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Friday, 17 October 2008

Memories of the Great Depression

By Mort Reichek of Octogenarian

The current financial crisis, generating fears that the U.S. faces a serious depression, has triggered my memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

My earliest memory was seeing my young, unmarried aunt, who lived with my parents, coming home from work one evening sobbing hysterically. I can still recall that she carried a newspaper emblazoned with a huge headline printed in red, reading: "Stock market crashes!"

The paper was undoubtedly the now-defunct New York Journal-American, a Hearst newspaper that routinely published red-ink headlines in large type to stir up reader excitement.

But this was no routine story. It was 1929, and the Great Depression had begun. I was five years old, and I still vividly remember my aunt's behavior that night. She had invested her meager savings, earned as a secretary, in the stock market. Now the savings had been wiped out.

She and other relatives, all people of modest means, had been encouraged by a stock broker/cousin to buy stock. That I can still recall the incident about my aunt and the newspaper headline so many years later demonstrates how traumatic the experience was, even for a young, impressionable boy.

I have other painful recollections of that era. In the early 1930s, my father's business collapsed. My father, who had not invested in the stock market, had operated a small shop in New York, manufacturing men's clothing in partnership with an uncle and brother-in-law.

Over the next decade, he was often unemployed, frequently holding down only temporary jobs as a salesman, usually in the men's apparel or food industries.

I always wondered how we were able to maintain our two-bedroom apartment during those years. We lived very frugally, but I do not recall that we suffered the severe economic indignities that afflicted so many others during the Great Depression.

But I do remember depending on hand-me-down baseball gloves, sleds, bicycles, and roller skates from a more affluent cousin whose father's business survived the nation's economic meltdown.

Only in recent years have I figured out how my parents were probably able to maintain our home during the Great Depression. I have a cousin who has an inordinate interest in genealogy. In his research, he discovered that The New York Times published probate notices at one time in its classified advertising columns. He found one notice revealing that my maternal grandmother (his great-grandmother) had inherited $5,000 from a wealthy older brother.

My grandmother had lived with my parents since their marriage. The inheritance, which she received about two years before I was born, was an enormous sum of money in that era. I can only assume that the funds wholly or partially produced the rent for our apartment when my father was unemployed. By then, my aunt had married and moved out.

When I was a teenager, I played a vital role in my father's search for regular employment. He was brought to this country from Poland at the age of nine, but never had a secular American education. Until he was 18, he attended a religious Jewish seminary where such subjects as English grammar did not figure prominently in the curriculum.

So he turned to me to help write letters applying for work. I remember spending Sunday afternoons with him examining the "want ads" in The New York Times. When he found what seemed to be a suitable job opening, I would compose and type letters for him on my second-hand typewriter, spelling out his qualifications.

My letters produced several salesman's jobs. Among his employers that I can recall were Beech-Nut and Colgate-Palmolive. In each case, however, the jobs proved to be temporary, for he was laid off in the personnel cutbacks that were so commonplace during the Great Depression.

The Great Depression ended only when World War II broke out. The U.S. quickly began to expand its armed forces, defense spending soared and my father was hired by the War Department as an inspector in factories manufacturing military uniforms. That was his first solid job since his own business had collapsed.

My father was always struck by the irony that it took a war to get him on his feet economically. Whatever satisfaction he derived from finally having a good job, however, was offset by his sorrow in seeing his only child going off to war as a soldier.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


I was a very small child during the 40's, and the only thing I remember was rationing. But I do remember hearing my parents and grandparents talking about how hard it was for them, and had they not lived on a farm, they might have starved.

It is too bad it took WW2 to get us out of it. I hope it doesn't take escalation of the current war to help us now!!

I have so many memories of that era. Of men selling kitchen gadgets door to door, of men begging for a sandwich at our back door in return for work, and so many other sad stories. The Depression brought out the best and the worst in people. One man who had a pension from being gassed in WWI paid the taxes on the homes of poor widows and then evicted them.
But their were more good people than bad and helped each other by sharing their meager lot.

I was a product of the Depression, but was too young to remember what it was like for my parents. They lived with my grandparents a good bit of the time and my father moved from job to job, wherever he could find any work at all. But I think the Depression mentality affected the whole family for many years.

I was a Canadian and 3 when the war broke out in 1939, two years before the Americans came to our aid after being bombed at Pearl Harbor. As an 8 year old I recall taking a jar of lard or old oil drippings to the Saturday Matinee for payment. It was much needed during war times, but for what I am not sure. I recall my mother darning socks, my father taking a cut in pay, and both parents working once I started to school. I recall some kids being marched to the local church at noon for a free lunches while the rest of us just ate our sandwich in the school lunchroom. We did ok I guess. I do not recall feeling poor however even though we did the hand me down clothes thing. I didn't know any better at such a young age. I do recall when I was 8 years old and they announced at school that the war was over. All the kids shouted for joy and were let out of school. There were no worries in those days about sexual predators, etc., so we just all played until our parents came home. They had a huge big city dance and parade etc that night in town as I recall.

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