My folks were raised during the Great Depression when frugality was not a trendy fad, it was a necessity.
My mother who will celebrate her 100th birthday this year and her brother, 92, have shared numerous stories about what “hard times” were really like. Fortunately for her, she found an office job which paid $5.00 per week and her younger brother worked as a pin-spotter in a bowling alley for $.50 per day.
On Friday, they took their earnings home and gave the money to their parents, helping to support the family.
In those difficult times, people had two priorities. First was to have enough food to put on the table and second was to have a roof over their heads. Food and shelter are basic necessities for survival. Unlike today, government safety nets did not exist. If you lost your job, you needed to find another one because there wasn’t unemployment compensation.
Likewise food stamps, rent subsidies, Medicaid and Social Security weren’t available. In short, everyone was dependent upon themselves and their family for support. Tough as it may sound, the government was not considered responsible for an individual’s welfare.
It was probably during the Depression that parents began telling their children, “Eat that food on your plate, there are children in China who are starving.” Nothing was wasted. My grandmother, like other housewives, was creative in the kitchen. Her meals, though not gourmet, were hot and filling. When hungry, few people are concerned with cholesterol or caloric intake unless they were not getting enough of them.
During the week, dinner was a hot bowl soup and a piece of bread. On Sunday, if their budget allowed, grandma served meat for dinner along with a vegetable and mashed potatoes smothered in rich gravy. The family always ate together and nobody missed a meal because of soccer practice.
Homeless men, sometimes referred to as “hobos,” roamed the streets and countryside. Most had lost their jobs and couldn’t find steady employment. They waited in line at the Salvation Army soup kitchen for something to eat and slept in “flop-houses” to escape bedding down in the alleys.
Some hobos knocked on doors, going from house to house, looking for handouts. My grandmother was a good and kind lady. Even though she lacked sufficient food for her own family, she never turned a hungry person away. She told stories of hobos wandering down their alley and knocking on the back door. She would never let them in the house but asked them wait on the back porch while she made them a sandwich. Sometimes it was simply homemade bread with jelly.
Eventually she noticed the downtrodden men walking past neighboring houses and coming directly to her door. It wasn’t until later that she learned of homeless men secretly marking houses where the occupants willingly gave handouts to strangers.
My grandparents purchased their Chicago home before the Depression. It was a modest two story frame house with a “flat” or apartment on the second level. To help defray their housing costs, they rented the upstairs to a young couple. The flat had two bedrooms, one bathroom and an oil stove for heat.
Five daughters were born in that upstairs apartment. The same tenants lived there for 30 years and my grandpa never raised their rent. During the hard times in big cities, most families rented a flat as opposed to owning a house. Home ownership was truly “the American dream.” If the tenants did not pay the rent, their belongings were moved out to the curb.
The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to the early 1940’s and the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II. During this disastrous decade, the stock market crashed, banks failed and businesses closed causing millions of people to be unemployed or underemployed.
My parents both endured that era but their experiences and the war that followed left indelible marks, that changed their lives forever. They learned what it was like to have nothing and they never wanted to go there again.
The lessons of frugality stayed with them and they passed them down to their children. Unfortunately with each succeeding generation, the memories of those experiences and lessons learned are fading away.
Ed Hungness and his wife became full-time residents of Fife Lake in 2005 after Ed’s retirement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633.