“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!”
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.