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It was the best of times, it was the very worst of times. America’s Great Depression of the 1930s was a time of starvation and subsistence survival for many families. Decades later, many survivors of those years hold on to the survival lessons they learned, from hoarding pieces of aluminum foil to eating lettuce leaves with a sprinkle of sugar. Frugality meant survival.
Today, most of us aren’t living quite the same bare-bones lifestyle of the Great Depression, and photos from that era are difficult to comprehend. In a photo from my own great-grandparents, I see a family group wearing tattered clothing, standing on the porch of a dwelling that can hardly be considered something as sturdy as a house.
Yet, those people went on to ultimately live productive lives with an inner strength gained from having lived through the worst.
65 Pieces of Survival Wisdom from the Great Depression
I spent some time earlier this year researching the Great Depression years and was most interested in even the smallest life lessons to be gained from those “worst hard times.” Here are 65 of them.
- Families traveled to wherever the work happened to be. They stuck together as much as possible.
- Life insurance policies were cashed in to try and survive for just a few months longer in their “normal” worlds.
- If possible, homes were very often refinanced in an effort to save the family residence.
- Clothing had to last as long as possible and women (mostly) became expert seamstresses, especially at alterations. One creative woman used the fabric from the inside of a casket to sew beautiful holiday dresses for her children.
- In areas of the Dust Bowl, cattle were fed tumbleweed and moms learned how to cantumbleweed to feed their families. Some had to find food wherever possible to keep from starving.
- During heat waves, people slept on their lawns or in parks.
- Many stores allowed people to buy on credit and they just kept track of what was owed. Sometimes they were repaid, sometimes not. Some store owners ultimately lost their businesses.
- It wasn’t unusual for people to live out of their cars and trucks.
- When there was no cash, payment was made with eggs, fresh milk, or produce.
- A family with a cow and a garden was considered “rich”. Those two advantages alone meant the difference between a well-fed family and one that was near starvation.
- Many Americans were too proud to accept charity or government help.
- It was important to maintain appearances. Individuals still had a lot of pride, regardless of their circumstances. Mothers still wanted their children to look their very best.
- When the soles of shoes were worn through, pieces of rubber tires were used as replacements.
- Thousands and thousands of entire families were displaced. Very often, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins ended up living in one house, or one vehicle, as the case may be.
- Desperate people would sometimes beg outside of restaurants, and yes, there were those who could still afford a restaurant meal.
- Many kindhearted farmers kept workers on payroll as long as they possibly could, even if meant paying them with produce.
- Some families ended up living in tents or lean-to’s.
- Many became migrant farm workers, traveling from harvest to harvest in order to stay alive.
- Anything that could be freely collected and sold, was. Driftwood was collected, split and sold as firewood.
- Many men joined one of the government programs that were part of the New Deal. One group, the Civil Conservation Corps, built dams, roads, campgrounds, and were trained in fire fighting in national forests.
- Banks closed quickly and without giving any notice. You never knew ahead of time when your own bank would close its doors.
- Back in those days, banks were revered. It never occurred to anyone that a bank could close and their money would be gone forever.
- Most people were willing to do any type of work. My own relatives became moonshiners!
- Just about everyone had a garden and most gardens were enormous. Since 20% of the population still lived on farms, even those in cities still had country roots and gardening know-how.
- Neighbors and family members were supportive of each other, donating meals and money whenever possible.
- Missions were there to feed people but many of those missions eventually ran out of money.
- All food was made from scratch.
- To what extent any individual or family was affected by the Great Depression depended on large part where they lived. Not all areas were affected in the same way.
- Hunting and fishing were major ways in which families were fed.
- Everyone, including the kids, found ways to earn money. There was a team mentality that brought everyone together for a common goal.
- Unfortunately, loss of income wasn’t a good enough excuse to not pay rent or the mortgage, although some landlords, in particular, were willing to extend credit.
- There was virtually no sense of entitlement. Everyone knew they would only survive if they worked hard to do so.
- At this time there was no such thing as “retirement”. Everyone worked until they became physically unable to continue.
- Some towns had “welfare budgets”. Money was loaned from the town to individuals, but there was a strict keeping of books. Some towns even published in their newspapers how much each person owed and repayment was expected.
- There was a sense of dignity in even the lowliest of jobs. One woman tells the story of a notions salesman who visited their home every few months. He looked very dapper and wore expensive looking clothing, even as a door to door salesman.
- The Great Depression affected people in all walks of life. Only the most elite were immune from its effects.
- When banks closed, you were left with, literally, only the cash in your pockets or hidden away at home. Everything else was GONE.
- Many discovered strength through optimism and looked at their disadvantages as personal challenges that could be overcome with ingenuity and hard work.
- Foods that would normally have not been eaten became commonplace at the kitchen table, such as bean sandwiches and codfish gravy.
- Many mothers learned to “not be hungry” as they gave larger portions to their husbands and kids.
- Food prices at that time were fairly high when compared with wages. For example, a general laborer made $2 per day. The WPA paid $1 per day. But bread was 10 cents a loaf, milk 8 cents a quart, and eggs 7 cents/dozen.
- Meals were simpler than those we eat today and, therefore, cheaper. There were virtually no prepared foods at grocery stores.
- Families learned to shop at the very last minute on a Saturday night to get bargains on fresh produce that would go bad over the weekend. (Stores were closed on Sundays.)
- Learning how to forage and find edible plants helped many families fill their dinner plates. Things like nuts and wild asparagus were treats and often entire families would grab a pile of gunny sacks and head to the good foraging areas for the day.
- Housewives were judged by how many jars she had “put up” during harvest season. Women would show off their full pantries with pride.
- To add different types of food to their meals, families swapped produce with each other.
- The seasons determined what you ate.
- For many, there was no electricity or a refrigerator, so you just cooked only what could be eaten at that one meal.
- In some communities, there were group gardens on empty lots. Everyone had their own small plot and could grow whatever they wanted.
- Many worked multiple part-time jobs, waking up before dawn and falling asleep long after dark.
- Those with just a little bit more than others found odd jobs around their homes or property to provide employment to others.
- “Depression Soup” was a real thing! It contained anything and everything you might have in the kitchen or was donated by others. To this day, some say it was the best soup they ever tasted.
- Some enterprising women would wake in the early morning hours and prepare dozens of meals to sell to workers from their vehicles.
- Fabric feed sacks were recycled and became “feed sack dresses.” For some, it was an embarrassment, an obvious sign of poverty, but others wore them with pride. A family with many chickens, and therefore plenty of feed sacks, might be the best dressed in the neighborhood!
- Hanging wet sheets over doorways was a way to cool down a room or house during the summer. Hot air was slightly cooled as it passed through the wet fabric.
- Walls were covered with everything from mud/clay, scrap pieces of wallpaper, newspapers, and tar paper.
- Homemakers still took pride in their homes, keeping them as clean as possible, even those who lived in areas affected by the Dust Bowl. One mom made a couch from old bedsprings and stuffed homemade cushions with unginned cotton.
- Many spent their days walking the streets looking for work, anything at all that could bring in a few dollars or cents for their families. Often a “job” was just an individual task, payment was made when the task was completed, and the worker went on to look for the next job.
- Some communities organized “surprise parties”, in which everyone would pull together a large amount of food and other necessities, including cash. One by one, each family was selected to be the recipient of the surprise party.
- People were grateful. Grateful for any kindness, any blessing. That attitude carried many of them through the Great Depression years and they now look back on them with fondness.
- A jack-of-all-trades could often find work when others couldn’t. It paid to know a bit about plumbing, carpentry, painting, and home repairs.
- The hardened end of a slab of bacon was sold for almost nothing and could be used to season just about everything in the kitchen!
- There actually were government inspectors of different types during the Great Depression years. They had the authority to shut down many different types of home businesses. Some did, some didn’t.
- The Sears Roebuck catalog was truly the book of dreams for many people — not just kids!
- Stories from the Great Depression years are filled with incidents that illustrate one act of kindness after another. In spite of incredible hardships, people could still find ways to encourage others with words of blessing or unexpected help
Check out Survival Mom’s previous article: 21 Garage Sale Items for Thrifty Preppers.
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