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.During the Great Depression, frugality meant survival. Click To Tweet
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.
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139 thoughts on “65 Pieces of Survival Wisdom From the Great Depression”
Thank you. I really enjoyed your article. With the way the world is today, I would not be surprised if history repeated itself.
God bless you!
Enjoyed your article so much, and it brought back so many memories. I was born in 1937 so was just a child, but I remembered so many things that you wrote about.
Love your article. I was born into a large family,we
Had to make things last. We wrote hand me down clothing, never had a dryer, we hung our clothes on wash lines, yes even in the winter. We never wasted a thing. To this day I jar a lot of my own food, make my own clothes, People waste too much of everything these days, from food to clothes. No one needs to buy more clothes then they can wear at any given time, a d never pay full price for anything, always buy on sale. I don,t buy a lot of electronics. To me they are all too expensive. I still use old electronics, till they wear out. Why do people need so many pairs of shoes? We in AMERICA waste too much money un STUFF. when I hear people complain about having no money, well watch how much you spent and what you spend it on. I don,t consider my self deprived of anything, I just feel that a lot of the thing that people spend money one. Is a waste.
There we so very many variables at play in how well families got thru’ the Depression. The contrast between my mother’s family and my Mother-In-Law’s family were striking.
While both were immigrant families, one had valued education and training far more than the other. One lived in Chicago, where most of the rest of the extended family had immigrated to, one was rural and isolated from the rest of the family. And one family was headed by an alcoholic, one was not.
Being around extended family, and having most family members educated/trained and in jobs before the Depression (all men, all women without children, and all widows with children), the extended family always had enough money coming in to get everyone by. Standard Oil kept their best trained secretaries, the gas station a couple of my great uncles had stayed open, the butcher shop my grandfather had stayed opened, etc.
Alcoholic, isolated from family, rural family didn’t do as well, but still got by. They farmed – mostly sorghum and Kentucky Wonder pole beans for cash – along with the sales income. My Mother In Law (who was, literally, the red haired step child) left home to work at a small town grocery store for room, board, and money for school in order to finish high school, but never got training or education after that.
While both got by, in this case only one family could/did help others get by.
Thanks for your infomative comment. I am always fascinated by the depression era, especially the individual family stories. I think that it would be very interesting to myself and others, if you elaborated on your family’s experiences!
I’ve written a book about my family going through the depression in Oklahoma and migrating to California. My book is called “Glorified Chicken Coops.”
The houses that they lived in and the cabins they moved into at the Wasco Labor Camp my brother said were just glorified chicken coops. When they moved into the labor camp the Cole children had to work in the potato fields at a very early age.
My mother was a little girl. She was so skinny that she was given the richest food her mother could afford for her: some cow udder! It was something thrown away by people who could get meat, but my mother remembered it all her life as a delicacy and she wished she could have it again. I cried when she told me this story. After all they went through they were still were the “greatest generation.”
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This is great! I absolutely love learning about survival and self-reliance from the older generations. I think it’s possible that those living in the Depression era probably had a better chance than contemporary Americans will have when SHTF, mostly because they were already living in a more self-reliant way. These days we have gotten so plugged in and the global economy is so much more dependent on resources shipped halfway around the globe. That’s why its so important to learn survival skills now before it’s too late!
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I remember very well my maternal grandmother, my grandfather passed away when I was 5. He was a farmer with one mule. No tractor~~They were very frugal, raised their own food, both vegetables and raising chickens and pigs. I think they only bought things they couldn’t produce, like salt and flour. They had their corn ground for cornmeal. I remember Grandma made her own lye soap, I watched her do it! I can still smell that distinctive odor. I have a picture of myself as a 4 year old in a dress made from a flour sack, it was printed with daisies on it.
There was a ‘rolling store’, a truck that would come by that sold things like a general store. Grandma would buy needles and thread, things like that. She would send me with eggs to trade for what she needed. This was not so long ago~ I am 61 years old!
Yes, you can get by when things go pear-shaped, but there would have to be a lot of changes made in the way we do things now. I’m not so sure people would be willing to sacrifice and do things the old-fashioned way. ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without’, that’s what Grandma used to say.
I know what you mean.I grew up in the later years also I’m 64 yrs.Also.Up here in Canada we had a easier life than you did.I know it was tuff but you just tougher.I grew up in a small logging camp and live in a tarpaper shack with sawdust filled walls.Wood stove to heat and cook on also.I swear that life was better living that what is going on today.I remember stories my grandparents told me before I was born.It to was a place that you did what you could and what with you had.To live that life you were tough and grew up RESPECTING adults also.
Sadly, we seem to be heading down that road again…truth is the American people have always been stronger than their government…thanks for posting this…
I’m loving your Great Depression posts. A few years back I found a wonderful YouTube channel hosted by an old lady that was a child during the great depression. She would tell stories about it and cook some of the meals she had growing up. All super simple meals. Like potatoes and hot dogs in a skillet.
That was Clara. She told wonderful stories
We try to live the old fashioned way now, as much as possible. We buy and hold onto ole time tools of all kinds, cause we never know when we will need them again, to be self-sufficient (as possible), and not addict our kids on everything electric like most do. We train them on living outdoors and all those food gathering and processing skills, cooking, wood heating, etc. We make it a kind of Daniel Boone game, and supply them with stacks of classic American pioneer stories and such, to keep their minds in the game. Develop pride in them that they know things most other kids have no idea of. Of course, they want what their friends have, but they see the need to keep one foot in the old ways as well and if they want that stuff, they can get it on their own, if so inclined. We only have sons, and I just pray there is some other families out there doing the same with their daughters.
My parents did this with my siblings and i as well. They always say they raised us to survive. And honestly, i wouldnt have it any other way. When i start having my own children they will also be raised to survive and live off the land.
Great article! I have studied the Great Depression in depth as a history/textiles lover and most of this is spot on. In fact, because history has a way of repeating itself, we prep for an economic collapse. For those readers who don’t think it could happen, everything we are seeing on FB and in the media happened 80 years ago, too. The difference is, back then it was socially embarrassing to be on the “dole” or to panhandle.
I do want to say that I disagree with you about the lack of “processed” foods during the depression. Many of the brand names that we know and love today were manufactured in the 20’s & 30’s. Campbell’s brand is just one. I have multiple Depression era cookbooks that mention several “tinned” items that were thought necessary to round out the good housewife’s pantry.
My grandfather still made depression soup until the day he died. He always had a pot of soup on the stove and just kept adding to it daily, sometimes for weeks at a time.
My daddy was a kid during that time and he would tell me about the work they would do. You did not fuss about what you did not have you ate it or you did without. He would work from sun up to sun down. It did not matter, pick cotton by hand, chop cotton, when he would pick cotton he would have a cotton sack and then they would when the cotton get picked ans stacked they would stomp the cotton . It was tuff in those days, you either get to work or starve to death plain and simple, now a days we fuss because we don’t have this or we don’t have that it we went thru thae we would be more grateful.
These are not all pieces of wisdom. Cashing in life insurance to delay the inevitable? Not very wise. These are also not all absolutes. All food was made from scratch? Really? Go ahead an Google “grocery store 1930” and you’ll see lots of food for sale that was processed. Way too many generalities that aren’t truths. I couldn’t even get through the list.
I didn’t invent these, Mr. armyone. 🙂 They came from hours of research and from stories who actually lived through the Great Depression. Not everyone had the exact same experience, but you know that, right?
guess it depends on how close your belly button is to your backbone.”to a starving child god is just a loaf of bread”.
Maybe your are too into generalities. Yes they did have canned goods. The question is ‘could they afford it’!
I remember my mother telling me of how my grandmother would give food to who, mostly men, who would come to the back door and beg for food. My grandfather was not too happy about that because the safety problem it could cause, which never happened. So they were somewhat more inconvenienced by the depression. They had a roof over their heads and food on the table,
My father was a different story. He and his siblings went hungry a lot. My grandfather fell at working, on the RR and struck his head about 1926. He was a vegetable – couldn’t do anything include feed himself, the last 20 years of his life. So my grandmother had to work to try and feed him and her and 5 children from that time on. So buying store bought food was out fo the question. There were plenty of people in her shoes when the depression hit!
My father had to quit 8th grade to go to work to help grandma. He eventually was in CCC and got paid $50 a month. He got $5 o
f that and the rest was sent to grandma. Yep – lots of spare change to buy ready made bought food and goods because a can of peaches were on the shelf in stores.
Something being available and affordable are two different animals.
Read this and it took me back to being a kid,raised in good times. (the 50s)
My family all had back yard gardens some bigger than the part they mowed.
Picking berries and fruit,helped a neighbor cut dandelion plants from the gravel piles at the county garage. Two sets of grand parents each had wells with Deming hand pumps to pull up the water. One was at the bottom of a hill at the edge of a swamp. The other had a pump on the back porch-luxury. r dixon
The New Deal and WPA projects helped many with work projects like Hoover Dam or National Park projects. I like your article, but have to point out that govt. assistance did not start until LBJ and the mid to late 1960’s. My grandparents both worked for WPA in their hometowns. I found it interesting to see a phone book from the 1930’s listing not only their phone number and address, but employment. You saw quickly who was on WPA — lots of hurting people back then. After WWII, my grandfather secured a good job for the railroad.
Perhaps that’s true of federal assistance, but local towns did provide assistance to needy families.
And we forget the people who died constructed the Hoover Dam.
This isn’t really survival wisdom. This is a list compiled of facts of life during the Great Depression. This is a very misleading article
Thanks for the comment.
I certainly see it as
survival wisdom. Thank you for doing the research!
Next time just throw in some Survivalist buzz words like ‘Tactical’ or ‘OPSEC’ and those guys will eat it up. (sarc).
I liked your article just fine.
Exactly, the preppers don’t get it. Obviously can’t transfer the info to modern day that would take more critical thinking skills.
Very interesting info. Folks might find it interesting that economically today the US is no better off than during the Great Depression. When you consider the level of employable individuals not working (including those who have stopped looking), the percentage of workers actually involved in creating the wealth society needs, and other economic factors, our economy is actually in bad shape – in spite of the “job creation” reports. The big difference is now the “Government” is using borrowed money to finance the “entitlements” and It has surreptitiously enslaved a whole society in an unprecedented manner. “The happiest slaves are those who think they are free” is a reasonable corollary to Goethe’s quote “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” God Bless.
Well said Vic,
I grew up with parents who had gone through the depression and their frugality was so ingrained that we followed many of these even after things had improved. In turn, I learned many of the ways and still use them. My grown children are wasteful and make little preparation for hard times or retirement. They tend to make disparaging remarks about me being cheap or a hoarder , but I feel confident in my knowledge of “making do” if a real need arises.
I too tend to get that here in New Zealand, remarks by people including my own children. There is a difference between a hoarder and keeping things that are useful. I am a 1969 vintage, however was raised by parents who were from the late 20’s early 30’s so can totally appreciate this era gone before us. A lot of light was created by candles, soap was created at home, no such thing as flushable toilets for many, long drops and the night storeman was common. Milk was delivered by horse and cart and poured into your bottles. Brooms were made from cabbage tree leaves and porches (if you were lucky to have one) were swept daily. The biggest thing for many was respect, sadly something that is very much lacking in today’s society.
My parents were children during the depression. My grandfather was a tomatoe farmer, as a very young girl I watched my grandmother make lye soap in a black cauldron over an open fire and she made all her clothes and gardening bonnets ( she wore them till her last days on earth). Neither of them ever learned to drive so they walked three blocks to church ( they were very devout in their faith and knelt to pray together morning and night). My grandfather walked on crutches due to a diabetic wound on his heel that never healed but nonetheless he never missed church. They planted the seed in me as a girl and I am so thankful . My grandmother also always had a pot of soup cooked on the stove and it was the best I’ve ever had. I didn’t realize it but it was probably depression soup. Enjoyed reading your info!
I was born in 1936, so missed out on some of the horrors of the Depression…I firmly believe all of our electronic contraptions will go down someday and this world as we know it will be in a world of hurt! If you go to the Dr or anywhere else ALL ages of patients are sitting there twiddling away at a device of some sort…I asked my teenage Grandson what he would do if all the electronic stuff was taken away..He thought for a minute and said “Kill myself.”
Feed sack dresses were common when I was growing up, and Daddy was given close instructions on what pattern to look for when he went to town in the wagon. Mama canned hundreds of quarts of all sorts of food from Polk salat on down to feed her hungry family. I could write all night about my hard times memories…
I would love to read more about your experiences!! Very interesting!
Being 77 years old, I myself saw none of the depression, but it was always a dominant portion of discussions.
As I grew up I listened to the “old folks’ (anyone over 25) about the “Depression Years”. About the CCC Camps, WPA projects and how the democrat party flipped from conservative to liberal.
My mother was one of 11 kids. Her daddy was a paper hanger and walked barefooted 13 miles one way each day to find work. He made 50 cents a day. Christmas time was one where the men went out to the forest, found a tiny pine tree, chopped it down and brought it home to be decorated by the wife and kids. A lighted star (by candle) was placed on top and popcorn was strung around the entire tree. Food was always on every ones mind so apples, oranges, pears and grapes also decorated trees. Gifts were individually made for each member of the family and my mothers greatest gift was when her daddy made her a doll when she was eight. The only doll she ever had.
My dad never knew the shortages of the depression. He, his brother, and their father were professional musicians during the depression. They traveled the Vaudeville Circuit and traveled by train to all the cities in the country. Speak Easys were in vogue every where they went and although none of them drank, the booze was where the money was.
To listen to my Mother and Father’s versions, you would think they grew up on different planets.
I grew up with electric lights, coal stoves, and out houses. School was always a great place because it had steam heat and flush toilets. At night we listened to radio and it was really scary to listen to all the war news on the radio.
Summer was a time of squirt guns and gliders. Cap guns and Block City and Tinker Toys. I always wanted a chemistry set but never got one. Years later my Dad told me he never got me one because he was afraid I would blow up the house! (Probably would have, too!)
Lionel train sets, gas model airplanes, spark plug and handkerchief parachutes, sparklers, BB guns and fire works that would kill you if mishandled. We were trusted not to take advantage of any of these things and we always respected our adults. Life in the 40’s and 50’s were a far cry from the 20’s and 30’s but we knew the difference too.
Please write more!!
I have been brought to tears with your recollections.
I’m a ’62 baby, but an old soul that lived with and learned a great deal from all my grandparents and parents. (Townies and Country folk.)
We learn something from everything and everyone (if we pay attention)…
How to be/ How not to be.
God bless us all!
I, for one, would live to read your memories! .when I have gone collecting Poke sallet people are shocked, but its pokeberry, its that poke weed.. My Gram wrote live letters with the berries and dyed her hair with them too! We also take Ho Pye Weed and do the four changes of water to make it edible.. We collect berries both bush and tree. Black walnuts every year… And Acorns which we soak and change water often to remove all the bitter tannins..white oak taste better.. We use the strongest water for tanning. The acorns are then divided..the prettiest go into a brittle and the rest are dried for flour. We also collect the roots and pollen of cattails, early shoots in spring as well… Jerusalem artichokes are dug as well as chicory and dandelion roots.. And dandelion flowers for jelly, fritters and wine. Violets flowers for jelly and syrup and leaves for spring tonics.
I didn’t go thru the Great Depression, and my mom didn’t either.. For years she viewed these habits as something unique, a bit odd, and fun to watch, yet hard to understand… Now she sees their value. All of these skills came from stories from her parents, aunts, uncles and mostly from a much ikder cousin of my
Sometimes i feel like i was born in the wrong decade. I am in my 30’s and growing up my parents never thought about any survival related issues. When my parents divorced my mom got a job and stopped cooking, almost every meal was eaten out and i was never taught to cook. Never taught any real skills at all. Took a sewing class in high school and through many years of trial and error i can sew pretty well now, i sometimes teach others how to. Taught myself to can and dehydrate, garden and do what we can here in town. Learned how to butcher a chicken and oddly its one of my favorite “farm” things to do lol. I have 5 kids and i realized early on they wont learn it if i dont teach them. I enjoy it but i see it as necessary too.
This site is worthwhile for the memories it brings back..I have bought several Silver dollars. The last ones made and with my birth date. My wife and I are in a rural city retirement community with circle streets more like loops. There are over a dozen widows or widowers in my loop of 100 homes.
Wife and I volunteer to help give away excess produced fruits, veggies and fancy breads. If we receive more of these items than we can give away we can, dehydrate or freeze them. I planted fruit trees, berries and compost everything we can rot for a year then in to our raised gardens. Also a hybiscus bush for blood pressure medicine. We replaced grass with rock to save water for the trees and the garden. I have worked hard to never pay interest except for homes as needed Had 50 foster kids and showed them a different kind of life to benefit their futures hopefully.
I teach family history to help folks connect to the accomplishments of their ancestors. My dad came from Roman Slaves made to work in the tin mines of early England. Mom from Vikings, King Richard the Lionhearted. Cousins Benjamin Franklin,The First Abolutionist and also The Grand Master of The Underground Railroad. I remember how my folks handled the Depression and found other ancestors to be proud .
Don’t forget that many or most people went barefoot most of the time, and men and boys usually without shirts. Children were expected to not wear any footwear, and boys to be shirtless, that was the norm.
There was 7 kids in my family. We always went barefoot except for school and going to the Dr or something like that. I usually never got new shoes. I had 3 older sisters and I got their hand me downs. Shoes were maid to last back then. They were usually bought from a door to door shoe salesman. Our cloths were made out of flour sacks. One dresser drawer would hold all my cloths. Back then we wore our cloths many times before they got washed. Washing was such a chore. Everything was so different then. I remember making soap. We didn’t have toothpaste either we used baking soda. We didn’t go to the store very often either. Not unusual to not go to the store but every couple months. But it was such a treat when company that come to visit might want to go to the store and loads us kids up. I remember getting a soda pop, tater chips, and a couple charms suckers all for the 25 cents I was given. What a special treat it was and rarely happened. I loved my childhood even though we were dirt poor. I have change my way of life with the times. However I still forage for food, medicine and wild crafting. I try and pass that knowledge on to anyone willing to learn especially my children and grandchildren. Last spring I wasn’t feeling very well to get out and forage. I felt very proud one weekend when my 11 year old grandson came in from outside with a bunch of wild greens, wild greens that I had taught him that were edible and delicious. They make me smile when they point out something like elderberry flowers so I’ll remember where they when it’s time to gather them when they ripen. Precious memories and knowledge to pass on.
My mom used to say “one to wear while the other’s in the wash” about clothes and dresses. I didn’t understand that until I was much older and realised what her family went though.
You are a good person! I wish there were more g\folks like you!
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Thank you for writing about the great depression. My mom remembered coming home from school in the city, Columbus, Ohio, and finding people who were down on their luck sitting at their kitchen table eating soup. To this day, I donate to Salvation army and shelters because of that story. I used many cooking methods from my mom when we were incredibly broke (deadbeat husband). We ate pancakes 3 times a day for a week, lots of potatoes, accepting any handout given to us…..this was 35 years ago but believe me, people are hungry in the United States.
My grandparents were young adults during the Great Depression. They told me that when a woman got married she was expected to give up her job so a man could be employed. Also, that if you had only a dime in your pocket and passed someone on the street selling apples for a nickel, you bought one whether or not you wanted it, so the person selling the apples would have some cash. They were luckier than most, as my grandfather had a government job.
My dad grew up in a rural community on a farm. He said that before the depression they were poor (financially) so when the depression came there was not much difference. However, they always had plenty to eat so never when hungry. They had gardens, a cow or two, a pig or two. By contrast my mother lived in the city. They suffered greatly. They just scraped by and never knew where the next meal would come.
I am 88 years old and remember those years !! I have worn shirts mom made from floor sacks ! Mom could go into the woods and gather weeds and plants that were editable ? We didn’t have a house, we lived in a tent — today they call it camping ?? I remember so much more but you get the idea ????
Please tell us more.
I have to say this picture gives me the heebie jeebies. One of the first rules of knife safety is to never cut towards yourself or anything you don’t intend to destroy. )Good piece of survival wisdom!)
never peeled potatoes without a peeler then. can’t control the thinness of the peel cutting away from you.
I am 49 and have always peeled potatoes this way and cucumbers. I haven’t cut myself. Now I have often grated a knuckle. That’s what is dangerous!
Many places had lakes that froze over during the winter time. They would cut ice and store it properly so that it would not melt, even in the summer time. They would even ship it to places that didn’t have ice. So, if you could afford it, this ice was used in ice boxes, which let them keep milk, left overs, etc. Many places had cold springs or streams that could be used to keep things cold. On my grandfather’s dairy farm (not huge like the ones they have today), they had a “spring house” over the spring, where they kept the dairy’s milk cold in milk cans until they could deliver it to town. They would cool watermelons and other food in the spring house.
This is a great article. My grandmother is 100, she will be 101 on July 12th. On her 100th birthday I asked her about her 100 Christmases. She said there were some that she was just happy to be alive during the depression. I love her stories during this time. Her mother died when she was 12 so she took over taking care of her father and two brothers. Your article touches on many things she talks about.
The biggest thing I got from her and have used is the envelop method of paying bills. She always had her four envelopes. She still lives at home and loves telling her stories. We now have six generations in our family.
I see that you treasure the time with her, as you should. Most old folks are stored away these days in a nursing or personal care home while the family argues over who will handle any details. I shudder to think how much irreplaceable knowledge dies unheard of every day.
My folks taught me to cook, clean and work at an early age. When I became a homeless person out of high school, these skills saved me. I made it out of total poverty and never looked back. Now I troubleshoot disaster responses for the feds and apply poverty survival knowledge all over the country. I truly fear that we are far down the path to another depression, not from a catastrophe, but from progressive foolishness.
I learned so much from my grandma and others who lived through the Depression. I was always at odds with my mother, who did not like to remember the frugal lifestyle she had worked so hard to escape. But I enjoy the feeling of being able to survive in hard times.
Hi! I found you by accident on Pinterest and found your collection of Depreesio posts I found interesting. My mom experienced the Depression but didn’t talk about it a lot. It might have been nice to hear more about some things. She’s been gone for a while but I know things were tight, unexpected occurances and just day to day living, but whatever I can learn now will help in the future. Thank you for being there.
My grandma lived through the Great Depression. Every time I came over, if I didn’t eat everything that she had on my plate, including 2nds and 3rds, she thought that I didn’t love her. To fill my plate with all of the things that she was proud of in her pantry was how she showed love. She also still used ice cubes to stretch out the milk.
I was born in 1934 and moved to a farm when I was two. Until then I survived by having been given rice boiled with lots of water and put in a bottle with a hole big enough for the rice to come through. My mother couldn’t nurse me as she had no milk. The farm was 4 miles from town and when I was older – maybe 10 I would ride along in the wagon and pick beer bottles from the ditch one side going and the other side coming back so I could sell them. That money went to buy school supplies.
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My grandma patched a broken single on the roof with a piece of a worn out boot.
My parents got married just before their bank closed. Dad had bought two tires for his Model T. Paid by check. Got home and heard the bank had closed. Went back and told the fellow to put his old tires back on and had fifty cents in his pocket. Gave that to the mechanic for the wear he put on the new tires. “That is the best I can do you.”
One of his brothers gave him a milk cow and another let the harrow a tater patch to glean whatever taters they could. “We lived on tater soup that first winter!”
My father told me how his dad grew sweet potatoes for a cash crop one year, only to get offered 3 dollars for a wagon load. He brought them back home and built a bin in the boys room to store them and the family lived mainly on sweet potatoes that winter. His job as a meat cutter at a store kept them in meat scraps that provided protein that year.
Listening to teens crying that they don’t have signal on their smart phones comes close to enraging me some days.
Looks like someone snagged much of this article at http://www.askaprepper.com/50-tips-great-depression/
Yeah, that happens a lot in the blogging world. Unfortunately.
55. Hanging wet sheets over doorways was a way to cool down a room or house during the summer. Hot air was slightly cooled as it passed through the wet fabric.
In the dust bowl areas the wet sheets were hung to capture the dust in the air due to the dust storms. This was an attempt to improve the air quality inside the home. I do not know if you ever read the book The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Egan. It is a great one!
I loved that book!
WOW even the replies are great. Here the my thoughts, the people of that day are a different caliber, people placed in a similar situation will respond, learn and adapt. So that being the case a check list of items, book, equipment ect. To have on hand so a family could deescalate the family life stile to a workable solution in hard time.
Thanks for the great information printing thos one out!!
Having grown up in dust bowl country where all the adults I knew had stories about the Great Depression, here are a few thoughts:
In parts of the country, there was very little wildlife that was not fair game for desperate eating. In Texas, armadillos were called “Hoover hogs,” for example. (Having chased down a few, I can testify they are a challenge to catch.) Snapping turtle stew and possum stew was also not uncommon.
From 1931 to 1933, the Wall Street Journal a few years ago mentioned that 25% of all telephone subscriptions were stopped in order to save money, although everybody who had radios kept those.
It was very common for travelers, and especially actors, to bring an electric clothes iron along with them. That way they could turn it upside down on a little stand, and cook on the sly (and on the cheap) in their hotel rooms.
A writer above mentioned that hanging wetted sheets over windows helped keep the dust out of the inside of the house. In fact, when a housewife saw an ugly black dust storm on its way in, there was a scramble to water soak those sheets and tack them up. It didn’t take long for the dust storm to cover those sheets with mud.
In the 1930s, pressure cookers were the “microwave ovens” of that era, and provided a quicker way (and fuel saving way) of cooking the cheapest cuts of whatever kind of meat, beans, and vegetables.
It was also common in that era for especially factory and construction workers to carry a little alcohol-fueled burner with them to heat up coffee or lunch, especially since with the end of Prohibition, alcohol as fuel was easier to get again, and not as legally hazardous to make at home as during the Elliot Ness / Al Capone / Prohibition years which ended in late 1933.
A little history: By 1919, just before Prohibition went into effect, Henry Ford was selling 2/3 of all vehicles in America, and his Model T was the original flex fuel car. A driver could switch it between gasoline and alcohol, depending on what fuel was available. The Rockefeller gasoline stations were only established in the largest cities, and in order to justify expanding their network of gas stations to smaller cities, they had to shut down all the local production of alcohol. So they donated $4 million to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to kick off a morals crusade (the cover story) against alcohol. That led to the Volstead Act and the Constitutional Amendment. Throughout the 1920s, with production of alcohol as car fuel prohibited, Ford dropped the flex fuel capability in his cars. By 1933, the Rockefeller gas station network has been established in the outlying areas, and so a Rockefeller son announced in the press that Prohibition was no longer needed. So even though no cars were any longer being made that could run on alcohol, factory and construction workers could get alcohol to heat their coffee and lunches again.
it is called government payoff and it still goes on today
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I am strongly persuaded that the wheels are coming off the North American/Western European economy, and that the collapse will be the worst in the past 500 years. American society/economy/government is living so far beyond its means that this collapse in inevitable. I live in southeast Asia (I won’t return to the United States until Executive Order 13603 (“National Defense Resources Preparedness” of Friday, March 16, 2012), so I expect that we’ll be hit, but the collapse won’t be as bad here, or last as long as in North America or Western Europe. The collapse I expect in North America and Western Europe will make the “Great Depression” of the 1930s look like a child’s tea party! You’ll be in the middle of it, but I won’t!
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It is truly fascinating how much we can learn from history and from the people that lived on those times. They really give you a sense of the importance of preparation and self-reliance.
Stumbled across this site while trying to remember something I had read. I Homeschool my son and required reading are the following books: A Nickles Worth of Skim Milk , The Worst Hard Times, We Had Everything But Money. It is not just the information or experiences, but the character of the different people. I am so thankful for their storks… and for your blog.
Stories, not storks.
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I have a question that has never been answered: What do you use for seed starting when there is no store to go to, to purchase supplies? One personal told me to stock up. I said “that’s great; but what happens when those supplies are gone? THEN what do I use?” I never received a reply.
In your research, has anyone written a seed starting mix in their journal, made with whatever they have on hand to use? And what did they do for lighting when there was no electricity and grow lights?
Shift compost through a fine mesh screen. Then place on baking sheets. Now you will want an outdoor stove or an old one in the garage and you bake that soil 350-400 for apx. 20min. This will sterilize it. You can do it in the house but it will stink! At least that’s what I read. I just buy my mix.
Possibly one of the most stupid things I have ever read. Most are not survival wisdom, most are not even wisdom
Undoubtedly, you are a much younger generation that most of us geezers on here. It was a really hard time, ever doubt that. How about you quit your job and learn to live off the land? Try it. I dare you.
Well said Deborah!
It’s so easy to scoff at others without having first walked in their shoes.
Most kids, IE: Anyone under 50 🙂 today think life is about to end of they lose their damn mobile phone!
They think that “starving” means being hungry because they haven’t eaten for a few hours, but would no doubt turn their noses up at most foods that those in the great depression survived on, until of course they were truly starving.
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The sad difference is that back then people actually had moral and values. In today’s world, the moral depravity has sunk so low. Its not going to be like the days of neighbors helping neighbors, but more like defending what is yours because society feels like they are entitled to what is yours. And sadly, they will take it by whatever means they see fit in their eyes. 🙁
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There are certainly much lessons ro be learnt from this. Thank you for such an interesting and knowledgeable article
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My Mom was 8 when they finally left SE Texas with what they could get into their car & moved to CA.
Her father had a mule left & would do anything, in order to help his neighbors & feed the family.
They had a ranch & a Victorian home, in town.
Mom remembers the oil paintings of ancestors on the wall, the beauty of her home. They left everything. There wasn’t room. 4 kids & Mom & Dad piled into the car & headed West.
They did it.
My Dad’s family had a ranch in KS & a house in Wichita. Grandfather had 17 oil leases on his ranch, but lost it all.
He also broke his back in a fall from a roof. He was a carpenter by trade.
I loved the stories. I wish we’d recorded them.
I will tell you one that not many know about. we were dirt poor and carried our lunch to school. we had jelly never jam or peanut butter. we ran out of jelly frequently and my mother would mix up some brown sugar and mustard and spread it on a sandwich. I ate many of them. sounds bad huh ! try it. you have eaten it without knowing it. it is called sweet and sourer sauce.
My mom told me they would walk to the school bus stop with hot, freshly baked potatoes in their mittens…their hands stayed toasty warm. They’d eat the potatoes for lunch and it would be a cold walk back home.
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Your Great Depression articles are excellent. My maternal grandparents survived by gardening, hunting and fishing. Plus my grandfather would work all day for fifty cents then make willow twist chairs to sell. My Uncle had scars on his arms from climbing trees as a kid and fishing squirrels out of their nests bare-handed. They lived in rural SE Kansas and by the time I came along, in 1950, they had a Jersey cow, chickens, a two acre garden, fruit trees and pecan trees.
My paternal grandpa worked in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas while my grandma, who was full blood Cherokee, gardened and gathered wild foods. Both hunted and fished.
With roots like these, I come by Prepping naturally. But the main lesson to be learned from survivors of the Great Depression is that attitude and persistence were the keys to survival!
I find myself connected with GD as I remember especially the food my mom and grandma made for us. She always had some stories for us while preparing a fabulous chicken pie or just cornbread. Great memories…
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Even though I was born in late 1951, we lived with my grandparents when I was growing up. There was my grandparents, my mother (daddy had died before I was born), my uncle, my two siblings and me. We had a two bedroom house. I grew up with prepping. First with my grandparents and then with mother. She bought what she could on sale. Extras. I still do that. I loved growing up in a three family house.
My grandmother was born in 1898 in northern Minnesota. Soon after she was born, the family moved a short distance to a homestead, which is where she spent the rest of her growing up years. She loved watching Little House on the Prairie as it reminded her of much of what her life was like growing up.
She was married in 1917 and started raising a family. Once I asked her about how it was during the Great Depression and she gave me an odd look. So I don’t know much about that time in their lives. I think that’s when they lost the house they were living in, which so affected my grandfather, that they rented a house all of his remaining years. They had a big garden in the backyard, even though they were on a normal city sized lot. My grandmother made her own lye soap and washed clothes mostly by hand. Later she got a ringer to help get the water out of the clothes, which were hung on a clothesline. Only in the last few years of my grandfather’s life did she have a washing machine.
One of her favorite sayings was “the want of it is more than the need of it”, which has a lot of wisdom in a few words. I’m now 65, living on one acre, with a large garden, fruit trees and bushes, and trying to live a simple life with my wife and other family who live with us. Learning to live below our means has helped us to get by and have a good life.
I love that saying. My grandma had a plate hanging over the kitchen table that said “Thank God for dirty dishes, they have their story to tell. While others may go hungry, we are eating very well.”
I didn’t understand the significance of that until I was older.
That does give perspective, doesn’t it?
Great article. My grandparents survived by my grandmother making their own clothes and growing vegetables and berries. My grandfather fished, dug clams, and harvested oysters. They shared with others in the neighborhood, or bartered as needed. They stayed positive and did whatever they could to help their family and others.
We are getting ready to do the same again,we all need to apreciate what we have!
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Thank you for writing this article. A major percentage of Americans need to read this article. Especially members of Congress and OUR SUPPOSED PRESIDENT.
We’re expecting another depression according to statistics so advice like this is crucial for survival.
I remember ‘DEPRESSION PLANTS’ IN THE 30’40’S MADE FROM A LUMP OF
COAL/SALT/WATER/BLUEING /LYE. THEY GREW INTO CATHEDRAL-LIKE
SPIRES AND WERE UNIQUE AND PRETTY. AS CHILDREN WE MADE THEM!!
Alas, i cannot locate any vintage photo’s of these anywhere on line. Does
Anybody have a foto(S) they can share on line? I’m 80 yrs. old and have keen
Memory of these ‘’plants’…few seniors don’t seem to recall them. TOM S.
Would this be it? https://bizarrelabs.com/charcrys.htm
My grandma used to make those for me when I would spend time with her & grandpa in the summer. Instead of lye she used ammonia (and Mrs. Stuart’s bluing came in glass bottles back then. Also, she would put a few drops of food coloring here and there and the growths would be all different colors.
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Regarding the comments made about public assistance, DSHS existed long before LBJ. I know because in 1956, my mom asked for help after we escaped my brutal father. She was denied because we “left” him! ~ I just discovered this article. It is exactly what I was looking for! We all have been “quarantined” for 2-1/2 months, now due to the Covid19 Pandemic. There are people protesting this! They obviously don’t know how to survive and are scared. They are the minority. The majority of people are finding creative ways to keep their businesses running and are being of service to their neighbors. My mom never stopped living the lessons learned during the Depression and us kids grew up with that. My biggest lessons: patience, persistence, Faith, creative problem solving, and humor-to laugh in the face of evil and it will have no power over you.
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A few things you didn’t mention:
Church – everyone went to church, whatever religion you were. Missing was unthinkable. And many christian churches had revivals in the fall and spring. There was a great sense of community among church members.
Hobos- both my grandfathers were hobos at one point. It was how men traveled to find work. One of my grandfathers worked on the Royal Gorge Bridge. I can’t even imagine. When I went over it as a kid, I was shocked to think that my grandpa had been one of the brave men who worked building it. My other grandfather was the only survivor of a shootout in Chicago. Things were not as idyllic as this article suggests, and prostitution, gambling, and speakeasies were very common. Many women worked as glorified prostitutes in speakeasies to get a free meal from a date and a few dollars. It was not an easy life. Childhood was very different. My grandfather who worked on the Royal Gorge Bridge was given $5 on his 12th birthday and told to go make his way in the world. He was on his own with no place to live.
One thing I’d like to add is that little was thrown away. Dogs lived off of the guts from the animals hunters killed. Cats were not fed so that they would kill mice and bugs. Buttons and zippers were cut off of clothing and often resewn into new clothing. Nails were kept in cans or jars and were straightened and kept. You did not throw away nails or screws.
Regarding feed sack dresses, what you’ve written is misleading. To increase sales, feed and flour sacks were made out of attractive prints to increase bulk buying (wanting to get enough of one print to make a dress, etc) and most day dresses or a “house dress” were made from these.
Everyone drank milk and also coffee.
Loved this article. One thing I can also add, my grandma would always say that her mother was “POOR BUT CLEAN”. That was essential. My mom still says, “Everyone can afford soap.” I have heard these two phrases all my life.
One of our families favorite deserts from the depression era is vinegar pie. More like a cobbler it was a poor man’s lemon pie. I remember my great grandmother making it for family get togethers. It is so delicious!
My husband’s aunt makes vinegar pie and buttermilk pie. Both delicious. I think pie-making is becoming a lost art.
Loved this post. Especially for today’s economy. Thank you. The comment made by Theresa about her homeschooling requiring the three books be read by the students. I think that’s a great requirement and hope to get them too