This country is either in a recession or so close to being in one that the difference only matters to television economists. Despite what the talking heads on television say, however, this is nothing close to the great depression of the 1930’s. The difference is not to be found in the endless statistics of the number of people out of work, the percentage of the underemployed, or even the numbers in poverty. I think the real difference is in the attitudes of the people who lived during those difficult times between the two world wars compared with those of people today.
The history books contain a story about a man who was suddenly unemployed and found it difficult to adjust to the changes in his life. Unable to find work, for three years he painted his house, over and over again. This man wasn’t just passing time--he was desperate to regain a sense of purpose, to retain his pride. I think this is the main difference: how the people of the Great Depression found ways to cope with the depression compared with the people of today.
I don’t have to resort to the history books to find examples--my parents told me of their own difficulties during that time. My mother’s family lost their farm and moved to the giant metropolis of Plainview, Texas, where my grandfather could find work. For the first time, my mother and her sisters lived in a town and had to get used to a new way of life. She told me that one of the small ways the family coped was that they tried to ‘pretty up’ the trash in the garbage can waiting at the curb for the trash truck.
When my mother told me this, I thought it was hilarious. “Why did you want to make your garbage look good?” I asked.
My mother patiently explained, “We were poor, everyone was poor, but we didn’t want people to see the proof of it. So we tried to make the garbage in our trash can look like we had more money than we actually did. We would put the prettiest trash on the top of the can where people could see it.”
“What in the world is pretty trash?” I asked.
“A piece of colored ribbon or a shopping bag from a fancy store,” she explained. “But the prettiest trash was to show you could afford luxuries--something like a watermelon rind. If you could afford a watermelon, you must be doing all right.”
Food as a luxury was something that must have been common in West Texas in those days. My father had a similar story. The farm he grew up on was not a financial success before the depression—when hard times hit it must have been only a few steps above hell itself. My father was not quite a teenager when the depression hit. Within just a few years, he would have quit school to find work and help the family. For a while, however, he found a few odd jobs after school for small amounts of change. He literally had to save his pennies. If he was lucky, by the end of the week, he could finish chores on the farm and walk the few miles to town to spend that saved nickel at the small local grocery store.
In 1932, a nickel would buy quite a few things in there, but my father had two favorites. Occasionally, he would buy a brown cardboard box containing five large white marshmallows. I can picture in my mind my father describing that box and how he would open the lid and lick some of the powdered sugar off of one of the treats before putting the entire marshmallow into his mouth.
Those marshmallows were good, and my father had a powerful sweet tooth his whole life. I have no doubt that my father bought quite a few of those boxes over the years, but that wasn’t his favorite purchase. Instead, he usually bought a can of cling peaches in heavy syrup. A nickel for a whole 12 ounce can of sweet, sweet peaches! Once the can was purchased, my father would sit on the curb outside the store and open that can with his pocketknife, and then slowly eat those peaches, one by one, until they were all gone. Then he would carefully drink the syrup out of the can, making sure not to cut his lips on the ragged edge of the can.
Why didn’t he take the can home? My father was one of eleven children. His mother may have raised an idiot son, but that’s my uncle.
The Great Depression changed the people who lived through it. It created values and built work ethics in those people that I’m not sure we will find in today’s generation. I don’t think hard times will bind today’s people with a shared identity or a sense of accomplishment. When the economy inevitably improves, will it have changed today’s people at all?
There is no doubt it changed my father. He died fifty years after the end of the Great Depression. When we cleaned out his kitchen pantry, there were 18 cans of peaches stockpiled there.