Life in the Great Depression

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

My parents were grown folks when the Great Depression hit the United States in 1929. In fact, it was during that awful decade that they met, married, and had two children.

As a little kid, I didn’t know anything about depressions, only that there was tension in the air. Parents never talked to children about the nation’s panic, trying to shield them from fear.

My parents were money-savvy. Each owned a house in Harrisburg, Pa., and practiced the belief that if you don’t spend money, you get to keep it. Their cautious ways were learned in childhood.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that each paid cash for their properties, since debt was never entered into lightly.

Mom moved from her family’s farm in Cumberland County to the capitol across the Susquehanna River, took some business courses and shorthand, and went to work as a legal stenographer. The very sound of the position caused my diminutive mother to stand a bit taller.

But when her dying mother needed care, it was my mom who moved her in, reducing her own hours at the office.

Mom spotted the broad shoulders of a good-looking man sitting in front of her in church. She learned that he was a recent widower – his first wife died of tuberculosis – and Mom turned on the charm.

Now, my mother was never coquettish, but she had a certain flair. She was born in 1898 and would have been about 37 when she and Daddy married in October 1935. At Christmastime in 1936, I was born, and my brother in 1939.

They elected to live in the Graham Street townhouse Daddy owned, renting out the house on Penn Street. Daddy took me with him once or twice when he went to Penn to collect the rent. I was both elated – I loved going anywhere with my dad – and scared by the tense faces of the children. Daddy went in person for the rent because the sight of the landlord in the doorway put on more subtle pressure than a letter in the mail.

I vaguely remember that there were occasionally firm words between landlord and tenant, but sometimes I think Daddy agreed to wait another week to collect. I also remember that at Christmas, a thin envelope was slipped to the children who were watching the whole drama cautiously.

By the time I was about 10, Daddy was working as a clerk for a small railroad company serving Bethlehem Steel Company in Steelton.

This column veered off course several paragraphs back. I wanted to laud my parents’ practice of reusing and recycling, not so much to save money when there wasn’t a lot of it, but as witnesses to the wisdom of careful spending in all areas of life.

We moved into a small house in the then-rural fields and woods of Hampden Township on the west side of the river, my parents wanting their kids to have the freedom of country life they had loved.

We had only one car, had to because Mom had never learned to drive and I was too young. Daddy took drivers’ training and finally conquered the 1936 Dodge a friend sold him cheap.

My Dave still laughs at the thought of my mother winding bits and pieces of string on a ball rather than throwing it out and then needing to buy string. She used mostly glass for canning the vegetables she and Daddy grew behind the house.

It was hard to get rid of metal cans – there was no such thing as trash collection in the country – but while their method wouldn’t work today, it worked fine for us. Cans and broken glass went into the household trash and was burned however many times it took to reduce it to rusty particles that took very little space.

I loved it when I was finally old enough to be in charge of the fire. When the debris was as small as it was going to be, we dumped it into a little stream between our house and the dense woods beyond. We raked leaves and tree branches over it, and it was surprising how quickly wood litter and glass and metal were reduced to almost no mass at all. The material in our ditch never grew more than a few inches, year after year.

For heating the house, we went from a coal fire to oil/hot air, but we wore lots of sweaters. We used our own well for water, cautiously. We recycled clothes by passing them to neighbors’ children.

Flat sheets got a second life by Mom ripping them down the middle, then sewing together the less worn outside edges. Fitted sheets couldn’t be resuscitated like that, so we never bought fitted sheets.

We also grew most of the fruits and vegetables we ate, year round, buying only milk, meat, and some cleaning products. Mom made our own “shampoo” by shaving strips of Fels Naphtha soap into boiling water, cooking to a medium paste. It made our hair literally squeaky-clean and shiny, but, in the absence of conditioner, hard to manage.

Little bits of soap were squeezed into a small cage on a handle and shaken into dish water.

There’s lots more, and lots less. No TV, no going out to dinner, no impulse buying. Somehow they paid for 10 years of piano lessons, a series of bicycles, and a big part-collie named Laddie. And since Daddy loved movies, he’d take us to a theater at least once a month.

We never felt poor, just thrifty. We made do, a lot, and while it was also not spoken of, we knew we loved each other.

Amazing how far a little love will go.

login to post comments | Sallie Satterthwaite's blog

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Cyclist's picture
Submitted by Cyclist on Tue, 12/16/2008 - 5:52pm.

As the leading.....ah......... old guy on this board, what was it like living during the depression?
Caution - The Surgeon General has determined that constant blogging is an addiction that can cause a sedentary life style.

Submitted by Bonkers on Wed, 12/17/2008 - 5:55am.

You asked what was it like.
No problem. We were rich and had not invested in junk.
Spent most of our time sheltering and feeding those who hadn't.

Yeah right. Well it (30s depression) was different (I read) due to it happening over several years and not in a few months, almost overnight, as this one seems to be doing.

As the administration told us during 2008, "our basic economy is fundamentally sound." Now I don't know what a "basic economy" is if that is the case.

We borrowed too much, we built too much, we paid some too much, we started wars too much, and we allowed our basic manufacturing to disappear. The jobs created to replace it were of little long term significance.

We had no "thinkers," or imagination during the last eight years--due to the fact that the far right didn't want any such "egg-headiness."
Just pray a lot and accumulate fortunes into selfish entities and it will dribble down sufficiently. It dribbled maybe one drop! The rest was used to create false business ventures--not needed.

Now as to the details about the 30s, I could write a book on this (matter of fact, I have) but few now are interested---we do not learn from history, nor do we want to hear of it unless it is about "Camelot" or those winning the lottery.

It appears that we will find out within a year or so what a depression feels like. It will be different than before since we will try to spend our way out of it rapidly, and waste most of it to devious people.
It needs to be done deliberately and somewhat slowly--at the same time that we are actually creating something of use and value for the future instead of useless icons and jobs.
How about some new food producers (farms) run by people not computers? Restart manufacturing before we lose what skills we have there? Provide a huge army so as not to be challenged by nitwits?

Yes, I saw beggars on the road in the 30s. I saw soup kitchens in the city. I saw no electricity, no toilets, no phones, no TV, little statically radio, and believe it or not--plenty of trains and buses.

We ate plain food, well cooked, most of the time we had it. There was a garden on every acre.

Clothes lasted a couple of years, shoes (one pair) two years, and coats longer.

Even the wealthy (mostly property) did not act wealthy.

I do not wish ten years of this, or WW3, to occur to get us out of it.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.