It was the best of times. It was the very worst of times. America’s Great Depression of the 1930s was a time of starvation and subsistence survival for many families.
Yet decades later, many survivors of those years hold on to the survival lessons they learned, from hoarding pieces of aluminum foil to eating lettuce leaves with a sprinkle of sugar.
Frugality meant survival.
Today, most of us aren’t living quite the same bare-bones lifestyle of the Great Depression, and photos from that era are difficult to comprehend. In a picture from my great-grandparents, I see a family group wearing tattered clothing, standing on the porch of a dwelling that can hardly be considered something as sturdy as a house. They ate foods that you and I would never touch (take my Great Depression Meals Quiz here.)
Yet, those people, such as this grandfather, went on to ultimately live productive lives with an inner strength gained from having lived through the worst hard time.
Table of contents
Survival wisdom: Great Depression
I spent some time earlier this year researching the Great Depression years. I gleaned even the smallest life lessons from those “worst hard times.”
Three books were most enlightening to me: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, We Had Everything But Money, and The Forgotten Man.
65 things people did that demonstrated a great deal of survival wisdom:
- Families traveled to wherever the work happened to be. They stuck together as much as possible.
- Life insurance policies were cashed in to try and survive for just a few months longer in their “normal” worlds.
- If possible, homes were very often refinanced in an effort to save the family residence.
- Clothing had to last as long as possible, and women (mostly) became expert seamstresses, especially at alterations. One creative woman used the fabric from the inside of a casket to sew beautiful holiday dresses for her children.
- In areas of the Dust Bowl, cattle were fed tumbleweed, and moms learned how to can tumbleweed to feed their families. Some had to find food wherever possible to keep from starving. This book is my favorite for an in-depth read about the Dust Bowl.
- During heat waves, people slept on their lawns or in parks.
- Many stores allowed people to buy on credit and tracked the unpaid amount. Sometimes people repaid, sometimes not. As a result, some store owners ultimately lost their businesses.
- It wasn’t unusual for people to live out of their cars and trucks. (This depression-era survival wisdom is on the rise again, both by choice and otherwise.)
- Payment was made with eggs, fresh milk, or produce when there was no cash.
- “Rich” became a family with a cow and a garden. Those two advantages alone meant the difference between a well-fed family and one near starvation.
- Many Americans were too proud to accept charity or government help.
- It was important to maintain appearances. Individuals still had a lot of pride, regardless of their circumstances. Mothers still wanted their children to look their very best.
- When the soles of shoes wore through, pieces of rubber tires replaced them. There was little choice but to repair them in any way possible.
- The Great Depression era displaced thousands and thousands of families. Often, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins ended up living in one house or one vehicle, as the case may be. Community was more important than ever, and older generations taught younger generations how to best survive and thrive.
- Desperate people would sometimes beg outside of restaurants, and yes, some could still afford a restaurant meal.
- Many kindhearted farmers kept workers on the payroll as long as they possibly could, even if it meant paying them with produce.
- Some families ended up living in tents or lean-tos.
- Many became migrant farm workers, traveling from harvest to harvest to stay alive.
- Anything that could be freely collected and sold was. Driftwood was collected, split, and sold as firewood.
- Many men joined one of the government programs that were part of the New Deal. One group, the Civil Conservation Corps, built dams, roads, and campgrounds, and received training in fighting fires in national forests.
- Banks closed quickly and without giving any notice. So you never knew ahead of time when your own bank would close its doors.
- Back in those days, society revered banks. It never occurred to anyone that a bank could close and their money vanish forever.
- Most people were willing to do any type of work. My own relatives became moonshiners!
- Just about everyone had a garden, and most gardens were enormous. Since 20% of the population still lived on farms, even those in cities still had country roots and gardening know-how. (This depression-era survival wisdom seems to be gaining traction again.)
- Neighbors and family members were supportive of each other, donating meals and money whenever possible. Again, people supported, taught, and learned from each other.
- Missions were there to feed people, but many of those missions eventually ran out of money.
- Everyone cooked all food from scratch, and this fascinating book chronicles the culinary history of the Great Depression.
- The extent of the Great Depression’s effect on an individual or family depended largely on where they lived. Not all areas were affected in the same way.
- Hunting and fishing fed families in major ways.
- Everyone, including the kids, found ways to earn money. There was a team mentality that brought everyone together for a common goal.
- Unfortunately, loss of income wasn’t a good enough excuse to not pay rent or the mortgage, although some landlords, in particular, were willing to extend credit.
- There was virtually no sense of entitlement. Everyone knew they would only survive if they worked hard to do so.
- At this time, there was no such thing as “retirement.” Everyone worked until they became physically unable to continue.
- Some towns had “welfare budgets.” The town loaned money to individuals, but there was a strict keeping of books. Some towns even published in their newspapers how much each person owed and expected repayment.
- There was a sense of dignity in even the lowliest of jobs. One woman tells the story of a notions salesman who visited their home every few months. He looked very dapper and wore expensive-looking clothing, even as a door-to-door salesman.
- The Great Depression affected people from all walks of life. Only the most elite were immune from its effects.
- When banks closed, you were left with, literally, only the cash in your pockets or hidden away at home. Everything else was GONE.
- Many discovered strength through optimism. They viewed their disadvantages as personal challenges to overcome with ingenuity and hard work.
- Foods that would typically have not been eaten became commonplace at the kitchen table, such as bean sandwiches and codfish gravy. Take this Great Depression Meals Quiz to find out how many meals from this era you’ve eaten.
- Many mothers learned to “not be hungry” as they gave their husbands and kids larger portions.
- Food prices at that time were pretty high when compared with wages. For example, a general laborer made $2 per day. The WPA paid $1 per day. But bread was 10 cents a loaf, milk 8 cents a quart, and eggs 7 cents/dozen.
- Meals were simpler than those we eat today and, therefore, cheaper. In addition, there were virtually no prepared foods at grocery stores.
- Families learned to shop at the last minute on a Saturday night to get bargains on fresh produce that would go bad over the weekend. (Stores closed on Sundays.)
- Learning to forage and find edible plants helped many families fill their dinner plates. Things like nuts and wild asparagus were treats, and often entire families would grab a pile of gunny sacks and head to the good foraging areas for the day. Finding free food was how some families survived.
- Housewives were judged by how many jars they had “put up” during harvest season. Women would show off their full pantries with pride. Just one skill passed along from one generation to another and from one circle of friends to another.
- To add different types of food to their meals, families swapped produce with each other.
- The seasons determined what you ate.
- Many lived without electricity or a refrigerator. Therefore, they cooked and ate for only the immediate meal. This piece of Great Depression survival wisdom meant no food waste, unlike today.
- In some communities, there were group gardens on empty lots. Everyone had their own small plot and could grow whatever they wanted.
- Many worked multiple part-time jobs, waking up before dawn and falling asleep long after dark.
- Those with just a little bit more than others found odd jobs around their homes or property to provide employment to others.
- “Depression Soup” existed! It contained anything and everything you might have in the kitchen or donations from others. To this day, some say it was the best soup they ever tasted.
- Some enterprising women would wake in the early morning hours and prepare dozens of meals to sell to workers from their vehicles.
- Recycled fabric feed sacks became “feed sack dresses.” For some, it was an embarrassment, an obvious sign of poverty, but others wore them with pride. A family with many chickens and, therefore, plenty of feed sacks might be the best dressed in the neighborhood!
- Hanging wet sheets over doorways helped to cool down a room or house during the summer. Hot air cooled slightly as it passed through the damp fabric.
- Mud/clay, scrap pieces of wallpaper, newspapers, and tar paper covered walls.
- Homemakers still took pride in their homes, keeping them as clean as possible, even those who lived in areas affected by the Dust Bowl. One mom made a couch from old bedsprings and stuffed homemade cushions with unginned cotton.
- Many spent their days walking the streets looking for work, anything at all that could bring in a few dollars or cents for their families. Often a “job” was just an individual task, with payment made upon completion of the task. Then, the worker went on to look for the next job.
- Some communities organized “surprise parties,” where everyone would pull together a large amount of food and other necessities, including cash. Then, one by one, they selected each family to be the recipient of the surprise party.
- People were grateful. Grateful for any kindness, any blessing. That attitude carried many of them through the Great Depression years, and they now look back on them with fondness. (We need more of this depression era survival wisdom, today, don’t you think?)
- A jack-of-all-trades could often find work when others couldn’t. So it paid to know a bit about plumbing, carpentry, painting, and home repairs.
- The hardened ends of slabs of bacon sold for almost nothing. Yet, they seasoned just about everything in the kitchen!
- There actually were government inspectors of different types during the Great Depression years. They had the authority to shut down many kinds of home businesses. Some did, some didn’t.
- The Sears Roebuck catalog was truly the book of dreams for many people — not just kids!
- Incidents that illustrate one act of kindness after another fill stories from the Great Depression years. Despite incredible hardships, people could still find ways to encourage others with words of blessing or unexpected help.
And a BONUS piece of Great Depression survival wisdom for good measure: Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do or Do without!
An Interview Examining Survival During the Great Depression
A while back Michael Faust of Off The Grid News interviewed me for Off The Grid Radio. We discussed some of the wisdom that stood out to each of us on this list and explored why our grandparents and great-grandparents not just endured this incredibly challenging time but thrived. Have a listen!
More wisdom and advice from the Great Depression years
- 25 Ways People Earned Money During the Great Depression
- Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression by Clara Cannucciari and Christopher Cannucciari
- Could You Stomach These Great Depression Meals?
- How People Stayed Healthy During the Great Depression
- Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression by Janet Van Amber Paske
- The Forgotten Man by Amity Shales
- The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth
- The Great Depression: A History Just For Kids by KidsCap
- The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan — I give this one 5 stars.
- We Had Everything But Money — Excellent collection of first-person memories.
What kinds of Great Depression survival wisdom did you grow up with or have read about?
This post was originally published on September 16, 2016, and has been updated.