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Money Tales from the Great Depression
Amid the din of impending-recession rumors, I've noticed friends voicing anxiety about their jobs, finances and futures, and after hearing and reading an increasing number of reports on economic anxieties, I've also started to worry about how dire it might get.
I wanted to collect some firsthand accounts of how bad the American economy actually has gotten in the past, at least in living memory. So I sought out some perspective from those who had grown up during the Great Depression.
I suspect that, like me, many middle class Americans have a hard time imagining giving up their iPods, let alone selling apples on the street to make ends meet, and it seems worthwhile to keep in mind the sorts of real, large-scale hardship that can befall any country at any time.
And, although it's hard to find an expert today that would predict an economic calamity akin to the 1930s slump, I wanted to put a check on my own (and media pundits') occasionally alarmist tendencies by contrasting the recent forecasts about the current downturn with stories from a real historical enormity. In other words, it could be much, much worse.
Finally, I simply wanted to add a few more Great Depression voices to the record. As one of my interviewees, Naomi Zipkin, put it, "There aren't a lot of us here anymore — and soon there aren't going to be that many people around to talk to."
Following are excerpts from my conversations with five individuals who were born in the 1910s or '20s and grew up during the prolonged economic downturn that followed the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. They talked about their memories of the hardships that they — or their parents, friends or relatives — endured, and about how their experiences during the Depression may have affected their views of money and finances.
Alice (not her real name) was born in Pomona in 1923 and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. She now lives in San Clemente (Orange County).
"I remember when they came and took our car away — that made a big impression," she says. "And I remember my mother worrying about what to feed us.
"My father was a real estate broker. Then the housing market crashed — sort of like today but 10 times worse. Nobody was buying homes. What little money my parents had was gone when the banks closed.
"My father starting raising some vegetables in our yard. I remember we didn't have new clothes; you grew and your clothes didn't fit anymore. I never went to a dentist; I had crooked teeth.
"My grandmother lost her only son in World War I, so she was a Gold Star Mother and got $50 a month. So there were times when she'd send part of that to my mother to help us out.
"The Depression made a saver of me; that's been the most important thing, ever since. When I was young, my father once tried to explain to me how a bank could close. Can you imagine trying to explain that to a kid? For a long time I didn't have a great trust of banks.
"My father had a friend named Oscar who had quite a bit of money. After the bank closures, he didn't trust banks, and he buried his money in fruit jars in his back yard. When the Depression was over, Oscar dug up all the jars and bought (some real estate) with the money.
"It still scares me to death when people run up big credit bills. That's not something I could do. I'm very careful. My house has to be clear, so that no one can take it away.
Lucille Gold was born in New York City in 1920. She now lives in Oceanside (San Diego County).
"My mother and father were immigrants," she says. "They came here (from Russia) before World War I as teenagers. My father got to be very rich in the 1920s: He opened a chemical company of sorts. I never knew, but I suspect it might have had something to do with Prohibition. Our family was rich — we had a nanny and lived in the upper Bronx in a very elegant home. My father also invested in a lot of things like radio and film. And then he lost everything in the stock market crash.
"I remember listening in to lots of my parents' conversations after my sister and I were supposed to be in bed. My mother would be crying, wondering what we would do ... She found a job as a bookkeeper for another family, and my father applied for New York City welfare. I remember it was $25 a week for a family of four.
"We had an uncle who had come to California and invested in real estate, and who was not hurt by the Depression. He let my family live rent-free in an apartment that he owned in the Bronx. That was one of the ways we survived.
"I've had a fantastic life — not rich, but full of wonderful things. What the Depression really did was make me very political and very radical. I can't understand the political apathy I see in this world today. I resent living in a country that prides itself on being so rich and yet people still have to worry about getting old, getting sick, losing a job."
Naomi Zipkin is Lucille Gold's younger sister. She was born in 1926 and currently lives in Walnut Creek.
"My father was a real romantic, and one of his great pleasures was reminding our mother of their anniversary in late December with a gift of a dozen long-stemmed red roses," she says. "Roses at that time in New York were very costly, and finances were a real problem for my family. (During the Depression) he would bring home these roses and my mother would, as they say now, 'go ballistic.'
"We were reliant on welfare for period of our lives. I can vividly remember my parents eating differently from my sister and I. In Jewish custom, my mother fed us well — she would buy good nutritious food for us; I don't remember what (my parents) ate instead.
"I still have some of the Depression mentality, and I'm 81. I still find that decisions I'll make are kind of based on the sense of you only have yourself that you can count on for security. Life isn't always predictable.
"I also probably came away with a sense of the importance of having savings, and not wanting to be reliant upon my children, for example — having them actualize themselves in the way they need to, and not feeling responsible for my husband and me.
"When I graduated from college, I knew that I'd have to go out and go to work; one didn't think of anything else. Grad school was only for the wealthy. I would have loved to go to graduate school. I look at my grandchildren, and my grandson just graduated from college, and he's not sure what he wants to do with his life. He'd like to spend some time thinking about what he'd like to do next — I think it's wonderful, I'm not judging it — but in no way would that have fit into my own expectation for myself."
Nathan Zipkin is Naomi's husband. He was born in Los Angeles in 1921.
"We never had money for clothes," he remembers. "In those days people darned their socks; it was not like today where you throw them away. In the summer time we didn't wear shoes.
"There was always food in our house, but dinners quite often were just potato soup or just rice and gravy. My mother sacrificed a lot for us.
"FDR declared a bank holiday after he first became president. When it was over, the bank that my parents had some savings in failed — it was gone. They lost all their savings — about $1,000. Even as a young kid, I could understand this was a serious thing.
"Then my parents started having trouble paying their mortgage. Congress had passed a law setting up the HOLC (the Home Owners' Loan Corporation). You had to apply to them, and I remember my mother going down every day to the office of the HOLC to try to get them to give us relief — to lower the payments on the mortgage — similar to what they're talking about today, but for different reasons. One day my mother came home and said, 'They approved our application.' She broke down and said, 'We're not going to lose our house.' That was 1934; I'm going on 87. I was a young kid then, but I can still remember it clearly.
"I know that in my high school years, which were 1936 to 1939, I was thinking, 'I have to get a job out of high school, what am I going to do? There was no emphasis on going to college; my father had been an orphan and he labored. He was never out of work during the Depression. He owned a little laundry store and he worked long, long, long hours. He was gone in the morning while it was still dark, he came home after work, exhausted, had dinner and fell into bed. And then he'd get up and do it again, morning after morning. Shortly after I graduated from high school in June, 1939, I got a job in a laundry for $12 a week; it was a 50-hour week that we worked.
"One son of mine is doing very well now — he's a consultant in a computer business. I keep talking to him and saying, 'Whatever you're saving, be sure you're saving a large enough chunk, so if you're out of work for a couple years you'll be able to live. I don't know if relaying my situation to my kids had an impact. From time to time I've told them what it was like.
"What I don't want to do is ever be in a position where I'd have to go to (my children) for help. I can't emphasize how important Social Security is in our lives, and in my mother and father's lives. I keep thinking what's going to happen with my kids; I think this country is going to be faced with a major financial upset. There will be some hard times."
John Manola was born in 1917 in East Orange, N.J. He now lives in Philadelphia.
"My father worked as a mason," he says, "and when the Depression came, he lost his job, along with many, many others. I remember hearing my folks talk about not having any income at all. He got unemployment of some kind and then eventually got a job with the WPA.
"My uncle had a very good job on Wall Street; he lost everything. He almost committed suicide; he became very emotionally disturbed.
"I remember that my mother would cry a lot when she couldn't pay the bills. (Collectors) would come to our house and she'd have to talk to them. I remember hearing all this.
"The Depression made me realize how I had to work for everything. I started to have little jobs. My mother's brother had a chicken farm and he asked my mother if I would want to sell some eggs. I would take the eggs out and sell them.
"The experience of growing up during the Depression has definitely permeated my life. One thing it made me do is save. You always have to have something to fall back on. And I've always been careful with credit cards.
"I think when I hear that word 'recession' now, I really feel it more than maybe some people that didn't go through (the Great Depression). When I started reading about the latest recession news, I called my broker — I have a few things in stocks and so forth — and I asked him, 'Am I to be afraid about this?' The fear is there. But I trust that something will adjust.
"I'm not fatalistic; I'm more optimistic than pessimistic, but I still have sort of a feeling of how quickly things can disappear. And I also know that you really don't have to have too much to get along. You can get along very well with very little. You don't have to keep trying to be a millionaire. If I won $1 million, I wouldn't know what to do with it."