The Great Depression
By William E. Paul
My childhood, during The Great Depression (lasting from 1929 until about 1939), was probably about average for someone growing up in the industrial sector of northeastern Ohio, born to a family of middleclass, blue-collar, European immigrants. It is commonly held that virtually no one, except the wealthy, had much of anything in those days. Some of that may have been due to the underdeveloped technology of the 1920s and 1930s. But much of it no doubt resulted from the unprecedented poverty of the American economy at that time. Many people were without a job much the time, including my dad. My family had no car, no refrigerator, no telephone, and no bathtub & shower in the beginning days of The Great Depression! But neither did many other people we knew!
Among my earliest recollections (when about 6 or 8) was that of standing in long lines waiting in the hot sun to be given a free basket of produce (cabbage, carrots, celery, lettuce, etc.), raised in nearby truck farming communities. These were part of the Federal government’s program for helping to meet the bare necessities of out-of-work families.
Dad, a skilled machinist for Morgan Engineering & Foundry for a number of years, had lost his job and had to take unskilled labor jobs for the W.P.A., for low wages, building and maintaining parks and roads during that time. Among other free commodities given to families on what was called “Relief” were very salty pork shoulders, children’s buckle-up rubber boots (called “galoshes”) and heavy sheepskin-lined jackets. Since money was very scarce, we never pushed a grocery cart when going “shopping” like people do today. In fact, there were no self-serve “super markets” at that time, just small “mom and pop” corner grocery stores. I was often sent to the store with just enough money to buy ½ dozen of eggs, ½ pound of butter (or oleo or lard), a pint of milk, a loaf of bread and a few slices of lunch meat. Of course, it was not all economic; for this was before we had a refrigerator . . . we had only an ice box, so perishables would not last any longer than the blocks of ice we bought from the “ice man.”
Speaking of “home delivery,” in those days almost anything you needed would be delivered right to your door . . . and at no extra cost. We had a “bread man,” a “milk man” (in a horse-drawn, rubber-tired wagon), a “coal man,” (who shoveled coal through a window into a basement room called the “coal bin,” an “insurance man” (to collect monthly premiums), and a “rag man” (who went around pulling a wagon, asking people for old discarded rags, which he “recycled,” even before that word was invented.) It seems like they would deliver about anything in those days (except maybe pizza).
Christmas was always a joyous time at our house. I remember helping to decorate the tree each year and Mom always put a wreath in the “front door” window. I didn’t get many gifts, but the ones I got were meaningful to me. I must have been about six or eight when someone told me there was no Santa Claus. I didn’t believe him . . . I didn’t want to believe him. When I finally had to accept the truth, I recall it causing a deep, empty feeling inside of me for several days.
Then there was the time that someone took me to a Y.W.C.A. meeting room for a Christmas party where there were many other children, a tree and lots of presents. In looking back I now realize it must have been sponsored by an organization that helped underprivileged children during the holidays. But I never felt I was underprivileged, since most of the kids I knew had families who were in the same boat. To me being “poor” was like the part I had once played in the second grade school play, A Christmas Carol, where I was the poor crippled boy Tiny Tim. About all I remember of that episode was my one line, “God bless us, every one.” But even though we lived right in town, not all homes had “modern” plumbing. While we had a commode in a small indoor room of the house we called “the toilet,” there was no bathtub or sink there. I took my weekly bath (on Saturday night) in the middle of the kitchen floor, in a round, metal wash tub. It was filled with hot water heated in a tea kettle on the kitchen gas range. How well I remember the “finale.” After soaping up, I would stand, then turn in a circle while Mom poured the warm water at shoulder height. That felt so good! Of course, we washed up at other times too, but they were “sponge baths,” done at the kitchen sink! Not too much privacy, but everyone in the family always managed to keep clean and neat. I think that was my first “anatomy lesson” when my sister, seven years older than I, had to wash up “topless!”
With modern living conditions for most people in the U.S. today being so wonderfully convenient, how could we ever characterize those times as “the good ole’ days”?