25 Ways People Earned Money During the Great Depression

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In a previous career, I was a history teacher, and I’ve always loved learning about the past and gleaning whatever wisdom I can from the words and actions of others.

great depression earn money

A couple of years ago I found an excellent book with dozens of first-person accounts from the Great Depression, We Had Everything But MoneyI’ve spent hours reading through anecdotes, touching, humorous, and poignant, and one thing that struck me was the ingenuity of the Americans who lived through those tough times. Many continued to find ways to earn money, even when their own circumstances were dire.

I put together this list. Feel free to add any others that you know of.

To earn money, people:

1. Caught and sold fish, clams, and crabs

2. Made homemade fudge and sold it

3. Sold newspapers on the corner. Kids earned a little extra if they were promoted to “Corner Captain”, a sort of Great Depression multi-level marketing program where a kid brought in other kids to sell papers and earned a bit extra himself.

4. Started a lunch truck/wagon

5. Grew, picked, and sold berries

6. Road work

7. Shoveled snow on roads

8. Multiple part-time jobs, including housecleaning

9. Chopped wood or harvested driftwood

10. Made and sold handwoven baskets

11. Mowed lawns and other kinds of yard work

12. Door to door sales of things like shoes or sewing notions

13. Made deliveries for stores

14. Made and sold quilts

15. Sold homemade baked goods, like bread or pies

16. Sold eggs for 25 cents a dozen

17. Childcare

18. Rented out rooms

19. Mended or altered clothes

20. Washed windows

21. Would purchase produce and re-sell door-to-door

22. Sold apples

23. Loaded coal

24. Piecework sewing

25. Sold homegrown produce

Ingenuity is something that can never be stolen by thieves, confiscated by a government, or lost to flood or fire. Click To Tweet

In every case it was a simple matter of looking around to see what people needed, what they wanted, what made them feel good about themselves and about life. Years ago a hairdresser friend of mine said, “Lisa, even if the economy collapsed tomorrow, women still want to look pretty. I would do business out of my home and probably continue to earn pretty good money.”

This is why some people who have lived through economic collapses say that beauty products, such as lipstick, eye shadow, and lotions, are good items for barter.

In addition to these creative entrepreneurial efforts, don’t forget that many people found work in the various Depression-era works programs as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and keep in mind that these people had practical skills that folks today just don’t have. Perhaps some of these might be good additions to your own skillbank:

  • Rendering lard
  • Caring for livestock of all kinds
  • Smoking meat, poultry, and fish
  • Butchering all types of animals from squirrels to hogs, cattle, and other “varmints”
  • Foraging
  • Sewing by hand or with a non-electric sewing machine
  • Raising flourishing gardens
  • Preserving food by canning
  • Tinkering — Knowing how to fix all kinds of things.

As you can see, many of these skills go hand in hand with the money-making ventures of our Great Depression-era grandparents and great-grandparents. Today, so few of us have any of these skills. We are generations removed from farm life and homesteading.

How will YOU earn money in the next Great Depression?

One of the main reasons for studying how people survive, whether economically or physically, is to find lessons we can apply to our own lives and circumstances. For many years, some economists have been predicting an economic collapse here in America. If you are one of the 93+ million of Americans who are out of work, your own personal economy has already collapsed.

Now it’s time to consider how you will earn money, whether or not you are currently out of work. In the days of the Great Depression, it was common for grocers and landlords to provide credit to their customers. Today? That would be a rare occurrence.

From the Depression days there is an abundance of stories of neighbors and church families showing up at the door, laden with bags and boxes of food for a needy family. When one desperate mom was asked by her daughter, “Mama, what’s for dinner tonight?”, the response was, “Whatever the neighbors decide to bring us!”  I wish I could imagine that happening today, but our communities and families have become so fractured over the past few decades that it would be a rare event.

So, what skills do you have that might offer a service during a severe economic downturn? What knowledge do you have that would be helpful, even vital, to others? What products can you produce? What skills can you teach?

Ingenuity is something that can never be stolen by thieves, confiscated by a government, or lost to flood or fire. It is possible to survive during a Great Depression and there is plenty to learn from those who lived through the last one.

Want to learn more about Great Depression survival?

great depression earn money

 

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49 thoughts on “25 Ways People Earned Money During the Great Depression”

  1. YOU REALIZE that thanks to the U.S. government, most of those things on the list are illegal to do now! EPA, FISH & GAME will not let you go get your own fish, collect wood or even rainwater or make anything they can’t regulate!
    and forget making food at home, the county department of health would shut you down in a hot minute. people don’t like door to door salesmen and with the risks of murderers and pedophiles out there in large numbers, this is not safe anyway!
    so thanks to the government, being poor is now a crime if you try to help yourself out of poverty!

    1. If we experience a second ‘great depression’ and people are hungry, nobody will care about what the government says.

    2. A lot of people today would starve before eating ‘beans’. Remember the beggars who throw away food that others give them? My ‘food stamp’ relatives eat the most expensive meats, etc. They make fun of me for eating beans.

    3. In some states making food at home is not illegal. Maine has a law that permits “cottage industries”, which means I could make and sell home-made preserves from my kitchen.

      It’s also not illegal to sell firewood here in Maine. In fact, because of concerns regarding invasive insect species and the proliferation of tourists who come to Maine for camping, a whole industry around selling firewood has bloomed, especially in my town. The State and local communities would rather allow folks to sell firewood on the side of the road than to have people from out-of-state import their, potentially, contaminated wood.

      Check the local laws, but there’s probably a lot less that’s illegal than we think.

        1. That’s why we in the USA who value FREEDOM so often see Canada as far too Socialist/Communist leaning to wish to ever live there. We were Sooooo very happy to see so many of our Lefist children take off for Canada during the Viet Nam War and thus not stay here to infect any more badly with the stupidity of Communism then those who stayed have already managed. Thanks, you Canadians, for taking all those intellectual losers. Now maybe we know why Canada is so strict about who it lets in from SOUTH of it’s border !

    4. I agree they can ship in baby food, and pet food from China that poisons both, but forbid a homemaker from selling anything out of the home, it’s so corrupt.

  2. Kathy Davenport

    My parents were kids during the Depression and the war years, so they weren’t trying to make a living. However, they both talked of selling soda bottles to earn enough money for movie tickets. There are very few places where you could do that now, although I have sold some jewelry to make a little extra money.

    1. They were returning the bottles for the deposit. We used to have a nickel deposit on bottles of soda and got a nickel for each one returned. I’ve done this to get extra change but they sell soda in plastic bottles with no deposit on them today. There went that source of spare change.

    2. Theresa of Maine

      This reminds me of a teen couple that stopped here when I was gardening, asking for my redemption bottles (but not offering to work for them). Maybe I should have given them over, but would they have just bought drugs with the profit? Another day, as I mowed, schoolgirls tried to sell me restaurant coupons, but why didn’t they offer to do yardwork to support their team? Sadly, it’s a different world now. But mama taught
      me frugality. I used my saved bottles for grocery money, mowed my own yard (a no-gas pusher), and got lettuce from my garden (saving $2 a head). Yep, I’m the proud daughter of a Great Depression survivor.

      1. We have purchased a set or two of those restaurant coupons and got very little use out of them! Yes, help with chores would be a great money maker, but I’ll bet in this day and age, it wouldn’t be safe.

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  4. In the 1930’s, the government didn’t demand money before “allowing” people to grow & sell, or bake & sell goods. The current federal govt does all it can to quash individual self-help efforts. You need to be very careful nowadays.

  5. Don’t forget- prospecting for local gold will be back in action as gold goes for $10,000+ per ounce… get your Minelab detector now eh

    1. Not so quick! California, the Golden State, is forming legislation to regulate individual gold dredging with a $900 permit required and limits on how long you can be at any one place in a stream. We have lots of amateur gold panners and dredgers here in the Gold Country (western Sierra), who will be directly impacted by this. The gravel disturbed by these one-man dredging operations is, of course, immediately redeposited in the stream bed, and no Northern California legislator would touch this bill. A southern state legislator was recruited to propose it (where it has no impact). Regulate, regulate, and remove individual freedom to support yourself (or have fun getting cold, wet and dirty for profit)!

  6. My father had 13 jobs by the time he was 13. He had a paper route, a shoe shine box and shares of other shoe shine boxes that he financed to do business outside of military facilities in Rhode Island. He also was known for knowing the neighborhoods and the people in it. Servicemen
    would get a shoe shine and ask where the Ladies of the Night lived. They would tip him for the information and then the Ladies would tip him for the referral. So on and so on.

  7. During the depression my grandfather kept bees they would sell the honey for extra money. When rationing started on sugar during the war they were in a good position to sell honey at a premium. My grandfather taught my dad how to be a beekeeper and my dad taught us three kids. It’s a skill you never forget.

  8. My mother in law was a little girl during the depression living in Nova Scotia. She said back then lobster and crab and other shell fish were not luxury items. It was what the poor ate. So I doubt many people would have bought them. They would have used them for themselves. She would often head down to the shore and catch a couple and cook them right there on the beach. She would bring extras back to the family to eat. It is like how all the bottom feeder fish that no one ate ever have suddenly become the in thing to eat not necessarily because they are better but because we have over fished the oceans and the good fish are gone.

  9. I’m sorry, but I think your friend is living in a dream world if she thinks she would still be doing well by offering beauty services in a despression type situation. I have been living in a depression type situation for the past 6 yrs. My husband lost his 6 figure job and has struggled to find anything since. Fortunately he has a skill -being a handyman- that helps us eat, but the last few years we’ve lived off 12K a year. We’ve lost our house, our belongings, our savings, our retirement, and have scaled back tremendously on expenses that aren’t necessary.

    The first expense to go? Anything beauty related. I went from having my hair cut and colored every 8 weeks, to not having a haircut in SIX years! Manicures, pedicures are a long forgotten memory. There is no way when you have 35 bucks for food that you would tell your family you spent all or most of it on your hair cause Mama likes to feel pretty. Come on! Get real!

    I went from having beautiful undies and bras to having cotton ones from a box store and the only reason I have those is because I was down to 3 pairs of undies so my friend bought me some more. Believe me, it ALL changes when you are desperate. ALL OF IT.

    1. I’d have to agree with you. When I was making less than 20K and trying to pay of debt (I did it BTW!!) I didn’t get haircuts or buy very many beauty products. I think in two years I bought 1 tube of mascara, and I added OO to that to make it stretch out longer than it should have. I worked at a really cheap paying office. They expected everyone to look good, but didn’t want to pay us so that we could. Anyways, if I had to go back to that lifestyle I wouldn’t get haircuts and I’ve never been a manicure, pedicure type of girl, but I wouldn’t get those either. Its about whats important to you. I suppose if you were a “lady of the night” it might be important enough to have a few beauty products though. *shrugs*

      1. If it happens again which people are predicting. i will cut hair, do colors, shave or anything to do with hair. I have a license to do hair and teach kids school or so on to make ends meat.

    2. Theresa of Maine

      HEY gals, diy. I started cutting my own hair decades ago. Then youtube showed me some tricks. Get good scissors and a big mirror and go for it. (But keep a nice hat handy in case something goes wrong). Saved me at least $180 a year. I also groom my dog myself; he loves the attention. I find first aid scissors are best for pets.

  10. If things get as bad as the Great Depression it will become a matter of arranging for neighbors to protect one another from the government’s injustices.

    Remember the #1 way that people survived? Illegally distilling alcohol, and it was the local police, OFTEN TIMES, who protected those entrepreneurs… because the entrepreneurs were smart enough to make it worth their time to do so.

    That’s why any enforcement that WAS pursued came from the Federal government. The locals were “in it together.”

    NOT endorsing breaking laws. Just pointing out that survival is a pretty basic need, and unjust laws tend to go by the wayside when the choices are few and STARK.

    1. The people now-a-days don’t want to be bothered. Think about how many of your neighbors you actually know. I know my neighbors, because I made an effort! Some of them I know as acquaintances only, and if times got tough, I really think they would let us starve. But, bringing community back to an area is going to be the first hurdle to get over with people. Everyone is in their own little world and doesn’t care much about anyone else. Just look at how people act when you go out to eat, or to the movies, like you’re bothering them just by being there. There was a time that people knew that their neighbors were their friends and a part of each others safety net. No longer. And I don’t think the police are going to want to help people anymore after all this crap about them bullying people…

  11. I’m almost 60…. My mom and dad were older when they got me (I was adopted). They were depression-era children, Dad was in WWII, and Mom stayed home and worked at People’s Drug Store and kept their little apartment going in Fredericksburg, VA. She was one of 9 children and they would all remark that they didn’t know they were poor. Thankfully, their daddy never did lose his job….and they gardened. Her momma made all of their clothes, too. My favorite (of many) stories was hearing how her mom would hear of a neighbor in need, and would go down to her cellar and box up home canned goods and send them. They also “Fed the neighborhood” as my mom put it….as in there were always extra people around their table. They were NOT rich by any means….but, they were not truly poor. I wonder if the giving heart had something to do with that………..

    1. Not to add to those ministers who’s bread is buttered by the seed and harvest message and little else of the true Gospel. But the truth is, whether in this life or the next, we do tend to reap what we sow.

  12. NWIPrepper19113

    How about raising red worms for everything from fishing to fertilizer to chicken treats. They are inexpensive, prolific, and their food, like decayed leaves etc. is free.

    1. I believe I may possess the only flock of chickens that will not eat earthworms. Caterpillars? Yum!! Grubs? Yum! Earthworms? Yuck!

      1. My grandfather had a job loading trucks during the depression. Some times, oops, a crate of vegetables fell and broke. He’d take it home, shared with the neighbors and the rest for his family. Man next door was good at carpentry, lots of trading of work for goods . Those two two neighbors became my grandparents.

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  14. Stealth Spaniel

    What everyone forgets is that not every person was broke during the Depression. The bankers closed the banks and kept cash for themselves. Government officials still got paid-otherwise they put you in jail for not paying your taxes or they took your house and property. Also, many safe deposit boxes were rifled (read confiscated) by government officials and the gold, jewelry, etc was used to sustain their families. So, many profitted and survived by very nefarious means. Those ladies got their hair done, the families ate at fine eateries, etc. So, in the coming Depression/Collapse I expect my local IRS agent to be doing pretty well!
    Another point is the type of job you had. Doctors, nurses,Dentists, and hospitals still had business. They might get paid in food or other items, but they at least got something. I worked with a lady in the ’70s who started at AT&T in 1932. She was an operator, who made the royal sum of 35 cents a week to start! She kept her parents and brother until 1938 when her dad and brother got jobs as coal diggers.
    The most important thing is to be able, willing, and happy to do what it takes for your family to survive. Because AFDC, EBT cards, and welfare payments will be over once we have another collapse. If the choice is between paying a Senator or sending somebody a welfare check, I already know who wins. So be prepared to take what you can find.
    Local-local-local; and keep on prepping!

  15. So when this collapse takes place and you and husband live in an apartment and can no longer pay rent? Guess I better buy a tent now? And remember, not all folks are living in houses. I worked all my life, lived in houses for most of the time except now since I remarried my first husband, we are living in an apartment now looking for a house so I can grow vegetables and do those everyday practical things our grandparents did. Everything is instant and convenient and not many families have passed those skills down to our generation or the newest generation. So then you’re stuck and have to teach yourself quickly from books? The way I see it, if everything collapses, how do you pay your rent? or your mortgage. If government confiscates everything? And don’t forget the internment camps located in ALL 50 states either. The New World Order is what they are trying to bring to pass. Sometimes all of this gets me so depressed, I just wish I would die now and get it over with before ISIS beheads more Americans or some idiot in the White House just decides to kill us all with our food and water contaminated with something. I grew up in the ’50s when we did “duck and cover” in school. Tell me, how in the world would a wooden desk protect any child from an attack? Come quickly Lord Jesus, this planet is in a mess! All the talk about prepping and right now, I just lost one part time job and the other ends in December. Any jobs out here? Let me know where….

  16. My dad told me that the only thing that can’t be taken away from you is knowledge. He encouraged us to always be learning. I used to think it was discussing that my dad got better grades than I did on his tests. He was always taking corispondence courses to better himself as a master mechanic. There wasn’t much he couldn’t fix on a car or a truck. Or anything else as far as that was concerned.

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  18. Jerry Haymaker

    I tried to buy fire brick and could not get any when I tried to order it they said they could not get any. Then I bought a kiln to make my own. Getting good clay for it is a problem here where I live. Making your own heat or hot water/ cooking heat/ electricity would greatly improve chances of survival during economic collapse. Having a job that won’t go away is important so I work at a county event center where the rich folks go to have fun. It also has tons of wood left over from events. They give it away to get rid of it.

  19. I just love your help so thank you. My grandparents used to tell us stories. Many of them are still happening today.
    i’m down in TN…
    We have cottage industries everything from pies to sandwiches to wood. The food is usually sold to shift workers. One create flyer stating what they off and for how much etc… Shift workers on weekends flock to these folks… and the Pie lady she lived in the slums when she started well now she has had to hire other seniors to work with her n making 7 figures… Her pies are awesome.
    My parents and grandparents were on a farm n my Granddad bartered for almost everything. The local Dr. loved cream well Granddad loved free medical care they worked a deal n viola! The Dr also used my Grandmere’s herbs many times along with her chicken soup He did that with many things.
    They had pigs, cows ( meat n milk), poultry, rabbits, quails, worms, mushrooms, smokehouse, venison, turkeys, –
    Gave away food at church every Sunday to others. had a road-side food stand, sold everything… If one couldn’t pay well he always needed something done on the farm.
    The people helped each other always…
    my Daddy n Uncle sold wood , my Aunts made quilts and crocheted n knitted pieces which were always raffled off. Get creative and find good old recipes. Start home business now even if only part time. We grandchildren would listen for hours to the stories.
    Thank goodness i am able to use that old knowledge today.
    Also I had need of a Food Pantry one time – well when I didn’t need them anymore I went to the Director and offered to conduct classes on putting food up n freezing and stuff.
    The class was free and we got some equipment and seeds and plants too, donated n it was 4 days worth on evenings n weekends to get to as many as possible. It was awesome the response and being able to share my knowledge of something I dearly love – oh wow!
    Thanks for letting me share.

  20. Another good thing to know how to do is make soap. Or even how to make wood ash lye. I do k ow how to make lye soap. It is one thing I like doing.

  21. Ginger M Darwin

    Well if we do have an economic crash then chances are the government will close a lot of jobs that are going to be considered frivolous or unnecessary, Possibly, a lot of businesses will go under. A lot of property will be foreclosed. A lot of people might also be living in tent. I think if people could get around prohibition then people can get around other obstacles to make money. Heck, they do it now.

  22. It’s often I find those taking issues with other people of experience telling about government & the legal restrictions imposed on us in regards to life in the depression & then comparing today’s restrictions as freedom. If u believe u r free to do what’s practical & makes u money then try it on a street corner & you’ll find laws find u quite quickly.

    When & if it serves to make us more dependent on city, state & federal governments demanding more taxes then you’ll find the “long arm of the law” will reach u soon enough. What appears legal today wherever you live, don’t be fooled if it allows freedom & independence from taxes & government regulation it will soon be challenged! If your under a certain age chances are u have your parents to recall memories & grandparents. But, be not fooled the laws being passed without vote or consideration are designed to regulate incomes made from a girl selling lemonade on the side walk will surely reach the farm where real survival of America’s heart land made us a great nation. The days of freedom to provide without government restriction is going to be tested with our lives blood. Yes, indeed it already has. And yes, my dad recalls when government officials in the 30’s dressed in black came to the farm & made my grandad plow under 7 acres of cotton & destroy several head of cattle burning them & ordered not to salvage any parts. If u don’t understand please don’t show your ignorance by saying how free u think u r! Wake up! Millennials love to be provided for with convenience. And because of this we are the last generation to know freedom to the degree we do. Socialism will give u what they think u need while they take from u what they demand to feed the machine that rules over it’s people not for the people & by it’s people. Learn to grow what u eat & fix what u drive or be slaves to it’s master.

  23. In the midst of this Covid 19 crisis, our family has seen the benefit of several bags and boxes of groceries and supplies brought to our home from unexpected sources.
    God is good. We can still depend on him, but we must do with what we’ve got.
    Blessings,
    Laura of Harvest Lane Cottage

  24. I love that comment! Good for you, on so much! It is great you went back and helped… I wish more people would… Your comment reminded me.. Food stamps, EBT, etc can be used to buy plants, tomato, peppers, etc… And I think seeds for food crops as well…many stores do not remember this, but it us true in most places…many rural mom and pop stores that have been around a few decades remember.
    And check out the info in regrowing fruits and veggies from scraps and or some clever preplanning if you are buying things from any old grocery store you can use so much to provide food again and again, but you only need to pay once! Regrow your lettuce and celery, buy veggies at the ethnic markets for usually less money and I have always had more luck using seeds from tomatoes and peppers from the Latino markets than buying from Walmart! I hope everybody looks into that…
    And learn about what’s plentiful around you too. Acorns with the tannin removed can be used like flour, used for amazing pancakes, made into a warm mush type oatmeal type “cereal” and awesome brittle.. White oak is better… Check out for walnuts and other old trees..many older fruit trees are wasted because the fruit is not very pretty or gets gritty…but it makes great preserves.
    Berry bushes and trees are all around us.. Many people do not want the mulberry litter or crab apple litter but have the trees… Knock on a door, worst you can get us a no… Crawdads and mudbugs live spring boxes and those old big concrete covers on wells… Violets make amazing syrup..and small spring leaves have loads of vitamin c, add your dandelions and you have spring salad.. Learn about what’s around you..even in a city you will find loads of purslane, chicory and dandelions… And so called decorative trees that make edible fruits! Heck, kudzu and cattails are in most places and can be used for so much too! The are the Walmarts of the plant world! Wild grapes are in many places and wild dog roses make little rose hips that have so much vitamin c, dry, freeze, and or make jelly… And those dogroses are are in rural places and forgotten corners of cities too.. They look similar to a briar…hence one common name is briar rose.. Redbuds are in the legume family, the flowers taste like peanuts to most people..and those Asian dogwoods, “kuza” very decorative with large knobby berries, those can be eaten in moderation… Like mulberries, do not eat until ripe… Mulberries and such are slightly hallucinogenic before ripe! Learn about poke sallet and Jo Pye, usually considered nonedibles… But when young, and things like multiple changes of cooking water make them very edible, and some become very good when canned or pickled… Try our making probiotic Rich kimchi, not just with bokchoy… Its great with cukes, zucchini, and many other crisp veggies… If you can piçjle it, it might be great kimchi… Or at least you can pour the left over kimchi “juice” on it an make a refrigerator version..let sit at least 24 hours in your fridge.. With cukes the ice box version goes quick in my house! Slightly sprouted onions garlic and potatoes from the back of the pantry can become pounds of goods by fall… There us so much around all of us.. Tulip flowers and bulbs are edible…and were eaten during times of famine… Keep your eyes open, check out good foraging book and find a class… A book’s great but misidentification poses too much of a risk later when doctors or money become sparse. Truly knowledge is the most valuable thing! I have always said its the only thing no man can steal… Only time can steal away something as important and valuable! Learn something new everyday and your mind will stay sharp well into your golden years!

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