By Veronica Leigh
It’s an odd thing to admit The Great Depression is one of my favorite eras. It is the one era in history that fascinates me the most. Following WWI, during the Roaring Twenties, the economy and America thrived. The present and future appeared bright. A few economists predicted the good times couldn’t last forever, but the world paid little attention. Throughout 1929, there were signs of a slowing economy. On October 24th—–known as Black Thursday—the stock market crashed. The following weeks confirmed that the perpetual party of the 1920s was over and a new, bleak era had arrived.
For the next decade, America and the rest of the world endured the Great Depression. Images of bank closures and people lined up for soup kitchens often crop up in history books and on the internet. And the famous photograph of the careworn mother and her children. My four grandparents lived through the Great Depression; that period affected their experiences and behavior. Even late in life, they couldn’t shake off those memories.
Growing up, I heard countless stories of those days. My one grandmother, specifically, was very candid about the past. She had just turned twelve when the stock market crashed and was sixteen in 1933, considered one of the worst years during the Depression. Her memories were vivid, painting a picture the history books couldn’t. She was the third of six children—her eldest brother died as a baby—her father was a boilermaker, her mother a housewife. They were a loving family, dedicated in their faith in Christ, which is what I believe brought them through the hardest of times. Grandma and her family never went hungry, but there were many times they didn’t know they’d make ends meet. Somehow, they always did.
Hobos would show up on their back porch. A drawn picture of a cat appeared on their fence, signaling to other hobos that a kind lady lived there. And my great-grandmother was kind, feeding whoever was hungry. If Great-Grandpa was present, he would welcome the visitor into the kitchen to eat and for a nice conversation. Great-Grandpa always had a job, unfortunately he didn’t always have work, and they often sent him home. By 1933 his health failed and two weeks before my grandmother’s sixteenth birthday, he died. The extended family planned to help, by splitting up the family. So-and-So would take Grandma, So-and-So would Bettie, So-and-So would take Russel… but Great-Grandma was adamant: “We may starve together, but we will stay together.” For the rest of the 1930s, they banded together to survive.
The weather seemed to turn against the country as well. Dust storms struck all over America, costing lives and ruining livelihoods. It soon became known as the Dust Bowl. Lightening accompanied the storms. Folks hung chains off the bumpers of their cars to prevent them from being stuck. If caught in a dust storm, one would have to cover their face with a cloth and walk backwards against the gusts. Houses had to be shut up tight, windows closed and key holes plugged to prevent the dust from seeping in. But old houses have their crevices and dust would get in somehow. Decades later, Grandma and others who lived through the Dust Bowl, out of habit, would place cups and bowls upside down in the cabinets because that is what they did to prevent dust from collecting on their dishes.
Clothing was rarely store bought. They made dresses from stylishly printed feed sacks, using patterns, and sewn by hand, or by a sewing machine. They knit or crocheted sweaters and cardigans. They wore shoes at work and school, but at home if the weather was seasonable, they went barefoot to preserve their shoes. They patched and mended and passed clothing from one sibling down to another, then onto another family. Like many of that era, my grandmother left high school early to work. She was first a maid, then she worked in several factories. Her earnings of $4 a week went to the household. Later, during WWII, when she earned $16, they allowed her to keep $4 for herself. She felt she was rich.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt got elected president and was eventually voted into office for three more terms, holding the position until his death in 1945. After Herbert Hoover, who was oblivious to the suffering of the American people, many trusted Roosevelt would lead the nation through the dark times. His New Deal, his relief programs, his steadiness, and his fireside chats were a beacon of hope. His assurances they had “nothing to fear but fear itself” spoke volumes. Despite his attempts to ease the financial woes and troubles of the 1930s, the US didn’t rise out of the Great Depression until the onslaught of WWII.
Years later, Grandma told me her life had been a hard one, but also good and satisfying. I believe many of that era would say as much. I don’t know if it is the Great Depression that is my favorite era, or if it’s the people who lived during that time. They possessed an indomitable spirit; after the 1930s, they endured WWII and more or less saved the world. That generation proved to us that whatever trials we may face today, this too shall pass.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh has been published in several anthologies and her work has appeared on GoWorldTravel.com and the Artist Unleashed, and she has published a couple of fictional stories. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and her furbabies. To learn more about her, visit her blog.