One family in the Great Depression

I am a sucker for first person anecdotal accounts. Lately we have been reading whatever we can find about everyday life between 1910 and 1940, when so many fundamental changes came about. Here’s a tale of growing up during the Great Depression, found on Mish Shedlock’s weblog, from a commenter who calls himself Grafonola.

In answer to your question about the effect of the depression upon the middle class, i have distinct memories of the effect on my family, having been born in November of ’21. 

Father was the manager of a small manufacturing plant in a mid-sized Michigan town. The firm produced both low-tech (zinc-aluminum die castings) and high-tech (radio receivers) products. By 1927 we were quite prosperous. As I recall in 1927 and 1928 father made around $10,000, a pretty substantial sum, indeed. in those days the president of a small bank was lucky to get a salary of $5,000.00. We lived in a large (18 rooms at the time, 16 rooms today, I retired to the same old house) comfortable, but old (built before the War of the Rebellion) home. In those days Old houses certainly did not fetch a premium price. I believe Father paid around $3,700 for the place in 1908.

We lived pretty well in the 1920’s. Mother had a farm-girl who lived with us to help in the kitchen and help with cleaning, and a washerwoman would come by on Mondays to do the laundry and hang out the clothes. We had a part-time fellow who took care of the yard and cars, (an 8 cylinder Paige and a Dodge Brothers 6) another fellow would come by in the spring to take down the storm windows, and put up the screens and awnings and we had a Furnace Man who would come over at 5:00 every morning and shake the grates, remove the clinkers, get the fire started and pile enough coal for the day’s heating. In the evening he would come and do the same thing before bed-time.

We had electric light (rather expensive at 35 cents/KWH), an electric range for use in warm weather (VERY expensive at the electric rates of the time), and all of the consumer appliances practically as soon as they were introduced, a couple of Victrolas (the older machine was upstairs in sister’s room) , a radio (actually, a new radio just about every season starting in 1922), a vacuum sweeper, electric percolator, toaster, and all of those other little novelties. We had a lake cottage where thee family stayed from Memorial day to Labor Day. Father would stay in town, and drive out on weekends. 

Sister had gone away to Chicago for school, one brother went to father’s Alma mater, and another went to work at father’s plant. In 1929 there were three children of grade-school age. All-in-all a pretty pleasant life. This would change.

Father was not much invested in stocks. He was conservative, and was saving by buying bonds. He mortgaged the house in 1927 to raise cash to buy a small interest in the company that he managed. 

The craziness of the market in 1929 made no real impression on us. Life went on just as before. 

In 1930, father bought sister a new car when she graduated from school. I remember it vividly, it was a Ford sport coupe, in Washington Blue with Bronson Yellow wire wheels. 

By the spring of 1931, things were not going so well at the plant. In March wages were cut by 20%. Brother was laid-off, as the new company policy was to save work for family men whose wives and children were not working. Father let the furnace man and yard man go. I had to take care of the furnace each morning and evening, a job that I loathed.

Mother stopped paying the kitchen girl, who offered to stay on for just room and board. Mother agreed, but took on more of the workload herself, as she did not think it right to work a girl to death for nothing. 

Father and his managers, clerks and foremen went on half-pay in May. Business deteriorated further, in summer wages were cut by another 15%, and in October hours were cut to 20 a week, in order to enable the firm to spread around the little available work amongst the men with families. 

Women, who worked in the radio department doing delicate assembly were let go unless they were breadwinners. Single women and men were all let go.  

In the fall of 1931, my oldest brother came home with his wife and children. He had been working as an accountant for a large bank that failed in 1930, and had not been able to find any other work.

Father tried to sell the cottage and could not. He moved my other older brother and his family into it. It was a nice place in summer but, as it was not weatherized, it must have been pretty uncomfortable in a Michigan winter..

Around Christmas time, the family of our kitchen girl lost their place. We let them set up housekeeping in the haymow of our carriage house. A little beaverboard, and some printed cotton curtains, a stove and a bit of paint made a pretty cozy home.

In the spring of 1932, my brother William went West on the rails looking for work. He bummed it on freight trains. He found some kind of work in Colorado, and wired us that he would come home after the job. he finished work at the end of January, 1933. He was coming home when a railroad man in Wyoming found him frozen in a freight car. He still had the money that he made, about $120.00, pinned inside his shirt, so the police said was that a railroad policeman had clubbed him, closed the door on the freight car, and left him to freeze.

Around this time, the mortgage on our house was to be re-written. In those days, most mortgages were written for a period of 5 years. the mortgagor generally paid only interest, and then paid off the principal at the end of the term. Any shortage of principal would be rolled over. This time the bank called the mortgage due. Were it not for the bank holiday, and the HOLC, which put us into a modern 20 year mortgage, and allowed us to pay interest only for several years. were it not for this intervention, we would have lost our house.

By February of 1933 father’s company closed. we had by now, no money, and and four families, with eighteen mouths to feed

He sold sister’s practically unused car for $40.00. When he purchased it three years earlier, it cost $550.00. He got $10.00 for the eight cylinder Paige, and kept the Dodge Victory Six, which he drove for the rest of his life.

Mother opened up the living room as a tea-room, my brother and I moved into the garage and my sister moved out to the cottage so that we could take in 5 paying boarders in our two rooms, at $7.00 a week each for room and food. Our tabs at the butcher’s and grocer’s were pretty long in those days. Mother made filling but cheap food, heavy on starch, most of the meat was reserved for the boarders.

Father never worked a managerial job again. The Depression pretty well defeated him. In the mid 1930’s my brother and I got on the CCC, and my married brothers got on the WPA. 

We could not have survived without the HOLC, the CCC and the WPA.  Father was proud that he never went on relief, but things were pretty desperate for a while.

Father finally found work sweeping, wiping and polishing up in a local electric light plant. When the plant was closed as obsolete during the War, he retired. He passed on at the age of 84 in 1952.

Living is cheap these days.

Eggs and chickens are less than half what they cost in the post-war years. Bread is as cheap, electronics are the same in dollars, and hence are far cheaper today. Housing, on the other hand has skyrocketed. The boom in house prices does indeed coincide with the coming of the two-income family.

Note, too, that we are no longer satisfied with the homes which were perfectly adequate fifty or sixty years ago. the Cape Cods and Ranches that most of my generation raised their families in are today considered to be too small. Odd that back in the 1960’s, when heating oil was 10 cents/gallon a 3000, square foot house with 9 ft ceilings was considered to be a big, drafty barn. In the years after the Energy crisis, although oil and gas was mush more expensive, everyone had to have 3000+ sq/ft homes with cathedral ceilings in their Great rooms and 2 storey entrance halls.

The $7,700 ($66,000 in 2007 dollars) three bedroom 1150 square foot cape that one of my brothers built after the war was a perfectly pleasant place in which to raise a family, as was the 1600 square foot rancher built by another brother in 1961 for $18,300 ($125,550). Prices are pretty close to current price per square foot.

We sent our wives to work for what? More house? 3 televisions? Fulfillment? Only one of these is valid reason to deprive our children of a stay-at-home parent.


10 thoughts on “One family in the Great Depression

  1. “We sent our wives to work for what? More house? 3 televisions? Fulfillment? Only one of these is valid reason to deprive our children of a stay-at-home parent.”

    Great article. I, too, especially enjoy stories from that era … we have so much to learn.

    But I’m wondering which of those is the “valid reason.” Cause I’m not sure I see it.

    I’ve always been flustered by people who think you can’t survive in this world without two incomes.

    In a way, they are right though. You can’t survive without two incomes and be able to have the biggest TV and all the latest gadgets and shop at the GAP and have two cars per person and live in a house many many times too big for you.

    My wife and I were married 12 years ago this March and I told her that she wouldn’t work outside the home unless she wanted to. She worked a couple months after the wedding then she decided she wanted to stay home. And we’ve never lacked in anything important.

  2. Nick,

    But I’m wondering which of those [i.e. more house, 3 televisions, fulfillment] is the “valid reason.” Cause I’m not sure I see it.

    I’m pretty sure he meant “fulfillment,” which strikes me as just as bad a reason. I almost left that paragraph out, since it’s so wrong that I’m not sure Grafonola actually means what the words say.

  3. My stepdad, who was born in 1938, the third of five children, has said that no matter how poor they were they always had plenty to eat while his daddy was farming. Unfortunately, sometime in the 40s he decided to work in the coal mines, so then they had a little money, but never had enough food.

    My grandfather farmed and owned a grocery store in a rural community in Arkansas up until the government bought all in the land in 1941 to build an army base. During the depression, most of the local families relied on Granddad’s store for flour, coffee, sugar… things like that, but everyone raised most of what they needed themselves. He extended credit to them as they needed, and everyone paid it off, though many sent small checks to him for the next thirty years to do so.

    Mike’s grandmother has similar stories — no money and no luxuries, but plenty of food.

    Someone has said that in times of prosperity it’s more comfortable to live in the city, but in bad times you’re much better off in the country. That’s probably still true for people who know how to provide for themselves on a farm, but people who are living a suburban lifestyle in the country may be the worst off of all.

  4. I found two things quite interesting. First, the high cost of electricity and second, the methodology by which the plant made labour adjustments. It seemed much more humane than today’s corporations. I can’t imagine a company cutting everyone’s hours so as to keep more people employed or making value judgments as to who was more in need of a job based on their family circumstances.

  5. The methodology that the corporations used to cut hours would not work in today’s environment. There would be too many lawsuits concerning discrimination on the unmarried and whomever else was laid off. Special interest groups and lawyers have made the bed and we will all have to lie down in it.

  6. Jeff,

    I can’t imagine a company cutting everyone’s hours so as to keep more people employed or making value judgments as to who was more in need of a job based on their family circumstances.

    Strangely enough, it’s how things used to be. The advent of factory work did not immediately destroy the concept of family breadwinner; it took a couple of World Wars to do that. Much of public policy in the early twentieth century was explicitly aimed at maintaining a “family wage,” i.e. pay that was sufficient for a man to support a family with. Allan Carlson has written quite a bit about this; two good books of his are From Cottage to Workstation (now called The Family in America) and The American Way.


    The methodology that the corporations used to cut hours would not work in today’s environment. There would be too many lawsuits concerning discrimination on the unmarried and whomever else was laid off.

    True enough. But I think that businesses also prefer the new way of thinking, not only because it reduces the amount of interest they have to take in their employees’ lives, but it also increases the pool of available labor and lowers wages as a result.

  7. Rick, thanks for posting this vivid reminder. Our nation has been on a credit binge so long that most do not beleive that such times could come upon us again. The myth of perpetual prosperity is a powerful delusion that has led more than one generation into great trouble. Learning to get by with little and make room for the less fortunate was a common practice duiring the Great Depression. Will the spoiled generation of today think of doing such a thing?

  8. Why is it “so wrong” for fulfillment to be given as a valid reason for working instead of staying home to raise children? I’m not crazy about the “we sent our wives to work” line, and of course men and women both make good full-time parents, but I certainly agree that personal fulfillment is a valid reason to work.

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