My Memories of the Real Great Depression

The “Depression”, which most who lived through it had almost forgotten, came roaring back as a topic when the Great Recession began in 2007, and which 75% of Americans think isn’t over as of 2012 though the Business Cycle Dating Committee says it ended in June 2009.

Maybe the best way to describe the 1930’s depression is through the eyes of a little kid–me.

Darning socks: Boys back then wore knee pants and long wool socks. The first part of the sock to wear out was the toes. My mother would sit for hours darning my socks—and she let me know she was pleased with herself for saving the money. Today–at least pre the Great Recession–who would spend time on old socks?

My mother did because she didn’t feel we had an extra 25 cents for socks and she was proud both of her skills in saving money with clothing repair and shopping for economical meals.

The ‘run’ on banks:  Panic hit America in the 1930s. Many banks closed and people raced to get deposits out of banks. My Aunt Fanny had to stand in line for hours in 1933 before she could get into her bank and withdraw her life’s savings. I remember bringing her a sandwich during the wait because it lasted almost a day and how nervous she seemed until the door of the bank opened  and she got back cash she had worked so hard for at a company that published Physical Culture**, a forerunner of today’s health magazines.

I remember that Aunt Fanny’s usually calm and smiling look turned sad all that day but as a seven-year-old had no idea why there was that line outside the bank. I just knew it was a day that might end in tragedy.

Sales meetings: My father was an insurance agent for Prudential Life Insurance. He had a territory, called a Debit, encompassing several blocks of Brooklyn tenements and his main job was to collect money from people living there who had Prudential policies. No one had enough money to pay annually for a life insurance policy. They paid fifty cents a week on policies worth $1000 after the insured person died. Occasionally, one of his customers had a son who got married and then my father would sell that young man a policy; or sell a friend or relative.

Where there are salespeople, there are sales meetings. In the 1930’s, insurance agent sales meetings were held after the day’s work and they were long harangues urging the agents to sell more policies. I recall my father coming home close to my bedtime at 10 p.m., white faced, from weekly meetings.

The idea was a little bit like Weight Watchers. Each agent weighed in with a report on how many policies he had sold that week. It was painful to report lack of new sales and sometimes salesmen would hold back turning in a sale and keep it in reserve for the following week to have something positive to report.

When my father died after a heart attack, some of the people at his funeral were his customers from the Brooklyn tenements who spoke of him as a man who was concerned about them rather than a hard-pushing salesman. Many years after his death, I recall finding a little booklet listing people my father had sold to–some by then were affluent doctors, lawyers, corporate men, but shown in his records as owners of little $1000 policies.

Newspapers as toilet paper: My father sometimes took me to visit his parents. They lived in lower Manhattan in an old apartment building where one bathroom in the hallway served the several apartments on a floor. (Examples of this type of housing can still be seen at the Tenement Museum in Manhattan.)

What I remember most was the toilet paper—it was squares of newspaper stuck on a nail. Television currently gets more and more graphic in explaining how soft today’s toilet paper is.

But in the 30s, rectums were apparently tougher and could withstand newsprint, which was also an economy since the paper had already served its original purpose.

Selling apples: When people were broke and couldn’t find work, some sold apples on the streets of Manhattan. Why apples? I saw the sellers sitting quietly with crates of apples but never found out why that was the fruit they sold.

The lucky ones: We considered ourselves fortunate. My father never lost his  job though unemployment approached 20%. Yes, I saw my mother darning and my father’s drawn face after the weekly sales meetings. But somehow it never occurred to me that I might spend the rest of my life struggling for economic survival and wearing darned socks.

I think I felt untouched by the Great Depression but perhaps I’m not being self-analytical. There may be a reason that I never throw any item of clothing away, even a single sock when its mate has disappeared into the mysterious chasms of a washing machine.

And my daughter Heidi sees the influence of the depression in the fact that, when my wife inherited old pots from her mother, some with big dents in them, I used a hammer to straighten out the dents.

But I don’t put much stock in the depression as an influence. It bounced off the psyches of many of us who were there. We went on to invest in stocks, pay little attention to efforts to reform finance, and were amazed when the hero of Great Recession banking, James Dimon, who fought so hard against regulating banks, was hoist on his own petard in the recent JP Morgan multi-billions trading loss.

That expression about a petard and hoisting is one whose exact meaning I don’t know any more than you probably do as a reader though I think we all get the drift about how little we learn from each crisis in our economy.

**Note: Bernarr Macfadden the publisher of Physical Culture was a bizarre and fascinating man. He was both a magazine publishing magnate and an early proponent of body building and nutrition.

To see a wonderful video of images and music from this era, click here.

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2 comments on “My Memories of the Real Great Depression

  1. yaffa schlesinger says:

    Thank you Miles.
    I just loved it. En very much. Beautifully written.
    I heard the piece of Brother Can You Spare a Dime more than once.

  2. yaffa schlesinger says:

    enjoyed reading it.

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