Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How the Oldtimers Survived the Great Depression and Why We May Not Measure Up

Anyone who grew up with relatives who survived the Great Depression and World War II probably have the stories that were passed down from those eras engraved into their subconscious. I know that whenever I go to purchase something expensive and not truly necessary, my grandmother's voice saying "do you really need that?" immediately comes to mind. If I open my wallet and find only a few dollars, my grandfather's warning to never leave the house without cold, hard cash also flashes through my memory. Now that we could quite possibly be heading for another depression, the lessons from family old timers about how they survived are quite telling, and, at the same time, it makes me look at society today and pick out many ways that we may not survive such a period as successfully as they did. Here's why:

  • Many people lived on farms during the Depression which softened the blow as far as food was concerned. They could pretty much grow the food they needed and not have to go to a grocery store for every single morsel to feed their families. How many people do you know today that can grow most of their own food including fruits, vegetables, eggs, chickens, milk, pigs, cows, etc? The only things that I remember they made a big deal of, and conserved like it was gold, was coffee and chocolate. There was no such thing as picky kids or food that went to waste.
  • The skills to acquire food were part of the fabric of life. Berry picking in the summer, foraging for nuts in the fall, growing food, processing food (ie: smoking meats, canning vegetables and fruit, making cheese), fishing, and hunting were skills that every kid learned from his parents and grandparents. How many people these days could take a live chicken and make it into a fried chicken? How many kids have no idea how something as simple as butter is made?
  • Skills in general were used to do a lot of work with very little material goods. Clothes were washed by hand, fertilizer was made at home (thanks to the cows) and not purchased, and home shops (wood, welding, etc) were quite common and thoroughly used. Many people today would have no idea how to wash a load of clothes by hand or dry them without the dryer telling them what setting it needed to use.
  • They didn't have credit back then. Granted some people received credit for various purchases (house, car, farm machinery, etc) but it was a BIG deal. You didn't sign a paper and wait for a shiny card to arrive in the mail. The banker had to know you, your parents, your grandparents, and practically receive the title to your first born before you would be given credit to purchase what you needed. With credit so easy to receive today, much of the population is up to their eyeballs in debt, setting up themselves and their lenders for bankruptcy at the slightest financial glitch.
  • They didn't have the bills that we have today. My bills include: gas, electricity, water, garbage, sewer, cell phone, home phone, cable TV, and DSL internet (not to mention the housekeeper, yard guy, car wash, and all of those other "have to have" services that we take for granted). My grandparents paid for electricity and didn't have a phone or TV until way after their kids were born. They filled up the propane tank when they could afford it but mainly used the wood stove for heat and cooking, water was from a hand-dug well, garbage was processed on their land (burned, recycled, composted), sewer was a septic tank (with an outhouse for backup), and there were no cell phones, DSL, or cable. Grandma was the housekeeper, grandpa was the yard guy, and the kids were the car washers.
  • They didn't go shopping or out to eat. I can count on one hand how many times my grandparents went out for dinner. They always ate at home and if they would be away from home at meal time, they packed up their food and took it with them. They also rarely went shopping unless it was for a necessity. It probably helped that they were in farm country and the number of stores and restaurants available could also be counted on one hand. These days if you don't go out to eat or shop regularly you are in the distinct minority. I know people today who would be hard pressed to go an entire week, possibly an entire day, without eating at a restaurant or purchasing a latte.
  • They didn't spend their money unless it was absolutely necessary. A yard of fabric would be made into a dress, grandma would add ruffles to keep the dress wearable as the owner grew, the dress would then be passed down to the next sister and the next, when it grew threadbare in places it would then be cut up into quilt squares or used for rags or doll clothes. How many clothing items have you bought that either are still hanging in the closet with the tags on or, worse, were worn once and since you didn't like it, tossed it into the Goodwill bag? Next time you go shopping, consider whether the items in your basket are absolute necessities or just stuff you want.
  • Life revolved around social connections. If more work was needed than one man could do, friends and neighbors would show up and help, knowing they could expect the same help in return. Families were closer and friendships were lifelong. How many people do you know would welcome grandma into their house to live with them for her final years? It's no secret that nursing homes and retirement communities are such big business. How many parents would know how to deal with their kids if the electricity was out for an extended period of time? Many parents rely on the TV, internet, texting, and video games to keep their kids quiet, socialized, and entertained.
  • They made money at anything possible. If they needed money, they didn't turn to credit, they turned to work; they had the skills and ingenuity that could be used to immediately make money. Among the jobs that my grandparents told stories about: they had farm stands and U Pick farms, grandpa was a welder who worked at Hanford and on various bridges in Portland, grandma worked in knitting mills and sewing factories as money was needed, they ran a dance hall on the weekends (grandma took the tickets and grandpa played in the band), grandpa raised and bred horses, and they both hunted/fished/trapped animals for food and to trade or sell to others.

The moral of the story is that although we are so "advanced" technologically, economically, and socially compared to decades past, it is imperative that we all develop the basic skills necessary to survive should all of the technology, economic infrastructure, and social structure that we have come to rely on suddenly disappear.


  1. I am so glad to have just found your blog. I was googling "who survived the great depression and why" and was led to your site. I am divorcing and have been a stay-at-home mom for years. My house has been on the market for over a year and I've been interviewing like crazy ( I have a college degree) but can't seem to find a job willing to pay what I need. I'm going to end up taking a low paying job and try adding to my income with odd jobs and frugal living. My kids will hate it, but for me... this is a depression.
    Thanks for your page!
    Kathryn in Louisiana

  2. You will survive this situation and be all the stronger for it. In this case, you may want to take any job you can get just to get some money rolling in while your other part time job can be looking for a better job. This should definitely be a team effort with you AND the kids...of course they will hate the situation at first but you hate the situation too! It will take all of your efforts together to pull yourselves out of this situation.
    Here's some resources: go to the library and get as many books as you can on all aspects of this problem (Tightwad Gazette series, Think and Grow Rich, how to write a killer resume, how to survive a divorce-type books--basically anything that will help you improve your situation). Check out,, and other websites that teach thriftiness. See if your local college offers "displaced homemakers" support groups or classes to update your job skills; they may even help you find a job. Remember that attitude is most important--you wouldn't believe how many broke, depressed, divorced, former homemakers have turned into amazing business owners and CEOs because they have the drive, determination and skills (how better to develop organizational, financial, and diplomacy skills than running a household?) to succeed.

  3. I work in the Financial Services Industry at an extremely high level, and have had the very rare and limited opportunity to be in several confidential meetings regarding massive policy discussions related to the banking crisis over this past few years. My insight, while I only share it with my family and friends, and on a limited, as needed basis, should be shared and not held in. I have been researching the great depression on the internet to best prepare myself for what I fear is heading our way. Most of our country forms their opinion on our economy from Fox News or CNN. Mistake number 1. Any good long-term investor will tell you that they didn't get rich by listening to the guy next to them and jumping -- they did their research themselves. It cracks me up when I flip on the cable television and hear these "analysts", or hired wall street actors, talking about how the worst has passed and it will take time but we are heading over the hump. Where were their genious predictions before this ship caught fire? Everyone has a comment after the touchdown was scored, few could predict the weak defense. Don't be naive - listen to your own judgements and they will serve you well. Feel like things are still getting worse? They are. If this is a "banking" crisis, then how will companies and wall street profit reports turn the curve with their credit lines drying up and being yanked? The banks are pulling back and preparing for what is to come, and so should we. Nobody is truly looking at this problem from 30,000 feet. Brace yourself for a period of time where CASH IS KING. If you have extra things you don't need, cash them in for whatever you can find. Canned goods? Stock up a few shelves in your basement. Stop shopping at the mall and start buying second hand, and SAVE. The sooner you start medicating yourself for the plague to come, the less painful the change, and its consequences, will be on your daily life. Just because we have a deposit insurance fund doesn't mean we are going to avoid where this is headed.

    I have a few tips of advice for those seeking it, and I think these will be very helpful in preparing you for the upcoming 4-5 years, and YES, I truly believe we are looking at a depression for 2-3 years, and a major recession for 4-5 years..

    1) Cash is king -- stop spending it like it isn't. Save it but don't deposit more than the federally backed and insured amounts. I suggest CDs or interest bearing accounts that give you quick access. Find ways to raise extra cash right now, as they may not be available in the near future and you will be wishing you had that extra 2-3,000 dollars around.

    2) SHOP THRIFTY -- dont spend at retail stores and restaurants. Cook meals at home for 80-90% savings, stock up and items that don't expire in 3 months on the shelf, and buy second hand. Stop using credit and live within your means immediately. Food is a huge one, other ways to cut your costs could be using coupons, driving smarter (plot your weekly chores to consolidate trips to certain places in town, and buy more on one trip instead of taking two trips over two weeks). Buy bulk whenever possible, and when things go on sale - buy way more so you dont have to buy more next week when it isn't...

    3) Have a plan -- while has several sample disaster plans available, take a look at some of their biological or natural disaster preparedness plans and you will start to see there are several things you probably have no idea you would need if the time would present itself. Extra batteries, sleeping bags, firewood, bottled water (jugs, not 12oz bottles), etc.. Have a plan and things will be easier on you if the situation presents itself. Share your plan with other family members. Its hard to have a pre-meeting of this type at a time when you are not in crisis, but this is what the intelligent people do - plan -- before the crisis arrives.

    4) Review your debt and holdings -- if one of the two in your household were to lose their job, would you have to stop making payments on a car? What would happen to the home? Create a plan with the cash you predict would be available to maintain what you NEED moving forward until things turn around. Break it down early. You might even find a few things you are doing now that you "really don't need" and can save $ early.

    Kathryn has the right idea - whatever it takes...

    Also remember, if you are in the markets - that if you haven't pulled out yet, I highly suggest it. You could have two perspectives on where it is at - look at the deals on wall street, or "the market has only dropped 40% to date, and it has another 25%-40% to fall yet". I take the another 25-40 view personally. I pulled out around 15% down, into US treasuries (FGOVX) and have preserved what I had. Key will be in another 2 years, putting it in so you get the ride back up. Don't rush in too early, we have another dip to ride out yet with this housing crap, but don't wait until the train smoke is over the horizon go get back on track.

    Average Joe from Michigan

  4. A realtor in madison, wisconsin. I see caution and denial in our community. A trip to Ft. Myers exposed me to the real world in a world of make believe. The for- sale signs, bottom falling out home prices, empty stores in new malls, talented people unemployed, and so much excess all in a boiling pot. Are we going to see the newly poor, with no experience of being poor, revolt? In the 1920's the majority of the population worked at labor which provided for the rest. Today, the rest provide for the masses. the masses do not have the skills or the willingness to do with less. Resentments fuel chaos. Control your attitude. Read Viktor Frankl "Man's Search for Meaning". This is an experience worth surviving. No other way to get this wisdom than through the fire.

  5. More people need to read your blog, hard times may be coming, just when you think it can't get worse it does.

    I can remember my mother and grandmother making me dresses out of flour sacks. and my aunt complaining the flour sacks, were not pattern for boys at the time and this was during WWII. Had to walk a 1/2 mile to the well and carry it back to grandma house. I have taught my children basic garden and told them that you can learn to do anything you want to learn. That is what it will take for us to survive a really bad time. People willing to learn how to do something. My son just put a new engine in a car and it runs good. He is not a mechanic, he learned as he went,He set an example for the rest of the family.

    Kathryn In LA, your teaching your children valuable lessons, and that money is to be taken care of. I learned those lesson young and they have helped me all my life.

    Betty in Texas

  6. Great article, and interesting to read the comments too, esp. now a few years on! Thank you..

  7. thanks for this tips

  8. Just came across your article we are still not out of the woods yet. In fact it is getting worse. Our Mayor is talking about laying off thousands of workers. Due to many bylaws most areas here don't allow front yard veggie gardens (I only have a front yard) they only allow grass and paving. Most homes no longer have wood stoves so there is no alternate for heat. I currently work part time ( may get laid off soon) and my current job has an odd shift in the middle of the say. trying to find another job that is compatable is very hard. My work will not adjust the hours for my postion but did it with out question for others in the company. The cost of houses is so high. A bungalow that is $40k in one city is $500k here. Moving is not an option at the moment. Renting is also very high. I don't know what many including myself will do if we truly hit a depression.

  9. first, yes I know how to kill the chicken and fry it. If it an old rooster, stewed would be better and if it is young layer, would not kill it. the eggs she will make will feed me for many meals, her body only for a few. second, the small town I live in has made it so hard to have a garden(the water bill and compose bins) and no chickens allowed. that we need to rethink all this rule making.

  10. Excellent article. Thank you! I really believe we should share widely these memories of how people coped in the Great Depression, but those will inspire us and give us the knowledge to survive in the coming era. Thanks, everyone, for your comments as well. They are interesting a really valuable.

  11. well I gotta tell ya...i have been telling my kids...(now 24, 22, 20 and 16 ) all this "weird pioneer thinking " stuff for years...sadly only one of my 2 boys has listened...i have been blessed with the ability to fix, repair or make just about anything...while , to me it is second nature, I have found that the people of my kids generation, have absolutely no clue on even how to change the oil in their cars....I heat with wood, on a wood stove I installed 20 years ago. My oldest teases me about it every year...I just smile and show him my 15 dollar gas bill....for January in Iowa..most people think that folks that live like I do are either +cheap+ or "poor" ..My oldest daughter just got married 1 week ago... and when the other kids asked how much I spent... and I showed them the receipts, ..their eyes popped... We had a wonderful catered sit down served dinner... on china... ( important I am told) with plenty for seconds...a FULL free bar and all the pop, tea, coffee, and punch for a complete music d.j. with every option except for pictures that they offered..ALL WONDERFUL..they asked( my kids did ) how I could afford it....I told them "frugal living"..while it did put a dent in my savings, ...I had PLANNED for it ...(undershot it by 800.00...( who would think flowers would cost so much!!!)I told them that is why your mom and I have a modest home, old ...paid for cars (that run great) and look great... I finally sat them all down and told them that the ways I have been preaching to only what you need, (except food) use the hell out of the point of it being junk...then sell it for junk...and always save 15% of your take home ....AND NEVER..EVER TOUCH IT (words from MY father)that they too will be able to send their kids on a European vacation..skiing at Vail a spring break in Florida...etc...and still be a simple mechanic, ...who's wife has never HAD to work outside the home, and has made friends with the "rich kids" parents at school and be involved in their lives in that respect... and been able to "hang with them"..I believe that America has become a generation of "pissers and moaners" as my old man would one really wants to do the work...but every one will tell you HOW to do the work...hmmm...I must ask too much schooling and "theory" and not enough "real life" situations?" it is my belief...if you have never struggled....I mean REALLY freaking struggled...then you have not truly lived the full game of life...sad for you...but you will be learning to love us guys in the Snap on jackets, with dirty fingernails...praying we can coax your beamer back to life... by the way, a simple money saver here...DO NOT use ethanol in your is cheaper...but I can tell you , you will get better mileage outta reg. old 87 NON ethanol gas...up to 10 pecent more....just saying..B T U 's are much lower....

  12. It's hard watching friends and family squander their money,who can least afford to.Their idea of saving money, is buying 'stuff'50% off.Or buying 3x the amount of secondhand clothes they really need. No one needs 10 pair of boot/shoes.
    This Depression will be a bit different, at least at first, because we already have a too generous welfare system.Right now, it encourages people to do nothing.We need to start requiring people to make do with less. Instead of requiring someone with a male and female child to have a 3 bedroom house/aptm we should be encouraging them to rent a one bedroom.Children bunk up, and parents sleep in a pull out couch.
    If us frugals can eat for $25 week pp, then those on welfare can too.Require they all attend frugal classes, as many wouldn't have a clue how to do this. Their families never taught them.
    We need to limit the credit offered to low income people. Their incomes cannot handle it.
    Young people need to get their priorities straight. Have like minded frugal people share a house/apt.Save as much as possible.Then after a few years, they should each be able to pay cash for a house.If a vehicle is needed, consider buying one, and sharing it.
    Buy a property which you can grow a garden. Have a wood stove as one source of heat.Learn to can food.
    Be self sufficent. Even if a depression never comes, you have set yourself up so you can afford as many kids as you like, and never need two parents work.