The Lessons of the Great Depression.


I didn’t live through the Great Depression, and for that I’ve always been thankful. However, my parents and other relatives did live through it and they learned lessons that they never forgot. Unfortunately, often the lessons that we learn and try so hard to pass on to the next generation to save them pain, usually doesn’t pass on with the urgency that we ourselves feel they command.

My parents are gone now, but this last weekend I saw an article in the Charlotte Observer that brought back some of their admonitions. While my parents didn’t ‘like’ banks, they did use them, they just never trusted them. They warned about debt, accounting errors and service charges. Those are proving to be warnings that were well founded and worthy of our ‘listening’ time.

Evelyn Shepherd lives alone and rarely entertains, but the 77-year-old keeps enough food on hand to survive a small disaster.

Her cupboard is filled with more than 100 cans of nonperishables, including corn and beans and diced tomatoes. Her freezer is packed with meats and three loaves of bread.

Like many born during the Great Depression, Shepherd takes advantage of sales – even if it means buying more food than she immediately needs. She saves money by buying in bulk.

My mother too stockpiled food. I recall once she was hospitalized and out of work. At that time, she was a single Mom. I’ve often thought about how she made ends meet with no health insurance, out of work due to illness, a hospital bill to pay and a child to soupport (my siblings were already grown). Somehow she made it and paid the hospital bill alone. I remember that time and the fact that our one ‘luxury’ was a quart of fresh milk every day. She insisted that I drink milk and a lot of it, every day. She seemed overly concerned about strong bones. While I realize strong bones are important, I have never known why she was virtually obsessed with them. That too may have been an association with the lack of vitamins and healthy food during the Depression. I just don’t know.

“Mama has always been worried that the bad times could come back,” says Vicky Maynor, 59, Shepherd’s daughter. “My sister and I used to laugh and ask her why she was saving twisty ties and aluminum foil. But now everybody has to watch what they spend, and her habits don’t seem so funny, anymore.”

Mother too had a few quirks … well, maybe more than a few. She also saved aluminum foil to reuse. She even horded new aluminum foil too. She had about 25 big rolls that had never been opened. She saved Christmas wrapping paper that had just been removed from presents, as well as the bows. When I ‘cleaned out the house’ after my step dad passed, it was amazing how many used bows with matching paper (used, of course) we discarded.

My step-Dad was ‘another story’. He kept rusty nails as well as good ones. He had three sheds full of ‘junk’ that he might be able to use in some unforeseen way. Those were his ‘treasures’ and the things that made him feel comfortable. Some really were treasures to other people but for the historic value. There was one neighbor who must have watched the house all the time because as soon as I arrived to begin the ‘ritual’ of tossing things out, he too arrived to salvage the treasures that were ‘too good’ to pass up. His wife must have been very tolerant.

Today’s volatile stock market, rising unemployment and failing banks evoke comparisons to the 1930s.

Experts say most of those who survived the Depression learned to protect themselves by living modestly, saving money and avoiding credit debt.

It is a way of life some say could be – and probably should be – a blueprint for enduring economic hardship.

Lessons learned during that era were forgotten and we had to re-learn them.

The last time Americans carried so much credit debt was the year the stock market crashed and the country plunged into the Depression.

According to a Columbia University study, the country’s credit debt has reached 100 percent of the gross domestic product. In other words, Americans owe as much as the country owns or produces in a year. The last time that happened was 1929.

Americans in the early 1920s, like Americans today, lived beyond their means. After the crash, when banks closed, farms folded and people lost their life savings, spending habits changed.

Over the next 40 years, Americans used credit conservatively – keeping debt below 50 percent of the GDP until the mid-1980s.

Then, spending took off and the country’s debt climbed steadily to a peak in 2007.

Some of the problems were caused by loss of jobs, and unethical lending, but far more was caused by selfish greed and unwillingness to wait until the item was ‘earned’. Some even never wanted to earn them at all and just kept pushing more and more charge cards higher and higher and then declaring bankruptcy.

The last time Americans carried so much credit debt was the year the stock market crashed and the country plunged into the Depression.

According to a Columbia University study, the country’s credit debt has reached 100 percent of the gross domestic product. In other words, Americans owe as much as the country owns or produces in a year. The last time that happened was 1929.

Americans in the early 1920s, like Americans today, lived beyond their means. After the crash, when banks closed, farms folded and people lost their life savings, spending habits changed.

Over the next 40 years, Americans used credit conservatively – keeping debt below 50 percent of the GDP until the mid-1980s.

Then, spending took off and the country’s debt climbed steadily to a peak in 2007.

(Color added for emphasis.)

Changing old habits is hard and it hurts.

Charlotte author Robin Edgar interviewed 100 such survivors for her book, “Personal Legacies: Surviving the Great Depression.”

She says her subjects shared habits born out of hardship.

They kept chickens in the yard and raised gardens to feed the family. They made and repaired their own clothes.

“Vanity took a back seat to necessity,” she says.

Today there are signs that people are finally embracing the lessons of the Depression.

It’s about ‘spending smart’.

Lewis Crump, 85, remembers how hard his father searched for a job during the Depression, when unemployment reached 25 percent.

Sanford Crump worked in a Charlotte cotton mill, until it closed. He was eventually hired by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal jobs program that built several projects in the area, including Memorial Stadium.

Lewis Crump, like many boys of that time, helped his family by working several small jobs. He caddied at Charlotte Country Club, sold ice cream at Spoons and delivered the Charlotte News for a nickel a copy.

“Nobody had anything back in those days,” Crump says. “It was tough. I mean tough, tough, tough.”

Crump says growing up during the Depression taught him the value of hard work and the importance of spending wisely. Those were lessons he put to use as he got married and raised four kids, three of whom he sent to college.

“It ain’t about being cheap,” he says. “It’s about being smart.”

Scott Crump, 41, says his father always seemed to have money, but never seemed to spend it.

“I’ll never forget the old white Ford Custom he owned,” says Scott Crump, a commercial landscaper. “He drove that old thing for more than 20 years, drove it until it died.”

Scott Crump hasn’t always followed his father’s advice. When he was younger, he wrestled with credit card debt. He says he is in good shape now.

“Of course, now,” he says, “I am trying to teach my teenage son the same stuff Dad tried to teach me.”

There is much more in this very worthwhile read in the

~ by citizenjournalistreview on March 18, 2009.

2 Responses to “The Lessons of the Great Depression.”

  1. A one of the post Depression / WWII generation, I watched and learned the value of conservation, waste not want not! To this day I can’t help myself, I save paper sacks, coffee cans, jars that can be used to can home grown fruit and vegetables. I plant and tend a small garden, raise enough chickens to provide meat and eggs.
    I have never had a credit card, I pay cash for everything. If I don’t have the cash to purchase an item, then I can wait until I do have cash for that item.

    My daughter and family are learning these lessons of not living beyond your means the hard way, as are many Americans.

  2. I find myself doing lots of things that I learned from my mother’s lessons. I always buy groceries that I don’t need that will save in the pantry ‘just in case’. I write the expiration date in large letters on each can with a black laundry pen to make it easier to read. I also keep them all rotated. After I have bought food for a couple of months, I make sure the ratation is in order so none of it spoils. I keep some in a freezor too, but I always keep even some meats that are canned.

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