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The children of Depression-era parents are....

Inspired by Joe K's WWII post and Jean Raber's lament about the Baby Boom generation: "Im on the verge of saying what I used to say to my parents: 'I didnt ask to be born.' Im sick and tired of apologizing for the sheer size of My GGGGeneration and what a freaking disappointment we are to our elders and what a burden we are to our youngers. Keep screwing with SS, Medicare, and health care, though, and youll be able to whittle our size down in no time."I wonder how those old enough to have had Depression-era parents (I did) see the current economic situation and what they learned, absorbed, or picked up from those who made their way through the GREAT Depression. There are some comparables [to the current smaller depression] here. Tell us your story.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Hear, hear! You go girl! Right on!

Can we assume you refer to Jean Raber?

I'm cheering for YOU Margaret!

Oops! I believe I didn't notice an important colon (:). The sentiment I'm cheering for is: Im sick and tired of apologizing for the sheer size of My GGGGeneration and what a freaking disappointment we are to our elders and what a burden we are to our youngers. Keep screwing with SS, Medicare, and health care, though, and youll be able to whittle our size down in no time.

My parents lived through the Great Depression, but I don't have any stories to pass on. They seemed to think of it as life, not The Great Trial. They almost never, as I recall, referred to it as a phenomenon at all. No "We Survived the Great Depression" T-shirts.

The one thing I absorbed from my parents (married in the middle of the Depression) was a horror of debt - as a result my way of doing things is based on frugality. I am happy to report that I have now set aside enough $$$ to replace my thirteen year old car. My mother scorned what she called "charge cards" so I feel a tad guilty at having one credit card (paid off faithfully each month).

I remember some of my mother's stories of the Great Depression. Her father was a baker, and he was never out of work. My mother's family lived in the Terra Haute, Indiana, area. I remember being amazed and saddened when she told us that they used to wrap their garbage neatly and cleanly before putting the trash out, because there were people who picked through garbage foraging for something to eat. Of course, when I came to New York (from Cincinnati) in 1970, one of the first things I saw was homeless people picking through the trash cans on the streets and sometimes eating right out of them. My father worked his way through college and also got a master's degree. He had an atypical approach to money. He did not believe in credit of any kind. My mother told me she had to convince him to take out a mortgage to buy our first house. Apparently he had wanted to save up and pay cash. I am not sure whether he paid cash for our first car (a Jeep station wagon) or whether my mother convinced him to get a loan. He really didn't believe in credit cards, although when there were several of us in the family all driving the same two cars, we did get gas-station credit cards. My father was very frugal in many ways. He did most of the grocery shopping, and he would buy things like store brand cookies (Ann Page, since he generally shopped at the A&P), which my younger sister once described as tasting like sawdust. He would eat things himself (including the sawdust cookies) so that they didn't go to waste. Oreo cookies or Coke was a treat. He would buy the 8 oz bottles of Coke, and we were not allowed to have a second bottle. I always thought it was an injustice that when it was his turn to host the monthly poker game he and his friends had, they all got to drink one beer after another, but for us, only one Coke was allowed. That may sound healthful, but we drank Kool-Aid in large quantities, which was not health food.My family went to restaurants rarely, and it was a fairly rare treat to get take-out food. This was largely because of money. My parents looked with disapproval at neighbors who ate out a great deal and then had trouble paying things like their doctor bills. That attitude rubbed off on me, but I have to say that most of the other frugal habits didn't. I buy no-name brands where quality is good or where high quality is not important, but you will find no store-brand cookies in my pantry. I spend a lot more freely than my parents did, although of course I am able to do so and still live well within my means and also save adequately for my retirement. I suppose on the big issues of money management, I really have followed in my parents' footsteps, but in the small ones, I have quite deliberately not. My mother mostly grew up in St.-Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, which was a tiny town with a huge convent and women's college that my mother's brother, one of her sisters, and one of her sisters' husbands worked for most of their adult lives. The stories are endless, but they don't really have a lot to do with the Depression, although that is when they mostly took place.

My mother scorned what she called charge cards so I feel a tad guilty at having one credit card (paid off faithfully each month).Lawrence,I was interrupted in the middle of writing my message above, so I didn't see yours until after I posted. As I mentioned, my father (but not my mother) did not like "charge cards." The local supermarket where we often shopped (after we moved and my father stopped shopping at the A&P) had a store credit card and periodically gave back a percentage of the amount you had spent on it. My father rarely passed up a bargain, but when I asked him why we didn't get a Thriftway (if I remember correctly) card, he said, "I don't believe in it."I have two credit cards, but they are both paid in full each month.

My ex's grandparents were a young couple during the Great Depression. His grandfather was a chemical engineer and, to have a job, had to go far away, so that he was only coming home on weekends. His lunch menu for years: a mayonnaise sandwich! His grandmother had kept some frugal habits from those days. When I visited her in her retirement home in the 1990s, she explained to me that since her lunch in the retirement home cost $9, she paid with a 10 dollar bill and carefully set the $1 change aside; in that way, every other week she had saved enough to go to the hairdresser's and get her hair done. The lesson she tried to impart: that's the way to go to save painlessly. She went "Tsk" disapprovingly when I told her that I didn't know how to darn socks, and that if I forgot to pack a sweatshirt, I could always buy a new one. About not going into debt: I hear that at Brigham Young University, the tuition is much lower than most other places, because they're mormons and, by principle, do not take on any debt at all. They don't start construction on a new building until they have the money to pay for it. Hard to imagine!

With the collapse of the railroads then, my parents came to Nrw York and my father sold apples, had a newstand for a while, and finally landed a jon where he worked six days a week fpr many years.Through all of this, the most important thing - though we didn't have a lot in our coal stove(no steam apartment) hasving fun with cards and games and laughter despite all the troubles in the world and a broader world of sickness then, including TB, diptheria, scarlet fever etc..Most important , people pulled together more -not like today's polarozed world run by spin.

"Most important , people pulled together more"Bob, I think you've hit on something important here. My sense of talking to middle-class parents who are out of work is that they feel like they are fighting a losing battle, alone.

1932,33 My brother was at the Maryknoll Seminary in Scranton , Pa. I was the youngest and a lot to handle so I was taken along on a visit to see him. We left home at 4:30 AM by the courtesy of a family friend who had a CAR and would drive us from Ct and back. We could not afford to stay overnite, of course. I can remember nothing of the visit to my beloved brother but... we ATE DINNER OUT at the DEWDROP INN!!!!

I remember flattening tin cans and using twine to wrap garbage in newspaper, but I've never associated that with the depression of the thirties. It was just something we did. Could that habit have started earlier? I doubt plastic garbage bags were available then.Credit, also, simply wasn't commonly available until about 1950:

The concept of customers paying different merchants using the same card was expanded in 1950 by Ralph Schneider and Frank McNamara, founders of Diners Club, to consolidate multiple cards. I was young, in the fifties, as I recall, a married woman needed her husband's signature on a credit account. Credit was simply not available then as it is now. I don't think that can be traced to the depression of the thirties.

David, A teacher, single mother, told me that it was required, sometime in the '50's, that her father, aged and retired on SS, co-sign her mortgage, although she herseif held a tenured position. First Depression : In the "old dry reservoir", in Baldwin, L.I., there grew up a large collection of shacks, cobbled together of scraps of wood and tarpaper. ( As I remember- I was 6 yrs. old ) Our classmate, Carolina, lived there. Full of fun, wild-haired-tiny white pearls bedecked her her black hair . ( Yes, we all got "cooties"). One day I saw that the area where the shacks had stood was clear. Nothing remained, not a scrap, and Carolina was gone from our class. Yes, people pulled together-in this case, the shacks from their precarious footings. "

Scrooge asked "Are there no workhouses?" Maybe in The UK, in his day, but not in Baldwin, LI, NY, in 1935. Vilified "public housing " did not exist there, Does it now?

Isabelle (7:13 pm), I remember growing up in Columbus, Ohio, that there was a small black housing community on the near-east side - Hanford Village.It was, I believe, effectively destroyed by interstate-highway construction in the sixties. It was small, as I recall. It would probably have been fairly simple to route the highway around it. But they didn't.

When my maternal grandmother passed I thought it would be a good idea to take Grandpa out to a nice Italian restaurant where they had singing waitors. Not a good idea. When Grandpa happened to notice the prices he ripped into me before, during and after the meal. That I should spend so much money with which he could cook for the whole family for a week or more. If you wanted him to spend money you better have had an iron clad reason. Yet people like him flourished while nowadays people who make ten times as much are in the red.

Hey, Bill, your grandfather sounds like my kind of guy. One of our criteria for Italian restaurants is, "it has to be better food than we can make at home, or else it has to be really cheap".

My grandparents were young during the depression. When I was a kid we lived with them off and on (in California). I don't remember them ever takig us out to a restaurant or to a movie but we did go to play bingo sometimes at the air force base - that's where they mostly shopped too, at the commissary. By the time we were staying with them, they lived in a ranch style home, had one car, an old Ford, and spent almost all their time working in the yard where they grew almond trees, peach trees, vegetables. I asked them once about the depression and they mentioned people jumping out of windows in despair.

I remember my grandmother showing me how she had gathered the last scraps of bars of soap, put them into a mesh bag and use them to do hand-wash and explaining that was one way that they had been able to wash during the Depression. Alas, as a teen-ager, I couldn't quite take the soap scraps seriously but I did feel vaguely guilty about it!

My parents met in high school (about 1935) and put off getting married until 1940 and my father had a full-time, permanent job. In the meantime, they both lived with their parents and my father along with his other siblings supported their widowed (blind!) mother. Borrowing money was anathema to them, but I recall their lending money to friends and relatives. There was also a lot of mutual help: we lived on the first floor of a two story house owned by my uncle; my cousins lived on the first floor of my grandmother's two story (families with children went on the first floor to confine the noise to the basement where as my older cousin said, the bogeyman lived!). Our first car was a hand-me-down from my uncle and children's clothes made their way down the age-chain. My mother also made her own dresses and fetching outfits for my sisters and me (often with matching hats).As we grew up we had to earn our own pocket money (no allowances). Going out to dinner was a great treat though we were encouraged to order at the low end of prices. We all had to pay our own college tuition (when it was more affordable than it is now).One effect this upbringing had on me was not to borrow money; pay off the credit card monthly; and don't expect to get back lent money anytime soon.

Re: clothes from the age chain. In the sixties a five year old grand nephew, on recieving a new sweater,..."whose was this?"

We still do hand-me-downs, although the clothes seem to be made so cheaply today that by the time the first kid has outgrown it, it's pretty much worn out and ready for disposal.

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