Frugal Depression Era Tactics

Learning lessons from the past

Written by Carly Hallman

“You don’t know how easy you have it,” grandparents say.

While it may sound like the seemingly timeless argument of blaming younger generations for their laziness, even when it doesn’t make sense (one that’s rooted in ageism and still goes on to this day); though for the Great Depression survivors it was, at least, somewhat rooted in truth.

We really don’t know “how easy” we have it, even during our more dire financial straits. Some might compare it to the recession, but only to give a positive spin on our economic calamities: “Well, at least it’s not as bad as the Great Depression!”

Frugal Depression Era Tactics infographic

Would you like to embed this infographic on your site?

Ridiculously Frugal, Depression-Era Tactics for Saving Money

Penny Pinch Like Your Grandpa

How did people make do during the worst economic crisis in U.S. history?

The Story The Takeaway
“Make it do!” Depression-era survivors are known for keeping a small handful of outfits and mending them until they were down to tatters. Repair what you have. If you absolutely can’t fix it, use old clothing as scraps for other sewing projects, tear off and keep buttons, or create other articles of clothing.
“Just a dab.” In Hoovervilles and shantytowns, it was hard for everyone to keep clean. People tried to save on soap, but that caused diseases to spread. So, people would use “just a dab” or just enough soap to sanitize. “We might take one shower a week,” said Thomas Moon of Huntsville, Alabama in an interview with the New York Times. Use up every last bit of soap. We don’t recommend poor sanitation, but we do recommend lumping together your last bits of bar soap, using the last of your shampoo, and getting the last drops out of your soap containers.
Relief Gardening Victory gardens were popular in WWI, WWII, and during the Great Depression, too. These relief gardens helped supply foodstuffs to the families and communities that tended them. Many cities and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) funded urban agriculture programs to help curb starvation. Grow your own, and buy close by. Today, urban gardens continue to increase sustainability and provide fresh, local produce.
Flour-Bag Dresses Women would sew dresses out of old feed sacks and flour bags. After noticing this and being encouraged by the government to do so, manufacturers started using different colors and printed fabrics. Find creative ways to give value to your customers. We might not get flour in sacs anymore. We might not be in a bad situation. But it’s important for providers to always think creatively. Customers appreciate your reach across the aisle to offer new ways to help them.
Screwball Comedies and Happy Films “Do you known how I survived those days?” Giggi Besic Cortese said in an interview with NPR. “[It] was going to the show every Sunday to see Shirley Temple, but [I] tell you, she was my inspiration to go on living.” Endure with positivity and hope. Sometimes we think of Depression-era elders as those who didn’t grow up with media, but they clung to their cheap escapes from reality.
“48 ways to use it!” A big selling-point for many popular brands of the time was that they could be used for more than one purpose; consumers liked that they could cook 50 recipes and clean the whole house with a single product. Use the same items many ways. Household items like vinegar, baking soda, and toothpaste can be used around the house for many purposes.
Hoarding Pack-rat Habits You’ve probably heard this story before: “The kids do say that I’m a pack rat,” Wanda Bridgeforth told NPR. “And they say, ‘Well, what are you going to use this for?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to use it.'” But some people really did use newspaper as wallpaper and dug in grates for treasures. Reduce waste as much as possible. Depression-era children were less likely to throw out things. While the economy isn’t in the state it once was, we can still avoid tossing out garbage by reusing milk jugs, saving jars, and helping the planet.
  • Creamed Chipped Beef (on Toast)
  • Poor Man’s Meal (with Hot Dogs and Potatoes)
  • Foraged Dandelion Green Salad
  • Hoover Stew (Pasta Soup Creation – Recipes Varied)

Bizarre Recipes Food was horribly scarce and people had to get creative with their meals – really creative. People ate more canned foods, powdered milk, and practiced nose-to-tail eating (which was not in vogue, but simply a necessity).

Make food last longer. Cook it before it goes bad. Freeze it. Pickle it. Dry it. Save it. Don’t let one blueberry go to waste.
The Hobo Code Hobos were a traveling group of those without work and searching for jobs. The nomadic group created the hobo code to provide information and warnings to others. Unemployment was, at one time, 25% of the population. Help each other, always. No matter how despondent you may feel, always help those less fortunate.


So how bad was it?

We’ve likely heard the statistics before: The Great Depression was a time of 25 percent unemployment, leaving somewhere between 13 and 15 million Americans without pay or unemployment insurance. There was a 50 percent drop in the national income. Urban areas were hit the worst by the Great Depression; Harlem in New York City had an employment rate of 50 percent. There wasn’t enough food, weren’t enough jobs. Nearly half of the banks failed. People were frequently stuck in bread lines. It’s hard to say how many were homeless and stuck in shantytowns and Hoovervilles: likely millions. About 5,000 were packed into these tight places in Seattle alone.

But the numbers really don’t capture the whole picture, and that picture can be a really bizarre one: for instance, the smiling face of a boy falling asleep in a cardboard box. Yale’s collection of photographs may help us see some of it, but it still doesn’t really capture the day-to-day attitudes and needs of using newspaper for wallpaper or foraging for food.

The real insight into that era comes from the stories that survivors tell.

How did they get by?

How the Great Depression affected families depended a great deal on their location and professions. Some suffered in shantytowns, others tried to sell home-grown food, yet others used barter systems and complex codes to help one another and avoid problems. Everyone has their own detailed advice, whether it be how to find work in a new town or having a great recipe for poor man’s meal (made with potatoes and hot dogs). Gift-giving was difficult, as was traveling. “DIY” wasn’t a fad, but a necessity.

Whichever stories they share, there are common themes among them: survivors took pains to reduce waste, took whatever work they could, helped each other, and continued to be relentlessly positive no matter what happened. It took a great deal of ingenuity to end the Great Depression: a boom in technology and huge amounts standardization as a result of WWII dug us out.

A lot has changed since that era: We now have social security, unemployment insurance, standardized roads and highways, and monuments from huge government projects. The way we think of our government has also changed. The way we eat has changed. Gender roles, work ethic, and the way people viewed each other have changed. In essence, the generation got by by remaining positive and being adaptive.

And what do these frugal tactics have to teach us?

We don’t have to live in shantytowns, eat chipped beef on toast, or avoid using soap. But there are some things we can do that our grandparents and great-grandparents did to help us save our wallets and the planet by reducing waste. This is possibly the most important thing that generation has to teach us. Luckily, due to the shabby-chic movement, saving mason jars for crafts, fabric for dresses, and pallets for home improvement projects is in vogue. The millennial generation has been very occupied with buying old clothes and old furniture and giving them new life; thus, slowing the endless cycle of buying and tossing out with their thriftiness.

However, there’s much we can still do to reduce food waste (about 40% of American crops go uneaten) and decrease the amount of shipping waste and packaging trash. We don’t live in an economic depression, but if we’re smart about our waste, we can avoid many future problems for the next generation.

You might also like...