My parents were born in 1909 and 1910. As they became adults, sought work and planned marriage, the country entered the Great Depression, which essentially ran from the 1929 stock market crash into the early 1940s.
Many of my parents’ values and messages to me were based on their experiences during that time period. Some of their views seemed out-of-date in the early 21st century, but thanks to COVID-19, many Depression-era lessons and values are timely. And some are really good.
The primary Depression lesson was don’t waste anything. The acquisition and productive use of food was basic. Those behaviors were reinforced during WWII, when food shortages and specific items were unavailable. Meal creativity was necessary; everyone used what was readily available. Those who had farms grew much of what they put on their tables. During WWII, everyone was encouraged to grow food on any patch of their land for “victory gardens.” Growing up in an area with extremely sandy soil, we learned to appreciate home-grown spinach, carrots and radishes.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that about 20% of America’s food is wasted annually and that about 130 pounds of food per person ends up in landfills. That is obscene; even in “good times,” which lasted through February 2020, millions of Americans went hungry.
Since the COVID-19 “stay at home” directions, many of us have become much more aware of food availability and responsible usage. Photos of long lines of people waiting for food in the 1930s and April 2020 remind us that if you are fortunate enough to have enough food, use it wisely.
Use, reuse and repair things were Depression values. People were never sure when they might need “it” again. How many of you have seen your great-grandmothers’ saved balls of string and rubber bands? Americans buy enormous packages of paper towels. They’re hard to find these days, so I’ve reverted to my parents’ generation when cloth dish towels were the norm. I think that’s a permanent change at my home. Anyone else doing the same?
Depression-era folks recycled before the word was in vogue. A piece of worn out clothing had another life through repairs or repurposing. Socks were darned, and shirt collars turned. Furniture was always repairable. Glass bottles were reused or returned for a small deposit.
When jobs disappeared, our national government rose to the occasion. With luck, we might be headed in that direction again. The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, hired thousands of young men, including my father, for conservation projects and started Cabwaylingo State Forest. The Public Works Administration, or PWA, offered the unemployed a chance to build bridges, dams, hospitals and educational institutions. In 1937, the PWA built/remodeled a Marshall College building.
By the time the Depression ended, two other lessons were well-learned. One was that interacting with and helping others was vital. The other was to always save for a rainy day, because one was bound to come. Those messages, as well as my parents’ “never spend money on anything except a house or health care unless you can readily pay for it,” have lasted with me a lifetime.
Our difficult times will improve, but meanwhile Depression-era lessons are here and useful.