Remembering Past Hard Times

News at Home

T H McGraw was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1939 and is now retired in suburban Philadelphia. After military service he attended Temple University in the 1960’s and has written for Astronomy Magazine. He has traveled extensively in the U.S. and over a dozen foreign countries including China’s "New Territories" in the 1960’s.

You don’t have to take a shower every day. Good news? Your great-grandparents might have given a baffled look at any such declaration. Just whom, they might have asked, would want cold water poured on them in winter? Showers, hot showers with clean water were before modern times mostly reserved for royalty. Plenty of servants to draw and heat water, or time away from requisite peasant drudgery were needed. As late as the twentieth century, even in urban America a warm shower was not universally available. Bath water had to be drawn laboriously and heated to fill a large wash-tub, often in the middle of the kitchen floor. Then, with appropriate Victorian modesty, a familiar weekly ritual could begin. Generally speaking there was a strict “pecking order” to the bath. Customarily, the eldest bread-winner went first, followed by sons or working men, then women by age to the younger children who may have been less aware of the significance of water coloration.

By the early twentieth century, some of the rigors of getting gallons of water hot for a Saturday bath were lessened in homes with running water, either from city lines or attic tanks. Early coal-fired water heaters came into wider use. Sadly, many lacked reliable safety-valves and would occasionally blow like errant rockets through the roofs of unfortunate homeowners.

Other bath accoutrements we may take for granted are flush toilets and even toilet paper. Toilet paper first appeared in the last century with such rarity that some used it as writing paper, another scarce commodity. Prior to toilet paper, corn cobs were often allowed to soften in water to ready them for the required task.

So. To what remote history do we relegate these perhaps amusing accounts, and where do we lead with all this? The writer can even recall anecdotal recountings of them and not that very long ago. Rapid has been the reversal of hardships on the path to modernity. Common food poisoning, consumption (tuberculosis), slow death by any of dozens of now treatable diseases, malnutrition - today maybe summed-up with an insouciant shrug. We have, in developed countries, woven a tapestry of intricate, safe and comfortable systems into our continuum.

Could it even be conceivable that the assurance of employment might somehow slip from our inherent assumptions? Or that ongoing access to survival resources could well, no longer be taken for granted? Certainly, any but third world governments have in place assistance programs. Albeit short-termed. There has always been something for the job seeker though sometimes not highly compensated. Is it imaginable that our collective thirst for goods and services might ever rapidly diminish? Unexpectedly and drastically? That there might be no jobs even for those who are willing to endure harsh working conditions. Would many simply have to work at food production or the like? We will always need to eat.

In the 1820’s almost 80 percent of American workers were employed in farming or ancillary occupations. Naturally during the industrial revolution that percentage decreased. By 1930, only about 21 percent worked at producing food in America. In 1959, about 10 percent. 2008 saw less than 4 percent working at farming. The other 96 percent of our population, less some 6 percent unemployed, has enjoyed the assurance that at least tomorrow they would go to work or welfare and bring home some sort of resources to sustain life.

Most have seen the grainy black-and-white documentaries of displaced farm workers in the early 1930’s. Or perhaps viewed the piles of rotting fruit or vegetables held from market in protest over deflationary prices - payment that failed even to cover production costs. Movie shorts too, showed dairy farmers dumping milk by truckloads. One principal motive of the much maligned Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930 was to prevent foreign agricultural over-production from undercutting American farm prices. Farming, especially today’s giant corporate farms, doesn’t look like an especially hopeful employer in modern hard times.

Social programs or not, our great grandparents in the 1930’s seemed to have had a much less sanguine attitude about survival. Employed or not, most had some savings. Too, most rural and even suburban families had a garden and livestock – some chickens, fowl or a pig which could be butchered in winter to help sustain the family. They got by, obviously. Aside from an increase in the homicide and suicide rate between 1929 and 1933 of approximately 25 percent, the populace behaved in a rather stoic manner; some pulling toward spiritual values, others even blaming themselves for their misfortunes. Stories of the Depression years would make for a disquieting exposition.

Someone from “the thirties” seeing today’s consumerism might initially express surprise, maybe admiration. After seeing its magnitude they might tactfully inquire as to the means for all the affluence. Few of them would easily be aware of the associated dissipation of personal savings, reckless destruction of resources and environmental ravages. That seems to evade even modern comprehension as consumerism is suggested by most as the proper nostrum for current economic problems - using credit if need be. Not that people of the Depression years were unfamiliar with credit buying. We can find Woody Guthrie’s “Dollar Down and a Dollar a Week” in the pop-song offerings today. Generalizing from our readings, those in the “hard years” seemed a good deal more circumspect, less entitled, and indeed adept at material self-denial. 

The brief nature of our article precludes reflection upon the 1930’s Weimar Republic or today’s Zimbabwe unlikely even in a hyper-inflated America. The bravest and brightest find a way - overconfidence notwithstanding. Yet, confidence may be that changeful key element needed to emerge from anything like a financial collapse. Moreover, spiritual faith.

In a younger day needing a job, I applied for work at a local fire and burglar alarm company. The owner seemed interested enough to launch his standard sales discourse in his office. Drawing attention to several black framed photographs of chalk body-outlines and burned-out homes - obviously not his customers - he said something I could never really quite forget.
“All these people…”, he began, “had one thing in common.” Then, after a practiced pause, went on, “They all thought…that it couldn’t happen to them.”

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Vernon Clayson - 3/17/2009

No regrets necessary, Mr. McGraw, most who experienced the so-called Depression, in my instance rural Southwestern New York, took life as it came and made do with what little they had and were toughened by it. While many historians view those years from photographs of dust bowls, lines of people and tent cities, they overlook what many of us remember, shoe less summers and ill-fitting hand me down clothing, neither by preference but by necessity, school lunches packed at home, a slice of homemade bread was usual, a piece of cheese, a cupcake or an apple was a special treat. School itself was a treat because it was warmer than home, the stove we had there didn't produce enough heat to defrost the windows. A dust bowl would have been a piece of cake for anyone spending a winter in Southwestern New York. My grandparents had a farm and I liked going there because the barn, because of the livestock, was warmer than our house. Your concern with distribution of food was a factor then, government supplied dried fruit, cheese and flour was basic fare for the poor and people were ashamed they had to accept it. All that aside, your concern about food doesn't take into account that the price of food never goes down, a grocer will close before they can reduce prices as those prices in large part are set by political forces. I know about the 1930s from personal experience but I'm older and would have a difficult time surviving in such conditions. Our immediate ancestors were hardy and independent souls, we no longer produce their kind.

Tom H McGraw - 3/17/2009

Allow me if you will Mr. Clayson, to express my regrets for your suffering and that of any during the “Great Depression”. Yours was a “…disquieting exposition”, worthy of far wider publication. Struggles with personal hygiene of course pre-date “hard times”. They were included mainly to raise contrasts to a wide readership, some of whom might find writing upon toilet-sheets amusing. Woody Guthrie’s “Dollar Down…”(written in the 1940’s with a sad ending) alludes to excessive consumer credit-buying - sited by many economists as contributing both during the 1920’s and more recently, to depression conditions. What my article really aspired to do is raise awareness that food prices or distribution may not always be stable, and in these times we have almost no alternatives. Government food distributions rely upon civil order; manual wells for potable water are, mostly from days past. Someone asking at our door in such circumstances today is apt to have an attitude and even a weapon. With our comforts we have acquired vulnerabilities and need to prepare well.

Donald Wolberg - 3/16/2009

The fascinating observations of Mr. McGraw and Mr. Clayson add depth to an appreciation of the life 80 years ago. I recall both pairs of my grandparents descriptions of the "inventiveness" they needed to use to get by through the 30's in New York City. Of course there were the expected hardhips, but there was also a sense or rememberance of "community" and the sharing of tenament neighbors that was later lost. However, it is certain that whatever disruptions we find so stressful today are very different. One is struck by some remarkable (to me)facts that make the posture of our less than aware politicians just one more example of the confusion of those so engaged, if not clear indications of their need for remedial educations.

In so far as I can determine, the population of the U.S. in 1929 was about 122,000,000. It is now more than 300,000,000. Approximately 49,000,000 people were employed in 1929 and a little less that 11,000,000 of these were in agriculture. In February, 2009, some 154,000,000 Americans were employed (more than the entire population of the U.S. in 1929 and 300% more than those employed in 1929. At the height of the economic crisis of the 1930's about 8-10 million Americans were unemployed (15-20%). In February, 12 million Americans were reported as unemployed or 8%. These numbers speak of an amazingly productive economy, despite the perturbations. Circumstances are vastly different: America has a $13.2 trillion dollare econonomy despite the current slowing: that's more than $13,000 billion dollars. There are perhaps 150,000,000 cars and trucks, 250,000,000 televisions, and perhaps 60% of Americans are invested in one way or another the stock market. A recent boxing match featuring Oscar Delahoya has some 30 million or more pay-per-view subscribers at $55 and every football game, basketball game, baseball game is packed with a crowd where every single person has a cell phone.

It is a different world, with very different expectations and tolerances.

Vernon Clayson - 3/16/2009

I'm a few years older than Mr. McGraw and I remember the 1930s. His review describes those hard times in a near lighhearted manner. Bathing wasn't a priority when people, my parents were an example, had to scrape up 50 cents or a dollar to eat. For Mr. McGraw's elucidation hunger is the most primal of urges, everything else is secondary. True, we had chickens, pigs and even goats, but the animals didn't fare much better than we did, they were runts at best, subsisting on "table slops" and whatever else they could find, until we ate them. It's uncomfortable to think about but to my young mind I noticed even dogs disappeared shortly before supper. We had gardens but usually picked the vegetables far in advance of their maturity, who could wait for carrots to grow full length? Woody Guthrie's plaintive songs and old black and white photographs are not the full description of the times, Mr. McGraw. Did any of his songs or the photographs of the times describe a skinny scruffy hollow-eyed hobo coming to the door of our poor house asking for something to eat and devouring dry pieces of bread as if it were manna from heaven? There's many of us around that recall those times, there was nothing light-hearted or musically romantic about it.