Mort See what you did. You got me started and I can't turn off the old memories.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 7:12:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I couldn't say I can relate to your situation then (and now) but I just wanted to use this space to first praise you for your writing. Your memories of old are very vivid, I could only wish that I could write as good as you and remember as much as you do when I reach your age.

I'm not an American and I have no direct relation to anyone who had experienced the Great Depression. The only link I have of that dark time in American history are history books and movies. Your story is very insightful regarding the living condditions at that time. History being cyclical aside, people really have no right to complain about their living conditions today in comparison to how you were living back then. Harsh times in this day and age could be attributed to people being accustomed to a certain standard of living. One could stop and wonder, after reading your entry, how lucky we are today in terms of comfortability.

I really hope for everyone's sake that the economic recession that the American people are currently experiencing gets resolved soon. (And I say everyone because my country's economy is heavily affected by what is going on in the US as well) It's really saddening to think about the fact that people who belong to your generation gets to experience an economic depression twice in their life, if worse comes to worse.

Friday, October 03, 2008 4:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed your site. I’m 42 and have found your writing style to be a refreshing break from what commonly passes for writing today.

Concerning the depression fears of today, my advise would be to ignore the media and for that matter the government. There is no form of crisis that I can see. Allow me to expand on this:

1. Today, unemployment is very low compared to 1929. Additionally, households typically have two incomes as opposed to one. In many cases, households have 3-4 incomes as it is not uncommon for people to hold more than one job. The odds of loosing all forms of private income are lower than in the 1929 event.
2. A large percentage of our population now relies on social security or other forms of public sector payments to fund their living expenses, or at least provide some of their living expenses. These payments are fully secure.
3. A larger percentage of Americans now own their homes and need not pay rent.
4. A sharp downturn in the economy will likely not harm American manufacturing as badly as the 1929 event did. Most, in fact nearly all consumer goods such as clothing, appliances, ect, are now made overseas, and so if consumer spending declines dramatically, workers in other nations will suffer as opposed to Americans. American manufacturing will suffer, but not like 1929. Much of what Americans are manufacturing today are jets, machine tools, medical and technology and these items are purchased through contracts that stretch out for years.
5. Many Americans simply have no savings to loose in a bank run. Unlike the 1929 event where low income workers saw a month’s pay, or even 6 months of pay dissolve in the bank runs, most low income American workers today do not have the saving ethic that once existed and many, in fact, have never been to a bank. They rely instead on check cashing centers and they live paycheck to paycheck with no reserve what so ever. For those that do have any form of savings, they are largely insured. Anyone who has invested in the market, as I have, needs to be able to wait. Patients is truly a virtue where stocks are concerned, and today is a great time to get into the market, not out of the market.
6. Americans live far more lavishly today than in 1929, and in many cases, a reduction of income of 50%, 60%, 70% or even 90% would still leave enough for the real necessities of food and housing. I am blessed to be in this category of Americans.

I see today’s events as a normal and soon forgotten event. I think the government did what it thought was best, but until Americans become more independent of the need for government help, we remain very vulnerable.

Saturday, October 04, 2008 11:14:00 AM  
Blogger newwine said...

Thanks for writing about the Depression, Mort. My father was born in 1892, my mother in 1903, and they both lived through this time. They never talked about it. They lived on a farm and raised most of their own food, canning vegetables in season, raising chickens and pigs for food and keeping cows for milk. I still have many of the frugal habits you mention here. Even though I make more money than some, I have very little cushion. I am a single woman who managed to "buy" a house in the year 2000, before the absurd rise in home prices. My house is still not paid for, and I am facing retirement in 4 years if I am lucky. I will be extremely lucky if I am able to pay off my mortgage by the time I retire. I have a doctoral degree, but my vocation is not a "well-paid" one in today's terms, although it requires professional skill. The previous comment, by "Wise Golden," fails to understand the financial reality of many people in our society. I have saved as much as I can, by eating cheaply at home, driving as little as possible (and yes, I do use scrap paper for notepaper. I don't bother with the glue though...), by sacrificing many other things that others in my social class take for granted. My advice to Wise Golden would be, "get out more, get to know some different people, and you will see that YES, we do have a crisis." I certainly cannot comfortably lose 50% of my income at this point. If that happens to me, I will have to literally work until I die. NO retirement. And I have no credit card debt, and I have struggled to save. Is this fair in a society with abundance such as ours? I think not. And I AM FORTUNATE compared to many. I am grateful for that.
Thanks, Mort, for reminding us. I have seen this coming, as I watched those around me spend more and more, get more and more selfish, and take more and more of their abundance for granted.

Sunday, October 26, 2008 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Dorothy said...

Memory lane as I remember my mom and Aunt going to the food lines in the fifties for peanut butter, (large can) and other foods to make our ends meet. We go through cycles and this one will be valued pretty close to the twenties. Sadly for all of us; and if we only knew who will lead our country to prosperity and respect once again.

Dorothy from grammology

Sunday, October 26, 2008 1:26:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What a wonderful snapshot of what it was like to survive the Depression. I have always wondered how people managed and what type of changes they had to make.
My mother was a child in the depression and she sold apples with her parents to survive. I hope we never see times like that come again.

Thursday, February 05, 2009 7:41:00 PM  

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